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September 28, 2006

The Killer Inside: Vachon Tells All

NYC indie legend talks up new book at Lincoln Center

It always happens in Los Angeles: Attend any film event boasting a Q&A with a producer or director, and audience inquisitors are reminded of one thing before receiving the floor: "Please keep your question to the subject at hand, and do not offer any solicitation of acting or screenwriting services." The inquisitor agrees sheepishly, takes the mic and, of course, proceeds to detail the fine points of his or her script until the usher arrives with a net and tranquilizer gun.

But in New York, even with its own throttled subculture of would-yous and wanna-bes, nobody needed to babysit the civilized, slightly reverent crowd that dropped by Lincoln Center this week for a chat with Christine Vachon. Just having flown in from the Montreal set of Todd Haynes's next film, I'm Not There, the iconic indie producer and part-time author (her new memoir, A Killer Life, reached stores Sept. 19) actually fielded questions about her movies--arguably the most famous of which, the Oscar-winning Boys Don't Cry, had unspooled before her arrival.

"Believe it or not, the biggest trick for this movie was that we wanted to cast an unknown as Brandon," Vachon said, referring to Boys' doomed transgender anti-hero Brandon Teena. "I know it's hard to imagine a world in which Hilary Swank is unknown, but she was. And it was a real risk--it was a real trick. A huge part of it was a very creative choice: We wanted the audience to have no baggage when Hilary walked onto the screen and have no clue who she was or who he was. Basically, react the same way the townspeople did: 'Who the hell is this person?' That was the biggest risk we took: not casting somebody who people knew."

And we all know how that went. But Vachon's career with her Killer Films label resembles a sprawling patchwork of many such tricks, risks and feats of cunning, the most dramatic of which comprise the bulk of A Killer Life. A relatively middle-class continuation of her scrappy 1998 producing textbook Shooting to Kill, her latest work retreads over her early triumphs (Poison, Go Fish) and tribulations (Kids, every year at Cannes) before indulging expansive recollections from the making of Far From Heaven and an ADD potpourri of production diaries and guest contributions from Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell and Picturehouse guru Bob Berney among others.

The older, wiser Vachon today has motherhood and even membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to mellow her out, and while she confesses that her productions typically endure the same budget crunches at eight figures that they did at six, her longevity (or at least the documentation of it) nevertheless yields an ironic anticlimax: Where she once seemed to wonder at her own miracles, she now seems swept up in their myth. "Our movies divide the room in a business where audiences are supposed to agree," Vachon writes in her harrowing making-of chronicle of Kids, only to later invoke her attendance at the 2003 Oscars (with Todd Haynes and Focus Features boss James Schamus) as "proof of the ascendancy of independent film." Not that I would necessarily disagree, except that even the idea of "independent film" owns an abstract, romantic connotation here that Shooting to Kill had enough sinewy street smarts to avoid. It reads like the choppy fever dream of an underdog binging on austerity.

Yet for every dishy Far From Heaven anecdote that Peter Biskind already printed two years ago in Down and Dirty Pictures, or for all the familiarity of Vachon's impressions of Mary Harron, Tom Kalin and Rose Troche, A Killer Life remains required reading for such explicit senses of trajectory and cosmos. For New York film aspirants in particular--as relentlessly ambitious as any population in the world (and, lest we forget, so tasteful in their Q&A standards)--the revelations into casting, screenwriting and editing politics are a few anonymous sources removed from full-blown service journalism. If you're planning a trip to Cannes, Vachon's chapter on "Pitching, Buying, Begging, Stalking" is one of the more straightforward, schmooze-tutorial travelogues you're likely to find. Among the best of probably too many guest contributors, Universal co-president and former Vachon colleague David Linde gets to the plain-spoken bottom of foreign pre-sales as the gold standard for indie-film financing.

At Lincoln Center on Monday, Vachon also reminded attendees that media flexibility yields its own benefits for indies. "At the end of the day, we have to roll with whatever happens," she said. "If people are watching at home, so they're watching at home. I remember like 10 years ago, I was at the Sundance Producers Conference, and The Blair Witch Project was opening up. That was 10 years ago, wasn't it? More or less? (It was actually 1999. -- ED.) Anyway, the big question at the Sundance Producers Conference was 'Digital! What's going to happen!' People were like, 'I'm a film producer, and I'm only ever going to produce films.' And look at now--we've all had to adapt to these new media, and I figure the only way we can stay alive is to not just adapt, but to embrace. I guess that as long as people want to see stories, we'll keep producing them, and I can't get too hung up [on it]. The directors I work with would be like, 'What, are you crazy? The theatrical experience is all there is.' But we've produced a couple of movies straight to TV this year and it's been a good experience."

And expect more experiences--Vachon told moderator Richard Pena that Killer Films had four movies in the works in 2006, including Haynes's film and the upcoming Infamous. Egads. A killer life indeed.

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