Christine Vachon Shoots to Kill with "Goldmine,"
"Happiness," and a New Book -- Part II
by Laura Macdonald
Its a big week for producer Christine Vachon following the premiere Todd
Haynes' new film "Velvet Goldmine" at the 1998 New York Film Festival
and the upcoming festival screening of Todd Solondz's "Happiness,"
another production from Vachon's Killer Films which is opening soon
theatrically. Along the way Vachon is participating in signings for her
new book, "Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through
the Barriers to Make Movies that Matter." [indieWIRE will publish an
excerpt from the book later this week.]
At the Edinburgh Film Festival in August, Vachon sat down with The
Independent's James Mottram and indieWIRE's Laura MacDonald for a good
indieWIRE: How did you and Todd Haynes meet?
Vachon: We met in college. We didn't really get to know each other until
we started working at Apparatus. We knew of each other but we weren't
iW: In what ways was Apparatus a young company that highlighted young
Vachon: Our mandate was to make movies by young filmmakers just starting
out. We could have kicked all our money in and made one feature or got
out a number of shorts every year. Really what Apparatus was trying to
do, I mean at that time (mid Eighties) you were either making radical
anti-American movies or slick Hollywood stuff. There was nothing in
between, I mean there was no notion of a different kind of cinema. I
mean I'm sure there were loads, but it just wasn't accessible to us as
mid-twenty year olds in New York City.
The Independent: You mentioned that a lot of people perceive producers
as not having a creative input, but yet you said that you and Todd grew
up producing together. What is your creative input? What does Todd need
Vachon: I mean, you can read it in the "Velvet Goldmine" diary from the
book, but it is everything from like sitting in on actor's auditions and
telling him, "Yes, you're right about this", it becomes so organic.
Sometimes Todd needs, as any director does, some support. He asks me
what I think and if I don't think he's right, then I tell him and he
knows that. It's not about always making him feel that he's right, but I
don't think that's what he wants. When you're a producer on set -- a set
is just insane -- you're managing all these various factions and you're
constantly being besieged from all angles. It's truly about giving
people a sense that there's somebody in charge, in some ways that's
really what a producer does. Sometimes people just need to come up to
you and unload, walk away and they feel like you've dealt with them,
that you've listened. Sometimes there's nothing you can do about a
problem and sometimes there is. Often I just sit on a set and smell a
mood and I can tell, for example, that the costume department and the
makeup department are about to come to blows and I can try and
circumvent it before it happens. Or I can tell that this actor is
feeling like that actor -- and this is the most common problem I can
tell you -- is getting more attention than he or she is. So, I'll just
put a word to Todd that someone needs a little special attention.
Ind: You mentioned that a lot of foreign films are squeezed out because
of the American independent scene, while the independent scene is well
and good -- do you think that's a bad thing?
Vachon: Of course I think it's a bad thing. I don't think one should
replace the other. When I was a kid, that was the ultimate in cinema.
Now, I'm probably woefully ignorant and there's more, but since "Like
Water For Chocolate" there hasn't been anything of note. ("Shall We
Dance" and "Kolya" are mentioned among others.) It has a lot to do with
the dwindling number of screens.
iW: Do you see any solution for that?
Vachon: No solution that I can see. More and more films are just going
to go straight to video, that's what's going to happen. There are too
many American independent films being made now. There's a glut and they
are all coming out at the same time and even though there are quite a
few that are decent, they can't all joggle for that space, but you know
a movie like "High Art," for example, needs to stay on a screen for a
certain amount of time so people can talk about it and want to see it.
Besides good reviews and what have you, it needs that word of mouth that
it isn't getting, well "High Art" maybe and "Buffalo 66."
Ind: It's a question of creating a buzz around a film.
Vachon: Yes, and having a cast in it, now more than ever. Both "High
Art," "Buffalo 66" and "The Opposite of Sex" which are the three indie
hits this year, are all hits because they have cast -- well not just
because of cast alone, but they've got a lot of press because of Ally
Sheedy and Christina Ricci.
iW: So, how did the first New York productions you worked on, when you
first got involved in the film industry, influence you?
Vachon: I suppose the one big movie I worked on was a movie called
"Parting Glances" by Bill Sherwood with Steve Buscemi. It was a movie
about gay life in New York, but for once it wasn't about an actor
discovering his/her homosexuality. It's about these guys who are in this
long term relationship and one of them is going away and it's about the
last 24 hours they have left. I was working on it in my early twenties
and felt like it didn't have much to do with me. I didn't understand
long term relationships or the idea of moving from one place to another
and I'm so surprised at how well it's stood up. Buscemi's character is a
sort of rock star, a former boyfriend of one of the guys in the movie,
and he's dying of AIDS at a time when that was rarely shown on film. It
was a very well-directed movie, that was striving hard for very tough
production values. In many ways, it was a conventional narrative, except
that it was about unconventional people by Hollywood standards. The
director died of AIDS about six or seven years ago.
iW: How did that film draw you further towards the production side as
opposed to directing or writing?
Vachon: Well, you can always get work as a PA, you can't get work as a
writer or director when you're just out of school aged 21 or 22. I think
I decided that was where I wanted to work, I wanted to work in movies. A
lot of people start out as a PA, a lot of directors start out that way
as a way to meet people and get a sense of the whole thing. I guess I
just figured early on that there were things about it that really drew
me to it. I was an assistant director for about 2 years, which I
actually really liked, though I don't think I could ever do it again.
Our assistant director on "Velvet Goldmine" was Waldo Roeg, Nic Roeg's
son, so it made this amazing sense as "Performance" was such a big
influence on "Goldmine" and there was Waldo with Nic Roeg's face, which
was kind of wild. I think he's around my age, maybe a little bit older,
and he's one of the AD's that clearly loves it and those are the kind of
people I want to work with. But, I think I would have burnt out if I'd
continued that way.
iW: But, you obviously enjoy being on the set. . .
Vachon: Yeah, but shooting is so awful, it really is. It's one of those
things, I think like childbirth, if you really remembered how awful it
was you'd never do it again. Then the species would not propagate
itself, so you have to forget. Every time I start a new movie and I'm on
the set I think "Christ, this is awful. Now I remember how awful this
is. Why did I say I'd do this." Which is, I'm sure, what women say every
day having their second and third children.
Ind: Are you always on the set or around the set?
Vachon: Well, I split off with my partner Pam Koffler. With "I'm Losing
You" she was on the set more than me. I was there like the first two
weeks and the last two days. As Killer Films, we have someone on set at
all times and it isn't always me.
iW: As a real New York based filmmaker, have you ever felt the lure of
Vachon: No, I mean, I go there when I have to. We shot "Safe" there but
the kind of movies I make can be made anywhere. There's a certain ease
to making movies in LA that's a little seductive. We shot "I'm Losing
You" there too. It is a town set up for it, in a way no other town is.
In New York it's like you need this permit or that permit and London
doesn't really have the facilities to make it easy for you, while LA
iW: What were the main things that were difficult about shooting in
Vachon: The traffic, getting from location to location. They're so
particular, it's just not as film friendly. Even in New York you can get
the Mayor's office to say that no one can park on that street for a
certain day, so you can film there. You can't do that in London, well at
least you couldn't last year, so you had to get people to go physically
pool parking. When you're shooting a period film, obviously that's
tough. But, the calibre of talent that we got for the budget we had was
much higher in London that I think it would have been in New York.
iW: What was your budget?
Vachon: I'm not sure I'm allowed to say. It was between $8-$10 million.
Ind: Do you think it's difficult for a woman to be a producer or do you
think it would be harder to be a director?
Vachon: I sort of hate to use that. I've worked with almost as many
women directors as men. As a woman producer, clearly you are faced with
the usual sort of things. If a man is tough he's tough, but if a woman's
tough she's a bitch. You don't feel with the crew in a certain way,
especially if you're gay -- you're a humorless lesbian. But, I always
tell the women that I work with that it's not a popularity contest and I
feel very strongly that people have to earn my respect, and projecting
authority on a film set is difficult. It's like some producers say you
should just walk onto a set the first day and fire somebody, but that's
not my style. I find myself bonding with people on all different levels
because I've done it. I've done craft service, I boomed, I've been a
second AD, I've done location managing and I've even done a bit of grip
and electric on super-low budget movies, so I really know what all the
jobs are. It definitely skews things in a different way, which I don't
think is necessarily harder or easier. It's just different.
[A former staffer at FILMMAKER Magazine, Laura Macdonald is an
Australian screenwriter, currently living in England.]