Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies that Matterby Christine Vachon, David Edelstein
Complete with behind-the-scenes diary entries from the set of Vachon's best-known fillms, Shooting to Kill offers all the satisfaction of an intimate memoir from the frontlines of independent filmmakins, from one of its most successful agent provocateurs and survivors. Hailed by the New York Times as the "godmother to the politically committed film" and by
Complete with behind-the-scenes diary entries from the set of Vachon's best-known fillms, Shooting to Kill offers all the satisfaction of an intimate memoir from the frontlines of independent filmmakins, from one of its most successful agent provocateurs and survivors. Hailed by the New York Times as the "godmother to the politically committed film" and by Interview as a true "auteur producer," Christine Vachon has made her name with such bold, controversial, and commercially successful films as "Poison," "Swoon," Kids," "Safe," "I Shot Andy Warhol," and "Velvet Goldmine."Over the last decade, she has become a driving force behind the most daring and strikingly original independent filmmakers-from Todd Haynes to Tom Kalin and Mary Harron-and helped put them on the map.
So what do producers do? "What don't they do?" she responds. In this savagely witty and straight-shooting guide, Vachon reveals trheguts of the filmmaking processrom developing a script, nurturing a director's vision, getting financed, and drafting talent to holding hands, stoking egos, stretching every resource to the limit and pushing that limit. Along the way, she offers shrewd practical insights and troubleshooting tips on handling everything from hysterical actors and disgruntled teamsters to obtuse marketing executives.
Complete with behind-the-scenes diary entries from the sets of Vachon's best-known films, Shooting To Kill offers all the satisfactions of an intimate memoir from the frontlines of independent filmmaking, from one of its most successful agent provocateurs-and survivors.
When you compare Vachon with the filmmakers of the late '60s and '70s -- as witnessed in Peter Biskind's recent bestseller Easy Riders, Raging Bulls -- their agendas are similar: Both needed to work outside the system to maintain their artistic integrity. Today, however, Vachon makes entire films for the amount of money that Francis Ford Coppola spends at Chez Panisse.
Vachon's allegiance to the indie scene is the product of sheer necessity. "Unless someone gives me forty million dollars to make a film about bisexual rockers, or a sympathetic pedophile, or a woman who wakes up one day and realizes that modern society is poisoning her to death," she writes, "it's the world in which I'll stay." Given the recent flap over the distribution of "Happiness," it's doubtful that $40 million will arrive anytime soon.
The book itself is somewhat schizophrenic, as if Vachon and co-author David Edelstein -- film critic for Slate -- weren't sure whether they were writing for the cognoscenti who patronize Vachon's movies or for neophytes who can't tell a dolly grip from a best boy. The book often serves as a how-to (and how-not-to) manual for aspiring producers, and Shooting to Kill doesn't gloss over the less-than-glamorous reality of making films. (I know this reality firsthand, having worked for Vachon as an assistant director on "Kiss Me Guido.") Interspersed are diary excerpts detailing more esoteric problems with the financing and production of "Velvet Goldmine," Vachon's most ambitious work to date. The nightmares that Vachon illustrates -- everything from scheduling snafus to ego conflicts to damaged negatives -- are not unique; they occur on every film set, a fact she does a commendable job of stressing. Vachon's book might do more to dissuade aspiring filmmakers than encourage them, and given the glut of subpar low-budget films out there, this could be its most valuable service.
As "independent" as Vachon's films may be in spirit and in budget, without distributors, theaters or audience members, they'd be overpriced paperweights. Just as Coppola and Robert Altman have swallowed their pride and gone to work for Grisham Inc., Vachon's movies are released by companies like Miramax. Inevitably the maverick joins the establishment, but that doesn't really matter as long as the movies are worth watching. The rest just makes for juicy anecdotes.--Salon Nov. 4, 1998
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- First Avon Books Edition
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- 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Day in the Life:
On the way to my office in Manhattan today, I passed a movie shoot on the street, and was hailed by the second assistant director, a hearty girl from the Bronx I used to work with. "It's this nightmare low-budget movie," she explained, and then started the litany: "I mean, it's eight o'clock, and crew call's in twenty minutes, and there isn't any coffee, and everyone is late, and the grip truck went to the wrong location and the APOC just quit, the sides aren't here, and the D.P. wants a light we didn't order..."
"STOP!" I said. "I can't hear this!" Low-budget filmmaking is like childbirth. You have to repress the horror or you'll never do it again. I bid her good-bye and continued on my way, past the $800,000 dollar movie set where the crew looked like a bunch of thirteen-year-olds with tool belts and baseball caps. A lone production assistant desperately tried to keep an eye on two open vehicles while homeless people milled around, attentive. The craft service table-the mandated food and drink station was especially grim: a jar of iced tea mix, a black banana, a handful of broken chips, some used paper cups. That sums it up, I thought: a pathetic table in the middle of nowhere with nothing on it you'd eat in a million years.
This is the romantic world of low-budget filmmaking. It's the world in which I've toiled for fifteen wearisome, exhilarating years, working for little money on the kinds of movies that seldom end up at the local multiplex. And unless someone gives me forty million dollars to make a picture about bisexual rockers, or a sympathetic pedophile, or a womanwho wakes up one day and realizes that modem society is slowly poisoning her to death, it's the world in which I'll stay. That I'm forever "independent" makes me a little sad-until I arrive at my office and see the posters for the films I've produced, provacative and risky films, on which I've. felt like an intimate collaborator: Poison, Swoon, Kids, Safe, I Shot Andy Warhol, Go Fish, Velvet Goldmine. Hollywood producers often have to eat worse than black bananas.
The office of my company, Killer Films, is packed with assistants and interns and is woefully short on working air conditioners. My desk is a mess, strewn with papers relating to ten or more projects, some in development, some in pre and postproduction, and some on the verge of release. All they have in common is my name as a producer.
The job of producer is one of the great mysteries of the moviemaking process. When I'm asked what producers do, I say, "What don't they do?" I develop scripts; I raise money; I put together budgets; I negotiate with stars willing to work for said (generally meager) budgets; I match directors with cinematographers, cinematographers with production designers, production designers with location managers; I make sure that a shoot is on schedule, on budget, on track; I hold hands; I stroke egos. I once had to bail an actor out of jail (for gay-bashing, no less). I give interviews explaining what producers do, especially producers of independent, low-budget movies by directors who struggle to put their singular visions on the screen, however much of a challenge those visions might pose for the so-called mass audience. I sit here at my desk with the phone ringing, the fax machine clicking, the assistants and interns running in and out, getting a buzz from the power.
And sometimes I sit here stunned at my powerlessness. Basically, a low-budget movie is a crisis waiting to happen. You stretch every one of your resources to its limit, and then you constantly push that limit. You have to be creative on your feet, because if something goes wrong (and something always goes wrong), you can't just throw money at it. You have to take scary leaps off high buildings, knowing that the landing might be bard.
I'm fortunate to have had a miraculously easy landing with the first feature I produced, a movie written and directed by Todd Haynes called Poison. The theme was transgression, and the approach was the opposite of straight. The film consisted of three different stories woven together, each shot in a different style: a black and white horror film, a mock-documentary, and a lush, homosexual prison romance. In script form, it was just tough to read. Half its funding came from Todd's extended family and their Los Angeles friends (among them, amazingly enough, Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch), the other half from foundations and arts agencies, including (and most notoriously) the National Endowment for the Arts. What nearly brought the endowment down would help us make our names.
The movie had won a prize at the 1991 U.S. (Sundance) Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and had been picked up by a small distributor, Zeitgeist. We were anticipating a tiny art house release. Then, an amazing thing happened: Two weeks before the scheduled release, the Reverend Donald Wildmon, an antipornography activist and the head of the American Family Association, saw a favorable review in Variety that mentioned the film's homoeroticism and also cited its partial NEA funding. So he sent letters to every member of the Senate and the House, saying, in effect, "Are you aware that this film, which was made with your tax dollars, is filthy, pornographic, and homosexual?"
The upshot was chaos. Our phones literally did not stop ringing. We made all the papers. We made Entertainment Tonight. Previously, performance artists like Karen Finley had come under fire for using taxpayers' money to do naughty things with yams and chocolate syrup, but movies capture the public and media's interest in a way that "minority' arts don't. This was the first time the wrath of the Religious Right was being...
Meet the Author
Christine Vachon has emerged over the last ten years as one of the key leaders of the New York independent film movement. She lives in New York City, where she heads her own company, Killer Films.
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