The Writers of ‘Christine’ and ‘Kate Plays Christine’ on One of the Strangest Cinematic Coincidences in Recent Memory

How did we end up with two films about the inherently sensational story of Christine Chubbuck?

Actress writer/director/editor Robert Greene first heard that he and screenwriter Craig Shilowich happened to be simultaneously planning movies about the very same person when editing a film for Alex Ross Perry in an office shared by one of Shilowich’s representatives. The subject of the two films was a person who — unlike, say, Janis Joplin and the plethora of perennially “in development” biopics surrounding her — wasn’t often spoken of or remembered to an extent that begged for filmic interpretation.

In fact, midway through the making of what would become Greene’s film, an interviewee asked Greene whether he would be making a movie about the person in question at all if she hadn’t “died the way she did.” Yet, here were two separate projects — Greene’s meta-ficto-documentary Kate Plays Christine and Shilowich/Antonio Campos’ stylized, Rebecca Hall-starring psychological horror biopic, Christine — suddenly both in production. Both mine the story of Sarasota reporter Christine Chubbuck — who, as any introductory paragraph about her will explain, “was the first person to commit suicide on live TV.” Both films would go on to premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

“It was very early in the process, and I think I tweeted, ‘Here’s my next film,'” says Greene. “And [the Christine filmmakers] were like, ‘Oh, we’re making that film too.’ And I was like, ‘What do we do about it?’ Everyone broadly agreed that the two takes were so different that we would just… see what happened.”

What did happen is that the coincidence didn’t merely lie in the shared subject — but rather in the oddly inter-textual quality of the approaches, for many have interpreted Kate Plays Christine as an interrogation of the type of storytelling Christine entails. “Kate Plays Christine is also Greene playing Campos, or any other director who would and could make a familiarly styled and conventionally dramatized bio-pic about Chubbuck,” writes Richard Brody in the New Yorker

And it can be said that Christine itself rebuts this idea by being the more affecting and immersive film, in no small part due to Rebecca Hall’s meticulous embodiment of her character — though the drive to be narratively “affecting” and “immersive” is of course what Kate Plays Christine‘s deconstructive interrogation of storytelling questions. As such, their near-simultaneous release has led critics to link the two — though for what it’s worth, Greene holds that his film wasn’t meant to be a critique of Christine and films like it, but rather of documentary reenactments — with Christine acting, within the critical eye, as the “real” film among the two, while Kate Plays Christine is rendered more a work of film criticism that just so happens to come in the form of a film.

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Shilowich stresses that with Christine, he wanted to write a film that narrated a speculative story of a life and its odd, tragic end, without doing a disservice to that life by overlaying it with a sense of unwavering tragedy. “The first draft of the movie I wrote was much more melancholic and angry and plodding,” he says. There’s very little hard information in existence to show who Christine Chubbuck actually was, barring a story written in the Washington Post by Sally Quinn, and an episode of the E! docu-series Boulevard of Broken Dreams — whose producer Shilowich contacted, and who ended up passing over a great deal of research to him.

Before Shilowich had encountered either of these sources, he’d come across Chubbuck’s story because he “was writing another movie at the time centered around another person who had died under unusual circumstances, [and had] gotten lost in the black hole of thinking about it and not writing about it.” He explains, “I was looking around the internet looking at unusual deaths, and I ended up [with] a list of them. On that list was a blurb about Christine. That’s where she lived for the last 40 years, in these dark corners of the internet.” The draw, it seems, was to revive a fuller sense of who this person was — to pry her from a list of names that people hungering for virtual morbidity consume alone late at night. He wanted to create a story of a life that was funny, gripping, dread-inducing, and human.

Because of the dearth of material, Shilowich “ended up grafting” a lot of himself onto his version of Chubbuck. “Making this movie was a way for me to work through a time in my life that had been very difficult,” he says. He speaks of being “really into Michael Crichton books” when he was a kid, and invokes Jurassic Park to discuss the creation of his Christine.

“I remember this part where they’re talking about how they made the dinosaurs, and they have the mosquito trapped in the amber, and they can extract 78% of the dinosaur DNA, and the rest of it is just a bug’s DNA but it comes out looking like the dinosaur,” he says. “I took as much of [Christine’s] essence as I could from this literature and then just put myself in it, primarily, or other people that I know who’d been in crisis. I tend to be attracted to those people.”

The film works as a portrait of someone experiencing a psychological breakdown within a society that, with the dawn of New Age culture in the ’70s, will only discuss mental health and happiness on the most cultish and superficial of levels. The movie never mentions a diagnosis, though it alludes to outbreaks and problems people see as inexplicable.

“I wrote her with a dual diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and an underlying personality disorder like borderline personality disorder. I have some experience with those things, so I felt like I could write the manifestations of those illnesses credibly,” says Shilowich. “The reason they don’t talk about it [in the film] is it’s a time and place where they lacked a language for it. Christine has something wrong with her; she’s been to a doctor; she’s tried medication; her mom brings it up repeatedly; Christine doesn’t like talking about it. It makes her feel weak. Part of the problem of being mentally ill is it makes you feel like less of yourself, and that’s not a great thing to feel. If you’re a headstrong person like Christine, you’re naturally going to want to avoid talking about that. But then you see it’s also like an open wound at times.”

After writing a draft that relied on secondhand sources, Shilowich went down to Florida to conduct his own interviews, and found he “had drawn Christine pretty well, concerning the contours of her character” but that he “had totally missed on the nature and the character of the time and the place.” The script, he says, “was an abject failure — that first draft was not a good movie,” because it lacked comedy. A sardonic air of humor, he emphasizes, is the key to his take on the story. He got a lot of the ultimate tone of the story by “just talking to people that knew Christine” and who’d lived and worked within the same Sarasota local news milieu.

“To build a movie that didn’t acknowledge [that this was a funny time in these people’s lives] would be dishonest to what I now understand was the reality down there. And Christine was no exception to that,” says Shilowich. “She was a darkly funny, sarcastic person who loved joking around. Everyone gave each other a hard time, and everyone knew exactly how ridiculous the stuff they were reporting on was, but that was their work, so they had to take it seriously. That heavily informed the tone.”

Taking cues from Paul Schrader’s Autofocus, another film about the “disintegration of an individual, both by internal and external forces,” he sought an “ironic, distant perspective” that’s also “really grounded in the time and place in which it’s set.” Irony and distance aren’t often words you could use to describe biopics — which all too often posit a total emotional closeness to their subjects that gives them the epic sweep of Hollywood inspiration and/or tragedy.

“In looking for a director I was looking for someone who could protect that tone,” he says, explaining that initially he’d even been skeptical about whether Antonio Campos, who wrote and directed Simon Killer and Afterschool, could speak to the film’s levity as much as its gravity. “I went back and looked at his work, and thought, ‘He can definitely do the dread part, I’m not worried about that.’ But I was concerned about how serious his movies are,” says Shilowich. “So I said, what the hell, I’ll talk to the guy and we’ll see. When I met with him, the first thing I noticed about him was how funny he was.”

The result of the collaboration is a film rife with an air of ’70s kitsch, an element that deliberately alienates and masterfully stifles with the overwrought, trifling comforts of the era. Its tonal and stylistic humor — say, Michael C. Hall’s obnoxiously easygoing, generically handsome proponent of ’70s self-help giving Christine, who already feels like an outsider, a knowing wink before a broadcast, or Christine herself trying to express an air of ease as she stiffly compliments the juiciness of a local vendor’s strawberries — is also one of its key sources of tension and dread. That sense of removal is the one gesture separating the film from biopics with a more authoritatively “biographical” tone. This sense of remove is key to appreciating both Christine and Kate Plays Christine as acts that aren’t totally mutually exclusive.

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There is a continuous, exhausting sobriety to Kate Plays Christine — but one that is blanketed in various layers of self-critique, all quietly laughing at the very self-seriousness of the material it’s displaying. To heighten the artifice of the “documentary” you’re seeing onscreen, writer/director Robert Greene himself appears in the movie, as the director of the film you’re watching.

Much of Kate Plays Christine displays the same research process described by Shilowich, but as the actual action of the film. It sees actress Kate Lyn Sheil solemnly meandering between Floridian interview sources, followed by Greene’s camera, attempting to figure out a way to fill her shoes, her dress, her wig, presumably with the intent of ending up with a performance like Rebecca Hall’s — except that the whole time, the overarching intent of the project was never actually to succeed. The idea is, these shards of information couldn’t ever be joined to resemble anything at all like journalistic or biographic truths, which the film itself questions.

Like Christine, the reenactment — i.e. biopic-ish — sections of Kate Plays Christine look to the aforementioned Washington Post article, but use that deliberately as their sole, myopic source material. The actual staged scene of the reporter’s own on-air suicide, delivered by Chubbuck as a news story (which brackets the beginning and end of the film), is likewise taken from the opening paragraph of the article, which Kate Lyn Sheil reads aloud and puzzles over while she’s preparing to enact the scene of the death. She reads:

Christine Chubbuck flicked her long dark hair away from her face, swallowed, twitched her lips only slightly and reached with her left hand to turn the next page of her script. Looking down on the anchor desk she began to read: ‘In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in’— she looked up from the script, directly into the camera and smiled a tentative smile [as both Kate Lyn Sheil and Rebecca Hall would in their respective films]. Her voice took on a sarcastic tone as she emphasized ‘blood and guts…and in living color.’ She looked back down at her script, her left hand shook almost unnoticeably… A loud crack was heard. A puff of smoke blew out from the gun and her hair flew up around her face as though a sudden gust of wind had caught it. Her face took on a fierce, contorted look, her mouth wrenched downward, her head shook. Then her body fell forward with a resounding thud against the anchor desk and slowly fell out of sight.

From that lurid description, it’s clear that Quinn herself was trying to tell a story, and one that begins with the sensationalistic vividness that the article — and both films — explain Christine Chubbuck so thoroughly grew to disdain. Chubbuck vehemently opposed the new “if it bleeds, it leads” norm for reportage in the 1970s.

Quinn was encapsulating a life in a few-page-long story — and encapsulating that life predominantly as a means to hypothesize about a death. The repeated hints as to what, apart from general depression, may have led her to do this are that she had “no romantic attachments,” that she was “a spinster at 29,” a virgin, and “had gone on very few dates” in the last ten years. Perhaps Christine Chubbuck’s own life was put into crisis by the gendered pressures of the ’70s — or perhaps the story of her decline was just written with an embedded ’70s sexism to suggest that a failure to meet these pressures would result in self-destruction.

The article itself creates a loose narrative that is reminiscent of extreme cinematic dramatizations of repressed feminine sexuality: Haneke’s excellent The Piano TeacherRepulsion, and, by far the dumbest, Black Swan. Christine — which hits pretty much all of the marks mentioned in the article — follows suit, also dramatizing a failed romance she imagines with her coworker played by Michael C. Hall (the movie depicts her as far more interesting and intelligent than he is, but unlike him, she lacks the charisma needed to connect to both coworkers and audiences).

The biopic does maintain a whiff of the old fashioned tropes about the degeneration of the female ego, though it seems to turn its critique more towards the era’s own engendering of such stories — and again, it uses that alienated vision of the ’70s, that sense of it all being told through the lens of period camp, to suggest its perspective. Christine presents a story and asks, as narrative films do, the audience to parse it for what it’s saying about the coalescing of these factors — though it suggests a self-reflexive awareness and irony in retelling a sensationalist story about a suicide committed in part as a comment on and even a protest of sensationalist storytelling. Kate Plays Christine, in its essayistic obsessiveness, parses the story as it tells it.

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“That’s the problem with making a narrative out of Christine’s story — those tropes are there,” says Greene. “Does that comment on Christine Chubbuck or on the way we tell stories? That’s what we’re trying to dissect. To me, with storytelling — and journalism, by extension — you end up regurgitating social values and stereotypes and all of these things you ostensibly want to be fighting against. The Sally Quinn article, though written by a woman, is regurgitating sexist stereotype after sexist stereotype. That version is as fabricated, as fantastical, as sexist and misogynistic — that’s the original narrative of Christine being a ‘crazy woman,’ in quotes. To me, that article is what we’re deliberately working through. We’re trying to look at what [Quinn] wrote and laser beam through [it] and get at something in between those phrases that she uses.”

Between all of the footage of Kate Lyn Sheil ruminating on the confluence of herself and her character, getting spray-tanned to look like her, jumping with staged contemplativeness into a pool (though a film as meta as this is impervious to criticism of “stagedness”), Kate Plays Christine shows footage of Kate’s starring role as Christine — in a film that, again, does not exist outside of these documentary reenactments. All of them are depictions of scenes referenced in Quinn’s article, and for that reason, you’ll recognize some (like a scene where Christine goes on a raving tirade about fake flowers) that also appear in Christine. 

The interplay between this article, Chubbuck’s apparent news-related ideologies, and her performative death are directly related to Greene’s decision to film reenactments based solely on this piece — to film one journalistic assertion of “truth” in a way that feels unshakably false. “We started with the premise that the movie within a movie — the reenactments — would be failures,” says Greene.

This was the idea with which he pitched his film to Sheil, who “on an intellectual cinephiliac level, was like, ‘that’s awesome.'” From there, as a way to “authentically” — and the scare quotes come from the film’s ultimate multilayered satire of the search for that holy grail of a word — show her discovering her character (or her failure to do so), Greene asked Sheil not to do any research on Chubbuck off-camera, and they headed down to Florida. In a personal phone call before embarking on her quest of predetermined futility, Sheil vaguely describes her character as the inspiration for Network (a factoid you can find on Wikipedia, though you’ll also find that it’s been claimed to be false), says something about the soap opera stylization of the piece, and finally reveals her interest as coming from wanting to break free of her mumblecore affiliations: “If I hear a performance of mine be described as subtle one more time….”

And Sheil does indeed wade into the territory of attempting to deliver a legitimately good performance, even if she’s been instructed against it. “When Kate would be mortified by a performance, I’d be like, ‘No, that’s exactly what I’m after,'” Greene explains. “And she’d be like, ‘I don’t care that you’re after that. I need to still try my best here to get something across, because I’m the one being held responsible.’ I stuck to my guns and said, ‘I want things to fall apart,’ and they were definitely falling apart.”

“What we’re actually documenting is the fact that once the cameras started rolling, and once she started learning more — once she started to learn the limits of the information we had, and started to talk to people — those limits became more and more terrifying and abhorrent to her,” says Greene. “That was partly by design and partly by accident. We’re documenting reactions to the contrivance. It’s a contrivance because it was never going to be another movie.”

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The fact that it was “never going to be another movie” is Greene’s way of emphasizing that this movie isn’t a critique of Christine and movies of its ilk, but rather more of documentaries like The Jinx and, more grandly, journalism itself — though the film’s critiques inevitably tie into critiques of fictionalization. (It’s hard not interpret the earlier statement about the salacious tropes of the story as an emphasis on favoring a deconstructed take over something like Christine.)

But Greene says his target is more “the kind of true crime films that make straightforward reenactments of people’s lives and deaths and don’t seem to care at all about those representations. My first interest is documentary. For me, even though Kate is playing this role, the dramatizations are just as much a critique of documentary dramatizations as they are fictional storytelling. That’s where I come at it from.”

When I asked him specifically about Christine, Greene said, “Fiction can have great power. Rebecca Hall’s performance has so many layers, and so much humanity and humor and darkness. I don’t think she conjures Christine. I think she conjures a character. That’s the power of fiction.” As a documentarian, his aim is to dismantle the notion of documentary as truth — and of documentary reenactments somehow speaking to the truth of a person rather than a fiction of them.

“I think there’s some vague notion that we’re saying, ‘You can’t do this’ with our film. There was a Rebecca Hall quote recently where she said something like, ‘I don’t want to watch a movie that says I can’t do it because I just did it.'” Greene says he wishes she’d watch the movie, because she’d see that’s not the message. “The message is that Kate and Robert are struggling with this. It’s not that Rebecca Hall and Antonio Campos are struggling with this. They have their own process and I deeply respect that process.”

Shilowich has a similar outlook: respect for Greene’s approach, alongside perhaps a vastly different drive for filmmaking. “I realized how much I like our movie after I saw Kate Plays Christine, not because I dislike Robert’s movie — I like that movie; it has a different agenda than our movie — but Robert’s movie is the movie I told myself I didn’t want to make,” he says. “Primarily I noticed how humorless it is, and that’s not true to the life of Christine.”

“Under other circumstances I would have really liked that movie; it’s hard for me to talk about it because I know I have such a bias,” Shilowich continues. “I think that movie is concerned with Christine Chubbuck the person secondarily. I disagree with this attitude that tragedy should be treated as mysterious and unknowable. Art and movies are an opportunity to synthesize conclusions about things that are prickly or tricky. When Kate Plays Christine comes face to face with footage of Christine, it’s discovered in that moment that she’s a real person. And I assumed that she was a real person from the get-go, and a real person I would liked to have known.”

I ask Greene what he thinks of this critique, which hasn’t just come from Shilowich, but as Greene himself mentions, Miriam Bale in the New Republic. I can’t help but likewise feel it a bit, too. (Other critics have lauded Greene’s work while questioning Shilowich’s project as more exploitative in its straightforwardness.) By avoiding fetishizing someone’s pain by explaining it as unknowable, are you perpetuating a disconnect and creating an even more “othering” work?

“That’s a valid criticism,” says Greene. “The best I can say is, I was obsessed with that question — I don’t know that we answered it. The film itself is using these questions — what’s real and what’s not, who’s directing it, Kate or me — all of the swirling questions are meant to push us away from the possibility of actually knowing Christine as a human being, and push us closer to knowing the feeling that someone who’s in Kate’s shoes might have. The goal is to push you into Kate’s psychology, her psychological space. As she’s moving closer, you’re moving closer with her, despite the fact that Christine continues to slip through your fingers. I think that’s a moral/ethical choice — to say that that is the truth, that she is unknowable.”

But he emphasizes that that “doesn’t mean that the feelings of depression are unknowable” — these, he says, are “universal. The feeling of suicide isn’t unknowable,” either, he says.

“And I hear the criticism that you can’t make a film about someone and say you don’t know them,” he adds. “Especially because I’m a man — even though Kate is an A1 collaborator on the film, it still is my vision. But my hope is that these things that we’re doing, this twistiness is not for the sake of gamesmanship, it’s to get us to someplace that’s a deeper understanding of these universal questions. The film falling apart — and not being satisfying on an escapist level — is my moral and ethical attempt to give witness and do justice to the deep sense of sadness and horror that her story makes me feel, and that I think really lives in all of us.”

And it seems like that’s what both Greene and Shilowich have done, in their own individual ways — each film bringing out the unique strengths, as well as the occasional ethical imperfections, of the other. Just as everyone grieves individually for people they do know, perhaps so too do two people 40-years-removed from this story of a woman who became an abstract and a symbol — albeit a symbol who, before their movies, was disappearing into the confines of weird, sad Internet lists. They cannot truly grieve for the person herself. But Christine — the narrative film that puts the pieces of her legacy back together to provoke a series of questions about misunderstandings of mental illness, the temporal roots of sensationalist American news, and a cultural addiction to violence — and Kate Plays Christine, the documentary film that further dismantles the story of Christine Chubbuck to question the very nature of cathartic storytelling, can both effectively grieve in their own way for how the abstraction of this individual relates to our present.

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Christine Chubbuck’s odd suicide was undeniably and unsettlingly in part a performance — and one with a chilling text that reads almost as an artist’s statement on the increasingly performative nature of the news.

“Something happened like it recently,” says Shilowich, mentioning the former colleague of a news reporter and cameraman in Roanoke who killed his co-workers on air, then posted the footage to Facebook and Twitter. “He did something much more heinous than Christine did. He designed [the act] to [be done] while it was on air. That was way bloodier and more malevolent. It took what Christine did even further, and the response to it was shock and horror for 48 hours and everybody forgot about it. It was widely disseminated, it was national news. Everyone was upset about it, and then it got swept away in the news cycle.”

“The performances in our culture are becoming more grotesque because cameras are everywhere to capture them,” says Greene. “We want desperately to find authenticity. We look to journalism and documentaries to be the bearer of that authenticity, and I think that’s problematic too, because both are manufactured stories. Both are not reality, though they often sell themselves as reality. Christine’s story is relevant because she wanted this to be recorded, she asked for the tape to be made — she directed this moment in a sense. She performed this moment, very aware of the camera, obviously, and was prepared with her statement. She wanted to be seen, yet it was lost.”

Greene estimates that because Christine’s suicide was in 1974, because it happened during her morning program titled The Suncoast Digest, and because the recording is in the hands of people who haven’t released it for the world to gawk at, there are maybe 500 people total who have seen it.

“Because of that absence, her story brings up these questions [about violence and performance] in a more direct way. The idea of having two different takes on the same story is maybe going to advance this question a little further than it would have been advanced with just either one of our films,” Greene says. That much is clear.