I started in the film industry in 1990, seven years after Christine Vachon started her own career. I became aware of her in 1994, while working in Portland, Oregon, on Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Poison and Swoon, two films produced by Christine, were released during this time and opened doors in my brain to rooms I didn’t know existed.
I felt lucky to be plugged into the world of American independent film during that time. I devoured Christine’s next wave of original work—Go Fish, Safe, Kids, Stonewall, and I Shot Andy Warhol—between 1994 and 1996. I saw all of those films in the cinema and admired them for their boldness and singularity of vision, but what lasted was the emotional impression they left on me. As a young person, it was an awakening.
In those early years, Christine wasn’t yet famous, nor had she made films that brought her to the Oscars, such as Far from Heaven, Boys Don’t Cry, and Still Alice would later. But within the community of independent filmmakers at the time, she was recognized as a producing force to be reckoned with. Even though she was still early in her own career, she was a legend to me already.
Christine continues to have a reputation for being uncompromising when it comes to protecting a filmmaker’s vision. But she is uncompromising with herself first. She makes work she believes in, work that has something important to say about the world and the people with whom we share it. We talked in June 2017 at the Las Vegas Film Festival, in a conversation hosted by the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute and The Believer. We faced an attentive audience, though a good many of them were reclined to near supine on bright red vinyl theater seats.
—Mary Ann Marino
I. “A CLOWN CAR OF PRODUCERS”
MARY ANN MARINO: Was there a movie that you saw that just sparked something in you, that made you think: This is what I have to do with my life?
CHRISTINE VACHON: I was lucky in that I grew up in New York City, where we could walk to the movie theater. And we did. We went to the movies, old movie palaces that were divided up into four or five cinemas where your feet stuck to the floor and you could hear the other movie in the other cinema. There were second- and third-run movie houses and we would go see whatever was there. And if you liked it, you would go back the following week, because that was the only way to see it again. I think I saw The Poseidon Adventure, like, six times. But also there were repertory houses that we would sometimes go to, and when I was about eleven I was with my best friend and we decided we wanted to see a horror film, so we were walking on Forty-Second Street, where there were a lot of cinemas that weren’t porn cinemas but were just regular movie theaters, and we saw on the marquee of one Cries and Whispers, and we were like, Oh, that sounds scary. And it was. But not like we thought it was going to be.
So this is all a long-winded way of saying there wasn’t a single movie then, but when I graduated from college, it was a really exciting time. Spike Lee was making his first movie. Jim Jarmusch was making his first movie. Bette Gordon was making her first movie. And there was a real kind of collusion of art and film and music. I had known Todd Haynes when I was at Brown with him, but we weren’t really friends. But then he made a movie called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. It’s been banned. It comes up on YouTube all the time and then gets taken down. It’s like Whac-A-Mole. So you can find it and watch it if you haven’t seen it. And that movie was a forty-five-minute film that depicted the life of Karen Carpenter, the singer, using Barbie dolls, and that’s when I had my epiphany; that’s when I was like, OK, this is exactly what I want to do. This film is provocative, it’s wholly original, and it’s really entertaining, and I never want Todd to do another one that doesn’t have my name on it. And he hasn’t, so far.
MM: That time in New York was an explosion of independent filmmaking.
CV: I really grew up thinking that there were narrative films, which were Hollywood films, and experimental films, which were aggressively anti-narrative. And what was starting to happen in the ’80s was that there were these very personal films being made by people like Jarmusch and Spike Lee that needed production. They were very personal but they were also very narrative.
MM: I think oftentimes these conversations are reserved for directors, and the producer is the unsung hero most of the time. But the producer, in my view, is the relational center of every moviemaking endeavor.
CV: You know, I’m sure you get asked this question too—I mean, I get asked all the time, “What does a producer do, actually?” And it’s made more difficult now by the fact that so many movies have, like, you know, ten executive producers and then seven producers, and then a couple of associate producers and coproducers.
MM: A clown car of producers.
CV: It’s crazy. And I get asked, “Well, what’s the difference between an executive producer and a coproducer?” And the short answer is, “Who knows?” I’m sure you’ve also experienced this. You see a movie you really like and then you go on IMDB and you’re like, I wonder who produced that? You have to go through it like you’re going through a rummage [sale]… Well, it definitely wasn’t that guy… Definitely wasn’t her! So, oh, OK, it must have been that person!
But essentially a producer is the engine on the train. A producer puts together the package that ultimately becomes the movie. The script, the talent, the creative heads of department—they put all that together and they try to get it financed and made. And then, once that happens, it’s not over yet, either. Because then you try to get it out into the world in a way that is as positive and successful as it can possibly be.
MM: The whole time you have to keep the fire burning.
CV: Right. Or be putting it out. And one thing that I haven’t been banging on about here that I should have been is I do think it’s really important to stop calling ourselves film producers and call ourselves content producers. Because I don’t think you can really make it as a film producer anymore. I think you have to be open to creating content for all kinds of platforms and you have to be platform agnostic, length agnostic, budget agnostic. I just think now if you’re really interested, what you’re saying is you want to create this kind of auteur vision–driven content. So you have to be entrepreneurial and very open to what that is.
I get asked a lot these days about moving to New York, and I’m a little reluctant to tell people to do it. It’s very expensive and there [are] a lot of different ways to get into the industry that aren’t necessarily in New York. If you’re interested in production, specifically, go to a state with a great rebate. New York does have one, but so do Georgia, New Mexico, Ohio, and there are much cheaper places to live. You know, so that’s one way. But obviously the stock answer is if you’re interested in producing content, start producing content. Because it’s not so hard to do these days. You know, when I started out—this is one of these, like, you know, “back in my day” stories, but—back in my day you had to shoot on film because there wasn’t anything else.
MM: And it was expensive.
CV: And it was the most expensive thing on an independent-film budget. And we would talk for hours about the film ratio, like, you know, like “two thousand feet a day,” and then when your director started shooting more than two takes—
MM: We’d hide the cans in the production office.
II. “CAN I HAVE YOUR EMAIL SO I DON’T HAVE TO TALK TO THAT AGENT AGAIN?”
CV: We’ve made some movies that have taken literally years to get made. Boys Don’t Cry took about seven years to get to the theater. Sometimes it’s just like you’re waiting for the lazy Susan of the zeitgeist to swing back over to you. I feel like I have to interrogate myself more and more about what makes a movie theatrical. What makes you go to the theater? Is it the actor? The story? What gives you that sense of urgency that makes you say, “I don’t want to wait until it comes to Netflix.”
MM: How do you keep the energy up during that period of time? I mean, I’m sure there are some films where you’ve given up and others where you don’t.
CV: I mean, I don’t know if we give up exactly—we put it away sometimes. Goat is a good example. Goat is a movie that David Gordon Green wrote for us [Vachon’s production company, Killer Films], like, twelve years ago, and he was going to direct it but he’d only made one or two little movies. He’s a pretty big Hollywood director now. And then that script just sat there, and then a couple years ago,we met another young, great director named Andrew Neil, who was trying to get a movie made that he ended up not being able to get made, and we said, “Hey, take a look at this.” So sometimes you just put things away and wait for another opportunity to arise.
MM: But you keep the options going.
CV: We’re at a very difficult point, I think, in this very specific kind of art film. In a lot of ways, television is, you know, kicking its ass! Because television is like, We’ll be risky. We don’t care if our main characters are unlikable. We’re cool with that. You know, and independent films are still going, like, Well, how much is he worth in Japan? It’s kind of a crazy system. How do you find—how do you construct something that has that originality, that I felt when I saw Superstar for the first time? So, you know, it’s finding and putting your money on the right director. Working with first-timers is harder and harder because they are first-timers.
MM: Because financiers don’t want to take a bet on them?
CV: Financiers and actors. I meet with actors all the time, usually on these meet and greets, where their agent calls me and says, “They’re your biggest fan,” and they come in and they’re like, Who are you again? But I do it anyway, and my first question to them is usually “Would you work with a first-time director?” My second question is “Can I have your email so I don’t have to talk to that agent again?”
MM: To get a financier to want to pay to make a movie, you have to have actors in the movie who the financier thinks are going to get people to go to the movie theater. To get those actors, the director has to convince them to be in the movie. And they have to be available, right?
CV: Right. We’re making a movie, I think, this summer, with Elizabeth Moss, which is just like, you know—it’s like working a checkerboard schedule. Because she’s so busy.
MM: In between her shows.
CV: Her shows, the other movies she wants to do. She’s got her little hiatus from The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s just insane.
MM: Yeah, it used to be, like, once in a while they’d do a play and you had to wait for that. Now they’re working all the time. So, you talked a little bit about the life cycle of a movie, this long gestation period oftentimes. But sometimes it will come together fast.
CV: Sometimes it will, yeah. We did a miniseries called Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet. We kind of walked into HBO and we were like, “Here are the scripts; here’s Todd, who wrote the scripts and is the director; and here’s Kate Winslet’s availability—like, are you in or out?” And that was, like, the fastest thing.
III. THE FEARLESSNESS OF IGNORANCE AND MAKE-ABILITY
MM: I want to talk a little bit about creative partnerships, of which you’ve had many. The one with Pam [Koffler, Vachon’s partner at Killer Films] is one of them.
CV: I have the great good fortune to have a fantastic business partner, Pam. We’ve been together for twenty-five years.
MM: Todd Haynes is probably [your] most notable [creative partner], and, like you said, he hasn’t done a movie with any other producer except you.
CV: Well, I mean, Mary Harron is another director we’ve worked with more than once. Rose Troche; Janicza Bravo, who made Lemon. Todd Solondz. We like to work with people more than once because you [develop] a shorthand and you understand them and you start to get how he or she works, and we know how to create an environment for them to do their best work. With Todd, you know, there were so many firsts that we did together. And when we were doing Poison, that was one of those movies where luckily we had no idea what we were doing, because it would have been too scary. And, of course, it went to the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize. And I was like, How hard can this be? And I have never won it again! You know, like, twenty-five years later it’s like, Goddamn, how many movies have we had there? And I felt like with Todd, we both had the fearlessness of ignorance. You know, maybe we don’t have to do it that way. Maybe we can do it this way instead. And we developed a way of working together that felt very comfortable, and I think both of us were loath to ever give it up. And, you know, when I’m doing a movie with Todd, I really know what to expect in a lot of ways, and a lot of the good ways. I guess we’ve sort of become codependent.
MM: What continues to reignite your inspiration?
CV: Actually, in a funny way, it’s first-time directors [who] keep me going. That’s why we keep doing them even though they’re such a pain in the ass. Because usually a first-time director is telling a story he or she has wanted to tell their whole lives. And by the time they finally get to tell it, they’re so passionate, and it reminds me why it’s fun again. They’re so not cynical. And there is so much cynicism in this business, especially these days. There’s a lot of bad news, and a lot of movies that don’t work, and people are behaving horribly and people have been mistreated in terrible ways, and when you get to be on that set with somebody who’s getting to tell that first-time story, it kind of brings it all back again. This is why we’re doing it.
MM: So what happens if a director whom you really respect and want to work with, or have worked with and would like to work with again, brings you an idea that you think is not so good?
CV: You know, when Paul Schrader brought us First Reformed, for example, I was like, OK, I think I sort of get what this is. I’m not 100 percent sure, but you’re Paul Schrader. So you’re gonna do something with this that is extraordinary, and I’m just going to hitch my wagon to this and help you get it made. So that was easy. But that was Paul Schrader. There have been filmmakers whom we’ve done a film or two with who’ve brought us something that we don’t love, and then I think that what we try to do is try to figure out how to love it. And if we can’t, we can’t. I mean, sometimes it’s just, Is it make-able? The make-ability of it—and I’m sure you could speak to this too—is this mix of: is this script, is this story, something that feels of the moment? Does it feel relevant? Is it a story that’s going to attract an actor of a certain stature, you know? Does the director feel like he or she has the chops to tell it? All those things that I can sort of put together and take to a financier and convince them—a financier, a studio, a foreign sales [representative], whatever it is—and say, See what I see? Do you see it too?
Take a movie like Still Alice, for example. It was based on a best-selling novel that had sold all over the world. It’d been translated into basically every language possible. So that’s good. But it’s a bummer: she doesn’t get better. You know, it’s like it can’t; it goes only in that direction. That’s a big no. Then the primary character, the main character, [is] a woman, which is very difficult. We do a lot of female-driven films, but they are hard. I don’t think they’re so hard in the marketplace, to be honest. I think they’re so hard for the financiers.
MM: In the boardroom.
CV: That’s right. And we used to make this joke, you know, because there was a lot of pressure on us to cast somebody to play Julianne’s husband who was a star of equal value.
MM: That’s a term.
CV: We used to joke that we should call the movie Still Alice and John.
MM: You’ve always been engaged in the conversation in the industry around creating opportunity for diverse cohorts in the storytelling realm. Seems like the world’s kind of caught up with you now, right, in the Time’s Up conversation that’s gone global. Are you engaged in that conversation in a different way now that you have—now that you’re not pushing the boulder up the hill alone anymore?
CV: But I think we still are. I mean, I think it’s really like there’s a lot of lip service to that. I’m making a bunch of female-driven movies this summer that have had just the same issues.
IV. “THEY REMIND ME OF ME.”
MM: How does the way you feel about the movies you’ve made evolve over time?
CV: Well, one thing I love is that I probably get stopped on the street in New York City once a month by somebody. All different ages. You know, all different walks of life. [They’ll] say to me, “You made my favorite movie.” And I always say, “Oh, and what was that?” And the answer’s always different. And that’s the thing that kind of gives me a tremendous amount of hope and pleasure. Sometimes they say Hedwig [and the Angry Itch]. Sometimes they say Far from Heaven. Sometimes they say this super-depressing Holocaust movie we made called The Grey Zone. And then I’m like, “It is? Are you OK?” Sometimes it’s A Home at the End of the World. It’s just the fact that you can make a movie—think about [how], like, if someone asks you what your favorite movie is, if someone asks me, like, you really think about it, there’s a lot of movies that I like, but they’d never be a favorite. And if I’ve managed to make even a dozen movies that are worthy of being favorites, that’s amazing.
MM: Was there ever a producer out there who influenced you or whom you looked up to?
CV: You know, that’s a good question, and, sadly, I don’t think so. And I say “sadly” because I do feel like one of the most important things in this time of Time’s Up, #MeToo, et cetera, is mentorship.
We’ve been doing it a long time at Killer; it’s very important to us, and, you know, back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was starting out, there were so few women doing it. And the few women that there were, sadly, often felt like: there’s only room for one of us at the table. So, you know, why would I help you? And I get that. I really do. It was a very different time. There were some people who were incredibly generous with me, like Barbara Boyle, for example, who produced the Claus von Bülow movie [Reversal of Fortune]. And she was one of the first women I’d ever met who was a producer. I had already produced a number of movies by that time, but she was one of the first women whom I had met who actually took an interest in me, back when I was young. But otherwise it was pretty bleak. And I know that it’s so in human nature for us to look out there and pull that person, that potential writer, director, young producer, and be like, They remind me of me. And when you say “me,” you usually mean like your color, your sex, which is why it’s so important that, you know, mentorship be way more widespread by women. And I think it’s working again. I think it’s working in television more than it is in film.
MM: If you were going to make a superhero movie, what would it be?
CV: I mean, I don’t know why anyone would get me to make a superhero movie. Honestly, you know, I think Colette [a biopic of the French novelist] is a superhero movie.
MM: It’s really a movie about a woman finding her voice and getting it taken from her.
CV: And then getting it back.