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'Dreamgirls' Director Bill Condon

Director and screenwriter Bill Condon's new movie, Dreamgirls, is an adaptation of the Broadway hit musical. Condon also wrote and directed Kinsey and Gods and Monsters, for which he won an Oscar.

21:15

Other segments from the episode on December 21, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 21, 2006: Interview with Bill Condon; Interview with Christine Vachon.

Transcript

DATE December 21, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Director and screenwriter Bill Condon discusses his
new film "Dreamgirls"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Dreamgirls")

Unidentified Announcer: And now, the courageous, the curvaceous Creamettes.

Unidentified Actress: It's the Dreamettes. The Dreamettes.

THE DREAMETTES: (Singing) "Move, move, move, right out of my life. Move,
move, move right out of my life.

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "You better move..."

THE DREAMETTES: (Singing) "Move..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: The new film adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" is
one of the big holiday movies this year. Reviewing it in The New Yorker,
David Denby wrote, "A great movie musical has been made at last." "Dreamgirls"
is set in the '60s and is loosely based on the story of the Supremes and Barry
Gordy, who founded the Motown record label. The character closest to Diana
Ross, Deena, is played by Beyonce Knowles. But the actress getting the most
attention in the film is Jennifer Hudson. She just won this year's New York
Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of
Effie. Effie is the original lead singer of the Dreamgirls and has a powerful
gospel-tinged singing style, but when the Dreamgirls' producer decides to take
them in a more pop direction, Deena becomes lead and Effie is eventually
forced out. Eddie Murphy plays a singer who is a composite of rhythm and
blues singers of the period. The Dreamgirls get their start as his backup
singers.

My guest is the director and screenwriter of this new movie, Bill Condon. He
also wrote the screen adaptation of the musical "Chicago," and he wrote and
directed the films "Kinsey" and "Gods and Monsters."

Bill Condon, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

When did you first see the show and what did it mean to you?

Mr. BILL CONDON: Oh, man, I saw it on opening night with a group of friends.
We were in the back row. And what drew me there was a combination of, you
know, lifelong interest in the Supremes with a real kind of just complete kind
of fan adoration of Michael Bennett, you know. I'd grown up in New York. In
high school...

GROSS: I was going to say, he choreographed and directed the original
"Dreamgirls."

Mr. CONDON: That's right and, you know, had come up as a choreographer on
shows like "Company" and "Follies," and obviously "Chorus Line" had been his
breakthrough. And "Dreamgirls" was two shows after that. So it was a
combination of those two things that got me there. And then, of course, being
in that theater that night, an incredible sort of historic, you know,
performance from Jennifer Holiday.

GROSS: Now Michael Bennett passed away in 1987, so he wasn't around to talk
to about the original adaptation but...

Mr. CONDON: No.

GROSS: ...David Geffen was one of the producers of the movie...

Mr. CONDON: That's right.

GROSS: ...and he was also one of the producers of the original show, and you
were able to talk to him. In fact, you needed his blessing and his backing in
order to do it.

Mr. CONDON: Correct. Right. Yes.

GROSS: From what I've read, it sounded like he had originally wanted to do a
film adaptation of "Dreamgirls," and then he decided it wouldn't work. He
wasn't happy with the film adaptation of "A Chorus Line." But you had to
convince him to actually go through with the film adaptation.

Mr. CONDON: Well, yeah.

GROSS: What did you tell him to try to get him enthusiastic about your
version of this?

Mr. CONDON: Well, I think for one thing--you know, I think he sees himself
as the protector of the legacy of Michael Bennett. Michael's not around any
more, and as you said, you know, there have been other adaptations of musicals
that kind of tarnished the reputation of the original material. And when we
got together, and first of all, I was just describing my sense of the show.
You know, when you really get inside this, you realize that everything happens
either on a stage or very close to a stage, and my feeling is that
paradoxically things can become more cinematic by remaining true to their
theatrical roots. You know, often in movies people do things just because you
can. A good example is the "Chorus Line" movie, you know, which on stage the
power comes from the fact that it is happening in real time in that theater
during those two hours, you know. On film, the movie starts with one of the
lead characters crossing the 59th Street bridge, and it's a huge helicopter
shot of the bridge, you know. It's the kind of thing that movies can do, but
you know, I don't know if anyone asked the question, `Why?' You know, that
sort of opening up just for the sake of it. Seemed to me a wrong approach
with "Dreamgirls," that in a way, let's--you know, you take the character
played by Eddie Murphy, you know. We don't really want to see where he lives.
You know, we don't want to see him sort of watching TV and cracking open a
beer. He's a guy who lives on a stage basically. When he's not on a stage,
he's on a tour bus going to the next gig, you know. So it was that kind of
thing, really, really kind of staying true to the theatricality of the show, I
think.

GROSS: Now let's talk about the casting. Jennifer Hudson, who plays the
character of Effie and she's the character who's kicked out of the group
because--well, for a couple--for about three reasons. One is that she's not
pop enough. She sounds, like, too black for the producer's taste.

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

GROSS: Two, she's not gorgeous. She's heavy, and that's no good.

Mr. CONDON: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And three is that she's real temperamental, and you know...

Mr. CONDON: She's difficult. Yeah.

GROSS: She's difficult. Yeah. So you cast Jennifer Hudson in the part, and
as everyone knows now, Jennifer Hudson was one of the people who had been on
"American Idol" the year Fantasia Barrino won.

Mr. CONDON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Well, she got into the top 10, I think.

Mr. CONDON: She did.

GROSS: Yeah. So, apparently, for the auditions you chose her or you and the
casting director chose her from nearly 800 people.

Mr. CONDON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What were the auditions like? Like, what did you have them do? And
as I think everybody knows, like, the showstopper here is this huge--like huge
number that she does in this, you know, really big voice. It's got to be big.

Mr. CONDON: Exactly.

GROSS: So what did you do to get a sense of how big everybody could get and
how convincing they could be getting that big?

Mr. CONDON: Well, first of all, it was a very long process. It took place
over six months, because it felt as if, you know, obviously that number is the
great mountain to climb here, and I really wanted to feel at the end of it
that we'd seen that every--we had a real open-door policy. Everyone who woke
up in the morning, looked in the mirror and said, `I could play Effie in that
movie,' was given a chance, you know, to show what she had. One thing I
didn't let anybody do on their first audition was the song, you know, `And I'm
Telling You." Jennifer, in a very kind of clever way, sang a song from here,
"Easy to Be Hard," as though it were "And I'm Telling You," which I thought
really, really got the idea across, but, you know, it's a song that
is--everybody tried it and it just felt as if, let's see what qualities each
woman has and then, you know, I wanted to work with them before they actually
attempted "And I'm Telling You," so we did hear a lot of "Amazing Grace" and a
lot of "Home" from "The Wiz," you know, but it was really valuable to do it
that way, you know, and it's fascinating. You know, there are brilliant
people who just don't register on film, you know, even on tape you get that
sense. And there are wonderful actresses who came in who just couldn't really
convince you that, you know, when Effie says, `I've got the voice,' that it
was true, you know. So very quickly, as often tends to be the case, what
seems like, you know, an endless list really sort of narrows itself down to
about, in this case, about 10 people, and for those then, I brought them to
Los Angeles and did full-on screen tests with rehearsals and costume and
makeup and hair and all that. And that's really where Jennifer emerged.

GROSS: Let's hear Jennifer Hudson singing an excerpt of the showstopper from
"Dreamgirls."

(Soundbite from "And I Am Telling You")

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) "And time and time we've had so much to
share. No, no, no, no, no, no way, I'm not waking up tomorrow morning and
finding that there's nobody there. There is just no way. No, no, no, no way
I'm leaving without you. I'm not leaving without you. You see, there's just
no way, there's no way. Please don't go away from here..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Jennifer Hudson from the soundtrack of "Dreamgirls." My guest
Bill Condon directed this adaptation for the screen.

Did you see Jennifer Hudson's familiarity because of "American Idol" as being
a benefit or a liability? I mean, for some people "American Idol"'s a great
show and they'd want to see somebody who was on it. And for other people,
it's like very inauthentic, and it would be a liability.

Mr. CONDON: Yeah. I think neither, honestly. It really was about finding
the right person. It was the fact, you know, I think that there were probably
moments in the beginning when it felt as if it were a liability because there
seemed to be something too obvious about casting someone from that show in
this part and the parallels, you know, but it really was--you know, I was so
desperate to find the exact right woman that I kind of put all that aside, and
the same is true for Beyonce frankly, you know. It turns out that there are
obvious parallels between her life and Deena Jones, but they are beside the
point.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up Beyonce. How did you cast her? Did you know
from the start that she'd be the star that helps get the movie made because
she is a star, and it's easier to get backing that way?

Mr. CONDON: Not really. You know, everyone went into this with the same
thought. First of all, the first meeting I had with David Geffen, I talked
about Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx as being the two people that I had in mind
I'd love to go after, you know, and I think people felt they were the big
stars in terms of movies, and everyone was very comfortable with the idea that
all the Dreams would be unknowns, but Beyonce expressed a strong interest in
doing it. I met with her, adored her. You know, she is just, you know, in
addition to everything else, just incredibly sweet and down to earth and an
amazing hard worker, but I wasn't sure that she was Deena, you know, so I did
ask her to do a screen test, and for me, the issues were, first of all, often
when someone has such a, like, you know, well-developed stage persona, it's
hard for them to shed that. I think, you know, we can think of all the great
singer actresses in movie history who sort of do one thing, you know, and do
it beautifully and, you know, if you just take one aspect of that, the kind of
powerful sexuality that she expresses on the stage, that's so different from
anything to do with either the '60s and certainly the Deena Jones--you know,
this sort of idea of almost imitating and embodying the prevailing kind of
sexual mores of the time in the white world, the sort of Marilyn Monroe, Kim
Novak kittenish idea was very different from anything that Beyonce does now,
So I wanted to see her perform a number and then, obviously, this represented
a bigger, you know, acting challenge than she'd ever taken on before. So we
went to New York. We did that screen test. I worked with her a little again,
and she was just--she had it.

GROSS: When someone is singing in the musical, in the movie version of it,
are they lip-syncing to a track that they previously recorded in the studio?
In other words...

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

GROSS: ...when we see them singing on screen, are they lip-syncing to like
the perfect tape that they already did in the recording studio?

Mr. CONDON: Yes and no. They are lip-syncing to a track, and the reason for
that is simply it's a technical thing, and it started, you know, when movie
musicals started being made, which is basically that it's impossible to cut
from angle to angle without having--you know, if the tempo and the delivery of
each little bit changes from cut to cut, you know. So you've got to have some
guide that allows you to make those cuts. But each of these actors sang full
on. If you look at "And I'm Telling You"--it was interesting. I always
planned to do that at the end of the movie because I wanted Jennifer to be so
immersed in the character of Effie and really, you know, be as comfortable and
know her as well as possible. But the idea was to shoot it over a day or a
day and a half, and it wound up taking almost a week because Jennifer sang
that song full out, and after three or four hours, her voice was shot, and she
couldn't do it anymore, being you know, such a natural performer, once her
voice was gone, she couldn't just stand there and lip-sync and pretend, you
know, with her face. It all had to come from deep inside her, and that was
true of all the actors here. So although there was this guide track, everyone
was singing full-on and live when we were shooting it.

GROSS: I think it's fair to say that "Dreamgirls," the show, and Diana Ross,
the person, have had really big gay followings.

Mr. CONDON: Absolutely.

GROSS: Is that something you feel like you can explain?

Mr. CONDON: I certainly can explain it with the show. You know, it was
interesting because to make a film of this, the show had to kind of live up to
and do justice to the Motown movement, and the movie has to do justice to that
and "Dreamgirls" itself, and as you say, this is a show that has meant a lot
to African-American audiences and gay audience, and I think, you know, I know
my own personal connection to it. It really is about being someone who is
marginalized, stepping into the mainstream and the challenge, especially then,
and you know, doing that without betraying your authentic self, you know, and
let's face it, "Dreamgirls" really was right at the moment of the gay movement
and sort of gay liberation, frankly, and it was one of the touchstones of that
movement, I think, so I think more than anything it's that that I still do
connect to.

GROSS: My guest is Bill Condon. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We're talking with Bill Condon. He wrote and directed the new movie
"Dreamgirls." He also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of the
musical "Chicago."

You know, one of the things about the movie adaptation of "Chicago" is that
several of the leads really weren't singers, but they were coached a lot for
the roll and sang, you know, really, pretty convincingly...

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

GROSS: ...for the movie, and one of the people who worked on that also worked
behind the scenes on "Dreamgirls"...(unintelligible)...Paul Bogaev. .

Mr. CONDON: Yes.

GROSS: But you know, Eddie Murphy, for instance, he had that big hit "My Girl
Wants to Party All the Time," but he's not like a singer, and yet he has to
play a singer in this and put some songs across..

Mr. CONDON: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...in different style. So what kind of work did you want to do with
him to make him as convincing as you could in the role?

Mr. CONDON: Yeah. First of all, when I first met with Eddie at lunch, I was
excited to hear that he knew "Dreamgirls" very well. He'd seen it three or
four times and he knew the score and he felt that he could sing it, and also
he has a great interest in Jackie Wilson and James Brown and Wilson Pickett,
you know. So this is something he...

GROSS: Well, he used to do James Brown on "Saturday Night Life." Yeah.

Mr. CONDON: Well, exactly. I know. Hot tub. Yeah. But this is his music.
He considers it his music. So I think he sort of had been training for most
of his life for this, frankly, you know. But you know, the thing with Eddie
is that he can give it to you in 10 different ways, you know, almost imitating
different kinds of sounds, but the point was to find the James Thunder early
that was going to be him, and I think that took him a little while and
relaxing to really just trust his own voice, which really has beautiful tone
and real power.

GROSS: And were you concerned that all that he does kind of James Brown-like
performance in part of the film...

Mr. CONDON: Yeah.

GROSS: And, of course, you don't want that to look like his parody of James
Brown on "Saturday Night Live."

Mr. CONDON: No.

GROSS: Was it ever going to be a problem kind of sorting out the two?

Mr. CONDON: We both were on the same page about that that he didn't ever
want, nor did I, you know, Eddie Murphy peeking out from behind this
character. It's funny, you know, in recent years, we've seen him do a lot of
brilliant work with, you know, Rick Baker, the makeup artist, and a lot of
prosthetic work, but Sharon Davis, the costume designer, who'd done "The Nutty
Professor" and worked with him before, said that he does always feel a little
more comfortable, a little less exposed if he has something like that, and it
was her idea that we make a prosthetic, and he was totally into this, that we
give him two new front teeth because part of Eddie's smile is that gap between
the two front teeth, and just that little thing of putting it in gave him a
kind of sexiness, you know, frankly, that I think he's very rarely expressed
on the screen. And let's face it, you know, music is so connected to sex that
I think that's where he started to lose the Eddie that we know and started to
be less about parody.

GROSS: What's your favorite of his performances in the film?

Mr. CONDON: Yeah, I would say, the first one, "Fake Your Way." I just think,
you know, he comes on the screen and licks the movie, I think, because he's
someone, he's a movie star playing a star and then that essential thing in all
musicals, which is just the expression of joy in performing. I find that very
magical.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? This is Eddie Murphy from "Dreamgirls."

(Soundbite from "Fake Your Way")

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY: (Singing) "Thirteen years of solid gold platter, rising
costs and cocktail shatter...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of giggle)

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) "...stereophonic sound, baby, the game of hits goes
round and around, but you can fake your way to the top round and around. Try
to have fun right there, baby."

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) "Round and around"

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) "Fake your way to the top."

Woman: (Singing) "Round and around."

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) "Yeah, you feel right in there didn't you, sweetheart?
You can fake your way to the top."

Woman: (Singing) "Round and around."

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) "I knew you had it but it's always real, so real."

Unidentified Singers: (Singing) "Also so real."

Mr. MURPHY: (Singing) "When you're coming down. Yeah, coming down. I know
what's happened. I've been around, making my way through every town. I made
my living..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Eddie Murphy from "Dreamgirls," and my guest is Bill Condon,
who wrote and directed the new screen adaptation.

As you pointed out, "Dreamgirls," the show, had quite an African-American
following, and it's almost completely an African-American cast. And I wonder
if there were any moments that made you uncomfortable, you know, being white
and directing an African-American cast particularly when part of the story is
about what is authentic...

Mr. CONDON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and black music as opposed to...

Mr. CONDON: Sure.

GROSS: ...a kind of music that's, you know, altered to appeal to a white
audience and so on.

Mr. CONDON: Yeah. Yeah. It's a legitimate question. Every movie's
collaborative, but this one especially. Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles, for
example, know more about the music business than I ever will. So, I mean, I
felt a real urge to seek them out almost for research, as well as anything
else, but I think, you know, the crucial thing is that you've got to connect
with something on such a deep level that you know it in your bones.
Otherwise, no matter what material you're dealing with--and that's how I felt
here, you know. "Dreamgirls," the movie, happened because I went after it.
You know, it's been sitting there, and it's not as though there were a list
and there were some African-American directors and white directors and they
chose a white guy. It was because this was a sort of a passion bordering on
obsession to make this movie, and I think, when you come from that place, you
have a deep connection to it, and we talked about, you know, as a gay man, a
different sort of level of connection I have, I think then, you know, it all
turns out all right, you know. And certainly I have to say that any anxiety I
felt was completely kind of assuaged right from the beginning by Jamie Foxx
and everybody in the cast.

GROSS: Well, Bill Condon, thanks for talking with us again. A pleasure to
have you back on our show.

Mr. CONDON: Thanks for having me again.

GROSS: Bill Condon wrote and directed the new film adaptation of the Broadway
musical "Dreamgirls."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "Dreamgirls")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "Dream. Dreamgirls will help you to survive.
Dream. Dreamgirls will keep your fantasies alive. Dreamgirls always love you
and they'll be true. Your dreamgirls can only make love to you. I'm not the
dream that you've had before. I'm the dream that will give you more and more.
We're your dreamgirls, boys. We'll make you happy. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're
your dreamgirls, boys. We'll always care. We're your dreamgirls,
dreamgirls..."

(End of soundbite)

(Announcement)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Film producer Christine Vachon talks about the
independent film world and some of the movies she's produced
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Christine Vachon is a prominent producer of independent films. Her
company, Killer Films, made "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Happiness," "Hedwig and the
Angry Inch," "Boys Don't Cry," "One-Hour Photo," "Far from Heaven, "The
Company, "The Notorious Bettie Page" and "Infamous." She's worked with
directors ranging from John Waters to Robert Altman. Her new memoir is called
"A Killer Life: How An Independent Film Producer Survived Deals and Disaster
in Hollywood and Beyond." She says the independent film world has changed a
lot since she started making movies in the early '90s. I asked her if the
success of the 1994 film "Pulp Fiction" was behind some of those changes.

Ms. CHRISTINE VACHON: In the early '90s when we were releasing movies, you
know, by Todd Haynes and Tom Kalin and Rose Truchet, etc., you know, a
million-dollar gross was a celebration. A $2 million gross was opening
champagne. A $3 million gross--I mean, those films hit a lot of singles and
doubles, you know, and that was great. They were profitable. They were made
for the right amount of money. And then "Pulp Fiction" came along and made
like $50 million, and that kind of changed everything. It was like, well,
then, you know, the companies that had been very happy with their singles and
doubles wanted those big fat home runs. So our independent films started
being looked at with a little bit more scrutiny of whether--you know, could it
cross over? Could it be a huge hit? Also stars started to become more
important because, you know, also when I first started out, you know, nobody
cared if a movie was small. Nobody cared who was in it so much. You know, it
was kind of the fun of making a small movie. The pressure of cast wasn't a
big deal. But now it's very rare, I think, even on so-called tiny movies,
that there isn't pressure to come up with a star who will, you know, guarantee
that somebody pulls it off the, you know, shelf at the video DVD store.

GROSS: Let me ask you a question. When you're a producer, are you often in
the position of being the bad guy because as the producer, you're saying, `No,
you have to cut this scene. It's too expensive. You can't do that shot.
It's too expensive. You can't hire this actor. She's too expensive'?

Ms. VACHON: No. I'm not really--that's not really me. I'm more like trying
to figure out--I guess what a great producer does is is try and support the
film in the best way possible and usually what that means is helping the
director figure out how to make it work within the means that we have and if
the director is absolutely convinced that there's something that is beyond our
means that is absolutely essential to the film working--whether it's an actor
or location or, you know, more expensive costume, whatever it is--then part of
my job is to try and figure out how to get it for him or her. You know,
whether it's taking money from somewhere else, trying to convince the
financiers that it's worth it, whatever it is. I mean, ultimately my loyalty
has to be to the vision of the film. Not that I don't have arguments. I
mean, there's certainly times when the director feels that something is
essential and I feel like it's, you know, that there are other things that are
more essential and we'll certainly discuss it but, you know, that's really
what I do. I'm not so much the bad guy as, you know, the diplomat.

GROSS: Now, one of your latest movies is called "Infamous," and it's a movie
about Truman Capote and his relationship with one of the two murderers that he
writes about "In Cold Blood," and this was the second of the two Truman Capote
movies to be released. After you had agreed to make "Infamous," you found out
that another Truman Capote movie was in the works, the one that starred Philip
Seymour Hoffman.

Ms. VACHON: Right.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you found out and what did you want to
do to counter it?

Ms. VACHON: Everything kind of happened bit by bit. I mean, when we found
out about the other script, we were both, you know, their project and our
project, were both kind of in the same place. We were both trying to get our
financing together. I mean, look, honestly, I wish that, you know, they
hadn't existed, but they did. And what's really amazing to me is, you know,
Warners let us make our movie anyway. But, you know, look, it's a difficult
situation because what I really wanted to have happen, once it was clear that,
you know, it's like they got their money, they started shooting a month or two
later. We got our money, we started shooting. You know, they were finishing,
we were finishing. You know, it's a little bit of a race, and then we dropped
out of the race. Warner Independent decided to wait and release the film the
following year, really, to give "Infamous," you know, a chance to sort of live
and breathe on its own. But I really feel, and I made as strong a case as I
could for this, that we should have gone out at the same time. But, you know,
who knows what would have happened? We'll never know. And I mean, the great
thing about, you know, these days, films do have a much longer life because of
DVD, and I just hope people get to see our film.

GROSS: One of the movies that your company made was "Party Monster," and you
say that this movie was particularly hard to finance and it almost went
straight to video. Why did it almost go straight to video and what are the
consequences of having that happen?

Ms. VACHON: Well, you know, I was surprised and I continue to be surprised
that "Party Monster" was as difficult to finance as it was. But I think
ultimately it was because it was a very unsympathetic character and--who I
think was played wonderfully by Macaulay Culkin, and James St. James, you
know, was played beautifully by Seth Green. The film went to Sundance. It
had a mixed reception. The--you know, the reviews were definitely--you know,
they were definitely negative to mixed with some positive. But to me, I
always felt like, you know what, a theatrical distributor just has to take
this out--you know, there's so much curiosity on what, you know, Macaulay is
doing now. And it's such a bravura performance, I just thought it was a
no-brainer, but, you know, we were working with a company called Content Film,
and an offer was made, you know, from a straight-to-video company that was
substantially higher than the offers we were getting from theatrical
companies, and it had a really severe effect. I mean, you know, we'd made our
record deal, promising the record company that we would have a theatrical
distribution. So it was things like that, but it was also an emotional thing.
You know, I really felt like we had--this was a big deal for Macaulay. I
mean, it was his first movie in years. It was a very brave performance and...

GROSS: He plays a club kid who gets so addled by drugs and is so
self-absorbed and selfish, he ends up becoming a murderer. It's a really
great performance.

Ms. VACHON: Well, I just felt like I owed it to him to protect, not just the
experience, which I felt that we did. I think he had a wonderful experience
actually filming the movie, but I felt like we owed it to him to protect the
experience of the film coming out, and for it to go straight to video after,
you know, after all the hard work that we had all done, but especially for
him, in terms of his, you know, beginning his career again as an actor, it's
devastating. Luckily, Strand Releasing, a company run by Marcus Hu, which is
a distribution company that frequently distributes foreign films, art films,
edgy films, they were very anxious to take it out theatrically and they did
quite a good job, even though they didn't have that much money to spend on it.

GROSS: One of the things, of course, that you have to deal with is ratings,
and filmmakers don't like to get NC-17 because, I guess, it limits the number
of theaters you can be shown in and limits the advertising.

Ms. VACHON: Yeah, an NC-17 is basically cutting you off at the financial
knees.

GROSS: The stores won't distribute. Some chains won't distribute DVDs of
these films.

Ms. VACHON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So because your films often deal with not only sexual relationships
but sometimes with gay sexual relationships, these ratings are--do you feel
like you're more likely to get NC-17 ratings when you're making a film that is
dark or when you're making a film that has gay sexual content?

Ms. VACHON: Well, I mean, we've had four big ratings battles. "Swoon,"
which really surprised me because there's virtually no graphic sex in the film
whatsoever, and in fact a lot of people's complaint about the movie was
`There's no graphic sex in it whatsoever.' So getting an NC-17--and the other
thing, "Swoon" came out around the same time as "Basic Instinct," which got an
R and it was kind of incredible to see that, you know, "Swoon," which was, you
know, chaste, you know, getting hit with an NC-17 and then, you know, you
watch "Basic Instinct" and just watch the, you know, blinking vagina. So it
was a real example to me of like the sort of hypocrisy of the system.

GROSS: So you felt that the film got an unfairly severe rating.

Ms. VACHON: I did. Yes.

GROSS: What's an example of a movie where you negotiated with the ratings
board and ended up changing a scene to avoid an NC-17?

Ms. VACHON: "Boys Don't Cry."

GROSS: What did you have to change?

Ms. VACHON: Well, I mean, first of all, the ratings board is very clear that
you do not negotiate with them. That they are not a censorship organization.
That they're simply there to rate films and that whatever happens once the
film leaves the auspices of the MPAA, i.e., theaters won't show it or
newspapers won't advertise it, that's not their problem, you know. They're
there to rate the film. But with "Boys Don't Cry," I feel like they had a
little bit of a--there was a little bit of perhaps some, you know, an inner
working of the MPAA. I think there was some conflict because they did
understand that giving the film an NC-17 was going to basically, you know,
condemn it, you know, to a tiny, you know, number of theaters, and I think
there were people there who felt the film deserved more than that, so we ended
up--it ended up being really about the rape scene and the violence of that and
how long it went on. So we ended up trimming that scene in order to get an R.

GROSS: And this is the scene in which the main character, who is a girl
passing as a boy because she feels like she really is more of a boy, is
discovered and raped by the guys who are just repulsed by the whole idea of
her trying to pass as a boy.

Ms. VACHON: That's right.

GROSS: So what did you cut?

Ms. VACHON: We ended up...

GROSS: And do you think that it really affected the movie?

Ms. VACHON: I mean, I don't. I think--I'm not sure if Kim Pierce, the
director, would agree with me, and actually, I'd be really curious to revisit
her thoughts on that. I think that would be really interesting, you know,
years down the line, did she feel that it had a real creative impact on, you
know, the effect of seeing the film. I don't know. I don't think it did. I
think that, you know, the compromise in trimming that scene, you know, not
substantially because we didn't. We did not take a whole lot of it out. The
fact that that, you know, that that meant it could go out as widely as it did,
I mean, it was a compromise worth making.

GROSS: My guest is independent film producer Christine Vachon, the founder of
the company Killer Films. Her new memoir is called "A Killer Life."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Christine Vachon, founder and president of the independent
film production company Killer Films. She's produced about 45 movies
including "Boys Don't Cry," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Far from Heaven" and
"One-Hour Photo."

Now, one of the things that you do as a producer, I assume, is negotiate song
rights, if you want to use a song in a movie.

Ms. VACHON: Yes. I mean, my music supervisor usually does that.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Ms. VACHON: They don't come to me unless there's like some huge problem.

GROSS: But you have to deal with the fact that money has to be set aside for
that.

Ms. VACHON: Oh, yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Is that a big part of a budget, you know, if you want to use like
known recordings in your movie?

Ms. VACHON: Well, I mean most music supervisors would say it's not nearly a
big enough part of a budget. But, yes, it is a big part of our budget. Often
it's the place where a director can say that he or she will compromise when
we're going into production, but then when reality kind of sets in in the
editing process, their eyes get a lot bigger, you know, than their stomachs
and, you know, directors start to believe that, you know, really the only way
a scene will work is with, you know, this song over it or--and it is hard
because there are some songs that are simply impossible. We were so committed
in "Boys Don't Cry" in the opening scene when Brandon's at the skating rink to
a song by Boston, "More Than a Feeling," that completely summed up the sort of
teenage longing that was happening right there in that skating rink. But the
song was like $500,000. So we didn't use it.

GROSS: And what'd you get instead?

Ms. VACHON: We got the Cars song, "Just What I Needed."

GROSS: And was it as effective, do you think?

Ms. VACHON: Absolutely. I mean, you know, for us, initially, watching it,
all we could hear was the fact that that fantastic Boston song wasn't there
anymore. But, you know, for an audience coming in seeing the movie for the
first time, I think the Cars song had just that same element of, you know,
teenage desire that Boston had.

GROSS: You're a mother. You have a seven or eight-year-old child?

Ms. VACHON: Seven-year-old.

GROSS: Now, so, did being a mother change your sensibility at all? You know,
because a lot of the complaints about edgy films and films that are, you know,
like transgressive in any way, is that it creates a bad climate for children,
and, of course, children wouldn't be allowed to see most of your movies
anyway, but I think a lot of parents get very protective of their children's
sensibility and anything that might offend children or be wrong for children
can become offensive to parents as well. So I'm just wondering if it changed
your sensibility at all to become a mom.

Ms. VACHON: Well, you know, I've got to say, I remember when we were trying
to get "Happiness" financed...

GROSS: Hm-mmm.

Ms. VACHON: ...an executive said to me, `I can't finance this film, and if
you were a parent, you would understand why I couldn't.'

GROSS: I'm going to interrupt you right here and say that one of the
characters--this really kind of affable character turns out to be a pedophile
in the movie. Go ahead.

Ms. VACHON: Well, I was really struck by that, and a few years later, when I
did become a parent, I sort of re-examined myself, `OK, would I have not done
"Happiness" now? And I was like, `No way, of course, I would do it.' Like,
`That's ridiculous.' I just feel like--I mean, I'd almost rather have my
daughter watch, not all, but some--I'd rather have her watch certain of my
films than watch commercial television any day. That offends my sensibility a
lot more. And, you know, there is--I mean there are movies that children
aren't supposed to see. You know, I understand. I don't love seeing movies
where terrible things are done to children, but I didn't like seeing them
before I was a parent either, you know. So I just think it's changed my
sensibility in that I'd love to make a great kids film. I mean, I've been
dragged off to, you name it...

GROSS: What children's movies did you love to see as a child?

Ms. VACHON: Well, as a child--I'm trying to remember. I mean, we--I mean, I
think the first movie I ever saw, which also I think for a lot of people my
age, was the first movie they ever saw was "Mary Poppins."

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. VACHON: But my older sister, when I was about eight, "Oliver" came out,
and I was obsessed with seeing "Oliver" because, you know, we had the
soundtrack, and I just couldn't wait to see it. So my older sister, you know,
was dispatched by my parents to take me to see "Oliver," and she took me to
"2001" instead.

GROSS: The songs are great in "2001."

Ms. VACHON: So it was a very different experience, and I was a little like,
`Oh, my God!' But it had a huge effect on me. And then I think the following
week, she was supposed to take me to see "Oliver!" again, and this time she
took me to see "Alice's Restaurant." So--and also, you know, in those days,
there weren't quite so many--I think, you know, there just weren't so many
films for kids, and if your parents wanted to take you to the movies, they had
to sort of see--I mean, my parents went to see "Blazing Saddles" and then came
back from seeing it saying, `Oh, we have to take the kids to this.' And
took--we were probably about eight or nine years old--me and my brother, and
off we went to see "Blazing Saddles." And I wanted to show it to my daughter
recently but my girlfriend and I looked at it first, and we were a little
like, `Wow, this is really profane.' And I'm not sure--I mean, I'm not sure
she's ready for it.

GROSS: Well, she's too young for the Cole Porter jokes, too.

Ms. VACHON: Right. And the Hedy Lamarr and all of that.

GROSS: My guest is independent film producer Christine Vachon, the founder of
the company Killer Films. Her new memoir is called "A Killer Life."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Christine Vachon, founder and president of the independent
film production company Killer Films. She's produced about 45 movies,
including "Boys Don't Cry," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Far from Heaven,"
"One-Hour Photo" and "The Notorious Bettie Page."

Your father was a photographer, and he worked during the WPA era during the
mid-1930s. He worked for the Farm Security Administration taking pictures of
government relief efforts to show that they were actually helping. Is that
right?

Ms. VACHON: Well, it wasn't just--what the WPA's--what the FSA's mission was
was to document the Depression, so sometimes it was of the relief efforts, but
it was also just like, you know, these are the farms, these are the people,
this is the poverty, this is what's happening.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And this is the same group of photographers that Walker Evans
was part of.

Ms. VACHON: It was Walker Evans. Gordon Parks was one. Ben Shawn, Dorothea
Lange.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And then your father worked for Look magazine and he took
pictures of, among other people, President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Judy
Garland. So did all these photos have an impact on you growing up. Did it
say to you when you were growing up `visual images have real value, they are
important'?

Ms. VACHON: I guess, well, looking back on it, that seems like a conclusion
one could draw. I don't really remember feeling that per se. In some ways, I
feel like the fact that I could walk to the movie theater and, you know, just
go in and see whatever was playing at the Thalia, or you know, the Olympia,
which were all theaters in my neighborhood, you know, and that movies--the
experience of watching movies was, you know, such a big part of my childhood
and watching them, you know, in the dark, but, you know, I guess the fact
that, you know, the photographs he took, they were around, you know, they were
around the house, they were clearly, you know, extremely vivid, you know,
representations of the world at that time, and they must have had an effect.

GROSS: How old were you when you were able to go to the movies by yourself?

Ms. VACHON: Eight or nine. I mean, it was literally down the street.

GROSS: That's really young.

Ms. VACHON: Well, you know. Yeah. It was...

GROSS: Young in the sense that that would be considered too young, I think,
for a lot of parents to allow their children to take the bus or the train or
walk a few blocks away from home, just because so many streets are unsafe.

Ms. VACHON: Well, it was a different time, although I would argue that New
York in the '70s was far more dangerous than it is now. And, you know, we
would often go to the theater. Our local theater was called the Olympia. It
was on 106th Street and Broadway. You know, it's the kind of theater where
your feet would stick to the floor. And we would often get an adult to walk
us into the, you know, R-rated or PG-13 films. And people would willingly do
it.

GROSS: So what were you exposed to as a child that probably many adults would
think was horrible for you to be exposed to?

Ms. VACHON: Honestly, one of the most--and I think I talk about this in the
book, but when I was about 10, a friend of mine and I walked down to Times
Square and, you know, Times Square was filled with movie theaters at that
time. A lot of them were porno theaters, but a lot of them weren't, and we
decided that we wanted to go see a horror film. So we looked at all the
titles, because we'd no other way of telling if a film was a horror film than
by what it was called. You know, we didn't read reviews, we--you know, so we
just looked at the marquees, and one of the theaters was showing a film called
"Cries and Whispers." We thought, well, that must be a horror film. So in we
went, and it certainly was a horror film but not in the way that we had
thought. And it was a stunning experience. I mean, I don't know when was the
last time you saw that film, but it is not for a 10-year-old. I mean, it's a
devastating, depressing, graphic film but a wonderful film, and we both walked
out of there a little like, `Oh, my God!' Like, I didn't know films could do
that.

GROSS: Did that have a big impact on you?

Ms. VACHON: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, it had a huge impact on me. But then again,
so did going to see "Wizard of Oz" in the theater, you know, which I'd
watched, you know, every year on our small black-and-white television and
seeing that, you know, half of it was actually in color.

GROSS: You know, our listeners might know that Ira Glass' public radio
program "This American Life" now has a TV version that will premier sometime
in the new future on Showtime, and your company is producing, if I have that
straight...

Ms. VACHON: We're executive-producing...

GROSS: Executive-producing, whatever that means. I never know what a title
means anymore. So you're executive-producing the series. How did you get
matched up with Ira?

Ms. VACHON: Well, I went to college with Ira. We were very, very...

GROSS: No, I didn't know that.

Ms. VACHON: Yeah, we were really good friends for a while, and we really
lost touch after college, so when we--I can't remember exactly the
circumstances, like, did his agent call us or did we call his agent or--I just
don't remember how it all went down. But, apparently, you know, there had
been some attempts to turn "This American Life" to television before, and I
think Ira had felt burned before, and we just started a development process,
you know, quite a few years ago now, and, you know, it's really Ira's show,
and it's really wonderful. I'm very excited about it, and I'm really excited
to see how people react.

GROSS: Yeah. I can't wait to see the series. Christine Vachon, thanks so
much for talking with us.

Ms. VACHON: My pleasure.

GROSS: Christine Vachon is the president of the independent film production
company, Killer Films, and the author of the new memoir, "A Killer Life." The
company has several films in production now, including "Savage Grace,"
starring Julianne Moore; "Then She Found Me," directed by Helen Hunt; and "I'm
Not There," a film about Bob Dylan, directed by Todd Haynes.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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