Everyone loves a rebel, the brash young outsider who spits in the face of
the establishment. It's an image promoted by the movies and happily co-opted
by filmmakers themselves. Indie film producer Christine Vachon's new book,
"Shooting to Kill," is a self-congratulatory cautionary tale, but she can
be forgiven a little bit of gloating. Like "punk," the word "independent"
has lost its meaning, but Vachon deserves the label as much as anyone. She
has produced such low-budget, taboo-busting films as Todd Solondz's
"Happiness,"Larry Clark's "Kids" and Todd Haynes' upcoming glam-rock epic, "Velvet Goldmine."
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.