Vachon: Filmmaking is 'A Killer Life' of sorts

By STEVE BARNES, Senior writer
First published: Friday, October 27, 2006

Christine Vachon is a busy mom. Even as her latest baby was about to take its first steps into the world, Vachon was beginning the process of bringing her next two offspring to life.

That latest baby is "Infamous," a movie originally scheduled to come out a year ago that reached theaters only this month (opening locally today). It got beaten to the big screen by another film about an identical subject, a movie called "Capote" that went on to commercial and critical success and won an Academy Award for its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

As Vachon, one of the most acclaimed and iconoclastic independent producers working today, relates in her new book "A Killer Life," she is worried that "Infamous" will simply fade quickly -- not because of its quality but because it fell victim of woeful luck and bad timing.

"In the worst case, 'Infamous' is ignored," writes Vachon, who will be at the New York State Writers Institute in Albany tonight for a lecture and screening of one of her most successful films, the Oscar-winning "Boys Don't Cry." She frets in the book, "We'll have spent three years putting together a movie that I'm incredibly proud of, and nobody will see it."

That seems the likely scenario. Some reviewers raved, others shrugged, and all spent considerable time matching up "Infamous" with "Capote" -- exactly the sort of which-is-better comparisons that the postponed release date was meant to diminish. Both movies follow journalist-author-social gadfly Truman Capote during the years he researched and wrote "In Cold Blood," about the murder of a Kansas family.

"All you can do is do your best," sighs Vachon, speaking on the phone from the New York office of Killer Films, under the auspices of which she has produced more than 30 films in the past 15 years.

An impressive list

Many of them are impressive, respected indies -- "Boys Don't Cry" as well as "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "A Home at the End of the World," "Velvet Goldmine," "Kids" -- from directors including Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, John Waters, Larry Clark and Robert Altman.

Vachon, who turns 44 next month, believes "Infamous" deserves a place among the best of her films but, like many of those, its box-office income may prove minimal.

When asked how she feels about the tepid reviews "Infamous" received, Vachon says, "I think my response should be fairly obvious." Translation: She disagrees.

But while she would love to see "Infamous" surpass "Capote" in attention and earnings -- as "Armageddon" did an earlier comet-menaces-Earth film from 1998, "Deep Impact" -- she knows precedent suggests that the movie released first usually wins. "Dangerous Liaisons" came out in late 1988 and went on to gross $34 million; "Valmont," based on the same novel, arrived a year later and earned $1 million.

While she sometimes imagines herself exulting in the news that one of her films just broke the $100 million mark, Vachon spends most of her energy on the money that comes at the other end of the filmmaking process, before a single frame is shot.

A producer's biggest duties are to wrangle talent and money, she writes in the book, often using each to leverage the other. Over and over during the past 15 years, Vachon has faced financiers who won't commit funds until a star is attached to a picture, stars who won't commit until they know there's enough money to get the film made, or both.

But overall, she writes, "Producers are the ones who get movies made, from the concept to the contracts to bankrolling the folks at the craft services (food) table. This is why producers are the only ones who go up to accept the best picture Oscar: They got the film in the can."

Getting a song

Details of her deal-making are distributed generously throughout the book, such as the negotiations for the rights to use a certain song in "Boys Don't Cry." The movie stars Hilary Swank as Teena Brandon, a Midwestern girl who moves to a new town and assumes a male identity. The first time the character passes as "Brandon Teena" and takes a girl on a date to a skating rink, the director, Kimberly Peirce, wanted to use Boston's hit "More Than a Feeling." "The song," Vachon writes, "perfectly captured the soaring feeling -- the kind of tune a kid from the heartland would listen to and be transported."

But the band refused to license the song for any amount of money. "Kim was destroyed," Vachon writes. The song that replaced it was The Cars' "Just What I Needed."

On the other hand, Vachon got lucky with a song for "Camp," Todd Graff's 2003 film about teens at a musical-theater summer camp. Because Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim had agreed to license his show tune "The Ladies Who Lunch" for only $3,000, the Rolling Stones -- who had charged Microsoft $12 million to use "Start Me Up" -- matched Sondheim's price for the use of their song "Wild Horses" in the film.

"A Killer Life" spills over with such details, from the minimum a movie can pay an actor who is a members of the Screen Actors Guild (about $2,300 per week) to who agreed to do a movie but then backed out (Kirsten Dunst, many others) to the conventional wisdom in Hollywood -- proven correct until "Brokeback Mountain" -- that any movie with a passionate kiss between two men had a box-office ceiling of $3 million.

Telling her side

Vachon also uses the book to tell her side of stories on which she refused comment when they happened. Such as when Harvey Weinstein, the volatile head of Miramax, furious that his company would not get to distribute the Vachon-produced "Far From Heaven," said, "I'm gonna pay $10 million to make sure (the movie's star) Julianne Moore does not get an Oscar." At the time, Vachon said little more than "We will hopefully be doing business with (Miramax) in the future."

In the month since the book's release, Vachon has received minimal negative feedback.

"I actually think that people, truth be told, thought, 'Thank God! I thought she was going to say so much more,' Vachon says. "The angriest call I got was from a guy who felt that he should have been mentioned more in the book."

Earlier this year, Vachon's next two films finished shooting: "I'm Not There," a movie about Bob Dylan from director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven," "Velvet Goldmine"), with co-stars Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett; and "Then She Found Me," a romantic comedy co-written by Helen Hunt that features Bette Midler and Matthew Broderick; it's also Hunt's directorial debut. The Internet Movie Database lists another eight movies that have been announced, are in pre- or post-production or are currently being shot on which Vachon is producer or executive producer.

"Every movie that gets greenlit is a victory," she says. "I'm doing all I ever wanted to do -- make movies that I think are cool."

Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.

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Christine Vachon