Although the entertainment industry is only halfway through this year’s awards season, some are already looking ahead to 2017 – and British actress Rebecca Hall is being tipped for success for the film Christine – a harrowing portrait of the TV journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself live on air and died the next day.
Hall, the star of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, says the film contained “some of the most difficult work I’ve ever had to do”.
In 1974, Chubbuck, a local TV news reporter in Florida, shot herself while live on camera. She was just 29. The journalist was said to be struggling with mental health issues, but also the extreme pressure of competition in her industry and the new mandate of her station to deliver more sensationalist “crisis” journalism.
Although her suicide made international headlines at the time, no footage has resurfaced.
Forty years later, Chubbuck’s story is being retold by Hall’s performance in Christine, directed by Antonio Campos, and also in a documentary, Kate Plays Christine, by Robert Greene.
Both films had their premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Hall recalls her “huge trepidation” when sent the script to read. “When you’re an actor, you get sent a cover letter along with any script, with blurb about it, and I remember reading it and thinking, ‘well, this is exploitation, I don’t want to read it at all’.
“I was very nervous to read it, and then I became deeply moved and angered and upset. I remember throwing it across the coffee table, to get it away from me.
“I didn’t want to touch it, and in that moment I knew I had to do it, because if it awakened those feelings in me, then it had the potential to be quite important. Not in a macabre way, but I thought it had the power to provoke deep feelings.
“She did something unthinkable, but we’re not glorifying the tragedy in any way. She just shouldn’t have died.”
In the weeks leading up to her death in July 1974, Chubbuck, who had kept her struggle with depression a secret, had suggested covering stories on suicide.
On 15 July, reading the morning news, Chubbuck announced, that ‘in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, you are going to see another first’. She then shot herself, dying the next day in hospital.
“We didn’t want to be ghoulish, but I suppose the entry point for audiences is that she killed herself live on air, that’s what people know about her, and that’s what everything in the film leads up to,” Hall points out.
“It was the last scene I shot for the film, as I was leaving the next day, and the emotion on set was really palpable and strange. It’s one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever had to do – it just stays with you. The adrenaline, even when you are just pretending, is huge.”
After Chubbuck’s suicide, her station manager at Florida’s WXLT disassociated the company from her death, saying that the heart of the matter was “she was a 29-year-old girl who wanted to be married and wasn’t” – a reference to her failed romantic attachments.
“I don’t think the world was good to her,” agrees Hall.
“She was in a tough industry, and we see in the film that she didn’t perhaps have the capabilities to succeed in her field.
“If she had the emotional tools and the mental health to deal with the unkindness I think she would have survived, but there was little diagnosis or treatment for these kinds of problems then, and she was a woman just trying to make it in a very hard world.”
The videotape of the incident was given to her family, and Hall says she’s “thankful it was an earlier age and so it’s not out there for people to see anymore”.
Referring to the shooting on air last year of two journalists in Virginia by a former colleague, Hall sombrely refers to “the power of the screen to blur reality – it only exists, it only has meaning, if someone’s watching it”.
“One of the themes of the film is this sense of real and assumed identity – Christine Chubbuck was often playing herself too, it was a performance. I’m not saying her end was a performance, however there was an element of radical protest about it.”
London-born Hall, daughter of former National Theatre director Sir Peter Hall, started out on the stage, but came to international attention with Woody Allen’s 2008 Oscar-winner Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as well as Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
Since then, she’s spent nearly a decade working in Hollywood, on films such as Iron Man 3 and The Town by Ben Affleck. However, trade publications, including Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire all agree on her “astonishing” and “wow factor” performance and predict success for her, if not the film itself.
Hall says she’d “much prefer that the movie hadn’t ever had to be made, that Christine had lived”.
“The thing is, even doing something so shocking on TV, our film shows the world carrying on – yes, it’s headlines on the day. But then President Nixon is impeached, there’s another story and it’s yesterday’s news.
“It’s that daily grind of news that eventually she felt she couldn’t be a part of anymore.”
Christine is yet to receive a UK release date.