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|Would that every textbook were as fun to read as Shooting to Kill producer Christine Vachon's look at the art and commerce of independent movie-making. Not that Vachon set out to write some dry, technical A-to-Z guide: the book is much more personal not to mention hilarious. Still, if I were writing a review of the book, the pull-quote would be: Should be required reading at every film school! With chapters on everything from development and budgeting to casting and ego-handling, Vachon covers all the elements that go into film production. But fear not, all you non-hardcore film buffs, this is a deeply entertaining read, especially Vachon's "diary interludes," written during the making of I Shot Andy Warhol and Velvet Goldmine.
Over the years, working with filmmakers such as Mary Harron, Todd Haynes and Larry Clark, Vachon has re-cast the usually anonymous role of producer into one as creative and uncompromising as the director's. It's not so far-fetched to suggest that Vachon will one day be to independent film what Cubby Broccoli is to the James Bond series and Dino DeLaurentis is to the mega-disaster flick.
On a New York City touchdown between international summer film festivals, Vachon found time to talk about movies, money, and her love for true-crime stories which isn't surprising; her production company is called Killer Films.
MARY: Did you start out wanting to be a producer?
CHRISTINE: I don't think anybody does. I started out wanting to work in films, and I at first thought, of course, that I wanted to be a director because you think there isn't any other job. But when I actually started working on films I saw that in fact there were other jobs, and started to get a sense that I wanted to be the one putting it all together. That was more interesting to me.
MARY: I could really relate to much of your book, having produced so many magazine fashion-shoots. I'd read things and go, "Yeah, I know what that's like the model wants blah-blah-blah ..." And yet you seem so protective of diva behavior.
CHRISTINE: The thing about diva behavior is that even though it makes me crazy and we're going through a problem right now with an actor who shall remain nameless who was supposed to be here this weekend for his huge shoot, which is some very important publicity for us, who has decided he just can't get on that plane tomorrow ... That said, it's such a fragile thing, and getting a fantastic performance means so much. There's barely a film you can name where an actor hasn't brought something that makes a difference, whether it's good or bad. So creating a safe space is really important.
MARY: One thing you say is that actors who feel protected will give you everything they have.
CHRISTINE: I think that's true. But on the other hand, I've also worked on sets where the actor and the director really hated each other, and the performance has still been good. And some directors seem to feel the need to create somewhat of an adversarial relationship on set. That's just how they work. And some like to work in chaos. I don't like that. But I can't argue that it makes the movie better or worse, because I've just seen too many cases where, you know, great production, terrible movie; terrible production, great movie. I wish it were that simple.
MARY: I thought it was interesting to read that nine times out of ten a crisis with an actor is vanity-based.
CHRISTINE: It is.
MARY: Is it often hair?
CHRISTINE: Well, if it's a man, it's hair. If it's a woman, it's weight. Always weight. Actresses who hit a certain age, you know, they get really terrified. And with good reason. I laugh at it, but at the same time my laughter comes from this nervous glee that I don't have to deal with all that. Before I get to produce a movie, no one's saying, "Well, I don't know about that Christine Vachon you know, she tells people she's 36, but I hear she's actually 39; she had a substance abuse problem, I hear it's all taken care of now; and she's definitely put on a few, but I hear she can lose it very quickly."
MARY: One thing that really struck me in the book was a real sympathy to the casting and audition process. I once sat through an open call for seven hours in a hot basement. It was torture.
CHRISTINE: Oh, it's insane. And that's why I say thank god for videotape. Because I know a lot of agents hate the idea of their clients being taped, but I hope they understand that sometimes the director just has no clue. They're just sort of like, "Next."
MARY: Was Shooting to Kill your idea?
CHRISTINE: Actually, I was approached by a literary agent, Sydelle Kramer, who asked me how I felt about the idea of writing a book on production. I was certainly intrigued. Then I went off to London, and it was while I was doing Velvet Goldmine that I wrote a diary entry as a sample of what I was thinking about. Some of the things I'm proudest of are the diaries. I really labored on them.
MARY: Do you usually keep a diary?
CHRISTINE: I do on and off. I started keeping one a couple of years ago, in the midst of an intense time. I was finishing up Stonewall the director was dying. I was finishing up Safe, Todd Haynes's last feature film and that was going off to Sundance and to Cannes, as was Kids, which I'd also booked at those festivals. So it was this insane year, and I thought, "I should really start keeping a record of this." So that's when I started. Then, once I'd worked on them so hard for the book, I stopped. Which is too bad, because I just went to Cannes with Velvet Goldmine and Happiness once again another time that I may never repeat. But I'll start again.
MARY: Now in one of your diary entries you mention wanting to do something based on the book Savage Grace that would make a great movie, but I don't know how well people know the story.
CHRISTINE: Well, the book is about the Baekeland family. They invented plastic, but they sold out too early. So even though they made a lot of money, they should have made a lot more. By the '50s, the fortune was dwindling, and Brooks Baekeland married a girl who had socialite aspirations. They had a son, and he eventually ended up having an affair with his mother and then killing her. It's a really cool story. We have a script. Tom Kalin's been interested in it for a long time.
MARY: Do you have any casting ideas yet?
CHRISTINE: It's so funny when you read your casting ideas that you had for a movie a year or two ago. Everything changes. Suddenly she's hot or he's hot, and the has-been is suddenly the new thing. So I'd like to get a little closer before I start. But I always saw Julianne Moore as Barbara Baekeland. Wouldn't she be great?
MARY: Yes, she would. I don't know if you've been following the Santé and Kenneth Kimes story the mother/son team who've been conning and killing their way across the country. You see the picture of the guy, and he could be Sean Penn.
CHRISTINE: I know. That whole story is just so fabulously sick and awful. I read this article somewhere that said there are so many of these people who prey on widows and the elderly. The police don't really track them down because it's such a nebulous, gray area: You get somebody to like you and then willingly give you their money. I mean, what are you going to be arrested for?
MARY: So how do you feel about documentaries, being such a true-crime buff?
CHRISTINE: Well, I like watching them. I don't think being a documentary filmmaker is very different from being a feature filmmaker. I don't think one necessarily excludes the other it's just not something I'm very passionate about. I mean, I'm passionate about watching some of them. We just saw Paradise Lost again. That's such a great documentary. It was done by the guys who did Brother's Keeper. It's about these kids who are accused of murder. At the end, the kid who's clearly been falsely accused is delighted that at least he's getting out of this ridiculous shit-ass horrible existence that's so dull. And he's famous! Even though he didn't do it. It's like, "Wow, I get to go to jail!"
MARY: I was told to ask you about Jon-Benet, too. Are you a follower?
CHRISTINE: Oh, of course. Avid.
MARY: And what do you think?
CHRISTINE: Well, it's the mom, right? That's what everybody who knows anything thinks. You have to piece this together from supermarket tabloids and ...
MARY: ... Geraldo.
CHRISTINE: Yes, and bits of information. But apparently, Jon-Benet had a really bad bed-wetting problem, and her mom was the ex-beauty-queen, and it seems clear that her husband was thinking of leaving her, she'd just had cancer, she's getting older, losing her looks, her body's falling apart. Clearly a lot of her obsession was pumped into this little girl to begin with. And I think the mom freaked out. I think Jon-Benet wet the bed, and mom shook her too hard, and then got her husband to help cover it up.
MARY: Do you read a lot of true crime?
CHRISTINE: Yeah, I do.
MARY: The genre has really suffered.
CHRISTINE: Well, the problem is that the books come out too fast. There are only a few really great writers.
MARY: Did you ever read Serpentine, by Thomas Thompson?
CHRISTINE: Oh yeah. But you don't get books like that any more. You don't get that meaty delving into the history, the family, the whole thing, like in Savage Grace that I miss. The Jon-Benet books are not worth buying.
MARY: Well, maybe the writer is thinking, "If I do this book it will be a TV movie, and I'll get rich."
CHRISTINE: Maybe. But they're pretty piss-poor.
MARY: Killer Films has hit upon so many touchy subjects that are in the press. How do you negotiate between what's pure sensationalism and what's a good story?
CHRISTINE: I think it's just a gut feeling. Things don't appeal to me because they deal with grisly subject matter. They appeal to me because they're well told or because they feel like they're hitting some button that I haven't seen hit before.
MARY: What are some of the projects you're working on now?
CHRISTINE: We have Halston; Michael Alig is still in the works; Crime and Punishment in High School, which is exactly that; and Brandon Teena, which is called Take It Like a Man.
MARY: It would be such a shame if a movie like that only got an art house release.
CHRISTINE: That might be the case. You just never know. Sometimes you have a story that's difficult but incredibly interesting and you then combine it with actors that are very juicy and cool and you hope that together it will raise the want-to-see factor.
MARY: How many movies have you produced?
CHRISTINE: Fourteen or fifteen. I'd have to count them up.
MARY: Do you have favorites?
CHRISTINE: Every movie at the time I'm making it is the one I'm the most passionate about. There are some movies I look back on as favorite experiences like showing Go Fish to an all-lesbian audience was absolutely extraordinary. Doing our concert scenes on Velvet Goldmine. In some ways Safe is one of the films I'm proudest of, because it was so hard to make. And people didn't embrace it immediately by any means. Then a lot of critics who weren't very nice about it when it came out later turned around and embraced it as brilliant, which is great. But it would have helped if they'd done that when it was actually in the theaters for a minute.
MARY: Do you feel sometimes that it's better when you have a low budget and you're forced to be creative? Or does that become tiresome after a while?
CHRISTINE: Of course it does. But a budget is a reality no matter what budget your movie is. $30 million may not be enough if your film is more ambitious than that. Every producer and director comes up against walls that they've got to think of creative ways to circumvent. That's the same if you're making a film for $50,000 or $50 million.
MARY: What's the biggest budget you've had to work with?
CHRISTINE: Velvet Goldmine, which is under ten. But I've got other bigger ones coming along. The good part is, when you're making a movie that's under ten, there's a sense from the cast and the crew that they're there because they want to be.
MARY: Do you see yourself going toward bigger-budget movies?
CHRISTINE: It totally depends on the film. You know, my sense is always that the budget has to have some correlation to the film's potential audience. It has to. If I come across a script that one of my directors wants to make that is big-budget in nature and in appeal, then we'll make a big budget film. Maybe Todd Haynes will decide he wants to make Lethal Weapon V, but with a Haynesian twist. Then we'll make it.
MARY: You devote many many pages of the book to budgets and cost breakdowns.
CHRISTINE: I know. I hope it's not too dull.
MARY: I think it's good for people to see what goes into it before they say, "I'm going to do this."
CHRISTINE: I want it to feel like my knowledge is not coming from a point of condescension but I also wanted to make it clear that you can't just decide you're going to make a movie.
MARY: Well, what about kids today? So often it seems people are bringing a greater sense of entitlement to what they're doing.
CHRISTINE: Absolutely. There's a sense that the world owes you your first feature. Here's what I find astounding, I do these workshops and I stand there in front of a bunch of 20-somethings, or almost-20-somethings. They all want to be filmmakers, and they say all the things that kids that age say, basically: "I have something to say." But when you ask, "Who are you saying it for? Who is your audience? Who is this supposed to speak to?" they don't have an answer. There's this sense that anybody who has a story can bring it to celluloid, and the ideas of craft get lost.
MARY: Do you find that most of these people either want to be actors or directors?
CHRISTINE: They want to be directors.
MARY: So was part of the purpose of your book to show that there's a lot more to movie-making than just standing behind the camera?
CHRISTINE: I wanted to give an idea of what real creative production is. Even though I moan, "Oh, there are all these people running around saying, 'I want to make a movie,'" there are not that many great producers. There aren't that many people who have a real sense of how to find material, put it together with the right people, and locomote a project which in independent film often is 90 percent of what you're doing. I don't think it's as sexy as being a director, of course. Everyone wants to be a director. But I don't.
MARY: Low-budget filmmaking has obviously changed so dramatically since you started. Can you predict at all where it's heading?
CHRISTINE: My only big prediction is that independent film is going to be declared dead in the next year.
MARY: So it's cyclical?
CHRISTINE: Something will rise out of the ashes and we'll be able to get on with it.