Film: Happiness is an erotic fixation

It's also the title of the latest from the queen of indie film producers, which is going down a storm in the US - to the dismay of the moral minority

"ANY TIME A film stirs up discussion and makes people think about the status quo, I think it's good." Christine Vachon, the New York-based independent film producer, is talking about Happiness, her first collaboration with Todd Solondz, director of the cruel-school comic drama Welcome to the Dollhouse.

But, frankly, the woman behind some of the decade's most revered and reviled independent films could be referring to any number of releases from her back catalogue.

A wry, dysfunctional family comedy that takes a non-judgemental stance on paedophilia (and took the International Critics' Prize at Cannes this year), Happiness is set to overtake Darren Aronofsky's Pi as the art-house hit of the year, having already made more than $2m in just over a month in the US. Released initially on only six screens in New York and Los Angeles, the film clocked up a phenomenal $25,000-per-screen average in its first week. Remarkable, when you think that Antz, the chart-topper at the time, managed a mere $2,000.

Even more so, when you consider that the US distributor, October Films, dropped the film - handing it straight back, uncut, for the production company, Good Machine, to distribute - when their parent-studio, Universal Seagram, balked at the potentially dicey nature of the film's material.

Calling Happiness "an amazing ensemble drama on the theme of erotic fixation", Vachon's judgement has been powerfully vindicated. "Todd had a sense that Happiness was provocative enough to scare people away, but he also knew the script had the strength it had - that's why he's my kind of film- maker."

It's the kind of film Vachon has been shepherding into production for years. With her innate sense for left-field material - Solondz's Dollhouse being "one of the few independent films I wished I had produced" - Vachon's films are more than just great dinner-party conversation. Out on a limb, they set out to document the cultural zeitgeist, from the life of Valerie Solanis in I Shot Andy Warhol, via the Greenwich village uprising that launched the gay liberation movement in Stonewall, to the deadly sexual mores in Larry Clark's Kids. As she likes to put it: "Most of the great independent films over the past decade - some I've produced and some I haven't - make the audience forget that what they're watching isn't Armageddon."

Spearheading projects such as Rose Troche's Go Fish, Tom Kalin's Swoon and the work of Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe and Velvet Goldmine), Vachon inadvertently kick-started the New Queer cinema movement. The Happiness furore thus seems routine, Vachon having made a career from antagonising the moral majority. Poison was accused by Reverend Donald Wildmon, an anti-pornography activist and the head of the American Family Association, of being "filthy, pornographic and homosexual". The result: a slot on Entertainment Tonight and a $50,000 opening weekend from one New York screen.

"Most of the movies I make, I don't really cotton on to what I'm getting into until it's way too late," the 37-year-old Vachon admits. "Ignorance fuels my ability to stay optimistic. Producing a film can be so awful. It's like childbirth. If you really remembered how awful it was you'd never do it again, and the species would not propagate."

Vachon is not nearly as imposing as she may sound: no power suit, no cigar - she's not the mogul type. She's a short heavyweight of a woman, dressed casually in black, her round, puffy features surrounded by shaggy brown hair. She talks lucidly about Killer Films, her production company with her partner Pam Koffler, which has made Goldmine and Happiness. Ever the spin doctor, she uses every opportunity to talk about the latter, informing me that it's their "prettiest package yet".

Has she suffered in the business, being a female? "As a woman producer, you're always faced with the same thing: if a man is tough, he's tough; if a woman is tough, she's a bitch. And if you're gay, then you're just a humourless lesbian."

Admitting to being "cagey... some might even say boring" with the press, she proves the arch diplomat, a tactic daily employed in her line of work. So rarely does she let down her guard that an expletive reference to a Hollywood producer is quickly relegated to off the record when she realises she is due to have a meeting with him in two weeks.

With biopics of the Seventies designer Halston and the S&M centrefold Betty Page in the pipe, alongside Take It Like a Man, a true account of the murder of a woman who dressed as a man, Vachon is not about to go mainstream. That Simply Halston is backed by a studio, Fox Searchlight, makes it all the more enticing: the real queen of independent cinema is about to lock horns with the big players.

`Happiness' is scheduled for release next April

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