Bob Verini is the Los Angeles-based theater critic for Daily Variety, for whom he also contributes features on film, theater and television. Since 2000 he has been a senior writer for Script. Twitter: @BobVerini
The incredible, tragic life of Christine Chubbuck (1941-1971)—the Sarasota-based local newscaster who chose to end her life with an on-air gunshot—has now come to the screen, thanks to a remarkable screenplay by first-timer Craig Shilowich.
Probingly directed by Antonio Campos (2012’s Simon Killer), Christine is superbly acted by an array of stage veterans led by Rebecca Hall, who if there’s any justice (as so often there isn’t) will play a significant role in 2016 awards season conversation.
But it’s Shilowich’s assured take on a complex story that holds the key to a movie that viewers are finding impossible to shake off. [Read Craig Shilowich’s screenplay exclusively HERE.]
As told in this film, Chubbuck’s last year transcends the tropes of a mere character study, sprawling across themes of mental illness, women in the workplace, and the trivialization of broadcast news which began in the 70s and continues, of course, to this very day.
Such is the pull of a story which has held its writer in its iron grip for over five years, ever since a pair of accidents that brought the one-of-a-kind saga to his attention.
“I stumbled upon her story in the middle of the night one night.” He was perusing a list of what he remembers as “The 10 Most Shocking, or The 10 Most Violent Acts That Have Ever Happened.” High on the list was the calculated mauvais geste of a profoundly anguished young woman, frustrated in life and at work, who contrived to be assigned a substitute evening anchor slot in order to report some routine stories and suddenly—and it’s impossible not to say it—go out with a bang.
“Something about her story kind of struck a chord with me,” Shilowich says, “and I knew there was more going on with this person.” Several days later, in what he calls “a very strange, cosmic coincidence,” he happened to click his remote into an E! Network True Hollywood Story called Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a six-part miniseries about people chewed up and spit out by The Biz.
Following the usual segments on the likes of Marilyn and Judy, came…the sorry end of Christine Chubbuck.
“I reached out to the segment producer,” Shilowich reports, “and he got back to me almost immediately and handed over a lot of his research.” The cache included links to local and national stories (which the writer says he “devoured”), as well as footage of the real Christine doing her Southcoast Digest talk show and which is dramatized extensively in the new film. Also present were broadcasts of the station weatherman (played in the film by Timothy Simons of Veep). Taking all of that in, while watching thematically relevant movies and books, took up six months of Shilowich’s time.
He then made an extraordinary decision. Though the E! producer had also included information on Floridians who had known and worked with Christine, Shilowich delayed contacting them, even though the clock was obviously ticking on those people. Instead, he sat down and wrote an entire first draft, “just trying to get the broad outline of her character down on paper.”
It was a calculated risk inspired by recent experience. “On the project I had been working on previously, I got lost in the research. I hit a wall, where I was asking myself so many questions that I burnt myself out. So it was a conscious decision to just let rip a first draft. About her.”
In that attempt, he concedes, “I missed a lot. If we’d shot that movie, you and I wouldn’t be talking today! But I got enough of what I wanted down, that I had a place to start.”
It’s a cautionary story for screenwriters, especially novices, whose compulsion to read just one more article, peruse one more book, interview one more subject can be a ploy designed to not sit down to the computer. “I would heartily recommend putting something down first. Because the research process is never-ending.”
Armed with that early effort, he stayed in his grandmother’s guest room in Florida and interviewed a half dozen of Chubbuck’s still living acquaintances and co-workers. (Friends? No; their absence is a particularly melancholy aspect of her story.)
Most of Christine is set in and around the offices and studios of WXLT-TV, and its scenes of professionals scrambling, and squabbling, and creating at work exude an authenticity comparable to that of James L. Brooks’s 1987 Broadcast News. Interestingly, Shilowich “had no experience in news—I came to it cold. It was an adventure and discovery…the vocabulary and so on,” though the mechanics of production were familiar to him from time spent in movies and reality TV.
“A lot of it I learned from the people who worked at that particular news station. They gave me a lot to work with, talking about not just Christine the person, but the place.”
Even at a four-decade remove, his interviewees remained “sharp, and super-willing to talk about it. I was actually surprised how forthcoming they were. I was worried I was going to be opening up some old wounds that they’d be reluctant to talk about. But everyone wants to tell their story.”
And beyond the memories of that July day in 1974, the witnesses’ recollections of life at WXLT were remarkably fond, Shilowich says, “because of how colorful it was.” Which played right into his hands, given the scope of the story as he envisioned it.
“I didn’t want it to just be about that character. I really wanted it to feel like a lived-in world.”
Thanks to those efforts at making the world of Christine seem rich and real, one has difficulty sorting out the fact-based dialogue and behavior from the screenwriter’s inventions. All the pitch-perfect broadcast copy read in the film, for instance, heavily drawn from the E! producer’s bequest, is Shilowich’s. So are the snippets of self-help, life-lesson-y puppet plays Christine periodically enacts at a hospital for intellectually disabled kids.
She left no record of these texts, though Sarasota memories of the performances are long. As reconstructed by Shilowich, they do more than merely reflect the newswoman’s empathy and professions of self-activation. (One of her mantras is “Be Bold, Be Brave.”)
Juxtaposed with bipolar-powered scenes of social ineptitude and professional arrogance, they offer touching insights into what might have been going on in her mind at each stage of her descent.
Following an exasperated injunction from her boss (Tracy Letts) to betray her serious journalistic instincts and “make stories juicy,” Campos cuts to the toy theater and after a pause, Christine voices a puppet’s plaintive: “I thought people were supposed to like me for who I am.”
Throughout the movie, in similar artistic, indirect ways, Shilowich, obviously abetted by Hall and Campos, charts each stage of a human being’s disintegration. The result fulfills one of the foremost requirements of anyone telling this story, namely, to make her final act seem both logical and inevitable.
Shilowich asserts a fundamental respect for his subject and the emotional truth of her story. “Thinking about Christine Chubbuck has taken up most of my last five years.” As a result he kept asking himself, Would she want to see this movie? Would she approve of it?
“All of the departures from the truth—and I think there are fewer than people think there are—were mostly omissions.” Two brothers living on the scene; a divorced dad she likely was in contact with; her poodle (named, of all things, Perspicacity): all went by the boards, as did actual verbal cues to acquaintances as to precisely what she was planning to do in front of the TV camera.
“She had a morbid, sarcastic sense of humor,” Shilowich reports, “and people wrote it off to that,” notwithstanding unmistakable signs of a troubled personality. But try as the filmmakers might to include those warnings, they deflated tension and, of all things, came across as too real to be believable.
“A lot of it is hard to believe,” the writer admits. “But she was a larger-than-life personality, and the facts of her life are stark.” Though some characters were composites, one character was broken into two, and several scenes were wholly constructed, the filmmakers’ gyroscope was always Christine, her real life and real times.
Each selection begged the question: Is it emotionally true?
“As long as we could all look each other in the eye and answer ‘yes,’ we kept it in.”
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