Christine Vachon is one of the nation’s most esteemed and influential independent film producers. Through her company, Killer Films, she has produced more than 70 films since 1995, including: Far from Heaven (four Academy Award nominations); Boys Don’t Cry (Academy Award Winner); Todd Haynes’s controversial first feature, Poison, as well as his Venice Film Festival Award-winning I’m Not There; One Hour Photo; Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Sundance Film Festival); Happiness; Safe; and I Shot Andy Warhol.
|Christine Vachon (Credit: Henny Garfunkel)|
Known as one of the most daring and courageous filmmakers working today, Vachon is now bringing her barrier-breaking ethos to her new position as leader of the Stony Brook Southampton Arts film program. She will spearhead the innovative new 20-20-20 program, which will grant 20 full scholarships to 20 students to make 20 short films in 20 intense days (July 8-28). There they will work intensively with world class filmmakers, novelists, poets, playwrights, directors and actors and will emerge with a completed short film that will be screened before an audience that includes some of New York’s most respected film professionals.
Stony Brook University’s Howard Gimple spoke with Vachon recently about launching the new program at Stony Brook Southampton this July, the Career Achievement Award she will accept at the Stony Brook Film Festival, and other miscellaneous and sundry things related to today’s indie film-making industry.
If a young film student wanted to be the next Christine Vachon, what would be your advice?
The road that I travelled isn’t really the right road anymore. What does stay constant is to tell the stories that you want to tell and really stick to that. And these days there’s so much opportunity. I would tell them to be platform agnostic and be life agnostic. There are so many ways to get your story out there, don’t become obsessed with a theatrical release.
How would you characterize the films you like to make?
It’s a great story well told. That’s all I really want it to be. We’re very director driven so to me a Killer Film is one by a director with a very strong vision.
Through the years, your films have dealt with some controversial issues that today might be considered mainstream. What issues today do you think have been avoided by today’s filmmakers that should be pursued?
I don’t think filmmakers necessarily have to go out and make a film that’s issue oriented. Independent film is more about reaching underserved audiences…hearing voice you don’t hear from that often. To really be successful these days, independent films have to be super original — it doesn’t matter what form that it takes. Filmmakers need to continue to go after stories that are important to them. That’s what’s important.
Because there are so many different ways to view a movie today, does that change the way a filmmaker approaches a project?
We have to ask ourselves with a lot more rigor — what makes a movie theatrical? Is it more suited for television or the web. The fact is there’s been a seismic shift since I started. Television has now become where the provocative edgy stories reside. Theatrical filmmaking has become a lot more risk averse.
How has the proliferation of screens affected audience aggregation?
It’s different but the concept is the same. Now filmmakers have a lot more tools at their disposal with social media to find their audience. But it’s still a steep learning curve. Just because an actor has a huge number of Twitter followers, it doesn’t mean that they’ll go to see his or her film. It does feel like what’s really critical is building community over time. Film festivals are really important for that. Whether it starts out at a Festival, on YouTube or somewhere else, it’s important to know who your audience is. Whether it’s a gay and lesbian audience or sports enthusiasts, there are different ways to find people and that’s only going to make it more interesting.
Can you talk about your reaction to receiving the Stony Brook Film Festival Career Achievement award?
My first reaction was “Aren’t I too young to be getting this?” But I’m absolutely delighted to have received it and I can’t wait to be at the Festival.
Why, at this point in your career, have you decided to go into teaching?
It happened kind of gradually. I’m trying to figure out what the next challenges are. Not that I’m slowing down, quite the opposite — we’ve made eight films in the last year alone. But teaching keeps me in touch with people who are trying to make films. It’s important to hear new voices, especially people who are starting out, and not just young people — people start out at many different ages. I love hearing the stories that they want to tell.
Why did you choose Stony Brook to teach?
I’ve been talking to Bob Reeves for a number of years about perhaps building something at Stony Brook Southampton. I’ve been looking at a lot of film schools and how they go about preparing their students for the real world and it’s become increasingly clear to me that the world is changing very rapidly and it’s very hard. You have to teach students to be entrepreneurs first, to a certain degree, and then filmmakers. People have to figure out to be as flexible as they can possibly be. It’s about exposing students to industry professionals who can talk about exactly what’s happening in the industry at this exact moment and at the same time give them an opportunity to actually practice their craft.
What’s your favorite part of the filmmaking process? Least favorite?
My favorite part is the end result and my least favorite is everything else. I get excited when I see an audience responding to the film in some way.