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‘Carol’ Producer Christine Vachon Talks Being Queen of the Croisette

'Carol' Producer Christine Vachon Talks Being Queen of the Croisette

One of the great things about getting into the Cannes Competition is participating in the festival rituals. I spoke to producer Christine Vachon, who attended Cannes with her frequent collaborator Todd Haynes and “Carol,” Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

What’s it like to be part of one of the big films there?

You’re like, ‘Okay, here’s the photo call. Here’s what we do.’ The producer always stands on the end so they can get cut out. It’s like an unwritten law. You’re lucky if you’re standing next to Cate, so a bit of face will make its way in. You know what to expect, but, at the same time, you know that you go up the carpet, the director chooses the music. And the press conference is, again, I usually anticipate sitting up there like a houseplant, but that’s fine. I smile. After that, this year we went to the official lunch that Thierry [Fremaux] has with a few official filmmakers at some tent somewhere.

Did you meet anybody cool?
I met Guillermo del Toro. That counts as almost as cool as it gets. Then Todd and Cate and Rooney went off and did press for, like, two hours. At 4 o’clock, everything stops, everybody gets into their finery. At 6 o’clock, we all met at the Carlton to drink champagne. The official entourage all get bundled into anywhere from a dozen to twenty cars. There’s so much worked-out as to who’s in what car, who sits where — I mean, that takes hours and hours of people going — and I’m making this all up — “No! You can’t put Ed Lachman in the same car as the editor! And the editor has a plus-one that we didn’t even know about, so now we have to…” It’s a constant reconfiguring. And then, of course, the distributor comes in and messes it all up.
Then you pile out.
You pile out. Todd and the actors walk up first. We’re all sort of standing around, just where the crowd is being barricaded. We’re watching, iPhones are flashing. 

There’s a moment when you get to the top of the steps and look down on the whole thing. And the announcer says when you enter the Lumiere, [booming voice] “L’auteur Todd Haynes!” 

The next thing that happens is, you get in and you’re arranged for where everybody’s supposed to sit. It’s all about not insulting people — who’s in the front row and who’s in the back row. All of that. Again, inevitably, your whole system goes to hell. I actually sat all the way on the end, which was fine with me.

So Liz [Karlsen] and I were sitting together. I wanted to sit next to Liz, because this was an experience we’d really gone through together, and I wanted to be with my co-producer. When it ended, we ran over to Todd to participate in all the hugging and clapping, etc.

When it ended, Thierry takes you down the stairs and stops you again — but this time it was all of us, which was really nice — and finally, with the security going “boom boom boom,” and then you get piled in the cars to go about 20 feet.

To a party on the beach, where I saw you. This ceremony is like the Oscars. Can you compare the two experiences?

I mean, it’s very different. I have witnessed people win Oscars for movies I produced, but I’ve never been up there. I’ve had Golden Globes with “Mildred Pierce,” Emmys with “Pierce” and “Mrs. Harris.” I won a Creative Emmy for “This American Life.”
But you were in the room for “Still Alice.”
I was in the mezzanine after spending weeks lobbying for those tickets!
And you’ve done the red carpet several times. But there was a sadness with “Still Alice,” because you lost your director.
We’d been working with Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland on their next movie, and up until literally the day he died, we were in constant discussions with the two of them about casting, when to go, etc. It’s really heartbreaking. And he didn’t get to go to the Oscars, which was what it was, but it was a crazy, happy, sad time.

Your relationship with Cannes has been in-and-out over the years. With “Carol,” you’re back on top. How does that feel?
The last time I had a film in competition was “Velvet Goldmine,” which was 17 years ago. I’ve had other films in Fortnight and Un Certain Regard. I’ve been here plenty of other times, selling films. At the beginning of my career, I think, because it pre-dated the Interwebs, you had to come and face your buyers.
I think you still do. No?
In some way. I know them and they know me, so it’s not so important, maybe, although it has been great to say, “These are the guys releasing it in Australia. These are the guys releasing it in Copenhagen,” or whatever. That’s great. But “Carol” came to us relatively late in its life. It was developed by [producer] Elizabeth Karlsen. Even before that, it was something people had been trying to make for some time.
And very much a labor of love for its writer, Phyllis Nagy.
Absolutely. Liz went and got the rights from Phyllis Nagy, someone we both had worked with on “Mrs. Harris,” and then she had attached John Crowley, originally, as the director. And Cate Blanchett was attached before Todd came aboard.
Liz and I happened to be old friends, and she called me, we were chatting. John Crowley had just dropped out. She had another director who’d dropped out — Phyllida Lloyd — and she called me, basically, to say, “Ugh. I can’t fucking believe this. I lost my director, and this is such a drag.” It just this extraordinary moment where it had just become clear that Todd wasn’t going to do the movie we expected him to do. I either said to Liz, “What about Todd?” Liz might have said to me, “What about Todd?” Or there might simply have been a pregnant pause, and both of us said at the same time, “I know!”
It’s a perfect match. But he doesn’t usually do other people’s material.
He doesn’t, and he worked with Phyllis — not to take any credit away from her whatsoever — on the script.
What would you say are his contributions?
He came up with the framing device — which, yes, is from “Brief Encounter.”
And he says it!
Someone snarked that he stole it from “Brief Encounter,” come on! He came up with that, and he also went back to the book again and brought some elements of the book back into the script — with Phyllis. She wrote an extraordinary script. But those are some of his stronger contributions.
Why do you think this took so long? Is it the larger problem of these women’s projects still being so hard to make?
Once Liz got hold of it, it was about three years — which is, in our world, a nanosecond. Before that, there was a producer named Dorothy Berwin attached to it, and I actually remember it cycling through our office several times. I do think, sometimes, the stars just don’t line up yet. I’ve met actresses who told me how much they wanted to play that part. The book has been a bestseller. I know it’s sold over a million copies and that people are obsessed with it. Then you wonder if it’s female-driven material.
Sometimes there can be too many women. Somehow, Todd Haynes adds credibility that’s helpful.
I’ve attended four panels since I’ve been here, because it’s “The Year of the Woman.”
There seems to have been a shift. Do you think that’s true?
Well, look at us last year in Toronto. People dismiss “Sill Alice” as a Lifetime movie; Variety publishes an article saying there are no good roles at the festival for women. And then, the next day, “Still Alice”!
Congrats on the Julianne Moore Oscar win.
It’s been a good year. I think this whole discussion about female-driven material, and this idea that “Pitch Perfect 2” is the biggest opening for a film directed by a woman. All of that, yes — I think there’s something in the air. But it comes down to this notion of, “Female-driven material. Is it viable, commercially?” And is it, yes, commercially viable but not perceived as such, or is it a chicken and the egg?
There are many notions that men hang onto for dear life and that men and women both internalize. There’s mythology. If you just look at the numbers, you see the tale to be told.
Exactly. For us, the biggest issue is who plays the guy. The movie’s not called “Still Alice and John.” It’s not called “Carol and Harge.” There’s the question of, “Who plays the guy?” The girls will support the guys, but the actors rarely support the girls. That’s tough.
You got a good actor for Harge, Kyle Chandler.
He’s fantastic. He just thought, “A great script, a chance to work with Cate Blanchett — are you kidding?”
One thing that makes this movie work is that it has such glamorous allure, such star power, such old-fashioned sex appeal. That charge drives the movie. Was there a debate as to how much you’d go in that direction?
There was certainly… with Sandy Powell and Todd’s prior collaborations with her, they had a very strong sense of transformation. We were talking about the hat, that we should be selling her hat. But I think that there was always the assumption that at that moment, when they finally embrace and make love — and how that had to just be overwhelming in the best sense of the word — and I think that’s picture-perfect. It’s not in the least bit prurient.
It’s also one of those things. Getting to see the movie on the big screen and remembering all of those moments that you get to see beautifully played out, and Todd is such an extraordinary director in that way, because he makes every use of the frame. That’s a lost art. It means you get to see something new every time you see the movie. And of course that last scene is so extraordinary.

Indeed. What’s the history of “Carol” vis-a-vis Harvey Weinstein?

He bought it at Cannes in 2013. Hanway had been selling the film. He saw the film right before it was finished; was absolutely rapturous.

It felt like we were waiting for it for a bit.

Well, the film was done… I wouldn’t say quickly. But Todd doesn’t labor over the edit for 100 years. He tries to get it right. Then it was decided to wait for Cannes, and so there was the long stretch.

Any debate about the release date?

I think it’s November at this point. I know there’s a lot of consideration about when it goes in Europe and how the U.S. date affects their release date. It has to go out in the U.S. first so the Europeans are anxious to release it this year.

You’re a producer who understands that the business is also about television these days. It’s getting harder to release two-hour movies, almost as if the form itself is becoming rarified. So many things have to go right for a two-hour movie to end up in theaters.

It’s like threading a needle. But I suppose, because of the platforms — the glass-half-full side of that — is that just because something isn’t theatrical doesn’t mean it isn’t worth making, and there’s a version of that that can be very successful on VOD, going out on Amazon, streaming on Netflix, whatever. Now, when I speak to young filmmakers, they come in with, “Oh, this is my theatrical idea. This is my miniseries idea. This is my episodic idea. This is my web series idea.”

They’re thinking a little more that way. That reverence for the theatrical motion picture — I don’t think a lot of teenagers have it so much anymore. They love content. They have their favorite content, and they love this; they don’t love that. I know my daughter’s relationship to YouTube is very personal — almost like me with punk rock. Punk rock was my thing. I was sixteen in 1977. That spoke to me. I didn’t want my parents to know anything about it. And I think she felt that way about YouTube — like it was very personal and authentic and original.

Have you had success in alternate media?

We’re still getting there. We have a number of things in the works for television outlets. We have a series with Amazon that I think is going to go to pilot this summer. We are doing a series of short docs for Time, Inc. We did this series for AOL last year called “In Short.” We got various actors to do a five-minute piece that they could direct themselves, about a subject they were passionate about. So Jeff Garlin did one; Judy Greer did one; Alia Shawkat did one. And they’re good. They’re fun. So we’ve been playing around it. It’s a tough business. The margins are teeny at this point. We’re making more movies than we’ve ever made.

How many projects did you produce last year?

Meanwhile, there’s a movie I’ve been involved with for some time that looks like it’s going to be shooting in England in June. Two of the movies that we’re trying to get financed here, it looks like they’ve perhaps gotten financed. You know why we’re making movies? They make sense. The right kind of money for the right kind of package.
Part of what you do is crunch the numbers so that you know where you are. Part of the art of getting things made is being able to have that conversation with the financiers. Is a lot of this foreign sales-driven?
The pre-sales method is broken. And, for a lot of these movies, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. An actor like Alicia Vikander: six months ago, the foreign sales agents —
They wouldn’t have even touched her.
And now they’re like, “That’s who we have to have!” And you’re like, “Well, six months ago I could’ve attached her, now I can’t.” If you can make it for the right price, you can get equity that doesn’t force you to pre-sell. Because pre-selling is just a fool’s game.
You also give back. You teach.
I run an affordable, fantastic MFA program. I have been teaching at various institutions in various capacities for the last ten years. Sometimes really on-staff, as I was at Drexel University for a year, and going in and speaking at every college known to man.
You can make money on the lecture circuit, if you want.
I have been, and it pays for my producing habit. What I’ve realized, meeting film students everywhere, is how completely distanced those programs are from the real world, and how those kids were paying vast money to learn old methodologies from people who didn’t have anything at stake.
They need to learn about marketing themselves.
They have to learn how to be somewhat entrepreneurial, and be artists — or to work with people who are. I just thought I could do it better, and I had the good fortune to hook up at Stony Brook with a guy named Bob Reeves. He and I have been putting together a project with Pam Koffler, and so far I think it’s working out pretty well.
You are a published author. 
Two. People tell me to write a third, but I might do a tell-all before I retire.

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