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Fighting for Freedom: Exploring Vachon’s “Killer Life” (including an excerpt from her new book)

Fighting for Freedom: Exploring Vachon's "Killer Life" (including an excerpt from her new book)

With some 38 films under her belt in a film business that continues to change, leading independent film producer and Killer Films partner Christine Vachon is pondering the future. In A Killer Life, her essential new memoir (written with Austin Bunn), Vachon bolsters the role of the producer as the driving force of independent film, particularly in a star-driven system that is increasingly tough on the sorts of movies she continues to make. “At this point, I want to reclaim the business for myself,” Vachon writes (in an excerpt published by indieWIRE below), “I want to say producers are the ones who find the material, make the challenges for actors, create career pinnacles and opportunities to do meaningful work.” But she wonders, “Why are we always at the mercy of this star system? Why can’t the stars be at ours?”

[indieWIRE Video: a Q & A with Christine Vachon (at the Film Society of Lincoln Center – In a new indieWIRE video clip (available via YouTube), Vachon talks about making movies within a changing business and explains how she maintain enthusiam for moviemaking amidst shifts among audiences and in production, including the new Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan…]

Since the publication of John Pierson‘s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes in 1995, few film books have risen to immediate must-read status among industry insiders and aspiring filmmakers alike. Peter Biskind‘s Down and Dirty Pictures two years ago stirred interest due to its sometimes salacious stories from within the independent and specialty film business, but some charged that it lacked a passion for the films themselves. Enter Vachon and her new hardcover title which has just hit bookstores. While her 1998 effort Shooting To Kill offered practical insights and a few war stories, Vachon’s new book (featuring a forward by Pierson) ties it all together with a mix of personal background, opinionated insights, detailed behind-the-scenes tales, diary entries, practical advice, first-person contributions from notable colleagues (like Bob Berney, David Linde, Todd Haynes, her business partner Pam Koffler, among others), and of course plenty of passion. The subtitle for this compelling new work: “How an Independent Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond.”

“In the end there’s only one thing that really seems to matter to [Christine Vachon] and that’s a passion for movies that are worthwhile,” writes John Pierson, on the opening page, “Movies that stick to your ribs or, in one famous case at the outset of her career, spit in your face. If you’ve got that passion, she’s your fellow traveler. But on most days it’s likely that her flame will burn the brightest of all.”

Now a proud member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Vachon has come along way since Shooting to Kill (including an Oscar win for Hilary Swank for her role in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry“). Now one of the leading independent producers in the U.S., she continues to work on passion projects, but on a much higher scale. Now more than ever, as budgets grow and star attachments drive certain projects to financing, Killer Films serves a crucial role.

“Killer is the catalyst,” Vachon explains in the book, for filmmakers like Haynes, Todd Solondz, Kim Peirce, Mark Romanek, among others she cites, because her company has the reputation of protecting a filmmaker’s vision. In fact Vachon holds up Romanek as the example when offering a new definition of the term “indepedent.” She explains, “If a real creativity is allowed to get what it wants, that is independent film: the freedom of the vision behind it.”

But preserving that freedom can lead to countless battles, at every stage of a film’s life, as Vachon explains in example after example from her own career. Among the most entertaining and particularly insightful episodes detailed in the book include edge-of-your-seat drama when the film’s bond company wrestles control of “Far From Heaven” from Vachon (after a down-to-the-wire drama to raise financing in the first place), and tales of “hell” while making Killer’s first studio-backed movie with an unnamed “problem director” (probably “Crime and Punishment in Suburbia” director Rob Schmidt). Also there are wild stories from the set of “Kids,” the background on Kirsten Dunst and “The Shaggs,” the ups-and-downs of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan project amidst changes at a studio, Colin Farrell‘s penis in “A Home At The End of The World” and then, the other Truman Capote movie.

Covered in detail, the “Infamous,” “Far From Heaven,” and “A Home At the End of the World” stories are particularly informative as case studies of what can go right and wrong within today’s studio-supported specialty film business where projects are more often than not referred to by insiders as product in a pipeline, rather than films.

So what exactly is a Killer Film today? Vachon was asked Monday night during a Q & A at Lincoln Center. “Something I want to see,” she explained, but quickly adding, “and something I can sell.”

“These days, it’s getting harder to remember that film is an art form,” Vachon explains in A Killer Life. “Movies get treated like a commodity business, some abstract uptick or spiral down on the Hollywood stock exchange… For me, film isn’t about the margins, boffo weekend numbers, or the back end. (Well, back end would be nice…) Film is about the process — a long, complicated, passionate process toward something larger than the sum of its parts.”

A Killer Life: How and Independent Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond
by Christine Vachon

Book cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster; Vachon photo by Joyce George

It’s been almost ten years since I wrote my last book, Shooting to Kill, a nuts-and-bolts guide for first-time producers. And while the world of independent film was never manicured nor ravishing, some serious changes have taken place, for the industry, for me personally, and for my company. Independently financed and produced films, from Blair Witch to The Passion of the Christ, have become an undeniable part of the industry’s profit margin, so much so that each studio now operates its own “classics” division to develop (and acquire) the darlings of Sundance and beyond. Since the mid-1990s, the first generation of scrappy, mostly male writer-directors (like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Richard Linklater) have flourished in studio gigs (like Erin Brockovich, Spy Kids, and School of Rock). They’ve proven that an outsider sensibility can be turned to a studio’s advantage.

As the head of Killer Films, an independent film production company based in New York, I’ve managed to endure longer than many colleagues and friends. This book is an attempt to explain why. In the past twelve years, Killer has managed to produce over thirty films, including Far from Heaven, One Hour Photo, Boys Don’t Cry, and Happiness, and I’ll admit, the odds were against us. In the time since Shooting to Kill, other indie production companies, like the Shooting Gallery and Good Machine, have disappeared or been bought, merged, and radically changed. Some producers, like Good Machine’s James Schamus and David Linde, have graduated upward and been absorbed into the studio system to run the “classics” divisions. Others, like Cary Woods, the producer on Kids and Citizen Ruth, or Scott Greenstein, who ran USA Films (Traffic), have gone into completely different media. Even Miramax, New York’s mini-major studio and the company that altered the scale of independent film, hasn’t been able to stay Miramax.

For sure, Killer has changed too. We now have an “overhead” deal with television producer John Wells, the executive producer of E.R., The West Wing, and Third Watch. In the world of television, you don’t get more successful than John Wells, unless you’re Aaron Spelling and you make shows about teenage witches and sex-deprived nurses. Wells pays all our salaries and office costs and underwrites our development costs, like buying options for books and having scripts rewritten. In return, Wells gets an executive producer credit on all our films. It’s a great arrangement. He likes and understands Killer’s films and doesn’t interfere.

On the personal level, I’m a mother now of a six-year-old girl named Guthrie. My business partner Pam Koffler is a mother too. Our offices in downtown New York finally have windows that actually face the street, not an airshaft like before. I don’t take material through the transom anymore. And one of these days Killer Films will make a kids’ movie. Yes, we’ll change our name for it.

And yet some things never change; interns still answer the phone when you call us. We still don’t have any walls in our office because I don’t like them; visit Killer and you’ll hear us calling over the five-foot walls to each other. And for every meeting I might have with Julia or conference call with Jude’s representation, I still pound the streets of Cannes each May, as I’ve done for a decade, trying to drum up the financing for the movies that speak to me. But how do you stay relevant in an industry that is constantly changing? It’s a question people ask me all the time. I built my company on a rebellion against conventional taste, against the no-rough-edges, film-by-consensus style, until that rebellion itself (christened “independent film”) became part of Hollywood.

My strategy is to stay a moving target. I’ve got a reputation for “edgy,” “dark” material — the kind of movie where you’re maybe rooting for the bad guy. I’m also frequently accused of operating with a political agenda. A gay agenda. An aggressive-New Yorker agenda. When I go to L.A. for meetings, sometimes I feel like I have to put on my “uniform” — black pants, black T-shirt, combat boots — so that nobody gets confused and thinks I’ve come over to the bright side. Yes, I go for the kind of stories that challenge viewers, and I like to approach a story from an unexpected place. But my films aren’t all about gay people, they aren’t necessarily dark, and I’m not trying to peddle an ideology. I think that in order to realize the artistic possibilities of film, you’ve got to be in tune with the social and political realities of the times: the ravages of AIDS, or the complexity of gender, or social anomie, American-style. This is why I’m attracted to scripts inspired by true stories. When you stop retreading the conventional fairy tales — when you quit with the fairy tales entirely — you make better art. You also make people a little nervous.

Independent film has changed considerably in ten years. Killer Films has changed and will keep changing. But what is changing the most is the way people think about movies. For one, audiences are smarter, savvier. Digital video has lowered the threshold for potential filmmakers, and the advent of DVDs, with extensive director’s commentaries, has given amateurs a taste of how the elements come and don’t come together. Magazines like US Weekly and In Touch — the one with the section that has Cameron Diaz taking out the trash and Lara Flynn Boyle racing to stop a meter maid from ticketing her SUV — convince us that were it not for the ten-thousand-square-foot manse in the Hollywood Hills and that little bit o’ Botox, the A list is no different from us.

But to fall for these publicity snapshots and director’s cuts and “bonus material” is to mistake the ends for the means. The whole reason we know these films and recognize these stars is that some producer brought together the talent, the financing, and the studio to deliver it to you. A producer. Now, there are thousands of producers out there and they’re all different. Take Variety. You can read heaps about the deals, points, and back ends without any sense of why any of it matters. That’s because for some producers, the money is all that matters. Studios have a yearly slate to fill and somebody — hey, why not you? — has got to go and make those movies.

As independent film keeps getting bigger, I want to make it small again. I want people to get out of the way, so that risky, bold movies can get made. The success of independent film has raised wild expectations. Now everybody wants a home run, a Napoleon Dynamite, bought for $5 million at Sundance (and made by Brigham Young University film grads for a fraction of that), that makes $40 million. The unconventional singles and doubles, the movies that make film dynamic and diverse, have become increasingly hard to make. So far, Killer has endured on a principle I call “big picture, little picture.” After “big picture” paydays, many actors seek out career-making parts in “little pictures,” the ones too offbeat or unconventional for studios to make. It’s a complementary relationship.

But without a fertile landscape for little pictures, I’m beginning to feel that film itself, in the era of tent poles and trilogies, has lost sight of the Big Picture: movies as an art form, as an opportunity to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Let the studios plaster their posters everywhere and merchandise their movies to within an inch of their lives. Independent film needs to remind people what movies can be.

I don’t blame the studios. Their primary interest is to make money. But ten years later, I feel that independent film itself has lost its intimacy and sense of community. Pam and I have this anecdote from the Velvet Goldmine production that always makes us laugh, but I keep going back to it. When the $9 million budget had to take a million-dollar haircut right before production started, I didn’t know what to do. It was like trying to fit a rock star into children’s clothing. Department budgets were going to get slaughtered. People were going to have to take pay cuts. I thought, “How am I going to tell everybody?” Just then, my co-producer on the film, Scott Meek, came up to me. In his thick Scottish brogue, he said, “Christine, just tell them, ‘Do you want to be in our gang? If you do, then great. We’re making the movie with you. If you don’t, then good-bye.'” In a funny way, it’s true. Do you want to be in our gang? Do you want to make movies or do you want to talk about them?

At this point, I want to reclaim the business for myself. I want to say producers are the ones who find the material, make the challenges for actors, create career pinnacles and opportunities to do meaningful work. Why are we always at the mercy of this star system? Why can’t the stars be at ours? The way I know how to bring back the independent film that I know and love is to tell just one story — mine — and tell it to scale. I’ve made thirty-three films in thirteen years, many of them by first-time directors that you’ll read about here, telling stories some studios wouldn’t touch: a pregnant serial killer goes on a spree; a check-forging transsexual gets murdered; sex addicts overtake suburbia.

This book is my attempt to help a next generation of young producers find a way in. I’ve tried to outline the process, but I also want you to meet some of the people. I’ve threaded through this book the voices of my colleagues, directors, and friends — people who can give you a sense of how this industry works. You’ll also see “producer’s diaries,” unvarnished dispatches from my daily to-do lists. I hope they will help train a next generation of producers to bring back the kind of filmmaking I love.

People have asked me why I haven’t “sold out.” My first, and somewhat disingenuous, answer is that nobody’s ever asked me. But as I get older, my autonomy means more and more to me. Outside is a good place for artists, and it’s where I feel comfortable. Lots of writing about the film industry promises to take you “inside” Hollywood. Even in Hollywood, most people are obsessed with being even further “inside,” on getting a first-look, the right of first refusal, the hottest invitations. It’s a culture that thrives on exclusion.

In How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young’s riotous memoir about his time “working” for Vanity Fair, Editor in Chief Graydon Carter says to him on his first day, “You think you’ve arrived? You’re only in the first room.” He goes on to tell Young, “There are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you’ll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you’re lucky, you’ll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to a third. There are seven rooms in total and you’re in the first. Doncha forget it.” The seventh room, I imagine, is total access. Journalistic nirvana. To be “first room” is to be late and last on the list, if you’re even on it.

Hollywood works the same way. Actors, directors, and agents are always concerned with Where is the VIP room? And when you’re in the VIP room, the question becomes Where’s the next one, the VVIP room? And who’s in it? And so on. It’s hard not to get sucked in. But if I’ve learned anything in the past seven years, working with studios and stars, unknowns and first-timers, it’s that the only way inside is by doing the real work outside: do what you love, do it consistently, and everything will follow.

Copyright © 2006 by Christine Vachon, courtesy of Simon & Schuster

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