A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond
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A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters in Hollywood and Beyond

by Christine Vachon

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Here is an account of a filmmaker who looks straight into the eye of the Hollywood blockbuster storm and dares not to blink.

In A Killer Life, Christine Vachon follows up her independent producing handbook, Shooting to Kill, with a behind-the-scenes memoir of the battle between creativity and commerce -- and a renegade's rise to being one


Here is an account of a filmmaker who looks straight into the eye of the Hollywood blockbuster storm and dares not to blink.

In A Killer Life, Christine Vachon follows up her independent producing handbook, Shooting to Kill, with a behind-the-scenes memoir of the battle between creativity and commerce -- and a renegade's rise to being one of the most powerful female producers in independent film today.

A Killer Life traces the early years Vachon spent producing such controversial and critically acclaimed movies as Poison, Happiness, and Kids, films that paved the way for Academy Award-winning triumphs like Boys Don't Cry. She recounts the birth and rise of independent film and the evolution of her company, Killer Films, revealing the stories behind star castings and firings and films that never got made; how sexuality factors into the films she produces; and how the often lethal combination of finance and creativity affects what we see on the big screen.

Intelligent and tough as nails, but endearingly self-effacing, Vachon's account of her filmmaking experiences, and the successes and failures that have made Killer Films one of the few truly independent film companies in New York, is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking read for filmmakers and fans alike.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The day-to-day life of independent film production is not the stuff of charming anecdotes on DVD commentaries. Instead, as Vachon skillfully explicates, it is a constant and difficult struggle between the competing influences of artistic vision and the always present bottom line. As the head of Killer Films, which has produced such alternative hits as Boys Don't Cry and Far from Heaven, Vachon is in a difficult position: she is an insider whose job is to constantly support outsider stories. The financial reality of the world she chronicles provides the drama that sustains this empathetic and thoroughly engaging memoir. Vachon's voice is likable and slightly neurotic, allowing the reader to develop a rooting interest in her continual quest to secure financing for often controversial films. Though Vachon's account is slightly hampered by her obvious bias toward her own films, the book teems with the veracity that can only come from hard-earned experience. This is an immensely appealing view into the expensive reality of imaginative filmmaking. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Independent producer Vachon (founder, Killer Films) offers a wryly perceptive look at the various components of creating a film, a process that differs with each project and seems both rewarding and nerve-wracking in turn. In particular, she describes the deals, the people, and the unique circumstances surrounding such films as One-Hour Photo, Far from Heaven, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Mrs. Harris-most of which involved elements of controversy along the way. Numerous anecdotes provide a clear sense of the atypical life of an independent producer and the experiences of production: tongue-in-cheek vignettes from the Cannes Film Festival; the sometimes laborious process of securing funds; the road to promotion; the delicate world of scripts and rights; interactions with actors ranging from Robin Williams and Hilary Swank to unknown local kids; and directors' idiosyncrasies. Vachon is tough, talented, and likable, and her story offers an honest take on the film industry and its ever-changing culture. Professionals within the film industry as well as film students and enthusiasts will find her book both informative and entertaining. For circulating libraries and large film collections.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Insider's guide to independent filmmaking from a passionate 20-year industry veteran. Hoping to usher in the next generation of entrepreneurs, Vachon follows up her how-to guide for first-time film producers (Shooting to Kill, not reviewed) with one about the inner workings of Killer Films, the indie production company she runs with partner, Pam Koffler. The author has come a long way since her humble beginnings as Todd Haynes's assistant on his 1987 thesis project, Superstar. Raised by an errant father and a cancer-stricken mother, Vachon grew up poor in New York City in the mid-'80s. She loved American cinema, and it wasn't long before she earned her wings at the independent filmmaker's paradise, Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, where she eventually became a film-festival judge. Soon came the grueling fundraisers, tough shooting schedules and MPAA ratings battles over films like Kids, Boys Don't Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Encounters with a detached Julia Roberts and a double-talking Kirsten Dunst weren't much fun either. In 2002, Vachon achieved breakout triumphs with One Hour Photo (starring Robin Williams) and Todd Haynes's slickly produced masterpiece Far From Heaven, about which she warned her crew, "We have more ambition than money." The author writes of these ups and downs with good humor. Among her ten rules for surviving Cannes Film Festival: "You will look like shit by the end. Embrace it." She supplements her text with mini-commentaries from other producers and diary segments that spotlight hourly, on-set action. While conceding that modern filmmaking has become a "commodity business," Vachon still glows when uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer admits he's a "bigadmirer." Fans of Hollywood's mighty, ever-grinding celluloid machine will be rapt and sated by her straightforward, at times dispassionately dry dissection of a cutthroat industry. Others will resort to paging through for random points of interest. A surprisingly uncontroversial expose with an egocentric aftertaste.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt


"Do You Want to Be in Our Gang?"

I'm standing with my longtime friend and director Todd Haynes in Yonkers, New York, and looking into a camera monitor. I do this a lot. We're in the middle of filming the opening shot of Far from Heaven, Todd's Sirkian melodrama about a housewife struggling to deal with her husband's homosexuality. Every time I hire crews to work on one of Todd's films, I warn them that we have more ambition than money and that they will be working harder than they have ever worked. But, I say, working on a movie with Todd will be one of the most creatively satisfying experiences of their lives.

Far from Heaven will go on to garner four Oscar nominations, but at the moment you would never predict it. We're working with a massive, troublesome crane, whose movements are infuriating to coordinate. Todd wants a swooping establishing shot; the camera needs to glide through trees and descend into the town square, setting up the 1950s period of the film. All the actors -- the guy feeding the pigeons, the women walking in their pillbox hats, Julianne Moore driving a vintage Chrysler -- have to hit their marks just so. The afternoon sun is sinking way too fast. We've already tried the shot several times. The crew grumbles. This is what every producer dreads: you're running out of time and you don't have the shot.

These days, it's getting harder to remember that film is an art form. Movies get treated like a commodity business, some abstract uptick or spiral down on the Hollywood stock exchange. Small-town newspapers print box office returns in the Arts pages so even your parents can knowthat Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid opened big. I'm not sure when this happened, or why, but I'll tell you this: it misses the point. For me, film isn't about the margins, boffo weekend numbers, or the back end. (Well, back end would be nice...) Film is about the process -- a long, complicated, passionate process toward something larger than the sum of its parts. In production every film is different and most are accidents waiting to happen. Amid all the chaos and cold coffee of production, the art of film can be hard to keep in mind. But it's what I live for -- the flash of magic that eclipses everything.

We try for the shot one last time. Todd calls, "Action!" Up on the crane, the camera pushes through brilliant red and gold leaves and floats across the immaculate town square. Elmer Bernstein's heartbreaking piano theme and Marlene McCarty's period titles are already mapped onto my memory of this, even though they are months away from being realized. But watching the monitor, I can see Todd's entire film writ small -- a ravishing, manicured world on the verge of massive change.

We nail it.

It's just as Todd wanted, just as I imagined it when I read his script. For a brief moment, I step away from the problems of the day and see that we are making something beautiful.

It's been almost ten years since I wrote my last book, Shooting to Kill, a nuts-and-bolts guide for first-time producers. And while the world of independent film was never manicured nor ravishing, some serious changes have taken place, for the industry, for me personally, and for my company. Independently financed and produced films, from Blair Witch to The Passion of the Christ, have become an undeniable part of the industry's profit margin, so much so that each studio now operates its own "classics" division to develop (and acquire) the darlings of Sundance and beyond. Since the mid-1990s, the first generation of scrappy, mostly male writer-directors (like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Richard Linklater) have flourished in studio gigs (like Erin Brockovich, Spy Kids, and School of Rock). They've proven that an outsider sensibility can be turned to a studio's advantage.

As the head of Killer Films, an independent film production company based in New York, I've managed to endure longer than many colleagues and friends. This book is an attempt to explain why. In the past twelve years, Killer has managed to produce over thirty films, including Far from Heaven, One Hour Photo, Boys Don't Cry, and Happiness, and I'll admit, the odds were against us. In the time since Shooting to Kill, other indie production companies, like the Shooting Gallery and Good Machine, have disappeared or been bought, merged, and radically changed. Some producers, like Good Machine's James Schamus and David Linde, have graduated upward and been absorbed into the studio system to run the "classics" divisions. Others, like Cary Woods, the producer on Kids and Citizen Ruth, or Scott Greenstein, who ran USA Films (Traffic), have gone into completely different media. Even Miramax, New York's mini-major studio and the company that altered the scale of independent film, hasn't been able to stay Miramax.

For sure, Killer has changed too. We now have an "overhead" deal with television producer John Wells, the executive producer of E.R., The West Wing, and Third Watch. In the world of television, you don't get more successful than John Wells, unless you're Aaron Spelling and you make shows about teenage witches and sex-deprived nurses. Wells pays all our salaries and office costs and underwrites our development costs, like buying options for books and having scripts rewritten. In return, Wells gets an executive producer credit on all our films. It's a great arrangement. He likes and understands Killer's films and doesn't interfere.

On the personal level, I'm a mother now of a six-year-old girl named Guthrie. My business partner Pam Koffler is a mother too. Our offices in downtown New York finally have windows that actually face the street, not an airshaft like before. I don't take material through the transom anymore. And one of these days Killer Films will make a kids' movie. Yes, we'll change our name for it.

And yet some things never change; interns still answer the phone when you call us. We still don't have any walls in our office because I don't like them; visit Killer and you'll hear us calling over the five-foot walls to each other. And for every meeting I might have with Julia or conference call with Jude's representation, I still pound the streets of Cannes each May, as I've done for a decade, trying to drum up the financing for the movies that speak to me. But how do you stay relevant in an industry that is constantly changing? It's a question people ask me all the time. I built my company on a rebellion against conventional taste, against the no-rough-edges, film-by-consensus style, until that rebellion itself (christened "independent film") became part of Hollywood.

My strategy is to stay a moving target. I've got a reputation for "edgy," "dark" material -- the kind of movie where you're maybe rooting for the bad guy. I'm also frequently accused of operating with a political agenda. A gay agenda. An aggressive-New Yorker agenda. When I go to L.A. for meetings, sometimes I feel like I have to put on my "uniform" -- black pants, black T-shirt, combat boots -- so that nobody gets confused and thinks I've come over to the bright side. Yes, I go for the kind of stories that challenge viewers, and I like to approach a story from an unexpected place. But my films aren't all about gay people, they aren't necessarily dark, and I'm not trying to peddle an ideology. I think that in order to realize the artistic possibilities of film, you've got to be in tune with the social and political realities of the times: the ravages of AIDS, or the complexity of gender, or social anomie, American-style. This is why I'm attracted to scripts inspired by true stories. When you stop retreading the conventional fairy tales -- when you quit with the fairy tales entirely -- you make better art. You also make people a little nervous.

Independent film has changed considerably in ten years. Killer Films has changed and will keep changing. But what is changing the most is the way people think about movies. For one, audiences are smarter, savvier. Digital video has lowered the threshold for potential filmmakers, and the advent of DVDs, with extensive director's commentaries, has given amateurs a taste of how the elements come and don't come together. Magazines like US Weekly and In Touch -- the one with the section that has Cameron Diaz taking out the trash and Lara Flynn Boyle racing to stop a meter maid from ticketing her SUV -- convince us that were it not for the ten-thousand-square-foot manse in the Hollywood Hills and that little bit o' Botox, the A list is no different from us.

But to fall for these publicity snapshots and director's cuts and "bonus material" is to mistake the ends for the means. The whole reason we know these films and recognize these stars is that some producer brought together the talent, the financing, and the studio to deliver it to you. A producer. Now, there are thousands of producers out there and they're all different. Take Variety. You can read heaps about the deals, points, and back ends without any sense of why any of it matters. That's because for some producers, the money is all that matters. Studios have a yearly slate to fill and somebody -- hey, why not you? -- has got to go and make those movies.

As independent film keeps getting bigger, I want to make it small again. I want people to get out of the way, so that risky, bold movies can get made. The success of independent film has raised wild expectations. Now everybody wants a home run, a Napoleon Dynamite, bought for $5 million at Sundance (and made by Brigham Young University film grads for a fraction of that), that makes $40 million. The unconventional singles and doubles, the movies that make film dynamic and diverse, have become increasingly hard to make. So far, Killer has endured on a principle I call "big picture, little picture." After "big picture" paydays, many actors seek out career-making parts in "little pictures," the ones too offbeat or unconventional for studios to make. It's a complementary relationship.

But without a fertile landscape for little pictures, I'm beginning to feel that film itself, in the era of tent poles and trilogies, has lost sight of the Big Picture: movies as an art form, as an opportunity to ask questions and challenge assumptions. Let the studios plaster their posters everywhere and merchandise their movies to within an inch of their lives. Independent film needs to remind people what movies can be.

I don't blame the studios. Their primary interest is to make money. But ten years later, I feel that independent film itself has lost its intimacy and sense of community. Pam and I have this anecdote from the Velvet Goldmine production that always makes us laugh, but I keep going back to it. When the $9 million budget had to take a million-dollar haircut right before production started, I didn't know what to do. It was like trying to fit a rock star into children's clothing. Department budgets were going to get slaughtered. People were going to have to take pay cuts. I thought, "How am I going to tell everybody?" Just then, my co-producer on the film, Scott Meek, came up to me. In his thick Scottish brogue, he said, "Christine, just tell them, 'Do you want to be in our gang? If you do, then great. We're making the movie with you. If you don't, then good-bye.'" In a funny way, it's true. Do you want to be in our gang? Do you want to make movies or do you want to talk about them?

At this point, I want to reclaim the business for myself. I want to say producers are the ones who find the material, make the challenges for actors, create career pinnacles and opportunities to do meaningful work. Why are we always at the mercy of this star system? Why can't the stars be at ours? The way I know how to bring back the independent film that I know and love is to tell just one story -- mine -- and tell it to scale. I've made thirty-three films in thirteen years, many of them by first-time directors that you'll read about here, telling stories some studios wouldn't touch: a pregnant serial killer goes on a spree; a check-forging transsexual gets murdered; sex addicts overtake suburbia.

This book is my attempt to help a next generation of young producers find a way in. I've tried to outline the process, but I also want you to meet some of the people. I've threaded through this book the voices of my colleagues, directors, and friends -- people who can give you a sense of how this industry works. You'll also see "producer's diaries," unvarnished dispatches from my daily to-do lists. I hope they will help train a next generation of producers to bring back the kind of filmmaking I love.

People have asked me why I haven't "sold out." My first, and somewhat disingenuous, answer is that nobody's ever asked me. But as I get older, my autonomy means more and more to me. Outside is a good place for artists, and it's where I feel comfortable. Lots of writing about the film industry promises to take you "inside" Hollywood. Even in Hollywood, most people are obsessed with being even further "inside," on getting a first-look, the right of first refusal, the hottest invitations. It's a culture that thrives on exclusion.

In How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young's riotous memoir about his time "working" for Vanity Fair, Editor in Chief Graydon Carter says to him on his first day, "You think you've arrived? You're only in the first room." He goes on to tell Young, "There are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn't get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you'll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you're lucky, you'll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to a third. There are seven rooms in total and you're in the first. Doncha forget it." The seventh room, I imagine, is total access. Journalistic nirvana. To be "first room" is to be late and last on the list, if you're even on it.

Hollywood works the same way. Actors, directors, and agents are always concerned with Where is the VIP room? And when you're in the VIP room, the question becomes Where's the next one, the VVIP room? And who's in it? And so on. It's hard not to get sucked in. But if I've learned anything in the past seven years, working with studios and stars, unknowns and first-timers, it's that the only way inside is by doing the real work outside: do what you love, do it consistently, and everything will follow.

Two Definitions

What does a producer do exactly?

Let's look at the application. Yes, there is an application. To join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the only way to vote for the Oscars and get free screeners -- you've got to fill out an eight-page form describing the work you've done on notable films. I've worked with every studio out there, and yet completing this form, I felt like I was a teenager trying to get into college. The story of a producer's life.

The AMPAS application shows you how difficult it can be to quantify the producer's job. First off, to qualify as a producer with the AMPAS, you've got to have at least two sole producer screen credits -- not executive producer, not co-producer or associate producer. Just producer.

"Executive producer" sounds higher than "producer," and in television, it is. But in film, the credit "executive producer" can be a symbolic gesture, a title doled out as a favor or used to lend a project credibility. It can mean lots of things, but usually it goes to someone who was critical in getting the financing secured for the movie. For example, on the credits for Bob Altman's The Company, there are two German guys listed as executive producers whom I've never met, but they controlled access to some tax fund that was helping finance the picture. On the other hand, the executive producer line can be used to generate publicity. George Clooney came aboard Far from Heaven because he believed in Todd. He wasn't on the set, but his lending his name as an executive producer was a handy publicity tool. (He did cohost a splendid Oscar party for us.) And if his name got two people to see the movie, great.

On one of the first movies I worked on, I watched this guy pull out his hair trying to get everything to the set, keep the director focused, and supply the actors with everything they needed. I thought, "Who wants to be a producer? That job is insane." But then I got the crew sheet and saw that the guy I'd been watching was listed as the "line producer." Four people I'd never even heard of were listed as "producers." I thought, "Oh, so that's how this works." The classic producer is the one who finds the material, then marries it to a director and writer and actor. Who works on the highest level. Now, every producer has a different style and some producers love to be on set all the time. I know my friend Ted Hope loves to write the memo to the crew about where they should park.

Producers are the ones who get movies made, from the concept to the contracts to bankrolling the folks at the craft services 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. For their work, producers get paid a fee, typically a percentage of the budget or a "quote" based on the scale of the movie. Depending on his or her track record, a producer's quote might fall between 0 (it happens) and $400,000 for a film budgeted between $1.5 and $3 million. For a film budgeted between $3 and $5 million, it could go as high as $600,000. Past $5 million, it might even reach $800,000, and so on. That may seem like a lot of money, but then lawyers and agents take their cut, you've got to pump money into your business overhead, and maybe you split your fee with a producing partner. Soon $600,000 is closer to $150,000, and that's assuming you haven't deferred your salary into limbo. Many producers angle to drive budgets upward to trigger bigger fees. I have a different way of measuring success: I count up the number of my creations. Maybe it's a more feminine way of thinking. I don't have a country house, and each year it's an open question whether I can afford to send my daughter, Guthrie, to a private elementary school in New York. But when I look at the dozens of film posters that ring the walls of my office, I'm incredibly proud. Because I've believed in every film.

Of course, an unmitigated hit would be nice. And I'd like to never have to defer my salary again. Because I know how to get every cent of a film's budget on screen, it often feels like financiers and distributors are underbidding me. When you can make an Oscar contender like Boys Don't Cry for $1.7 million (chump change to Hollywood), they want you to keep doing it, over and over. Once, on the way to a birthday party for one of her friends, I asked Guthrie what we should get as a gift. She answered, straight-faced, "How about nothing?" I laughed because I hear that all the time, from across the million conference tables I've sat at, in answer to the question, "What will you give me to make this movie?" How about nothing? Hollywood is all about the opposite of nothing. For producers with blockbuster track records, studios will offer bits of "gross participation"; Brian Grazer might make somewhere around $12 million a film in producer fees, plus 7 to 10 percent of the film's profits. Killer operates fine at a fraction of that.

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.

If it's hard to understand just what a producer does, that's because producers tend to do a little of everything, and what they don't do, they have opinions about. David Mamet, in a recent piece for The Guardian in London, lambasted producers as the guys who "sell all parts of the pig but the squeal. And then they sell the squeal." He talks about the secretaries getting an "associate producer" credit on State and Main instead of a raise. "A few [producers] are entrepreneurs, raising money for a project under their control; a few are what the old Jewish village knew as 'schtadlans,' that is, intermediaries between the powerless (in this case, the film-maker) and the State (or Studio); the rest are clerks or clerk-sycophants." He's right in one way: it takes about ten cents to print up a business card that says "producer." I think producing is about being fearless but also about being lucky. When you find people who are really talented, you stick to them like glue and you try to make a project work for them. If you're lucky, your persistence pays off.

In the Academy rules, if you share producer credit with someone, you only get half credit for the film. Now, movies with a single producer credit on them are as rare as movies with a single screenwriter. Certain producers, like Brain Grazer (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) and Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Pirates of the Caribbean) take sole producer credit on their films (or share with the director). But if you've had to go find the money for your movie -- as I often do -- you're going to have to share producer credit. Scott Rudin (The Hours, The Village, The Manchurian Candidate) shares credit a lot, because the fact is even the biggest names can't muscle sole credit. The more money you have to go looking for, the more crowded the credit will get. Sometimes co-producing is a tight partnership, as with me and Pam, my diplomatic, unflappable partner at Killer Films, on Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Or with fellow veteran indie producer Ted Hope on Happiness and A Dirty Shame. Sometimes not; Jody Patton shares a producer credit with me on Far from Heaven; after she wrote the initial check, I never spoke to her again. I'm generous when I have to be. Unfortunately credit is often the only bargaining chip we have. Sometimes you have to give it to the hairdresser because that's how you got the actor.

Usually though, the producer slot is a mash of partners, money people, no shows, and jerks. It got so crowded that in 1997 the Academy had to step in. After Shakespeare in Love doled out five Oscars to its five producers, the Academy capped the number of possible producer-awardees at three. These days some producers get it written into the contract that they will be the ones to go up and accept the statue. As far as I'm concerned, my job is to get the movie made. What's on the poster is low on my list. With a name that starts with a V, I'm always at the end anyway.

For my application, I list five movies: Far From Heaven (2002), One Hour Photo (2002), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), Happiness (1998), Velvet Goldmine (1998). For each, I need to describe its development, production, and release -- and how I was instrumental in making them happen. As I write, I flash back to the barely controlled chaos that is an independent film production: "Universal forced October to abandon the film..." "At the eleventh hour, the financiers demanded we cut our budget by $1 million..." "Todd and I met with Harvey Weinstein and helped secure a sale to Miramax two days before shooting began..." "The editing process ended up taking almost a year..." These were some of the hardest, most maddening productions I've ever gone through, to make the films I'm most proud of. Of course, the biggest lie of this entire application is how much "I" and "me" I'm required to claim. Beyond the fact that I run Killer with Pam Koffler, and that many of these films wouldn't have been pulled off without the energy and focus of Killer producers (and the occasional former intern!) Katie Roumel, Jocelyn Hayes, Brad Simpson, and Charles Pugliese, there's the unavoidable truth that these movies are not mine. They are the products of the imaginations of Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, Kim Peirce, Mark Romanek, and others.

Killer is the catalyst. Directors come to us because Killer has the reputation of defending their vision -- which often means having to make films for less, so that the risks are lower but control is higher. Other producers glom on to "properties" and actors and scout for franchises. They look to see how to match their taste with the studio's needs; somebody's got to produce movies based on amusement park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean). At Killer the director and the script are the starting point. We don't mind working with first-timers, because their first projects tend to be their passion projects. They have something to say and the steam pressure to say it. We go for true stories, dark ones, and have no problem with unlikely protagonists. This beat doesn't come from nihilism. At Killer we don't believe people make the right choice, then the wrong choice, then fix everything with minutes to spare. People make choices but they rarely change. The reason so many American mainstream movies feature characters with a "secret dream" is that most movies are wish fulfillment. These films certainly don't challenge audiences.

I've worked outside the AMPAS for so long, why join it now? Becoming a member of the Academy is good for three things: free screener DVDs, the chance to nominate films and vote for the Oscars, and a potential ticket to the show at the Kodak (it's a lottery). The year Far from Heaven was nominated, I couldn't even vote for it. That'll be the last time that happens!

Does independent film exist anymore?

In 2002 Variety made a chart of the "Best-Performing Independent Films" of the year. At the top was My Big Fat Greek Wedding followed by Killer's One Hour Photo. I was a little taken aback. One Hour Photo was fully financed by Fox Searchlight, a wholly owned subsidiary of Twentieth Century-Fox. How is this movie on a list of "independent films"?

Traditionally, an independent film is a movie shot and finished with private money that a producer takes to a marketplace -- say, Sundance or the Independent Film Project, the yearly market of low-budget movies -- to sell to a distributor. The distributor pays for the right to show the movie in a certain market, say the United States. But this process happens rarely now. Most of Killer's films are presold to distributors long before we're finished with them. By that definition, One Hour Photo is not even close to an independent film. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, on the other hand, fits the definition fine. It also shows how the old definition is pretty much meaningless.

Let's look at Greek Wedding more specifically. At some point in the late 1990s, the actress Rita Wilson saw a one-woman show at the Acme Theater in L.A. The show, written and acted by Nia Vardalos, was about her crazy Greek family. Rita loved the show, she's half-Greek, and Nia had the screenplay version of her play in her bag. Rita took it home to her husband, Tom Hanks.

After Band of Brothers, Tom Hanks made a deal with HBO to develop film projects. So Wilson and Hanks used that HBO money, via their production company Playtone, to co-finance Vardalos's movie at $5 million with another company, called Gold Circle, run by Norm Waitt, the guy who founded Gateway Computers. But Playtone and Gold Circle don't release movies. They just pull together the money to make them. At the time they shot it, they thought My Big Fat Greek Wedding would be distributed by Lionsgate, the company that distributed Monster's Ball and Rob Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses. (Hey, it made money.) Lionsgate recognizes the potential of darker material. They don't have a corporate parent. They do what they want. But when Lionsgate saw Greek Wedding, they had no idea what to do with a superficial mainstream romantic comedy. It didn't seem bold or risky enough. They passed on distributing it.

As we now know, a $350 million mistake.

Why didn't Wilson and Hanks just mosey over to Dreamworks or Paramount and get them to make it? They'd say that they wanted to make the movie with an unknown, thirty eight-year-old voice-over actress as the lead. It was her story, her perspective, her authenticity that made the story. Studios, on the other hand, understand the market force of star power. It's never been any other way, and it's as true for audiences as the industry. If you're reading this book, you're probably the kind of person who walks out of a film and says, "Wow, that was really well shot" or "That script was terrible." But no matter what you think, it's performances that make or break movies. Most people -- and when you're talking about studio films, you're talking about millions of people -- walk into a theater wanting to see a "Julia Roberts" or a "Robin Williams" movie. It's what's driving them to go and pay the ten dollars instead of staying home and watching reruns of Will and Grace. Wilson and Hanks knew this. Because they were starting from the assumption that Nia Vardalos was the star in her own film, they knew that they couldn't work with a studio. So they went ahead and made their movie, and after Lionsgate bailed, they sold it to the Independent Film Channel.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding was directed by the television director Joel Zwick, the guy who hired Tom Hanks for Bosom Buddies back in 1980 and went on to do Webster and Love Boat: The Next Wave. His movie was as surefire and safe as anything he did for television. Greek Wedding might be an "independent film" in terms of its financing, although at some level, Hanks's dollars were HBO dollars which are Time Warner dollars. They say the worst kind of independent film is the one that copies the Hollywood formula or its slavishness to star appeal. But shouldn't an independent vision at least count for something?

Here's my counterexample and an argument for a new definition of the term "independent." Bearded and intense, Mark Romanek directed music videos for over a decade. You could tell from his videos that he thinks with his eyes. He'd made videos for Madonna ("Bedtime Story"), Nine Inch Nails ("Closer"), Beck ("Devil's Haircut"), even Michael Jackson ("Scream"). Two of his videos are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. In 2002 he was so moved by a Johnny Cash cover of Trent Reznor's song "Hurt" that he shot the video for free.

He came to us with the script for One Hour Photo, something he'd written in three weeks on spec. But with One Hour Photo, we had the opposite problem of Greek Wedding: Mark's lead character was a middle-aged, sexually deprived stalker. Studio executives believe people don't want to spend two hours in the company of a character like that. Peter Rice, the head of Fox Searchlight, was interested, but we had to come up with a budget and find a name to make Searchlight green-light it. We needed a star. We went first to Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of Mark's favorite actors. In fact, he had written the script with Hoffman in mind. But Philip turned us down, perhaps feeling he'd played his fair share of sad loners recently.

Tired from all the Patch Adams nice-guy parts, Robin Williams loved the script and signed on. Casting Robin was a far less obvious choice, and it "raised the bar" for the film on several levels, both conceptually and commercially. Then, finally, with a complete package -- a script, a star, a director -- all Peter Rice had to say was yes.

The whole setup of the studio versus the rugged, loner artist is, like most dualistic constructs, a false one. Look to autodidact Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), skateboard video auteur Spike Jonze (Adaptation), and midwestern ironist Alexander Payne (About Schmidt), and you'll see directors who have made their strongest work within the studio system, with Hollywood casts. The Nation film critic Stuart Klawans has argued that "independent film" is another kind of branding, a marketing ploy. "What the [independent] movement is about is a commercial reconsolidation of the film industry," he told the L.A. Times in 2004. Where studios used to hedge their bets with two product lines -- top-shelf "A pictures" and low-budget "B pictures" -- now "the A-sized budgets come out on Warner Bros. while B pictures come out on Fine Line, a Time Warner Company."

In this formulation, B pictures are the ones independent producers like me care most about, and this hedged bet works in our favor: fewer executives are meddling because the studio's risk is lower. Which allows me to push for the kind of independence in the filmmaking process that is crucial for our writer-directors. "Independent film" as a media brand never interested me. And trust me, "independently financing" a film only makes my job harder. But guarding a filmmaker's autonomy and agency -- to tell unconventional stories, to cast the right actress not the star, to reject studio notes, to cut a third out of the movie right before the delivery date -- is everything, since those values are what make film an art form and not just entertainment.

Audiences respond to that singularity of vision. Every now and then, people will recognize me on the street, and they'll say, "You made one of my favorite movies ever," and I never know which movie they're going to say: Safe, Happiness, One Hour Photo, Velvet Goldmine, Go Fish, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I love that. A lot of the movies Killer makes aren't loved by everybody -- not even mostly everybody. But each one can be somebody's favorite movie because of its clarity of vision, because of the distinctiveness of what it's saying. It's that distinctiveness that allows somebody to say, Yes, this is singular and it relates to my life in this particular way.

No one else but Mark Romanek could have made One Hour Photo. No one but Todd Haynes could have made Far from Heaven, or Todd Solondz Happiness, or Larry Clark Kids. If a real creativity is allowed to get what it wants, that is independent film: the freedom of the vision behind it.

Copyright © 2006 by Christine Vachon

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