Todd Haynes still recalls the first time he saw Christine Vachon, the future indie producer with whom he would go on to direct eight feature films over the next 30-plus years. It was in the dining hall at Brown, where both were students in the intellectually heady semiotics department of the early ’80s. Vachon, a scholarship student from a financially insecure single-parent family in New York, worked as a line cook at the facility’s omelet station. Standing at the grill, she would wait for students to hand her a glass containing beaten eggs plus whatever ingredients they’d chosen. As Haynes remembers it, one morning a group of rowdy bros decided to play a prank by handing her a full glass of orange juice instead. Vachon unknowingly poured the liquid on the grill and, when it sizzled into a sticky mess, proceeded to give the would-be jokesters holy hell. Haynes recalls being impressed and a little scared at his classmate’s righteous anger: “She was fierce.”
The skills on display at that omelet station—the ability to field a high volume of simultaneous tasks while ferociously defending her ability to churn out a quality product on schedule—have continued to serve Vachon well in the years since. As she observed in her 1998 book, Shooting to Kill, a manual for aspiring independent producers (co-written with David Edelstein), the line-cook job was “a rehearsal for being a producer.” In addition to building a relationship with Haynes that is unique among modern producer-director teams, Vachon, now 55, has either launched or been instrumental in developing the careers of such idiosyncratic talents as Todd Solondz (Happiness), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol), and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). She’s also followed an unusual path for an independent producer, working out of New York City and continuing to create the kind of midbudget, auteur-driven pictures that occupy a smaller and smaller place in the Hollywood system.
There’s a distinctive if hard-to-define signature to a Killer Films movie—Killer being the indie production company Vachon started in 1995 with business partner Pamela Koffler, after a few years spent co-running a microbudget producing collective called Apparatus. The movies Vachon has chosen to develop, foster, and champion tend to have a dark, sometimes raunchy sense of humor and a political point of view that stops short of being an actual agenda. Killer films often center on the kind of protagonists rarely if ever found in mainstream Hollywood cinema: There are Hedwig’s and Boys Don’t Cry’s genderqueer and transgender misfits, antisocial fringe figures like Lili Taylor’s unforgettable Valerie Solanas (the “I” in I Shot Andy Warhol), and surprisingly unstigmatized villains, like the anguished but not unsympathetic pedophile played by Dylan Baker in Happiness.
In the early ’90s, Vachon productions like Haynes’ experimental debut feature Poison, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, and Nigel Finch’s Stonewall broke new ground in the representation of queer life and culture on screen. Some critics at the time dubbed this trend, which also included earlier Apparatus-produced films such as Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner’s groundbreaking lesbian romance Go Fish, the “New Queer Cinema.”
But Vachon—who was forced to complete the final edit of Stonewall herself after Finch died of AIDS during postproduction—has always resisted that or any niche label. Yes, she was active in the ACT UP movement and has helped start the career of many a gay filmmaker. But what ties Vachon’s filmography together isn’t a spirit of advocacy per se, but intuition, market savvy, and taste. She has an instinct for which voices are best suited to tell which stories, and which audiences will turn out to see them. She likes working with first-time directors “because they are often telling a story they’ve waited their whole lives to tell.”
If those stories turn out to belong as often as not to LGBTQ people, women, or both, it’s as much a function of the search for new voices as an explicit mandate for diversity. She tells me that what movies she makes depends, perhaps above all, on reading “the zeitgeist. Have there been too many movies about this? Have there been too few? Are you ahead of your time? Are you a little bit past your time?”
Haynes’ new release Wonderstruck is his biggest-budget movie to date, and one that also breaks new ground in terms of representation: Its two main characters, 12-year-old kids living in different historical periods, are both deaf, and one of them is played by a deaf actress, the phenomenal Millicent Simmonds.
I spoke on the phone with Vachon, who was in Los Angeles for Wonderstruck’s release, about the arc of her career and the state of independent film production in 2017. Because this was also the week that the Harvey Weinstein story was just beginning to metastasize into a culturewide conversation, we also talked about her experiences as a woman in Hollywood and her own #MeToo story.
Dana Stevens: From the outside, film production is often seen as the business side or the money side in making movies. But you’ve always stressed that, in your way of working with filmmakers at least, you see production as very much a creative act and a collaborative act, an act of artistic collaboration. For people out there for whom producer does evoke just a vague image of a cigar-chomping mogul behind a desk, how would you characterize the creative side of your job?
Christine Vachon: Well, I think it does go back to that whole notion of show business. Budgets are very personal documents, because one budget that one producer does will look very different from another one that another producer does, because they’re reflecting what you think are the priorities of this story. Figuring that out, figuring out how to allocate resources is of course an extremely creative thing to do.
The other part of producing is cheerleading, and convincing, and helping people see something’s potential. But figuring out how to work within your resources and still be true to the story, still be true to the vision, it’s a trick, and it’s something a producer and a director really have to do together at some level.
You’re out promoting the eighth feature you and Todd have done together. Is there something about the way you two work together that couldn’t be said of your relationship with other directors?
We’ve been through a lot together in terms of various high and low points in each other’s lives. I certainly consider him one of my closest friends. I think he would say the same. One of the things that makes it tick so well for us is, look, there’s some directors who almost have to have an adversarial relationship with something, with the producers, with the financiers, with both, what have you. I often find that’s just unproductive. It certainly makes the process a lot less fun.
The thing about filmmaking is you’re walking that really tight precipice between art and commerce. How do you do it in a way that is both responsible and exciting and creative? I think with Todd and I, I have come to have an extraordinary respect and empathy for his process. His process is so exacting. The intensity of that kind of work is so consuming, and it consumes him. Understanding that helps me figure out the best ways to allow the space and the time and the resources for him to get that done. Look, the movies aren’t always easy and they’re not always easy to finance. The world changes around us, and we adjust, and we pivot, and we adapt. He’s at the top of his craft right now. It’s a wonderful thing to observe.
Yeah. I remember seeing Superstar in college at an illegal screening and him talking afterwards, and just being so excited by the emergence of this new director. It’s been great to follow him.
I’m reading your first book right now, Shooting to Kill, and there’s something that you say about being a producer on set. It’s from one of your production diaries—the Velvet Goldmine one, which is a nail-biter because it seems like such a tormented production. But there’s a moment when you’re debating whether to spend a production day on the set or wait it out in a bar nearby, and you say: “I don’t want to breathe down Todd’s neck because I know he’s just as aware of the time constraints as I am, but tonight I think I gave him too much space and let him down.”
You know, this notion of a producer cracking the whip is kind of a myth. I think you hire people that you trust, and you try to make sure that they have the resources to do their best work. The only times Todd and I have ever had real disagreements have been when he’s felt that I have not been straight with him. I never deliberately kept something from him because I thought he couldn’t handle it. It was more like “Let me see if I can solve this issue before I tell him.” Sometimes that backfires, and I think on Velvet Goldmine what I meant was we were running out of time and I should have been a little bit more of an alarmist to help him plan his night.
Directors come in a gazillion different flavors. Some of them pivot with those unexpected catastrophes really easily, and some of them don’t. You sort of have to know the animal you’re working with so that you can help him or her figure [it] out.
What would you say are the qualities that make someone a good producer?
I think obviously an ability to multitask, to have a number of different things going on in your mind at one time. Always an ability to have a little perspective. The pitch in filmmaking is always so crisis-oriented, especially when you start out and everything feels like a matter of life or death, but it isn’t. It’s a matter usually of, like, maybe not getting the shot exactly the way you wanted to. That’s it.
I saw a psychic once probably about 10, 15 years ago. I think it was actually right after Velvet Goldmine. She didn’t know what I did for a living, and so she put out the cards and then put out the cards again. Then she said, “Are you a general in the army?” I said, “No.” She said, “Well, I can’t figure out what you do, because this is basically telling me that you give a lot of orders and you move a lot of people around from place to place, and I just can’t figure out what that is if it’s not like military.” I was like, “No, I know what it is.”
You’ve resisted, with good reason, being pigeonholed as the gay producer, or the “dark” movie producer, or the discoverer-of-first-time-talent producer, though obviously you have long-cultivated relationships, too. If you had to characterize at this point in your career what makes a movie feel like a Killer film, how do you decide when you want to work on something?
You know, there’s a lot of different elements that go into that discussion. Part of it is, does the project feel original? How good is the writing? How strong is the director’s vision? How strong is his or her ability to articulate that vision? All of those things, and then there’s kind of the secret sauce of what makes it makeable. What’s the element or elements that make us see a real path to production? Is it a script with a really strong role for an actor or actress that will entice somebody really great, à la Julianne Moore in Still Alice? Because her involvement is what made that movie makeable.
The independent film marketplace has gone through, I would say, at least three distinct phases in the time you’ve been working in it. You were there for the first flowering of the ultra-low-budget independent Go Fish–type movies in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Then there was the period in which the major studios started creating arty subdivisions to develop smaller projects, many of which have shut their doors over the past decade. Now we’re entering this third era with multiple streaming platforms and day-and-date releases and distribution strategies that I don’t even know how to name yet, probably. How do you situate yourself in that landscape, and what would you say is the good and the bad news about independent filmmaking and distribution right now?
Well, I am a very glass-half-full kind of person, so there’s never any bad. It’s more like the news got different. One of the things I bang on about when I teach [production classes at SUNY Stony Brook] is how we have to start calling ourselves storytellers or content-makers, and the lines between different types of content are blurring. Even when we did [Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries] Mildred Pierce with Kate Winslet like eight years ago, I think it was fairly revolutionary, the idea that Kate would be in a miniseries on television and that Todd would direct one. Of course, now, movie stars are crossing back and forth all the time. It’s a really exciting time for content creation or storytelling—there’s so many more opportunities. I do think many people are experiencing content fatigue. I ask people when I do meet-and-greets with young actors or young directors, “What are you watching?,” and they always start to look a little panicked, like, “Well, I finally caught up to the third season on Breaking Bad.”
Can you name some things on nontheatrical platforms that you’re watching right now?
Yeah. I love Catastrophe.
I just started watching the latest season of Transparent, which is so far really awesome.
Yeah, where they go to Israel. It’s great.
God. I love Project Runway and Top Chef, and I do watch the Real Housewives, but only New York and Beverly Hills. I don’t do flyover housewives …
And most of those you’re watching not in the mode of, “I’m researching ideas”? You’re just having fun and watching things you enjoy?
I would say, “Well, of course I’m researching ideas,” but I’m really watching them for pleasure and to relax. I mean, I didn’t even tell you how much Hell’s Kitchen and Master Chef I watch, because that would be embarrassing, or my BBC comfort shows like Call the Midwife or The Durrells in Corfu …
That is a lot of watching to keep up with for somebody with the schedule you have.
Yep. I do a lot of it in the middle of the night and a lot of it on the treadmill.
Now I want to know how many hours a night you sleep.
Not many. Not many. Then there’s always like, if you just need to pretend that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world don’t exist, you can just watch old reruns of Frasier.
Well, as long as you brought it up. … This is tricky to talk about, but it feels necessary to ask you in the moment that we’re talking. Do you have any response to the Weinstein scandal and the whole unfolding conversation about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the movie industry? Do you see any way forward, beyond just women having to tell their stories into the void?
Look, it’s awful, and it feels just so toxic. I also think of the legacy of Miramax, and it just feels like it’s gone to shit. You know what I mean? I think there’s a lot of breast-beatery and back-pattery right now. It’s hard to read all these people saying, “Well, I wouldn’t have,” or, “I would have blown the whistle.” It’s so baked into our culture that rich, powerful men can act that way that to step out of it and say, “Why didn’t anybody say anything?” seems disingenuous. Honestly, I don’t really know anybody who knew that that kind of assault was happening. I don’t. I mean, I know there’s people who knew, but … I think we all certainly knew about the bullying. I certainly was on the other end of that bullying more than once.
I didn’t experience that kind of sexual harassment from Harvey, but I certainly have in my life. When I was 12, I was molested by [someone my family knew], and my parents spoke to him and then said to me, “OK. He won’t do it again, but of course you understand that, like, he can’t lose his job. He has a wife and kid.” I imagine some story like that has happened to, like, millions of women. If you’re basically being told when you’re 12, 13, 14, 15, or whatever age, that essentially the man is more important than you, that you are that sort of devalued even though this thing happened to you, how on Earth do you … you know what I mean?
I don’t say this as like a “feel sorry for me” story. I’m just saying it in a very like—what the fuck do you expect then, 20 years later, when you’re in that pervasive atmosphere of these guys doing what the fuck they want? You’re like, “Well, that’s the way it is.” I mean, I remember the Italian actress [Ambra Battilana Gutierrez] because we were working with Harvey at the time on Carol, and I remember how he managed to have it repositioned as, “She just wanted a part. She’s out of her mind. She’s done this before.” It was very convincing.
I feel like right now, just being in L.A., there’s a lot of self-righteousness and selective indignation. There’s plenty of characters I know who are running around talking about what a monster he is who are guilty of doing the same damn thing. Ultimately I believe the only reason why people came forward is because Harvey just wasn’t so powerful anymore. It was like, “OK. You know what? Now finally I can say this horrible thing happened to me and I’m not scared of losing my career.” All those women who just left the business, who never ever had a fucking shot. It’s just devastating.
You’ve written before about sexism in the industry, about being perceived as a bitch in negotiations or on set, and how you manage to not mind too much. Is that something you specifically advise female students on?
I do feel like there’s a little bit of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” I’ve certainly mellowed out a lot, and I try hard to be more empathetic. I had cancer 10 years ago, 9 years ago, and I came out on the other side of that being more like, “Life really is too short, and why spend it wasting your time screaming at a PA?” I think my reputation is probably not as dire as it once was, but I could be totally wrong. I think any woman in a position of power just faces that—that’s the default. If somebody doesn’t get what they want, you’re a bitch. I’ve always said about film producing, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and certainly not a popularity contest. Just do your best. Try and treat people fairly. Try and compensate people the way they deserve to be, and hopefully everything follows.
As a fellow working parent, I can’t resist asking you this. What has it been like to raise a child and be an independent film producer at the same time, and has having your daughter changed the way you work in terms of your hours and travel or projects that you pick, etc.?
Look, it’s not easy. It is that old cliché that if you’re late to set because your kid is sick, everyone rolls their eyes and says, “You know, I knew the kid would start to come first,” but if you’re a man and you’re late to set because your kid is sick, everyone’s like, “Oh, he’s such a good dad.”
“He’s so sensitive.
That’s so great.” It’s really tough. It’s always been tough.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.