Christine Vachon
Photo by Christopher Patey

Christine Vachon: “You have to have the stomach for it”

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Short Profile

Name: Christine Vachon
DOB: 21 November 1962
Place of birth: Manhattan, New York, USA
Occupation: Film producer

Ms. Vachon, it was once said that you are the type of film producer who would lay down in front of a train to get a movie made. Is that true?

(Laughs) I don’t know if that’s really a compliment! It seems a little stupid! I would say that I am pretty tireless and I’m relatively fearless. I think you have to have stamina and a very thick skin. It’s hard to hear people explain to you time and time again why your idea isn’t commercial, why your elements won’t work, why they don’t believe in your director… It’s hard to hear “no” all the time. It can be tough; you have to have the stomach for it.

Still, you’ve produced award-winning films like Still Alice, Boys Don’t Cry, and Far From Heaven that don’t necessarily seem easy to get made.

But I’ve never had to do anything really crazy to get a movie made. Things happen all the time where, for example, you have all your elements together and you get green-lit and then you lose a critical element. That’s probably the toughest thing.

“Every movie has its own sort of epic journey to production.”

Where do you go from there? How do you go about saving a film that’s on the verge of going under?

Have you seen that movie WagThe Dog, where Dustin Hoffman plays a movie producer? The joke of his character is that every time there’s a disaster, he’s like, “No but it’ll be fine!” That’s the way movie producers are the world over. It’s like, “Okay, how we can make this work?” (Laughs) “What if we just write a flood into the script?” You have to have the conviction to make it work. You really have to believe it when you turn to your financier and say, “It’s okay! It’s all going to be fine!” So, every movie has its own sort of epic journey to production.

Is there always a happy ending in those journeys?

I actually get a little bored of them because the end is always the same: “And we got to make the movie!” I spent 12 years trying to get my most recent film made — which sounds worse than it is! I wasn’t toiling away for 12 years; there were plenty of times where I just put the film on the shelf. But eventually it paid off because the right elements came together and we made exactly the film that I was hoping for.

12 years is still a long time.

There are always moments where you just have to bide your time. Sometimes you have the money but you don’t have the cast. Sometimes you have the cast but you don’t have the money. Sometimes the market is telling you it’s the right time but it really isn’t. Sometimes you thought the zeitgeist was telling you it was the right time but actually it wasn’t.

“The notion of what men do to prove that they are truly male, that’s never going to go away.”

Is it easier to finance a film that is of the zeitgeist?

Well, my most recent film Goat, for example, is about fraternity hazing, which is very au courant, and yet there were a lot of European financiers who said, “This won’t work here because fraternities are American. We don’t have anything like this.” And I was like, “Oh okay, so there’s nothing in your country about men getting together exclusively and doing terrible things? That’s really interesting that you don’t have that.” (Laughs) The notion of what men do to prove that they are truly male, that’s never going to go away. Being in an industry where bad behavior is often rewarded, you see alliances like that and realize how powerful that concept really is.

Are “alliances” important on a film set?

Well, I don’t think I’ve worked with many directors I don’t like. At the end of the day, I’ve got to feel that the director and I are making the same movie. And if I don’t feel that then I back away. We’ve only a couple times made mistakes where I’ve just been like, “Oh, I should not have gone into business with this person.” And now my radar is good enough so that I just won’t go there.

Has your radar ever been wrong and that person went on to make a great film?

Sometimes those directors that I decide not to work with go on and make a great movie and people are like, “Oh, don’t you wish you’d taken the opportunity?” And I’m like, “Nope! I’m fine! I’m very happy that they got to make a great movie and I’m very happy that I wasn’t the one who made it.” So, the radar gets better! It gets better over time.

You once said that blunt, honest feedback is crucial when you’re working in the film industry. Do you still believe that?

Absolutely. With the filmmakers themselves, I am as honest as possible. That said, when we’re in the middle of shooting a movie and something bad happens, I have to gauge when is the right time to tell the director. Telling a director about an issue that he or she can’t possibly do anything about while they’re in the middle of shooting is probably not smart. But making sure that they know in time to help me find a solution is smart. When a director and I really trust each other, they know that I’m not going to do that unless it’s important. That’s just something you learn with each other.

“I think what motivates me now is just the pleasure of great storytelling.”

There’s a time and a place.

Exactly. But usually when people begin a sentence with, “Can I be honest…” they’re actually saying, “Can I be really mean…” Like you said, there’s a time and a place: if somebody is showing their movie at a film festival, it’s always an experience fraught with anticipation, pain, expectation, desire, all those things… So if somebody comes out of their movie after premiering it at Cannes or Berlin or Sundance and says to you, “What did you think?” That is not the time to say, “Eh…” (Laughs)

Is criticism sometimes a motivating factor for you?

I mean, look… I get criticized for how I look, I get criticized for the kind of movies that we make… I have a thick skin, so I pretty much rise above it. If I see something linking to something that I can tell is going to be negative, I don’t even bother reading it, you know?

What does motivate you to keep making movies then?

Actually, I think what motivates me now is just the pleasure of great storytelling. You know, getting to be a part of something like Carol… It’s really inspiring to get to watch that unfold day after day. That’s really it, just getting to tell great stories.