The late Christine Chubbuck is more famous than one might expect of a local Sarasota journalist who focused on relatively mundane issues like zoning and local fairs.
Of course, Chubbuck didn’t pierce public consciousness just because of her conscientious news reportage. She gained her degree of notoriety because she killed herself during a live news broadcast in 1974, just a few weeks before her 30th birthday.
Antonio Campos, director of the acutely disturbing dramas Afterschool (2008) and Simon Killer (2012), has made a narrative feature, Christine, inspired by Chubbuck and her public suicide. The film played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it received acclaim, particularly for the stunning lead performance of Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck.
I didn’t attend Sundance this year, but I had heard that there was a feature shown there about Chubbuck—only to realize, months after the fact, that I’d been thinking of the documentary Kate Plays Christine, directed by Robert Greene (Actress) and starring Kate Lyn Sheil as an actress playing Chubbuck. Oddly, after 40 years of being known mainly to aficionados of the macabre, television journalism experts, and people who wrongly believe that her suicide inspired Paddy Chayefsky to write Network, Chubbuck is the subject of two feature films that premiered at the same festival.
While Greene’s film takes a more meta approach, presenting the dilemma of an actress struggling with a uniquely challenging role, Campos’ Christine takes a more straightforward approach. It’s a fictionalized account of the days leading up to Chubbuck’s decision to end her life on live TV, an edifying depiction of mental illness, and a fairly complex critique of our news media and of women’s long struggle to get their accomplishments recognized in the workplace.
The film depicts Chubbuck’s life: home, where she lives with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and work, where she pines for the station’s smarmy news anchor, George (Michael C. Hall), commiserates with colleague Jean (Maria Dizzia) and butts heads with her ratings-obsessed boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who wants to do more sensational stories, as opposed to the community-minded pieces Chubbuck wants to produce. Chubbuck recoils from compromising her journalistic integrity, but when the station owner visits, looking to poach talent to bring to his other station in a much larger market, she becomes desperate to make her case.
While the predominant influence on the film—the first feature screenplay by producer Craig Shilowich—seems to be the dark dramas of the 1970s, “There is a bit of a sitcom influence in the first part of the movie,” Campos said. “Like, ‘What if this was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and this was our Mary character?’”
Even so, the intensity of Chubbuck’s self-consciousness, along with whatever foreknowledge the viewer might have about her fate, creates a palpable sense of dread. It’s a feeling that will be familiar to fans of the filmmaker, who worked with Shilowich for a year and a half to get to the finished film’s eventual structure. After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Campos and friends Sean Durkin and Josh Mond founded Borderline Films in 2003, putting out titles such as 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and last year’s James White, steeped in nervous existentialism.
“Maybe there’s a constant sense that something awful’s about to happen, which drives me,” Campos says. “But it’s also the kind of cinema that’s always grabbed us, that has a certain kind of tension. Dread is a fun ride to go on at times. And something that inherently hooks an audience.”
Campos had a very specific look in mind for the film. “We shot it on the Arri Alexa. We shot 16:9, which is different than anything I’ve ever done.” The change was necessary for the look he wanted to achieve. “Partially because I wanted it to fit perfectly on a TV—a modern TV,” he continues. “So I didn’t want to go for 2.35:1, which is normally what my partners and I would shoot in. The look of the film harkens back to ’70s movies, for sure.”
Hall’s expertly modulated performance is the film’s central strength. The actress was starring in Sophie Treadwell’s grim Expressionist 1928 play Machinal on Broadway when she first got Shilowich’s script. She was understandably hesitant to engage the material. “My first instinct was concern that it was done in some sort of sensationalistic, exploitative way,” she says. “Why make a film about this thing? And then I read it, and I understood. It was a film about sensationalism and exploitation, but it was incredibly compassionate and understanding and humane, and that’s the moment I realized that it was actually an important thing to do. As much as it frightened me, I knew I wanted to do it.”
She reached out to Campos, who had already come to see Machinal, in which Hall portrayed a murderer who is executed in the electric chair at the end of the play. “I knew right away she was Christine,” he says. “She was clearly willing to go down the rabbit hole of playing this role. You want to find a partner that is incredibly talented and willing to go to these places, but also someone you can laugh with, whom you can spend time with, whose company you actually enjoy. That’s what I found in Rebecca.”
Hall dove into the project, using a film of one of Chubbuck’s Suncoast Digest news segments (about a zoning crisis) to capture the woman’s flat, Midwestern affect. Chubbuck’s voice was the key for Hall. “For me—I don’t know if this is the same with all actors—but for me the voice comes first,” Hall says. “The sound and the intonations, and the way someone speaks, and how they express themselves, comes first, and then the physical life is almost sort of instinctive after that.”
Hall had a unique working relationship with Campos. “I found him to be one of the most instinctual directors I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “He didn’t really talk to me about what was going on in the scene, so much as feel it with me. I was very aware of it. It’s difficult to describe, because I’d look at him as we were shooting a scene, and I’d notice that he’d sort of clutch his stomach when it was working, because he was feeling it. He emotionally lived it with me.”
Hall repeatedly points out that she is playing a character based on Chubbuck, and not the woman herself. While the role is essentially fictional, I’d heard that Chubbuck’s family expressed dismay over the film. Did Hall feel a particular responsibility to the real person her character is based on?
“I think there’s a huge responsibility to the person,” she says, “but the thing is, she essentially brought a private tragedy into a public arena. She put it all into our consciousness. And without a piece of art to translate, to digest, and to make sense of that, what society is left with is a sort of shocking, horrible thing, and we’re all left going, ‘Ugh, what a monstrous thing to have done. What a horrible, inconceivable thing to have done.’ And what I think the film does is make a humane case for this person. That’s why it’s responsible: because it’s incredibly compassionate.” It may sound a bit like rationalization, but that compassion does come through in the film. The film’s Chubbuck is a beautifully realized and fully human character.
Beyond that, Chubbuck has an undeniable cultural relevance. She was a harbinger, of sorts, of the type of media we consume today, where it seems one can find nearly any kind of human endeavor, from the most noble to the most depraved, on the internet, and where “real” violence, as highlighted on our news programs and shared throughout social media, keeps us in a state of heightened anxiety and unreasonable fear.
“She was the first one to push this conversation to the public: the fact that the media is so obsessed with violence,” Campos says. “Journalists were all aware of what was happening to the news—the kind of stories that were getting pushed to the front, and the stories that were getting pushed back in the lineup. Christine was probably very aware of that conversation.”
“As we get further away from it,” says Hall, “I think more and more historians are going to look at [the ‘70s] as a moment in American history, like the nation was in some sort of state of nervous breakdown. Simultaneously, it was the golden age of journalism with Watergate and all these things, but it was also the moment that “if it bleeds, it leads” was becoming the mainstay of media. Her story is an extraordinary metaphor, in a way, because there she is, someone who desperately wants to serve her community, to be truthful, to have all the standards of integrity, and not use fear to exploit her audience. Increasingly, that’s become the language. Fear is the thing that is used to exploit people in America consistently.”
While for Campos, the core value of the film is in its compassionate depiction of mental illness (about “a person who couldn’t accept the love and help that people were trying to offer along the way, and was processing everything happening around her as though it was happening to her”), Hall also points out the relevance of the work from a feminist perspective. “There’s a sense of, ‘How soft do you have to be, as a woman, in order to be acceptable?’ Our Christine is very bad at being feminine. [She’s] brittle and strange, and I didn’t want to shy away from that. I wanted to lean into that, and somehow make her comprehensible and sympathetic.” Hall points out the frustrations the character endures. “She’s not rewarded for her hard work. She’s exploited, and her ambitions are simultaneously thwarted. That is, I think, something of a woman’s position at that time, and arguably still.”
Hall recognized the uniqueness of the role, and thankfully took it despite her reservations. “I just thought, ‘Finally, an opportunity for a real, extreme antihero. Girls don’t get to play them very often, honestly. These sort of extreme characters that I feel a lot of my acting heroes, who are men, get to do, like Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy. There are these people that you care about enormously, even though they can be uncomfortable and awkward and sometimes grotesque, and sometimes abhorrent and sometimes funny. You still love them. I think there’s such a pressure for female characters to be likable. I just knew it, the moment I read it—I didn’t want to shy away from it.” MM
Christine opens in theaters October 14, 2016, courtesy of The Orchard.