Those who find themselves enamored with Kate Plays Christine — that includes us: along with giving it an A at Sundance, we think it’s your best viewing option for this month — often struggle to find a starting point for even describing the film, let alone praising it, which speaks as much to ambitions as it does the many pleasures they eventually afford. Robert Greene‘s documentary often plays as a rather straightforward example of the form: Kate Lyn Sheil (Listen Up Philip, The Girlfriend Experience) conducts research for a film in which she’ll portray Christine Chubbuck — a newscaster who committed suicide on-air in 1974 and has become something of an underground legend, in part because the sole tape of her act has been suppressed — and struggles with getting in the head of a woman few really knew, as readily evidenced by footage from said film.
But that project doesn’t actually exist, no matter how often Kate Plays Christine insists otherwise by working shot-and-edited material and behind-the-scenes happenings (including interviews with co-stars) into its documentary surroundings. And yet the psychological torment Sheil undergoes for her role plays as awfully real, which makes you wonder about the morality of this whole thing — whether Greene is some Svengali-like psychotic, or everyone who made this is in on the joke and we’re being taken for suckers. Or none of those things, which is equally possible. I’ve seen it twice and don’t like settling on any single point of concentration.
Given both my admiration of their film and my desire to learn more about what, exactly, was going on here, Greene (who I previously spoke to about his 2014 Actress) and Sheil made for great conversational partners; the only downside is that our interview couldn’t be extended, by which point I’d have gladly doubled the size of this interaction. (Take the fact that we already had an interview with them out of Sundance, where Kate Plays Christine won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing, for what it’s worth.) Enough with the introductions, however — let’s let the people speak.
The Film Stage: This is a film that, for the viewer, has a potential to shift shapes and change in meaning over time, so I’m glad to talk to the both of you now, months after its premiere — and after you’ve done interviews, probably read reviews, and had time to let it sit. How has Kate Plays Christine changed for you since Sundance?
Kate Lyn Sheil: I’ve only watched the film once; I watched it at Sundance. It can be a difficult and interesting experience to watch that much of yourself, so, yeah, I really only have watched the film in its entirety that one time. I know that talking about it has sort of shifted and mutated. I think because, first, we were so sensitive about talking about it, I suppose, and now it feels, somehow, more comfortable — or something like that. But you’ve probably watched it many, many, many, many times.
Robert Greene: The movie hasn’t changed, but… we shot a year ago, coming up in a few weeks, and the whole thing happened so fast. I started editing sometime mid-August; two months later, it was off to people for them to look at it. Maybe a month later, it was basically done. That’s an incredibly fast process for a movie this weird and complex. We made decisions that were just “let’s go for it” — for example, the ending — and I just went completely instinctually in terms of editing decisions and shooting decisions and everything. We were just going and figuring it out as we went, and, now, living with those decisions is kind of exciting. So how I think about the movie has changed.
I think it’s a movie made for people to have reactions to. It doesn’t work if there aren’t reactions. It’s not a story you just get sucked into, you get the payoff at the end of the story, and that’s it. What would be the reaction other than you laughed or cried? This is a movie we made to have you thinking and there should be multiple layers of thinking and feeling. I read every review and I’m like, “I want to know what everyone thinks.” The fact that we made something to be discussed, and we get to… I get to see the discussion. Kate avoids all that stuff.
Sheil: Yeah, I don’t engage with it.
Greene: So it’s different. Maybe it will be taken one way in your brain. For me, it’s like a conversation, and it’s not just reviews. I’ve done a lot of discussion, and that’s how it changed, I guess, for me.
Ms. Sheil, you’re pretty prolific, and I wonder how the work you’ve done since might have at all affected you as an actor — if there are specific things that got you thinking differently in later performances.
Sheil: I don’t know if it changed me as an actress. Truthfully, I feel like every project changes me as an actress, because I think I’m still learning and growing, hopefully. The other thing is that most of the work I’ve done since shooting this film has been in a very different sphere, creatively; I’ve done some TV stuff, and it’s a different medium and requires different muscles, I guess. But, yeah, it absolutely informed me as a person. I feel like each experience kind of changes you, right? But, no, I mean, to be honest, I don’t think it changed me as an actress.
Greene: I love the question, though, because I remember, at one point, we were thinking about how the movie could end. At one point, the last shot was going to be on the set of a TV show, and we were saying, “It would be great if people thought you quit acting after this movie.” [Laughs] But then you see, “Oh, no, she’s still acting — oh, no.” Almost as if acting itself is a dangerous thing to do. And I think it’s a testament to the performance that Kate gives.
I think people legitimately have the feeling of you being in danger, and what’s interesting about that is that we were just traveling over here, and we have the wig with us for a thing we’re going to do today. We were talking about the power of that wig. [Laughs] Like it’s a ghostly object that, I think, affects us both still. We don’t want to touch it and put it on and play with it; it’s not funny. So that’s real, yet the way Kate brings that to the screen is a performance. I just love that people all around the world have asked me if you’re okay.
Sheil: Yeah, that’s a question we get in Q & As a lot, but, you know… it’s a movie. [Laughs]
Greene: But it’s good. It’s good that they’re connecting. What’s interesting is that they’re connecting because you’re creating that performance, which just shows how good you are — but, beyond that, there is something that we’ll be thinking about, the fact that we went to that place together, for a long time.
Sheil: And there’s certainly more to chew on, as there often is.
Did one of you keep the wig?
Greene: Well, there are two wigs. I don’t know what happened to one, which is really weird. I bet someone on the production has it. I have the one that was in the final scene, that I just kept as a memento. I kept moving it around. I kept moving it around in my editing room at home. It felt really weird to have it, so I kept putting it in different boxes.
That sounds weird.
Sheil: He’s got it in his bag right now.
This relates to something I had in mind: you both did an interview where it was said you’d questioned interests, motivations, and desires going into the movie, and one thing I never quite got from prior discussions is if that questioning would let up a bit — perhaps you’d been so involved in the process of making a film that those concerns just have to disappear. Or were you always questioning, even up to the end?
Sheil: Yeah, I think we were. I was questioning up to the end. Something that we brought up at Sundance was that a part of my function in the film is questioning the rightness or wrongness of making this film in the first place, and I think people watching the film, as you note, often ask, “Why is she doing it?” And that’s something that we struggled with right up until the end, because the reason I was doing it is that Robert asked me to.
Greene: One of the tricky things was that we like each other so much on a personal level. Well, I like Kate. I’m not sure if she likes me.
Sheil: I love Robert.
Greene: That’s very nice; I was just prompting you. But Kate and Sean [Price Williams] and I and Bennett Elliot, one of the producers on this film, we just had such a good time being together and we like being together. There was an on and off switch. Sean, on the plane ride down, was very careful to say, “You’ve got to make sure that you are not filming all the time, because we’re going to have to think about this more like a fiction thing, where we’re off-duty.” That goes against my instincts as a documentary filmmaker, but the thing that was tricky was that because we are genuinely friends and want to be kind to each other, keeping it unstable was sometimes hard — meaning, it was sometimes difficult to jump into this instability thing where questioning always had to be at the forefront.
There could never… I think what you’re saying of if she clicked in, of, “All right, let’s just do this scene” — no, never. In fact, sometimes it would’ve been better for us, mental-health-wise, if I was able to do that better. But I wasn’t. One absolute thing that happened would be, Kate would say, “I don’t like what I’m doing,” and I would say, “Great, because I don’t want you to like what you’re doing.” She’d say, “That’s fucked up.” “You know that’s the concept here?” “Yeah, I know that’s the concept here, but you’re not out here, embarrassing yourself in this makeup and wig, like I am.”
And that was the real channel of tension. It was productive, and we could go home and be like, “That was good that we had a fight or that there was some tension there,” but it was all so real because… for me, making it more real was so necessary and, also, personally mortifying, because I felt like I was doing a bad job, and we were also documenting the real bad job, and, as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted it to be real, that I was doing a bad job! [Laughs]
Those layers were actually happening in the production. They’re not manufactured all for the sake of the movie. Having said that, I think Kate was more in control — even months later. There was one moment where Kate was crying and I was never going to film you in that situation, because you looked legitimately mad at me, and Kate said, “I was mad because you didn’t fucking film me crying. What else was I crying for?” So the one thing I definitely have learned since the movie is how much more in control Kate was than I realized. I don’t mean that I was stupid; just that I was doing my job and you were doing your job even better.
Sheil: That’s not necessarily true. I think you and Sean and I were all… there was a great deal of communication, but, once we started shooting, we had to do our job, and we had secrets from one another.
Greene: We had secrets. That’s actually a key part of the whole thing: we all had three different agendas and we had to keep them to ourselves. Because we were so friendly to each other, we may have overshared aspects of the thing, and you needed to not tell me stuff, and I needed to not tell you stuff — which is a very weird way of being. But, also, you can only do that when you basically feel in love with the people you’re working with. Like it’s a family and that kind of thing.
I was surprised whenever the director appears onscreen.
Greene: Yeah. I hated that.
It’s maybe three-to-five shots in total, but it stood out because I know you. Those who don’t, however, might not be able to place your role — you could just be a crew member. I wonder about being certain when it is and isn’t okay to make yourself present.
Greene: It’s something I think about a lot. I think, with Actress, I’m not in the frame but I’m in every frame because I’m holding the camera, and I really believe that, at this point in the history of documentary filmmaking, the fact that there’s a camera means there’s a cameraperson, which means there’s a filmmaker present, and that should just be taken for granted with every film that we see. I really never wanted to be in the movie, but, to make certain scenes work, you really had to see Kate having conversations with someone — and that happened to be me. Also, it felt very honest to depict myself as kind of an idiot in this process because — and I’m not performing that; in a way, I guess I am, to try to get across this idea — you need to know the thing that we struggled with, which is, “Why is Kate doing any of this?” You needed to hear the voice going, “Well, maybe you should do it this way.” “If you say so.” That must be the director’s voice, and then you see me.
Every time I’m in the frame, I’m doing something that’s pretty repellant, and that’s not… sometimes that feels like when you have an abusive boyfriend. That he recognizes he’s abusive doesn’t mean he’s not abusive. [Laughs] So I’m not trying to, like, weasel out by saying, “Look! I know I’m a fucking idiot!” I do think it functions in the movie, basically, and had to be as little as possible. A late addition is me walking up to Kate to check my mic before the 4th of July scene, and that functions in the story: you need to know that Kate was being put to do this thing. She’s not on that boat because she wants to be on that boat; she’s on that boat because there’s people watching her and filming her and making her do this, and that changed the entire scene — once you see me in the simple act of adjusting something. You’re like, “Oh, that poor thing.” It makes Kate less of an asshole and makes her more sympathetic, and it makes the filmmakers more sadistic for creating that situation for everyone involved.
So wherever I’m on the screen, hopefully it’s functioning to add insight into what Kate is doing and why she’s doing it, and that, as Kate said, was the trickiest part of the whole thing: establishing that without ever doing one of those things where it’s like a movie-within-a-movie of “action!” Shit like that would be terrible. So it was trying to advance that thing. But I also hate it, absolutely. I mean, I hate it. I just look, like, terrible, in every way. Like, look fat and shitty and I hadn’t shaved and I was doing stupid things. [Laughs]
[Note: particulars of Kate Plays Christine’s ending are discussed with the next question and answer.]
The last sequence is the clearest communication between the two of you — which is obvious when it’s you pointing a gun at the camera. I like the way things come together there, and many are divided: there’s been a debate about if the scene works in the context of the movie, how else it could have ended, and so on. Have you thought about that in particular? Has the memory of shooting that last scene been a pointed memory? Even in terms of how else it might’ve been done.
Sheil: I haven’t thought too much about other ways it could’ve been done, because I sort of moved on, mentally, after the film, but you were in the editing room.
Greene: To me it’s, “That’s what happened, so that’s the ending.” I feel very strongly about that. What happened was, we… I had a million ideas for the ending. Kate, you always assumed —
Sheil: I never wanted to do an actual reenactment of the tape, and you, apparently, were never going to do that — but, as pitched to me at the beginning, you said we were going to do it.
Greene: It was important that the option was on the table, for us to go through with the whole entire thing, because if you didn’t think that was something that would hang over your head, then the entire movie wouldn’t work, period, and your involvement in it probably wouldn’t work. So then we basically figured out that we can’t do it. We’re not going to do it. So we came up with this… I love the idea of giving a speech at the end, because it echoes what Christine did, it echoes Network, and it would give us a moment to finally hear Kate say what she really thinks, in some way. Christine had that moment where she’s telling you what she really thinks, in the most horrible way. But Sean and I each scripted what we might thought be the end of the movie, in speech form — totally different kinds of things — and we gave them to Kate and she reacted. “Okay, interesting” or “nope.” I didn’t ever say, “You have to do this or that.”
We were rolling, we had one shot at it, and what we see is what you wrote for yourself to say, and performed — sort of. But then I had no idea she was going to pick up the gun. At the time, it felt truly dangerous and scary. She only does that once. And I had no idea that she would call us sadists. I’m totally fine that an audience will take that away and say, “See, the whole movie was criticizing me.” That says more about you, as a viewer, because some people don’t see it that way. The fact that the ending can bring people to whatever they’re taking away from that moment is the entire point of the movie — so we couldn’t have planned it to be that way, but it works. It works because it is open-ended and layered and absolutely questionable in every way.
Like I said before this: I’ve read all the reviews. The idea that we’re supposed to close this thing without it being questionable is… I don’t know how we would do that. It’s a movie that’s endlessly questioning itself. Beyond that, the last moments aren’t her saying, “You’re a bunch of fucking sadists.” The last moments are the credits. That’s the end of the movie. The end of the movie is: she points the gun at Sean and I, she says, “You’re sadists,” and the movie ends and continues with more. It never stops; the movie never settles on the message. It keeps going and could keep going forever. Do you think of the end of the movie as that moment or the credits?
Sheil: The credits.
Greene: The credits are definitely the end.
Sheil: But I mean, again, I didn’t know that you were going with that. That’s where the documentary element of it comes in, because I really did think it was over.
Greene: Yeah, the moment was passed where you said, “You’re a bunch of faking sadists.” I feel like that was a little bit… I think it’s fair to read that as you, “I want to say this line. I feel this right now,” but also, “Robert could just cut this,” and it was important for me to include it all. It was an electric moment for me, and it still feels dangerous to watch it now. Because I feel awful.
Given your film-literacy, I’m curious if either of you have an idea of what Kate Plays Christine could be double-billed with. If you had to choose, what movie makes a good partner? I don’t know if ideas were in place when directing or performing.
Sheil: Sure. I mean… Edvard Munch, probably.
Greene: Yeah. Edvard Munch, my favorite movie, would be a good one. Or several Fassbinder movies. Maria Braun would be an amazing one.
Sheil: That’d be really rad.
Greene: Someone else had a recent one… oh, I can’t remember the name of it. I’m intrigued by the question because I do feel like it’s speaking to movies. I mean, obviously, Gena Rowlands’ birthday was yesterday, and A Woman Under the Influence would be an amazing double-bill. So much of when you’re talking about how women are perceived in movies in the movie, I just cut out references to Gena Rowlands so it wasn’t so specific. But, literally, it’s you talking about Gena Rowlands, so that would be perfect. Or even just documentaries about performers, like Portrait of Jason, or something. There’s so much Portrait of Jason in everything I do — just a more stripped-down, perfect version of that questioning.
Sheil: It’s true.
Greene: Well, it’s funny, because I was reluctant to make another movie that was so much about acting and an actress, but I think they’re very different movies, and, for a while, I struggled with that, because I think Actress feels materially more grounded than this does, and I was always worried about that — but I’m really proud of how the film turned out.
Kate Plays Christine will begin its theatrical run at the IFC Center on Wednesday, August 24 and expand from there.