20 Years of Killer Films: Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon on queer cinema and “Carol”

This Saturday, Outfest Los Angeles will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Killer Films, a production company created and run by Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler. Killer has been behind some of the best queer and indie cinema of the last two decades, including Go Fish, Kids, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Boys Don’t Cry and Party Monster. As their reputation grew, they worked on more mainstream projects such as the Academy Award-winning Still Alice and Todd HaynesMildred Pierce mini-series on HBO.

Christine, an out lesbian, and Todd, an out gay filmmaker, have collaborated on several works since 1991, beginning with Todd’s first full-length Poison and following with 1995’s Safe, starring Julianne Moore, who would later go on to star in Todd’s critically acclaimed Far From Heaven. In 1998, Killer and Todd worked together on Velvet Goldmine, a musical film set against the backdrop of ’70s glam rock starring Jonathan Rhys Myers, Christian Bale and Ewan McGregor in bisexual roles as artists turned pop culture icons. (The film was loosely based on David Bowie, Iggy Pop and the sexually fluid rock stars that famously stretched the sexual boundaries of the era.)

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Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes will both appear at Outfest’s celebration of Killer Films with a special screening of Velvet Goldmine and Q&A tomorrow night. We spoke with them about queer filmmaking and festivals and Carol their new highly anticipated adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s lesbian-themed novel The Price of Salt.

AfterEllen.com: There’s frequently a discussion on if we still need gay and lesbian film festivals. As filmmakers who screen at Outfest as well as places like Sundance or Cannes, what are your thoughts on that?

Todd Haynes: I come from that generation where—I mean, I always had questions about what defined queerness, gayness, in the arts and any particular medium. And yet, I also came from that generation that still had to sort of occupy the margins of dominant culture with a great deal of productive results and critical and creative and artistic results because of that. And so all of the legislative advances that we’ve seen that have been extraordinary and stunning and incontestably good for young gay people coming out and gay couples who want to raise kids and get married and have all the freedoms of heterosexual life, we also lose things in the process. We lose that marginality which also produced that kind of edge, and that kind of innate critical perspective to the world.

I think that discussion could also be broadened and we could talk about who does stand outside of dominant society these days and what does that even mean and where does that even exist politically or culturally, because we have such a consumptive mass media and digital culture that’s all about inclusion and, in many ways, the victory of capitalism over  those ideas. So I think it’s connected to a whole set of cultural shifts that comes with good and bad side effects. These are healthy discussions to have.

Christine Vachon: I love film festivals. I think the identity crisis that some gay and lesbian film festivals are having has more to do with the fact that they used to serve their community one way, which was providing the only queer content that there was, and I remember going to some film festivals in the late ’90s with certain movies and the movies were mobbed because they created a sense of community, they brought queer people together, and was probably only one time a year. And now that people have access to all different kinds of content and there’s not that same urgency like if we don’t bring this queer movie to Tulsa, they’re never going to get to see anything and there’s a kid in Tulsa can download the entire works of Fassbender if he or she wants to. So I think in some ways queer film festivals have to redefine what they are to the community.


AE: One of the things Velvet Goldmine did well that not a lot of other queer movies tend to do is focus on bisexuality. Most of the time, a queer film is either seen as a “gay” movie or a “lesbian” movie. Do you see that aspect resonating with people?

TH: I think that’s also a characteristic of today’s sort of preferences in understanding sexual orientation and even sexual identity as well, gender identity, that we’re much more comfortable with absolute notions of absolute born-that-way homosexuality and born-that-way heterosexuality and absolute identification with a single sexual identity or gender identity and the changing over to the other side if that’s what you feel within yourself. I have always found that middle area—that grey area—produces a lot of really interesting issues and that’s really what that particular era was all about in the early ’70s. It was about that sort of bisexual imagination and androgynous kind of sensibility. And I think what I like about it is that it’s destabilizing.

I think whenever notions of identity or identify politics or sexual politics are all about this sort of idea that everybody’s just so secure in their absolute sense of self. I always go “Really? I don’t know.” [laughs] I think it’s when you’re not so absolutely secure that you start to really think more subtly about the world and about who you are and what these identities are.

So I found that to be a radical experiment that went on during those years and to, of course, address that period of time, I had to really fully commit to that and get deep into it. It was exciting. It was provocative. When that film came out, I did feel slight hesitation on the part of queer communities in knowing exactly how to deal with it. I mean it had its criticisms, particularly in the UK , which is absurd when you look at the whole style of the film, about it’s authenticity to real life historical facts and all that stuff. But I did notice that the gay community in general—I thought this was a totally radical film for queerness and yet, maybe people weren’t ready for it when it first appeared.


AE: Did Outfest pick Velvet Goldmine or was that your decision? I’m wondering if there are any of your films at Killer that are more women-focused you would have also liked to screen.

CV: I think we had a discussion what some of my favorite movies are and Velvet Goldmine‘s way up there on the top of the list. I think Velvet Goldmine has an extraordinary performance by Toni Colette in it, one of her earlier ones. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say has no women in it. [My women-focused pick is] I Shot Andy Warhol.