Christine Vachon

Friday, April 30, 2004

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 30, 2004, in Nashville, Tenn.

Gene Policinski: Welcome to Speaking Freely, a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Gene Policinski sitting in for Ken Paulson. Our guest today is independent film producer Christine Vachon, who is also the author of Shooting to Kill, how an independent producer blasts through the barriers to make movies that matter. She also is the recipient of the 2003 Freedom in Film Award given by the Nashville Film Festival and by the First Amendment Center. Thank you for being with us today.

Christine Vachon: My pleasure.

Policinski: This is an interesting time for films, for all forms of entertainment, particularly those that sort of push the edge of the envelope. Are we at a period where we’re going to be going back to a public— or at least the people who run the business in a big way— to safe topics and safe subjects and sort of safe ratings?

Vachon: I mean, it’s really — it, it — when I look at the independent film world over the past few years, I think that in some ways, it’s a little bit of that French proverb, the more things change, the more they— they stay the same. Because it seems like every year there’s a great deal of fear that the really edgy material is going to somehow get shut out. But somehow, you know, great stories that are well told somehow make it to their audience. And that said, you know, I always ask myself— for example, uh, the first movie I produced was “Poison” by Todd Haynes, which caused a great deal of controversy. Um, and I wonder if I could make it today, you know. I wonder—or, if I could make it, if I could actually get it out into the theaters.

Policinski: Uh, yeah, right. Two— two very different things, because you can get a film made, but if it can’t get shown, it doesn’t happen.

Vachon: Then, it’s just a celluloid trophy.

Policinski: Might as well— well have left it in the can.

Vachon: Exactly.

Policinski: When you— when you set out to make a film and I— your book, by the way, I thought was just a fascinating look—

Vachon: thank you.

Policinski: — into that and such reality perhaps for people who see more romance in the — in the subject of producing a film and making it happen. Uh, but a lot of it is just getting financing, getting the money to get things going. Again, that’s an area that might be more sensitive now to — to people.

Vachon: Well, I mean, the — the risk aversion is certainly higher than it’s ever been, and that’s—and I— and to translate that, what I mean is, to get my movies financed, especially the ones that, uh, take — take — and all my movies take real risks in some ways. I mean, either, and usually by subject matter, often with first-time directors who are very— have very passionate visions. Um, “Boy Don’t Cry,” for example, which was, you know, a first-time director who really was living and breathing the story. I mean, it was desperate to — to render this onto film. And—but she’d never done it before. So it was hard getting people to take a chance on her. But we did. Every year, I kind of feel like that gets a little harder. Does it stop me? Absolutely not. And we have a great, I mean, we’ve got a great track record. But the, um, “getting people to put their money behind something” that is not a so-called “sure bet” is getting harder and harder.

Policinski: Is it star power that — that now would drive things, or is it — is it, again, always going back to the content?

Vachon: You know, stars mean more than they ever have. And that is — that’s maybe the single biggest change I’ve seen over my career is that now it’s all about the actors, ’cause I guess in some ways, that’s the — your only little insurance policy. You know, this idea that, like, well, if you could get Johnny Depp or Christian Bale or whoever, then somehow, you’re not — it’s not going to be a total, you know, a total flop.

Policinski: It’ll have some appeal —

Vachon: Yeah.

Policinski: — in the mass market, if you will. What about the market for independent films? You know, I guess video has been a blessing and a curse. The houses that might have played films some years ago are greatly diminished, the number of houses —

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — but on the other hand, video exists, and now, uh, DVD —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — in the marketplace. Better end market for the kinds of films that you like to do or not?

Vachon: You know, the hardest thing — the hardest thing that has happened, I think, is that movies don’t get a chance to sit in the cinema anymore. I mean, it used to be for a movie to become a real, like, sleeper hit — um, for example, I always think of Todd Haynes’ second film, “Safe,” which was the movie — a movie that really needed to percolate. Like, you would go see it. You’d go to a cocktail party. You’d say, “I saw this really intense movie.”

Policinski: Talk about it a little.

Vachon: Talk about it. Then your friends would go see it. And in order for a movie to build a life like that, it needed to sit in the cinema for weeks. And movies used to be able to. Now it’s all become a real sweepstakes of that opening weekend. And even — even your “man on the street,” reads about it in the papers now. I mean, I never used to — when I wasn’t in the movie business, I didn’t care what was number one that week.

Policinski: Weekend gross.

Vachon: No, I mean, and I don’t understand why people do. But now it’s, you know, it’s — it’s there in the New York Post every morning, you know.

Policinski: And you see it on —

Vachon: Absolutely.

Policinski: — Monday morning television. They’ve got the numbers up on the screen and, uh —

Vachon: Yeah, like everyone’s into, “Oh, that didn’t make number one. Oh, the Tarantino film was only number two.” Or “The Passion,” “The Passion,” “The Passion.”

Policinski: “The Passion.” [Chuckles]

Vachon: But so that, I think, is — is somewhat tragic. UM, on the other hand, you know, video and DVD have allowed movies to have a life and a life into places — I mean, one of the first movies I ever worked on — I didn’t produce it, but I worked on a movie called “Parting Glances,” which was one of the first gay-themed films that wasn’t about coming out and be — it took place in a world where people just happ —

Policinski: They were. Yeah.

Vachon: — you know, they were gay. And I remember when I started producing films, a young man came up to me, um, who was, like, the camera assistant or something and told me, you know, that he had somehow gotten a hold of a videotape of that in his little town, and it had changed his life, you know.

Policinski: Hmm.

Vachon: And the movie never would have shown in his local Cineplex.

Policinski: Right. It wasn’t going to be —

Vachon: So how can you knock that?

Policinski: It — it strikes me that sometimes when, um, there’s great opposition, sometimes that also energizes the — the sort of counterbalancing —

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — force when you’re out there. Maybe it’s a smaller group of supporters or funders or people willing to screen it. Do you find that?

Vachon: Well, I mean, I think that there is always — there’s — there’s a very strong art house audience in America. And I think when I was growing up, they went to see foreign films. You know, that’s what an art house movie really was. It was a movie with, you know, writing on the bottom.

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: And that has kind of been, over the years, um, somewhat hijacked —

Policinski: Hmm.

Vachon: — by the American independent film scene almost in a way like there’s not room for both, which is sort of horrible. But, uh, I think that that art house — you know, every — it’s all about the cinemas. And every city has, you know, a gem of a cinema. I’m sure there’s one here that, you know, I just don’t know the name of. And, uh, that cinema just, you know, has people who go to see— they trust the taste of that cinema. And they go to see what it plays.

Policinski: And that’s one thing about movies that make them very unique among, uh, sort of, methods of communication is that — that group experience —

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — whether it’s your trust in the film — the people who present the film in that particular theater or the audience around you. I read that when you — your first film, I think at seven was “Patton” or the film that really first had a —

Vachon: Oh, yes, my parents took me to see that.

Policinski: That was a very pivotal moment in your interest in film. Not particularly an independent, small-budget, non-studio production. What was it about that movie — which, uh, counted among its great viewers Richard Nixon, as I understand — that really sparked your interest in film or — ?

Vachon: I mean, it wasn’t the only movie that did —

Policinski: Oh, sure.

Vachon: — but it just, you know, it had a very intense point of view. And that, in some ways— you know, I can make an argument that that’s what makes a movie strong.

Policinski: In your book, you do a great job of demystifying and to making, to some degree, unglamorous, which it appears to be, the process of making a film, but there is still a certain magic to the whole process —

Vachon: Oh, yeah.

Policinski: — that kind of comes through, obviously, in your book, no matter whether it’s the black bananas on the craft services, the food table or what is it. What’s the hardest thing right now to do about making a film in America? Is it — is it what’s going to happen at the end?

Vachon: The hardest thing about making a movie in America is making a movie in America and not going to Canada. That’s the hardest thing.

Policinski: Costs?

Vachon: Costs, just costs. And convincing financiers, studios, et cetera, to let you stay here is really hard. Um, and I really don’t like to, I mean, you know, I — I — fine, if a movie demands to be shot in Canada, I’m happy to do it.

Policinski: Oh. Sure.

Vachon: But I don’t like having to pretend Toronto is New York. You know, I think I’m doing a terrible disservice to my hometown. But sometimes I have to do it. You know, um, so that’s been really rough.

Policinski: Your film progression has moved from very small films with people who are not known to booking and — and maintaining a thread of controversial subjects through here but also, but then moving into the larger productions —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — obviously into productions starring well-known and some of the top-rated actresses — actors and actresses in the business. How have you adjusted to that?

Vachon: Well, you know, it’s been — it feels like it’s been sort of gradual and I, um, you know, in some ways, you know, film sets are kind of all the same, whether they’re teeny-weeny sets that, you know, with very little money and, um, you know, terrible equipment or what have you or whether they’re massive. I mean, we just shot a movie in Los Angeles, um, with Annette Bening and Sir Ben Kingsley, “Mrs. Harris” —

Policinski: Yes.

Vachon: — about the Scarsdale diet doctor murder. And it was a pretty big movie, and, you know, it’s when you’re on a set like that you realize you’re just never going to know the name of every single person working there. You know, ’cause there’s, like, there’s over 100 of them.

Policinski: Yeah, unlike 10 or 15 people. It’s just not going to happen.

Vachon: Yeah. It’s just I’m never going to know every single person. And that’s — you know, that’s sometimes, a little, you know, it’s a little sobering. But, um, but, you know, it hasn’t — I guess ultimately it all comes down to, you know, the actors, you know, a director trying to compose a shot, you know, with his or her cameraman or cinematographer and, um, it becomes a very sort of small circle, you know, no matter where you are.

Policinski: Ratings.

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: Um, your films touch on subjects that make a lot of Americans uncomfortable. Uh, there’s a ratings board out there, I guess, that’s not really charged with making Americans feel comfortable, but…

Vachon: Oh, it’s a really touchy — I mean, I’ve done two MPAA appeals, uh, basically resolved one and lost the other. Um, the films were “Happiness” —

Policinski: Which had —

Vachon: It went out unrated.

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: And, um, and the other one was, uh, “Boys Don’t Cry.” Now, the problem with the ratings is — and I can pontificate on this for a long time so I’ll try not to —

Policinski: [Chuckles] Okay.

Vachon: I don’t have a disagreement that films should be rated. You know, I think that — that’s fine. I mean, I think there are films that should be for adults.

Policinski: Mm-hmm.

Vachon: And there’s certainly films that a parent should decide whether or not their child should see. I’m not talking about —

Policinski: So you’re not, “Throw it out; open it up to everybody.”

Vachon: No. The problem is that this NC-17 rating is an X. And the problem is, is that no matter how much we try and say, you know, in the industry, “Yes, an NC-17 simply means it’s adult subject matter and is not, you know, is not fit for children,” what that translates into is enormous loss of revenue.

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: Blockbuster will not stock NC-17 films.

Policinski: Right. Some chains won’t show them.

Vachon: Won’t show them. There’s a lot of newspapers that won’t even put in ad — print ads for NC-17 films. So it becomes punitive.

Policinski: Uh, the same thing happened with CDs.

Vachon: Exactly.

Policinski: There are parental warnings now. And Wal-Mart and some other chains have said, “If it’s got that warning label, we’re just not going to sell it,” which is their right, First Amendment right to do that, but other people would say that has a real chilling effect obviously on the ultimate revenue, and therefore, it down the line, it cuts —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — out those kinds of products.

Vachon: So, you know, you can’t really blame the MPAA—um, although it’s easy to, ’cause they’re, you know, they’re the face of this —

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: — for imposing a ratings system. I blame what happens around it because it means that I am by virtue of that constricted in what I’m able to put out there.

Policinski: What didn’t you win, or why did — why did “Happiness” have to go out without a rating?

Vachon: Um, “Happiness” had the dreaded — I mean, ’cause usually when you’re working with the MPAA, they, you know, it’ll be — it’s a little give and takey. They can’t tell you what to cut, because they’re not a censorship board.

Policinski: But they will talk about phrases and words and elements.

Vachon: Yeah. You get an indication, like, you know, you’re almost there, et cetera.

Policinski: Okay.

Vachon: But the worst thing you can be told is, it’s a cumulative thing. And then you’re just screwed, ’cause, like, what —

Policinski: What do you take out? The whole film.

Vachon: What do you take out? So —

Policinski: Yeah, yeah. And that’s what they were telling you on that.

Vachon: “Happiness” was cumulative, yes.

Policinski: Okay. All right. And then on “Boys Don’t Cry,” it was —

Vachon: “Boys Don’t Cry” — honestly, it was the — they — they — and this got into a very sort of — uh, we had a very interesting discussion with them, because their concern was that the rape scene was too long and too brutal, um, and that it maybe verged on prurience. They also really, I think, understood that to not let this film be seen by teenagers would be a terrible mistake.

Policinski: Hmm.

Vachon: So they were — it was kind of a interesting situation. I mean, I have to say, I’m amazed all the time, ’cause, you know, I have a kid. And I — I don’t mind — I would never — I take her to see PG movies all the time that are filled — that have so much more violence in them than I was prepared for.

Policinski: Well, in reading about your career, people have focused on — on, often on the gender issues, on, um, homosexual themes —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — or on the sex part of things —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — just to short-term that. But also, you have a fascination with — occasionally with a violent theme.

Vachon: Absolutely.

Policinski: You show life pretty unvarnished. And — and I wondered, you know, in your own mind, reconciling those things, because we often find that the ratings don’t touch some very violent themes. “The Passion,” uh, you know, an awful lot of violence in that, obviously, in that film. But the ratings were designed really to deal with that at least in the current structure.

Vachon: It kind of feels like — it feels like you really — I mean, I for example, I don’t mind if my daughter watches a John Waters movie. Of course I did just produce a John Waters movie —

Policinski: [Laughs] But that aside.

Vachon: That aside, because they are, you know, smutty in the most cheerful sense of the word. They’re fun — they’re exactly the kind of humor that, you know, children think is hysterically funny. And, um, nobody ever gets hurt.

Policinski: Yeah, yeah.

Vachon: You know?

Policinski: But people get hurt in films, and some of your films.

Vachon: Yes.

Policinski: And you know, you sent a — did a sort of pseudo-documentary on — on New York teenagers —

Vachon: Oh, yeah.

Policinski: — and it was unvarnished life there. And I mean, there was violence in that.

Vachon: Yeah, except, the thing I’ll say about “Kids” is, the great trick of that film is, it’s not a documentary in any way whatsoever.

Policinski: Right. Right. And…

Vachon: It was completely scripted down to the last — everything was completely, um, uh, you know, um, rehearsed.

Policinski: And as a filmmaker, that — that kind of design for you was where you could draw the line. You could come up to here and go back. Is that … ?

Vachon: Well, the thing was on “Kids” is that, and, that, you know, I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, and I wonder how it would play now, you know. Um, I think part of what upset people so much about it was they felt like they were having a — a peek into a world.

Policinski: Yeah, yeah.

Vachon: And they were. I mean, you know, uh, the young man who wrote the script was very much a part of this world.

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: But these were actors playing parts.

Policinski: When we look at film in America, increasingly, it seems to be going back to spectacle in many ways. And —

Vachon: But don’t you think that’s the only way that they — to get people into the theater?

Policinski: I wonder.

Vachon: And I think that at least part of it, it’s like you read all the time in that trades about the tent pole films. That’s what they call them, you know, ’cause I guess they’re supposed to hold —

Policinski: Propping up the tent.

Vachon: — up the studio. And how do you get, I mean, with this bombardment of, you know, 700 television channels —

Policinski: Yeah.

Vachon: — video stores that, you know, carry things like three weeks after they’re … you know, and then piracy, which is a whole other thing. You know, how do you get people into the theater? And it’s true. You know, when I got my screener of “Lord of the Rings,” you know, that doesn’t play so well on the [laughs] —

Policinski: No, the little box doesn’t do good for that film.

Vachon: So I think it’s the only way to get people in there.

Policinski: And yet your films, at least many of your films, most of your films if not all, kind of deal with those quiet, almost — I wouldn’t call them conversation issues —

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — but they are issues where you need the dialogue.

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: You need the interaction. You have to understand those characters. Uh, and that’s not what, often, a spectacle film really —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — lends itself to. And so it would seem as if, in a way, the ability to tell a story is really disappearing …

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — from a lot of film.

Vachon: Yeah, I mean, that’s true, but then I think, like, I mean, like last year, there were some great movies out. I mean, you know, there was “Far from Heaven,” of course, which was mine. Um —

Policinski: Yeah. Four Academy nominations.

Vachon: Yes, but it didn’t win anything.

Policinski: It’s just an honor to be nominated.

Vachon: Oh, yeah, right.

Policinski: We’ll move on.

Vachon: But, you know, like, I think about, like for example, you know, David O. Russell’s career, like, he’s made some really interesting movies, you know. Like, I thought “Three Kings” was really terrific. And, um, the guy Alexander Payne, who made “Election” and is — you know, and “About Schmidt” — and is at work on his other movie now. I mean, there’s — and Paul Thomas Anderson, you know, whose— I don’t always love his movies, but you know when you go see them that you’re in the hands of a real auteur. That’s somebody who is really guiding you. You know, and these guys are working the studio system. They’re not, you know, out there pounding the pavement trying to make their little indie movies. They’re there with, you know, Warner Brothers and et cetera.

Policinski: With all the hurdles of getting funding and keeping it going and dealing with first-time folks —

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: — and trying to attract stars of a name who can make —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — $15-$20 million, or $10 million or $5 million a movie —

Vachon: Not on my movies.

Policinski: [Laughs] But you have to go to them with that. And you have to convince them to kind of move against the tide, it would seem.

Vachon: Well, except that actors — actors, I mean, the great ones want to do great work, you know, and they, you know, at a certain point — and some actors, you know, do like, you know, “One — one for money, one for me.”

Policinski: Okay.

Vachon: “One for money, one for me.” Mostly, you know, when you — when you approach — when we approached Annette Bening to play Jean Harris, even though it was a first-time director, it was an extraordinary script. And I just knew — I mean, I didn’t know her then. But I just knew she would see — she’s such a wonderful actress, she would see the, like, the intensity of being able to tackle a role like this. I mean, I guess that’s what they’re in it for, right?

Policinski: Well, you would hope so, you know. You know, but again, you see an awful lot of people, who, for various reasons, they don’t want their name associated with a —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — controversial subject because they’ll get typecast.

Vachon: Mm-hmm.

Policinski: You know, I think you — I’ve read some things where you talked about, you know, people trying to put you in a particular box.

Vachon: Yeah.

Policinski: This is the only thing you do or the only thing you’re good —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — at doing, if you will. And you had to war against that and, to some degree —

Vachon: Well, I like to keep my tastes eclectic.

Policinski: Yeah, yeah. And I wonder about artists who are afraid of attaching their name, particularly now, where they can be attacked. Early on, of course, you had to deal with, uh, the sort of good and bad of being the subject of Reverend Wildmon’s criticism.

Vachon: Oh, ultimately all good.

Policinski: And was it all good?

Vachon: Well, it was good because it focused, I mean, it focused attention on “Poison” —

Policinski: Exactly.

Vachon: — in a way that never, ever— I mean, that movie, its gross went [gestures upward with hand].

Policinski: It screened in a lot of places where it wouldn’t have.

Vachon: Yeah, people — I mean, the funniest thing was people coming out of the theater saying, like, “It wasn’t that disgusting,” like, you know, disappointed—

Policinski: Oh [laughs].

Vachon: — that they weren’t more grossed out. But a really interesting topic of debate right now, I think, uh, that I’ve read a little bit about that the trades have been writing about, um— Variety just had a big article about it —  is actors’ willingness now to play gay roles. Um, and the article that I was — I think I was quoted in it, and I read it — when I read it, I thought it was actually quite smart, because what it said was, “Yeah, there are a lot of actors who are willing to go there, but they tend to be, you know, the young hunky actors, you know, for whom there is no doubt.”

Policinski: Oh, yes. Okay.

Vachon: They don’t have anything at stake.

Policinski: Right.

Vachon: You know. They’re, like, on the cover of Us with, you know, Britney Spears, you know, with their tongues down her throat or whatever. So they don’t need — it’s like they don’t have anything to prove.

Policinski: So they feel secure; “I can go over here and do that.”

Vachon: The real test, I think is when a closeted gay actor will play a gay character. And, you know, those are —  people know who those people are. And I mean — I — the general public may or may not know.

Policinski: Yeah, may or may not but —

Vachon: But in the industry, it’s known.

Policinski: Sure.

Vachon: And those are the ones who it’s just like, you know, that cuts too close to home.

Policinski: Ah. Do — how do you feel about casting a straight actor in a gay role?

Vachon: You know, I really don’t have any problem with it if they’re the right person for the role. I mean, it’s really — I think I’ve been criticized for it. Um, you know, but I’ve been criticized for everything.

Policinski: Now, there are some purists who would say —

Vachon: Well, we got —

Policinski: and there’s not been enough opportunity —

Vachon: Right.

Policinski: — for gay actors to be out there.

Vachon: Yes, but you know, we got slapped on the wrist for not casting a real transgendered person as Brandon Teena, and I’m telling you, I — you, you know, we saw so many people for that role. And I saw transgendered ones and non-transgendered ones and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, you know, you’ve got to pick the one that’s going to sell the role.

Policinski: Yeah, yeah. And — and when you look for an actor in an independent film — again, you’ve — you’ve worked a lot, particularly early in the — in your career, with actors in their first jobs, directors in their first jobs, cameramen in their first jobs. Uh, do you look for something different now that your own career has matured?

Vachon: No, I really don’t think I do. I mean, the only thing that’s different is, I’m different. I’m not 25 anymore, you know. I’m in my 40s, and I’m sure that has an effect, even though I — I may not want to admit it, on my taste. It just has to, you know. That said, I mean, I would say I approach every single thing exactly the same way, which is, is this a script that excites me? Or a story — sometimes it’s just a book or a pitch. Is it provocative in a way that I find exciting? You know, does it just make that zing happen? And the next thing is, is the director somebody I feel a sense of collaboration with? Can I work with him or her? Can we go down this incredibly difficult journey together? Um, and then the third thing is, can I sell it? Can I, you know, can I get someone to get behind this? You know? Like — like on something like “Boys Don’t Cry,” the sort of the positives, you know, so to sp — It’s like you have column A and column B. You know, um, the negatives were a first-time director, who, you know, had like never done — had never really done anything —

Policinski: Right.

Vachon: — and subject matter that was very intense and difficult. However, it was also subject matter that people were fascinated by. I mean, we weren’t the first people who wanted to make a movie about this. We were competing with a, um, a Fox, 20th Century Fox picture that Drew Barrymore was supposed to star in. And, um, you know, there had been a big Playboy article about the Brandon Teena case—

Policinski: So — yeah, yeah.

Vachon: Because, you know, people are fascinated.

Policinski: Sure.

Vachon: It was always like, you know, so who knew what when? Like, did Lana really make that —

Policinski: “Did they really know?” Yeah, yeah.

Vachon: And then, um, the performance. You know, we just knew that we had to find somebody who would deliver that kind of a wallop.

Policinski: And Hilary Swank did.

Vachon: Absolutely.

Policinski: Wow. Well, thank you very much for being with us.

Vachon: My pleasure.

Policinski: Please join us next week for another conversation on Speaking Freely. I’m Gene Policinski.