Photograph by Joyce George
The notorious Christine Vachon: From Bettie Page to Hedwig, Vachon works well out of the mainstream.
Celebrated indie film producer Christine Vachon comes to Cinequest
By Richard von Busack
THE EASY WAY to understand the importance of Christine Vachon is to imagine a film scene in which she didn't exist. Her Killer Films helped produce 30 movies in 12 years: Far From Heaven, Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Notorious Betty Page. The New York-based producer is still an independent and as such is coming to Cinequest to receive the Maverick Spirit Award. She has never been to San Jose, even though she has sold some films to the New Almaden distributor Wolfe Video.
Vachon's independence is noteworthy. Many of her colleagues from the early 1990s got drawn into the boutique-arms of major studios. Today, Killer Films is still unaffiliated, though it has an overhead deal with John Wells, producer of ER. Vachon writes in her new book, A Killer Life, "Wells pays all our salaries and office costs and underwrites our development costs. ... He likes and understands Killer's films and doesn't interfere."
She adds that another advantage of now vs. then is not having to weed through unsolicited scripts. I asked Vachon if she ever got a worthwhile script over the transom: "Only once, but that one was a big one: that script was Go Fish." The black-and-white no-budget Go Fish (1994) is usually described as the first lesbian movie where the lovers didn't die horribly in the end. Its success led to the color and gloss of The L Word and If These Walls Could Talk.
The formerly New Queer Cinema is now old and established. There are so many calculations in the film industry, so I asked Vachon if there were money people who claimed they knew what percentage of the moviegoing audience was gay or lesbian. "I couldn't tell you," she said. "We don't really market exclusively to gays and lesbians. They're not less conservative than the rest of the moviegoing audience, and they don't necessarily respond better to provocative experimental films."
Speaking of provocative: as Todd Haynes' longtime collaborator, Vachon worked on Far From Heaven, in which Haynes tried like mad to get the visuals of a Douglas Sirk film from 1950 on a miniscule budget. Haynes is currently finishing his new opus, I'm Not There, a mosaic portrait of Bob Dylan—"a period film again, but a lot of periods," Vachon explains. The new Haynes is expected to debut at Cannes 2007. Also on Killer's agenda is Helen Hunt's debut as a director, Then She Found Me, a sardonic romantic comedy. I'm betting on the work of this seriously underrated actress who, as Vachon says, "is not warm and fuzzy."
Asked about the films that made her want to be a filmmaker, Vachon said, "You know growing up in 1970s NYC, I had access to movie theaters from age 9. I'd go to see a lot of movies, like The Poseidon Adventure and Patton. My mom was French, and she saw almost every French movie made because she missed hearing the language. In those days, no such thing as an art film existed; the only thing that qualified as an art film was foreign-language film."
Vachon will be addressing an audience full of ambitious indie filmmakers. Does she have any particular warnings to them? Vachon says, "It's hard to explain the one reason why a movie gets made over one that doesn't get made, beside good luck. And it's hard to look at it from the other side, to hear someone say they won't compromise ... or that they'd compromise if only someone told them how. Educating yourself to the ways things change so quickly is important. Losing track of your audience is another big problem."
Vachon has commented that "theatrical is no longer the Holy Grail. More people see films at home, and I think the theatrical outlet is given way to cable and home theater. And that's what is most appealing to me: getting my films seen."
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