New York-born Christine Vachon is the independent producer behind cult titles such as Todd Haynes’ “Poison,” Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” Larry Clark’s “Kids,” Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol” and many more. This year, the Locarno Film Festival (3-13 August) invited Vachon to talk through her impressive career and share what makes her “a true, uncompromising producer.” Vachon, an Independent Spirit Award and Gotham Award recipient, co-founded indie powerhouse Killer Films with partner Pamela Koffler in 1995. Over the last twenty years, they have produced over 100 movies, including some of the most celebrated American indie features. The masterclass, moderated by Marcello Paolillo, was held on 5 August.

First, Paolillo quoted one of her interviews, where she said that “you can’t be a producer, unless you understand that it’s all your fault.” Vachon answered that producing is still one of the few professions on a movie where credit isn’t really protected. She added, jokingly: “A friend of mine said – though I’m sure someone else said it – producing is being asked to throw an amazing party, organize it, not get invited and then be handed the bill at the end.”

Paolillo then mentioned paranoia as another ‘tool’ that producers may need to “build up protection and gain confidence.” “Instead of using that word, I’d say that you have to have a very strong antenna for the things that could go wrong. It’s definitely a ‘hope for the best, expect the worst’ mentality but I also happen to be absurdly optimistic,” added Vachon.

Christine Vachon

Next, the producer talked through her childhood and teen years, when she used to be “one of the ‘free range’ children going to theaters in Manhattan”  and managed to sneak in R-rated screenings with the help of some Columbia University students. There was no clear concept of independent films back then, and usually arthouse movies were just defined as “movies with subtitles.”

“My mother was French and she was taking me to see films in her language, so I was sitting through some movies that were boring to me. It’s a cliché, but the film that really clicked me was ‘The 400 Blows.’ I related to it, it was about somebody my age, even though it was in French and it was in black-and-white.”

Next, she touched upon the many roles on set she covered – including production assistant, assistant editor, location scout, script supervisor, 2nd unit coordinator and 2nd assistant director – and her first experiences in the mid-late 1980s, when she ended up working on many music video sets: “Filmmakers like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Julie Dash and Bette Gordon were making their first films. Up to that point, there were Hollywood films and experimental films. 

“Experimental films were aggressively anti-narrative. [These new filmmakers] were making very personal stories, with production teams, telling them in very ‘narrative’ ways, but in ways that were still radical. It was kind of an epiphany for me. It was also the time of the advent of MTV. When it was first started it was just a TV channel showing music videos. Someone had to make them.”

On the topic of inclusivity, Vachon explained how she started working with female DPs and how things are changing in terms of work-life balance: “To have a woman cinematographer those days was very tough. The crews were resistant, old-school. It felt really out of the box.It doesn’t mean there are no young people who are figuring out ways with their friends, with their cohort to get their stories told. Now I think a lot of crews got accustomed not to do these 14/15 hours a day, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s not humane, it is fraught by exhaustion and the work is gonna suffer…”

Christine Vachon with Todd Haynes Sundance 2020 “Dark Waters”

She later spoke about the making of Todd Haynes’ “Poison,” which is considered a major breakthrough for her career. “The movie got an extra amount of attention because it had been financed by some financiers but also by some government grants, which are almost non-existent in America now but, at the time, there was the National Endowment for the arts, funded by tax-payers.” Among the reactions, the headline of an article told the viewers that their money “went to finance a gay pornographic movie.” “It blew up! Suddenly “Poison” became the center of all discussion about what publicly funded art should be, and whether it should exist. So the movie started printing money.” 

On the question whether independent films are dead, Vachon said that the way independent producers can survive is “to embrace change, but also to find ways to get around it.” She recalled Robert Altman’s excitement about working with digital during the making of “The Company,” and back then he was almost 80. She added that “each movie has its own story” and whether it turns good or bad is not about the “culture of the studio,” but “the culture of the people.” Thus, working with streaming platforms is not so different from other types of commissions: “Every time one gets into business with someone else’s money, you understand there’s a contract and the contract isn’t just about: ‘We pay you “x”, you deliver “y.”’ It’s about: ‘Okay, this is what we think we’re making. What do you think we’re making?’ The big disagreements happen when you’re not making the same movie or the same show.”

Vachon added that she “doesn’t love” working on productions backed by multiple backers, but at least two movies out of the six she has produced this year were financed that way: “A one-stop shop is a lot easier for us in a million different ways. But that kind of financing still exist.”

The masterclass was rounded off by a Q&A session.

Christine Vachon at Locarno Film Festival

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