Few companies today represent the flavor of American independent cinema like Killer Films, the boutique production outfit formed by producers Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler ten years ago. In that decade, Killer’s successes have mirrored those of a broader independent film sector that has grown into a key part of the mainstream film business and even achieved acclaim at the annual Academy Awards. Killer Films, a company once known as a haven for first-time filmmakers and low-budget features, has matured into the go-to place for often challenging new films involving a mix of indie and mainstream talents. In their first decade, Killer Films has nurtured the careers of such filmmakers as Todd Haynes, Mary Harron, and even Tom Kalin. Partners Christine Vachon, Pam Koffler and newer partner Katie Roumel, who joined in 2001, spent some time chatting with indieWIRE about their company last week.
On Thursday night in Manhattan, the trio greeted guests and toasted 10 years of — in the words of Killer co-founder Vachon’s autobiography title — “Making movies that matter.” And they’ve spent the past couple of weeks in New York looking back at a decade of work, having been honored with a retrospective of their films at the Museum of Modern Art. The event kicked off earlier this month with a screening of Harron and Killer’s latest film, “The Notorious Bettie Page,” starring Gretchen Mol as the legendary pinup.
“The only way we can do what we do is to be absurdly optimistic,” explained Vachon, reflecting on her work as a producer. For all of the success seen by Vachon and her Killer partners, she maintains that it’s just as hard to get a movie made today as it was back in the ’90s when she was producing the early work of filmmakers like Haynes (“Poison”, “Safe”), Kalin (“Swoon”), and Rose Troche (“Go Fish”). The rules continue to change and now in an environment where it takes a solid script, a known director, and a name cast to get money to make a movie, Vachon says it’s still a risky business.
“In the face of it, it feels in some ways like financiers appetites for risk, whether they be equity or foreign sales based or North American distributors, have gotten even smaller.” Continuing Vachon added, “And there are some of our early movies [in which] I wonder how the hell we’d get them made today, and somehow we do. The biggest challenge is that they are execution dependent — in order for them to work they have to be great and they have to be made as well as you can possibly make them.”
But the types of movies that Killer Films makes have certainly changed over the years. It all changed for the company in 1999 with the success of first time director Kim Peirce‘s “Boys Don’t Cry,” which won Hilary Swank an Oscar for her lead role in the film. Vachon and her partners recognize that moment as a turning point for their company and indeed it was part of the recent shift in the bigger independent sector. “Those discovery movies like ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ they still happen obviously — without Meryl Streep attached — but in a way Killer almost can’t make a movie like that anymore,” Vachon explained.
Killer’s films have been nominated for seven Oscars so far, a key badge of honor that the partners are clearly proud of, even though they recognize that awards are sometimes too much a part of the process. “The desire for Ocars has certainly motivated a lot of studios to build in the first place, and try and bolster up, their so-called classics divisions,” said Vachon, a day before a management shift was announced at Paramount Classics. “That seems to be a big part of why they exist.” Continuing though, she added, “An Oscar campaign is just so expensive, it feels like at some point things will be re-thought to some degree. For a small movie, if it’s going to go the awards route, the campangn will end up costing five or six times as much as a film.”
Despite the many changes over the past decade, it’s a business that Vachon and her partners remain committed to, even as many of their New York City competitors have evolved into larger, and/or more diverse companies. Ted Hope and James Schamus‘ Good Machine expanded into international sales and was later acquired by Universal to create Focus Features (with Hope, Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey spinning off to create This Is That), Larry Meistrich‘s Shooting Gallery pursued post-production and then dot-com opportunities and later went out of business all together, while Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente‘s Open City Films added the digital division Blow-Up Pictures, brought in Donny Deustch as a partner and re-branded their company as Deutsch Open City, and recently launched HDNet Films with Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner.
After “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” Vachon, Koffler, and Roumel secured the personal financial backing of successful Hollywood producer John Wells who is an executive producer of all of their films, and they run a company that has not grown significantly in size, even though the profile of its projects has increased. “You know, we get to make these movies — even when it seems incredibly daunting — somehow we get to the other side and there is something that we are showing the world,” said Vachon, “Look at ‘Bettie Page’, that was the classic movie that we had in development forever. I think it pre-dated Killer Films, we made something that is enormously fresh and fun and exactly what the director wanted, and that feels amazing.”
“It may sound somewhat corny, but its true,” offered Katie Roumel, “The feeling of telling stories that give voice to other ways of seeing the world is just a really important thing to do — it’s not like solving world hunger, but it matters and that definitely enters into the equation.” Continuing she added, “It is just where are our instincts and our proclivities lead us, to being attracted to that other way of telling stories and seeing the world, it’s probably why we’re all in an office together.”
While this year Killer hasn’t seen a new production hit theaters, they have been busy making a trio of titles that will debut in 2006. And a number of anticipated new projects are on tap to go into production early next year. In addition to the aforementioned “Bettie Page” and Phyllis Nagy‘s “Mrs. Harris“, both HBO Films productions that debuted in Toronto this year (with “Page” set for a Picturehouse release and “Harris” to debut on the channel), the company is completing the re-titled “Have You Heard,” the already infamous Doug McGrath movie looking at Truman Capote’s writing of “In Cold Blood.” The partners aren’t interested in talking too much about that other Capote movie that just hit theaters. “Ask me (about it) a year from now,” quipped Vachon, clearly exasperated by questions about the competing films.
“We have such huge faith in our film, it’s such a fantastic piece of work that it is hard to imagine a world in which it wouldn’t find its audience,” said Pam Koffler about Killer’s Capote film, Vachon agreeing with her. “So that’s what what we feel — it’s just so so so good, on its own, in a vacuum — it’s a fantastic film, so given that fact we believe that it will have its time, and the appetite to revisit this story will be there.”
Also on tap for production in the Spring are new films from Todd Haynes and Tom Kalin. “Savage Grace” is Kalin’s long anticipated new film, while Haynes’ “I’m Not There” features an unconventional (and sanctioned) look at the life of Bob Dylan with different actors (Cate Blanchett, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Julianne Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg) portraying the musician during various periods of his life. Vachon noted that in the case of this film, the stellar cast is both appropriate to the material and necessary to reassure financiers concerned about the risky approach to the story.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the kind of movies that are distinctive enough to warrant a retrospective at MoMA,” commented Pam Koffler expressing pride in her company’s work, when asked earlier in our chat about the MoMA tribute and the recent opportunity to look back at Killer Films’ legacy. “We just want to keep working with directors like the ones who are represented (in the tribute), as they grow. And that may sometimes mean slightly more mainstream stories, so the budgets and the palettes can change, [depending on] wherever their creative impulses take them. I just feel very committed to just doing the kind of movies that are worthy of some kind of distinction like that, not just commercial entertainment.”
Thinking about their goals for the future, Vachon quipped, “I just want to stay in business,” with Roumel adding “It does seem like the biggest goal to have is just to keep on being able to do it.” Picking up on that thought, Vachon added, “Yeah, to be here for the 20th and the 25th!”
[EDITORS NOTE: This story was slightly modified due to incorrect cast information for the new Todd Haynes film, “I’m Not There.” Christian Bale has replaced Adrien Brody in the cast. Also, Killer Films has clarified the description of the movie. In the film, the actors don’t play Bob Dylan at different periods in his life, but rather portray characters based on different aspects of Dylan. And Julianne Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg play other characters, not ones who are representations of Dylan.]
KILLER FILMS FILMOGRAPHY
“Office Killer” (dir. Cindy Sherman), 1997
“Kiss Me, Guido” (dir. Tony Vitale), 1997
“Velvet Goldmine” (dir. Todd Haynes), 1998
“Happiness” (dir. Todd Solondz), 1998
“I’m Losing You” (dir. Bruce Wagner), 1999
“Boys Don’t Cry” (dir. Kim Peirce), 1999
“Crime + Punishment in Suburbia” (dir. Rob Schmidt), 2000
“Series 7: The Contenders” (dir. Dan Minahan), 2001
“Women in Film” (dir. Bruce Wagner), 2001
“Chelsea Walls” (dir. Ethan Hawke), 2001
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (dir. John Cameron Mitchell), 2001
“Storytelling” (dir. Todd Solondz), 2001
“The Grey Zone” (dir. Tim Blake Nelson), 2001
“The Safety of Objects” (dir. Rose Troche), 2001
“One Hour Photo” (dir. Mark Romanek), 2001
“Far From Heaven” (dir. Todd Haynes), 2001
“Party Monster” (dirs. Fenton Bailey & Randy Barbato), 2002
“Camp” (dir. Todd Graff), 2003
“The Company” (dir. Robert Altman), 2003
“A Dirty Shame” (dir. John Waters), 2004
“A Home at the End of the World” (dir. Michael Mayer), 2004
“Mrs. Harris” (dir. Phyllis Nagy), 2006
“The Notorious Bettie Page” (dir. Mary Harron), 2006
“Have You Heard” (dir. Douglas McGrath), 2006