The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.
Two films tell the tragic story of reporter Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide in 1974.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
On July 15, 1974, a twenty-nine-year-old TV news reporter named Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head with a .38 revolver on live television. Her chilling final words augured our current unbound shock-and-awe media age, for her action was, she said, “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts.” Channel 40 was a local station in Sarasota, Florida, and her suicide drew some national attention at the time. Since then, however, it has been a footnote of regional Americana, preserved on a never-released videotape stashed in a vault somewhere. In 2016, two feature films have chosen to tell her story. Antonio Campos’s biopic Christine, starring Rebecca Hall, treats Chubbuck with the prying intimacy and intensity often reserved for celebrities. By contrast, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, starring Kate Lyn Sheil, opts for an elliptical yet no less intense faux-documentary style that follows his lead actor from New York to Florida as she tries to understand and call forth the suicidal woman she must portray.
Unsurprisingly, two films that tell the same story as differently as those of Campos and Greene have drawn a great deal of critical attention. Rare is the opportunity to compare nearly opposite directorial visions of such poise and integrity. Questions as unavoidable as how to shoot the tragic final scene—up close, or from a distance; frontally, or at an angle?—have drawn critics to consider aesthetic decisions filmmakers must make at greater lengths than it generally would—and, perhaps, the way that these films simultaneously confront and confound the blood-and-guts trajectory of our present media ecology through the lens of an act that, in its terrible finality, resists any final word.
Nicholas Elliott What drew you to Christine Chubbuck’s story?
Robert Greene I first heard about the story twelve years ago, around 2004. I was talking with a friend of mine about possible films we might work on, and he brought up Christine’s story. I was immediately drawn to the bitter irony of the fact that she was protesting blood-and-guts television while doing the most blood-and-guts television thing of all time.
The performative nature of her suicide and the lack of details about the circumstances, combined with the fact that there was supposedly a videotape of the suicide—it all added up to a whirlwind of conflicting emotions for me. My first thought was, Wow, someone’s gotta make this film. My second thought was, I can’t make this film. At that time, I was considering making documentaries in a traditional way, and my feeling was that I wasn’t allowed to tell this story. I felt strongly that Christine’s story was untouchable for me because the information wasn’t available, and also because I’m a man. This view persisted for a long time.
But then, in my last film, Actress (2014), I was making an observational portrait of an actor and that created all these opportunities for perception and seeing things in a layered way. When I was thinking about what might be next, this idea came fully formed: I will have Kate Lyn Sheil, with whom I’ve worked many times, try to process this material. I could only do this in collaboration with Kate.
NE The movie successfully conveys that hesitation on your part, as well as Kate’s sense of responsibility to Christine. Is that something you were aware of when you decided to work with her?
RG Kate and I have known each other for a long time, and we consider each other extended family in a way. I know that she’s a thoughtful person. Knowing what Christine’s story had done to my own brain, I could tell that, as a woman in that scenario, Kate would feel a deeper sense of responsibility and that this would become magnified by the process. She was the only one I could imagine playing the role, because I knew her well enough to know where we would be going.
NE Making Actress got you to the point where you felt you had a right to tell this story. Did you also have a sense that it would resonate with this particular moment in time? We’ve certainly come a long way in terms of blood and guts since Christine Chubbuck did what she did.
RG Among the brutal ironies of the story is that Christine desperately wanted the footage to be seen. She asked for the broadcast that morning to be taped, knowing what she was going to do. The way that reverberates today is obvious: It was probably the last moment in history where someone could do something like that without it landing on YouTube. It was 1974, a tiny television station, and the antennas were pointed the wrong way, so to speak—probably only 500 to 1000 people in total saw it happen.
This thing that can’t be seen makes us aware of how much is so easily accessible today. As a culture, we are trying to deal with videos where we see black men being killed by white police officers. We witness how the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to wrestle with the complex question of whether or not we need to see these images. That’s a debate that’s been heightened recently. It’s something essential not only to cinema but also to visual culture at large. Why are we allowed to see some things and not others? I’m asking myself as a filmmaker: Why am I pursuing this? And the film is asking you as a viewer: Why do you want or not want to see it, and what does that mean?
NE What did you know when you started filming? How much material did you have ready when you went down to Sarasota?
RG We filmed the entire movie in only three weeks. We had a few interviews lined up, and we planned to shoot the film-within-a-film stuff over the last five days. We knew it had to end with the reenactment of the suicide. So we gave ourselves something like fifteen days to find out whatever we could. Because Sarasota’s a relatively small town, we burrowed down and got a lot in two weeks. Then we needed to deal with it in those reenactments.
NE Had you made contact with people who knew Christine before you traveled to Sarasota?
RG We didn’t know we’d see footage of her reporting or find out anything about the tape. We didn’t know that we’d meet a friend of her brother, and how the story was going to reverberate with the people we talked to.
NE Did you have a sense of how your relationship with Kate would develop over the shoot?
RG The film-within-a-film is meant to be this melodramatic, cheesy, totally inadequate representation of the story. It’s meant to fail. Kate went into the film knowing that we would try to make this bad movie-within-a-movie and that was something she would have to deal with. Intellectually and artistically, she was fine with it, but when you actually start rolling, things change. Once the camera was on her, it became a lot harder for her to process all she’d read and heard in the two weeks prior. And you see her rebel against the feeling of being set up. At the same time, she was magnifying her own self-doubt for the camera, too.
People often think that performance in a documentary is inauthentic. I believe that performers in documentaries are trying to find a way through gesture, words, and emotion to deliver what’s there. Kate brought forth the stuff that was down deep for all of us. The tensions between us were real, but they were also heightened. To me, it’s not a game of what’s real or not. All of this is meant to drive the viewer into the psychology of the situation, into what Kate might be feeling, and into asking why each scene is being set up the way it is. The intentionality of everything is put into question. Why are you watching what you’re watching? More deeply, you might be feeling—through Kate—some of the uncertainties that Christine might have felt.
NE Your film makes me uncomfortable about my impulses as a viewer on two levels. Most obvious is my desire to see the footage of Christine Chubbuck killing herself. But I also feel this trivial need to parse out what is real or not real. What do you think of that impulse in a viewer, and how do you take it into account?
RG The attraction of documentary is: I am about to see some raw truth that couldn’t be made up. But the fact is, when you add a camera and an edit, you’re making something up. I’m a filmmaker who’s interested in that tension between the chaos and constant noise of the real world and the apparatus of decision-making and fabrication in filmmaking. I think nonfiction film is able to embody both sides. My job is to get you thinking about what you’re watching, and to feel those tensions and use them in a productive way that takes you deeper than just the meta-conceit. In Kate Plays Christine, we purposefully wanted the straightforward documentary stuff to look like narrative fiction. And we wanted the film-within-a-film segment, which is ostensibly fiction, to break down almost like documentary. Inverting those two modes causes uncertainty—is this real, is it not?— and brings out the banality of that question, too. It takes you into another headspace. The nature of documentary is to be fabricated and authentic at the same time.
NE Has your perception of Christine Chubbuck changed significantly now that you’ve made the film, particularly based on Kate’s responses?
RG Well, I went in resistant to the idea that I could ever know Christine, and I wanted to make a film that embodied that feeling of resistance. I left more certain that I didn’t know her. It’s no longer a philosophical question: Can you know someone whom you never knew? The feeling I could never know her, it has now been backed up by the fact that she was a different person to every individual we spoke to, who either had an opinion of the story or of her. The male reporter says that Christine was angry and needed a boyfriend, that’s what he’d heard on the street. A friend of Christine’s brother says that she was graceful but acted as if she were Hollywood royalty and just out of reach. Another says, “I came out to her because she was open-minded and I loved her.” Someone else found her weird and strange. We have this need to create a narrative out of Christine’s life to explain away what she did, but I don’t think it’s so easy. I think we should actually resist that urge and be okay with the uncertainty and the unknown. On the other hand, I know a lot more about myself and about Kate having done the film. I think that’s just a matter of the sort of self-lacerating introspection that can’t help but get you to a place where you’re reflecting deeply about why you do what you do and with whom.
NE Have you seen Antonio Campos’s film Christine?
RG Yeah, I saw it at Sundance.
NE What did you think?
RG His film is very different, and he probably feels the same about mine. You get so wrapped up in your approach and how to illuminate the complexity of Christine’s life that you get kind of tyrannical about what you think is the right or the wrong way. It’s important to step back from that vantage point. I think Rebecca Hall is absolutely extraordinary in the film. I’m incredibly proud of the films coming out at the same time because that has created this conversation around how to represent this story. Either one of them would have triggered a conversation, but there’s a much deeper discussion happening because of the existence of both films.
Our film is actively saying that representing this story is hard. The problems with making the film are our own. Anyone should tell a story however they see fit. Kate Plays Christine is about how Kate and I, as filmmakers, are processing the story, and how you, as viewers, are processing the film. That’s what’s crucial to me.
Nicholas Elliott What drew you to Christine Chubbuck’s story?
Antonio Campos It was the script. My friend Micah Bloomberg said, “Craig Shilowich wrote a script about this reporter Christine Chubbuck. It’s a true story—she committed suicide on the air in 1974. I think you’d get it. I think you’d get the character and the sense of humor in the script.” I read it, and I did get it. So my first experience of Christine was Craig’s version of her. I became interested in the Christine described in a screenplay before I learned about the real Christine.
NE What interested you about her in particular?
AC It was her psychology and her struggle with daily life—this idea that there is a way that you’re supposed to act to get through life. Craig uses the character of Christine to articulate how a depressive person believes the mind works. There was a speech in the original script that didn’t make it into the final film because of its length, but it says so much about Christine. She goes into this monologue about her brain—she feels like there’s a pipe in her brain that’s clogged and filled up with shit. She just wishes that she could clear out the pipe, but she can’t remember the word for that. And someone says, “A plunger?” And she’s like, “No, not a plunger. Oh, yes—a drain snake. Like if someone could put a drain snake into my brain and just pull out all the shit, I could breathe again.” That image stuck with me—this simple way of expressing how it feels when your brain is unable to step back and compartmentalize and to see everything for what it really is—and not what it is to you while you’re in the middle of it.
Those are the things in the script that spoke to me. What is Christine going through? How does mental illness become this filter through which she sees everything, so that she doesn’t recognize others’ kindness toward her? The world wasn’t this awful place out to get her. But if you’re in that state of mind, no matter what people do to help you, you can only see the thing that you want to see. When people say, “No one’s trying to ruin you, Christine,” her response is, “Why won’t anyone just listen to me?” At some point you just can’t have a conversation with that person because they’ve decided.
NE How did you and Craig come to these conclusions about Christine?
AC All of those things came from the research Craig had done about the real Christine. Even her mother had said, “As sad as I am that Christine is dead, there’s no other way that I could see my daughter’s life ending. I didn’t expect it to be like this, but this does kind of make sense.” So extrapolating from there, you get to a scene with mom and daughter fighting and Christine ending with, “Why won’t anyone just listen to me?” I understood her psychology, and I cared about her. In the end, I didn’t want her to die. I really wanted her to pull through.
NE The movie portrays someone experiencing extreme depression, but we also see Christine as a committed journalist. How much did you think of Christine as not only someone suffering from a mental breakdown but also a person who potentially had an important contribution to make, one that was going against the tide of media in her period?
AC I think Christine was part of a larger conversation happening at the time. After Vietnam, things had started changing in terms of what was shown on the news and what people were expecting to see. Christine obviously wasn’t being heard in the same way as the big journalists, but if you go back to that period, there was a lot of discussion about the direction of news toward “If it bleeds, it leads.” It became clear that news directors were pushing sensationalist stories up front and other stories to the back. So Christine was aware of that conversation and was, in her own way, engaging in it on a local level.
We responded to that as filmmakers. We felt that if Christine had been given the right stage at the time, she could have been an important voice in that conversation. But she never got there, and her way of engaging in that dialogue was shooting herself on TV. We felt like there was something Christine was trying to say as a journalist before she committed the act. She had a valuable point of view but got trapped by her depression and her anger toward the people around her. Her only way to get out of the maze she found herself in was this crazy plan to shoot herself on TV.
NE It would be an overstatement to call her a visionary, but your film presents her as a potentially interesting artist. I sometimes thought of her as a director. You notice that’s she’s the one who sets the frame, and she talks about specific edits.
AC It’s interesting that you mention her awareness of the frame. I always think about my main character as the one deciding how I shoot the movie. Christine is a center-frame movie: She’s always trying to be in the middle and very conscious of where she falls in the frame. And as a director I’m aware that she wants to be in the center. The idea of the frame is very important to me and to Christine.
NE Do you think what Christine did is relevant to our media landscape today? Clearly, if she had done what she did now, it would go viral and millions of people would be watching it. Yet the tape of her death seems to have disappeared for all time.
AC I think it reminds us where we can go if we’re not careful. People are live-streaming crimes, like recently the guy in France who killed a police commander live on camera and then posted the video to Facebook and tweeted while he was taking hostages. Christine’s act was the first sign of where we were headed. So she was prophetic in that way.
People who decide what goes into the news or on the air ought to be very aware of what they’re doing to us. That’s how Christine’s story is relevant today. It’s important to spur conversation and to humanize stories, to provide context rather than just broadcasting or giving them a stage.
Most news, especially our American news, just skims the surface. There’s no depth at all.
AC When I watch CBS News on my Apple TV or if I end up in a place where I only have access to CNN, I’m caught in some loop. I’m not getting any real context or insight. Art’s job is to take information or news and give it context. I hope that journalists come out and see Christine and maybe that will start a larger conversation.
NE Have you seen Kate Plays Christine?
AC Yes, I have.
NE What did you think?
AC I feel that Kate Plays Christine is ultimately more about Kate than it is about Christine. It’s the secret of that movie. I like the way Robert Greene investigates Kate. For me, his movie is less about the media and more about the act of performing and what it means to be an actor, and Christine is a way into that. Greene’s film doesn’t get me closer to understanding Christine or who she might have been as a person, but it does get me closer to understanding Kate.
NE Is it uncomfortable for you to have your film come out in the same season as Kate Plays Christine?
AC It’s a weird thing being on the eve of releasing Christine, and having another film that was made about the same subject—with an actress playing a character that I spent so much time on with another actress. It’s hard for me to be objective, so I’ve avoided engaging in this conversation too much. I really admire Robert as a filmmaker and as a person. I think he’s a brilliant editor, and Kate Lyn Sheil is a very strong actress. Robert has a deep understanding of her.
Our investigation is much more about Christine than it is about Rebecca Hall. However, Rebecca was very aware that Christine was performing in her everyday life, and that spoke to Rebecca as an actress. When Christine is at work, she is performing what she thinks is normal and trying to do a good job at it, and maybe she thinks she’s doing a better job than she actually is. There are a lot of parallels there to Kate Plays Christine.
There are many things you can start digging into. But I don’t always want to engage in that level of scrutiny with the material. I would rather allow a conversation among the audience and critics to be more organic. I don’t need to be part of that discussion. I’d rather know what I know and feel what I feel and watch how people talk about it.
Nicholas Elliott is a writer, translator, and filmmaker living in New York. He is a BOMB contributing editor for film and a US correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma. His translation of Michel Winock’s Flaubert was published by Harvard University Press in 2016. His short film Icarus premiered at New Directors/New Films in 2015.
The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile.