Christine Vachon has produced such eclectic and acclaimed independent films as Kids, Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Far From Heaven. But she wields the kind of power--and has earned the kind of respect--that marked the producing giants of Hollywood's golden age. "Right now we live in an era where the auteur--the idea of the director as star, the writer as star--is very, very big. And that's warranted, but I think the producer has fallen by the wayside a bit. What Christine represents is a reminder that the producer has a very, very dominant voice," said Matt Dentler, producer of the South by Southwest film festival, which featured a discussion with Vachon and a retrospective of some of her movies. "I think she's part of that tradition, but it's from the perspective of the independent film world, material that can be very subversive and very, very provocative."
Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who worked with Vachon on two such films--Go Fish (1994) and Kids (1995)--described her as having been "at the vanguard of independent cinema." "She's one of the rare people who's done a lot and had success in the Hollywood system without really betraying her core principles," Bowles said. "She's fierce, she's really incredibly intense about films, and it's paid off magnificently for her."
Vachon's response to such high praise? "I'm not really self-reflective, and I'm really in the moment," she joked. But she added later: "That's certainly not an allusion, a comparison, that bothers me. When people come up to me and say, 'Wow, you really inspired me to get my film made,' or 'I had your book with me every step of the way,' it feels great, of course it does." The 43-year-old started out just like them, loving movies from a young age. Growing up in New York, she would go by herself to see everything from The Bad News Bears to The 400 Blows. While studying at Brown University, she said the idea of working in film was "very sexy." "But it didn't occur to us that there was anything to do besides be a film director, you know, and why would you want to do anything else?" she said. "When I started working on the movies, I started to realize that there was somebody who was holding this whole thing together."
Some of the earliest films she produced--Todd Haynes's Poison (1991) and Tom Kalin's Swoon (1992)--featured gay characters and daring themes. In time, she and the Manhattan-based Killer Films, which she cofounded nearly 10 years ago, have become known for bringing female filmmakers and movies with strong roles for women to the fore. Boys Don't Cry (1999) earned Hilary Swank her first best-actress Oscar. Far From Heaven (2002) was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best actress for Julianne Moore. Now Vachon is in the middle of shooting The Notorious Bettie Page, which Mary Harron is directing.
But she says she chooses projects based on what interests her and not necessarily with a sense of social responsibility. "As a gay filmmaker, I was told, 'You should be making positive images about gay people, not Swoon and I Shot Andy Warhol.'... I have to resist that," she said. "I'm not a preacher, I'm a producer. I'm making movies that I want to make because I think they're interesting and have some commercial viability." Vachon also resists purists' definitions of what makes an independent film at a time when seemingly every major studio has a branch that releases art-house fare. To her, the idea of independence is an aesthetic phenomenon, a singularity of vision. "If that is economically the way these companies choose to diversify their tent poles from their art-house movies, I think it's fine," she said. "I just feel like this whole notion of what's really independent--whether it's Miramax or Warner Independent or Fox Searchlight or Paramount Classics--it's just a way of separating the Spider-Mans from the Sideways."
Regardless of the source of the money or the size of the company that ultimately releases the film, some of the same issues and obstacles arise, Vachon said she's found. "It's all just about how big your train set is, you know what I mean? But it's the same. How do you keep the actors happy? How do you get as much done as you want? We are very overambitious always on movies," she added, which is part of why her company is called Killer. "Our eyes are always way bigger than our stomachs." (Christy Lemire, via AP)