Friday, September 29, 2006

A Killer Read

I had a Season-One-of-Project Runway experience with Christine Vachon's new memoir A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond. That is to say, I sat down with the book on the evening I bought it and read every page until I was finished, at around 3:30am. Granted, A Killer Life is hardly A Suitable Boy, and nor is Christine Vachon aiming to be Marcel Proust, so gobbling this book in one go is hardly a feat of readerly stamina. Rather, it's a testament to the absorbing way in which Vachon—the co-founder, leading shepherd, and most public face of Killer Films—conveys two decades' worth of professional experience as well as her own forthright, principled, occasionally abrasive, utterly unprecious view of what matters in a movie, and of how the American independent film scene should and does operate (which, predictably enough, amount to two very different things).

Vachon, working with a co-writer named Austin Bunn, shows the same helpful and lucid grasp of her book's audience that she has demonstrated in her stewardship and remarkably successful marketing of 32 feature films since 1991; she presumes the film literacy of her readers without pandering, but also without any alienating veils of insider posturing or untranslated industryspeak. As proud as she obviously is of her work, she doesn't expect the titles of her films to speak for themselves, even though several of them do: if the Killer Films imprimatur doesn't mean much to you, consider the phenomenal track-record contained within Vachon's 15-year portfolio, including not just some of the most seminal films of contemporary queer cinema (Go Fish, I Shot Andy Warhol, Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and all of Todd Haynes' films) but also some white-hot provocations (Larry Clark's Kids, Todd Solondz's Happiness), one midsized commercial breakthrough (Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo), and one late-career effort by a canonized auteur (Robert Altman's The Company).

These films don't get equal airtime in Vachon's account, and in a few cases, such as Hedwig and The Company, I was eager to hear a little more about the mechanics and vicissitudes of working with a floridly ambitious tyro like John Cameron Mitchell or a notoriously free-form marionette like Altman, whose films hardly radiate the queer angles and empathies that mark so many of Vachon's projects. Still, notwithstanding the inevitable omissions, Vachon is a frank and generous raconteur, and though the book is clearly being marketed as a "tell-all," she isn't being coy in asserting that her overriding interest is in clarifying the tough, frugal, extremely heterogeneous, but artistically rewarding tasks of being an artist-friendly independent film producer. She knows that even many film aficionados have a shakier grasp on a producer's duties than they do on other behind-the-scenes work, and this is for a reason:

"With every other credit in a film, you know exactly what it means; the production designer on Camp did exactly the same job as the production designer on Cold Mountain. But 'producer' is a catchall. In the morning, I could be talking to David Schwimmer about potential parts in our movies, because he got into the business to be De Niro, not 'Ross' from Friends. By the afternoon, I might be negotiating with a big composer's agent to do the score for One Hour Photo (and when he laughs at what we can afford to pay, we spin the Rolodex and go elsewhere). By the afternoon, I could be on a plane up to Toronto to support Glenn Close on set, who is having a hard time with her character and is nervous about working with a whip-smart but slightly overwhelmed director."

That last allusion is surely to Rose Troche's interesting but oddly stifled movie The Safety of Objects, which apparently tested through the roof but gained zero traction on the critical or commercial markets. Though Vachon tends to be terse about these sorts of misfires, probably because it's impossible to say for certain why The Grey Zone or Storytelling passed with nary a blip, she doesn't skew the book too grossly toward her roundest successes. You leave with a candid sense of why Kids was a horrendous shoot, despite yielding a satisfying product; of where and how A Home at the End of the World got unlatched from newbie director Michael Mayer's vision for the project, though Vachon seems as surprised as anyone that she wavered in this case on her usual policy of staunch director advocacy; of how a promising script with generous development momentum like The Shaggs, a story about folk-singing sisters that was intended as Kirsten Dunst's next project just as Spider-Man hit, suddenly gets scuttled despite every good intention; of how the unnamed but transparently designated Crime + Punishment in Suburbia unraveled into Killer's largest lapse in collective judgment.

To a naïve outsider like me, who has logged zero hours on a film-set or in a production office, one of the most valuable lessons built into A Killer Life is just how fine the line can be between triumph and fiasco; even the most unified artistic visions have often survived the kind of peril and disagreement that one tends to imagine as the exclusive property of flops and vanity projects. Vachon spends a good deal of time, for example, illuminating the disastrous corporate takeover of Far from Heaven, which was briefly indentured to its bond company. Vachon, who would later accept her first Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature for this movie, couldn't even access its bank account for several days and was routinely shamed by bookkeepers and insurance types for failing to regulate the budget. The Boys Don't Cry set was riven by several fractious confrontations between Ivy League director Kimberly Peirce and linchpin star Hilary Swank over their very different reads on Brandon Teena, and though Killer managed to trump a competing project at 20th-Cenutry Fox (which ultimately quashed its own movie and distributed Boys Don't Cry through its Fox Searchlight speciality division), karma is now biting back fiercely as Vachon's Infamous is trotting into limited release as the "other" Truman Capote movie:

"With Boys Don't Cry, I never spent a second thinking about what Fox Searchlight and [star/producer] Drew Barrymore were feeling when we scooped them, rendering their project irrelevant. We had the upper hand. Now I know what they were feeling: That sense that your passion and dedication isn't always enough. That the world is chaotic and you can't control everything. It's a lesson I have to keep relearning."

A Killer Life brims with enough production anecdotes that fans of Vachon's movies are assured of a good time. The book doesn't really promise an intimate glimpse of Vachon herself, though her persona emerges in ways that are both intended and not. It's refreshing to read a movieland memoir by someone as intellectually inclined as Vachon, who name-drops Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" essay and speaks with fondness about her training in semioitics at Brown, but is just as transparently mad about movies. At the same time, she can be a tad uncouth and susceptible to hubris: it's a little dismaying to hear her cop to some gladhanding praise of Agnieszka Holland in a business meeting, expressing love for Holland's Washington Square even though she hasn't actually seen it, which she says "doesn't matter"—probably true from a brokerage and etiquette standpoint, but discordant, surely, with the proud cinephilia Vachon elsewhere professes. This blend of bracing honesty and curt impolitesse crops up in a few more personal anecdotes, too, as in Vachon's memory of the endless funerals for victims of AIDS that she attended in the 1980s. One of these was the burial of her friend and temporary mentor Bill Sherwood (Parting Glances):

"I can't really recall Bill Sherwood's funeral because I attended so many around the same time. It reminds me of an observation in John Weir's book The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, set in the mid to late 1980s, about how all the memorial services became indistinct because all these gay men were kind of the same: they all liked show tunes, they all liked going to brunch, they all liked to talk on the phone. Since few of them were from New York, you'd attend a memorial service in the Village someplace—where the family didn't show—and you'd be like, Is this Larry's, or is this Robert's? Or Bill's?"

Is it sentimental of me to want a heroic artist like Vachon, a paragon in her field and a tremendous burr in the straight-boy oligopoly of most Hollywood production, to sound a little less tetchy or unmoved on a subject like this? It's immaterial, really, to the provenance of her book, and maybe it's why this kind of autobiographical element becomes increasingly scarce as the book proceeds: Vachon really walks the walk in asking to be judged on her work. In the same spirit, she doesn't exactly hold back from characterizing colleagues and Hollywoodland acquaintances in whatever better or worse countenance they have presented to her—Cate Blanchett, Steven Soderbergh, and, surprisingly, Jerry Bruckheimer will be proud of their depictions, Jeff Bridges and Sandy Powell rather less so, and Julianne Moore is something of a split decision—but all of them appear for the value and nature of their involvements with Killer Films, not to gussy up the book with gratuitous star cameos and salacious whispers. Even the requisite anecdote about Julia Roberts is evocative and germane (she expressed interest in the Harper Lee role in Infamous before pregnancy ruled her ineligible).

The best-showcased supporting roles in A Killer Life are filled not by celebrities but by executives, agents, directors, and producing partners, who interpolate their own memories of working with Killer and helming their own projects as satisfying aperitifs between Vachon's chapters. (Killer co-partner Pam Koffler writes an especially tasty one about screening Mrs. Harris for the real Jean Harris and The Notorious Bettie Page for Bettie herself.) Anyone who thinks they will enjoy A Killer Life almost certainly will. Anyone who is skeptical about learning anything practical from this book should be nicely surprised, though Vachon's earlier volume, Shooting to Kill, is probably a more helpful nitty-gritty primer for aspiring producers who are just getting started. A Killer Life offers generous and earnest points of entry for film students, cineastes, starfuckers, and anyone interested in the complex sociologies of an industry as obviously personal and political as independent film production. Vachon is proud of the fact that her brave, thorny, and unlikely movies tend to split their viewers into devotés and detractors, but A Killer Life may wind up doing something very un-Killer: that is, making all of its readers feel equally invited and equally well rewarded.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Ali said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:01 AM, September 30, 2006  
Blogger Ali said...

Sounds like a "killer" read indeed. *anticipates sea of embarrassed groans* Sorry, couldn't help it.

That sounds like a great book, and I'd especially love to read more about the filmmaking process from a producer's perspective. Also, I love hearing trivia about certain films during pre-production, even if it isn't scandalous and gossipy.

12:01 AM, September 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Woah. I'm going to specifically go out and look for this book now; it sounds that good.

11:43 AM, September 30, 2006  

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