'Killer' instinct

Christine Vachon, mother of queer cinema, on ‘Halston,’ ‘Pride,’ and gaying up Hollywood

Christine Vachon in ‘Pride’

Swoon. Velvet Goldmine. Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Boys Don’t Cry. Far From Heaven. Go Fish. Colette. These classic queer films all have one name in common: Christine Vachon.

In the 1990s, Vachon and her production company, Killer Films, emerged as the chief shepherd of the New Queer Cinema movement, helping to produce early films for cinematic lions including Todd Haynes, Daniel Minahan, Todd Graf, Kimberly Pierce, Wash Westmoreland and John Cameron Mitchell. Along the way, she also produced work for seminal, established directors including Mary Harron, Larry Clark, Robert Altman, John Waters, and Paul Schrader.

In other words, few people have contributed more to the American Independent Film Movement, or to queer movies.

Now Vachon drops not one, but two queer-themed series, and at the same time. The Netflix series Halston, written and directed by Vachon’s oft-collaborator Daniel Minahan, traces the rise and fall of the iconic 1970s queer designer. Pride, produced for FX, unites Vachon with some of the most talented LGBTQ directors alive, including Tom Kalin, Andrew Ahn, Cheryl Dunye and Yance Ford. The six-part series recounts the birth of contemporary queer culture in the United States, as well as traces the history of the LGBTQ rights movement.

We caught up with Vachon–one of our longtime heroes–just following the premiere of Halston, and just ahead of the finale of Pride to talk about both shows, her career, and her incredible contribution to queer visibility. Halston streams on Netflix. The finale of Pride airs on FX May 21.

So you’ve had two series come out at once. Do you ever give yourself a break?

It’s a good question. Pride has been in production for some time. We spent most of the pandemic finishing it in post-production. So that required a different kind of energy and intensity than Halston did. That was in very active production when the pandemic hit, went dark for a while, then started back up in the fall.

HALSTON (L to R) REBECCA DAYAN as ELSA PERETTI, EWAN MCGREGOR as HALSTON, and DAVID PITTU as JOE EULA in episode 101 of HALSTON Cr. JOJO WHILDEN/NETFLIX © 2021

When it comes to Halston, it’s my understanding that Daniel, your director, spent 25 years getting the series made. Were you involved that whole time?

Yes. Dan & I met a million years ago on the set of a film called I Shot Andy Warhol.

Yes, we love it.

He was the co-writer of that script and directed second unit. He was very much part of the creative team. We became friendly, and I produced his first feature: Series 7. It’s terrific.

Yes it is.

He brought me the book and said “I really want to tell this story.” Now, as you can probably tell, I’m obsessed with fashion…not.

[Laughter]

Halston—I remember the guy from “I Love New York” ads and Studio 54 and Bianca Jagger. When I really got under the hood of the story and saw what it was really about, I became equally passionate. So yes, for 25 years—I don’t want to make it sound like we toiled away relentlessly. Obviously, Dan went on and had an extraordinary career as a director, and Killer Films went on to make about 100 more movies. That’s not an exaggeration. We really did make that many.

Wow.

We kept coming back to Halston to try and figure out how to crack it—the best way to tell the story. We would periodically set it up somewhere else, get it to a certain point, and then, for whatever reason, it would not progress. And look, sometimes I think we needed to wait 20 years so Ewan would be old enough to play it. Sometimes I just think the zeitgeist had to swing back around to us so the story had the kind of potency it has for our times right now.

You mention Ewan. Was he always your first choice to play Halston?

I think back in the day when we weren’t close to the point of attaching cast, we really didn’t [have someone in mind]. I can’t ever remember who we talked about in the abstract. When we kicked it back into gear a couple years ago and started working in earnest to get it mounted, Ewan was our first and only choice.

HALSTON (L to R) EWAN MCGREGOR as HALSTON, Director DANIEL MINAHAN, and BILL PULLMAN as DAVID MAHONEY in episode 102 of HALSTON Cr. ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/NETFLIX © 2021

And he’s wonderful in the show; it’s some of his best work.

I couldn’t agree more.

That said, there was blowback over his casting before the show premiered. You’re someone who has worked with many, many queer directors, writers, actors and everything else over the years.

Yeah.

There’s a debate over the meaning of representation—how far it should go, how it should count, etc. As someone who has made a career working with queer filmmakers and actors, how do we find the balance?

I mean, there isn’t a hard and fast rule. I know there are a lot of passionate opinions about this, and I don’t want to be cavalier about it. Obviously, the more representation there is, the better it is for everybody. When queer actors feel like they are able to access the same opportunities as their straight counterparts, a lot of this discussion fades in my opinion.

Sure.

But I understand. Look, when I started out two million years ago, telling stories about the LGBTQ community—trans stories, stories of gay men, people with HIV—getting those stories mounted and told was very, very difficult. Obviously, it’s something that Killer has been on the front line from the beginning. I believe Ewan is extraordinary in the role, and it’s hard for me to imagine anybody else. At the end of the day, we cast the person who would bring this to life in the best possible way.

Well said.

HALSTON (L to R) EWAN MCGREGOR as HALSTON in episode 102 of HALSTON Cr. ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/NETFLIX © 2021

You’ve already mentioned Pride was a difficult, involved project. I’ve already talked to Tom Kalin & Cheryl Dunye. How did you select your directors for the show?

I had existing relationships with some of them, but not all of them. We wanted it to be a very eclectic group. I felt very strongly that I wanted some of the OGs represented. In my mind, I went to Tom and Cheryl about the same moment. They were the two that I knew would bring something to it that was really extraordinary. Now, every director did, believe me. But what I’m really proud of about these seven directors—episode four, the 80s, had two directors—what I’m really proud of is that it’s a very eclectic group of different ages. They’re coming at it from different points of view. Some of them had never done a documentary before. Some of them weren’t alive at all during the decades they do. It gives it an intimate yet epic feel that I wanted it to have. So I feel really good about the series as a whole.

The remarkable thing watching that show is that all the directors seem to have made their own short film—they’re all very personal. Tom uses actors. Cheryl appears on camera. The 80s episode uses almost entirely home video footage. Was that by design—that each episode would have its own personality? Why that approach?

I guess I felt like there was a way to do a documentary about these six different decades and the steps forward and the steps backward our community took. There was a way to do it that was reasonably generic and linear. And I would have enjoyed that version. But I also feel like that’s a version we’ve seen before. Look, I was really lucky that FX got behind this with us, and got behind the idea of trying to find characters or events you didn’t necessarily know about.

Yes.

One of the things I love about Andrew [Ahn]’s episode is that it talks about all these uprisings and riots that happened before Stonewall that nobody knows about. And he focuses on Bayard Rustin who, as a lot of people say in the episode, if he’d been straight, there would be high schools named after him.

For sure.

So all of that was just an extraordinary way to delve into stories we didn’t already know, and from the filmmaker’s point of view themselves. Andrew is a good example. He was the last filmmaker that came on. I was like you’re doing the 60s. He was like OK! And he had to school himself and find his way into his episode. So it was a big leap of faith for me and FX to let them do this crazy thing. But I’ve been really gratified with the reviews that recognize that’s its strength.

Michael Musto in ‘Pride’

What was the biggest surprise to you?

Good question. Every episode has something. The Nelson Sullivan footage of the 80s—that’s when I was a young person in New York City. Seeing that was a real shock to my system. All that, the 80s I hold very close. But I love the 70s—Cheryl’s episode, and those voices. Of course I know who Audre Lorde is, but seeing her ripple effect [was inspiring]. And I love that Cheryl included Barbara Hammer. How great is that? I hope she’s a revelation to people.

Yes. I hadn’t heard of Barbara, but immediately had an interest after seeing her film footage. Her direction is some of the most erotic, sensual I’ve ever seen.

You are the Godmother of queer cinema. Your movies have changed. Lives. Was that something you set out to be?

I think it’s really important to put in context that I started my producing career in the 80s. It was right in the middle of the AIDS crisis. I think what that did was cause a great acceleration. There was a sense of urgency that if we didn’t tell our stories, nobody else would. And nobody cared what was happening to our community. I try and describe that time to young queer people, and it’s hard for them to grasp the disenfranchisement we felt. It felt like our community was dying this horrible death every day, and there was no sense that it mattered.

Yeah.

So especially the first few movies I made came out of we are going to have a legacy. We will tell our stories by any means necessary. As time went on and I developed relationships with Tom Kalin and Todd Haynes and Rose Troche, I started to realize the kind of movies I wanted to make didn’t necessarily all need to be queer-themed. But they did need to feel like they were telling stories that were fresh and provocative that no one else would tell.

Justin Vivian Bond & Kate Bornstien in ‘Pride’

That’s dangerous filmmaking, particularly in a historical context. Has that ever limited you? What kind of treatment have you received as a queer person in the business? What about as a woman?

I mean, look, I’ve had a great career. I can’t really complain about anything. I think that—to go back to Halston—my great lesson was figuring out the collision between art and commerce. One of the most empowering thing that happened—our first film, for example, Poison—we made it for a few hundred thousand dollars with financiers and grants. The movie went to the Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize. Then it opened at the Angelica in New York City and broke records. It made records that stood for a very long time. The lesson to me was that queer people were so desperate for representation that they needed to see themselves on screen, even in a film that in many ways was very experimental. I had this epiphany that if you make a queer movie for the right amount of money, it can make its money back. And you can make another one. And it doesn’t have to cross over. Our audience will show up. That was incredibly empowering. I saw a path.

That’s a good setup. Last question then: Orson Welles used to say that every artist should have that one thing, that one work that, when he met his maker, he could show God and say “Let me in to Heaven.” You’ve had a long, exciting, prolific career. What is that for you?

You know, it’s hard to say. Every movie is my favorite while I’m making it. The one thing I will say is that I get stopped on the street every couple of weeks and somebody says “You made my favorite movie.” I always stop to see what it is; it’s never the same movie. Sometimes it’s Hedwig. Sometimes it’s Velvet Goldmine. Sometimes it’s Far From Heaven. Sometimes it’s The World to Come. I guess if you can keep making movies that someone can call their favorite…that’s why I should go to Heaven.

Can’t argue with that.

Halston streams on Netflix. The finale of Pride airs on FX May 21.