You're a big fixture in the New York independent film scene, and you have been for more than a decade. Even so, were you surprised when a cultural institution like MoMA said that they wanted to salute Killer Films, which starts tonight?
Of course, I'm really delighted, but I wasn't surprised in the sense that it was something I had been really hoping for. I had been encouraging it for a long time, and I'm glad that they felt the same way that I did.
Did you have much input into the programming or did their people do it mostly on their own?
They did it on their own. They showed it to me and they certainly asked for our input, but there were some films that they selected … We've made over 40 movies and they can't show them all, and there's always going to be some that I regret aren't there. There's certainly none there that I regret are there, but I feel a twinge about every movie that didn't get included.
Is there any one in particular, or do you not want to say?
One Hour Photo and I Shot Andy Warhol. We're showing The Notorious Bettie Page, Mary [Harron]'s movie [who also directed Warhol], opening night so it's not like she isn't being represented, but I just love I Shot Andy Warhol.
What do you think is the significance of an institution like MoMA saluting the work of a producer/production company? They recently did something similar with Miramax, but for the most part, it's film directors who are celebrated.
In some ways I think it's a testament to Killer's longevity. We've managed to stay in business, and at least part of the reason is we have been very persistent and pragmatic about the way we do business. We haven't ever changed our formula. The thing is, producing movies is a really stupid way to earn a living. It's a tremendous amount of effort. The returns are often nominal and sporadic. You know, it's like Mary's Bettie Page movie – that was in development for like 13 years. So when you add up what we probably earned on the film, it's probably less than about a nickel an hour.
Do you think that MoMA saluting you like this is a testament to not just film as art but to the roles of producers as artists?
You know, I'd like to think that. It's a difficult thing because I feel like first of all, very few people in the world at large really understand what producers do. Most of them assume that my job involves writing checks and that's it. And of course, usually my job involves getting someone else to write checks. And also the ethic behind every film, sort of coaxing something into life, is so much effort.
You have made it a point to develop working relationships with filmmakers. Do you take the filmmaker into consideration even more than individual material or is it a symbiotic process?
It's pretty organic. When we go to a Sundance or a Toronto [Film Festivals], I specifically bring people with me who are on the lookout for cool films by cool directors, and then we track those directors down and we talk to them. But then at the same time you know people do come in – first timers bring us scripts … it's very unlikely, but it's not impossible, that we produce a film by a first timer who hadn't written their own script. The thing about first films that people have been harboring forever is that they're made with so much intensity and passion that they're kind of seductive.
Like Boys Don't Cry, you've made so many projects that a lot of other producers might tend to shy away from. Are there any one or two projects that you're particularly proud of ; that you pushed through or even doubted might get completed?
There're a number of them. I mean every single one has a war story about how it almost didn't happen. But of course those all start to sound the same so I won't bore you with it. A couple of the movies that I'm enormously proud of are Todd Haynes' movie Safe, which is one of those movies that I think will live far past me, and I'm glad that I got to make one like that. I'm very proud of our Doug McGrath Truman Capote movie [Have You Heard?]that obviously is going to really have to beat the odds because of the other Truman Capote movie, but we somehow managed to get it made. That movie is terrific, and we got it done, and I've got to believe that at some point great work rises to the top.
Your relationship with Todd Haynes goes back a long way. Does it go back actually to your days at Brown?
So were you involved with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, his unavailable film about Carpenter's battle with anorexia which he shot using solely a cast of Barbie dolls?
I was involved with it. I didn’t produce it although I often get the credit for producing it, and I do take some pains to correct that. I know what it's like when other people get the credit for work that you've done. He made it with a woman who is still a good friend of both of ours named Cynthia Schneider, and I think she actually technically takes the producer credit on the film.
Do you have any idea whether any of us will ever find a way to see it other than maybe a brown bag from Kim's?
It's an issue with the Carpenter family and the music rights. Todd made a plea years ago around the time the film got banned, for lack of a better term. I guess that is what happened to it, though. A lot of people at eating disorder clinics were showing it to their patients with huge results. People were just saying, I've never seen anything that I can relate to about my condition and what I'm going through, so Todd asked if there was any way that we could limit its distribution simply to that -- it just seemed like it was such a helpful thing -- and give any profits or rental fees to any foundation that [the Carpenters] wanted.
And they still said no?
They said no.
Have you ever had the urge to direct a film yourself?
You know, I haven't really. Part of it is that I feel like directing takes the kind of focus that I'm not sure … I think my brain is better wired to think about 17 different things at once. And I know directors certainly have to do that too, but at a certain point everything has to fall away while they deal with what's in front of the camera. I'd have to give up so much to do it. I've got this in development and I'm going after that and this is casting; I'd have to not think about all that stuff because I'd have to think about my movie.
Killer does always seem to have 50 things in development and a few things shooting at once. I know there's a partnership among you, Pamela Koffler and Katie Roumel. How do you all work together? Do you take on individual movies appeal to each of you more? Do you work together on everything?
It's kind of yes to all of that. It will certainly become clear often that one of us is just kind of more naturally suited to a project than another either because of her affinity to the material, a prior relationship to the director or what is clearly a very strong relationship. And sometimes it's just simply, OK I've got to go do this one so you go do that one.
We try to keep each other extremely abreast of everything that's happening so that if I need to step in … and of course I do play a little bit of the big boss. Katie or Pam will tell me, I've brought this to this point but now it really needs a call from you. We certainly exploit that when necessary. We try to have in our office a give and take so that if one of us gets into trouble with something the others can step-in and help without having to be brought up to speed.
What are some of your favorite films, and do you see a specific link between the films you loved growing up and the stuff that you make now?
Every week I have a new favorite film. I was just on the jury at Venice, and I really did love Brokeback Mountain which got [Venice's top prize] the Golden Lion. And then I was on the jury at Sundance – I've really become a jury whore. Great way to see the world. But, uhm, when I was on the jury at Sundance I saw The Squid and the Whale, and I thought that was an extraordinary movie. So good. And it's not even like, Oh I wish I made those movies. It isn't that. It's just that I'm so glad that those kind of cool movies are being made. Brokeback is hard. It's not obvious. You have to give it time to work its spell and it really does. But those movies don't get made that easily. Those are the movies I really loved at the moment.
Growing up, I grew up on the Upper West Side, I could walk to the movies, and that's what we did on the weekends. We went to the Olympia Theater on 106th Street, and our feet stuck to the floor, and we saw just whatever was there.
Do you think there's any one thing you look for in a project now? Or are there any commonalities you see through maybe not all but many of the Killer repertoire?
Well, the obvious answer is we just look for great things, but of course the real answer is, if I look at everything, there are some things you can pull out. Like, we clearly have a love for true crime and stories about terrible things people do to each other. And of course films about any kind of sexual transgression clearly seem to get us excited, so those are some common denominators. But then there are other things: there're some directors whose work we just love so we'll do whatever they want to do, and that will take us to some other place. You know Todd Haynes makes very different movies every time he makes a film, and we're in for the long haul with him. Anything he wanted to do, we'll figure it out.
How important do you think is the fact that you've remained a New York company to the films you've produced? Do you think that you would have made the same movies if 10-15 years ago you had decided to move to LA with everybody else?
Well first of all I never could have moved to LA because I can't drive. I grew up in New York City; it's very hard for me to contemplate even moving anywhere else. As an aside, we're contemplating [an office] move to Brooklyn. and I'm not sure I can handle it.
I always knew that living in LA was not in my future. Now, I feel like there is very simply a different talent pool here, and we can take tremendous advantage of it. Of course there's theater and there are writers, etc., etc. One of the women who works for me has pointed out that a lot of the people who would have moved to New York right after college are moving to LA simply because it's cheaper, and I know there's certainly some truth to that. But I do think there's a much richer talent base here, and easier access to it too. I mean in some ways, one of the things about LA is how hard it is to get access to anything.
There's been so much talk recently about the city and the state trying to lure more production to New York via new tax incentives, etc. Has the government really made it any easier? And do you think its even important to shoot in NYC?
It's really hard to shoot here. It is really expensive. We try to do it. I mean, we shot Bettie Page here, and we always are talking about how great it is when you can shoot a movie where it should be shot. I feel, for example, like A Home at the End of the World, suffered somewhat from the fact that the lion's share of it was shot in Toronto. But I don't know that you could watch the movie and actually put your finger on what it is that felt off.
You've lived in the East Village for nearly two decades. In the last 10 to 12 years, has any neighborhood drastically changed more than the East Village?
Well, I don't know any other neighborhood. I would say there are probably people in Brooklyn who would say, "You don't even know what you're talking about. Our neighborhood has changed so much too." And the Upper West Side that I grew-up on has basically been completely co-opted by Columbia and it wasn't.
A neighborhood like the Village that has changed so much -- my daughter goes to school in The Village, and all over the school you can see the ephemera of what the school and the area really used to be, which was for kids of lefties. It was for red diaper babies. Pete Segar would come and play at their benefits. And now, how do you take that legacy and mix it with the fact that there's a lot of capitalist pigs in that school now? And then you look around and, of course, it's the Village!
Do you like it now more or do you think it's lost some of its character?
Well, the thing is, I always feel it's a little disingenuous when people say, "I liked the neighborhood before, when it was dangerous and gross." A good friend of mine moved here from Ireland years ago, but she got to New York … Do you remember that crazy guy in the East Village who cut up his girlfriend and served her to the homeless? His name was Daniel … I can't remember his last name. [Ed note: It was Rakowitz.] She read that article fresh off the plane from Dublin. And she thought it was amazing to move to a city that actually lives up to its reputation.
You know, all of us who reap the benefits of a safer cleaner city can't really … I'm not the one getting forced out of my home because the rents are skyrocketing. My business isn't closing because the landlord tripled the rent. But all of that said … there was a New York Times article in the City section like two months ago with a woman saying that she had outgrown the East Village. Part of me was like, "Oh please." And then another part of me sort of got it a little bit.
I don't know. I have a very mixed emotional response to that question. I certainly remember the vigor and passion of that neighborhood when I first moved there. But I was also doing things then – I was going out until two in the morning. I was going out at two in the morning. I was finding the after-hours clubs. I was doing drugs. And now I'm in my 40s, and I have a kid, and I can't remember the last time I walked down Avenue B at 2 AM. But if I did I'm sure there'd be 100 other people there too.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
Right now [on Sept. 15], you're getting me at a moment when I was gone for three weeks doing the Venice Film Festival (which I'm not complaining about), and then I literally just came back from Toronto an hour ago. And every time I come back to New York, I practically want to kiss the tarmac. There's just nowhere else in the world I feel so at home. I mean it's great to travel, and I love it, and it's part of why I do what I do. That's not really a story, but I just feel like I can rejoice in everything here. And part of the not driving thing -- a lot of people think I sort of willfully refuse to learn to drive so that I'll be driven, but it definitely makes trips to LA tough. But just the walking to work and the street life of this city is something that I don't think you get anywhere else.
Swoon: Ten Years of Killer Films begins tonight at MoMA () with a screening of Safe to be introduced by director Todd Haynes at 5:45 PM and The Notorious Bettie Page introduced by director Mary Harron at 8:30 PM. Among other Killer Films productions screened in the series are Far From Heaven, Happiness, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Velvet Goldmine. For more information about Killer Films, visit their website at www.killerfilms.com. A full schedule for the MoMA retrospective can be found at www.moma.org.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei