What Directors Can Learn from Actors: Antonio Campos and Rebecca Hall on 'Christine'
The director and actress discussed collaborating on their new movie Christine at this year's IFP Film Week.
Everybody of a certain generation knows the story of a Florida news anchor who shot herself during a live broadcast, one summer in 1974. After spending her entire career fighting sensationalized media, she went out by writing herself the darkest headline imaginable.
Antonio Campos’ new film is based on the life and death of that news anchor, Christine Chubbuck. It stars Rebecca Hall in the leading role, one that might finally land her the Oscar nod she so definitely deserves. Campos and Hall sat down with Scott Macaulay, Editor-in-Chief of Filmmaker Magazine, to talk about the movie—and directing and acting—at IFP Film Week.
“I got involved in 2013, when the writer Craig [Shilowich] sent me the script,” Campos told the audience. It was a slightly new process for him as he’d never directed another writer’s work. “Craig hadn’t had any film produced before, he was mainly a line producer, but we had a lot of mutual friends because we went to NYU around the same time.” A friend connected them and Campos immediately fell in love with the script.
Things were just as serendipitous regarding Hall’s involvement. Campos described connecting to her while attending Sophie Treadwell’s Broadway play, Machinal. “I’ve always been a fan of Rebecca’s work, but it felt like I was seeing her for the first time. It was just such a commanding performance. And I knew that she was Christine, so then we started convincing her that she should do it.”
“And convincing the financiers,” Hall chimed in.
“Yeah, and convincing people with money to give us money to make a woman commit suicide on TV.” Campos’ dark humor showed even in the IFP presentation.
“I’ve always been a fan of Rebecca’s work, but it felt like I was seeing her for the first time.”
The following day, the project was pitched to Hall through her agent. She questioned why exactly she found the concept so disturbing. “There’s something about what she did, at the time that she did, in America, being a woman, that feels like it has some sort of poetic resonance. It’s bigger and difficult to pin down. But I knew that it felt important.”
When she read the script, what struck her was how empathetic it was. “That’s how you know that something’s a winner. It really made me think about what it would be like to be this person.”
“I had a similar reaction,” Campos added. “Except, I didn’t know anything about Christine at the time.” He had heard the story, but not much else. Ultimately, he learned about her through the script. “It was the best way to learn about her, because of the fact that Craig put so much care into her and into the telling of the story. By the end you just feel devastated.”
After reading the script, Campos and Shilowich met with Hall, but there was still some courting to be done.
Hall explained her trepidation. “It’s really rare as an actress that you read something from an entirely feminine perspective,” she said. “It’s rare that a strong, difficult, complicated, lady is front and center of a film who does confronting things that are not likable, and part of me was slightly bewildered that it was being made by two blokes, to be honest.” Hall admitted that she went into that meeting with the intention of “taking them to task a little bit.”
But she left convinced. “Craig really made the case for it, in a way that I think shows in the film.”
“Part of me was slightly bewildered that it was being made by two blokes.”
She explained Shilowich’s connection to the story, something that he’s discussed publicly since the film’s premiere. “He came to it from a place of having gone through depression.”
In his experience, work was the thing that lifted him up. So in reading about Christine, he had a profound reaction to the thought that her work might have been taken away. “That realization,” Hall says, “kind of rocked him and became the impetus to make the film. And that’s personal, and real, and truthful, and I think that’s why it works.”
Everyone left the meeting feeling positive about the project. Hall described her admiration for Campos. “Antonio’s skill as a visceral filmmaker, this uncanny ability to feel something and then translate that into imagery, together with a very character rooted script, I knew that was going to be interesting.”
“Really a director/actor relationship is entirely about trust.”
The conversation turned to Campos’ standard practices for casting. “I would much rather do meetings than auditions,” he says, “so I really appreciate it whenever an actor actually takes a meeting.”
It’s a more humanistic setting, like grabbing lunch with a friend. And Campos tries to get to know people this way. “One of the things, beyond just having a similar sensibility and seeing things in a similar way, is a sense of humor. I think it’s really important, especially with the movies that we make which are so dark and depressing in a lot of ways…”
“It’s a trust thing,” Hall agreed. “I think if you know that you share the same perspective, it’s easier to trust someone. Really a director/actor relationship is entirely about trust.” She mused on why that’s the case. “It all boils down to, ‘do I trust your taste?’ So when you say that I’ve done something good, can I trust that I believe that I’ve done my best, and vice versa.” She added that, “the things that bond you as friends, like laughter, that’s how you find that out.”
With respect to approaching these meetings, Campos said, “it’s important to be as prepared as possible.” He adds, however, that it’s also important “to know the things that you don’t know quite yet.” Over the years, he’s learned not to make up an answer on the spot, “which is something a lot of filmmakers do, because they don’t want to say ‘I don’t know yet.’”
When asked how she prepared for the role of Christine, Hall describes having a three-month break before the start of filming. Unusual, but very useful.
“In this instance, I knew that I had a responsibility to the spirit of the real person, but also first and foremost a responsibility the piece itself as a work of the art.” In these terms, it’s a difficult balance. Campos and Hall decided together that her only direct source would be 15 minutes of footage—the only clip that exists online—of Christine doing her morning show.
“It also felt like asking people to relive what is for them a private trauma.,” Hall elaborated on her hesitations. But the dichotomy is introduced by the public nature of Christine’s suicide. “For better or worse, the act itself if a public tragedy. She forced it onto the public consciousness, and left us with all these questions, which,” Hall believes are “art’s responsibility to grapple with.”
Thus, in preparing for the role, Hall described a much more interior method. “A lot of it was instinct,” based on her “first impression” of Christine, from those short 15 minutes.
“I look at her and I feel someone who is deeply uncomfortable in her own skin. What does it feel like, for me, to be deeply uncomfortable in my own skin? What happens to my body if I imagine that I’m someone that can’t move two centimeters without feeling pain and self consciousness?” She continued, “the body language began to develop out of that.”
“Ideally, when an actor’s job is going well, you’ve done all that work and swallowed the character, and you just turn up and you be them.”
During these three months of preparation, she and Campos spoke constantly. They checked in daily on different aspects of Christine. Hall expressed how ready she felt after those months.
“Ideally, when an actor’s job is going well, you’ve done all that work and swallowed the character, and you just turn up and you be them. You don’t even really think about how you’re going to do the scene, you just are.” She said that’s really what happened with this film.
“Once the hair and the makeup and the clothes were all on, it was kind of awkward to be anything other than Christine.”
And Hall attributes her success with the character to her relationship with Campos.
“I’ve never said this in front of you,” she started, “what ended up happening, I found extraordinary, because I’ve never had such a symbiotic relationship with a director.” Returning to her earlier point of Campos’ uncanny ability for empathy, Hall said, “Antonio felt everything with me and I knew that, not because he was saying it, but I could just feel it.”
She continued, “I felt entirely supported and seen by him as a director. In the most brilliant and natural way.”
“It’s this thing that’s kind of inherent,” Campos responded. “It’s not something that I can train myself to do—I’m really sensitive, maybe too sensitive in the real world in general, but on set I think it’s a good thing.” He tried to describe the way he feels on set. “You’re just kind of reacting in a real present way.”
He agreed that their long prep time helped enormously. “I could just feel what she was going through and what she needed, and when I shouldn’t talk.” He added that some of these things he’s learned over time.
“When you start directing you're inclined to talk, you’re like ‘I'm gonna explain this and I’m gonna find so many different ways to say this and one of those ways will resonate and I’ll get that performance,’ but the reality is that if you just find the most concise simple way to say something, that’s the probably all you need to say.”
“Your job is to figure out what an actor needs from you, and to give them that.”
Essentially, he urged young directors to put faith in their actors’ own intelligence and sensitivities.
“As a director, I learned so much from actors,” Campos continues. “Your job is to figure out what an actor needs from you, and to give them that.”
Reflecting on the Christine production, he added that there were a lot of laughs. “I would encourage everybody to sort of go for broke with their performances and have fun and play with it.”
“The thing of fun is really important,” Hall added. From an actor’s perspective, she said that it’s crucial to have joy in your performance, especially when you’re doing something so serious and dark. “Yes it’s going to hurt you to be vulnerable and show pain,” she said, “but this is what we do, you’ve got to have a love of it still.” On the flip side, “there can be a sort of anger and self flagellation that goes with [dark roles] that doesn’t actually produce very good performances.”
“This is not a film that celebrates or glorifies the act of why she is famous, but it is one that allows us to entertain the idea that we can celebrate a life, regardless of it’s ending, and see it for what it was, good and bad.”
But Christine isn’t just a dark character. “Christine is a unique and eccentric individual who is full of life, actually.” Hall remembers from their time on set, “We all sort of fell in love with her. It’s so rare that you get a lady on film that is not a sex object, she isn’t sexually viable at all, she doesn’t get saved by a man, she is odd, she is completely herself, there is no other version of that, there’s something kind of extraordinary about that, and her weirdness, and yes she thinks that her weirdness is a sort of disaster, that it’s not accepted by anyone, but actually the film shows a community of people who are accepting her, and she just can’t see it and that’s the real tragedy.”
This is where Hall found the utter joy in portraying Christine. “Playing her in those moments, when her performance of being normal is terrible, when she falls short of the mark of everybody’s expectation of what it is to be a person. It’s kind of funny, and it should be funny, and we all knew that.”
Concluding the panel, Hall expressed what she finds to be the truest light in their film. “This is not a film that celebrates or glorifies the act of why she is famous, but it is one that allows us to entertain the idea that we can celebrate a life, regardless of it’s ending, and see it for what it was, good and bad.”