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.