'Carol' Producer Talks LGBT Film (If There's Even Such a Thing)

Christine Vachon, the spiritual mother of American independent cinema, discusses becoming a lesbian artist during the '80s AIDS epidemic and the challenge of bringing queer narratives to the screen.

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American film producer Christine Vachon poses for a portrait at Metrograph theater in Manhattan, December 16, 2016.
American film producer Christine Vachon poses for a portrait at Metrograph theater in Manhattan, December 16, 2016.Credit: Natan Dvir
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

NEW YORK – Last November, students at Reed College in Oregon were invited to a public screening of Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” in the presence of the director, an event intended to mark the revolution of LGBT representation in popular culture. “Boys Don’t Cry” is an independent movie made for a relatively small budget of some $2 million. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, it became a success story and earned its star, Hilary Swank, an Oscar for her portrayal of a real-life transgender person named Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in December 1993 by two local men.

The film had been shown countless times in educational and other institutions, and Peirce herself had participated in dozens of screenings. But nothing prepared her for the tempestuous event at Reed College. That day, a group of students put up protest posters outside the hall, and when the event was over, burst inside carrying signs and calling Peirce a “white bitch.” Stunned, she broke off her remarks and left the hall.

Perhaps most startling about this incident, which was extensively discussed in LGBT blogs and forums in the United States, was the identity of the demonstrators. They were not transphobes protesting the screening of a movie about the life and death of a young transgender person. On the contrary: They were LGBT activists who claimed that “Boys Don’t Cry” is too mainstream and that it takes pleasure in crass violence against LGBT people. Peirce was accused of making money at Brandon Teena’s expense. “Trans lives do not equal $$,” one sign read.

Although she did not attend the screening at Reed, the reports published online anger Christine Vachon, a veteran producer – and one of the busiest – of American independent cinema, who also co-produced “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Brandon Teena.Credit: AP

“This incident points to the perils of essentialism and identity politics,” Vachon told me when we met recently at the Metrograph movie theater in Manhattan, which held a retrospective for her first production company, Apparatus Films. “What I would like to say to those young activists who protested against ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ is that this film was made almost 20 years ago, and they have no idea what we were up against. The fights that we fought to get this film to the cinema, and all the way to the Oscars, were endless. Every trans person I have met, and who spoke with me about this film, told me either, ‘That was the film that gave me the courage to be who I am,’ or ‘That was the movie that gave voice to my struggle.’”

No one ever complained that it was Hilary Swank – who at the time wasn’t yet a Hollywood star – who played the part (rather than a trans actor), Vachon notes, adding, “Nobody slammed ‘Carol’ for the fact that [Mara] Rooney and Cate [Blanchett] are not gay. Is that going to happen to me the next time I walk into a small liberal arts college?”

It’s clear why the Reed College episode touched a raw nerve in Vachon. The 54-year-old founder of the breakthrough production company Killer Films and the producer of more than 100 movies, she is considered by acclaimed director Todd Haynes and many of other collaborators to be the spiritual mother of American independent cinema. Among the many films she produced in the golden age of this indie scene, in the 1990s, are Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” Larry Clark’s “Kids,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” directed by John Cameron Mitchell, and Rose Troche’s “Go Fish.”

In addition, Vachon has produced all the movies made by acclaimed director Todd Haynes, a close friend and creative soulmate since they met as students at Brown University. Haynes’ work includes “Far From Heaven,” from 2002, about both interracial and gay relationships in a repressed 1950s’ American suburb; “I’m Not There,” an impressionistic cinematic biography of Bob Dylan, who is depicted by six different actors – one of them Cate Blanchett – at different stages in his life; and “Carol,” from 2015, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt.”

A lesbian who never hid her sexual identity, Vachon was always an outsider in Hollywood. Her 2006 book, “A Killer Life,” subtitled, “How an independent film producer survives deals and disasters in Hollywood and beyond,” is packed with anecdotes, some of them hair-raising, about her volatile meetings with studio heads and potential investors in the era before the internet, crowdfunding and smartphones equipped with digital cameras.

Writing about the production process of Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine," a 1998 drama set in Britain during the glam rock days of the early 1970s, Vachon recounts some of her challenges as an indie producer: "When the $9-million budget had to take a million-dollar haircut right before production started, I didn't know what to do. It was like trying to fit a rock star into children's clothing. Department budgets were going to get slaughtered. People were going to have to take pay cuts. I thought: How am I going to tell everybody? Just then, my co-producer Scott Meek came up to me. In his thick Scottish brogue he said, 'Christine, just tell them: Do you want to be in our gang? If you do, then great. We're making the movie with you. If you don't, then goodbye.'"

Everyone, it turns out, wanted – and wants – to be part of the exclusive group of Vachon and Killer Films. But despite the critical and box-office success of films like “Carol,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Danish Girl,” the latter two of which Vachon was not involved in, she says it’s no easier to make queer or LGTB movies today than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Last year, we had four movies going to Sundance, and none of them was made by a white man,” she notes. “These were not necessarily LGBT narratives, but I think that many filmmakers right now are so much more aware of what they are doing and the world they operate in, and that’s why my back always goes up a little bit whenever someone tries to explain what an LGBT movie actually is. I find this category to be confusing: Does it refer to the sexuality of the creator, the sexuality of the people being portrayed, or the sexual orientation of the target audience? Cinema is not math. You can find a film with three gay characters, but they all reflect homophobic stereotypes. Numbers and statistics cannot be the main, or only, criterion.”

‘Outcasts or freaks’

What kind of films did you watch growing up?

“I grew up in the 1970s in New York City. There were several movie theaters right next to my house, one of which was the Olympia [on the Upper West Side]. It was a ‘dollar-per-movie’ theater, which they’d chopped into four screening halls, so you could always hear the other three movies while trying to focus on the one you paid to watch. It was the kind of place where your feet always stuck to the floor. I also loved the movie theaters around Times Square. People who didn’t live in New York back then tend to think that these places were creepy or shady, but we used to go there all the time.

“When I was about 11, my best friend and I were looking for a horror film to see, and the marquee of one of the Times Square theaters said ‘Cries and Whispers’ [Ingmar Bergman’s dark, 1972 psychological drama]. We thought from the title that it was a horror film – which it was, but not in the way we thought it might be. The other big influence was television. If what looked like an interesting movie was being shown at 2 or 3 in the morning, I would stay up to watch it.”

Do you remember the first LGBT narrative you encountered onscreen?

“The first gay narrative I ever watched onscreen was probably ‘Cabaret.’ I was a 10-year-old on a transatlantic flight with my parents. This was when movies were still projected on one central screen and people smoked on board. So the film was projected and passengers were watching and smoking, and that was how I watched my first queer narrative.”

You recently described the two leads in “Carol” as two women who were never given the language to express their desire. Did you feel that cinema provided you with the language to talk about your own experience and desires?

“I never thought about cinema in those terms; I’m very pragmatic. There were films that really struck me and stayed with me, such as ‘The 400 Blows.’ When I saw [Francois] Truffaut’s coming-of-age story I had the distinct feeling that I’d just seen something I’d never seen before. But it’s not like I constantly looked for myself on screen. When I was growing up, things were not as straightforward and direct. There were characters who were outcasts, or freaks, but they were not called ‘gays’ or ‘lesbians.’ I was able to find affirmation in surprising places, like children’s books. Reading ‘Harriet the Spy’ was a very defining moment for me as a young lesbian. Many years later I found out that, not surprisingly, [the author] Louise Fitzhugh was gay, and of course her books were totally grounded in her experience. But as a 10-year-old, I felt there was something about this kid I could identify with, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

In 1987, finding it difficult to position themselves between Hollywood’s conservatism and the experimental avant-garde, which lacked characters or narrative, Vachon, Haynes and another young director named Barry Ellsworth established a not-for-profit production company. All three had recently completed their studies at Brown and returned to New York. The company, Apparatus Films, made more than 10 short movies that disappeared from sight but were recently resurrected through a Kickstarter crowdfunding project in which more than $40,000 was raised for the works’ digital restoration. The revived films, which were screened in December at the Metrograph Theater in Chinatown, offered a rare opportunity to see three films written and directed by Vachon in her twenties.

I asked Vachon what drove her to create a production company at the age of 25. “I think we were responding and reacting to New York in the early 1980s, when there was a tremendous sense of artistic fluidity: People mixed film, fashion, music and the plastic arts. Our manifesto at the time was to make movies that matter, movies that were interesting and challenging to us, and I’m proud of us for doing that. We wanted to make short films that were not necessarily commercial and gave a place to narratives that feel very personal but were not as experimental as anti-narrative avant-garde works. I love narrative. Filmmakers are often extremely gifted storytellers.”

It seems like you were very anti-Hollywood, anti-narrative, anti-male gaze – you once called your films “fucked-up movies.”

A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue during the 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York, June 27, 1983.Credit: Mario Suriani, AP

“That’s right, and that’s exactly why I don’t make films anymore,” she replies, laughing. “I apologize for making those shorts. One of them was made when I was a senior in college, and another within two or three years of graduation. I get asked all the time by young filmmakers, ‘What advice would you give to someone just starting out?’ – and I always answer, ‘But I’m not the one starting out today – you are.’ I started three decades ago, and this industry has substantially changed. Today people can produce their own low-budget films and upload them online.”

Apparatus Films and afterward Killer Films were both founded on the backdrop of the appalling reality of 1980s New York. As Vachon writes in “A Killer Life”: “During the mid- to late-1980s, I went to a memorial service almost every week. If you didn’t live through it, you really can’t imagine it. Sixteen thousand people died of AIDS in New York City between 1986 and 1989. People don’t talk about the AIDS epidemic in the United States anymore; it’s like it never happened, or it’s happening elsewhere. But for about three years, people would get diagnosed and be dead six years later.”

In 1984, she recalls, Bill Sherwood directed his debut feature, “Parting Glances” (a drama about gays starring Steve Buscemi) and gave Vachon her first break working in a production, when she was just 23 and still in college. “I learned one lesson working with him and it was the most important,” she recalls. “You don’t need a giant infrastructure or budget to make your film.” In her book, she writes, “A couple of years after ‘Parting Glances,’ I got a call from a friend saying I better go visit Bill Sherwood at Beth Israel because he was dying. It was only a matter of time till he died [in 1990].”

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Camryn Manheim in a scene from the film 'Happiness,' 1998.Credit: New Films International / Getty
A scene from 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'

According to Vachon, the fact that she lost her father, John Vachon, a respected photojournalist, at the age of 13, and her maturation as a lesbian artist while the AIDS crisis raged contributed to her obsession with dark films that depict an alienated, unstable social reality. To that end, she has helped filmmakers raise money to tell unnerving stories about an HIV-positive youth who tries to sleep with as many virgins as possible (“Kids”); the father of a seemingly perfect family who turns out to be a pedophile (“Happiness”); a genderqueer musician from East Germany who survives a failed sex-change operation (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”); or a young girl who falls in love with a pusher in present-day Brooklyn and is forced to sleep with his boss (“White Girl,” directed by Elizabeth Wood in 2016).

Enemies as assets

During her career, Vachon has produced a number of films that have sparked public protest over freedom of expression. One of them is Todd Haynes’ “Poison” (1991), his second feature, one of whose scenes depicts a man who discovers his homosexuality in prison. Before the film was released, a pious Catholic named Donald Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, read in the paper that there was a new movie that contained “explicit porno scenes of homosexuals involved in anal sex.”

As part of his crusade against the movie, of which he hadn’t seen a single frame, he wrote to the National Endowment for the Arts, which helped finance the film to the tune of $25,000, demanding that its executives be fired. The controversy over “Poison” gathered momentum and eventuated in a private screening for members of Congress in Washington. At its conclusion, one senator’s wife said the movie made her want to “bathe in Clorox.”

But that gloomy episode taught Vachon and Haynes an important lesson in public relations: namely, that enemies are sometimes the biggest asset of small independent movies. “Poison,” she notes, got so much publicity before being distributed in limited release that it could not be ignored. The movie, which played at the Angelika Theater in New York, broke the weekend record for revenues-per-theater.

Vachon recently returned from Cincinnati, where the lesbian drama “Mercy,” directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, was being shot. Written by Joe Barton, "Mercy" is a drama about the lesbian relationship between the daughter of a man on death row and a woman on the opposing side of her family's political cause. It’s the first time Vachon, who produced the film, has worked with an Israeli director.

“I saw ‘Princess’ at Sundance,” she says, referring to Ezer’s 2014 Hebrew-language drama about an adolescent girl who is abused by her mother’s boyfriend, “while I was also looking for a director for [Rooney] Mara and [Ellen] Page’s new project. They both brought the project to us since they wanted to produce and star in this film together – it was very much their passion project. And then I came up with the idea to bring Tali into the project. I thought Tali was the real deal, so I called her about ‘Mercy.’ She was very articulate and had a vision for the film. We thought that she would be able to elevate the material in a very artistic way.”

The “Mercy” crew both in front of the camera and behind it was mostly female. Do you find a difference in working with a male director or a female one?

“I don’t think directing has anything to do with gender. Personally, I’ve had bad and good experiences with male and female filmmakers. Today I know which directors I like to work with, and I have a sixth sense for who’s going to be crazy on set and who isn’t. When you shoot in America, there’s a very specific way you need to think, and sometimes that means putting your ego aside. But if you are able to do that, and you’re a natural-born storyteller, everything will be fine.”

You’ve produce many prize-winning films, including “Still Alice,” for which Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a university professor who suffers from Alzheimer's. Do you think “Mercy” has a chance to get an Oscar nomination?

“That is always like threading a needle in a snowstorm. I remember working on ‘Still Alice’ and thinking, ‘Wow, we are taking a crazy bet here because the only way in which this movie makes any sense is if Julianne Moore wins an Oscar – and that’s insane.’ But somehow it worked, and we made enough money out of that project. However, sometimes movies just come out at the right time: They somehow reflect the zeitgeist or respond to it.”

Over and above a uncompromising commitment to give filmmakers complete creative freedom, Vachon is known for her ability to raise funds for highly challenging projects, including those with taboo-breaking scripts that would send studio heads racing out the door, screaming. But after more than 30 years in the profession, and despite the radical changes the entertainment industry has experienced in the past decade due to the streaming revolution and digital cameras – she still has a hard time raising funds for indie films by unknown directors.

“Small indie films are never easy to make,” she says. “We had four extraordinary films at Sundance 2016, one of which was ‘White Girl.’ It got a lot of attention. It was sold to Netflix for the amount of money the investors needed to get out of it. It is rated R, and it reveals a true, authentic new voice. It deals with race and class in very complex ways. The film had a run in theaters, but since it was sold to a streaming company, in some ways it was dismissed. In general, both the press and the industry are still interested in films that manage to crack a really specific theatrical run.”

In the end, Vachon explains, awards and box-office receipts are not what drive her: “When I get back to my office, I’m surrounded by posters of all the films I’ve produced, and that’s the real reward. It’s more important for me to produce a small movie that three people will see – but will remember all their lives, or [make them] become filmmakers themselves – than a Hollywood movie that millions will see on planes and that no one will remember the next day. It’s like the famous joke about Velvet Underground: It’s said that only a hundred people bought their first album – but every one of them went out and formed a band.”

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