Christine Vachon does not waste time. Ask her a question that doesn’t interest her, and she’ll give you a one-word answer. But get her onto a topic that intrigues her, and she offers a very generous interview.
Given her CV, many line up to hear what she has to say. With her New York-based production company Killer Films, Vachon has produced some of the most intriguing, groundbreaking independent films of the past quarter century.
Many have dubbed Vachon, who is openly lesbian, the American independent film queen.
She has worked with some of the finest filmmakers on the continent, including Todd Haynes (Poison, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), Todd Solondz (Storytelling, Happiness), John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Larry Clark (Kids), to name but a few.
She’s also been dubbed the queen of New Queer Cinema, given how many queer-themed projects she’s backed.
Xtra West caught up with her by phone to talk about making independent features.
XTRA WEST: Is there one bit of advice that springs to mind when you face young people who want to break in?
Christine Vachon: Everyone’s looking for a magic bit of advice: it’s so hard, how do I do it, how can I somehow figure out how to get my movie made. A lot of it is just alchemy, luck and perseverance.
XW: You discuss dealing with prima donnas in your book Shooting to Kill. When I spoke with Robert Evans, he told me that actors have become far too powerful, demanding ludicrous fees for their work and that that has really hurt movies.
CV: I think that’s true, but I think there’s a seismic shift going on right now. With the economy failing the way it is, and with people struggling to get movies made, many more actors are having to deal with the fact that those days are over. There are movies I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with making today, like Boys Don’t Cry. Hilary [Swank] was completely unknown when we made that film. We managed to convince our financiers to go ahead without casting a star. But now even at that budget level they would have insisted.
XW: It seems the median age of actors has gone up as a result of this, as producers only want to deal with known entities.
CV: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but definitely when we make movies that feature only young people, it’s a problem.
XW: You gave an interview a few years ago in which you were asked for a prediction, and you said you predicted that someone would predict the end of independent cinema in the next year. You were right — a bunch of people did.
CV: But they’ve been predicting it for 10 years. That was an easy prediction to make.
XW: But now Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage have been shut down. Are you worried about what’s happening? It seems that mid- and low-budget range movies are really going to be at a disadvantage.
CV: I think the bigger question is what’s going on with distribution in general. The way we look at media is changing so quickly that we can’t keep up.
It comes back to the whole question of how we monetize the internet. How do you deal with a model that hasn’t been formed? Our old models haven’t been working, but no one has figured out how to fit them into these new paradigms which are just rushing past us.
People now watch TV and movies on their iPods or computers, on screens much smaller than the ones in your local cinema. Celluloid has gone the way of vinyl — it’s really a different world right now. Independent film has to learn how to adapt. And film in general is not a medium that is quick on its feet.
XW: It’s something facing newspapers too. Several American daily newspapers filed for bankruptcy today. It’s not just the internet — but that’s a big part of it.
CV: That’s right. A good example is the Kindle. I saw someone post on Facebook, ‘Oh, you know, I hate the Kindle! I like to have a book in my hands!’ and so on. But I’m like, thank fucking god for the Kindle, because that might actually save book writing. That’s exactly the kind of solution we need to find.
To me, the Kindle is brilliant. This notion that I want to hold on to something made of paper in my hands, that’s Grandpaville. It’s like newspapers, people are like, ‘Oh I like to read my newspaper in the morning,’ I’m like, it’s over, it’s gone. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
They have to figure out a Kindle for newspapers. I read all my papers online now. If I’m on an airplane, then I like picking up a paper. But that whole fetishization of vinyl, celluloid, paper — get over it already!
XW: Now some are suggesting that film festivals could be in trouble, given promoting and distributing films could be done so easily on the net.
CV: Well, having your film at Sundance or the Toronto International Film Festival wasn’t just about sale and promotion. There was always a degree of prestige attached to showing your film there that then helped promote your film.
XW: You’re renowned as someone who protects the directors you work with and their distinct visions. But your role as a creative, hands-on producer seems to support the arguments that Pauline Kael made, that the auteur theory has been overblown. Do you think the role of the director has been too emphasized by cultural journalists?
CV: Yes, but with all due respect to Pauline Kael, I agree, but I think she’d also agree with me. People often ask what makes a movie independent, and that’s a very difficult thing to say specifically.
If you had a film financed by Fox Searchlight, instead of 20th Century Fox, how is that film independent? To me, a true independent film is the result of a singular vision, rather than a committee.
Obviously, all great filmmakers have amazing collaborations with their creative team. Alexander Payne has never made a movie except in the studio system, but I consider him an independent filmmaker because no one else could have made those movies. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t rely on his cinematographer or editor, it just means he’s telling a story in his own distinct way.
XW: You have been called the queen of New Queer Cinema. In some interviews you’ve expressed discomfort at the title.
CV: Well, what is “New Queer Cinema”? There is no New Queer Cinema, there’s only old queer cinema.
XW: You wouldn’t say that Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant are at the cutting edge of New Queer Cinema?
CV: God no! What makes them at the cutting edge of queer cinema?
XW: I find Todd’s work very queer. It’s just my reading of his films and the way he approaches things.
CV: I think that’s very old fashioned. Honestly, I think that the whole notion of queer cinema was back in the day, when the means of distribution was so much more limited and the only way that gay people could see themselves on screen was to take action themselves.
In the ’90s, when the AIDS epidemic was in full swing, there was a real sense of urgency — that if you didn’t get your message out, you’d die and never get it out.
The fact is, because of the internet in large part, there’s a gazillion places to access gay and lesbian images. One of the amazing things that came out of those movies in the early ’90s was a lot of gay and lesbian people went to see films that were incredibly experimental that they never would [see] today.
I’m suspicious of terms like queer cinema. I’ve been criticized by the so-called gay community every step of the way, for making movies that don’t adhere necessarily to what is of that exact moment considered the right, good queer ideology. I’m just not into it.