DECADE: Christine Vachon -- A Decade of Producing "Movies that Matter", Part 1
by Maya Churi and Mark Rabinowitz/indieWIRE
[Part two of this interview is linked at the bottom of the page.]
Few producers have impacted the 90's independent film scene as powerfully as Christine Vachon. Her recent book, "Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter," has a title that sums it up rather frankly. The affect of Vachon's strength cannot be underestimated, given the challenging nature of the work she has ushered to the screen over the past ten years, including: Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine," "Safe" and "Poison," Tom Kalin's "Swoon," Rose Troche's "Go Fish," Larry Clark's "Kids," Mary Harron's "I Shot Andy Warhol," Todd Solondz' "Happiness," and the recently released "Boys Don't Cry" by Kimberly Peirce.
In a time when both established and emerging filmmakers alike often face daunting experiences trying finance and finish edgy, alternative stories, Vachon has shepherded tough projects and brought them to the screen successfully. She met with indieWIRE's Mark Rabinowitz and Maya Churi at her Killer Films office in downtown Manhattan to talk about the past decade. [Eugene Hernandez]
"One of the things people used to say about New York crews was, oh, people work on the movies because they like them, like the grips have actually read the script and have a sense of what they're working on. And that's certainly changed."
indieWIRE: What are some of the changes you've seen over the past ten years in terms of making a film. Have you seen it become easier in terms of getting the ball rolling and getting financing and that sort of thing?
Christine Vachon: It changes constantly. It's not like it's necessarily
become easier for us. I feel like every movie is still like reinventing the
wheel and each movie has its own set of challenges. For me specifically,
yes, it's gotten a little easier. We can attract bigger talent. Our
directors are now on their third or fourth movies, so all of that makes
things a little easier. In general, I think that me and a lot of people of
my generation, like Ted Hope and James Schamus and some of the Shooting
Gallery guys...Basically, when we started out in the early 80's -- I started
working on movies in the early 80's and started actually producing in the
late 80s -- there was certainly a sense of more of a frontier. Making
movies like "Poison" and "Swoon," I was tapping into an audience that was
previously so underserved that you could make a movie as experimental as
"Poison" was and it would do its budget several fold in box office because
people would never dream of going to see such an out-there film would go see
"Poison" simply because they heard there was some gay content in it. Now the
same thing happened with "Go Fish," which in the case I don't mean to put
down how fabulous they were or how cutting edge they were, but the arena for
them was different. So that's changed.
iW: Strand's Marcus Hu said much the same thing.
Vachon: I never made a movie with an agenda that this was going to
specifically appeal to a gay audience or to a straight audience or what have
you, but I just feel that it's harder and harder now to crack the...there
are so many movies that are calling themselves independent that are made
with, not just that they have a lot of money, they have a lot of money at
their disposal for prints and ads. And you used to be able to release a
movie on the reviews and pretty much reviews alone. And those days have
really changed. That said, I think every year just when you become
complacent about something being this way or that way, something happens
that totally cracks it open. So you can't really make too many
iW: What's happened recently that's cracked it open?
Vachon: Well, I think that digital filmmaking, "Blair Witch" and all that.
Everyone's astonishment at the success of that film mirrors to a certain
degree, but in a smaller way people's astonishment at the success of movies
like "Poison" or "She's Gotta Have It" or "Daughters of the Dust," movies
that didn't have stars or anything that would be able to pull in an
audience. So that's great when that happens.
iW: What were you working on in 1989 and how do you feel the New York
independent film industry has changed since then?
Vachon: I was probably working on "Poison." You know when we were working
on "Happiness," Ted Hope was very nostalgic for the old days, for that sense
of camaraderie on film sets. And I saw what he meant, although I'm a little
bit more pragmatic than that. It's true that there was a sense when you
were making these independent features in the late 80s, it was a fairly new
thing. Not that many people were managing somehow to put -- and now it
seems fairly routine -- but you were able to put together budgets with like
an AFI grant or an investment and foreign sale -- these weird
conglomerations of financing that are much, much harder to come by now. And
there was this sense of daring and camaraderie in that, like you're all kind
of in it together trying to make this movie. I worked on movies like
"Parting Glances" for example where there was just this sense that nobody
else was doing this. It was great. And what I think Ted was bemoaning a
little bit was that it's become such a job now.
One of the things people used to say about New York crews was, oh, people
work on the movies because they like them, like the grips have actually read
the script and have a sense of what they're working on and that they're all
working towards a common goal. And that's certainly changed. But the crews
have also gotten better and it is a different atmosphere, but I'm not so
sure it's such a worse one.
I get slammed constantly by the gay community, by the lesbian community for making too many gay movies, or not making enough. [And] my track record on positive imagery, from "I Shot Andy Warhol" to "Swoon" to "Happiness" has been sketchy, at best.
iW: Is there more of a competitive atmosphere between filmmakers than
they're used to be?
Vachon: I think it was always competitive. One thing to remember too in
the late 80's is we were all younger and money was probably a little less
important and nobody was supporting mortgages or children. So there was
more of a sense of who cares, throw caution to the wind and do what you
want. And there was a lot less at stake. I think it was always competitive.
It's a very competitive business, even then it was.
iW: "Parting Glances" changed everything for me about how I felt about
movies. Is there anything that has recently come out that has the effect
that "Parting Glances" had?
Vachon: The thing about "Parting Glances" that was amazing to me was that
it was the first movie that I worked on that...you know at that time movies
that were non-Hollywood for the most part were incredibly experimental, and
they were anti-narratives, movies that were done in direct opposition to
so-called "calling card films." And in New York, people were pretty much
making those, or they were shooting New Line horror movies, and that was it.
And "Parting Glances" was a movie that said, "OK, I'm going to do an
independent film on a subject that no one's touching." It's about gay
people, but it's not about the fact that they're gay. It's about something
else that's happening in their lives. And a lot of people told me that they
saw that movie and for the first time thought, okay, now I've seen the life
I want. But Bill [Sherwood] also said he wanted production value, and it
was done in an experimental way by which I mean it was like, "OK, so let's
try a lighting crew about this big, and this is what the D.P. needs and this
is how we'll design it." Everything was kind of stuck together like that and
it was really kind of amazing. It kind of just told you you could do it any
way you wanted to. And the movie itself, when I saw it after I had worked on
it in my early 20's, I didn't really like it. Because I thought it was about
people older than me who were settling down in their lives and I didn't
really relate to it at all. I really relished the experience, but it wasn't
until Bill died and they showed the movie again and I saw it again and I was
closer to 30, and I said wow, now I really see how resonant this film is.
iW: Something Marcus [Hu] said was that the assimilation of gay culture is
maybe a third or half the way there, but he said, "That scares me, too,
because we'll lose our identity." What do you think of that?
Vachon: That's a little facile, to be quite honest. Filmmaking is about
telling stories and there's always going to be...I remember when "Swoon"
came out at the height of the whole positive image/negative image debate.
And was "Basic Instinct" a positive image or a positive image, these insane
debates whether seeing an ice-pick murdering lesbian in "Basic Instinct"
would actually make the rest of us normal lesbians want to kill out men.
Which was a little silly. And "Swoon" was raked over the coals for