Breaking News: Antonio Campos' 'Christine' captures the tragic story of a troubled TV reporter

Features
Movies Features

Described by her boss at Florida news station WXLT as “the smartest one here,” journalist Christine Chubbuck was nevertheless unable to fend off her encroaching mental illness. The agony of her struggle is portrayed in compassionate detail in Christine by director Antonio Campos, who eschews the sensationalism of her death in favor of the humanity of her vision. Director Talk recently spoke to Campos about his compelling new film.

Director Talk: Let’s talk first about the work you did with Rebecca Hall—her performance was extraordinary.

Antonio Campos: She was pretty amazing. We did a lot of talking, a lot of conversations, a lot of “What is it about?” Talking about Christine, talking about ourselves, talking about our lives, talking about what the film meant. There was so much time from when Rebecca got involved to when we made the movie—over a year—that it wasn’t like we were rehearsing all the time; more of it was just having natural conversations. A lot of directing in my opinion is just talking things out and coming to an understanding about a person or character, and also getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other and trusting each other, because when you trust the people you work with, you tend to do better work: You’re not closed up, you’re not scared to say something, because there’s nothing you can say or do that’s wrong. You can always just get better. And so in that way working together was just a very organic process.

Because of the fact that we got to know each other so well, because of the fact that we had this inherent trust, by the time we got on set she’d do a take and we would just look at each other; she’d look at me and I’d look at her and sometimes I wouldn’t even say anything, and she’d say, “OK, I got it. I know what to do.” And then she would do it, and the next take would be great. Or I’d come in and give an adjustment to what she was doing and then she’d give the performance with that adjustment and I’d say, “Throw it all away and do what you want to do.” Sort of a one-for-me-one-for-you kind of thing. It was very freeing.

Technically, Rebecca doesn’t have a method, but she’s very methodical and very thoughtful. She understands every scene and tries to find references for things that the character is saying, filling in blanks like “Where does this idea come from?” and things like that—the homework that a good actor does. The next thing to do after a lot of that work was the more technical stuff of the voice and the movement. Rebecca found a couple of examples of Midwestern Ohio accents, and we had a recording of Christine [Chubbuck], so we had a sense of what she sounded like and what her body language was like, but it was literally only thirteen minutes of her sitting in this very drab talk show that she did. So we had that to go off, and Rebecca was doing a lot of her own homework and practicing, and then eventually she’d start sending me recordings of what she was doing. At that point she was getting there on her own, and I’d chime in and give her a note.

But a director’s job is different for every actor. Sometimes a director’s job is to get in there and really steer every moment, sometimes it’s to instigate and get someone going—or rein somebody in—and sometimes the director’s job is to just not say anything and to know when the actor is going in the right direction on their own. At the end of the day I did a little bit of all of that with Rebecca, but the reality is that Rebecca is just a brilliant actor, and I think more than anything she needed and deserved the role that allowed her to shine and explore all the layers that she as an actor is capable of doing. So sometimes I just let her go. She’s a genius.

DT: One of the things that really got to me was the rhythm of your sequences. Each sequence led to a perfect ending. How did you do that? On set? In editing? What was your attitude toward creating a sequence?

AC: It’s a combination of different things. The script was very thought out, and then we continued to work on the script even on the days that we were shooting. When you make an independent film, and you’re working with a really tight budget but still have big cinematic ambitions, you have to be as specific as possible. Coming from an editor’s background as well, I think a lot about how a sequence should potentially play out. There’s working on the script and thinking a lot about every scene before you get there in order to have a very clear plan of action so that you’re not necessarily looking to try and correct things in the edit; it becomes more about how you can perfect things in the edit. The other thing is that my wife edited this film—every night and every day she was editing what we shot the day before, so we were very current and could see full cuts of scenes basically a day after we shot them.

DT: Was she on set?

AC: Not on set but on location, back in the edit room. She doesn’t like to come to the set. She’s doing more of the legwork... the amount of stuff a director has to process is overwhelming, especially when you have such a tight schedule, so when you have that kind of intimacy with the people you work with, and I don’t just mean the fact that we’re married—I’m very close with my writer, very close with my DP, very close with my producers—there’s a level of honesty and there’s a level of trust. Sofia, my wife, will say, “This thing didn’t work, try and get it like this,” or “See if you can just get a close-up of that.” There’s a lot of “How do we make this perfect? What is the missing piece?” And because of the fact that we had access to the news station throughout—that was 60 percent of the movie—we could always go back and pick up a shot if we felt, “This sequence is missing this little detail—let’s go get it.”

Anybody who says that to make a movie you lay it out, you storyboard it, you go and shoot it—yeah, you can do that, but I think the reality is you prepare yourself for the unexpected. There are going to be things that you don’t foresee, but you prepare yourself so that you can come back and get those details eventually. You can prepare yourself for the fact that there are going to be things you don’t expect and then make the room to go back and get those things. So it’s a process—it’s all a process. Young filmmakers think there’s a streamlined way to get from A to Z, but there isn’t. You really have to think and try, and then if it doesn’t work, make sure you have the room to go back and try again. And if you budget carefully and schedule carefully, you can do those things. It just takes a lot of preparation.

DT: Let’s talk about colors. There were obvious colors in the film, like the yellow background for the TV station, Christine’s yellow car, her yellow lamp, but there was a more subtle use of colors, like in the poolroom scene, where you had that green on [Michael C. Hall’s] face—it looked to me like the exact same green in the transformation scene in Vertigo. It felt like there was a hyperconscious use of color, but also a really subconscious use of color that was employed to build suspense and a sense of impending doom.

AC: We were embracing color. To counteract how sharp high-definition video is, people often go more desaturated and less contrasty, while we were looking for saturation and color and embracing color and using color cleverly to convey a state of mind. And not only color; patterns too. How busy or not busy a frame was conveyed a kind of mental state as well.

DT: Christine’s mother’s flowered couch was fabulous.

AC: Exactly. Christine’s sitting on that couch was very specific, versus the lack of patterns in her bedroom, where there are a lot of solids and warmer tones. So the use of color was completely conscious. You do your best to create a set of rules that you stick to—for instance, we were very conscious of not using red so that when the gunshot happens, red has a huge impact.

In the poolroom, there was a kind of disorientation, a sense of corners falling into shadow. As you said, there is a Hitchcockian use of color there, but Hitchcock just kind of throws green or red across someone’s face, while we were trying to motivate it more. We were trying to end up in the same place, but we were trying to find where that color was coming from, and for us it was the pool table and the shade over the pool lamp.

You try to get your cinematographer, your production designer and your costume designer all on the same page, so that the story that each one is telling is in line. So much of what each of these people is doing is color-related; What color clothes are we going to use in these spaces, what color is the production designer going to paint the wall, but contrast that with this piece of wardrobe to make them pop, and if there’s less light, how do we use the light that we do have to convey the mood that we want? All those things are being considered for every scene in the movie. In the poolroom scene in particular, we wanted it to feel kind of dizzying and disorienting. That scene was being driven by George’s state of mind, which was a bit buzzy and starting to get a little drunk and wobbly; that was the mood we were going for.

DT: I also loved the balance between that in-depth, compassionate portrait of Christine and putting her in the context of larger social issues, like what responsibility do we have to each other, or why do some people have coping mechanisms and others don’t? I especially loved the way that final scene played out. I imagine that was in the script, but you must have achieved that through directorial choices also, so that it wasn’t just a film about social responsibility, and it wasn’t just a film about Christine.

AC: Again, it goes back to the script and to the editing, because in the editing you’re continuing to write the script. You’re finishing the script in the editing, really. In terms of how complicated this film was to write, it was like balancing on a tightrope. We were dealing with a true story, so some people might know it, some people might not in terms of what happened in the end, but you don’t want to start the film off with the final act or acknowledging what happens in the end for those who don’t know it. And as a writer and a filmmaker, you don’t want to say this is a movie about how this woman commits suicide or someone who commits suicide, so you have to create a character that’s interesting enough and a scenario and a world that are interesting enough that that day-to-day pulls you through and drives the story. Then we introduce little obstacles, like her looking for news stories, those kinds of things that drive the movie. And because of the fact that you don’t know what she’s going to do in the end, the movie can’t tell you what it’s doing necessarily…it can only talk about the things that are happening in front of you, so it’s not about guns and what she does at the end until it becomes about that. Until then, it’s just about a woman dealing with mental illness, and that’s the driving force. We grounded in that. I think that was the start of why it does work, why the layers of all the other things work in the movie, because it is grounded in one thing, and then that one thing allows us to touch on all these other things. But we never lose sight of the fact that it’s really about a woman dealing with her mental illness. She has a specific point of view about the things that were going on at the time, but that specific point of view also goes through a filter of mental illness, so there are all these pieces that we’re building on as the movie continues on. By the time we get to the end, we’ve explored so many different layers that when she commits the final act and she dies, you have a lot of stuff to process. That’s the reason I think it’s a film you should sit on. I’ve been at Q&As where they raise the lights a little too soon and then started the Q&A, and those Q&As never go as well as the ones where they just let the credits roll and people can sit there with it for a few extra minutes before the lights come up and the moderators say, “OK, now it’s time for you to ask questions.” I think there are so many layers in Christine that you need a little bit of time to process them.

DT: That’s fascinating. Last question—how much did you work with the composer, because I really felt that the music betrayed your affection for Christine.

AC: Did you say “betray”?

DT: The music was surprising. It betrayed your affection for Christine, like discovering a love letter that you had written to her and then put away in your desk drawer because you didn’t want anyone to see it.

AC: There is a romantic quality to the music. There are two things that the music’s trying to do. It’s injecting a certain kind of busyness; there’s almost this kind of clingy-clangy tick-tocking kind of thing going on in the music that serves the function of propelling things forward and capturing the mood of the world they exist in. On a local level, news has a certain kind of energy that we were trying to capture.

But a lot of it was this: There was a warmth I felt toward Christine that I didn’t want to deny. In some ways the movie is a love letter to Christine. The music is also the way we say, “Listen, we care about this character, we’re not being cynical, we’re not scoffing.” The film has a kind of observational quality that’s offset a lot of times by the music to make sure you know where we’re coming from as filmmakers. The music is acknowledging the humanity of the story and saying, “Listen, we’re not going to be cold about it.”

Click here for the trailer. Released by The Orchard, Christine opens on Oct. 14 in New York at Film Forum. The author thanks Caitlin Hughes of Brigade Marketing for arranging the interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2016