The 25th SCAD Savannah Film Festival presents Wonder Women: Producers (the Christine Vachon edition)
Moderated by Darrien Gipson, Executive Director of SAGindie, this year’s Wonder Women: Producers discussion at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival was unmissable, primarily for two obvious reasons, the first being the sheer diversity of attendees. Alongside white Britons Alison Owen (Elizabeth, Save Mr. Banksperennial panelist and advisory board member of the SCAD Savannah Film Festival) and producer-manager Laura Berwick (Belfast, It’s all trueand longtime representative of Sir Kenneth), there was British-Jamaican writer-actress-producer Nicole Lecky (Vibe, The Moorish Girl) and American actress and producer Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft County, Birds of prey). Then there was the second reason – the presence of the “grande dame” of independent cinema (by Gipson), Christine Vachon (far from paradise, Carol), who has been directing his female-led Killer Films since the mid-’90s. In other words, Vachon had more than a panel’s worth of wisdom to dispense.
The discussion began with the topic of “having multiple irons in the fire,” which is crucial to any successful producing career. Vachon mentioned that while she still considers her business “tailor-made,” she finds herself invested in more TV projects than ever before. As a producer with a small team of six who has made eight shocking films since the start of the pandemic, the Killer Films executive knows the value of embracing this “time of extraordinary disruption” (whether due to a global disease or global streamers). The things she took for granted – say, if a project works “theatrically” – are completely different now. (“What makes a movie stream?” is a question Vachon often tries to answer.) The key, she decided, is the audience, that is, say how to identify what makes a film “for adults”, or something that brings these people to the theater? Even though these seismic shifts are continually happening under his feet, a grower still needs to act quickly.
On the subject of relationship building, Gipson reached out specifically to Vachon asking him to work with the same directors and actors for decades. How is she able to maintain these close ties? Surprisingly for a producer currently collaborating with the same director she launched her career with, Vachon revealed that she made many mistakes in the first five or ten years. Now that she is 30, she has learned from those mistakes. For example, the head of Killer Films stays away from directors who “embrace chaos” because that method just doesn’t work for her. She then warmly reflected on the filming of Haynes Carol, and evokes the fact that the role of a producer is twofold: you are there to “protect the vision”, while being respectful of the financiers. That said, this tension is actually “what makes it happen”. (Gipson added that if it’s too easy, you need to ask yourself if you’re doing the best job.)
Referencing Vachon’s vast and eclectic filmography, Gipson also wondered if there might be one type of project she would adamantly refuse to do. After a pause to reflect, the leading lady said that really nothing was “taboo”. Vachon is quite proud to have nurtured a variety of visions from directors, as well as individual DPs, production designers and craftsmen below the line. She also focuses on advocating for women and people of color. (So it was no surprise to learn that Killer Films had actually reached out to SCAD to bring in college students for an upcoming Savannah shoot.) Indeed, Gipson recalled a statistic that female-led projects turned out 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 hour drew to a close (and a photo shoot with a fog machine briefly set off a fire alarm in the adjoining room), Gipson bravely launched the Q&A from the audience. When a young woman of color asked about managing budgets when a producer has little funding, Vachon was quick to dismiss the idea that funding should be equated with a solution. In reality, having money or not having it is just a choice between “throwing money at the problem” and “creatively”. solve the problem.” What are the myriad ways a producer can achieve a specific vision with the means at their disposal? Gipson then pointed out that not having financing inevitably teaches a producer how to handle the problems they will inevitably encounter when the “Money will come in. In other words, big budgets don’t solve the fundamental problems. A useful lesson that Hollywood seems to teach the indie world time and time again.