Few remember the haunting story of Christine Chubbuck, an American television news reporter who committed suicide during a live broadcast on July 15, 1974. But the tragic tale is finally getting its due, because two films about the life of Christine Chubbuck were made for the Sundance Film Festival.
The festival is taking place between January 21 and 31, and according to the Associated Press, audiences have already been treated to the premieres of both movies. While both films focus on the events that led to the 29-year-old reporter’s shocking suicide, they are drastically different projects.
The first is a drama film starring Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck called Christine. It’s a heavily fictionalized account of Chubbuck’s life leading up to her on-air death. The second film is less biographical, despite being a non-fiction film. Kate Plays Christine is an experimental documentary about an actress named Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play Christine Chubbuck in a “stylized cheap ’70s soap opera” telling of her story.
Star of Christine, Rebecca Hall, admitted she was nervous about playing a real person who suffered from such a profound mental illness, but was convinced to take the part after reading the script.
“I do think there’s something quite irresponsible about glorifying something as some sort of macabre act of heroism when actually it’s a tragedy and awful and she shouldn’t have died,” the actress said. “I read the script and thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t do that. What it does is make a human case. It makes an audience understand mental illness and sympathize with it.'”
The script was penned by Craig Shilowich who approached director Antonio Campos with the idea. This was the first time Campos heard the tragic story of Christine Chubbuck.
“Craig dug very deep and tried to understand her. For me, having learned about it through this script made it so much more human.”
Meanwhile, the director of Kate Plays Christine, Robert Greene, couldn’t believe more people didn’t know about Christine Chubbuck. He figured a film should have already been made.
“I was kind of shocked that there had never been a movie made about it. It’s the kind of story that makes you think about why you want to know about it. I still haven’t answered that to this day.”
But one aspect of the Christine Chubbuck story that may have held filmmakers back is the lack of information about the real Christine Chubbuck. The footage of her on-air suicide never saw the light of day, and little else remains for the actresses to get an understanding of who Christine Chubbuck really was and what caused her to kill herself publicly.
“There are a couple of heartbreaking indicators in it that were real prompters for me,” said Rebecca Hall. “There was this bit where she says something so impassioned and it’s about something really banal.”
Even without the added craft of the two groups of filmmakers, the sequence of events that led to the broadcast suicide are deeply chilling, but fascinating.
After asking permission to do a news piece on suicide, Christine Chubbuck was heard joking about killing herself on the air. Nobody took her seriously; but hours later, Christine shot herself in the head on live television.
“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide,” she said.
Christine Chubbuck was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, but did not survive the suicide attempt. Millions have left to speculate what provoked her to take her own life, especially on the air. The filmmakers have done their best to portray Christine’s struggle in a way that is sincere.
“The only thing I could do was look at the script and from sort of a modern understanding of mental health issues, make some sort of guess of what our version of Christine was suffering from,” Rebecca Hall told Indiewire.
Do you think it’s a mistake to make a film about Christine Chubbuck, let alone two at once? Are you interested in seeing either movie?
[Photos by BorderLine Films and Associated Press Wirephoto]