Haynes + Vachon, Moviemaking Duo

  • by Sura Wood
  • Thursday October 12, 2017
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In 1991, following the release of their first collaboration "Poison," producer Christine Vachon and director Todd Haynes found themselves on the leading edge of what has since been dubbed New Queer Cinema. Nearly three decades and nine successful joint projects later, their partnership is going strong. "Sparks on Celluloid: Haynes + Vachon," a fourth and particularly rich iteration of the Modern Cinema series, showcases seven features from the team, a shorts program, and a free screening of "Mildred Pierce," their five-part miniseries originally broadcast on HBO in 2011, along with over 20 movies that have shaped their cinematic psyches.

Their latest progeny, "Wonderstruck," which will also be shown, tells parallel tales of youngsters on individual quests; one coming of age in the 1920s, the other orphaned and looking for his father in the 1970s. "I knew it was something Todd would have a real field day with," recalls Vachon. "At this point, after working together for almost 30 years, I have a sixth sense of what's important for him to do his best creative work. What he does is so delicate and difficult, and I've developed a strong empathy for his process and an ability to protect it."

Fittingly, the three-week series, mounted by SFFILM and SFMOMA, launches with "Poison." A trio of intercut, overtly gay-themed storylines loosely based on the writings of Jean Genet and shot in a variety of styles, the controversial film was met by a barrage of pornography charges hurled by right-wing coalitions who hadn't seen it. The kerfuffle got the team and their fledgling film noticed.

As far as being on the vanguard of New Queer Cinema, "I feel that the whole notion was invented after the fact and is a little reductive," demurs Vachon. "I've always made the movies I want to make. I've had good and bad brushes with the LGBTQ community. I've made movies they've gotten behind and those that, frankly, they haven't. I've always felt frustrated about what makes a movie a queer film. Is it the content? Is it the sexuality of the director? Is 'Brokeback Mountain' a queer film even though the two actors weren't gay and neither was the director, or does it get a free pass because it's so strong and compelling?"

A refreshingly direct and independent-minded producer with nearly 100 films to her credit, Vachon was behind "Boys Don't Cry" (1999), a quietly devastating adaptation of the Brandon Teena story directed by Kimberly Peirce. Hilary Swank was never better than as the vulnerable young transgender man who, in his search for love, was viciously murdered shortly after he turned 21, a victim of homophobia, jealousy and male dominance at its ugliest. It's shown on the same program as Haynes' "I'm Not There," an unorthodox, gender-bending bio-pic about Bob Dylan, the elusive musician whose rock star personas are embodied by a half-dozen actors including Heath Ledger and a shape-shifting Cate Blanchett.

Of all their productions, "Safe" (1995) faced the most challenges in getting made. It starred Julianne Moore as a woman who goes from uptight ideal housewife to agoraphobic invalid in 1980s suburban Los Angeles, with the AIDS crisis as an unspoken subtext. Audiences were perplexed when it first came out, but since then it has enjoyed a long and fruitful life. "Every single movie is its own kind of epic," concedes Vachon. "It almost didn't get made, and then it did. It almost didn't get out there; then it did. To be honest, none of them was all that fun to make. They're more fun when they're done, and they're really fun when people like them."

For the series Vachon and Haynes each selected an eclectic group of films that had moved them or made a fateful imprint. Haynes chose two suspenseful Hitchcock classics, "The Wrong Man" and "Strangers on a Train," that play on a double bill; Russ Meyer's trusty old chestnut "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls"; and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Lola." He also picked Douglas Sirk's triple-hanky 1950s melodrama "All That Heaven Allows," which most certainly figured into Haynes' own homage to suburban angst, "Far from Heaven."

Vachon admits that, as a kid, her filmgoing tastes were driven by whether or not she liked the title. She was 12 when she saw "Cabaret," which "profoundly affected" her with its historical context and the sexuality it depicted. Among her other selections: "Sweetie" and "A Girl's Own Story," a pair of early works by Aussie director Jane Campion; Peter Jackson's pre-"Lord of the Rings" outing "Heavenly Creatures" (1994), featuring a 19-year-old Kate Winslet in her film debut; and "The Night of the Hunter" (1955), Charles Laughton's terrifying Southern Gothic fever dream in which Robert Mitchum is evil incarnate. A predatory thief and killer masquerading as a preacher, he seduces and murders a mother, then pursues her young children through the countryside after they flee. His portrayal, the stuff of nightmares, has scarred many a childhood. "It blew my mind," Vachon remembers. "Few films went to the places it did."

And perchance, is there a dream project on the horizon? "It's whatever I'm making next. If there's a story I want to tell, I usually figure out a way to do it."

Modern Cinema plays Oct. 12-29 at SFMOMA's Phyllis Wattis Theater. Christine Vachon will attend the screenings of "Wonderstruck" (intro, Q&A) and "Heavenly Creatures" (intro) on Sun., Oct. 22. sffilm.org

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