Transformation, whether physical or internalized, is the essence of all performance.
Performance is product of research, rehearsal, introspection and direction, but when faced with the task of personifying a “real life” character, the quest for authentic representation doubles in importance. Stripping this process down to its core, director Robert Greene (Actress) observes actress Kate Lyn Shell as she pieces together the puzzle of Christine Chubbuck’s turbulent life and eventual suicide, preparing to play the role in a series of reenactments purposely meant to exhibit the inadequacy of fetishizing the notorious case.
Chubbuck, who worked as a Sarasota news reporter in the early 1970s, committed suicide during a live broadcast after reading a statement criticizing the network’s fondness of focusing on gruesome stories. Without any footage of their subject or many leads to anyone that might have insight into her story beyond those final moments, Greene captures Kate’s efforts to connect with the person she is supposed to play and come to terms with the tragic nature of the case. This forces her to question why there is interest in a story that’s remarkable almost solely because of its conclusion.
Kate’s own desire to be seen and Christine’s similar impulse to pursue recognition are juxtaposed in a non-fiction thriller that pushes performance to its limits and its participants to the edge of sanity. For the film’s unorthodox structure and audacious execution, Greene received a Special Jury Prize for Writing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
MovieMaker spoke with Greene about discovering Kate Plays Christine as it evolved, his perspective on performance, and the uneasiness that making a film about such a troubling figure brings about.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Between Kate Plays Christine and your previous film Actress, what is it about the artifice of performance that fascinates you?
Robert Greene (RG): I’m interested in the idea that performance is an integral and inescapable part of making films. Living life, we are constantly performing our own identity all the time. My previous film Fake It So Real is about professional wrestlers, who are performers, too—they heighten that and make it more apparent. When you put an actor in a documentary, it creates this effect where you are looking through and past the images and try to read into the intentionality and decision-making of the filmmakers and the subject/actor. It creates a pathway for understanding, getting into people’s heads in a new way. I don’t think that if I wasn’t interested in Brandy as a human being I would have made Actress, or if I wasn’t interested in the wrestlers, or if I wasn’t interested in Christine or in Kate I would have made those films. It brings about new possibilities and allows you to pry open certain psychologies.
MM: Can there be “reality” in documentaries since there is always a certain level of performance once the camera is on? Can there actually be truthfulness elicited from the images or is everything just different levels of performance?
RG: Documentaries are not reality, first of all. That’s obvious in a sense, but it’s also worth saying. But I do think performance is reality. Let’s say you are watching The Act of Killing, and you are watching the bad guys, so to speak, performing what they imagine one of their killings to be like—you are not watching something that is alive, you are watching something in which performance is being used to open up the truth. Once you have a camera you have performance. If you have editing and shot selection in a frame you have manipulation and you have decision-making, which creates tension between fabrication and authenticity. That doesn’t mean that you are not getting truthful material and that you are not saying something truthful about the world.
MM: When you presented the project to Kate, how much did she know about the mechanics and specific tone of it? Did the other actors know of the extent to which the film would not be fiction and have reenactments woven into the narrative?
RG: Most of the film unfolded in a very non-fiction way and that’s why I call the film a documentary. Like any documentary, you discover things and you follow the trail to wherever it takes you, even emotionally. The premise that I pitched Kate was that these reenactments, the movie-within-a-movie, were going to be purposely bad, it was going to fail, it was going to be inadequate in telling Christine Chubbuck’s story on purpose. For example, the scene where she is reading from the notebook and says, “Christine was like this and I’m like this,” I told her I was going to do that. So there were a few things like that that were set up, but her reactions saying, “You know I wouldn’t really be doing this if you weren’t asking me to do this”—that was totally unexpected. That was her reaction in the moment so that’s what’s in the film. I gave her some of the framework. I gave her the basic overall conceit, but we knew that we would have to discover the film together as we went.
For the other actors, I told them, “This is not a traditional film and you’re acting in this movie-within-a-movie is purposely soap-operatic, melodramatic, not great. Also, there is potential for it to be treated like a documentary; we might be showing behind-the-scenes stuff.” But I didn’t know that I would be interviewing them until we started. That’s another thing that was discovered along the way—how crucial actors and their voices are. They knew going in the reenactments were meant to be flat and cheap.
MM: Besides the uneasy allure of her tragic death, what aspects of Christine’s persona compelled you to pursue this idea? Was it the lack of information about her and wanting to discover more?
RG: That was a big part of it. I first heard her story about a decade ago. She was protesting “blood and guts” television by doing the most “blood and guts” television thing of all time. The performance awareness that she had was that she wanted to report her own suicide and had written it. Those layers that her story naturally brings out emotionally and psychologically make you reflect on yourself and your own feelings. That’s what you see in the movie, people taking Christine Chubbuck’s story and really talking about themselves because of the nature of her story. I wrestled with it for a long time and always felt that I didn’t have the right to make this film. That sense that I didn’t have the right to make [it] is something I kept in my gut while I was making other movies, writing about documentaries, teaching, and whatever else I was doing. If the movie is “about” anything it’s probably that: that feeling in my gut.