Producer Christine Vachon has been making films since 1985, carving out her place as a legend in the world of independent cinema, working with directors like Todd Solondz, Kimberly Peirce, John Cameron Mitchell, Mark Romanek, Robert Altman, John Waters, Miguel Arteta, and Paul Schrader. But it’s been her enduring partnership with writer/director Todd Haynes for which she is perhaps best-known, having produced every one of Haynes’s features, including Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Carol, Wonderstruck and last year’s Dark Waters.
Vachon has been a force in television as well, having produced the acclaimed This American Life documentary series in 2008, and the multi-Emmy Award-winning series Mildred Pierce in 2011, for which she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. She returns to television again this year, with two critically-acclaimed series, the documentary series Pride on FX and the Netflix dramatic series Halston, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, starring Ewan McGregor as the troubled and egomaniacal fashion designer who defined a generation.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Vachon about what she loves most about Halston, what defines queer cinema, the enduring influence of Boys Don’t Cry, the moments she loves and hates her job and exactly what it is that makes Ewan McGregor SO good.
Catherine Springer: You’ve worked with a lot of directors, but you and Todd [Haynes] have a very close working relationship. You’ve produced all of his films, is that correct?
Christine Vachon: Yes, except for his first film. Well, it actually wasn’t his first film, but one of his first films, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. I came in right after that.
CS: What is it about your partnership that works so well?
CV: We’ve known each other a very long time, so that’s a gift, it means we have a shorthand. I can almost kind of intuit what is going to be important to him and what isn’t. But even though we’ve known each other a long time, we didn’t know each other that well when we first started working together. I think that we’re both very fiercely loyal people, and we’ve certainly had our bumps. But what’s happened by working them out is we’ve developed a tremendous amount of trust in each other. Todd knows that even if we don’t always agree, the first thing I’m always looking out for is the film and his vision. And I know that if he is making a decision that may seem “unreasonable,” I know that all he’s doing is looking out for the film and his vision, and not his ego, etc. There are many different types of relationships, as there are different producers and directors, and I can only speak about mine. But I think that effective ones have to be built on trust. And transparency.
CS: It seems like it’s almost like you are in a band together. It’s a business, but it’s also artistic and the art wouldn’t be there without you both equally contributing in your way.
CV: That’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s funny, just to jump over to Halston for a second, one of the things that attracted me to Halston so much was the collision of art and commerce.
CS: How did you come to Halston?
CV: [Series director] Dan Minahan and I met many, many years ago on the set of a film called I Shot Andy Warhol. Mary Harron was directing, and he was the co-writer of the script. He also directed the second unit and we became very friendly. I produced Dan’s first feature film, which was called Series 7: The Contenders, and it went to the Sundance Film Festival. If I remember correctly, at the Sundance Film Festival he and I were talking about the future, and he brought up this book, “Simply Halston,” and was like, “Do you know anything about Halston’s life?” I don’t know what you know about me or what I look like, but you wouldn’t think a fashion designer would be something I’d be particularly interested in! [laughs] But what I was interested in was this idea of this extraordinary talent who had really re-invented in so many ways things like American couture, what we think of in terms of what a brand is—he was almost like the first Instagram star before there was Instagram. And he made this terrible deal with the devil, he sold his name and he couldn’t get it back. All of those things were almost Shakespearean. Dan and I started on a–I always hate when people use the word “journey” when they’re not talking about actually going somewhere—but, for lack of a better word, we started this 25 year journey to bring Halston to the screen.
At first we conceived it as a film, because we didn’t know that there was anything else. Back in those days, I was making independent films and it never occurred to me that I would, at some point in my life, be making television, but here I am. We couldn’t quite crack it. It was at Searchlight for a bit, it was at HBO, then we lost the rights for a while, and we got them back again. Meanwhile, Dan was becoming a very sought-after television director. We always knew each other, but we kind of reconvened a few years ago, and I was just like, if you really want to do this, in between Versace and Marco Polo and Game of Thrones, then we really have to focus on it. Dan had worked with Ryan Murphy before on Versace and I think on some of his other productions, and Ryan really responded to the story, and he’s the one who brought it to Netflix, and helped us set it up there. It’s very much his show.
CS: There are so many elements to Halston, it’s a snapshot of an era and it’s not just about fashion, it’s about the dawn of the AIDS crisis, Studio 54, drugs and the ‘80s as a whole. What is your favorite element of this series and what is it that is the most fun for you to watch?
CV: Ewan’s performance. It’s transcendent. I worked with Ewan many years ago with Velvet Goldmine, so getting to work with him again was fantastic. But then there were so many wonderful surprises, like Gian Franco [Rodriguez], who plays Victor, who I think brings a sort of pathos and empathy to Victor, that I thought was really nuanced and really great. I love Krysta Rodriguez who plays Liza and Rebecca Dayan and David Pittu, I mean, the whole band of misfit toys is just fantastic.
CS: What is it about Ewan McGregor that makes him so good? He can do anything.
CV: He loves a challenge. I think he would be the first to admit that he knew very little about Halston, if anything, but when he got a sense of who this person was and what drove him, I think he saw what Dan and I saw in it, which was just this truly epic story.
CS: You are a legend, not only in the world of independent cinema and cinema in general, but particularly in the world of queer cinema. I imagine you don’t want to be labeled as a gay producer, but the projects you choose to work on clearly express a queer voice and tell queer stories. Was that a conscious decision, or did that just happen naturally?
CV: You have to remember, I came of age during the AIDS epidemic in New York City. And I feel like when I first started producing, and my first few films were absolutely queer in nature, from Poison to Swoon to Go Fish, there was very much a feeling of, we have to tell our stories. It’s urgent. We can’t wait, and we can’t ask for permission. So there was a sense of urgency around that storytelling that’s hard to describe if you didn’t live through it. And of course, there’s been a lot of talk about this pandemic and that pandemic and how they’re similar and all the ways, but they’re not. The bottom line is, we felt so disenfranchised, and it felt so important to get our stories out there. I’ve just always gone after where my passions are. At the beginning of my career, I felt a little like, really? That’s all anyone wants to say about my work is that I’m a lesbian producer? But I don’t care so much anymore. Like my partner’s father used to say when he was alive, “I don’t care what you call me, just call me.”
CS: Do you feel that urgency to tell our stories has lessened?
CV: No, I don’t think it’s lessened in the sort of broad sense, I mean obviously, I’m not living in the same atmosphere I was living in in 1993, but yes, there has been a swing towards—I guess it’s more like, how do you actually decide what is and isn’t a queer film? And that’s a real question.
CS: What’s been frustrating for me has been the stories have all been about coming out or about just being gay. But then you get a show like Schitt’s Creek, where them being gay is never even addressed, it’s just a fact…
CV: Except when David says that he sometimes like red wine and sometimes white wine, when he sleeps with [Stevie].
CS: Yes, there is that. [laughs] But in films, I’ve been able to count on one hand the number of movies where the gay romance doesn’t end tragically. One of these is Carol, which we will get into, but how do you think we can move away from our stories always involving shame and self-loathing and even death? How do we get there?
CV: I don’t know, I kind of just keep looking at what’s right in front of me. The queer community, like any other community, there’s no one size fits all, and one of the things I battled in the early and mid 90s was I wasn’t very popular in the so-called queer community because there was a feeling that we should be trying very hard, as a community, to only make films that depicted gay people in very positive ways, given the fact that so many of us were dying and the government didn’t seem to care. And I was up against it a lot by making films like I Shot Andy Warhol, or Swoon. Like in any community, it sometimes eats its own, occasionally. It goes back to the, is it gay just because the director’s gay, or the director isn’t gay, but the story’s gay, or the actor is gay, so, even though they’re playing straight, or even though they’re playing gay, or like the straight actor is playing gay so that makes it valid or invalid, or what have you. I mean, the more inclusion there is, the more diverse and interesting storytelling becomes.
CS: Another one of the projects that you’ve done that really impacted the world was Boys Don’t Cry. It was ahead of its time, gender identity is now a central topic. Talk a little about that film’s place in history and how it may have started the conversation.
CV: We weren’t the only film that was trying to get made about Brandon Teena, there was one at Fox Searchlight, ironically, because they ended up buying our film. And there was one at New Line. It wasn’t like we were rocket scientists to figure out what made the story so fascinating and moving. There’s an element of the story that’s the most American story in the world, you know? Like a John Ford Western–a stranger comes to town and this is what happens. But I think Kim Peirce’s particular point of view on Brandon and who he was and why his life went the way it did was so beautifully rendered. And her collaboration with Hilary Swank obviously was impeccable. So, when we were making the movie, did we think it would go all the way to the Oscars? I mean one part of you is always like, “I’d like to thank the Academy,” but usually we kind of figured that these movies, these outlier voices, couldn’t play on the same field, not because they weren’t good enough, but because the field wasn’t inclusive enough. And so that was pretty extraordinary.
CS: Getting back to Carol, did you know you had something special when you were making it?
CV: Yes, but I mean, whenever I do anything with Todd Haynes, I know it’s going to be pretty extraordinary. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that, of course I knew he would pull off something that would be around forever because all of these movies are like that.
CS: I can’t wait to see what he does next, are you two working on something?
CV: Fever, which was already announced, which is about Peggy Lee. So he’s working on that and then his Velvet Underground documentary was just announced today as part of the Cannes lineup.
CS: You’ve already written two books, both behind-the-scenes memoirs, one in 1998 and one in 2007. Are you going to write a third?
CV: I’ll write a third book when I’m ready to retire so I can really say whatever I want. But I have no plans at the moment.
CS: Have things changed faster between 2007 and now than they did between 1998 and 2007?
CV: Yes and no. The big change between 1998 to 2007, just off the top of my head, was the advent of digital filmmaking really pushing celluloid filmmaking out of the way. The death of DVDs, which were a whole cornerstone of what held up our financing systems. Then, you know from 2007 until now, obviously, it’s streamers, which is a whole different delivery system than we were used to then. So, yeah, but it’s also like that French proverb, the more it changes the more stays the same. People still want great stories. They still want great narratives, they want to see themselves on screen. The one thing I think the pandemic showed me is that theatrical filmmaking is not going away. This past weekend was really encouraging, if it’s the right movie they’ll go to the theater to see it. So, we’ll see.
CS: They are saying it’s a great time to be an actor because there is so much more content now. Do you feel the same is true for a producer, or have the basics never changed: it’s got to be good content, period. Whether there are four studios or fifty, it still has to be good.
CV: It has to be good content, period. There’s a lot to navigate. It feels like the business continually expands and contracts. But in great disruptions like we’ve just gone through, there’s always opportunities so that’s what we do, we look for opportunity to tell our story.
CS: How would you evaluate the state of independent cinema right now?
CV: I think we need to fully come out of this past year and see. I think there’s two questions. You know, what are the stories filmmakers want to tell and what are the stories audiences want to see.
CS: If Todd Haynes were offered an Avengers film, would you jump on that with no hesitation?
CV: It’s not up to me! [laughs]
CS: Would you have any aversion to doing a Marvel movie or any other big franchise movie?
CV: Absolutely not. We have to feel like it’s the right thing. Todd has never done anything just for a paycheck and he’s certainly not going to start now. When he did Dark Waters, I think a lot of people thought it was a real departure for him, but he’s always loved genre, and he loves the notion of a whistleblower movie, and he did an extraordinary job on it. It’s funny, that’s one of the movies that people seemed to really discover in the past year, because it came out right beforehand and it didn’t get any awards attention. But over the past year I’ve heard from so many people who were blown away by it.
CS: I wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of what you do. What’s the hardest part of your job? Is it telling Todd no?
CV: That’s not really how it works. It’s more like living with the uncertainty, like, are we going to be shooting that movie. Are we going to be able to pull it together in time for that actor’s schedule, etc. You have to have kind of a tough skin, you have to deal with rejection all the time. But I think it’s just being able to really deal with the fact that there are a lot of unknowns.
CS: Has there been a moment where you got something done for a film that you didn’t think you’d be able to do and you thought to yourself, this is why I love my job?
CV: Usually, those stories end with me going, “This is why I hate my job.” [laughs] It’s hard to say because I forget a production the second it’s over because it’s so tough. But there is always a moment on a movie, often with music, for example, where everything comes together. For example, during Velvet Goldmine, we were having a long day and we were rushing to shoot the last scene of that particular day, and then suddenly the band Placebo was playing “20th Century Boy,” and you’re back in the 70s and back in this club in Britain. It’s the magic of the movies that you’re always trying to achieve through brick and mortar, and it suddenly came alive. I had that experience, to a certain degree, when we shot the Studio 54 scenes on Halston. Suddenly, Liza is walking into the club and she’s dancing and even though, two minutes previously, everyone was in masks and face shields, suddenly here we were recreating this extraordinary moment. Creating the worlds is really fun. But you always learn things on movies that you didn’t think you had to know, like I had to bail an actor out of jail on Kids a million years ago, and I realized I could get a lawyer to make a record deal for me and I could get a lawyer to help me buy an apartment, but I did not know a lawyer who could get anybody out of jail. And now I do!
CS: Are you able to watch movies for fun or is it a busman’s holiday?
CV: No, no I watch. I watch movies and television all the time.
CS: Was there something in particular you loved last year?
CV: You know, my favorite thing was, I went to the Venice Film Festival as a juror in September. I watched 20 movies in 12 days, and it was fantastic. So I don’t really have a favorite, but I consume a lot.
Halson is currently available to stream on Netflix. Christine Vachon is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Interview has been edited for content and brevity.
Photos: Lev Radin/Shutterstock; Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix