“It was like meeting a historical figure,” Celine Song says of her first encounter with Christine Vachon. Song had been a noted playwright long before deciding to helm her first movie, a semi-autobiographical love triangle between a Korean American woman, her American husband, and her Korean childhood friend who’s flown across the world to find her. Its specificity and its New York–iness made Vachon the dream collaborator, a fantasy that turned suddenly real when Song pitched her on Past Lives—and won her over.
Distributed by A24, the achingly romantic Past Lives enjoyed a successful box office run this past summer—a rarity today for films of its scale—and is a strong Oscar contender headed into the fall. Betting on new filmmakers requires a bigger leap than ever—theatrical windows have shrunk, streaming has reduced the potential to stand out—but Vachon and Killer can take credit for launching the careers of everyone from Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce to Zola’s Janicza Bravo. “Every day, I would show up and say, ‘I believe this,’ and then Christine would be, like, ‘If you believe that, that’s now my belief,’” Song says of their dynamic on the Past Lives set. “She just believed in me.”
Vachon monitors social media to see how Past Lives is reaching viewers. Two years ago, she found Twitter a crucial barometer for the COVID-afflicted Zola, whose story originated on the platform. Her instincts have everything to do with an intimate understanding of audience and engagement that dates back to Killer’s launch: “Everybody’s pointing to Oppenheimer and Barbie, and saying, ‘See? See? That’s what people wanted all along.’ But we knew that’s what people wanted all along!” Vachon remembers Poison bringing LGBTQ people in droves to the theater back in the early ’90s simply because that group hadn’t been represented in movies much at all by that point. “Half of them walked out of the theater, going, ‘What the fuck was that?’ and some of those guys were, like, ‘I just wanted to see some boys kiss,’” Vachon says. “But I realized that, if you made a movie targeted specifically to that audience, it didn’t have to cross over if you made it for the right amount of money. That was an incredibly liberating feeling—the true collision of art and commerce.”
That unique Hollywood alchemy remains core to Vachon’s value system, even as she navigates a tumultuous period for her industry, between COVID’s extended impact and the year of labor strikes. She’s waded through decades of uncertainty: the move from VHS to DVD, the end of video rental stores, the shift to digital. “The only reason Killer is still standing is because we are very good at listening to the marketplace and pivoting quickly,” Vachon says. “I don’t cry about, ‘We aren’t shooting on film anymore’…and I don’t know what’s on the other end of these strikes. I’m just trying to figure out the way that we can keep switching seats on the Titanic.”