Moderated by SAGindie Executive Director Darrien Gipson, this year’s Wonder Women: Producers discussion at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival was a must-attend, primarily for two obvious reasons, the first being the wide variety of attendees. In addition to the white Brit Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Save Mr Bankslongtime panelist and member of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival Advisory Board) and executive producer Laura Berwick (Belfast, everything is trueand longtime spokesman for Sir Kenneth), there was English-Jamaican author, actress and producer Nicôle Lecky (mood, The Moor Girl) and American actress and producer Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft County, birds of prey). Then there was the second reason – the presence of indie film’s “grande dame” (per Gipson), Christine Vachon (Far from heaven, Carol), which has been running her female-led Killer Films since the mid-’90s. In other words, Vachon had more than the wisdom of a panel to hand out.
The discussion started with the topic of “having several irons in the fire” which is crucial to any successful career as a producer. Vachon mentioned that while she still considers her company “bespoke,” she finds herself invested in more television projects than ever before. As a producer with a small team of six that has made a shocking eight films since the pandemic began, the Killer Films exec knows the importance of embracing this “time of extraordinary disruption” (whether it be from global disease or worldwide streamers). Things she used to take for granted – like whether a project would work “theatrically” – are very different now. (“What makes something a streaming movie?” is a question Vachon often probes.) The key, she insists, is the audience — ie how do we tell what makes a “mature” movie or something mind bringing these people to the theater? Even with these seismic shifts constantly happening underfoot, a producer still needs to act fast.
On the subject of relationship building, Gipson specifically reached out to Vachon to ask about decades of working with the same directors and actors. How does she manage to maintain these close ties? Surprisingly for a producer currently working with the same director she started her career with, Vachon revealed that she made a lot of mistakes in the first five or 10 years. Now that she’s hit the 30-year mark, she’s learned from those mistakes. For example, the head of Killer Films stays away from directors who “embrace the chaos” because that method just doesn’t work for her. She then warmly thought about filming Haynes Carol, and brought up the fact that a producer’s role is twofold: you’re there to “protect the vision” while also respecting the financiers. That is, this tension is actually “what makes it possible”. (Gipson chimed in if it’s too easy, you have to ask yourself if you’re doing the best job.)
Referring to Vachon’s extensive and eclectic filmography, Gipson also wondered if there could be any type of project that she would be adamantly opposed to. After a pause for thought, the Grande Dame explained that nothing was really “taboo”. Vachon is quite proud to have sponsored a variety of directorial visions – as well as individual DPs, production designers and craftsmen under the helm. She also focuses on the advancement of women and people of color. (So it was unsurprising to learn that Killer Films had actually approached SCAD to bring students on board for an upcoming Savannah shoot.) Gipson actually recalled a statistic that female-led projects were more diverse as a result. (Unfortunately, according to another study, people of color are still underrepresented among casting directors, meaning they “may not see the actor,” the SAGindie EP lamented.)
As the class drew to a close (and a smoke machine photoshoot momentarily set off a fire alarm in the adjacent room), Gipson boldly began the Q&A from the audience. When a young black woman asked about budgets when a producer was short on funds, Vachon quickly dismissed the idea that finances should equate to solutions. In reality, having money or not having money is just a choice between “throwing money at the problem” and “creating it.” solve the problem.” What myriad ways are there for a producer to achieve a particular vision with the resources at her disposal? Gipson then pointed out that the lack of funding inevitably teaches a producer how to deal with problems that arise he’ll inevitably bump when the money rolls in. In other words, big budgets don’t solve core problems Hollywood always seems to teach the indie world a helpful lesson.