Cannes: 'Carol' Producers Christine Vachon, Elizabeth Karlsen Challenge Stereotypes

The veteran producers talked of overcoming obstacles, encouraging younger women and how Todd Haynes' new movie came about at THR/Kering's "Women in Motion" program.

Producers Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen — riding high after the rapturous reception that their new film Carol received at its red carpet competition screening Sunday night — took part in a “Women in Motion” talk Monday morning at the Majestic Hotel, at which they proceeded to challenge the stereotypes that are often used to limit both women filmmakers and the movies they are given a chance to make.

Responding to questions from Alison Brower, deputy editorial director of The Hollywood Reporter, who moderated the panel, presented by THR and luxury group Kering, Karlsen said, “Women should be able to tell any stories they want to tell. For example, Kathryn Bigelow doing Zero Dark Thirty, doing Point Break, she should tell those stories. She’s not telling the same stories Nancy Meyers is telling. The point is we tell the stories we want to tell.”

Both veteran producers admitted they’d confronted their share of sexist expectations during the course of their careers. “We face those same challenges of being taken seriously, trying to be tough, but not a bitch,” Vachon said, adding that when she faces a patronizing financier, she takes it all in stride. “I’m so used to being patronized, it doesn’t bother me,” she laughed.

In fact, they suggested, such encounters have only made them stronger as producers. Recounting how early in her career she occasionally went to a business dinner only to discover she and her dinner date didn’t have the same kind of business in mind, Karlsen observed, “It’s all part of your armor. The thing about producing is you’re dealing with a no most of the time, and that is what spurs you on. And you just have to take all of those episodes and gather them together as part of your artillery.”

As mothers, they’ve both perfected strategies to balance home and work without losing credibility on the set. Vachon admitted that once when her daughter was sick, when she phoned a fellow producer to say she’d be late for the set, she blamed it on a problem with another film on which she was working. Karlsen confided that, thanks to technology, it was possible to be at a child’s after-school activity and still connected to work.

Both also argued it’s important to encourage younger women to envision the possibilities before them. Vachon’s company Killer Films is part of a Master of Fine Arts program offered by Stony Brook Southampton, where she said her male students are often more self-assertive than the women she teaches. And Karlsen spoke of how when she meets young girls, “they don’t know they could be a director. They thought they were supposed to be a makeup artist or hair artist. Similarly for guys. They thought they had to grips or gaffers. Men also need to be liberated from the stereotypes that have been placed before them.”

The London-based Karlsen and New York City-based Vachon became friends back in the mid-‘80s when they both found themselves working in entry-level jobs on Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, an early AIDS drama. They later collaborated on the 2005 HBO movie Mrs. Harris, in which Annette Bening played Jean Harris, who fatally shot her lover Herman Tarnower, known as the Scasdale Diet Doctor. It was during that shoot that the project’s writer/director Phyllis Nagy first told Karlsen that she was interested in writing a screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian novel The Taste of Salt.

At the time, though, rights weren’t available, and a rival script was circulating around Hollywood. Karlsen finally managed to option the book in 2010, and Vachon came on board the project — which would ultimately star Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara  when Todd Haynes, with whom she has a long-standing producing relationship, agreed to direct.

Carol will be released later this year, amid a changing landscape for gay and lesbian rights. But Vachon, who’s produced such landmark films as the 1999 transgender drama Boys Don’t Cry, expressed skepticism that about how quickly social progress is proceeding, saying, “Yes, a lot of things have changed, but it’s like the French proverb: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Look, the legislation on gay marriage is fantastic. But kids are still hurting themselves because they are afraid they are gay.”

Stressing the universality of Carol, Vachon said, “Our story is essentially a love story. It’s a story about great longing.” And Karlsen interjected, “If you try to tie a woman’s story to an issue, you can limit your market, because people don’t like to see issue-driven films.” She added, “We want to get to the point where it’s just two people in love, trying to do their best in lives and to get through.”

Addressing other topics, Vachon observed that television is “where extraordinary, female-driven stories have been driven to.” And both she and Karlsen are currently developing for TV as well as film.

Asked what they know now that they would like to have known at the beginning of their careers, Karlsen said that on every movie “you learn something that you never need to know again.”

Observed Vachon, “I don’t want to work with people who are too difficult anymore. I just can’t. I don’t have the stomach for it. I finally developed a pretty good radar for the crazy director. We were trying to figure out if we could do a test we could make a director take to decide whether we wanted to work with them or not. I finally decided there was just one question on it, which is: Do you have a relationship with another living thing — a girlfriend, a significant other, a pet, a living houseplant.”