“Crazy Women, the News, Florida, Guns”: Robert Greene on Kate Plays Christine
To lean on my Sundance write-up to summarize Kate Plays Christine: “Sarasota TV journalist Christine Chubbuck shot herself live on-air in 1974 and died 14 hours later. The suicide footage exists on one two-inch tape, which is inaccessibly locked up in the vault of the former president of the Florida station (now part of ABC) Chubbuck worked at, so there are shades of Grizzly Man in Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine. The premise is that Kate Lyn Sheil’s preparing to play Chubbuck in a movie that will conclude with a recreation of the suicide, and the climactic question is whether the actress can go through with it. Scenes from this ostensible biopic (a fiction Greene uses to instigate the entire film; no full script was written) are integrated into the documentary footage.” It’s a fine, prickly film, with regular collaborator Sean Price Williams returning to DP duty after Actress (which Greene shot himself), and upgraded time from the filmmaker’s usual purposefully lo-fi DVX to something shinier. The film’s been picked up for distribution this summer by Grasshopper Film, an announcement which makes for a good opportunity to post my pre-Sundance interview with Greene.
Filmmaker: You’re using a good camera now. How does it feel?
Greene: That’s Sean’s choice. It’s the Sony FS7. I’m pretty sure he used the same old lenses for Heaven Knows What and The Black Balloon. The first time I saw the images, it felt slightly different from anything I’ve done, and it took me a minute. But that ultimately proved good. There’s a certain handheld and gritty language that he operated in for a while. Now, every decision he made — including the camera, including the look — was about “How do we do this film? We need to be able to catch this complex thing we’re trying to do. We need a clean style that is relatively unadorned.” The biggest thing is, it was such a team thing to get us there and make a three-week shoot happen. Everyone was creating this situation so that three old friends could make this movie together. Kate, Sean and I have known each other for a decade. We’ve talked about movies for so long and spent time together. The film is a total plunge for all of us. We went there with a three-week schedule, and 75 percent of what would be in the film was not scheduled. We had a fiction schedule set up, with a documentary we also had to make.
Filmmaker: So how’s that schedule work?
Greene: The film-within-a-film stuff was the last four or five days. My whole point was to put Kate in a situation where she had to act her way out of situations that were not necessarily pleasurable for her. She was game for that, she knew that that was sort of the idea. Meaning, “OK, we’re going to start now. I know you’re not ready. I’m going to document you not being ready.” For her, that’s mortifying, because she has that actor’s need to make a character, to not be full of shit. I think all actors kind of know that there’s something about being an actor that’s sort of full of shit. Kate is so aware of that, and she imports that knowledge into every performance she does, and that’s why her performances are so complex and amazing to me. So I knew what I was documenting, which is her working through a process and not being ready. She had to trust that something would happen from that and that this is not going to be foolish. So that was happening for basically two weeks. The last 10 days, we started moving into the fictional stuff — having some days with both, some days with all studio stuff.
Filmmaker: It sounds like you’re being doubly antagonistic to her. You’re undermining her preparation time, while also putting her in the tough headspace of this character. Did you talk about this before? “This is going to be unpleasant, but we’ll be friends by the time this is done”?
Greene: “Antagonistic” is probably the wrong way to look at it for me, because she knew what the idea of the movie was. She was excited by trying to capture this thing we were talking about. I think it’s a credit to what we did, the belief we had in it, that it is antagonistic. Antagonistic is good. The movie’s about how we shouldn’t make this movie, and she’s the vessel for the movie. So it’s about how she shouldn’t be doing her own job, which is a very complex thing for her to try to pull off. So the fact that we got to that antagonism, considering we started with absolute collaboration, demonstrates more trust rather than less. She was upset with me at times, I was never upset with her. I was scared, not knowing what we were doing and trying to figure it out. We were swimming in annoyance and antagonism, but the whole time we were together. The key thing for the ending is that that’s hers. It’s my stage that I built, she has to do something on it. And what she does is all Kate illustrating, from her position as the actor-subject, the ideas that we were after.
Filmmaker: The question of the movie, which is not obvious at the beginning, is “Is she actually going to shoot herself? Are we going to have to watch it? How loud will it be and how much blood will there be? How unpleasant could this turn out to be?” The answer is not what I expected. We’re watching a movie about this question, but we know while watching it that the answer has been somewhat premeditated. It’s not like you starting rolling and said, “I don’t know what she’s going to do by the end of this take.”
Greene: I totally didn’t know. I knew that I had directed her to do a certain thing. The direction was basically ambiguous: “You’re going to say something, and then you’re going to do what you want to do.” That was the only way, at that point in the film, that we could end it. It became so much about how none of us wanted to see it, and what that meant, and how to illustrate not wanting to see it. How do we even get out of this alive? We’ve created this little trap for ourselves, and we’re all in it. It wasn’t like, “I’ve got the perfect solution,” it was like “Let’s roll and see what happens.”
Filmmaker: That’s really tricky. You don’t want to see the starting point of the movie.
Greene: I’ve been wanting to make this movie for ten years. I went to film school with my very good friend Nathan Gelgud, who’s an illustrator and a great artist. The two of us were the little film brats of North Carolina State University. Five years after we graduated, he moved to New York. We were talking, and he asked “Have you ever heard of Christine Chubbuck?” He told me the story and I got obsessed. We always thought we were going to make the film together, but he stopped making movies. I asked his blessing to make the movie.
For eight years, ten years, whatever, the whole thing I wanted to do was show how hard it was for me to think about the story, and how I think there’s unique attributes to Christine Chubbuck’s story that make you process ideas about — quote-unquote — “crazy women,” being famous, the camera, ambition, the ’70s, Network, all these things. And yet you can never pin anything down. Or that thing is, “OK, she can’t have children.” I was not going to make a straightforward documentary exposing how this women killed herself because she couldn’t have children. That’s a horrible idea. So what became my obsession was, “I can’t make this movie. I can never do it.” And then Actress happened, and I was like “Oh, that’s possibly the way to do it: making it without making it. And Kate is a subject that I, as her friend, am fascinated with.” I’ve never figured her out, I still haven’t figured her out, and I don’t know that I ever will, and that’s fascinating to me. That all meshed together.
The first film idea I ever had, when I was 20, was in 1996 or so, before every DVD had a behind-the-scenes extra. What if you made a documentary about the making of a film, and also the film itself, and you get wrapped up in the drama of the film and the drama behind the scenes at the same time? So that when this well-known actor is delivering his lines, you’re reading him as a human being and as an actor, and you’re sucked into both narratives at once, and it has some sort of pay-off? [Post-interview email exchange. Me: “It just occurs to me now that I guess back then no one really knew about Symbiopsychotoxiplasm.” Greene: “Yep.”] Having edited the entire film, I realized that this was exactly what I wanted to pull off. So it’s a combination of a thing I was obsessed with, my relationship with Kate, Actress being an opening of the valves, and the kind of movie I’ve been trying to make since I wanted to make movies. I didn’t know how to do that, and now I do.
Filmmaker: Is the movie within the movie supposed to be good? And I’m asking, because I don’t know.
Greene: A hundred percent not. To me, it’s documentary re-enactment taken to some extreme level. It’s supposed to be a failure.
Filmmaker: But you’re the one who’s on camera making the failure! But we know it’s not you, because you know the movie is bad. This is my thing: when we talk about your movie in this way, it makes it sound like you’re just playing games, but the movie doesn’t feel like you’re playing games.
Greene: But “playing games” implies it’s meaningless, that it’s circular for its own sake. I don’t want to play any games. Playing games is stupid, but being tricky can be fruitful. To me, the idea of making those scenes fail conjures a sort of emptiness that depression is to me. The failure of the process is meant to conjure the real emotion that someone who’s depressed might feel. There’s an emptiness, a flatness and a phoniness to those scenes. Within that flat quality, it’s hollow. That’s how Christine Chubbuck felt. That’s one way to look at it. The other way is, it’s a movie we shouldn’t make, or at least that I shouldn’t make.
I’m obsessed with the idea that the stories we’re telling each other are not what we should be saying. We should be saying something else. We mythologize these things because they reinforce the world we live in. They seem to be questioning the world we live in. A woman goes on live TV and shoots herself in the head — that is an upsetting thing that should throw the entire universe into flux, if you think about it. But it doesn’t. It reinforces what we think about crazy women, the news, Florida, guns — all these things we think we’re challenging by confronting this dark thing. So we want to see it, because we want to confront the dark thing, but we’re really just voyeurs. Voyeurs just want to satisfy this dark thing so that they can go back to their daily life and reinforce all the things they do in their daily life. For me, I think we can actually take stories and say, “Let’s interrogate the thought of the stories.”
So to go back, those scenes are meant to fail. They do move the story of Christine forward, in a sense. You learn about her, and you get to know her through Kate’s struggle to portray her. So I think they still function on a “good” level, but they’re not meant to be narratively satisfying. Every scene is based off that article. There’s no creative liberty taken. It’s all taken from what we know about what happened, except for the scene where she walks into [her crush, nicknamed “Gorgeous George” and friend Andrea Kirby] kissing. Everything else is adapted, because it has to be limited. It’s not like, “Hey, we can do anything we want.” It’s constricted by what’s the public record.
Filmmaker: So was it strange that in the process of being down there you found something new [on-air footage of Chubbuck not available online]?
Greene: Well, I knew the movie would fail if we didn’t. It had to succeed as a documentary about Christine Chubbuck, or the movie would be an exercise. I had faith in Sean and Kate, but I felt like if we didn’t discover real things and how the place handles that, then it wouldn’t have been a movie.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about Network? [Editor’s note: this part of the conversation is based on the mutually-held incorrect assumption that Chubbuck’s suicide inspired Network.]
Greene: I’m not the biggest fan. It’s pretty straight-up offensive that the screenplay was inspired by a woman killing herself, and it was turned into this dude who’s inspiring in all these ways, but he’s a very manly guy. He’s very ’70s, he’s older, he’s still a guy guy. I feel like in a way, we’re reclaiming the story. But I find Network fascinating for one reason. The writing is meant to convey a message, and I find that incredibly refreshing — to try to actually say something, rather than do what all independent films do now, which is allude to some sort of abstract thing that we’re all supposed to understand. It used to be that movies would convey very complex messages in very straightforward, speech-y ways. We could roll our eyes at those, and I don’t like those movies all that much, but I like the idea that that’s something we should fight for.
The worst movie ending ever is The Wrestler, by Darren Aronofsky. Obviously I have high stakes in wrestling, but — 30 minutes before the end of the movie, I said to myself, “He’s going to jump out of frame, and it’s going to cut. You’re not going to know what’s going to happen.” Because that’s what every fucking indie film does! I wanted to make a movie that had a point, and has a message. We didn’t know what that message was, but we had a vague inkling of it. I love that Network has speeches in it, where characters say what they feel. It’s like Tootsie, which was another big influence on the movie. Three months before the movie, or maybe a month, Sean said, “Watch Tootsie. It’ll blow your mind.” Tootsie is such an inspiration for the movie, and Dustin Hoffman makes a speech, and that speech is meaningful. We’ve lost the ability to have movies just say, “You know what? I’m going to do this right now.” I was attracted to trying to do that.
Filmmaker: Why was Tootsie an inspiration?
Greene: Layers of self. The fact that Dustin Hoffman gets totally lost in the character. The opening credits are Dustin Hoffman putting on the make-up and getting ready. Then you don’t see that again. The next time you see him in make-up, it’s a jump. “Oh yeah? I could probably get that job.” Cut to him walking down the street as Tootsie. The way it plays with the psychology of performing — putting on a wig and make-up and then becoming the person through that process — is straight-up awesome.
Filmmaker: Men making movies about women is something you do a lot. It’s something that Kate says at the beginning of the movie, that it’s how things are — this is your film. Are you OK with that?
Greene: If you’re a man making a movie about a woman, if it’s straightforward and there’s no awareness of the complex sexual and gender politics involved in that, then you’re probably doing something stupid and bad. Maybe offensive, maybe meaningless — the spectrum is somewhere there. For me, this subject and story fascinated me. I needed help making that story. Now, Kate is not the only primary collaborator on the film. We have three women producers. Now, sometimes people say “Oh, we have three women producers” as if they’re saying, “Oh, I have gay friends.” I’m saying, I have people checking me, to tell me if I’m being a jerk, or an asshole, or blind, because men are very well known to be blind, especially when they’re directors directing their movie. It’s what you do with that thing — the relationship between a male director, male cinematographer and actress — and how you handle that. Our answer is collaborative. It’s my film, no one will doubt that, but Kate has as much stake and influence on what the film will become as anyone, and she knows it.
I cut any lines from the movie that would resonate as positive towards me, because the other side of it is, I play the villain in the film I’m the bad guy. Hopefully that doesn’t read as the megalomaniac abusive boyfriend being like, “I know I’m an asshole, but.” Hopefully it reads as an attack or critique of the role of the male director. I literally put myself onscreen saying, “I don’t think this should be schoolgirl anger.” I’m very, very aware of how shitty that sounds, but that’s literally what I said. I’m making a point, it’s a weird thing to say to a woman, and I acknowledge that. But I cut a line where she’s talking to her dad where she says “Of course, I would do anything Robert and Sean want to do, because I can’t wait to work with them.” That’s all gone, because it’s not fruitful. But she did say something that was good: “I feel like I’m the woman taking up the mantle of the story, because men are making the film. But there are no women trying to make this story, so what do we do?” I felt like she was, in a way, a woman filmmaker trying to make the film.
Christine Chubbuck had to deal with what men thought of her all the time. That’s why it’s important. So the film is about what men think of Kate, in some ways. In other words, it’s fruitful towards the thing that we’re trying to uncover. It’s part of the language that we’re trying to use to find out what we’re obsessed with this story.
Filmmaker: When Kate is reading one of the articles, she says, “This language is slightly infuriating, but also maybe accurate.” In those articles, there’s all this gross ’70s stuff about why she might be upset, because she didn’t have a man. At the same time, that’s probably part of the answer. What do you do with that, when it makes you uncomfortable because it’s not part of the right answer?
Greene: It definitely is part of the answer. As far as we know, Christine Chubbuck was a very strange person, who was very demanding in some ways and sad in other ways, but hid her depression fairly well considering how weird of a human being she was generally. Even though she did flaunt it. She said “I’m going to buy a gun and blow myself away. What do you all think?” They thought she was making a sick joke. She was lonely and depressed, and that’s because she was unable to relate to people, including men. At the same time, the article is written in this kind of ’70s-speak. The dramatized scenes are meant to evoke, in visual article, what the article does in words, which is, “You’ve got a lot of gumption, kiddo! But you know your place is this.” That article — written by Sally Quinn, a very famous journalist and one of Warhols’ Factory models, among other things — reinforces all these ideas about what people are supposed to do, and Christine Chubbuck didn’t do anything she was ever supposed to do.
So it’s infuriating to look back at that stuff, but it’s super revealing. The reason it’s infuriating is because you know people still think like that. People still look at Kate and say, “Oh, she looks hot in that wig!” That’s just how people watch movies, so hopefully we’re trying to play with that stuff. All that infuriating language is circles around that person, who is ultimately unknowable. I believe that we are alone in the universe, and we don’t know why people do what they do. The minute you try to describe why someone commits suicide, it’s complete folly from start to finish. It can’t be done. You can name a thousand reasons why you think it happened, but the reason why someone takes their own life is something so deep and personal. It has to do with our emptiness and loneliness in the universe, in a way that I don’t think we’re even close to comprehending. So the film is circling around that big, giant hole in my heart, and in Sean’s heart, and in other people’s hearts. So all these things — the language, the costumes, the documentary/fiction stuff — is all to say, “We are never going to be able to know why someone does what they do, and maybe we should think about not trying to figure it out that way. Maybe we should try to figure out something else. And I know why you need to know it — because it makes you feel better as a survivor, but it doesn’t have anything to do with why that person blew her brains out on television.”
Filmmaker: When you go to the gun store or the tanning salon, do you just say, “We’re making a movie and she’s playing this person, and this is research,” or do you have to give a complicated explanation: “We’re making a movie about making a movie that doesn’t exist”? Because that seems like that would slow everything down.
Greene: Basically, it was, “She’s rehearsing a role, and the film isn’t about the role, it’s about the research.” You get good at pitching those things. At the same time, there’s a point at which people don’t want to talk about it anymore. But people like the gun shop owner — he was interested. He was like, “Oh, that sounds new and different.” I don’t talk about the movie any differently to him than I would to anyone else, because he’ll rise to the occasion. I’m pretty sure he understood how that was all playing.
Filmmaker: It feels like your ensemble movie. Actress is claustrophobic, and Kati with an I is definitely claustrophobic. Here, you’ve got all these people coming in and out.
Greene: We met these people. Like the wigmaker, she’s got her own story. One of the big influences on the film is Robert Kramer’s Route One USA. Robert Kramer fabricates a fictionalized version of himself, an ex-pat who’s left and is trying to reconnect with the United States. To do that, he arrives in New York, then he goes to Maine and drives down Route One to Florida. Along the way, there’s all these staged sequences and real interviews with people. To me, that was a big thing. If we could make viewers understand how interesting this wigmaker is, then we’ve done our job. If we understand how much the gunshop owner thinks about his job, and the world that he’s living in, and how much he actually thinks about it, then we’ve done our job. That’s just documentary stuff.
Filmmaker: There’s two ways to think about it. One is that these side portraits keep the movie from getting too relentlessly heavy. The other is that you’re interested in people, and you’re not so focused on Christine Chubbuck that you won’t stop and focus on someone else for 30 minutes, because people are interesting.
Greene: The movie’s about Christine Chubbuck’s story, it’s not about Christine Chubbuck. To me, the fact that viewers hopefully feel Christine in the film is a testament to the fact that we actually discovered something there. If we never discovered that thing, though, I feel like it still could have been a film about her story, which affects people in different ways. Everyone has an opinion, because how could you not? So I’m really interested in what the wigmaker says about her story. I’m interested in this journalist who had just taken his first gig as a teenager a month before it happened, what he has to say. I’m interested in what the Sarasota history guy has to say, even if he has nothing to say. I’m interested in the fact that he doesn’t even have that much to say. He’s the Sarasota historian guy; he could’ve done all the research, but he didn’t. That tells you something about the story and how it actually resonates. You tell a hundred people about that story, you’re going to get a hundred very interesting responses. Especially, for example, the wigmaker: she’s an immigrant, she lived in Philadelphia for a long time, she moved to Florida for health reasons so she could breathe better, and she loves it. She’s an artist, she does her wigs, and they’re well-made wigs. She’s the only European wigmaker in Sarasota, and she’s had many loves in her life, and a lot of tragedy. So her take on this very strange person who did this very strange thing is really interesting to me. It’s about how this story works with people and resonates with them now. Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that there’s no way for us to really know what happened, so it’s really about how we tell the story.
Filmmaker: How did the casting process for the film with a film work? Those actors are more important for what they have to say in interviews you conduct than their performances. Obviously, they need to be somewhat technically proficient and local.
Greene: Local was a big part of it, because they could have some kind of relationship to the story. For the casting process, I saw videos of people telling stories about themselves. They knew they would be documentary subjects as well as actors, so I picked based on everything you normally pick on — face, demeanor, acting ability — but also because of their personal stories.
Filmmaker: So they didn’t read any scenes?
Greene: No, because there were no scenes to read. I told them to read the article, so occasionally they would read scenes from it as the character they were trying out for, but mostly it was about having them just talk. That’s a surprise about the movie. You’re not expecting it to go in that direction. The movie wouldn’t work if it didn’t continually undercut your expectations of it. This is another huge influence, Mulholland Drive. It works because you think you’ve figured something out, and yet you’re very far behind. It’s working on a level of constantly challenging what you just saw. That’s why I don’t feel like it’s a game. I don’t think Mulholland Drive is a game. I don’t think there’s an answer to Mulholland Drive. I know that you can break down the whole thing, but I don’t care. I’ve never once read a thing like that about a movie, and I never will. I don’t give a fuck about the answer. I care about how it’s constructed and how it works. It’s not a game because there’s not a winner, I guess. “Do you make movies for audiences or not?” is a big question filmmakers should ask themselves.
Filmmaker: Do you?
Greene: Absolutely. To me, that’s the gamesmanship. I don’t think it’s a game, but maybe it’s gamesmanship. You’re expecting this thing — let me take you in this direction — and then switch it. I’m obsessed with how the viewer will respond to every section of the movie, and I’m actively thinking “OK, now that I have this, let me try this, and I can’t give away that, but I can give away this aspect to set this up” — you know? I’m obsessed with your response. Because I’m a viewer and a film lover, I don’t like it when I’m patronized by filmmakers, and so I would like to not do that to my film viewers. Because I’m lucky enough to have viewers. If people are actually going to sit down and watch this thing, I’m not going to patronize you. I’m going to give you something I think will be…not beneficial, but fruitful.
Filmmakers talk about meaning as if it’s a bad thing. They say, “There’s no meaning in what I do.” I completely disagree. To me, there’s a lot of meaning in what I’m trying to do, and I would like to get at that meaning. And I don’t think the way to get at that meaning is to spell it out, it’s to create an experience so you can figure it out. It’s also about not figuring one thing out, you figure a bunch of things about. It’s not one answer, one meaning. Meaningfulness doesn’t imply solution, it implies something else.
Filmmaker: In preparing to go to Sundance, did people have to sit you down and talk at you and tell you what to do?
Greene: I’ve gotten to tiptoe into it with Listen Up Philip and Christmas, Again, so I’ve gotten the weird experience of having two films at the festival that weren’t my films. I got the benefits of going and seeing how all that works without having any of the pressure of being with a film. We went to Florida with so little — we had confidence that we would pull something together, and we had support, but I really had no idea where this movie was going to go, what it was going to become. To be, less than six months later, about to premiere the movie is insane.
Filmmaker: How fast did you edit this?
Greene: I didn’t start editing the film until August. I edited it in two and a half months, while having a full-time job that I had to devote a lot of myself to. One of the things I think that happens too much is that filmmakers let things incubate too much, and they try everything, and they don’t go with the inspiring thing. They think about it and process it, and I think they overcook. Most documentaries, especially, are overcooked and over-thought through. I think filmmakers should move way faster. If you can tell a story, and you can inspire that the things that you want to inspire in your viewers, there’s no reason to fret about it. Just make it and then be done with it. Because that’s how movies used to be made when you used to cut on film. You’d make slices on film, and then that slice is there. You can show a cut, and then maybe rework it a little bit, but that cut is in that film permanently. You have to deal with that cut, so every decision was thought through on a bigger level.
A film like Of Men and War, I know why that took five years to shoot, why it took three years to edit, and I very much respect and appreciate it. I’m excited by that, because that’s what he needed to do. But you can also work very quickly, make decisions, live with them and be good with it. That’s exciting to me. Just do it, and be confident. Like the question about the ending. I happen to be a filmmaker who happens to be interested in you questioning my decisions. That’s something I’m very intrigued and interested in. I think the films are about the process of the filmmaking as much as anything, and I’m excited by that, and hopefully that’s new and different.