Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Florida, newscaster who, as my colleague Abe Riesman detailed, achieved a cultish fame for shooting herself on-air in 1974, has, by strange coincidence, become the subject of a pair of Sundance movies this year. The first, Kate Plays Christine, is a documentary exploration of voyeurism and obsession, following actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s deep dive into playing an unknowable character. The second is a narrative take from the always-controversial director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer), with the often-underused Rebecca Hall capturing Chubbuck’s painful social awkwardness and descent into madness. It’s a performance that ought to earn her an Independent Spirit nomination, at the least.
The movie opens with Hall as Chubbuck lobbing hard questions about Watergate to Richard Nixon — before the camera pulls back to reveal she’s talking to a chair. It’s a telling reveal of her ambition. She wants to be doing “important” (read: dry) pieces about zoning and how it affects local hospitals, but the ratings are in the tank, and the bosses want more “blood and guts” in her reporting, which she finally takes to heart. We spoke with Hall, Campos, and another of the film’s stars, Michael C. Hall — who plays the buffoonish anchor George, who is the object of Christine’s unrequited affection — about Chubbuck’s shocking death and its parallels to modern media.
All anyone knows about Christine Chubbuck is her final act. How do you sustain tension for two hours when people are going into this knowing the ending — an ending that is the reason for a movie about her to even exist?
Rebecca Hall: Well, the value of doing it is to help an audience sympathize with someone who does something unthinkable, and try to understand that, and therefore have compassion for mental-health suffering. If you get to the end and you don’t want her to do it, then we’ve done our job right.
Antonio Campos: For [screenwriter Craig Shilowich] and me, it was a very tricky thing. But we knew that if we did our jobs creating the world and the people around her, viewers would be with her and not be thinking about the conclusion of the movie. The film keeps you very present. It doesn’t let you wander too much and think about the fact that she’s going to do this thing.
RH: And it’s not about that. It’s about everything else. It’s about the fake and the real, and watching someone who is performing being quote-unquote “normal” when she knows on some level that she can’t and she’s failing at it.
Christine and George have such an interesting relationship because in one sense she’s in love with him, and in another he represents the mediocrity and drive for mass sensationalism that’s making her insane.
Michael C. Hall: Well, he’s not actively lobbying for blood-and-guts TV, but he’s certainly comfortable going along with it. Maybe Christine has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to George. [Laughs.] I think he does genuinely, for his own selfish reasons, want to help her.
RH: Everyone in the film wants to help her. It’s about a community that, though they don’t realize it, is trying to keep someone alive. She just can’t accept the help because she can’t access that. She’s got no way of asking for help or accepting it.
AC: The line where Tracy [Letts, who plays the station manager] goes, “I don’t know what’s going on with you right now,” is very telling. It’s super frustrating dealing with this person, where you see a lot of talent in them but you can’t get through.
Do you think she was a good newscaster?
RH: Here’s the thing about her: No one diagnosed the real Christine Chubbuck, so who knows what she was suffering from. But I look at her and think she was sort of a classic borderline personality slash depressive. A minute ago that was called rapid-cycling bipolar, which just means that highs and lows are very fast, and they’re always triggered by something. If she hadn’t been suffering from that, then I think she would’ve had a very good career. I don’t think she would’ve been a genius. She was unique and eccentric, and her standards were very high for herself, but I don’t think she would’ve been great. That in itself is sort of tragic.
I thought it was such a telling moment when [SPOILER], on what she thinks is their first date, George takes her to his former high school, where he was a star athlete. Then it turns out he’s taking her to this Transactional Analysis meeting. It just says so much about him.
MCH: Well, he’s described in the stage directions in the script as someone whose best years are behind him. That’s something he’s somewhat resigned to by the time we meet him. It’s perhaps not lost on him that he returns to the site of his former glory to redefine himself as a newly viable person.
Do you think it helps or hurts Christine to go to that Transactional Analysis meeting? It goes really deep into her psyche.
RH: I think it confuses her. [Laughs.] It’s not the right sort of help. The process of doing TA means you have to state everything that’s wrong with your life, so she’s reduced to this point of having to give it all up and say, “I’m the virgin, and I don’t know anything, and …” That actually leaves her about as low as it can be.
MCH: Yeah, “Thanks, George!”
I can’t imagine what her co-workers must have had to deal with.
AC: It confused a lot of them. It really shook them.
Who were you able to talk to?
AC: Craig talked to more people than I did. I talked to a couple of people who were at the station or around her for a while. They didn’t really understand it. Little by little they learned more about her, and then everybody kind of moved on with their lives. But that station stayed a station for a while. I did hear that the stains were still visible in the rugs for a while after that happened, and I talked to the guy who cleaned the blood off of the counter. He remembered scrubbing the blood and crying — but he was crying partially because he was so upset that he had the shitty job of having to do this. It was surreal.
In the statement she reads, she says we’re about to witness an event never before seen on television: an attempted suicide. Does that mean she didn’t actually mean to do it?
AC: I think it was a testament to her as a reporter that she was like, “This might not work.”
RH: She wanted to go because then she writes a paragraph saying, “A newscaster dies in Florida.”
AC: Yeah, she had a press release all set.
Has her family been involved at all?
AC: No. We’d be open to it. It’ll be interesting hearing what they think.
Isn’t the footage a mythic thing, seen as one of the most coveted lost videos of all time?
AC: Yeah, I guess it is. But I find that so morbid. I mean, we all know what it’s going to look like. Does anybody still have it? From what I understand, the family destroyed the one copy that was in existence, but who knows?
RH: This was a tragedy. I mean, it was a political statement inasmuch as someone who was depressed and had reached the end of their tether was saying to society, You want me to work on your terms? These are the things you’ve been telling me? Okay, I’ll do that, but that involves me dying. And that’s a tragedy, that she didn’t have the tools to live. It’s not something to be made into some macabre act of heroism.
Why was it so important for each of you to work on a story that’s kind of like urban folklore?
RH: Because I read it and thought, This isn’t an exploitation piece. This is a very intimate character study of someone who’s really suffering. And we don’t necessarily identify these people. We don’t give them enough time or the right kind of care, still. If a handful of people watch this and think, I recognize this as something that I suffer from and I’m going to try to find a way to get help, or if someone else thinks, I recognize a friend of mine, then it’s worthwhile.
AC: I had a very immediate and real reaction to the script. There was something that was so painfully familiar about Christine to me, and I found her funny and sad and strange. I connected with her in such a personal way, and I felt like I wanted to be part of bringing this to the screen.
MCH: Yeah, I thought it was a fantastic script, and I thought Christine was an extremely odd,and yet quite relatable character. I liked the sense I had that this movie would, without being explicit, say something about the world we’re now living in.
Which part of the world?
MCH: The news environment, the media environment, the mental-health environment.
AC: I remember clearly feeling when I read the script for the first time that the story feels timeless. The way that Craig found to articulate some things about the mechanism of the mind, and the images that he was creating on the page to describe what Christine was feeling and the way that other people were perceiving her — they were so true. I felt like, Oh, it just happens to take place in the ‘70s, and happens to be about this woman who shoots herself in the end on TV. I was so blown away by that.