When actors Zazie Beetz and Jack Quaid read the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards live in January, thousands of cinephiles and creators waited with bated breath to hear their names called. And among those names was one of Hollywood’s most vaunted: Christine Vachon, co-founder of the influential independent studio Killer Films. Vachon has made a name for herself over the last 30 years as a producer, helping steer filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, and Janicza Bravo toward greatness. The projects she’s had a hand in over the years make for an impressive, diverse crop: Kids, Boys Don’t Cry, Still Alice, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch are among the most acclaimed works she and Killer Films have produced over the years.
Vachon is no stranger to the awards circuit, thanks to her enviable Rolodex. But this is the first time that she herself was nominated for an Oscar, as a producer on Past Lives. To those who (rightly!) think that films she produced like Carol, Far From Heaven, and First Reformed merited consideration in the Best Picture races, this may come as a surprise. But then, fans of directors like Haynes and Paul Schrader are probably used to the concept of “snubs.”
Whether Vachon believes in the “snub” concept is a different story—but she certainly believes that an Oscar nod is an exciting thing, especially for a film as remarkable as Past Lives. Vachon spoke to The Daily Beast’s Obsessed from the Killer Films office in New York, not long after hearing her name called on live TV, about how it feels to finally be an Oscar nominee, why other Killer movies like May December have had a harder time breaking into awards season, and whether the persistent discourse surrounding those who weren’t nominated this year has much merit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination! This is your first one ever, right?
Our movies have been nominated many times—they’ve won Best Actress for Julianne [Moore], Best Actress for Hilary Swank. Cate Blanchett’s been nominated. Rooney Mara. Todd [Haynes] was nominated for screenplay. Carol itself got six nominations.
But I’ve never been nominated. I’ve never had a [Best Picture] nomination, which is the only thing that counts as a producer.
How did it feel to hear your name when Past Lives was announced for Best Picture?
I don’t think any of us do this for awards. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel great when it happens. I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I don’t take any of it for granted. I know that we’ve made many movies that stand the test of time, and that I’m really proud of and didn’t get nominated for whatever reason. [But] I can’t pretend that the recognition doesn’t feel good.
When did you find out? Were you watching the nominations announcement live?
We were watching live from Sundance where we were premiering another movie called A Different Man, also with A24. I was with some of the Killer Films staff, Anna Robinson and Mason Potts and Gabby Myers. We were able to all be together and see it unfold. Then I didn’t even hear my name, because the second they said Past Lives, everybody started to scream. I had to go back and watch it on YouTube.
Past Lives has been in the awards conversation for a while. While it was picking up nominations, were you starting to mentally prepare for the Best Picture nomination?
I was hoping that it would [be nominated]—not just for me, but for the movie, for Celine, for my fellow producers on the film, David Hinojosa and Pam Koffler. But I just know how capricious things are. It was the weeks leading up, and many, many people were like, “Oh, come on, you must feel completely confident. It's in the bag.” And I was just like, “Nothing’s in the bag. That’s just not how it works.”
I’ve just seen many films that I just assumed were on that track but at the finish line, they just didn’t quite get over the hump, including Carol. [So] the night before, both David and I confessed to each other that we were really, really anxious.
And it was a tough year too—a lot of great movies and performances didn't get nominated at all or as much as people hoped. Let’s get back to that in a minute. What appealed to you about Past Lives initially?
There’s something very personal about [Past Lives], obviously, but then it radiates out into such a universal story. And reading it, we all thought that the absolute best version of this could be extraordinarily universal. I think [Celine Song] really did make the best version of it—the acting, the casting was spot on, the performances are tremendous, the visual style really serves the story. It’s all those things that you always try so hard to pull off, and I think, in this movie, [Song] really did.
Another movie that Killer Films worked on this year was May December. It received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but a lot of critics and fans online were surprised or disappointed that the film wasn’t recognized in any other categories. Have you also been surprised by May December’s awards season performance?
I think we were prepared when the [Screen Actors Guild] nominations didn’t recognize the movie and when the [Producers Guild of America] didn’t recognize the film. Look—I know how good that movie is, and I really want Todd [Haynes] to get his due. It would have been great if it was on this film. But he’s got more extraordinary films in him, and I’m hoping it will happen. And I don’t want to speak for him, but I do believe he'd be the first to say, “I don’t do it for awards.”
I think he would have liked to see his actors recognized, and he probably feels a little disappointed for them. But, you know, everyone’s like, “On to the next.”
Something that stands out about Killer Films is that it does put out a lot of films about or made by queer people, women, or people of color. The Academy is often accused of not recognizing movies by more diverse voices. Do you ever take that into consideration when thinking about why certain Killer projects haven’t broken further into the Oscars pack?
I think every year we get some happy surprises, like, “Wow, they did recognize that really cool movie!” But then you might [also] get, “How could they not have [nominated this movie]? How is it possible?” I’m sure you have your list of 10 best movies, and the ones on that list where you’re like, “What the fuck were they thinking?” And I have mine, and they may not be the same… It’s an imperfect system.
Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying, “Possibly.”
There are three films directed by women nominated for Best Picture for the first time ever, including Past Lives, and Anatomy of a Fall’s Justine Triet was nominated for Best Director. But a lot of folks criticized the Academy for not nominating Greta Gerwig as well, and for leaving Margot Robbie out of Best Actress, saying that they “deserved” to be nominated. What do you think of that concept, that some people, performances, or projects “deserve” nominations?
It’s a hard one. I’ve stayed out of that discourse, because I just feel like there’s so many [other] injustices we can zero in on and rattle our sabers about. Greta did get nominated—just not in that category. Margot did get nominated—just not in that category.
I also think the discourse is interesting, even if I’ve decided not to participate. It’s interesting to watch and to see that discussion about what an Academy Award means. It was interesting to me to be reminded that the Academy went from five to 10 best pictures to accommodate the big-budget films, not the little budget movies—not to make sure that the little character-driven dramas could come in, but to make sure that the Barbies could come in.
Right—the Barbies that do still deserve to be there.
You’ve had a great start to the year so far, between premiering some well-received films at Sundance to getting this nomination. What’s up next for you?
We’re working on Celine Song’s next film, and we’re working on Todd Haynes’ next film—both of which we’re very excited about. And then there’s other things that just aren't ready to talk about yet, but there are other exciting projects.
I think everybody is still a little buried under [the strike] and trying to get out. Its ripple effect is a lot bigger than I think everyone sort of anticipated. A lot of stuff was at a precipice, and then the strike happened, and they just can’t get the momentum back, or they can't get the cast back or what have you.
Believe me, I’m not saying the strike shouldn't have happened. Obviously it should have, but we're just dealing pragmatically with the residual [effect] now.
It will definitely be interesting to see how and which projects will pick back up now and in the months to come. Last question: You rocked the red carpet at the Globes. What are you wearing for the Oscars?
I had the great good fortune for the Globes to be dressed by Thom Browne. That was the first time that I had ventured into that territory [of being styled for an event], rather than just taking my cleanest black T-shirt and my combat boots.
I’m starting to think about [the Oscars]. We’ll see. I’m sure on the red carpet, I’ll get relegated to the not-famous side. They’ll try and shuffle [me] into the room as quickly as possible. But I’m going to try and walk in front of those cameras as much as I can.