Christine Vachon on the state of independent cinema, being picketed in the 90s and her concern for young writers during the WGA strike

Christine Vachon on the state of independent cinema, being picketed in the 90s and her concern for young writers during the WGA strike

Christine Vachon and her Killer Films productions are regulars on the festival circuit, and 2023 will be no exception. Vachon started the year at Sundance, with Celine Song’s Past livesthen headed to Cannes with his latest collaboration with director Todd Haynes, may decemberpresented in competition at the Palais.

At the 57th Karlovy Vary Film Festival, not just one film will be celebrated, but Vachon’s career and his status as one of the film industry’s leading independent producers. The festival honors Vachon with a screening of Past lives AND You sing louder, I sing louderwith Ewan McGregor, also honored by the festival.

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Vachon has spoken The Hollywood Reporter on her relationship with Haynes, picketing his movies, and why she’s not a fan of looking back: “I’m not nostalgic.”

You have films coming out this year with first-time directors like Celine Song and Todd Haynes, one of your oldest collaborators. The producers have had highly successful careers working with the same rotation of directors. What drives you to look for new talent?

One of the things that gives us so much pleasure with first-time directors is that it really keeps you from getting cynical. This is a business where cynicism is very hard to avoid because it’s so hard and you see a lot of people being rewarded for bad behavior and all kinds of difficult things. First-time filmmakers so often tell the story they’ve been waiting their whole lives to tell. The joy and exhilaration that comes with that kind of (filmmaker) reminds me why I wanted to be a producer in the first place. Although to work with someone like Todd, it’s already an amazing gift because we have such a history and a shortcut — we really fit in this amazing way. I understand what he needs and I understand how to create the best possible working environment, within the limits of my abilities, for him.

How would you describe your working relationship with Todd Haynes?

We are good friends. We like spending time together. Every movie he makes, there’s something new in it – he doesn’t make the same movie over and over again. He really challenges himself and that’s something that’s really exciting to me. When you are in a relationship with a director in whom trust is so solid, you don’t have to prove that you are working in the best interests of the film. It just got it.

You are honored for the entire career. I know you had other jobs in entertainment before moving into production. When it came to producing, was there a moment or a project where you said, “That’s it. This is my career.”

No one really knows what he (a producer) does, and neither do I. When I started working on the movies, I had this vague idea that (the producer) was the guy with the money. In some of the first films I worked on, I started to get the feeling that there was someone holding the entire film in the palm of their hand to a certain point and really thinking about everything that was going to happen in the future and beyond the production actual . When you’re working on a film as an assistant director or line producer, or some of the things I’ve done, the film ceases to exist for you in many ways once its production is finished. So maybe you’re invited to a cast and crew screening 6 to 12 months later. The idea that there was someone looking after the health of that project all along the way was really exciting to me. Todd Haynes made a short film titled, Superstars: The Karen Carpenter Story — I helped it a little bit, I didn’t produce it, although I’m often credited with it but I didn’t — when I saw that movie, I had a little enlightenment. It was so original and so provocative, but so funny at the same time. And I thought, well, that’s it. These are the kinds of movies I want to make. I understand now. I understand. And, you know, I immediately said to Todd, “I want to produce your next film.” And then we both looked at each other and we were both kind of like, “Now what do we need, exactly?” That movie was Poison.

So when you found the kind of film you wanted to produce, did that become the guiding light of your career?

I only went towards the things that interested me. After Poison era Faint, which was Tom Kalin’s first feature film, a sort of queer riff on the Leopold and Loeb case. We shot it in black and white and it was incredibly provocative for the time. It was picketed because it was at the height of the AIDS crisis and our own queer community was telling us we shouldn’t make films that didn’t show queer people in a positive light. (Loeb and Leopold kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy.) But I knew I wanted to make that movie.

What do you miss most about 90s independent cinema?

I’m not nostalgic. This is not a typical emotion for me. I’m like “but now is now”. I don’t really like “in my time!”

I was reading an interview with you where you said that one of the times you were concerned about Killer Films store closures was during the 2008 writers’ strike. What have you learned from the last big strike?

I don’t know what I learned specifically, except that we saved up for a rainy day, which we didn’t do in ’08. Like everyone in the industry, I just want it to be over. Obviously, I want the writers to get the deal they want. I think we all just want to get back to work. I feel very sorry for the young writers whose careers are just starting out, because I know they were the ones who were hit the hardest in ’08. Not everyone has recovered and I see that happening now. Look, I know you have to crack eggs to make an omelet, but I just hope it resolves itself soon with as little bloodshed as possible in terms of people’s careers.

As corporations grapple with what it means to make movies and TV in Hollywood’s current economic climate, what are the biggest problems facing independent films?

Some independent box offices are doing great. There are also many films that a few years ago would have made a little more noise. They are struggling to find a seat right now. If an indie film isn’t absolutely perfectly reviewed and/or backed by a star or director with a real track record, it’s a little harder for some of the smaller, less flashy indies to break through. I kind of keep my head down and do the work and don’t really know what the future holds. Only thing I know, and I don’t like nostalgia, but if you look back over the last 25 years, people have danced on the grave of independent cinema a million times. There is an essay that Ted Hope wrote for IndieWire – or anything else IndieWire it was 1999 – it was like “the independents were dead”. When you read those essays, almost all of them could have been written by now. We’re talking about the same things: theater and paraphernalia and how we compete and da da da, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. At the end of the day, people want to see exciting and interesting stories and make them think. And I also think that great work finds its way. Sometimes it takes a while. When We Made It (Haynes’) Safe, the critics all scratched their heads. Nobody knew what to do with it. And now, 25 years later, it is considered part of the cannon, considered a classic. This gives me hope that even if your heart breaks, initially, the movies find their way to an audience.

You are the artistic director of the MFA program at Stony Brooke. What are the questions you get most often from aspiring filmmakers?

I encourage people to be open minded about all the different ways there are to be creative. There are many different ways to participate in storytelling that aren’t necessarily writing, producing, and directing. I tell people to go through the doors that are open to them. I’ve gotten way more questions about work-life balance in the past few years than I’ve ever received. I mean, wow. We didn’t think about it. Lots of young people (think about it), and this is absolutely not a criticism, it’s really interesting to me. Young people say, “How is that sustainable?” I don’t know if it is. The world of cinema is hard to really reshape like this. So it will be interesting to see what happens. I am very curious to see how the next generation adapts the needs of this industry and how they want to live.

Interview edited for length and clarity.