It’s easy enough to find common themes at the Sundance Film Festival (this year: Mothers dying of cancer, coming-of-age tales about dysfunctional families and unexpected musical moments), but few people could have anticipated that the fest would play home to two stories about Christine Chubbuck, a tragic tale that had been previously unknown by most of the population. In 1974, Chubbuck — a television reporter for a local Sarasota, Florida TV station — killed herself live on air after a series of disappointing events and a lifetime of mental unhappiness.
Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine” takes an ambitious angle on Chubbuck’s story, mixing fact and fiction (although the film is playing in the Documentary section, boldly enough) to present a story of an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) grappling with her preparations to play Chubbuck in a narrative feature that doesn’t exist. Sheil is tasked with playing a mostly real version of herself, a heightened version of herself as the story winds on and even Chubbuck in a series of re-enactments. The concept is complex, but it pays off, and “Kate Plays Christine” is easily the most ambitious and fascinating documentary to emerge from this year’s festival.
Indiewire sat down with Greene and Sheil at the festival to talk about blending fact and fiction, the “nasty” voyeurism that so often drives filmmaking and why Sheil always knew how the film would end, even if Greene didn’t.
One of the strangest things about this story is how few people have heard of it. How did you first hear about it, and when did you know you wanted to make a film about it?
ROBERT GREENE: I think it was probably 2004. My really good artist friend, Nathan Gelgud, who I went to college with, came to New York and he asked me if I had ever heard this crazy story. Immediately I thought, “Of course, it’s so sensational.” But then, the other thing that happens, is you immediately start to look into what happened: Is there footage? What is this about? And then there’s nothing. That sensational vacuum of nothing was so disorienting.
This was four or five years before I made my first feature in 2009, so I always thought this would be a film I’d like to do in the future at some point. Nathan, at one point, said he wouldn’t do movies, and so I asked for his blessing to eventually make this movie, and he said yes.
To me, the immediate things that you uncover in terms of the “why?” are almost cliché; she was depressed because she couldn’t have babies and she was a virgin and, to me, making a straightforward documentary about that was something I could not even fathom. It just stayed in my head.
Then with “Actress,” it was not only seeing what working with an actor could do, that kind of collaboration, which was really satisfying and creatively exciting, but also what I realized was that what I’m obsessed with is not just the event, I’m obsessed with the fact that this story creates this vacuum of meaning that people just put themselves in. Having an actor as a collaborator was going through this process, where there’s a vessel for that thinking.
Was Kate the only person you wanted to play the role?
RG: The title of the movie came immediately with a concept. Kate was going to be the actress originally, it was going to be three parts and Kate was nice enough to do it and we even shot some stuff; one shot is even in the film, actually. But that was it, so I said, “Hey, what do you think?” The timing worked out that we had a sort of vague future where maybe we could do it.
I knew you could get a lot of different people in that role, but for me, the thinking about what this all means is what I needed to see. I don’t know anyone more thoughtful than my very good friend Kate, so being able to watch her think through it… I didn’t know what we would get, but I knew we would see her being thoughtful, which is something I think is undervalued, especially in movies in general. That’s how we got here.
There were always questions of, “Is this actually going to work out? Can we do it?” And I really ran through it in my head if I could have had another person, and then I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t; otherwise, I wouldn’t have even done the film. Kate knows that I’m a huge admirer of her work, but it’s also that, although we don’t spend a lot of time together, we have a very easy connection that feels familial. Same with Sean (Price Williams, cinematographer) and even Doug (Tirola, producer) and Bennett (Elliott, co-producer), it’s like family. The only way we could have made this film work is that it had to be family.
When talking about your work in the film with Kate, “collaboration” doesn’t even seem like a strong enough word to describe it.
RG: Yeah. One thing that Kate did was that she was going through her own stuff, but also embodying all the conversations we were having off-screen and turning those into a thing.
KATE LYN SHEIL: I feel like, because Robert and John and I know each other so well and have known each other for so long, there was this sort of implicit shorthand and trust that created a situation where I felt responsible for my part.
This is always the way filmmaking and collaborative arts should work, but it worked very well, at least in my experience with this film. Robert was going to do what he does, I was going to do what I do, and Sean was going to do what he does; we were kind of all on our own trips.
RG: I think we totally were. But at the same time, you had almost the responsibility of embodying what Sean’s trip was and a little bit of what my trip was, which was weird, to put you in that position. Kate had to do a thing where she was herself, but she was also performing.
One of the tensions that came up, which was a healthy tension, was that those re-enactments are meant to be failures, and to put Kate in the position to take something so serious as to represent Christine Chubbuck, in a thing that is meant to be a failure of representation, is an impossible situation to put someone in. And we knew that conceptually, because that was the concept of the movie, but when you start doing it, that was where it was collaboration.
I think you’re right, collaboration is not the right word; it’s more like, “I don’t know what to do. Kate, you have to try and embody all these ambiguities, because there’s no way for me to tell you what to do here.” That, sometimes, made me an inadequate director for my actor. But at the same time, it was almost that, as a documentarian, my instinct is to say, “Whatever you do will be it, the movie is what you do.” That put Kate out on a limb.
KLS: Right, but with those re-enactments specifically, if you want to get into it…
RG: [laughs] Yeah, I do!
KLS: What I was mad about was that you weren’t giving me the tools to decide to fail, you were just setting me up and tossing me into a giant pile of garbage [laughs].
RG: Yeah, and I kind of think that part of me thought, “If I give you the tools, it’s like a secret handshake thing.” See, we’re failing, but it needed to actually fail, which put you in that horrible situation [laughs].
KLS: No, I know. And the other thing was that these tensions were grist for the mill. When they arose, two things were happening simultaneously: A genuine feeling of, “If I’m going to act badly, I want that to be my choice,” and then the feeling of, “Ah, but this is a tension for the film, that will work.”
RG: That’s why [the word] collaboration isn’t enough. That’s what I’m talking about. There was a concept — this is a conceptual film in some ways. Hopefully it’s not just a concept, because then it would be terrible. But, there is a concept at the heart of the movie, and that concept can be articulated by me in a million ways and can be shot by Sean, but it has to be embodied by Kate, and that’s why it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Because of the way [she] embodies all that stuff and [is] able to be simultaneously authentic and phony and a good actor and a bad actor all at once, and it’s just like, what the fuck. I don’t even know how she did it.
KLS: I’m also playing [the interviewer]. I’m not a person who is comfortable interviewing people, I’m not a journalist. I would like to be, I think that’s an amazing profession, but my natural inclination is to be demure and if I see the slightest sign of resistance, I’m like, “Cool, well have a great day! It was so nice to meet you!” [laughs] So a part of the film is also Robert teaching me to interview a person, or sort of taking the reins when I’m clearly unable to do that.
RG: Yeah, you’re playing the documentary filmmaker. You’re also playing the journalist, which is Christine Chubbuck, too, which is one of the deepest connections I think the film makes: That you see Kate who, whether or not you know that she doesn’t like to interview people, you can probably guess. Because it’s clearly not your forté in some ways, but that’s one of the deepest connections made between Kate and Christine; because we don’t know Christine, this idea of Christine is the act of journalism, the act of trying to tell a story, which is something Christine Chubbuck cared a lot about.
One of the things about the film that really struck me, and that seems to get lost, is what a good journalist she was. The film mentions how when she wrote the press release for her own death, she made note to write it was an “attempted suicide,” just in case she didn’t die.
KLS: I believe when I’m reading the Washington Post article [in the film] and that comes up, I think that I pause. That was a real moment. I remember reading that for the first time.
RG: There are several “wow” moments, because we’re pulling at such thin threads of what might be a human being 40 years ago. That [press release] is one thread that I think is lost, because she clearly wasn’t just a mad person; she was obviously very depressed and she was angry probably. But she also knew what she was doing, and that is haunting and also very humanizing.
As you went along making this film, what changed and surprised you? The ending, in particular, seems like something that couldn’t be planned.
RG: The ending was always going to have something to do with re-enacting the moment. Three months before we started, we probably said that we would deconstruct it in some way. But what actually came was totally a result of the experience we had in Sarasota; the things we learned, and where we got to emotionally. We decided, “Okay, you’re going to do ‘this’ and make a moment out of it.”
I had my idea, Sean had his ideas, and by that point, Kate was really in this place, which was that she had to actually go through with this or go into the “zone.”
KLS: Go into the zone, yes, but I never wanted to go through with the re-enactment.
RG: Sure, I just mean go through with the scene.
You never wanted to go through with it?
KLS: I never wanted to, and, again, Robert is the mastermind of all this, so he may have always known that we would not do a traditional re-enactment of that moment, but it was pitched to me that we would. That was something that I was grappling with the entire time, that I didn’t want to do it, and as we got closer and closer to the date, it felt more and more wrong for us to do that, for all of us.
RG: What you see [on screen] is that feeling basically. That’s why the movie, although it has all these layers of cinema stuff and performance stuff and all that stuff, it’s still non-fiction, because, even the way she delivers that moment, which is enacted, is where we got emotionally. I didn’t know what Kate was going to say, I didn’t know how it was going to play out, I didn’t know if it was going to be like, “I’m seriously not doing this.”
I think I can speak for [Kate], too, my heart was pumping with…not excitement. First of all, I knew what it meant for Kate to be in that chair, and that I had put her there, and that she was there on her own, too. But we had gotten to this moment together, and the whole fucking thing rested on her in that moment. I get emotional thinking about it. I remember one break, Sean and I just looked at each other like, “Fuck.” And I don’t think [Kate] was aware of how much we were freaking the fuck out [laughs].
KLS: I think I was, relatively.
RG: You really seemed like you were in your own space of, “I got it, I’m doing this thing.” I just couldn’t breathe. I really, honestly thought, because I think like an editor, that if I could somehow get even one ounce of this feeling into the movie, then we’ve done something meaningful. This feeling is not straightforward, it’s not just, “Whoa, it’s going to be so cool when…,” it’s that I was feeling 100 things at once, and if I can get the audience to feel something close to that, then we got something that we went there to do.
KLS: That’s how I felt, too. Especially since we saved it for the end of the shoot, that was our last day. It was going to be our second to last day, but then we called it and said we’re going home and we’re going to shoot it tomorrow. But the fact that we saved it until the end did feel like this unstoppable fatalistic thing, that this is the direction that we’re headed towards and there’s no escaping it, we have to do this, whatever it turns into. Before we can all go home, this has to happen.
RG: We have to go through this together, because we’ve just been talking about it so much, talking about so much of what we’ve learned and all that stuff, so here is the moment where that either means something or it doesn’t, and we didn’t know if we could make it mean something.
KLS: It was very scary.
When you went to Sarasota, you discovered the probable location and owner of the tape. Robert, you mentioned wanting to see it earlier. Did you still want to see it when it seemed like more of a possibility?
RG: Wanting to see it is such a complicated thing, but being honest, I’ve thought about it for so long, I would want to see it. We could have called the woman [with the tape], but we didn’t. We were in her neighborhood, one step removed from her, but it was very clear to me that that was not the right way to go.
Because, in the end, this whole thing is really not just about me. One of the things it’s about is how I’m grappling with my own desire to see things, my own understanding of my own voyeurism, and what that all means for me. I think everyone else is dealing with it too, Kate and Sean and everyone was dealing with that same sort of thing.
To me, movies are built off of really, really nasty instincts of human beings. Voyeurism is something that, there would be no cinema if there wasn’t this deep-seated thing to be a voyeur. This is not a new thought, but I think it’s something we should continue to look at in different ways. For me, it’s not a flippant thing to say that I would look at that tape; it’s more that I need to know why, and I don’t know why, really, but the movie is part of me trying to figure out why. Why do I feel deeply enough connected to something that I have nothing to do with, that I would want to see that?
KLS: I tend to not watch anything like that. If I ever had any question in my mind about it, by the end of the shoot there was just no way that I would’ve wanted to. No one wanted to have the tape be a part of the film; otherwise, Robert would’ve made that phone call. But I don’t think I could’ve even allowed it to happen if anyone did.
RG: Part of the secret of the movie, in a weird way, is that we were on the same page. We’re very different people, but on some strange level, we really understand the way each other think, and there’s a lot of respect between that. Kate would never be in a situation where we would do something she was totally uncomfortable with, but at the same time, we both want to push the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with, because something can happen in that. That’s what this whole thing is about.
There’s also the issue that Christine clearly wanted people to see that tape.
KLS: Right, that’s the other thing. That’s certainly is a conversation I’ve had with myself. Even as I was just sitting here, I was sort of zoning out and thinking about that: “Am I totally off-base? Is it actually, totally fine to watch that tape because she wanted to be seen?” But no, I don’t think I could do it, it would just destroy me for a very long time.
That is certainly one of the avenues through which I approached the film, or approached Christine Chubbuck, was that she did have a desire to be viewed and I obviously do as well, and that is something that I spend a lot of time grappling with. It seems to have become some sort of pandemic with selfies and the ease with which we can record ourselves.
RG: Now it’s almost like you’re weird if you don’t have pictures of yourself out there. With the whole her being seen thing, a lot of people have been nice enough to ask me, “You’ve been thinking about this for so long, really what was it?” That might be it. It’s just that her story brings up such contradictions. She was protesting blood and guts television by doing the most blood and guts thing you could possibly imagine, an unprecedented blood and guts thing. And she was saying ratings weren’t everything and actively trying to create a moment. And then she wanted to be seen by ending her life.
These are horrible contradictions and they are irresolvable, and I think our movie is not about solving the irresolvable; there’s no way to. But there is that thing, that if you can somehow capture that irresolvability, there’s something there, something to stare at and meditate on.
Did you or do you feel close to Christine?
KLS: By the end of the shoot, yeah. But obviously, there’s a great deal of remove and distance, and part of the frustration of the film is wanting to get so much closer, and being unable to. But yes, certainly the guttural reaction of going to her home or even, and this is what happens to most actors whenever they approach a somewhat emotional thing in a movie or a play or whatever, is that, by the end of it, you personally are so…acting is a weird thing, you drudge up all your personal horror stories to try and bring yourself to the appropriate place to embody something.
Nobody will ever know what exactly was going on in Christine Chubbuck’s mind, or anyone’s mind for that matter, but I do think that I was personally feeling some level of angst and insecurity and just a feeling of dread. And then the reaction to the idea of ever seeing that tape, I think that’s why it was so strong, because of the fact that I felt close to her and then by that point, I could not do that.
Oddly enough, at a certain point, it seems that the point of the film is that it’s impossible or maybe even wrong to make a film about Christine.
RG: For me, directly talking about Christine, I have a strong defense of any artist to make anything they want. Even if that’s something that works or doesn’t work. To me, Christine Chubbuck’s story makes me feel that way about myself.
It’s also much, much more about documentary than it is about fiction in some ways. Because with documentary, it’s so easy to think it’s okay to take stories that are dramatic and tell them back to us, because we need to hear these dramatic stories. But you end up just re-enforcing a lot of times. A lot of films do it very well, of course, but a lot of times, we end up just re-enforcing very trenchant social, political ideas about the world.
This film is about saying that maybe that is not the right way to go. Even the re-enactments, re-enactments are often used to suck you into this story. In an escapist way, you’re sucked into the narrative so that this true narrative can sort of mix with the things you love about movies — dramatic, slow motion, etc. — and then it’s real, but it’s also a movie experience. To me, that’s just completely corrupt, fucked up, because it takes away the brain. It’s all about hitting this voyeur, escapist bullshit.
I wanted to create these deconstructed things where you’re watching and having to think about how you’re watching the whole time. And hopefully you can be sucked into the story, too. It’s got to work on both levels. The last thing I want to make is an academic exercise or something.
There is another film at the festival, a narrative version from Antonio Campos, which is strange to think about given the vacuum of information about her out there.
KLS: It’s a conversation, certainly. I have not yet seen the [other] film, but I am friends with Antonio and a lot of people who worked on it. I can’t wait to see it.
RG: To me, talking about how Christine wanted to be seen — there are two movies about her now. In some strange, maybe beautiful, maybe tragic way, this is honoring, almost 42 years later, that problematic but very sincere desire to be seen. To think that there are two versions, two attempts to grapple with what she did and who she was, makes me emotional, because it’s just incredible. I think it’s amazing.
“Kate Plays Christine” premiered this week at Sundance. It is currently seeking distribution.