The darkly beautiful film Christine, which recently premiered at Sundance, is tricky to write about. It tells the story of a real woman, Christine Chubbuck (played by Rebecca Hall, in a brilliant performance), a depressed and difficult TV reporter who worked at a podunk Florida news station in the early 1970s, reporting on things as bland as zoning laws and strawberry festivals.
Perhaps because another film about Chubbuck, in an odd coincidence, also screened at Sundance this year, most outlets have been willing to headline their stories with the shocking act that ends Christine and made Chubbuck briefly famous. This article avoids discussing that act with precision, but the spoiler-averse may want to revisit this interview after Christine comes to theaters, presumably later this year.
Fast Company sat down at Sundance with Craig Shilowich, who wrote the screenplay and served as a producer on the film. We discussed what drew him to Chubbuck’s story, how he mustered the confidence to ignore bad advice from people in authority, and how he’s puzzled by reviewers who think a great performance has nothing to do with a well-written screenplay.
Fast Company: How did you first learn about Christine Chubbuck?
Craig Shilowich: I was trying to write another movie back in 2007 about a South Korean teenager who died of playing video games for 72 hours straight. I got stuck and started procrastinating, and I looked at a list of “odd deaths” on Wikipedia. Christine’s story was there, and I became obsessed with it. It was 3 a.m., my girlfriend was mad at me, and I was still up in our cramped apartment. A couple weeks later on TV, there was an E! show called Boulevard of Broken Dreams that aired, and there was a segment on Christine. I contacted the E! producer and he gave me all his research, which was really kind of him.
What drew you to this story?
This is kind of a personal movie for me. I went to NYU from 2000 to 2004. In college and after college, I was unwell, I had bad mental health issues. Then 9/11 happened, a giant suicide attack, and then at NYU, kids started jumping from the top of Bobst Library. There was this rash of otherwise well-adjusted kids, one after another, committing suicide in a very public fashion. So when I started writing the script, I was mostly trying to exorcise a feeling more than anything else.
The movie is filled with dread, but can also be very funny. How did you find the tone?
Tone is the most important thing for me. I always approach a project first with a feeling. I find what the feeling is, and then I’m reverse engineering the form that gets you to the feeling. In early drafts, it started off as more of a bait-and-switch kind of thing, where you start off watching, basically, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and then we’d just take and take away from that. It’s become much more blended as the process has gone on. The movie would just be a slog if it didn’t have humor in it, and would be untrue to the situation I knew to be the case down there. Their news station was an inherently comedic environment.
What is tone, anyway? Does it come down to the mix of comedy and drama?
The only useful language is comparing it to other films, books, whatever. With Christine, we talked about a hundred different movies and came to a nice triangulation. I was really obsessed with a movie called Auto Focus, directed by Paul Schrader. It’s a disintegration piece. Another movie we kept pointing at was Taxi Driver, in that the terms of the movie are set by the psyche of the main character. Broadcast News was a pretty good reference for the movie. They do this thing in Hollywood, “It’s this movie meets that movie!,” and it seems like such a shitty reductive way of approaching it, but that’s actually what movie makers do. We always joked it was “Taxi Driver meets Broadcast News, the movie everyone’s been dying to see!”
How did your early drafts differ from the final one?
The first draft I wrote as true to her as I could, probably even truer to the real Christine than the final movie. I think she was way more abrasive and difficult in real life than she comes across in our movie. In the first draft she was this unhinged character running around, yelling, kicking over things. I was also writing very inventive, super fictionalized news stories she was chasing, these Donald Barthelme-style absurdist stories. I wrote one scene where there was a kid on acid in a baboon cage at the zoo, and they were trying to take the baboon down with a tranquilizer gun. But these scenes didn’t fit in the movie, because Christine would have gotten a lot of attention for them.
When did you realize you had to fix that?
I went back and reinterviewed the people who worked with her, who told me again what they’d told me the first time around, though I guess I didn’t hear it, which was that this was a C-list local news station. Nothing was going on down there. People were just trying to get through it, they were getting drunk right before the newscast. The anchors often had their bathing suits on under their suits so they could jump in the creek behind the station. Two cows were always wandering onto the property. So I went back and refined the character of the newsroom and the stories she was forced to report on there, which made her frustrations so much more frustrating for her. Figuring out her level of talent was important, too. A lot of industry people reading the script early on wanted her to be a misunderstood genius. But the truth was that while she wasn’t bad, she wasn’t great at her job. The movie is partly a meditation on failure.
When industry people gave notes you disagreed with, how did you have the confidence to hold your ground?
You just have to remember what you’re trying to do. There’s always this issue, “Is this person likable, are they relatable?” They’re such nonsensical terms. No one likes the same person. I don’t relate to the same people my wife relates to. But it’s easy to get lost at first. You’re like, “Oh, these people are the gatekeepers . . . ” But you just need to take a minute, chill out, and remember that these people aren’t screenwriters, and they don’t necessarily understand your movie. But still it’s super easy to get lost, even here at the film festival. The reviews have been mostly good, but the handful of bad ones have totally spun us out. The movie is mostly getting the reaction I thought it would prior to the festival–it was always going to alienate some segment of people. But then you get here, and there’s buzz, and everyone’s talking, and you start to think you can please everybody. And you can never do that. Especially when you set out to make something challenging.
Some reviews are full of praise for the movie as a whole, while others just praise Rebecca Hall’s performance but have some gripes about other parts of the film.
Well, I’m glad every single review heaps praise on Rebecca. She worked so hard at executing the Christine in the script, and she nailed it–it’s my favorite performance I’ve seen in a film. But there are a couple of bad reviews where they say, “Rebecca’s amazing, but other elements of the movie are lacking.” Then they talk about her performance as if it were untethered from the movie, as if a lot of her performance wasn’t based in the script. Rebecca and most of the actors in the movie are classical stage performers, and there’s great reverence for the script in that community. This was a very calculated process. It’s difficult for me to reconcile a review that praises Rebecca for her portrait of a woman with an inconsistent, difficult personality, but that criticizes the movie for being inconsistent or difficult. Christine is a character study: the movie is the character and vice versa.
This interview has been condensed and edited.