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Christine Vachon: Lesbian producer talks 'Mildred Pierce'
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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One of the most enduring creative partnerships in films is that between out writer-director Todd Haynes and lesbian producer Christine Vachon.

The duo have worked together since they both made their feature debut with Poison in 1991. Poison helped kick-start the age of New Queer Cinema, and neither Vachon nor Haynes has looked back since.

Vachon has produced a staggering number of bona fide queer classics since that auspicious start. Aside from her work with Haynes on all his film projects (including Velvet Goldmine, Safe, Far From Heaven and I'm Not There), Vachon has produced Swoon, Go Fish, Boys Don't Cry, Stonewall, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, A Home At the End of the World and Camp as well as a batch of other notable indie movies, such as Kids, Storytelling, A Dirty Shame, Infamous, An American Crime and Then She Found Me. Along the way she's found time to write two books about her fascinating career as an independent film producer.

Now Vachon, again collaborating with Haynes, has produced her most ambitious project yet: the eagerly awaited five-hour miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain's 1941 novel Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood (slated to debut on Sunday, March 27, on HBO). Speaking from the offices of her Killer Films production company in New York, Vachon, forthright and passionately opinionated, didn't mince words on a number of topics.

Windy City Times: I'm a huge fan of the original novel and the 1945 Michael Curtiz film, which I think has overshadowed the book for 55 years.

Christine Vachon: Well, I think most people, because of the movie, feel that the story of Mildred Pierce is a film noir and that it takes place in the '40s and that Mildred's in her 40s. I love the movie, too. I think there's been a lot of Internet activity with people saying, "How could anybody possibly remake this classic?," but I think what they have to understand is that we're not doing a remake. We're going back to the original material and we're interpreting that original material in a way that is much more closely aligned with Cain's original vision. It's just a different approach.

Windy City Times:It's a little bit similar to what the Coen brothers just did with True Grit.

Christine Vachon: That is true.

Windy City Times:In this case, though, we're dealing not with John Wayne but with generations of gay men and the overwhelming power of—well, let's just call it the "Joan Crawford effect." [Both laugh.] So, how does Kate Winslet compare to her in your opinion?

Christine Vachon: It's a spurious comparison because it's almost like they're playing two different characters. Mildred is 28 when the original book begins and 34 when it ends, and it's about a young woman during the Depression whose husband leaves her and who has to figure out a way to survive. The backdrop of the Depression is very, very important in the book, and that didn't even exist in the movie.

Windy City Times:Yes, it begins in 1931. I'm amazed how closely the series recreates the period and adheres to the book. For Cain fans this is going to be nirvana. It's extraordinarily detailed.

Christine Vachon: Todd [Haynes, co-writer/director] always thought of this as a long-form piece, and that's what was exciting about it for him.

Windy City Times:You've been with Todd since you both made your debuts together with Poison. What is that you love about working with him so much?

Christine Vachon: We're old friends and we have a real shorthand with the way we talk to each other. It's just a very comfortable, very loyal relationship.

Windy City Times:Does a shared queer sensibility have anything to do with it?

Christine Vachon: I don't know, honestly. I'm not sure there is such a thing.

Windy City Times:I know sometimes it's hard to discern, but here's the gay movie critic looking at things from a queer perspective.

Christine Vachon: Right. I get that.

Windy City Times:Has Todd ever brought you anything where you've said, "Nah, not for me?"

Christine Vachon: No. At this point it's inconceivable to me that I would not produce his work and I just assume that whatever he finds interesting I will find something to love about it.

Windy City Times:So, there was no hesitation about Mildred Pierce, which meant that people were going to have to be taught, "This is not a remake of the Joan Crawford version?"

Christine Vachon: Well, I think you're giving people a little too much credit. Certainly, your readers will be aware of the Joan Crawford movie but the vast majority of the people who are going to see this probably are not.

Windy City Times:When it comes to movies with gay content you're the ultimate producer. Is that something you've consciously sought out—to tell Our Stories?

Christine Vachon: I think I tell the stories that I want to tell and sometimes they're gay-related and sometimes they're not. Sometimes I work with gay directors and sometimes I don't. I kind of don't think about it so much that way.

Windy City Times:But there is something about that "Outsider" figure that runs through most of your films which I think correlates to Our People: Would you agree? Certainly the character of Mildred—given the time period [and her being] a divorced, single working mother—is very much an outsider. And there's such shame about her having to work as a waitress.

Christine Vachon: Well, I think it's shameful to her. They had lived a better life and now that the better life was slipping out of their grasp she had to go to work. The notion of being middle-class and then having to go down a level in order to survive was terrifying to her and that certainly will resonate with audiences today. She then very quickly puts all her hopes and dreams onto her daughter who inevitably moved ahead of her in class and then looked down on her.

Windy City Times:Has that scenario ever crossed your mind with your daughter?

Christine Vachon: Well, this is an entirely different interview but I do think we're looking at a generation of children right now whose parents overparent them and who are going to be incapable really of doing anything for themselves in 10 years. I really do think that.

Windy City Times:That's another striking modern parallel from this 70-year-old novel. Now, as a producer and observer of the movie scene, do you have any clue where gay movie audiences have gone?

Christine Vachon: They went to their computers like everyone else. I think the better question is what happened to movie audiences, period? We're just consuming media in different ways.

Windy City Times:So as we go down the road, will you produce in a different manner? Will you do more work for HBO? Certainly, the dramatic genre has almost literally disappeared from movie theaters.

Christine Vachon: We plan to be very involved in projects for HBO and these other avenues.

Windy City Times:Are there queer films that you've seen in the last little while that you've appreciated?

Christine Vachon: I just don't know what makes a movie "queer."

Windy City Times:I understand that that term can be problematic, but isn't there also a badge of honor attached to that?

Christine Vachon: I don't know. Honestly, I just don't think about it that much. When I first started, frankly, the so-called queer community didn't embrace me. They certainly didn't think much of Poison. They hated Swoon. They thought Go Fish was okay except—then women complained that it should have shown every single type of lesbian that existed. They felt Safe should have been about AIDS instead of environmental illness. So … I've never been on the right side of the queer community. I've never even gone to the GLAAD awards.

Windy City Times:Have you perceived a shift in tastes since you began producing with Todd?

Christine Vachon: Not really, to be honest. When we made Go Fish, for example, I'm not sure that audiences today would tolerate the low-budget aesthetic of that film now. Then they did because it was so novel to specifically target a movie at gay women. Everyone forgave it for being in black and white. But I could be wrong. Every year something comes out of Sundance that I am surprised audiences go for but they do. In some ways, then as now, the real trick for an independent film to be successful is for it to be truly original—a true alternative.

Of related interest: Cinema Q is presenting a free screening of Go Fish Wed., March 23, at 6:30 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center/Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington.

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