“LOOK, I can’t say anything new on this subject,” Christine Vachon is telling me from her New York office. “I witnessed a lot of bullying and anger and …” She hesitates for a moment. “I’m not really comfortable talking about this and I don’t really feel I have anything new to add to the discussion. He was an asshole and everybody knew it."

We are talking about Harvey Weinstein in case you hadn’t guessed. Vachon, a film producer with more than 100 credits to her name worked with Weinstein’s Miramax company back in the late 1990s on the films Office Killer and Velvet Goldmine.

This is the second time I’ve spoken to her and the first time I’ve heard her reticent to answer a question. The gravity of Weinstein's alleged conduct wasn't widely known, she suggests. "But there was a lot of bad behaviour that people did know about.”

Loading article content

It is early 2018 and it’s hard to imagine any conversation about the American film industry not revolving around the allegations about Weinstein right now. Which is a pity, really, because a) as should be already clear, Vachon doesn’t really want to talk about it, and b) she has so much more to talk about.

Vachon, after all, was one of the prime movers in America’s New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, and of late has been diversifying into television with Z: The Beginning Of Everything, in which Christina Ricci plays Zelda Fitzgerald. In short, Vachon is proof that the indie spirit in cinema can survive and thrive and end up winning Oscars (for Boys Don’t Cry) and Oscar nominations for Todd Haynes’s 2015 drama, Carol.

In fact, her relationship with Haynes stretches back to the New Queer Cinema days and the 1991 film Poison. She has produced all his films since then, including his latest, Wonderstruck, which will screen in this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. A mystery drama starring Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams and Oakes Fegley, it's the first children’s movie they’ve made together. The first children’s movie Vachon has been involved in at all, I reckon.

“I don’t think we’ve necessarily made a film for kids before,” she agrees. “We’ve certainly made films that young people enjoy like Camp, or Hedwig [And The Angry Inch], or Velvet Goldmine. But they’re certainly not kids’ films.”

Well, indeed. Those are films concerning sexual identity, sexual emasculation and glam rock respectively. So, Wonderstruck – based on a Brian Selznick novel which intertwines two young people's stories, which take place 50 years apart – is a new direction for both Haynes and Vachon then. As well as another example, of course, of their ongoing collaboration.

“We have known each other for so long. We’re close friends. He never has to question my motives and I never have to question his. He knows I’ll always tell him the truth and he knows when he tells me: ‘Look, I can compromise up to here but not past it,’ I will do my utmost to make sure that he doesn’t have to.

“And it helps when you’re in the trenches with somebody to actually like them, to feel like you’re lucky to be there.”

Haynes is lucky, too, to have Vachon at his back. Since the late 1980s she has been a formidable force in getting films made, as well as being role model for indie film-making.

In that capacity she travelled to Glasgow last year for the film festival, which is when I first meet her. She’s already been to the science museum and had lunch in the Ubiquitous Chip before sitting down to talk to me.

In 2017 when we talk it’s not long after the Oscars, the lead-up to which had been dominated by the #notsostraight hashtag and criticisms that the awards were very white and very heterosexual.

Vachon was, emphatically, not part of the problem. “This year we had four films at Sundance and none of them were by straight white men. But I didn’t say last year: ‘OK gang, this is what we’re going to do …’

“Diversity comes when you’re more inclusive. A lot of it is about mentorship. An older guy will give a younger guy a chance and often they will say: ‘He reminds me of me.’

“When I was coming up people would say: ‘Who were the women who would help you along the way?’ And I’d say: ‘Well, there weren’t that many.’

“And there was a feeling among women that there was not much space at the table. ‘Why would I help you get a space? You might bump me out.’ So, I try very hard to mentor when I can.”

A year on, the problems have taken a darker turn. “There’s a lot of looking outwards and inwards right now,” she says. “Everyone is analysing their own behaviour and when they did and didn’t speak up and could they have spoken up?

“I’m very used to attending events or conferences or panels and I get there and realise I’m the only woman there and then, if you bring it up, usually you get the eye roll. ‘There she goes again. There’s that ...’ insert lesbian/feminist/whatever you want to put in there. Or: ‘Can’t you give it a rest?’

“So, you decide after a while to pick your battles and figure out when to really protest exclusion and when to go with it. Hopefully that is starting to fade away.”

Of course, the reason Vachon is invited in the first place is that she has such an impressive track record. She is a model for indie film-makers. What, I wonder, is the skillset of a good film producer?

“I think you have to have a certain fearlessness. You have to be really open to taking risks, whether that’s on a particular talent or a new filmmaker or a story that will strike a chord. It’s tough."

Do you have to be the grown-up in the room? “That depends. We do a lot of movies for first or second-time directors and sometimes that’s a question of just letting actors know that there is a real vision to this particular project. And, yes, we are the grown-ups in the room.

“A film set is such a living, breathing organism. There are certain times when certain departments are at war with each other for whatever reason. You’ve got to understand how it all clicks so you can solve the problem.”

You’re telling me ego is sometimes an issue, Christine? “Ego is always an issue. But you know on Wonderstruck we were working with extraordinary technicians – [production designer] Mark Friedberg, [costume designer] Sandy Powell, [cinematographer] Ed Lachman – and it was a case of the costumes allowing the design to allow the cinematography to shine.”

Before we met I watched a talk Vachon gave in Cannes a few years back when she said she didn’t want to work with difficult directors any more. What’s her definition of difficult?

“Well, some people would laugh at that and say: ‘But you’ve worked with directors who are difficult.’ But for me if a director is being difficult about making his or her story as immaculately told as possible then I have great sympathy. It doesn’t bother me. Then I work as hard as I can to help him or her to achieve it.

“When a director is difficult about things that I don’t think really matter – whether it’s the size of his trailer or things like then – then I don’t like it.

“Or sometimes a director has read one of those damn books on directing and feels like the only way they can prove they know what they’re doing is to do 50 takes. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t times when 50 takes are warranted but for most young directors who read what Sirk did or what Hitchcock did … Oh, come on.”

Did Vachon ever want to direct? “No, I never did. I did a couple of short films that are now actually being uncovered … I’m not sure how I feel about that. I worked on a lot of film sets as an assistant director, locations manager, line producer and so I got a sense of how it all worked, and I started to think: ‘I get the directing thing. You’re kind of king of the set.' Somebody said to me directing was all day you make decisions and it’s true. ‘The red one not the green one. I don’t like that chair …’ That sort of thing.

“But I thought there is this whole other world that makes this all move and that was a little more interesting to me. And I’ve been able to produce 100 films in my 30 years of doing this and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was directing.”

Vachon grew up in New York in the 1970s and was an inveterate filmgoer. She remembers with affection being 11 or 12 and going down to Times Square to see a horror movie. Or something that sounded like a horror movie. “And it was, but not in the way we thought.” That was Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers.

It fired something in her and by the late 1980s and early 1990s she was beginning to make her way in the world of cinema. She was one of the key figures in the new queer cinema, producing films such as Swoon and Stonewall.

“I feel when people talk about that time they always leave out the single biggest thing which was the Aids crisis. Those queer films didn’t come out of nowhere.”

When we first speak it is during the first days of the Trump era. The sense of disenfranchisement that is suddenly bubbling up, she says, was there in the Reagan era too.

“Our country was being run by somebody who couldn’t even say 'Aids' out loud and was clearly not going to do anything to help us. And so, there was a sense of urgency. If we’re not going to tell these stories they’re not going to get told at all.”

The Aids crisis came to her door too. Nigel Finch, the director of Stonewall, was unable to finish cutting the film because he was ill, and it was left to Vachon, the film’s editor and Finch’s creative partner Anthony Wall to cut the movie.

“It was a very emotional time obviously. We were finishing the film in Nigel’s home whilst he was upstairs basically dying. I think the film holds up. It’s hard to find in the US now and I’d love to give it another life.”

Vachon still lives in New York with her partner Marlene McCarty and their adopted daughter Guthrie. She has a life outwith cinema. But cinema is still her life, if only because people keep reminding her.

“About once a month in New York City somebody says to me: ‘You made my favourite movie.’ And I never know what movie they’re going to say. They never say the same one. Sometimes they say Hedwig, sometimes they say this movie called The Grey Zone, which is about as bleak as you could get. Sometimes they say films that never found a big audience like Postcards From America.

“If you can make a movie worthy of being somebody’s favourite film that’s pretty great.”

Wonderstruck is screening at the Glasgow International Film Festival on February 22 and February 23. For more information and tickets visit glasgowfilm.org/festival.