By her own admission, Christine Vachon is not a nostalgic person. This would normally make a conversation about the 25th anniversary of her pioneering independent film company Killer Films a challenge but, luckily, recent events have changed her perspective.
Vachon attended September’s Venice Intl. Film Festival, for which she served as a juror, an event greatly strained by the coronavirus pandemic. With a masked audience spaced three seats apart, opening night made Vachon “revisit, in a very profound way, what the theatrical experience can be,” she says. “And it can’t be copied. It almost felt medicinal, after everything we’ve been going through.”
In short? “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Bringing audiences inside movie theaters for a collective storytelling experience has been a mission for Killer Films, which has produced more than 80 features. From “Boys Don’t Cry” to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” these projects were stitched together by the hands of Vachon and her ride-or-die partner Pamela Koffler and, for the past 10 years, fellow principal David Hinojosa. Killer Films is credited as a pillar of the so-called “New Queer Cinema” of the early ’90s, putting forth lasting works of art about the LGBTQ community from directors including Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”), Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), Rose Troche (“Go Fish”) and Larry Clark (“Kids”).
In the early aughts, the blood-and-guts indie fare of Killer achieved record commercial success with Robin Williams’ “One Hour Photo” ($52 million at the domestic box office). In the past decade, Killer Films produced career-defining roles for Cate Blanchett with “Carol” and Julianne Moore with “Still Alice.” This year, the shingle’s “Shirley” played Berlin, while its film “The World to Come” wowed Venice. The company has a combined 12 Academy Award nominations and two wins, along with numerous nominations and wins from bodies including the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and Film Independent.
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“I remember Michael Barker and Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics said on a panel once, ‘You can’t build a business on home runs. You have to build it on singles and doubles,’” Vachon recalls. “And once I looked up that sports metaphor, I realized that that’s what Killer has done. We have a lot of singles and doubles, and the occasional triple.”
It’s astounding that an independent film production company would have survived 25 years, especially in the paradigm-shifting streaming era or, as Vachon deadpans, “the past six months” — referring to the economic devastation of COVID-19 and the global shuttering of movie theaters.
The Killer process has always been the same, Koffler says. “It begins with some authentic connection to the project, and that has guided us over the years to a consistent space of original storytelling,” Koffler says. “There’s usually something trying to be said in each project that has a freshness to it, or a unique way to tell what might be a conventional story. For me, there’s always a meaningful spark, and then we figure out where this would fit in the market before we invest all the resources into how to make it.”
Vachon, who is 57, is one of the last figures standing from her generation of New York’s indie rebels. Scott Rudin long ago expanded from movies into film and television, with a current focus on blockbuster Broadway shows. James Schamus, the architect of Focus Features, has pivoted to directing and academia in addition to the occasional producing job. In the end, says Cinetic founder John Sloss, Killer’s longevity has been due to its founders’ taste and tenacity.
“They’re fierce and they have great taste,” Sloss says. “They don’t have large egos. It’s not about them, it’s always about the project or the storyteller. They are the first one to compromise to get a film made, much to my frustration sometimes.”
Haynes says the fire that bore the company has been the key to its success.
“The early days of Killer that came out of the new queer cinema, that was an urgency to tell stories from the culture,” Haynes says. “They’ve continued with a similar kind of attention to themes about marginalized subjects. It’s remarkable how consistent they are, and how unmotivated they are by commercial trends.”
In a more cynical media lens, Killer Films has what many contemporary companies can’t buy: a true brand, forged from a deep library of tremendous risks.
“By the time we realized that we had a brand, it was too late to do anything about it,” Vachon says. Not only has it solidified them a place in cinema history, it’s created interesting competitive dynamics and even helped them find new talent that’s been inspired by their own catalog.
“We deal with the irony of companies that were created because of Killer Films, that we now sometimes compete with for projects that used to automatically come to Killer,” Vachon says. “That’s OK, because we’re big believers in a healthy ecosystem.”
Hinojosa joined the company “having already metabolized” Vachon and Koffler’s style.
“I think what’s really funny is that now when you sit down with filmmakers, you see in their look books, they are filled with photos and references to other Killer movies,” he says. “It’s sort of folded in on itself, and what’s great about that is that we can add to this legacy but also reinvent it.”
How did Killer come to be? For Cindy Sherman’s 1997 horror-comedy “Office Killer,” Vachon and Koffler named that standalone shop “Killer Films.”
“The name stuck. “We loved the name, and also loved the expression if something was really great, it’s killer,” Vachon says. “And it felt very symbolic that it was the first movie that we were first taking producer credits. It was a time when Pam and I worked together on movies including ‘Kids,’ ‘Stonewall’ and ‘I Shot Andy Warhol.’ Those films allowed us to have the stability of an ongoing office, and to start developing projects, which we hadn’t really done before — most notably, ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ It also allowed me to understand that the relationship that Pam and I had developed on those projects was something worth holding on to.”
Killer Films has staved off an outright purchase by one of the major studios or tech giants. The company is in the midst of a first-look film and TV deal with MGM under Michael De Luca, which Vachon calls fruitful.
Given that Vachon is not nostalgic, she is not one to keep mementos. Her office has some of Haynes’ elaborate storyboards from “I’m Not There” in frames, and she’ll occasionally keep a ticket stub from a Killer Films red carpet premiere in the corner of her desk as a reminder of the victories.
“I get stopped on the street maybe once a month by somebody who says to me, ‘You made my favorite movie.’ And I never know what title they’re going to say,” Vachon says. “Sometimes they’ll say ‘Hedwig,’ and sometimes they’ll say ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ sometimes ‘Far From Heaven’ or even this little-seen, hard-to-watch Holocaust film called ‘The Grey Zone.’ If you can make a number of
movies that have the power to be some-one’s favorite, that’s a great thing. That’s what I want our legacy to be.”