Killer Films’ Co-Founders Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler on Lesbian Romance ‘Carol’ and Indie Resilience
The producers have turned out Oscar winners like 'Boys Don't Cry' and 'Still Alice' and maintained daring survival instincts for 20 years: "We're like cockroaches after a nuclear blast. We do whatever it takes."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Ask Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon — the workhorse producer behind such Oscar-decorated art house gems as Boys Don't Cry, Far From Heaven and last year's Still Alice — for the secret to the longevity of her New York City-based production company, and she offers a very New York City metaphor: "We're like cockroaches after the nuclear blast. We just, like, eat plaster. We do whatever it takes."
Indeed, over the past two decades (Killer Films celebrates its 20th birthday this year), Vachon, 52, and her professional partner, Pamela Koffler, 49, have earned a reputation for unmatched resilience and resourcefulness in the rough-and-tumble indie film world. But there's nothing remotely roach-like about their output. And their latest, Todd Haynes' Carol, could mark the company's biggest commercial and critical success yet.
A lush period romance based on the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol stars Rooney Mara as a mousy department store clerk who falls for an elegant married woman, played by Cate Blanchett. The film, which The Weinstein Co. will open in limited release Nov. 20, earned a standing ovation at Cannes, and Mara was awarded best actress honors at the festival. Carol drew similarly enthused responses at Telluride. Mention any of this to Vachon, however, and — in sharp contrast to, say, a showboating contemporary like Harvey Weinstein — she's quick to temper expectations.
"I mean, look," she says, a phrase that tends to kick off her often-pragmatic declarations, "Carol has played at exactly two film festivals. It's gotten some good response. But I can't talk success for Carol yet, you know what I mean?" So what does the film do for her, then, on a personal level? She pauses, then pays it the kind of compliment you might bestow a cashmere blanket: "I just want to roll around in it."
Carol almost didn't happen. Producer Elizabeth Karlsen had spent years developing it, with Blanchett attached, when previous director John Crowley fell out. She was commiserating with Vachon when Haynes' schedule suddenly opened up (Killer Films has produced all of Haynes' films), and the two producers decided to take the picture to him. Within months, the rest of the financing on the $11.8 million project fell into place, and cameras were rolling in Cincinnati by January 2014.
Vachon and Haynes' long-running collaboration began at Brown University in the early 1980s, where they moved among a tight-knit group of budding cultural theorists and student filmmakers. Both later landed in New York, where Vachon caught an early cut of Haynes' film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. (A retelling of the doomed pop star's battle with anorexia starring modified Barbie dolls, the 1987 short would go on to achieve cult status.)
"Christine said, 'I want to produce your next film,' " recalls Haynes, now 54. "It meant a great deal to me because I respected her so much." That led to the experimental Poison (1991) — one of the films that launched the New Queer Cinema movement with which Killer Films would become synonymous. A string of LGBT films followed: Swoon, Go Fish, 1995's Stonewall. "People were really starved for [gay] content then, which is obviously not the case today," says Vachon.
Koffler entered the picture around that time, working on two dark films that cemented Killer Films' reputation as the beating epicenter of '90s alt-cinema: Larry Clark's Kids and Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol. "We had a good partnership, good synergy and were making great stuff," says Koffler, "so we just called ourselves a company." Their company name came from the production company they had formed for 1997's Office Killer.
A few years later, a grad student at Columbia University's film program named Kimberly Peirce was so deeply in debt, she couldn't afford to retrieve the dailies of her thesis project from the lab. A mutual friend introduced her to Vachon. "She said, 'Why don't I pay to get them out and we take a look at them?' " Peirce recalls. That short became the basis for 1999's Boys Don't Cry, a film, decades ahead of its time, about the murder of transgender teen Brandon Teena. The part earned Hilary Swank an Oscar and in doing so lifted Killer Films' profile to unprecedented heights.
"Think about that gamble," says Peirce, 48, of Vachon's early support. "She doesn't care that you actually haven't done it before. Christine has said to me many times, 'I believe in first-time directors. They have a story in them that they have desperately wanted to tell for years.' She believes you're going to learn on the job. That's extraordinary."
The success of Boys Don't Cry led Killer Films into an unlikely partnership with someone with deep Hollywood connections: ER and West Wing showrunner John Wells. Through his production deal with Warner Bros., Wells was instrumental in ushering the next decade of Killer Films projects, including a trio of Haynes titles: 2002's Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama Far From Heaven (nominated for four Oscars), 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (featuring Blanchett in a gender-bending turn as the folk hero) and Mildred Pierce, a 2011 HBO miniseries that received five Emmys. The producers appreciated the luxury of HBO's deep pockets, Koffler says, while remaining true to their art house roots: "We would never say no to making a huge-budget movie. I think it would be fun. So never say never."
Nowadays, Killer Films is focused on keeping things spry enough to stay relevant and innovative in a volatile media landscape. Case in point: The company merged last year with digital-media company Glass Elevator and rebranded itself as the more versatile-sounding Killer Content. The company runs an MFA program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where Vachon urges students to banish the word "filmmaker" from their vocabularies. "We have to call ourselves storytellers, content-makers," she says, echoing a central talking point from her South by Southwest keynote talk in March. "If you want to go into the business today, you have to be prepared to make your stories work on all different kinds of platforms."
But for the company behind Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the glittery allure of indie filmmaking remains. "Christine is like a Chinese acrobat, with 12 sticks spinning many, many plates," says Koffler, who herself prefers to work on "one project at a time." Among the dishes currently in heavy rotation are Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog, a sort-of sequel to the director's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse (Killer Films produced his 1998 film Happiness), and A Kind of Murder, another adaptation of a Highsmith thriller, starring Jessica Biel and Patrick Wilson. Both are slated for release in 2016.
"I don't think there's a quintessential Killer film," says Koffler. "We stand for a certain level of quality, hopefully intelligence, a daring in terms of themes — but always respectful of the marketplace."