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Christine Vachon Receives Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award

Friday, March 2---Christine Vachon can now add “Cinequest Maverick” to honors ranging from the Frameline Award for Outstanding Achievement in Lesbian and Gay Media in 1994, Producer of the Year from the National Board of Review in 2003 and New York MoMA retrospective honoree in 2005. Her films have garnered Independent Spirit Awards and Oscars in numerous categories. Following a rollicking interview with Jens Hussey, Cinequest Director of Public Relations, Vachon accepted the festival’s highest honor, the Maverick Spirit Award. And no one deserves it more.

Before Vachon’s introduction, a montage of clips from her 40-plus independent features flashed across the screen of the Camera Cinemas: Todd Haynes’ POISON, SAFE, VELVET GOLDMINE and FAR FROM HEAVEN; Todd Solondz’s HAPPINESS; Tom Kalin’s SWOON; Rose Troche’s GO FISH and THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS; Larry Clark’s KIDS; Kimberly Peirce’s BOYS DON’T CRY; John Cameron Mitchell’s HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH; Mark Romanek’s ONE HOUR PHOTO; Robert Altman’s THE COMPANY; Mary Harron’s I SHOT ANDY WARHOL and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE; and Douglas McGrath’s INFAMOUS. The impressive list encapsulates the evolution of American indie cinema from its rise in the late 1980s through its various shape-shifting forms in the 21st century.

But the house lights did not go completely down, causing the New York native to quip, “They should have turned the lights out for that, right?” Although not on the job, Vachon was still thinking like the consummate producer.

“Movies are kind of organic beings. When they decide to arrive, they’re like kids. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Vachon said about the four Killer Films in production since last summer.

Many East Coast indie companies have succumbed to the industry trend of increased growth, diversification and corporate consolidation. New York City competitor Good Machine expanded into international sales and was acquired by Universal to form Focus Features. Open City Films re-branded as Deutsch Open City, launched a digital division, and more recently created HDNet Films. Shooting Gallery folded.

When asked about the unique style of Killer Films, she responded, “I think it’s the cheap style. We have a deal with THINKFilm to produce and distribute films domestically and internationally.”

Hussey rewound to Vachon’s childhood. She revealed that her father was a Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer during the depression. Although she described him as a BLAZING SADDLES-kind of guy in regards to his taste in films, she said he believed that “Images were not only important but also life changing.” She watched François Truffaut films and rep house fare with her French mother, who missed hearing the sound of her native language. Another formative experience was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS, which she wandered into as a 10 or 11-year old, thinking it was a horror movie.

“In a way, it was,” Vachon laughed.

Vachon commented that she “came up through the mechanics of making movies.” She made plenty of coffee while beginning a series of go-fer and jack-of-all-trade jobs that gave her practical experience in independent production. Vachon began working as an assistant editor on Bill Sherwood’s PARTING GLANCES and co-founded the nonprofit Apparatus film foundation, where she co-produced shorts for three years before overseeing break-out features by emerging talents from 1991-1995. At that time, domestic and foreign investment capital was plentiful, and ancillary markets provided new opportunities for product. Television, video, cable channels and the growing number of film festivals increased demand for all kinds of films, including challenging pictures with gay, lesbian and trangender subject matter. Vachon was hailed queen of the new queer cinema, giving voice to hot-button issues and marginalized members of society. Today the straight-shooting producer bemoans how expensive New York City is becoming and worries that the Big Apple is losing its creative edge.

Unassuming, funny and accessible, the fearless producer and author (Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter and the newly released A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond) provided the following answers to some of the questions posed by Hussey and the audience.

Q: What is a producer?
Vachon: A producer really provides the locomotion for the film—finding the idea, putting the talent together and keeping it all on track while raising the money. Often producer credits must be given away to get a film financed. If it aggravated me, I’d be aggravated all the time.

Q: Is it easier for you to get your films made today?
Vachon: Yes, it has gotten easier and no, it hasn’t. We have more access to talent. But the business is changing constantly. Revenues were all about theatrical and now they’re not.

Q: What attracts you to a script?
Vachon: Is it a story I feel is original, perhaps provocative—something I haven’t seen before? Is it something I can sell? Killer still works with a lot of first-time directors. They can be aggravating, stubborn and difficult, but usually they’re telling a story they’ve waited their whole lives to tell. We decided a long time ago that we were in the director business. Our projects are director driven.

Q: How has the business changed for you?
Vachon: There’s a lot of big changes. No matter how cheap the film is, it really matters who you put in it. Casting is really important. Television and the Internet are the way most of us access media. I think celluloid is going to go the way of vinyl. It won’t be the norm anymore. This is all part of the soup we have to navigate as independent producers today. You can’t watch THE DEPARTED on the phone. You’d go nuts. You can’t reduce Scorsese to a postage stamp. But people download sitcoms a lot. Nobody watches sitcoms for the cinematography.

Q: Which film is your favorite?
Vachon: Usually every movie that I’m working on at the moment is my favorite.

Q: If one film were to go out wide, which one would you choose?
Vachon: SAFE. It’s a masterpiece.

Q: What’s the best thing about producing?
Vachon: Just getting the movie made. It’s the only thing.

--Susan Tavernetti

Photo credit: Joyce George


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CINEQUEST is a vanguard organization that fuses creativity with technological innovation to empower, improve, and transform the lives of people and communities.

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