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Rebecca Hall on starring in Christine: ‘Its about her life not her death’

The story of Christine Chubbuck the broadcaster who shot herself on live TV in 1974 was an urban legend, but now two films are bringing her story to life

During a news segment for WZRBs station in Sarasota, Florida, in 1974, broadcaster Christine Chubbuck stared directly into the camera and said: In keeping with Channel 40s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first attempted suicide. Moments later she shot herself.

Chubbuck was rushed to the hospital immediately but died shortly after. Her suicide (or more specifically, the video of her final moments) has long been considered an urban legend, which lurks somewhere on the fringes of the internet. Its estimated that only a few hundred people saw the live broadcast when it occurred, and footage of her public suicide meanwhile remains mysteriously elusive.

There are conflicting reports as to why. The station owners wife claims to have put the recording in the custody of a very large law firm following the passing of her husband, according to an in-depth report from Vulture. Chubbucks brother Greg tells a different story. In a February interview with People, he says his family got an injunction preventing the station from ever releasing the footage, and later had to turn the tapes over to authorities after they were seized as evidence. Greg says the footage eventually landed back with his mother, Peg. I dont know to this day where it is, he told People. But I know no one knows where it is, and no one ever will if I have anything to say about it.

Now 40 years later, Chubbocks story has been revisited in two films that were among the standouts at Sundance film festival this January.

Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greenes arty documentary about an actor struggling to inhabit Chubbuck; and Christine, Antonio Camposs moody character study, starring British actor Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck.

Hall has a theory for why film-makers have deemed the subject suddenly relevant.

My access point to the 70s is films from that time, and they all have that paranoiac quality, Hall says. Journalism [at the time] moved into that sensationalized if it bleeds it leads mentality. Certainly if it bleeds it leads goes directly to [todays] clickbait mentality in news. The notion that fear can generate news is hardly alien in America right now.

Still, Hall cant quite believe she got the chance to play a figure as damaged as Chubbuck. While Hall concedes that its so great that women are being allowed to be heroes in big things, referring to the surge in popularity of female superheroes in Hollywood blockbusters, she believes the next step is allowing women to be antiheroes.

Its the thing I want to do with my career, she adds. And Ive never got the opportunity because you never see those scripts for women.

From the outset of Christine, which earned raves for Halls performance at Sundance (Varietys Guy Lodge called her discomfortingly electric), Campos depicts Chubbuck as a perfectionist with ambition to succeed in the male-dominated business of broadcast journalism. Her major hindrance: she lacks the requisite on-camera appeal that her job calls for a factor everyone but her can see. When commissioned to interview a local fruit-seller for a light news segment, she cant even muster a genuine smile for her audience. Warmth doesnt come naturally to her, and for Hall those imperfections are whats appealing.

Rebecca
Rebecca Hall in Christine. Photograph: PR/Sundance film festival

Some of my acting heroes have built careers on playing characters who do horrendous things theyre repellent and lovable, adds Hall. Theyre not likable, but theyre lovable. I think Christine is one of those characters.

First-time screenwriter Craig Shilowich first learned of Chubbucks death after coming upon a reductive story of her suicide online. I clicked on a website that listed the 10 craziest thing that happened on television, and her story was one of them, he recalls.

After looking into her case he began to relate to Chubbuck on deeply personal terms: Shilowich also suffered from a long depressive episode. Shortly after enrolling at New York University as a film major, Shilowich says he was overtaken by a severe depression that came out of nowhere.

Previously I was a straight-A student, I went to NYU, I had a lot of friends and somewhere along the way, something went off track. I noticed the wheels in my head had gone wobbly, he says.

Like Chubbuck, Shilowich continued about his day-to-day life with people around him largely unaware of what he was going through. Unlike Chubbuck, he eventually sought help, dropping out of a college for a semester to recover.

When I found Christines story I went: what if I didnt have loving relationships with people, what if I was a woman in a workplace dominated by men? Its not so hard to understand how things might go the way they went, Shilowich says. I was interested in exercising a personal feeling I had, and being honest to it and showing it in a plain-faced way that humanized this person.

Because of that approach, he says, Christine isnt merely a film about suicide even though her death served as his entry point to her story. Chubbucks shocking end is just part of the story, he stresses. Or as Hall puts it: Its about her life its not about her death.

Christine opens 14 October in the US

  • In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/14/christine-chubbuck-suicide-film-rebecca-hall