It's a short ride from the Hollywood epicentre of mind-rendingly big-budgeted movie blockbusters to the production offices of Christine Vachon's newest low-budget feature. From Hollywood's precariously tall palm trees, through the dirty salad bowl of Laurel Canyon (looking distinctly jaded since its Joni Mitchell glory days), down into north Hollywood - home of the major studios - you suddenly find yourself in an altogether different, dystopic landscape. Gradually the clichéd Californian sights and signs fall away, leaving only a web of overhead wires, railway tracks, unadorned buildings, and the distinct impression of low income, heavy industrial wasteland. It's a drive to the nearest decent coffee. There are no giant billboards boasting the latest studio release and little sign of Chemical Films, the appropriately named new company under which Vachon and director Todd Haynes are making Safe, the story of a woman who is 'environmentally ill'.
Vachon is herself suffering from a form of environmental sickness. Having located the Safe offices on North Tujunga, it's immediately clear to me that the 32 year-old New York based producer is not at ease in LA. Because Haynes' script is set in California she's been here for three months. She doesn't drive (premature burial in this town) and can't wait to get back home. Her illness is as incurable as the cultural disease that consigns movies such as Vachon's Swoon and Poison to the low/no budget arena and The Last Action Hero to $125 million losses. Her condition is a product of New York v. LA, low v. high budget and, perhaps most importantly, audacious v. mainstream movie-making.
Everything about Vachon is unusual in the context of Hollywood, not least the fact that she is a woman who has had some success in an industry which still claims only three women for its 'A' list of directors compared to 31 men. Even her answering machine message is strictly non-Hollywood: it sounds as if the people on the other end are actually having a good time.
The earthquake, still sending small after-shocks to the Hollywood 'community', was not allowed to interfere with the tight shooting schedule for Safe. 'Film is like this horrible thing that eats everything in its way. It's like "Earthquake"? What earthquake? I'm shooting a film!' That's the way film is.' Safe stars Julianne Moore, probably now most famous for standing knickerless, hair dryer in hand in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. As ever, getting 'name' performers signed for low budget movies is a problem. But Vachon takes a hard line.
Christine Vachon: She needs to stop playing someone's wife. In Safe it's the starring role - it's an actress' movie from beginning to end, and she's smart enough to know that. If you've got a good project, everyone's expendable. If one actor doesn't want to do it, there'll be another one who does. The only way to do these kind of films is to be very specific. Everyone works for scale, and that includes the crew. I don't cut separate deals with anybody. I don't want to work with someone where they're getting two cents more a day, because that'll get spread around and everybody will get upset and then that's the end. You destroy the trust the crew had in you. And it's the same with the actors. You just say 'this is the breaks. No one else is getting any better. I promise.' If they do it, it's because they really want that part. I never want to work any other way.
Chris Rodley: But isn't it the case that the agents now practically run Hollywood by controlling 'the talent' and blocking material? They simply don't pass on scripts and projects to their actors if they a) don't like it themselves, b) don't know you or c) rightly surmise that a low-budget film means a low agent fee?
You have to create a buzz about your project. Even agents aren't dummies - which was a bit of a surprise to me. Safe circulated around all the big agencies and just about every agent who represented any women between 28 and 48 - which is when women never get to work - all realised that this was an important part for somebody. There are two kinds of script that go round. There's the ones that never get made, and the ones that have a start date already. I've never worked on a film where you have that magic moment when all the funding comes together and you just go for it. It's usually that a piece comes together and you go to one point. Then another chunk happens and you move to the next. But with Safe I built up the momentum to the stage where we had to go forward no matter what. We had a shortfall on the money because the German funding fell through, but we were able to construct a bridge by not paying ourselves, and getting a loan from American Playhouse (co-funders with Channel Four Television). It's a precarious position to be in. Very few people had much faith in Safe at first, but that's changing now - because the performances are so strong and because Todd has such visual prowess. I don't understand how people can look at Todd's films - Poison (1991), Dottie Gets Spanked (1994) and Superstar - the Karen Carpenter Story (1987) and not see what he is able to construct visually - what a brilliant director of mise-en-scène he is. But they did! They just read the script of Safe and said 'Well, I'm not sure I get it'. I do believe a good script often means a good movie, but it doesn't always. To put all the emphasis on the script and ignore all the other elements is really stupid. It's not recognising film for the medium it is. That was a drag - going into Safe thinking no one really expects this to be interesting, and having to fight against that. We know what we have here, I hope it's going to show them all!
There are still very few women producers working in the film industry, no-budget, independent or mainstream. And even fewer directors. Do you feel you should in any way set an 'example'?
I'm not that credit conscious, but I won't hide behind the company. I want my name to be present always - I think it's important to keep my identity distinct as a producer so I can use my name for whatever it's worth. Also it's important to be as public as possible as a woman producer since there aren't that many - to have your name hanging there so that people know who's one of the locomotive forces behind a picture. That's really crucial.
I get invited on these panels where it's clear to me that at the last minute they realised they didn't have any women and had to call someone in. At first I resented it and then I thought 'what the hell'. At least I'm up there and someone in the audience will feel that they could be too. You have to take advantage of those public moments as much as possible. I will grab the spotlight whenever I can - not away from the filmmakers - though God knows there's not much publicity that comes the way of the producer. But the resonance has a lot of effect on other projects.
You've been criticised in the past for working predominantly with - or promoting - male directors. The critic B. Ruby Rich once told me that you said you could imagine your job being more difficult if your directors were women. Is that true?
When the films come out, a lot of attention is focused on the directors - as it should be. You have to construct your director as a star. Film is a collaborative art, but when you make pictures like Swoon (1992) or Poison, because of the way the marketing works, you have to have a star. Usually there are no 'name' actors in the film so you have to find something else, and it's usually the director. And it really helps if the director is a boy. It really helps if they're cute. And it really helps if they can put three words together without sounding like an idiot. I have to be complicit in that process. We've made the film very much hand in hand; a lot of blood flows back and forth. Then we get to the point of marketing the film and I have to step away. Now it's the maverick filmmaker boy. It's kind of dumb and none of us really believes it, but you have to do it because that's what gets people going. I've been attacked for doing this kind of thing, for being part of the problem and not the solution. I'm complicit in order to try and have some control over it. I don't have that much control, but I'll try and help it along sometimes - make my director more interesting, more of a maverick, more cute, more articulate. But I'm not instigating something that hasn't already started. It's already rolling.
In Britain with features such as Poison and Swoon, you became known as one the new producers of what was labelled 'New Queer Cinema'. How did you get to that position?
Todd Haynes and I started a company together in 1987 called Apparatus Productions with a third partner named Barry Elsworth. In the 80s there was a lot of public money around. You could apply for grants and actually get them. It felt like there was a future working in the arts - that you could run an arts organisation. There were maybe twice as many then as there are now, and we wanted our company to produce experimental short films, but films that drew on the traditional avant-garde and classical Hollywood cinema at the same time. It seemed as if there were only two models. Either it was just you and your Bolex camera and maybe a friend, and you threw out plot, narrative and character because you had to get down to the essence of cinema. Or you needed a crane and 700 extras. We wanted to do films that were challenging in nature but that needed production - needed a crew and a Director of Photography and a Production Designer. You can't imagine how radical that was at the time.
The films were considered too slick by the avant-garde cinemas or festivals, and the Hollywood-type places didn't know what to make of us - although they ended up being more open to the kind of films Apparatus was making. We did that for a few years and it was great because we had nothing to lose. It was a non-profitmaking organisation, we had to spend the money. It didn't matter if we didn't make it back - which of course we didn't. But we were able to experiment. Directors would apply to us with their scripts and we would choose the ones we thought most interesting and work with them on the films. We learnt a tremendous amount, and then it all went away. Our grants were cut down and we lost our private donor. But Todd and I had started talking about doing Poison together, so for Apparatus' last year, that's what I was producing.
Originally Todd had said he wanted it to be an hour-long film, which I understood. There is a real fear of doing a feature after a short film. It's like 'I'll make it 55 minutes and then no one can act like it's a feature.' I just said 'Get off it Todd! First of all, the script is a zillion pages, and secondly, you can do a feature.' So we had to ease into it. But once you get a taste for it - and have more than two people see your film - it's hard to go back. I've done short films since, but theatrical features are really where my heart is.
Hal Hartley defines 'independent' film-making as being like an independent business person - being able to make and distribute the product. Only then can you truly not depend on others. Have you any talent for all those other business concerns which are inevitably part of the movie-making process?
I was lucky in that I was able to see a clear path forward for Poison, and in that I agented the film myself at the Berlin Film Festival and made sales to territories, because I was able to understand the mechanics. I made one or two really bad mistakes, but you learn what a 'minimum guarantee' really is. You learn what the 'back end' really is. And both Todd and Tom Kalin (director of Swoon) are also well-versed in this process. It's really important that the directors understand what it means to sell a film to somebody.
When I was at the Sundance Film Festival this year, a company asked if they could make a pre-emptive offer on Safe and I said no, because I couldn't sell the film without Todd knowing who I was selling it to. And they said 'Oh, he cares?' And I said 'Yes, he cares. I can't sell this to some company he knows nothing about.' They think the director just makes the film and goes home. I wish!
Creative producers usually have a very clear idea about what they personally contribute to a movie's content, that the movies they are associated with somehow represent their own viewpoint or aesthetic constituting a coherent body of work, as a director's might. What is a Christine Vachon movie?
Every film I've physically produced has a certain visual audacity, is way beyond its means, and comes from being able to work with the director on a visual strategy, for the money we have, that isn't conservative. Like shooting a whole film in close-up because you don't have the money for bigger stuff. Safe has a lot of really wide shots - it's inspired by 2001 - and it's impossible on the budget. So we have to make cuts somewhere else.
All of the films go in visually intense directions, with me running behind or ahead so that they can have that trajectory. I think you have to let go of the whole thing about producers and what they really do, and whether you're being credited fairly. Sometimes you won't be, and sometimes people will realise that a film couldn't have happened without you, and sometimes you're just in the background. The first lecture I give to production assistants is that it's an incredibly thankless job. If you're in it for someone to thank you for working 14 or 15 hours a day, or making a decent pot of coffee, or being quick enough on the ball to stop a crisis happening, forget it!
Given the range of subject matter, formal strategy and purpose within the 'independent' sector in the 90s, if 'independent' means anything in general terms now, it must mean 'low-budget'. Do you see any advantage in working with limited finance?
When you make films for such little money, obviously it's stressful and you think about what you could do if you had more. But you get addicted to being able to do what you want, which is really what it means. I certainly wouldn't hang up on somebody who calls me from a studio saying 'I want to give you $5 million to do a film.' The problem is that it's not the money; it's the fact that usually that's when decisions about casting or editing or storyline are taken out of your hands. And the very things that make directors like Tom Kalin or Todd Haynes interesting in the first place disappear. Many, many independent filmmakers make their first independent film with the sole purpose of using it to get into the Hollywood system - that's what they want, and that's fine. To be honest there are very few who don't want that.
Are those the only two real alternatives in America? Low-budget or Hollywood?
Directors like Todd and Tom make their first films for very little money, put everything on the line, prove themselves to be interesting, visionary filmmakers. But then there's no real system in place for the second film. So when an independent filmmaker has gone past step A, at step B you basically have only two choices. You can either go into the system and make a $10 million movie, with stars and a completely different kind of apparatus from anything you've previously experienced, or you can try and piece together the money again through disparate means - limited partnerships, foreign pre-sales etc. It doesn't make sense that we haven't figured out a way to allow our filmmakers to grow: after the first film to then do a $1-2 million film so that they take logical steps forward. That's my main bone of contention. I think a lot of people fall through the cracks. Both Swoon and Poison were financed to varying degrees by public grants. Many of the grants we received no longer exist. I think it's getting to the point where you can make your first $200,000 movie if you happen to have a family that has $200,000 to give you. That's really the truth.
I'm lucky in that I don't have a big lifestyle to maintain. I don't have a family. I live pretty cheaply. If I want to change my life, if I do want the summer house, that's going to have an impact on the kinds of films I do. It's a pain to have to defer my salary on Safe, I hope to make it up on other things. On the other hand, I have to have a fairly sanguine attitude towards income because it's the nature of the work I do. You have a lot of money at one point, and then you don't have any.
How would you like to see your personal or professional situation develop at this point?
I think I have a good eye. Not for a mainstream hit, but for something that will be a hit in a cultural sense; films that aren't a hit immediately but have a resonance in a wider cultural sphere. If they can make money too, that's great. Every film I've done so far has. That matters tremendously to me. But I wish I was at the point where the fact that I liked a film and was behind it would mean other people were behind it too. That hasn't happened, and I don't know if it's going to happen. Either I'll have enough hits that I can start bankrolling films myself, or I will find some kind of backing - a large company that will put me in control of their smaller films.
In the Chemical Films office, a white warren of paper-strewn desks and frantic phone activity, Vachon proudly points to the enthusiastic Variety review of Go Fish (1994) - a romantic lesbian comedy directed by Rose Troche. Vachon and Tom Kalin co-executive produced the film in its completion stages, and it was promptly gobbled up by The Samuel Goldwyn Company at Sundance. 'All the distributors were screaming about how could I have sold it out from under them. Well, I'd shown it to all of them six months before, and tried to convince them to put money into it. They all declined. It's frustrating. I used that for Safe, and told them not to make the same mistake next time and to make me an offer quick!'
First published in Issue 17