The latest film from formal boundary-pushing documentarian Robert Greene, Kate Plays Christine follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Christine Chubbuck, the newsreader who committed suicide on air in 1974. Expanding on the themes of performance, identity and authenticity that characterised his previous, much-lauded 2014 film Actress, Kate Plays Christine ventures further still into darker questions about the ethics of representation.
Kate Plays Christine premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing. We were lucky enough to catch up with Robert Greene and Kate Lyn Sheil at the Berlin International Film Festival, the day after it made its European premiere.
How’d the premiere go last night?
Robert Greene: I thought it was great.
Kate Lyn Sheil: I think it went well.
Greene: A lot of people…
Sheil: Very beautiful theatre. I didn’t stay for it.
Greene: We did not watch the movie. Although it had big German subtitles so I kind of wanted to watch it with German subtitles. But we did not watch the movie. I’m never going to watch the movie again probably (laughs). But it was good.
One of my favourite lines in the film is when Kate says, “If a performance of mine is called ‘subtle’ one more time, I think I might lose my mind.” But your performance in the film is…
Sheil: Relatively subtle?
Relatively subtle, yeah.
Sheil: Yeah, I know… I mean the film is such a particular thing and called for a certain level of subtlety because I’m playing myself, but there are other things I’ve done that I think are less subtle.
I think the interesting thing for me was the subtlety of the artificiality.
I mean, the film-within-a-film is really quite grotesque in a way, could you elaborate on the decisions that lead to that?
Greene: I mean for me, the film-within-a-film idea, it’s meant to be a failure of a film, which is sort of a weird idea. For me it’s like a typical, but not even typical, it’s like a metaphorically typical version of an attempt to tell the story. And part of what we wanted to get across is that you can’t tell the story. It doesn’t work. Because all those scenes are based on factual information that we knew about her life, lines that she says, conversations we know she had, based on very limited reporting. We’ve taken those and turned them into these melodramatic, soap-operatic, ’70s campy scenes that are meant to feel like, “this is not working,” you know.
Because to me, it’s just… when someone commits suicide you want to explain why. It’s a natural human tendency to want to explain why, and you can’t. You can’t explain it. You could say like, there was chemical imbalances or someone was sad or something happened that was a trigger, but there’s something deeper that’s just not possible to get to. So, we wanted to make scenes that were about that emptiness, about that empty attempt to get past that point.
Have you been tempted to make a cut of the film-within-a-film?
Greene: No, no! Because the concept…
Sheil: It would be too painful.
Greene: It would be too painful. The concept is so specific, you know, and I really wanted those scenes to feel like documentaries about acting, too. You really are watching Kate – and others – struggle with the lack of material, in a way. But we also, I mean, Sean Price Williams, who shot the film, he had a good line about what he wanted them to look like. He was like, imagine going to some store in Copenhagen and you see this video box from a soap opera in Poland or something, and you look at the box and you’re like, that looks like it’s going to be the coolest thing ever. But then you watch it and it’s not. That’s the way he was thinking about how they looked.
So, I mean I think they end up looking a bit more like stage plays in a way, too, which is sort of good and bad… I just wanted them to be failures. I wanted them to be like you’re watching but you’re not being sucked into the escapism of her story, you’re purposefully watching thinking, “this is not working.” Which is a weird thing to try to do.
I think it worked really well. Another really interesting thing about the film that made me think about Grizzly Man was the mythical tape of Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide that we’re told may or may not exist and shouldn’t be seen. Was that one of the things that drew you to the project?
Greene: I mean, I never personally wanted to see the footage, that was never really the call. I mean, if you had it on your phone right now, I’d probably watch it (turns to Kate). You wouldn’t though, probably, right?
Sheil: I don’t think so, yeah.
Greene: But at the same time I knew, there’s just something about that mythical quality of it, that speaks to what she was going through. Because she wanted it to be seen, and it’s lost, and there’s just some pathetic sad irony to that situation. But it also, I mean, it’s a really useful device to make you think about whether you want to see anything or not. I think as soon as the movie starts, and early on you hear someone talking about this tape and saying “I didn’t see the tape” and “I looked for it.” I think immediately, as a viewer, you’re either like, “I want to see it,” or “I don’t want to see it.” And that animates the narrative as you go forward, because you start watching everything with this in your mind. I think that’s what makes the story relevant today – you have to face that every day now. Everything from like, do I want to see a picture of my ex-girlfriend, or do I want to see this black kid getting shot in Chicago? There are all these images that you have to negotiate.
Most of the time you don’t have a choice as well, it’s just put in front of you…
Greene: Yeah, well like I said, 1974 is probably the last time someone could have done that kind of thing, I mean probably by like 1976 it would have been recorded somewhere…
Do you think it would have been publicly available?
Greene: Well, yeah, I mean, at least by the early ’80s, there would have been no way to keep it suppressed, you know. So this is sort of a cultural moment, the last time something like that could happen and it not spread, which is a unique thing.
Did you feel like you were making a film that maybe shouldn’t be made?
Sheil: I think we were questioning our interests in her story and where those motivations lie, to try and unpack the desire, or lack thereof, to see something like that, but then also, for me, to explore the desire to be seen in this recorded way… But whether or not a person will be able to capture something worthwhile, in terms of this particular story, or the ethical dilemma of doing that… I think basically we wanted to ask ourselves those questions and never really point a finger at anyone else for their desires or attempts to turn the story into a film.
Greene: I mean, for me, it’s like the connection between – and it’s not an easy to describe connection – but questioning whether you should make a movie, questioning whether you should make a documentary, which… you know, not enough people question whether they should be making the films that they’re making. Then questioning if you should enact something, and then somehow that all relates, to me, to the feelings that suicide creates in us. Which is, when someone kills themselves you are desperate to understand it, because it goes against every instinctual thing we have in our body that says survive at all costs. And that need to tell a story or the need to make a film, documentary, actor-driven film, however you want to describe it, relates to that need to narrativise this thing. And so that’s the element of questioning for me.
So how can you embody that contradiction? The structure, the concept of the film, is meant to watch Kate struggle with it, and even though Kate is performing the struggle… I mean, we were going through something significant… that’s why – we were always talking about, “Well, is she acting or not acting?” Because of course she’s acting. Of course she’s an artist who’s in control of her face and her body and the things that she says and does. But still, we were still going through something, so Kate’s just enacting what was happening. It’s not like it’s made out of nothing, but acting is never made out of nothing, either.
So to me, all that question of “Is she acting or not?”, that can’t be a dead end, that has to open the iris rather than close the iris, you know. It has to make you think about being seen, like you were saying Kate, or this instinct… One of the things about Kate is that – and I’ve told this to Kate many times – I’ve known Kate since she was before an actor and she knew me before I was a filmmaker. When Kate said, “I want to be an actor,” I was just like, I can’t imagine that! You’re so shy and soft-spoken and calm and nice and you don’t seem like somebody who would want to take their clothes off for the camera or do scenes where there are crazy people or something, you know? So part of that is also just the trying to get at that gulf between who we are and who we’re pretending to be, but I think that speaks to who Christine Chubbuck was and what she was going through.
One thing I didn’t expect, I mean, I knew the film dealt with suicide, but I wasn’t expecting it to be such an emotional film. I think because I was aware of the construct of it, but it really hits you quite hard.
Greene: We were hit hard.
Sheil: Yeah, I mean, it was an emotional time. Certainly.
Greene: Well we were on the beach, for example, and the house, for us, that was….
So that was Christine Chubbuck’s real house?
Greene: Yeah, I mean that’s one of those things where it’s shot like a fictional scene, but we didn’t let Kate go into rooms until we were ready to film them. We would set up the camera and then Kate would come in, so it’s just as documentary as anything. But at the same time Kate’s also bringing forward these feelings, too.
It seemed – I could be totally wrong – but it seemed to follow chronologically, Kate’s investigation into Christine Chubbuck.
Sheil: Yeah I think it is laid out pretty chronologically.
Greene: Yeah, relatively. At least it’s meant to feel that way. I mean, the historian was the first person we talked to, and he didn’t really say much, just like in the movie. But he lead us to this other thing and it really is… I feel like the investigation is a representation of the investigation because there was a lot of other things going on. But, we didn’t know, I mean we saw the footage of Christine very late. But yeah, that’s pretty much how we were going about it. `
Did you really go in the solarium, Kate?
Sheil: No, not for very long.
Greene: It gives you cancer! That was the one thing where you were like, “I don’t want to do this.”
Sheil: Yeah, I did tell you I wouldn’t do it. But I agreed to do it for like…
Greene: A minute.
Sheil: I think I got out after thirty seconds. I’d never been in a tanning booth before. And I don’t want to start now.
Greene: But like one of the things, like the eyes, that was something we decided to do while we were shooting. So some of that stuff looks very planned and constructed, and a lot of it was like, “Oh! We should do this!” and “Oh! Let’s do this,” and that kind of thing.
Was it intended as a comment on biopics where an actor tries to be as similar as possible to this real person, but it’s kind of a futile, ridiculous exercise in a way?
Sheil: For me, yeah, a bit, but. I think what it was… If I had been handed a script and asked to play Christine Chubbuck, my process would have been slightly different and I think I would have had fewer reservations and maybe a less ongoing conversation with myself about the rightness or wrongness or ethical responsibility of it, but since it was a movie that we were finding as we went along, it did turn it into sort of an unpacking of that process, and the futility of it, potentially, but that’s not to say that I don’t love plenty of performances where someone…
Plays a real person?
Sheil: Yeah, you know, puts a nose on.
Greene: What I think is funny is that I looked up – when we were doing the research for the opening montage of Kate – there’s this thing where you played Harriet Beecher Stowe for PBS and you say very, very similar things in this interview, it’s like for a television program for PBS, you know, public broadcasting, and you say, “I’m just trying to honour this person who really existed.”
Sheil: Do I really? I’ve never watched that interview.
Greene: It’s funny, because you’re saying exactly the same things that you say in our movie.
Sheil: Alright, so I’m predictable.
Greene: Yeah, yeah. No, but I mean, I think it’s just a natural thing. I mean, I didn’t even think about the playing a real person aspect, my concept was so much about layering the performance versus the real person, and then as soon as we started filming, the burden that you had to take on of actually on-screen representing… that was something that was a revelation to me. I had this hall of mirrors idea, that was just a very loose framework, and then immediately as we were recording the first interview, I was like, I’m making you do this thing where you have to embody this person who is very difficult to embody in many ways. And I think one of the things you’re seeing is that it’s not pleasant to embody someone who lived a regular life and then died spectacularly. There’s nothing pleasant about that. A lot of times when we were recording I would be a little bit upset with myself, not upset with myself, but I felt like I was putting you in that situation.
Sheil: Well I mean it’s an exploration of filmmaking in general as well. Having made movies before, there is always this feeling that you occasionally get, or at least I have, where it’s like, “Oh God, is this worth it?” Because filmmaking is such a… my friend Steven – I can’t claim that I called it this – but he calls it a “rude art”, which I think is very accurate. You’re just constantly inconveniencing people and begging for things and, you know, is it worth it? I think so because it’s my favourite thing.
Greene: Right, but like when you said that “I feel like I’m playing dress up”, that’s such a horrible feeling to feel when you’re making a movie. It’s like, we’re not doing anything real here. But, but, I guess the point is like, can we make that feeling productive and can we take that feeling of “Is this worth it?” and turn it into something…
Sheil: That is worthwhile. Because that question is not enough.
Greene: It can’t stop at that question. That question has to make you understand Christine Chubbuck better somehow. And that’s a very difficult thing to imagine but that’s what we were trying to do.
Well, I think you definitely succeeded. For me it was a great combination of your editing work on Alex Ross Perry’s features and your other documentaries, a great combining of the two.
Greene: Well, I mean I really think that, there’s a lot of movies that are combining fiction and documentary now. The truth is that that’s a very old, I mean it goes back to the beginning of cinema, combining fiction and documentary. I think the first Charlie Chaplin film where he’s playing the tramp, he’s like at a real auto-race.
Or Buster Keaton coming out of the cinema screen…
Greene: Exactly, so to me it’s like, can we take whatever that tension brings up, that sort of questioning of what you’re watching, it has to tell us something deeper. And I think it can, you know. You think of fiction and documentary, even if they’re blended, you think of them as these insoluble things, and then maybe you can kind of see in between the two things, and there’s some sort of truth there, or some sort of revelatory experiential thing there. I don’t want to make tricky things for the sake of tricky things. I’m really happy that you said it was emotional, because you can’t predict that, you know. So much of it is just Kate embodying so much stuff.
Thank you so much!