Indie Film Producers and Stony Brook: Partners

In 2012, Christine Vachon was invited to bring her master class in independent filmmaking to the Stony Brook campus
Tonilyn Sideco, a Stony Brook M.F.A. student, set up a shot, while Jennie Allen, an instructor, looked on.

It is fitting that less than a month before this year’s Academy Awards, to be announced on Sunday evening, the New York State Education Department approved Stony Brook University’s Master of Fine Arts program in film, the first such program in the SUNY system.

The innovative three-year graduate course of study in narrative film is led by Christine Vachon, co-founder of Killer Films, an independent production company with more than 80 films to its credit. One of them, “Still Alice,” has earned a 2015 best actress nomination for its star, Julianne Moore.

A media consensus predicts that Ms. Moore, a five-time Oscar nominee and winner of this year’s Golden Globe for best actress, will take home the gold statuette for her portrayal of a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Ms. Vachon said, “Killer Films will be at the ceremony in some shape or form.”

Another East End connection to this year’s Academy Awards is provided by Alessandro Nivola, who plays John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, in “Selma,” which is up for best picture.

Ms. Vachon explained her involvement with Stony Brook last week. “I’d been teaching for the past few years at various institutions like N.Y.U. and Columbia and Drexel, and I‘ve done speaking engagements all over the world,” she said. “So I had a fairly good sense of what was being taught at the undergraduate and graduate level in film production, and I was starting to feel like there was a real disconnect between what was happening in those institutions and what was happening to their students when they stepped out into the real world.”

In 2012, she was invited to bring her master class in independent filmmaking to the Stony Brook campus, where Magdalene Brandeis, now associate director of the graduate film program, asked if the producer would be interested in further discussion about a potential full-fledged M.F.A. program at the university.

“That got me at exactly the right moment,” said Ms. Vachon, “because I had been thinking a lot about how these institutions weren’t really preparing students to earn a living. It’s the old academic issue, there are so many people teaching you who haven’t actually done the thing they’re teaching you how to do. I thought there was a real opportunity here for me and Killer to do an M.F.A. program that really turns all that on its head.”

The interface between the program and real-world practical experience has already found expression in the participation of three Stony Brook film students in “Still Alice.” Victoria Coram served as assistant to the film’s directors, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer; Richard Duque-Henao was a research intern in the production office, and Jason Evans worked in the additional-footage unit.

“When we have a film going into production and we’re looking for P.A.s, if there are students who have expressed interest in being on the set we just naturally absorb them into the production,” explained Ms. Vachon. “It’s just a natural offshoot of the program.” Stony Brook students also worked on the forthcoming “Nasty Baby,” a Killer film starring Kristen Wiig and Alia Shawkat.

Ms. Vachon, whose father, John Vachon, was a noted photographer, graduated in 1983 from Brown University, where she met Todd Haynes, now a film director and screenwriter, and Barry Ellsworth, a pro-­ducer. Together they created Apparatus Productions in 1987, a nonprofit company that produced seven films in five years, among them Mr. Haynes’s “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.”

Together with Pamela Koffler, Ms. Vachon formed Killer Films in 1996. The company’s many productions include “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Cairo Time,” “Kids,” and the Todd Haynes films “Far From Heaven,” “Safe,” “Velvet Goldmine,” and “I’m Not There.” Killer also produced the Emmy Award-winning HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce.” Other actors who earned Golden Globes in Killer productions are Hillary Swank for “Boys Don’t Cry” and Kate Winslet for “Mildred Pierce.”

The Stony Brook M.F.A. in film is a three-year program in screenwriting, directing, and producing, with production periods culminating in a feature screenplay, an M.F.A. thesis film, or a feature producer’s package. The curriculum requires 45 to 48 credits. Classes take place at the school’s Manhattan facility and at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, but those seeking financial aid must apply by March 15.

“One of the interesting things about our program is that there are people of all different ages and experience levels,” Ms. Vachon said. “The faculty consists of people who are in the field, who are really giving students a blow-by-blow as the world unfolds. Another thing that was so appealing about Stony Brook is that it’s affordable.”

In addition to Ms. Vachon and Ms. Brandeis, the faculty includes Ms. Koffler; Robert Reeves, a novelist and associate provost of the Southampton Graduate Arts Campus; Jennie Allen, a filmmaker and screenwriter; Lenny Crooks, former head of the U.K. Film Council’s New Cinema Fund and director of the Glasgow Film Office; Jordan Roberts, an editor; Annette Handley-Chandler, a producer and screenwriter; Dane Pizzuti Krogman, an art director, screenwriter, and producer, and Simone Pero, a producer.
 

Christine Vachon, director of the Stony Brook M.F.A. program in film, and Robert Reeves, associate provost of the Southampton graduate arts campus
Stony Brook students filmed at Conscience Point in North Sea in fondly remembered temperate weather.
Cinematographer Richie Duque films Actor/Writer/Director Danielle Bellucci at Conscience Point.
David Hinajosa, head of development at Killer Films, Christine Vachon, and Magdalene Brandeis at Sundance.
Julianne Moore at the Golden Globes
Film Students Alexandra Stergiou, left, and Jason Evans, right, working on a short film last summer
Christine Vachon, Magdalene Brandeis, Simone Pero, and Killer Films Co-Founder Pamela Koffler.