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Rebecca Hall Pulls the Trigger

Borderline Films’ own Antonio Campos explores a forgotten corner of American journalism in his third feature film, Christine, a dramatization of the final months in the life of Christine Chubbuck. On the morning of July 15, 1974, the then 29-year-old Sarasota, Florida, newscaster followed a routine segment with, “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—an attempted suicide,” before drawing a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver from her desk and pulling the trigger. Then she was gone.

As for the film, Christine is likely to be remembered as the project that finally made good on Rebecca Hall’s often under-challenged acting chops. By turns piercingly upfront and perpetually sucker-punched, Hall’s Chubbuck is a master class on self-disarrangement—the anxiety, the awkwardness, and tireless ambition—fashioned from the inside out. Sensitive to both the singularity of Chubbuck’s cognitive undoing and the indignities weathered by any woman in a 1970s newsroom, the heartfelt emptying-out that Hall achieved is dazzling. This is truly her film.

Can you recall what was going through your mind when you watched Christine for the very first time? And how did that sort of relate to what you thought you had signed up for?

I think the first thought I had was about how many other films it references, and things that I’d been unaware of until seeing it. There’s a lot of internal referencing of 70s cinema in those big wide shots and the coloring and the palette—the muted color of things and the mustard. There are pieces of Robert Altman in there… But, above and beyond, it’s a genuinely original film. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before. And I was excited that I got to be in it. [Laughs]

You can’t top that. What a great feeling to have!

It really is! I think Christine does something really remarkable. I think it’s tough for people because you hear what it’s about and you have an assumption that it’s going to be grim and bleak and it’s been made from a cynical place or something like this. I feel that the world of the film is very affectionate. Everyone in this film, including obviously Christine, is going through their own struggles. They’re all trying to perform the best version of themselves. They’re all sort of muddling along and at times desperate, but the worldview of the film is very sympathetic to these people. They’re all trying to do the best they can. Also, you’re constantly seeing a group of people trying to help this person who can’t see that. Christine is being accepted and helped by these people. Christine doesn’t accept her co-worker’s invite to go have ice cream, but the co-worker deals with life by having an ice cream at the end of the film. There’s that sort of weird and inherent optimism about the kindness of people. I think Christine is full of a lot of humor and light—it’s about life. When you watch it, you know the inevitable ending, but that’s not the reason for making this film.

You’ve remained very consistent in interviews about this being an art movie about sensationalism, but not sensationalized itself. Creative liberties were taken on this movie.

I think you have to. I think the responsibility of art is to take those creative liberties. Everything comes from life. I read this Edward Albee quote just recently because he obviously passed away a couple of days ago and there was this thing on the Internet. This is not verbatim, but he was basically saying that good writing turns fact into truth, and all too often, not very good writing does the reverse where truth turns into fact. I think there’s something to that. Documentary is limited in a way, in terms of making things universal truths and finding how things signify things and give us something greater than the thing itself in terms of us as society and the rest of it. There’s a reason why there’s art and not everything is documentary—that’s because it’s limited. We all want documentary realism—we’ve got reality TV—but dramas aren’t going anywhere. Documentary TV, for a start, is not real. [Laughs] I find it kind of fascinating and I think it’s necessary.

Before I watched the film, I did wonder if Christine would be portrayed in a repellant way, but she’s so herself that you cheer her on and hope that she doesn’t succumb to a darkness.

She’s resolutely herself all the time. That really was the point of doing it. There’s no reason to do something that’s about the horror. There’s something at the heart of it that’s relatable. There’s something frightening at the core of it, which is that we all know what it’s like to be stymied at work, we all know what it’s like to get depressed, and we all know what’s it’s like to be unloved. I don’t think that many of us want to admit that we’re not immune—due to random circumstances of gender, social time, place, and brain chemistry—to being tipped over the edge. I think that’s the thing you sort of take away from this. People are willing to help others and it’s a tragedy when you can’t see that. The arbitrary nature of brain chemistry is terrifying. Christine’s story will always be her story, but in art, you realize what she symbolizes: She’s the harbinger for a lot of things that people want to talk about. What is it like to be a woman in the workplace in America during the 70s, with Watergate and the golden age of journalism where we’re moving into the “If it bleeds, it leads” kind of mentality? It’s not exactly an alien concept that fear is used to manipulate and control people. It’s absolutely what goes on in America right now. I think it’s remarkably timely.

The mental health issue that’s tackled in Christine is so paramount on a personal level for me because it’s so frightening. We all want that cure, but there’s no cure-all pill for that yet.

We’re not great at talking about suicide. We’re not great about talking about mental health issues. These are all things we haven’t found an answer to, so it’s difficult to engage with. I think there’s some sort of an irony in that Christine wanted to be famous for something that was worthwhile on her own terms. Of course she died because the headlines she made were about blood and guts, but maybe there’s a chance now that the headlines will be about the debate about the thing that we don’t talk about. [Laughs] There’s a kind of irony. I hope that’s what the film does because it doesn’t allow for a simplistic response. I mean, people come out of the film all feeling the same thing you’re feeling and it does engender discussion, which is a great thing. You care about Christine. It’s a compassionate portrayal. If you watch the film and you don’t want her to die even though you know it’s coming, then we’ve done our job. That’s the key. That’s the reason to do it.

When you’re an in-demand actress such as yourself, how much is someone like Antonio Campos on your radar? And not from trade papers or anything, but from your love of film?

Oh, very much so. I saw their films and I knew who they were. That’s the kind of stuff that I want to do. As an actor, certainly nowadays, you have to do a range of things in order to do these films. Christine was made on a shoestring—a tiny budget—and it’s not easy to get funding for a film about a woman who commits suicide. [Laughs] It’s not a slam dunk and people are really frightened of it. It’s like, “That doesn’t make me feel good, so what’s the point of it?” But there’s so much point. It’s hard. I had to have been in a bunch of famous movies to get funding for something like this and, even then, I got on board and waited a year for that funding to happen. It was this one guy, eventually, who came out of nowhere and said, “I’ll make this happen.”

Have you ever agreed to board a film without reading the screenplay first?

No. I’ve been asked to! [Laughs] But no. I’ve been asked a couple of times where they were like, “This is so top secret that we cant ever give you the script until the day before we shoot,” and I’m like, “Please.” That’s really devaluing what I do for a living. If you want me to turn up and do my job correctly, then show me the script! I’m not going to do something where I don’t know what it is. That seems like a kind of insanity. So I do try and sort of put my foot down about that, and I did. For instance, I did get to read the Woody Allen script. I got to read Iron Man [3], which was a fight. The script [for Iron Man 3] was quite different than what it ended up being.

The Iron Man stuff came up recently, didn’t it? That must happen all the time.

It does happen all the time, but it’s not quite as extreme as in that particular instance.

But I also mean where you know about it, but you’re not allowed to talk about it so openly.

Oh yeah.

That must be very difficult because you don’t necessarily get to explain yourself.

Well, I talk about it privately. There doesn’t really seem to be much of a point to kind of draw attention to myself and, like, moan about it. It’s a complicated thing! I do want to call them out but, at the same time, with [Iron Man 3], they never revealed to me the reasons why they suddenly reduced my part. Also, we reached a happy kind of medium by the end of it. Initially, they just sort of wanted to shoot me in a corridor essentially and I was like, “Excuse me?” So I had this moment where I was like, “I’ll probably walk off this movie unless you give me a decent death scene at least because this is not fair.” [Laughs] I was meant to be in it until the end of the film with a decent role, and they could see that. And I don’t want to slack off Robert Downey [Jr.] because he was great and those films are loved. That film actually turned out pretty well, so, whatever. I’m angry about how they have in the past treated their female characters, sure, but they’re making up for it now. They cast Brie Larson and that’s very good for the industry as a whole. So, Bravo!

I don’t mean for this to be so random: I saw The Awakening somewhat recently because it became available while I was in South Korea. What memories did you take away from that?

That stuff really varies. It really varies according to where we shot it and what the thing is. I mean, I have a memory on that shoot of spending endless, endless, time walking down corridors holding a really heavy lamp. [Laughs] It was just days of my life doing that and it was really exhausting. And they were always trying to get me to do this slow-motion crouch and stand up again without using my hands, which meant an excessive amount of thigh muscle.

This is exactly the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff people are curious about.

It’s weirdly exhausting with that kind of thing. I have good memories from that shoot because I’m very fond of the director and the DP who I’ve worked with again. So those people have come back into my life. And Imelda Staunton was amazing. I see Isaac [Hempstead Wright] everywhere because he’s on Game of Thrones. I have lots of good memories from that one.

You have a movie coming out called Permission and your husband [Morgan Spector] is in that. He’s also obviously in Christine. What’s it like to work with someone so close to you?

We met at work so it seems quite natural. It was actually nice. It was actually the first day we shot the doctor scenes with me and Morgan. This role was a lot for me as an actor, although I don’t consider myself a method actor. I had to commit to a big characterization and I didn’t want it to be an impersonation, so you have to internalize it on some level. It’s sort of a frightening place when you turn up to set and you’ve got all the hair and make-up on and you’re not really afforded the opportunity to meet everyone as yourself in a strange way. You have to sort of stay focused and that can be a bit odd. So it was quite comforting to have my husband for that day. He stuck around for a lot of the shoot, actually. Not that he was on set, but he was “at home” kind of thing, making sure that when I did come home, I could kind of forget it and stay sane. That was really helpful. I probably wouldn’t have eaten or slept much if he hadn’t been there to be like, “Shhh…” [Laughs]

Do you usually have a sense of how a movie might turn out when you’re there on set as you’re working on it? Is that something that’s very obvious to you or is it more often mercurial?

I don’t know because so much goes on in the edit. So much can happen between the shooting and the final product. There are so many films that I’ve been a part of where I thought it was one thing and then I see it and go, “What?” [Laughs] It’s very confusing. Christine is one of those rare films where I feel like people set out to do a thing and it’s the thing that we set out to do when I watch it. It’s really there and I’m so proud of that. That’s special. It’s also two guys who made this film, Antonio Campos and Craig Shilowich, and it’s an acutely feminine piece of filmmaking. It’s about emotions and it comes from a place of feeling. When I read the script, I was like, “This is such a feminine film and from a female perspective.” You’re in and out of Christine’s head. It’s very deft and sophisticated in this way of telling the story, and these two dudes made it. I remember going to meet Antonio for the first time and realizing that he is so—this is a cheesy word, but—sensitive. He feels things very deeply and translates that to cinema. That’s his skill and I think he has really come into his own with Christine. And Craig, who wrote it, didn’t write it because he thought it was cool. He wrote this script because he had a near ten-year period of extreme depression when he came upon Christine’s story, like, “Imagine if I’d been a woman in the 70s and I had my work taken away from me. I might not have made it.” This was a big turning point for me in deciding to do it. He wanted to exercise these things and that feeling was there on set. Everyone cared about this woman. I don’t really know what question I’m answering anymore… [Laughs]

I promise this isn’t a lazy question: You seem very involved in your craft and filmmaking in general, so I wonder if you have that desire to step behind the camera to write and direct.

The honest truth is that I really want to. I like acting because there’s nothing that you can do in life that doesn’t inform it. Listening to music or drawing pictures or playing the piano or reading a book always informs a character I’m playing. In the same way, I often thought, “Oh, if I make a film, I get to pick the music.” It’s a very unified way of expressing all the things that I love. It’s a thing of taste, so I really do want to do it. It’s taken me a long time because, as long as people keep offering good acting jobs, I’m not going to give it up. Because I like it. At the same time, I think it’s hard. I’ve struggled with this feeling of, “I can’t just walk into a room and say I’m a director. That’s ridiculous. Don’t I have to be qualified and have training?” And I’ve worked on two films with actors who did just that: They just, one day, decided that they’re going to direct. There was an ease and relaxation with it, and they made great films. There was no difference. I don’t know why I’m sort of stymied by this sense of, “Well, I can’t do that!” and I’m sick of it. I think it’s boring and I think it’s quite a female response. [Laughs] I think a lot of women have this fear that we can’t do it or we need to be perfect. There’s a lot of pressure. I’m sick of feeling like that. I just want to go on and do it now. That’s a long answer. The short answer is “Yes. I want to make a film.”

I often wonder about actors who seemingly come out of nowhere untrained. They have this innate quality that allows them to act quite seamlessly. What do you think it is about them?

I really don’t know. Sometimes it’s great to get non-actors because they don’t have that self-consciousness. Frankly, that’s what we’re all striving for because any notion of being conscious on camera shows. And it’s difficult to sustain that if you’re not an actor, in which case you need to employ an actor to combine that intuition with an analytical sense of how to tell a story and make it visible on camera. The former is very reliant on a director. Sometimes you need the collaboration.