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Interview: Robert Greene and Kate Lyn Sheil on Kate Plays Christine

The director and actress discuss the complexities of their unconventional docu-fiction hybrid.

Interview: Robert Greene and Kate Lyn Sheil on Kate Plays Christine
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Born in a small Ohio town in 1944, Christine Chubbuck devoted her life to television. She majored in theater, later earning a degree in broadcasting. In her professional life, she worked at a few radio and television stations throughout the late 1960s before working as a hospital computer operator and eventually taking a job at an ABC affiliate, WXLT-TV, located in Sarasota, Florida. There, on July 15, 1974, during a morning show, after reading a newscast about a shooting at a local restaurant, the 29-year-old Chubbuck committed suicide—and live on the air.

Interest in this gruesome event has been renewed by two films, both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The first, Antonio Campos’s Christine, starring Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck, has its eyes set on Oscar glory. The second, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, is a fascinating, more unconventional docu-fiction hybrid that’s as much about the events leading up to Chubbuck’s suicide and the sensationalism that draws the populace’s attention to such real-life horrors as it is, per our own Chuck Bowen, “the element of performance that’s integral to documentaries.” The film features Kate Lyn Sheil investigating Chubbuck’s life as an existential dilemma, trying to sufficiently embody a persona that almost resists embodiment.

I sat down with Greene and Sheil to talk about this provocative project, its depiction of Chubbuck’s drive toward suicide, the differences between “acting” and “performing,” and Greene’s fascination with the death of Kurt Cobain.

When I first heard about your film premiering at Sundance, I wondered why anyone would want to recreate someone’s suicide. What was so fascinating about Chubbuck killing herself on live television?

Robert Greene: Your question is precisely the reason I was fascinated by the story. It’s the kind of story that makes you think about why you want to do it. I think it was the very nature of Chubbuck’s life leading up to that act, as well as the contradictory, complex, nasty performance of the act itself. It immediately makes you think: Why? There has to be a reason. Human nature tells you to ask this very question. But by recreating it, I’m not trying to explain suicide. I’ve been thinking about this for 10 years or so, and I was never able to figure out how to tell it until I made a documentary with an actor which was called Actress, my last film. That was it. Watching someone else process things, going through an attempt to represent something—that’s the way in. The name Kate Plays Christine also came with this concept.

Kate, what was your way in to Kate Plays Christine?

Kate Lyn Sheil: Robert came to me and simply asked me to be involved. We’ve known each other for about 10 years now, and we’re in the same circle of friends. We talked and that was actually the first time I heard about Christine Chubbuck. I was immediately fascinated by her, but I questioned my fascination, just as Robert did. Ad the film is an extrapolation of that, of being very drawn to her story, but questioning her motivation.

RG: To continue with that thought, I feel like a lot of stories start from a place of questioning your motivation to cover something. Then you work toward it, and then you maybe reach a point in which you already figured out your reasons. The more you work on something and the closer you get, the stranger it is and the harder it is to understand. The closer you look the less it makes sense. It was sometimes our case with Kate Plays Christine

KLS: I think the obvious thing here is the sensational nature of her death and the lack of information available on her on the Internet, despite the fact that she made her death a public act. If she had committed suicide today, there would be absolutely no shortage of details, about every single aspect of her life, readily available to us.

RG: I think it was because of the era we’re talking about: the 1970s. She was a journalist making a political statement which was quite contradictory in its nature. She was saying she’s against “blood-guts” television by doing the most “blood-guts” thing ever. And then the whole thing was wiped out, nothing to be found, like it never existed. There was a hole that we wanted to fill.

And you decided to fill the hole by focusing on the preparations leading to her committing suicide on TV.

RG: Suicide is a challenge to our being. We’re built to survive, to avoid being hit by a car. We’re not built to take out a gun and shoot ourselves in the head. It’s a direct challenge to everything we take for granted as living beings. As with many other challenges, the easy thing to do would be to put it in a box and put it away. Of course, in that situation, you’d prefer to think that hers was a case of some sort of chemical imbalance, that she was sick or crazy and that’s why all of this happened. Feeling satisfied about finding the reason, you just happily put it away and forget about it. It was the ‘70s, when depression was misunderstood, of course. But the nature of how she did it, the contradictoriness of it, the anger, sadness, loneliness of it, the ego that it took to do it—all of it, you simply can’t put it away. It can’t be that easy this time. Our film is about us not being able to put the story away.

I remember when Kurt Cobain killed himself, I was just 18 years old and it was the most horrible thing in my life. He was a true hero to me. There’s nothing cynical about my feelings for Nirvana, as I admit that their music changed my life. I clearly remember being a teenager, listening to everything they’d done. After Cobain killed himself, it made me angry to think that we could have actually seen it coming—that there must have been someone who could have done something. Of course, it’s crazy to think about it that way.

Or, another example, Chantal Akerman. I remember watching Akerman’s films thinking that it was just great that someone can do this work of madness and reach the limits and at the same time be so productive. And then she kills herself. What can you do? You go through her work again considering that this line of madness is actually a line of sickness. And I hate that feeling. Suicide makes you go back and look at someone’s life through later events. Neither Cobain nor Akerman’s achievements meant suicide, of course. Akerman was a great artist, who was exploring aspects of her darkest selves and that took her to that place. She’s not defined by it. But still, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Je Tu Il Elle without thinking that she killed herself. I won’t be able to listen to a Nirvana lyric about a gun without obsessing about guns.

What would you call Kate Plays Christine? An experiment? An exercise? A journey perhaps?

RG: One of the things I don’t want it to be is an academic exercise. It can’t be. It’s a concept though. Hopefully the film works as a conceptual idea, and as such it’s not a stop, but a start. Where we get to is a narrative emotional experience, like any movie, I think. Or, generally, a piece of art.

KLS: I would also shy away from the word “exercise,” although it sort of is that in certain ways. I think that the greatest way to deliver ideas or to raise questions, make people engaged enough to take part in the conversation, is to make a movie as engrossing as possible.

RG: I wanted to make a film that’s complex, and is failing and falling apart as you’re watching. But also, can you make the “falling-apart-as-you’re-watching” feeling narratively exciting? I think when people watch documentaries, they often watch from a place of suspicion, discrediting what they’re seeing. One just realizes at some point that it’s just “acting authentic.” I think that documentaries are often desperate to be authentic. There’s an exploitable tension between what you’re watching and what you’re feeling.

Kate, once Robert talked to you about the idea, you knew there was a whole process of transformation involved, but only a handful of information. How did you approach Christine for that project? Would you say she’s still with you somehow?

KLS: It’s complicated, because as we all know, the preparation is in vain, really. I knew from the beginning that we weren’t going to make a narrative film. I’m performing the entire time and what you’re watching isn’t preparation. It’s me actually acting.

RG: I asked Kate to represent Chubbuck in any way she wanted, but it still had to have consequences.

How so?

RG: Essentially, there was never going to be a film of its own. But Kate was still tasked with representing Christine and it mattered a whole lot.

KLS: The consequences of this task for me were massive. Particularly for me as a person who had plenty of reservations. I had reservations about performing a part of a real woman. I had reservations about the fact that I knew the reenactment was supposed to be a failure. I thought about what it meant for me as an actor, if that was something I was comfortable doing. And then there was this tension between Robert and me when I wanted to be given the tools to fail of my own volition rather than us not scripting scenes.

RG: It’s almost like you wanted to fictionalize the failure and I wanted to be the documentary filmmaker watching the failure. And that tension was very real, however surreal that may sound. Kate’s performing the entire time. That’s because she’s an artist who’s enacting her art. But we want to make this very clear: The interviews and the search is real, the journey is real, the investigations are real.

KLS: My interest in Christine is real too.

And so is the difference between “acting” and “performing” in the film.

RG: Absolutely. In this film, the fact that you’re seeing Kate perform is something that you can intellectually understand. I think when someone says that she’s “acting” in Kate Plays Christine, there’s a feeling that there are no consequences to it. And that’s not true at all. Saying that you know what you’re doing, expressing yourself not knowing what’s going to happen next, it’s like you’re in control, but there are still consequences. That’s also to answer your earlier question about what we meant by “consequences” to Kate’s representation of Christine.

KLS: For me there were much greater consequences than in a situation where I’d be given a script and a task to play Christine Chubbuck. It would be much safer to just be in a movie about her. Our project was an unscripted exploration, and I felt infinitely more responsible for how it would turn out, how we would represent this woman, what the ethics were of doing that.

RG: That volatility is what initially excited me about trying to understand Christine Chubbuck in the first place.

You mentioned how complex it was to finish your project, how demanding and volatile, but at the same time narratively exciting, engrossing, and authentic. It seems a perfect profile of contemporary American independent cinema. Is that also why it’s doing so well these days?

KLS: I think it’s because the people I work with come from the same circle of friends, and they’re huge fans of cinema. Because of that, there’s this sort of shorthand between us, and a great deal of trust. I was very lucky to be in New York for this extremely fruitful period of time in terms of independent film.

RG: There was no way we could complete Kate Plays Christine without other people. I could never just think of this project and go to an agency for them to find me an actor up for it. Never. Imagine me explaining the whole concept: “You’re going to fail on screen and then I’m going to document it.” But it’s not just this idea. You have to be a very good actor telling everybody a lot about yourself, but being in control all the time, because I don’t feel comfortable just exploiting people. With Kate, I didn’t have to say any of it. It was enough for me to be there knowing that she was there, too, and she trusted me. That doesn’t come from us working together for years, but from us loving each other. I’ll leave you with a great example: Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes. They loved each other and hated each other, and they explored that relationship on screen. I feel that there’s a grown-up aspect of knowing each other well and thinking about doing things together, then ripping it all apart and figuring it out. That’s what we did with Kate Plays Christine.

KLS: I’d also add the idea of not having to think about the power dynamics between the actor and the director.

RG: Because you knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Kate is never afraid to call me an asshole if I say or do the wrong thing.

KLS: I’m secretly very bossy. [laughs]

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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