Christine Vachon Shoots to Kill with "Goldmine,"
"Happiness," and a New Book -- Part I
by Laura Macdonald
This is a big week for producer Christine Vachon. On Saturday night she
took the stage at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall alongside Todd
Haynes, Michael Stipe, Toni Collette and others for the midnight
screening of Haynes' new film "Velvet Goldmine" at the 1998 New York
Film Festival. Later this week, Todd Solondz's "Happiness," another
production from Vachon's Killer Films, will screen at the NYFF before
opening theatrically, and 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.]
Christine Vachon began her career by filling a gap between radically
experimental and Hollywood films in the mid-80's, when she teamed up
with fellow Brown alum, Todd Haynes and Barry Ellsworth to create
Apparatus Films. This non-profit company produced short films for up and
coming filmmakers and soon lead to Haynes' first feature and Sundance
winner "Poison." Never one to shy from a challenging topic, Vachon has
gone on to produce Larry Clark's "Kids," Cindy Sherman's "Office
Killer," Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol," Rose Troche's "Go Fish,"
Todd Solondz' controversial new film "Happiness" and Haynes' subsequent
features "Safe," and now "Velvet Goldmine."
Attending the 52nd Edinburgh Film Festival in August for a screening of
"Velvet Goldmine," Vachon sat down with The Independent's James Mottram
and indieWIRE's Laura MacDonald for a good long chat.
indieWIRE: When, in particular, did your "ignorance make you fearless"?
Christine Vachon: It's hard to know exactly, because you don't know.
With "Go Fish" when I started working with Rose Troche and Guin Turner,
one of the things I was struck by was that they really had no idea what
they were doing, but that was one of the strengths of the film. I really
didn't want to corrupt that by imposing like, "This is how it's meant to
be done," or, "This is how you have to do it" and "What do you mean you
are only shooting on the weekends?" or whatever it was that they were
doing, I can't remember. I really wanted to preserve that, as that can
be a strength of the film too. But, I think that most of the movies I
make, I kind of don't really (realize) what I'm getting myself into
until it's way too late. So, that's one way that ignorance fuels my
ability to stay optimistic.
Independent: Is it important that these directors that you hook up with
maintain a freedom of expression more than anything else, so you're not
imposing certain restrictions on them?
Vachon: I would never do that. Most directors have some savvy, to a
certain degree, of the market, whether they say they do or they don't.
It's like a director has a sense that this particular subject matter is
going to lend itself to a bigger budget film or a smaller budget film
because of its nature. Todd Solondz had a sense that "Happiness" was
provocative enough to scare some people away, but at the same time he
also knew that the script had the strength that it had. I would say that
Todd Haynes felt the same about "Velvet Goldmine," although it was a
different sort of situation. So, I can point out to a director, if I
deem it necessary, that if you cast that person, it's going to be easier
than if you cast that person. But, my whole kind of thing is that I try
and preserve, as much as possible, their ability to get the film to the
screen in the way they want to, whether it's casting or the way it's
iW: After the way that "Kids" was received in the UK, did you have any
misgivings about getting involved with a UK based production like
Vachon: You have to understand that we're really removed. I hear about
those things after the fact. I actually knew Liz Rand well enough for
her to report into me somewhat regularly about "Kids", but that's very
different from actually shooting a movie here. It was tough, mostly
because it was different. Finally, after all the movies I'd made, I'd
built a base in New York that I was very secure with. So, then to have
to completely transplant myself where nobody knew who I was, and I
couldn't just go "Okay that is the right guy or girl for this job." So,
it took away a lot of the things that helped me make movies.
iW: Did you have a particular person over here that you trusted and
could provide that sort of base?
Vachon: Well, I worked with Scott Meek (Executive Producer) and Olivia
Stewart (Line Producer), and yes, it worked. It just was like, when you
get to that point you place your trust in people completely and it's
hard. Also, there are different styles of working, which I can criticize
or not, it doesn't really matter. You could come to America and shoot a
film and tell me everything that's wrong with that system. The only
thing that's wrong with that, is that it's not my system.
Ind: What kind of problems did you come up against in the "Velvet
Vachon: That were peculiar to England?
Vachon: People drinking beer during lunch, that was a big one.
Ind: I mean any kind of legislative or legal problems? Nothing to
prevent you from doing certain things?
Vachon: No, no, no, I mean we worked with some fantastic people, Sandy
Powell and Christopher Hobbs. The calibre of people that we got here was
extraordinary, so I can't really complain. It did bug me that people
drank beer during lunch. I really think if you're moving around heavy
equipment it's not a good idea. But, that's....
Ind: English tradition.
Vachon: So I was told.
iW: One of your most recent projects, the adaption of Bruce Wagner's
book "I'm Losing You" -- is that the first time you're going to be
working with an adapted piece?
Vachon: Let me think about that for a second. Is it? I have a couple of
others in development, but I think it is.
iW: Can you tell us about that project?
Vachon: Well I wrote a review of the book for "The Advocate" and I was
really flattered as no one had asked me to write a book review before. I
wrote a very good review and the writer, Bruce Wagner, contacted me soon
afterwards as he had written a script that he was very interested in
having me look at, but I was really busy at the time. I really tried to
put him off, but he came to New York on his own dime and had a meeting
with me and I thought "You know, this could actually be cool." It's a
very interesting adaptation as the movie is very different from the
book. I love the book as it's a knife sharp chronicle of the underbelly
of Los Angeles. It's one of those books that makes you think "I can't
believe I'm in the same business as the characters in this book, even if
it is however many times removed." But, the movie is much gentler and is
really good and I'll be interested to see how it gets received.
Ind: Is this for Killer?
Vachon: Well, Killer did "Happiness" and "Velvet Goldmine" too.
iW: Did it begin with "Office Killer"?
Vachon: Yeah, I mean Pam Koffler and I had been working together for at
least year or two previous to that, but I think that "Office Killer" was
the first Killer Film.
iW: How did that come about? Did you know Cindy Sherman previously?
Vachon: No, Good Machine had this money for an art theater project. They
wanted to do thrillers that were also art house in nature. Now looking
back on that, it probably wasn't the most brilliant idea in the world,
but I am really proud of the movie though it wasn't very well received.
I think it was the usual -- if an artist moves out of one medium that
they're really established in it can be hard as they can get somewhat
savaged. I think "Office Killer" was very successful in doing what it
set out to do, which was somewhat obscured by people gleefully wanting
to bring it down. I mean Cindy Sherman is canonized practically, you
can't really criticize her photography, so in a way it was a bit like,
"Yeah, but she's a lousy filmmaker." But, the movie's ambitions were not
huge and I don't mean that to infer that it was small in scale, but it
was supposed to be a B thriller and it's very entertaining. It was never
trying to be more than that.
Ind: Do you have a certain direction you want Killer Films to go in or
are you happy to make all these different types of projects?
Vachon: Oh, I'm happy to make all these different types of projects.
Ind: What would you say your governing philosophy is, if there is one?
Vachon: It's pretty much just to make movies that we're very passionate
about. Some people have said to me, I mean I've produced 10 or 12
features over the last 10 years, that they can see a trend and that my
taste is somewhat obvious. That distresses me a bit if that's true. But,
I think that most people haven't seen every movie I've made, so they
don't really know. Maybe I should learn to say, "Oh yeah, the successful
ones," and try to stick to that.