In celebration of the 20th anniversary of her company, Killer Films, producer Christine Vachon and Sony Pictures Classics’ co-president and co-founder Michael Barker sat down for an IFP Industry Talk to discuss her experiences working in independent film, and what the future of the industry may hold. Vachon has produced multiple award-winning films, including “Kids,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and the films of Todd Haynes.
Vachon discussed what inspired her to become a producer, changing distribution practices and her recent transition to producing television. Below are highlights from the discussion:
On her start in independent film and the movies she wants to make
I started in New York in the late ’80s, at a time where it felt like there was a real resurgence of personal filmmaking that wasn’t highly experimental, that was narrative. People like Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee were making their first movies. It was an amazing time to be in New York and to think about being in film. Todd Haynes, at that time, was making a film called “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” When I saw that movie, that’s when I thought, “This is the kind of movie I want to make.” This is it. It’s provocative, it’s exciting, and it’s completely original, but it’s also entertaining. Those are the films I want to make.
On different distribution practices and what makes a film “theatrical”
My company is – I wouldn’t say struggling – but we are rising to the challenge of all the differing platforms. We’re making a lot more television, but our core business is still theatrical feature films. We’re actually making more than we’ve ever made; we’re making three, four, sometimes even five, a year. [Sony Pictures Classics] has been so staunch about how much [they] believe in theatrical release.
From my point of view, my challenge as a producer, and we interrogate ourselves on this all the time, is what makes something theatrical? When we get a script and we have to decide, even when we decide it’s not theatrical, that doesn’t mean we won’t get involved. I noticed with “Still Alice” that often when a film is female-driven, people will say it’s a television movie. For me, that’s code for ‘there’s too many women in it.’ That was levied at “Still Alice” a lot, but for me, the performance and the filmmaking at the core of it made me think, “of course, it’s theatrical!’ With that one, I never had a doubt in my mind.
On the differences between working in film and television
Working for HBO wasn’t that different. Shooting “Mildred Pierce” was like shooting a five-hour film. The only big difference was in post-production because each episode had to be finished separately. Todd [Haynes] had to be finished with his first episode completely before he even started on his fifth, which is a little bit of a mindfuck for a director who usually sees their project as one entire thing. Now we’re doing television that is much more episodic. We just did a pilot for Amazon where we have to start thinking what our pilot looks like, but what does year two look like? That’s been a challenge in a great way, it’s getting our filmmakers to think that way too. I’m finding that a lot of younger filmmakers who come in and talk to us will say, “This is my feature film idea, this is my miniseries idea, this is my webseries idea, this is my episodic idea.” They kind of have already formulated all these different types of stories they want to tell. The filmmakers that have been making movies for a long time don’t move as fluidly. Once they sit down and think how they could bend an idea into something episodic, they get excited about it.
I think the biggest lesson I’m learning in television is what a writer’s medium it is — especially coming from the world of feature filmmaking where the writers get shunted off to the side, that’s just not true in TV. It’s kind of interesting to watch how the writers and director all have to work on a pilot, which is all about setting the tone and setting the creative essence of what this is all going to be. It’s been very interesting.
On films that didn’t turn out as planned
There are two things. There’s whether the movie turned out like you wanted it to, that’s one question. hen, sometimes it did, but it doesn’t get the reaction you wanted, whether by box office, critics, or both. There’s always, especially with the filmmaker, a dialogue like ‘that one sheet was wrong! They didn’t spend enough! There was no TV! The TV was bad!’ But sometimes people just didn’t want to see it. That’s kind of the hardest thing, sometimes you put it all out there and it’s great, the greatest it can be, and people just aren’t interested. That has happened to me before. Our movies get these dreaded monikers, that they’re ‘execution dependent.’ When we’re trying to pre-sell our movies, we always get, ‘We love the director, we love the cast, it’s just that this particular script is execution dependent,’ which means no one will know if it’s any good until it’s done. There’s something in it that is original, something that’s a true leap of faith. Sometimes I’ve taken that leap of faith.
On whether it’s become easier to make independent films
Hell no! That’s a big hell no! It’s like that French proverb, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same,’ but that’s the kind of movies I make. I can’t change, I don’t even know what ‘more commercial movies’ means. I actually make, for the most part, commercial movies because they tend to make their money back, because they’re made for the right price. You don’t make a movie like “Kill Your Darlings” for $10 million. But if you make it for the right amount of money, everybody does okay. That’s really what it comes down to. I make them with the intention for them to work. “Still Alice” is a good example because the pressures on “Still Alice” were “Boy, this is a bummer,” and “How are you going to get people to see it?” We had to articulate that in the filmmaking so that you guys [Sony Pictures Classics] would see that when you bought the movie.