One of the ironies of the movie Christine, a biopic of the newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who killed herself on live TV in 1974, is that viewers walk into the film knowing exactly how it ends. In other biopics, filmmakers have a deceptive amount of flexibility in deciding where to end; they can stop, say, backstage at a product launch, or while their subject is dancing. Not here. Indeed, for many in the audience, the ending itself is the draw.
The irony is that the surprise inherent in this ending — Chubbuck's shocking, tragic suicide — is essential to its effect. In Chubbuck’s real-life suicide note, she wrote that what the audience was about to see was the first attempted suicide broadcast live on television. Inevitably, any film about Christine Chubbuck would have to conclude with her suicide, more or less; by the sheer nature of its re-creation, the film version could never recapture that same element of surprise.
These contradictions weren’t lost on director Antonio Campos, who realized from the get-go the challenges of convincing an audience to watch a movie about a character who they know will die, and die tragically, by her own hand.
“We knew that some people would come into the movie knowing exactly how it ended, but also that some people would come in not knowing anything, and the film had to function for both those kinds of people,” Campos said. “It was very important to me to remember that we have to give her hope, there has to be a sense of, Oh, this is going to turn around. You also have to have some sense of that hope, and see that there is something great inside her.”
That hope, Campos said, became essential to how he saw Christine Chubbuck, played in the film by Rebecca Hall. Instead of focusing on the suicide, Christine attempts to seriously grapple with the totality of Chubbuck's life, despite knowing how it ends.
“To this day, when I watch the film, there are times when I forget that she’s going to do it,” Campos said. “And then I remember, and it feels heartbreaking, and I want her not to do it.”
In real life, the video of Chubbuck’s suicide is regarded as a macabre holy grail of unseen footage, but Campos never had any interest in seeking it out. Instead, he had to deal with the task of filming his own version. The scene came at the end of the shoot, and the production spent three days on it, a long time in indie film. It was the hardest part of the movie to make, for emotional as well as technical reasons: The mechanics of getting the scene right were complicated, and it was draining for both the actors, particularly Hall, and the crew. Because of the sensitivity required, shooting Chubbuck's death had its own specific considerations, of both the subject and the audience.
“We made a point of never shooting her suicide in close-up — we weren’t going to glorify it,” Campos said. “We shot it from two angles: One was super wide, from the other end of the room where the booth is, and then we shot on the little video camera — we see it on a monitor the way the people in the back might’ve seen it, and the way that her mother is seeing it on TV. The footage doesn’t exist of us shooting a close-up of it.”
But Christine’s most interesting touch might be the decision not to end there. Even though the bulk of the film tracks Christine, it goes on after her death, following the characters who surrounded her throughout. In fact, the final scene has a startlingly different tenor: Jean, played by Maria Dizzia, eats ice cream in a darkened room as the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song plays.
“There’s something really warm and kind and emotional about that idea to me,” Campos said. “Any other way of ending the movie than that might’ve been a little bigger or a little more of a classic biopic ending. It’s just so small and simple and to me, it’s saying there is a way of getting through the day. Life goes on, but it lingers in the air.”
Regardless of how the film ended, Christine’s suicide guaranteed that a specter of grief and tragedy would hang over it. But when I spoke to Campos, he wanted to confront an opinion that he’d heard, that the ending of the film was cynical.
“My intention for the end wasn’t cynical at all,” he said. “I really wanted to be with a character who in some small way reached out to Christine and couldn’t connect with her. The next layer was playing the Mary Tyler Moore Show song, a show about a newswoman, as a callback to the kind of reporter Christine could’ve been if she didn’t go down the path that she did. The Mary Tyler Moore song was aware of what it was.”
That song’s name? “Love Is All Around Us.” Even for viewers who knew what happened to Christine Chubbuck, finding that sentiment at the end of this film is, in some way, a surprise.