Her Magnificent Obsession

Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon shifted impatiently in her seat at the front of a crowded Columbia University screening room.

Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon shifted impatiently in her seat at the front of a crowded Columbia University screening room. It was a little after 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 1. The class of graduate film students had just seen an advance screening of Far from Heaven, the much-talked-about film that Todd ( Poison ) Haynes directed and Killer Films produced, and now they were peppering Ms. Vachon-who wore blue sweatpants and a shapeless dark top, and sports an unruly mop of graying black hair-with a lot of earnest questions about her experiences producing such directors as Mr. Haynes, Kimberly Peirce ( Boys Don’t Cry ), Todd Solondz ( Happiness ) and Larry Clark ( Kids ).

About midway through the Q&A session, a woman with a British accent in the back of the room leaned forward in her seat and asked a particularly transparent question about how “someone who was a first-time writer-director might be able to get their project” to Ms. Vachon.

The 40-year-old producer narrowed her eyes slightly. A knowing smile crossed her face.

“It’s getting harder and harder for a first-timer to get to me,” Ms. Vachon said. “I’m not as accessible as I used to be, and if you call my office and you ask for me, I am not going to speak to you.” And just in case any of the Columbia students were thinking of getting creative, the producer warned them against “stalking me in the restroom.”

A few years ago, the Columbia students might have found more traction with Ms. Vachon, but success has changed all that. This summer, Killer Films had its biggest box-office success with One Hour Photo -a well-received film starring Robin Williams that had cost $13 million to make and has grossed $31 million to date. And on Friday, Nov. 8, Far from Heaven , which was already generating rave reviews-see Rex Reed’s review on page 26-and talk of Oscar nominations, would open in New York and Los Angeles, before rolling out nationwide a few weeks later.

This one-two punch of financial and critical success has done more than make Ms. Vachon less accessible to struggling film students. Though Killer Films is one of the last of the truly independent film production companies in New York, Ms. Vachon has defied the preconception that independent producers can only make small, low-budget films.

“She is beginning to entertain relationships with studios and studio money,” said Mr. Haynes proudly. “Except that they’re going to have to start coming to her now.”

With the help of a first-look agreement with Warner Bros. and an overhead deal with John Wells, a writer and producer on that studio’s lot, Ms. Vachon is making the most expensive movies of her career.

And according to Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, who successfully made the transition from distributor of cheap independent films to producer of big-budget Oscar contenders, she’s got the chops to pull it off. “Christine is one of the best independent producers in the industry,” Mr. Weinstein said. “She can do anything from a $100,000 budget to a $100 million budget. No one can do it better.”

Trio cable channel president Lauren Zalaznick, who went to Brown University with Ms. Vachon and Mr. Haynes and was their longtime collaborator, went as far as to compare Ms. Vachon to Mr. Weinstein. She’s “an auteur, which is not a term that’s usually applied to a producer,” Ms. Zalaznick said, “except for people like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin-big personalities who have people who will lay down and die for them but also the reputation of being hard to work for.”

And another media source who knew Ms. Vachon, Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Rudin noted that all three “are equally obsessive, determined, passionate. They’re large personalities, renegades, outsiders who have changed the system, and that’s become their brand, the bombastic take-no-prisoners thing. Not to mention that they’re both big. They’re in your face and she knows it and likes it. It’s part of her power.”

No Earth Mother

In person, Ms. Vachon is a mass of contradictions. Her physical presence is big, soft and warm, but, she said, she was “no earth mother.” She has kept her distance from the Hollywood establishment, and yet she admitted that, in some ways, “the differences between working for a studio and working for an independent have become silly.” And though she insisted that any story about her company should encompass her partner, Ms. Koffler, as well as their younger colleagues Brad Simpson and Katie Roumel, a visit to the company’s Lafayette Street offices left little doubt that, however the work is divided, Ms. Vachon’s voice and force guides Killer.

The afternoon before her Columbia appearance, Ms. Vachon sat behind her desk in the snug office she has always shared with Ms. Koffler, a diminutive, brown-haired woman who was wearing a scarf indoors and coughing.

Ms. Vachon’s black chenille sweater was fuzzy, her hair shaggy. While she spoke with The Observer , she fielded messages that her assistant handed to her on Post-It notes through the window that separated their desks, looked up her own credits on the Internet Movie Database for reference, ordered some tofu with shredded pork, kept an eye on the nest of interns in the office entrance, and mostly monitored a series of intense phone conversations that Ms. Koffler was having with a potential financier.

“This is off the record,” Ms. Vachon said before each of Ms. Koffler’s calls.

Ms. Vachon also took two calls. The first was from the baby-sitter who was watching Guthrie, Ms. Vachon’s 3-year-old adopted daughter with her partner of 10 years, artist Marlene McCarty.

The second call came from an agent who was negotiating a deal for a client Ms. Vachon wanted to cast.

After some pleasantries, Ms. Vachon’s tone with the agent began to harden. “You told me to give you a date, and I gave you that date,” she said. Although she declined to reveal the actor or his agent, Ms. Vachon said the date to which she was referring was a deadline by which the actor was supposed to commit to an unspecified project.

There was a pause as Ms. Vachon listened to the agent at the other end of the line. Though millions of dollars were potentially at stake, she looked relaxed.

“Yes, that’s what I’m doing,” Ms. Vachon said finally to the agent. “I am forcing your hand.”

Semiotics at Brown

Ms. Vachon grew up on 119th Street and Riverside Drive. She attended the High School of Music and Art when it was still located on 135th Street and Convent Avenue, then became one of those fabled semiotics majors at Brown in the early 80’s. That’s where she met Mr. Haynes, with whom she has now collaborated on four features- Poison , Safe , Velvet Goldmine and Far from Heaven -and on the short film Dottie Gets Spanked .

In the mid-80’s, Ms. Vachon, Mr. Haynes and a partner, Barry Ellsworth, who had family money, founded a company called Apparatus in which they gave grants to filmmakers for short films and then managed the production of those films.

When there were no more grants to give, Ms. Vachon began to produce a series of feature films, including Go Fish , Kids and Poison . In 1993, she met Ms. Koffler, who had grown up on 79th Street and West End Avenue and Norwood, N.J., and attended Yale. They began collaborating on films and, in 1996, founded their company, named after one of their pictures, the artist Cindy Sherman’s dark 1997 effort, Office Killer .

Together, Ms. Vachon and Ms. Koffler produced a series of eccentric, critically acclaimed but largely ignored fringe films such as I Shot Andy Warhol , Safe , Happiness and Velvet Goldmine , many of which dealt with issues of sexual identity. In 1999 came Ms. Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry , which was based on the story of Brandon Teena, a young woman who is killed for living as a man. It won a Best Actress Oscar for Hilary Swank-but the media exposure far outweighed the film’s performance . Boys Don’t Cry made only $11 million at the box office.

Along the way, and in part because of a whispered-about falling out with Ms. Peirce, Ms. Vachon has earned a reputation as a difficult personality with a long mental list of those who have slighted her or her close collaborators.

Several film-industry sources spoke about Ms. Vachon’s temper but few would address it on the record. Still, most of those who spoke to The Observer saw Ms. Vachon’s volatile nature as a function of her volatile work-as necessary and natural as the much vaunted tempers of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Rudin.

“[In independent film] you’re being told ‘no no no no’ all the time,” said film producer Ted Hope, a co-founder of the recently shuttered Good Machine. “That is so damn discouraging that you better have steel in your blood.”

Ms. Zalaznick agreed: “People who say she’s tough to work for are not used to people who sacrifice other people’s ‘feelings’ for the sake of the art, which has no feelings.”

“She just doesn’t kiss ass,” said Mr. Haynes. “And she feels she should be entitled to the same freedoms as men are, and we all know many women who make those assumptions get called all kinds of names that men wouldn’t be called.”

But Mr. Haynes wasn’t willing to draw a parallel between Ms. Vachon and Mr. Weinstein. “No! That’s not true,” he said. “There is no cruelty in Christine for the sake of cruelty. And there is in Harvey, believe me.” A spokesman for Miramax responded: “As evidence to the contrary, Harvey thinks Todd is a very talented director, but this story is about Christine.”

Ms. Vachon didn’t deny that she could work up a big head of steam.

“I can be volatile,” she volunteered in the midst of an explanation of her working dynamic with Ms. Koffler. But when The Observer told her that she had a reputation in the industry for losing her temper, Ms. Vachon looked hurt.

“Not so much anymore,” she said, her voice faltering slightly. “I think I did it more-there were more times that I did it when I was considerably younger.” Then she quickly added, “I might have the reputation for it, but Pam can be just as intense and unwavering.”

Ms. Vachon stared at the wall of her office for a second.

“In film, so many things are ‘unfair,'” she said.

Gray Hair from Heaven

Ms. Vachon could well have been speaking about her experiences with the production of Far from Heaven .

Set in the late 1950’s, the film is a suburban melodrama written and directed in the style of Douglas Sirk ( All That Heaven Allows , Imitation of Life ) and, as such, is a lush rendering of the collective American unconscious regarding issues of race, class and homosexuality. But where Sirk was circumspect, Mr. Haynes is considerably more direct.

Dripping with vermilions and ochres that look like they were shot in Technicolor but weren’t-“We would have … if we’d another million dollars,” Ms. Vachon said-the richly costumed drama stars Julianne Moore as the socially ascendant wife of an advertising executive, played by Dennis Quaid, who seeks solace in the arms of their black gardener- 24 ‘s Dennis Haysbert-when her husband leaves her for another man.

The producers originally thought they might be able to do the film for $12 million in Canada, until Ms. Moore announced that she was pregnant and wanted to remain close to New York. Sets were built in New Jersey, and then Sept. 11 shaved two weeks from the pre-production.

According to Mr. Haynes, the bond company insuring the production “predicted that I was going to go two weeks over schedule halfway through the shoot.” During the last week of production, the bond company took the film over from Ms. Vachon. Though Ms. Vachon retained her producer’s credit, she said the bond company’s decision “stripped me of my stripes. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a producer, but then once it happens you realize, hey, I’m O.K.”

Ultimately, Mr. Haynes’ finished the picture on time.

But there was a cost.

“All this gray hair is from Far from Heaven ,” Ms. Vachon said of the experience.

Well, most of it anyway. In an industry dominated by men, Ms. Vachon said she tries not to dwell on injustices she’s faced as a gay woman. But she did recall the first day of shooting on the Todd Solondz movie Storytelling, when Guthrie, who had been in her life for two months, woke up with a fever.

“What could I do? I had to stay home,” Ms. Vachon said. “But if you’re a woman and you’re like, ‘I can’t be there for the first day of shooting,’ you know that’s triggering this response [among colleagues] like, ‘I knew when she had that kid she’d be absent and totally psychotic.'”

Ms. Vachon added: “If a man misses the first day of shooting because his kid is sick it’s like, ‘Aaawww, you’re such a good dad!'”

In the end, Ms. Vachon said the didn’t use Guthrie’s sickness as an excuse. Instead, she said, she told the cast and crew that “something came up.”

The Humorless Dyke

Though Ms. Vachon long ago learned to negotiate the treacherous sexual politics of Hollywood, some of the gamesmanship still leaves her irked.

“I’ve been to meetings about financing a movie or something where I’m the only woman,” she said. “The men all come in and [they] are all doing the kind of thing: calling each other ‘Sir’-which is so icky! That’s icky and also grown men using diminutives for each other-[Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman] Tommy Rothman, Teddy Hope-that’s just like, grow up! So everyone’s doing that kind of crap for 15 minutes and I’m thinking, ‘I would like to get this meeting started, but I know that if I’m the one who says ‘O.K. you guys, let’s get to work,’ I just know they’re like, ‘Oh of course, the humorless dyke, she wouldn’t let us have our fun.'”

“I think there is that stereotype,” said Mr. Hope. “She’s gay, she dresses in black, she doesn’t try to glamorize herself. People jump to that conclusion, but Christine is as much of a drinking buddy to me as any of my other friends. She knows the pleasure of too many martinis.”

Ms. Koffler finished one of her phone calls in time to agree with Ms. Vachon that people frequently assume that Ms. Koffler, who has been married to cinematographer Russell Fine for six years, is gay, and that she and Ms. Vachon are romantic partners as well as business ones.

“Did anyone ever ask Ted [Hope] and James [Schamus] if they were together?” asked Ms. Vachon.

“The thing about the boys club is that it’s not like we would ever want to participate in that world. I mean, thank God there’s an alternative to that,” said Ms. Koffler.

“Yeah, we leave those meetings, come back to our offices and it’s like ‘We da bosses here!'” said Ms. Vachon before she twirled full circle in her chair.

But though Ms. Vachon repeatedly claimed she doesn’t care about her image in the industry, she is obviously stung by the time it has taken for her and her partners and associates to gain recognition.

She happily recalled a recent Premiere Women in Hollywood event in Los Angeles, where she was seated next to Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing. “She was fabulous, actually a great date,” Ms. Vachon reported, “and when I was introduced to her she said, ‘I know exactly who you are’-which was nice.”

But then Ms. Vachon started spinning in her chair again, fiddling with the cross and keys that always hang from a chain around her neck as she recalled a disheartening experience.

“Last year I was on a Most Powerful Women in Film list in The Hollywood Reporter . I was so flattered,” she said. “They asked for a picture and everything. And I kept saying to my assistant, ‘Find out what number I am,’ and I’m thinking that I was solidly,” here Ms. Vachon raised her hand in an “up-there” gesture. “So it turns out I was like 96 . I was like above the Olsen twins.”

$100 Million Makeover

“I mean, what d’ya gotta do?” Ms. Vachon asked with mock exasperation and an amused look at her partner.

“I think it’s about money,” Ms. Koffler replied. She was serious. “I don’t think awards matter. If we made a film that made $100 million it would change everything. You would be shocked about how it would alter the tone and tenor of dealing with us. It would be like walking through the looking glass.”

Perhaps Ms. Koffler is right, but even without a $100 million movie, the tone and tenor of Killer is changing.

“We’re in a funny place,” Ms. Vachon said. “Because we want to be able to make movies, but as our directors get bigger, our ideas get bigger, the stars we can get get bigger, it is obviously more difficult to find bigger money. But also, it’s harder to focus on the smaller projects, which we still are committed to doing.”

Next up is The Company, a Robert Altman movie about the Joffrey Ballet starring Neve Campbell.

“It’s clear why Robert Altman needs Christine,” said Mr. Hope. “People fall so easily into their own formulas. Christine’s body of work is very different from Altman’s-the two can spark and push each other in new directions.”

In October, Killer announced that it had acquired the rights to All-of-a-Kind-Family , Sydney Taylor’s children’s series about a turn-of-the-century Jewish family on the Lower East Side. This was Ms. Koffler’s baby, a project that she has been chasing for eight years. Screenwriter Matthew ( Niagara, Niagara ) Weiss is adapting the books, and though there’s no director signed on, Ms. Vachon told the Columbia graduate students that she’d like to convince Mr. Haynes to do it.

The company has created a new division, Sunshine, to make the movie, because as Ms. Vachon said, “You cannot have a kids’ movie with the Killer logo at the front.”

Both women admitted that they have only been interested in kids’ films since the arrival of Guthrie and Georgia, Ms. Koffler’s 14-month-old daughter.

And it’s not as though moving into a pre-pubescent market bleaches Killer’s projects of their politics.

“If you have a daughter as I do,” Ms. Vachon added, “you have Disney movies. And you’re throwing them in the VCR saying, ‘Oh, here’s one where it all ends up O.K. because the man comes back to take care of her.’ O.K., let’s try another. “Oh, yeah, in this one the man decides to take care of her. Oh yeah, in this one? The man shows up to take care of her.’ And suddenly you’re like, ‘There need to be better kids’ movies!'”

Last Man Standing

And while Ms. Vachon’s company has evolved, so has the film industry. Killer’s contemporaries from the early 1990’s-the Shooting Gallery, October Films and Good Machine-are dead and gone: out of business, absorbed by some larger entity, or, in the case of Good Machine, disbanded when Mr. Schamus got a job running Focus Features at Universal.

“If survival or longevity is something strictly to be praised, she is the last man standing,” said Mr. Schamus’ former partner, Mr. Hope, who remembered posing many years ago for a photo with Ms. Vachon, Mr. Schamus and Shooting Gallery founder Larry Meistrich. Mr. Hope recalled that the photo ran in Time Out New York under the headline “Who Will Leave Their Mark on New York?”

It turns out that Mr. Hope’s memory was off. The headline on the photo was “The Screen Savers.” Her Magnificent Obsession