Motion pictures are rarely controversial, since controversy often breeds contempt, and any sort of contempt for a film inevitably results in a dearth of box office dollars. Furthermore, in
These facts of film business life have not deterred Christine Vachon, producer of some of the most cutting-edge and incendiary independent features released during the 1990s. From the very beginning of her career, Vachon has shown no interest in working on independents that are escapist fluff or low-budget derivations of Hollywood genre fare?or, for that matter, using her independent credits as a mainstream calling card. Vachon remains fiercely and proudly outside the mainstream. Her dedication to aligning herself with politically and socially committed filmmakers, and shooting politically and socially committed scripts, is reflected in the title of the combination memoir/independent film handbook she co-authored in 1998?Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter.
Despite her book?s ballsy title, in no way does Vachon romanticize the life of an independent producer. Filmmakers of all stripes may look hip and composed when they are photographed for magazine spreads. They may exude glamour as they attend film festivals, or appear to be all-knowing when they speak on panels in which they offer in-the-trenches advice to film biz neophytes. Yet Vachon is quick to admit that the everyday existence of the independent filmmaker is anything but alluring. On the first page of Shooting to Kill. . ., she observes: ?Low-budget filmmaking is like childbirth. You have to repress the horror or you?ll never do it again.? In the decade in which she has been active as a producer, Vachon has continuously crushed whatever terror her experience has taught her to anticipate as she embarks on each new project.
As producer, Vachon?s self-imposed role is to insure that the director?s point-of-view has not been compromised by the time his or her film is ready to be screened for the public. In so doing, she plunges into the roll-up-your-sleeves, crisis-laden fact-of-life of low-budget filmmaking. During pre-production, she immerses herself in the script?s evolution, the film?s budgeting and financing, and the securing of appropriate talent to compliment the director and each other. Once the film is in production, her involvement remains hands-on. She strives to guarantee that the shoot does not go over budget or over schedule as she deals with the differing personalities working in front of and behind the camera. Then, when the film is completed, she labors to insure that it receives the best distribution deal, and highest-profile theatrical release. As Vachon has observed: ?Basically, a low-budget movie is a crisis waiting to happen. You stretch every one of your resources to the limit, and then you constantly push that limit.?
If the auteur theory has any relevance in the 1990s, then Vachon qualifies as an auteur producer. Most of her films feature characters who are deeply troubled, and disconnected from everyday society. Many are gay-themed?in fact, Vachon has been dubbed the queen of the New Queer Cinema?with her films exploring the insidiousness of homophobia by portraying the manner in which anti-gay attitudes affect the psyche. Not all of her gay characters are alienated, however; some live fulfilling lives while savoring friendships and searching for romance.
Collectively, the main characters in Vachon?s films are reflective of the ?outsider? aspect of society she is interested in exploring: a sensitive seven-year-old boy who disappears after shooting and killing his father, a disfigured scientist who becomes a sex killer, and an incarcerated gay male (Poison); an emotionally disconnected woman who comes to comprehend that she is being fatally poisoned by modern society (Safe); a downsized, ill-treated office worker who becomes a murderess (Office Killer); Valerie Solanas, the radical lesbian who attempted to assassinate Andy Warhol (I Shot Andy Warhol); David Wojnarowicz, the gay writer who died of AIDS (Postcards from America); an out-of-the-closet Leopold and Loeb (Swoon); drag queens who become involved in the Stonewall riots (Stonewall); lesbians who seek love (Go Fish); bisexual glam rockers and pop androgyny (Velvet Goldmine); aimless, hedonistic young teens (Kids); and gay male actors, and a straight Sylvester Stallone wannabe who thinks that GWM stands for ?Guys With Money? (Kiss Me, Guido). Keeping in mind that the majority of independent features are artistic or commercial washouts?they will screen at the Independent Feature Film Market, where filmmakers bring their work to secure completion funds or find distribution, and then disappear without earning slots at film festivals or theatrical releases?the quality of Vachon?s productions has been consistently and remarkably high.
Vachon most often has worked with Todd Haynes and Tom Kalin. Haynes is the director of Poison, Safe, and Velvet Goldmine, and he and Vachon co-produced He Once Was. Kalin is the
Herein lies the controversy in Happiness. Some will find the film tasteless?just as some view the characterizations in Poison and Kids as especially offensive?while others will admire the brutal honesty with which the pretenses of the characters? lives are stripped away. Because of its content, the film?despite winning the International Critics? Prize at the Cannes Film Festival?was dropped by its distributor, October Films, the ?independent? arm of Universal Pictures. Happiness eventually was released by Good Machine, which co-produced it with Killer Films, Vachon?s production company.
It is fair to say that, had she not added her expertise to their productions, quite a few of Vachon?s films might never have been made. Yet given the distribution plight of Happiness, along with its domestic box office?despite laudatory reviews and placement on many critics? ten-best lists, the film earned a paltry $2.5 million?it will not get any easier for Christine Vachon to maintain her goal of producing provocative films about characters who are the antithesis of Ozzie and Harriet and Andy Hardy.?