Saturday marks Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon’s 10th Film Independent Spirit Award nomination (for producing Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama, “Carol,” with Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley). It could also bring a second best feature award after her 2003 Spirits win with Jody Allen for another gay-themed Haynes film, “Far From Heaven.”
But whether or not the openly gay producer wins, this weekend will cap a season that’s brought her an AFI Award for “Carol” and a special honor at the Berlinale’s Teddy Awards recognizing her decades of support for LGBT films and filmmakers.
After getting her start with the 1985 short “Tommy’s” (starring Steve Buscemi), Vachon’s first two features were driven by gay directors and subject matter: Todd Haynes’ 1991 “Poison,” which scored a one-two punch with Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and a Berlinale Teddy; and Tom Kalin’s 1992 “Swoon,” which also nabbed awards in Park City and Berlin.
“When I first started producing in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were in the middle of the AIDS crisis, literally watching a large part of our community die off. It was horrible,” Vachon recalls. “There were a lot of filmmakers that I was working with who felt an extreme sense of urgency — that if we didn’t tell our stories, no one was going to let us.
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“But it turned out that there was a rabid audience for these films,” she continues. “The idea that you could make a movie, market it only to the gay and lesbian community and that it could be profitable if it was made for the right price was a very empowering thing.”
Killer’s slate didn’t arrive without controversy — and not just from the expected right-wing critics who attacked the National Endowment for the Arts for partly funding “Poison.” Members of the gay community staged protests against “Swoon,” “Stonewall” (Killer’s well-reviewed 1995 historical drama, not the 2015 film) and “I Shot Andy Warhol” (1996), due to a “feeling that they were not depicting so-called positive aspects of the LGBT community,” Vachon recalls.
These conflicts inevitably paled next to the cultural impact of other Vachon films by out directors, from Haynes’ tale of a closeted ’50s-era husband in “Far From Heaven” (2002) to two transgender-themed projects: “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) from Kimberly Peirce (launching lead actress and Oscar-winner Hilary Swank’s career) and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001) from director-star John Cameron Mitchell, a Teddy winner whom Vachon presented at this year’s Berlinale. Even some of Killer’s later successes with no strong queer themes, like Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning turn in “Still Alice” (2014), gave a boost to out directors Wash Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer.
How has Vachon seen LGBT cinema change over the past three decades? “It’s more about the way we can watch media,” she says. “With some of our early films, the community turned out because there wasn’t anything else. … It’s extraordinary to me that a kid in Nebraska doesn’t have to feel so alone if he or she discovers they’re gay — that they can access all of (Rainer Werner) Fassbender’s (films), or that kind of work, in a way that was impossible 20 years ago.”
And for Vachon, her recent Special Teddy Award brought things full circle. “Berlin was the first international festival I ever went to, with ‘Poison,’ in 1991. And to think that 30 years ago, a festival that was not a quote ‘gay film festival’ but one of the most important ones in the world [began] recognizing gay and lesbian work… That’s just amazing.”
The Film Independent Spirit Awards airs live this Saturday, Feb. 27 at 2PM PT/5PM ET on IFC.