Antonio Campos is a New York-based writer, director, and producer. His latest project, entitled Christine , is based on the life of Christine Chubbuck, an American newscaster likely unknown to most viewers. Yet, for those who know the story, it is one of shock and awe as Chubbuck’s macabre ‘claim to fame’ so-to-speak, is that she committed suicide on live television. As a story that’s easily sensationalized, Campos uses great care and empathy in his treatment of Christine’s life and character who is expertly portrayed by Rebecca Hall. This is Campos’ third feature film and it completes an ad hoc trilogy of sorts. Campos’ first and second feature—Afterschool  and Simon Killer —both involve central characters who externalize extreme accounts of the human psyche and this is no different for Christine Chubbuck. Though Christine may be more tonally different from his previous equally well-regarded features, it is undeniable that there are related themes and motifs among his work. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to Campos about his film and below is the transcript of our conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity. This interview may also contain what some might consider spoilers for the film. For those who would like to experience the film on as blank of a slate as possible, consider viewing the film before reading this interview.
Why did you want to tell Christine Chubbuck’s story?
I wanted to tell her story because I love the script. I didn’t go online and discover the story and contact Craig [Shilowich] so he could write the script. I learned the story through reading the script. I wanted to tell the story of Christine that I learned about from the script, which after doing my own research, after I got involved with the project, I realized is very accurate [and] very true to what was known about her. I really connected with Christine as a character. And so that’s what I was first interested in. And really, I was just interested in Christine as a character. And the bigger aspects of her story were part of the story, but they weren’t the things that initially grabbed me—that made me really want to make this film.
Your film is a very sympathetic approach towards portraying a person who could easily be sensationalized. To that end, in what ways do you relate with Christine?
I mean I understand her outlook. I understand her anxieties, her insecurities—the sense that you’re not doing it right. That you’re not even being a person right, which is where you get to when you’re depressed. Just existing—you’re not even existing correctly. The more and more you go down that rabbit hole, the less you can actually experience life and be present and you kind of go through this vicious cycle. Those things about her. It’s also, [I also relate to her notions of] there is some other way to do things. This is what I’m interested in. Things that other people are interested in and are being thrown at me in terms of what I’m supposed to be interested in, you know? I love that she wasn’t a bad journalist. Would she have been the next Barbara Walters? Probably not. I do think that she had integrity and that she believed in something and wanted to use the news for specific reasons. And the act is very complicated. Her act was one of anger. Of defiance. Of selfishness. And it seems like it’s a very selfish act—to do it in such a public way—like you seem to have an agenda, but you’re clearly ill and not perceiving reality in the right way and so it’s a very complicated act. But I also saw, you know, when you look at it, you see that she sees the chaos on the way in terms of where the media is going and how bad things are going to get and she did this thing that in her mind she—I mean, in her mind, there’s a lot of things going on; she’s angry at a lot of people around her. I think she just felt like she was never going to feel good—that she could never get the things that she wanted and this seemed to be the way out of this life [that also lets her] make one final statement, which is, “You guys want blood and guts.” So, all those things. I just felt for her from the very beginning. And then when you hear her… Like everybody knew she was fascinating and odd; sometimes funny, sometimes not, but trying to be — it’s all the stuff; she’s just a great, fascinating character and I really cared about her.
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
My favorite scene to shoot was when Christine shows her video footage to the boss because it was a scene in which I felt was a big turning point for Christine. It was a scene that was able to [allow the viewer to] tap into her. Like you had been watching her, watching her, watching her for so long and this is the moment that you jump into that mindset and be there and feel the excitement; and, then you feel the total devastation [of it] when it didn’t work out. That was my favorite scene to shoot because the performances were just so amazing to be present for: to see Tracy [Letts] yelling at Christine and to see Rebecca [Hall] coming at him. You watch a movie and you think, what was it like to be in that room when someone said that thing or did that thing? And these performances created a moment like that—that I couldn’t believe that I was there to see that thing happening and that I was a part of it. So that was my favorite scene.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
The suicide. [It was a ] technically demanding scene. There’s a lot of special effects. You’re working with special effects and emotions. And you have to ask an actor to be present and be in the moment, but they have people poking and prodding at them all day. That was the hardest scene.
I wanted to ask about the stories that Christine was shown working on, in the film and their implications: because, it seems that with both stories—with the man outside the burning house and the long-form docu-journalism idea—Christine has this eye for stories and a clear vision on how to tell these stories. In this sense, I almost see her as a filmmaker more than a reporter. Do you think Christine was in the wrong field?
I mean, maybe. Um, no. Maybe. I don’t know. I mean, I think she was alive at the wrong time. Her whole demeanor feels very contemporary. I don’t know. A lot of that stuff was conjecture. It’s some things that we knew about her. And the kind of stories she liked. Whether or not she should have been a filmmaker or not, I could never tell you. I think her ambition was way greater than being a journalist.
What was the motivation behind using the Mary Tyler Moore theme song in your film?
It was a callback to earlier times in the film, for me. It’s a layered kind of thing. If you don’t know, if you don’t have the context of the Mary Tyler Moore song, all you hear is a very lovely song. It’s a positive kind of song. It has a positive outlook that contrasts or juxtaposes a woman by herself in her home eating ice cream just trying to get through the day amidst the lingering feeling or memory of her friend’s suicide. So, totally the song made sense to me. The beginning of the movie, to me, always felt like it could be a sitcom and it was even treated that way from script to staging to coverage. It was just treated in a very standard kind of approach, with the camera capturing them on a set and everybody is quirky; and, Mary Tyler Moore is a quirky workplace comedy and about a quirky newswoman who’s always fighting with her boss. She’s surrounded by weird characters and she has a great big heart and a lot of talent and is smart and ambitious and all that stuff that Christine was; so, really Christine was a version of Mary Tyler Moore that goes completely wrong. And so, it made sense to call back to that idea with this song and the character that was closest to her. The character in Mary Tyler Moore language would have been Rhoda. Like you’d have the Jean show after Mary Tyler Moore or the Rhoda show off of the Mary Tyler Moore show. (Jean is to Rhoda as Christine Chubbuck is to Mary Tyler Moore.) I mean life goes on and you go on with another character. It’s a very layered kind of decision. And I wanted to experience Maria Dizzia singing that song quietly by herself—I thought it was a nice way to end the movie. It struck me because it registered with so many people and confounds others and turns them off and I still don’t understand why. I think the argument is that it seems that I’m poking fun at or that it’s cruel in some way like it’s saying, “Oh, how sad is life,” which is not what I’m saying. I’m saying this woman lived and she’s living and she has her own little way of processing and that’s a thing that we all have; we all have tools and devices and that’s part of being a human. And some of us don’t pick that up. Maybe if Christine had slowed down, ate some ice cream; maybe if she took Jean up on her offer to hang out that day, like if she didn’t shut herself off, maybe she would not do what she did. So, in choosing the Mary Tyler Moore song, I think I was making a choice that had other implications, but implications in my mind that work within—if you knew it—would work within the story itself; it would work with everything you already knew. If you knew Mary Tyler Moore, that’s another layer; if you didn’t, it’s a pretty song on the tv.
In your career, what’s the best piece (or pieces) of advice that you’ve received?
I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from different people over the years. The thing that I love—because it came from such an important filmmaker to me—[is when] I met Robert Altman once when I was 18. I went to a screening where he was showing City of God with Fernando Meirelles and there was a Q&A and I had somehow gotten invited to this cocktail thing after and he was there. I ran up to him like twice and he was so nice and I said, “Mr. Altman, what do you do if an actor is not giving you the performance you want?” And he said, “You need to have another actor who is better that you can cut away to.” That was like the most classical advice that, at the time, I didn’t even really get. As you move into the practicality of making movies, which is what you need to learn in order to be a filmmaker, [you learn that] it can’t be all magic and spirits and whatever. There’s a real kind of practicality to where you put the camera, and how you cut a scene, and how you make a scene work; and, sometimes you have magic and sometimes you have to make things work. And Altman was a guy who did make magic, but also knew how to dial up the magic at times; and, as a workhorse kind of director, [in speaking with him] there’s this part of you that just realizes what it took for them just to make it work. [You realize that he had] to conjure up the magic when you can and that film isn’t just a bunch of magical moments—there’s a lot of practicality and a lot of how to get from A to B. So, Altman taught me that.
Christine is out now in selected cinemas.