There are two films about newscaster Christine Chubbuck at the Sundance Film Festival this year. There is the documentary version of Chubbuck’s tragic life, Robert Greene’s ambitious "Kate Plays Christine," which blends fact and fiction to tell her story, and there is Antonio Campos’ "Christine," a more straightforward narrative take on the material that brings Chubbuck to the screen care of a stunning turn by Rebecca Hall.
That Chubbuck’s story is now being told (and told twofold) is strange enough (Greene’s film effectively illuminates just how forgotten Chubbuck’s life is, and even passionate Sundance crowds seem confused that they don’t remember her), but that both films are at Sundance in the same year is nothing short of bizarre. Yet, it’s also oddly satisfying, as Chubbuck’s fate is one that still seems discomfitingly applicable to modern society. In 1974, Chubbuck — a television reporter for a local Sarasota, Florida TV station — killed herself live on air. The reasons why Chubbuck committed such an act drive the narrative of both films, and Campos’ feature takes an especially sympathetic and full-bodied look at the state of Chubbuck’s existence leading up to her shocking act.
Hall’s turn as Chubbuck — gangly, dark-haired, passionate, obsessive and more than a bit strange — is some of her best work to date, and "Christine" finally allows the reliably wonderful actress a chance to shine in a very tricky part.
Campos and Hall sat down with Indiewire at the festival to talk about how to bring such a challenging story to the screen, the limits of their research and why they think Chubbuck should have made it.
Despite the very public nature of Christine Chubbuck’s final act, not a lot of people seem to know about her. How did you first become aware of her story?
Antonio Campos: When my friend sent the script, she was a character [in the script], and I thought, "Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard about that story" or "I think I’ve seen that footage," and you’ve never seen it and you’ve never really knew about the story. I learned so much from the script and started Googling and trying to find as much as I could.
Craig [Shilowich, screenwriter] then sent a lot, he had footage of her "Suncoast Digest" show, and that was very telling about her. It felt like it must have come from a period very close to when she…because she seemed like in that mode. And then, on that same tape, clips of the weather [report] and commercials, so that was also very telling of the world that she lived in.
If you dig deep enough online, there’s some articles written at the time, that I trust more than a lot of the stuff you see on Reddit. There’s like these kind of forums, where they kind of like obsessively talk about her, and I feel like there’s a lot of mythology built around her, and we were trying to create a portrait that felt like something truthful and trying to capture the essence of who we thought Christine was and what she represented for us.
There’s also the element of it being something of a lost film. Did you think you could find that footage if you looked enough? Did you want to?
AC: In Craig’s research, he found out that the video was in the hands of the station owner for awhile, before going back to the police and then eventually back to the family who, from what we understand, destroyed it.
We weren’t obsessed with trying to find it, the video. Our journey was sort of going down there, experiencing her world, going to the house where she lived, going to the office where the stations was, going to the Bullet Hole, which was the place she bought the gun, driving around and seeing Sarasota and trying to understand what Sarasota felt like. We created Sarasota in Savannah.
We had a good enough description, the description of the way things played out that day, is pretty specific. And then using our common sense and a little bit of creativity, it wasn’t hard to do it justice.
For a film like this, of course research is important, but then you have to navigate that line between impersonation and impression. How did you approach that?
Rebecca Hall: I didn’t really have much of an option. I had the material that Craig had researched and I didn’t think it was of value to go deeper than what he had researched, because what he had come up with in order to create the script was the baseline for where we were going to create the thing from. For me to go further than that would have been me playing a different thing, so I was like, "I have to be faithful to that."
But, at the same time, the fifteen minutes’ worth of "Suncoast Digest" [footage] of her speaking was really valuable. I sort of took a grab of her voice, and I had it in my ear a lot. Just listening to it, because it was very specific, it felt like to me that that was important to capture, and it also gave me an access point. But, like Tony was saying, looking at fifteen minutes of someone on a TV show is not necessarily indicative of how they talked or behaved throughout their entire life, it’s going to change, so the rest of that, was invention and instinct. It was a sort of long and intensive process to kind of create a character that felt true to the film and to the art that Tony was trying to create.
You also don’t want to dig too deep in your research as a way to explain the why of what happened to her. When I was leaving the theater last night, there was a group of guys behind me who sort of said, "Well, they weren’t very mean to her at the studio, so I don’t know why she would do this."
RH: That’s the sort of point of the film. There’s no way of saying what Christine was — she wasn’t diagnosed, I can’t say like, "Oh, she was bipolar" or "Oh, she was this," the only thing I could do was look at the script and from sort of a modern understanding of mental health issues, make some sort of guess of what our version of Christine was suffering from.
My take on it was that she was a Borderline Personality Depressive. She’s very, very difficult to diagnose, and very difficult to treat, and nearly always gets sort of slightly pushed aside like, "You’re a difficult person" and even more so, "You’re a difficult woman," tragically.
The fact that those guys said that is sort of indicative of the thing the film is kind of pointing out.
AC: That’s infuriating. It’s so dismissive, too. Like, what? "There needs to be a good reason for you to kill yourself!" No, there’s no good—
RH: No, it’s chemical! It was a chemical thing. Some people just don’t have the tools to deal with the stuff life throws at them.
AC: It’s not just one thing, like, "Oh, so-and-so was rude to me and now I’m going to kill myself." It’s so much more complicated than that. It’s so infuriating because, as a person, if someone’s depressed and they’re acting crazy and you want them to stop acting crazy and you want them to stop being depressed and you’ve talked to them and you’ve told them that you love them and you’ve told them all the things that they can do to get out of it and they still wind up doing what they do or they kill themselves, there’s nothing you could do. And the reasons are so internal, it’s so complicated and the voices that are going back and forth.
RH: In many ways, there is still so much stigma and misinformation around these sorts of things, to the point that people who are suffering from these problems don’t seek the help that is available now in a way that it definitely wouldn’t have been available for Christine then. A lot that has to do with this sort of misunderstanding, there’s still a kind of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality.
Destigmatizing it helps to make it human. Otherwise, you’re left in a situation of "I’m a just a bad person. I’m just a bad person and I can’t ask for help, I can’t do that," which is what Christine does.
AC: Once you start talking about it, you own the thing.
Christine was already an intense person, and then you compound that with possible mental illness and work pressure and things not going her way, and it’s just a lot for anyone to deal with.
RH: Any other ambitious person or brilliant person like her, faced with the same onslaught, would have the tools to to deal with it, and she just doesn’t have the tools and doesn’t understand that she doesn’t, so she keeps instead setting goals that are more and more unattainable in order to somehow heal herself.
There are details of Christine’s story and her death that have been changed for the film, particularly that, in your film, she kills herself on the afternoon news with her own mother watching, not on her own morning show, as is what happened. Why were those changes important to your film?
AC: The mother watching was something that we may have taken creative liberty with, but it was on the fair assumption of her small audience that her mother would be watching. It was a morning show, it was slightly different, it was different in that it was a morning show, the "Suncoast Digest," [but] she did field and anchor work on the news as well. It’s very tricky, because we’re not making a documentary, right? If you want that stuff, it’s all on Wikipedia.
But we’re telling a story, and it made sense to us that it was all there, whether she was doing a morning show or a "Suncoast Digest" was a segment on the show, and that’s what we did, we made it a segment on the show. What she’s building up to is trying to get to the front of the show so that she can do this thing, so the intent was the same. As long as the intent was the same, we felt comfortable making a change to it.
The reality is, besides some of these little details, most of what is different from real life is actually omitting things, not so much of inventing things. Like she had a dog named Perspicacity, she didn’t really just live with her mother, she lived with her mother and with her brother. Things like that. If they’re not adding to the understanding of the character, then they may not be necessary for [the film].
RH: When you turn something like this into this art, you’re making a metaphor which adds up to the entirety of this life story’s value as a universal truth or whatever about humanity, so you have to turn it into something that’s going to give it the highest impact for that, and that’s what art kind of does.
"Christine" also shades in these details about the kind of ideas she had about her work. There’s a scene where she basically foresees the impact of reality television, and that only adds to the tremendous sense of loss around her death.
RH: Different context, better health, better medication, she probably could have been—
AC: She could have been. She might not have been the next Barbara Walters, but she probably would have had—
RH: A career.
AC: A really decent career, probably in a top 30 market.
There’s another Christine Chubbuck film at Sundance, and people seem to be wondering, why now?
AC: I mean, there is no answer, except it’s just total coincidence. But maybe you could read into it in the fact that she is particularly relevant right now, or she seems more relevant than she’s ever felt before.
Here’s someone who wanted to be seen, and now—
RH: She’s being seen.
AC: I think about what she’d think about the movie. I think she would have liked it. I think that we were kind to her and understanding. We cared about her, deeply.
RH: I felt that, playing her. It was an interesting feeling on set. The film is a group of people trying to help and trying to help someone survive. I really felt that kind of investment. I mean, we all knew what the ending was, but we were all sort of rooting for her to make it, and I think that comes out. She should have.
"Christine" premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
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