Fighting for Freedom: Exploring Vachon's "Killer Life"

Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE October 3, 2006

With some 38 films under her belt in a film business that continues to change, leading independent film producer and Killer Films partner Christine Vachon is pondering the future. In "A Killer Life," her essential new memoir (written with Austin Bunn), Vachon bolsters the role of the producer as the driving force of independent film, particularly in a star-driven system that is increasingly tough on the sorts of movies she continues to make. "At this point, I want to reclaim the business for myself," Vachon writes (in an excerpt published by indieWIRE), "I want to say producers are the ones who find the material, make the challenges for actors, create career pinnacles and opportunities to do meaningful work." But she wonders, "Why are we always at the mercy of this star system? Why can’t the stars be at ours?"

[indieWIRE Video: a Q & A with Christine Vachon (at the Film Society of Lincoln Center – In a new indieWIRE video clip (available via YouTube), Vachon talks about making movies within a changing business and explains how she maintain enthusiam for moviemaking amidst shifts among audiences and in production, including the new Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan.]

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published byindieWIRE Sept. 26, 2006.]

Since the publication of John Pierson’s "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" in 1995, few film books have risen to immediate must-read status among industry insiders and aspiring filmmakers alike. Peter Biskind’s "Down and Dirty Pictures" two years ago stirred interest due to its sometimes salacious stories from within the independent and specialty film business, but some charged that it lacked a passion for the films themselves. Enter Vachon and her new hardcover title which has just hit bookstores. While her 1998 effort "Shooting To Kill" offered practical insights and a few war stories, Vachon’s new book (featuring a forward by Pierson) ties it all together with a mix of personal background, opinionated insights, detailed behind-the-scenes tales, diary entries, practical advice, first-person contributions from notable colleagues (like Bob Berney, David Linde, Todd Haynes, her business partner Pam Koffler, among others), and of course plenty of passion. The subtitle for this compelling new work: "How an Independent Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond."

"In the end there’s only one thing that really seems to matter to [Christine Vachon] and that’s a passion for movies that are worthwhile," writes John Pierson, on the opening page, "Movies that stick to your ribs or, in one famous case at the outset of her career, spit in your face. If you’ve got that passion, she’s your fellow traveler. But on most days it’s likely that her flame will burn the brightest of all."

Now a proud member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Vachon has come along way since "Shooting to Kill" (including an Oscar win for Hilary Swank for her role in 1999’s "Boys Don’t Cry"). Now one of the leading independent producers in the U.S., she continues to work on passion projects, but on a much higher scale. Now more than ever, as budgets grow and star attachments drive certain projects to financing, Killer Films serves a crucial role.

"Killer is the catalyst," Vachon explains in the book, for filmmakers like Haynes, Todd Solondz, Kim Peirce, Mark Romanek, among others she cites, because her company has the reputation of protecting a filmmaker’s vision. In fact Vachon holds up Romanek as the example when offering a new definition of the term "indepedent." She explains, "If a real creativity is allowed to get what it wants, that is independent film: the freedom of the vision behind it."

But preserving that freedom can lead to countless battles, at every stage of a film’s life, as Vachon explains in example after example from her own career. Among the most entertaining and particularly insightful episodes detailed in the book include edge-of-your-seat drama when the film’s bond company wrestles control of "Far From Heaven" from Vachon (after a down-to-the-wire drama to raise financing in the first place), and tales of "hell" while making Killer’s first studio-backed movie with an unnamed "problem director" (probably "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia" director Rob Schmidt). Also there are wild stories from the set of "Kids," the background on Kirsten Dunst and "The Shaggs," the ups-and-downs of Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan project amidst changes at a studio, Colin Farrell’s penis in "A Home At The End of The World" and then, the other Truman Capote movie.

Covered in detail, the "Infamous," "Far From Heaven," and "A Home At the End of the World" stories are particularly informative as case studies of what can go right and wrong within today’s studio-supported specialty film business where projects are more often than not referred to by insiders as product in a pipeline, rather than films.

So what exactly is a Killer Film today? Vachon was asked Monday night during a Q & A at Lincoln Center. "Something I want to see," she explained, but quickly adding, "and something I can sell."
"These days, it’s getting harder to remember that film is an art form," Vachon explains in "A Killer Life." "Movies get treated like a commodity business, some abstract uptick or spiral down on the Hollywood stock exchange… For me, film isn’t about the margins, boffo weekend numbers, or the back end. (Well, back end would be nice…) Film is about the process — a long, complicated, passionate process toward something larger than the sum of its parts."

(Reprinted with permission, copyright Eugene Hernandez, indieWIRE 2006.)