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Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
After eight months of successful (and sometimes contentious) premieres at film festivals around the globe—including Sundance, where it took home a prize for writing—Robert Greene's film “Kate Plays Christine” opens this weekend at the IFC Center in New York City. Greene is known for his genre-pushing nonfiction films like “Actress” and “Fake It So Real”; in his latest, actress Kate Lyn Sheil travels to Sarasota, Florida to prepare to play Christine Chubbuck, the newscaster who killed herself on-air in 1974. As Kate does research and transforms herself into Christine, however, the film raises questions about why and how we tell and watch stories like Chubbuck's.
Greene spoke with RogerEbert.com at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri last March for a long, winding conversation about his films, nonfiction, criticism, editing, and honesty. (Greene lives in Columbia, where he serves as the filmmaker-in-chief at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism.)
This transcript was edited for length and clarity.
You've written and talked a lot about the ways documentary filmmaking is changing. Does a documentary have to be “real”?
Some students that I've talked to really cling to the idea that if it's authentic and real, then it's a documentary. But what about reality TV? You know that's manipulated, but it's still based on reality. Just think of documentaries as a less horrible version of reality TV. That's a starting place. That's what documentary is.
When you sit down for a documentary, you're suspicious. The documentary's job is to convince you of its own authenticity, because somewhere in your head—whether it's because of reality TV, or whether you're a skeptical person, or whether you just don't trust the idea—you’re thinking, Well, it says it's real.
Some people think the opposite. Some people think [audiences] are naïve, that they sit down and think, This is real. I think there's some truth to that, too. But there's still a nugget of suspicion in the back of most viewers' minds. Let me use that as a starting place to go inside the mind of someone else in a way that it's hard to do, in any form of art.
I'm really making “Kate Plays Christine” for people who sit down and say, "I know this isn't real. But I want it to be real, because I'm being told it's a documentary. What does that mean?" I don't think everybody who watches the movie needs to have that active in their head. But that's my optimal viewer. You're just making movies you want to see, and that's how I view these things.
I did my MFA in creative nonfiction writing, and wound up mostly realizing that difference between fiction and nonfiction is that with fiction, you know the story isn't in your own space-time continuum; with nonfiction, you expect that it is in your space-time continuum.
I think when you sit down, you're like, Is this made up, or does it exist in the world that I live in? That's a beautiful delineation. I really reject people saying there is no difference [between fiction and nonfiction]. I think there absolutely is a difference—but I think it's an art-perspective difference, not an ownership-of-truth difference. To me, when you sit down at a documentary, you expect that what you're going to experience is what the filmmaker experienced and that was not in their control. That's the expectation. It's an out-of-control feeling.
For this movie, the concept is very much in control. Kate [Lyn Sheil] is actually very much in control. She's delivering a performance which hints at and uses her own out-of-controlness, but uses it in a controlled way. She's an incredible performer who was using her own doubts about the process, her own doubts about me, her own doubts about herself, her own feelings about Christine Chubbuck to create a version of a performance.
Yet the film itself flows in a way that was completely based on what we're experiencing, and that's why I cling to nonfiction for it. I would've never written that ending. That ending couldn't be written by me. That ending was partly written by Kate, and partly just happened. It's ironic that we got this writing award at Sundance because I did so little writing, on purpose; I don't like writing.
What was written, going into it?
Like almost any documentary, we write out what you imagine the film to be. You know that you're going to deviate wildly from that. In this case, it was a list of ideas. The dialogue of the recreations, the dramatization of [Chubbuck's] life, are all strictly taken from public record, so that was written in a sense, but it was also just adapted from what we knew. There's one or two times it goes off that track, but as much as we could we really stuck to it.
Take the scene with Kate as Christine and the actress playing Christine's mother, as they're sitting on the couches. That's not a matter of public record, right? Is that imagined?
That scene is based on a couple lines she said to her mother. We improvised from those lines, but what you see is frustration, because it wasn't enough. That was legitimate frustration. Kate was also playing up the frustration, which I didn't even know at the time. The construct was that we can only start from this tiny bit of information, and they got frustrated as actors would, and I recorded the frustration.
When you were in the moment, how much did you know whether what you were watching was “real”?
The concept was set up, so I would say, "We're going to do a scene where you're wearing a wig and you go through differences between you and Christine." So she does it. What's the artificial part of that? The artificial part of it is an interview—so it's not any more or less artificial than any other [interview in another] documentary. I had Kate put the wig on; that was an artificial thing. That's not something she would've chosen to do. In the middle of it, she lashes out and says, "I would be doing this this way if we weren't doing it for the cameras."
So, there you have three layers of artificiality. I wanted basically every scene to be collapsing those things constantly into each other. Not just to be like, "I don't know what's real or not," but because what Christine Chubbuck did was performative. This is difficult to try to articulate, but the relationship between her internal life, which we can't know, which was depressed and dealing—she was very ambitious, and she was dealing with a ton of things we can't know. So her final act can be understood through thinking of it as performance. How do you perform this thing for the world?
My idea was that there's a gulf between the real and the performed. We dive into this invisible dark hole that you can't know. That's what the movie is. Questions like, “Is it real? Is it not?” are meant to put you in a psychological space, questioning what you're seeing, questioning how someone might think about what you're seeing, questioning what Kate's thinking, or what Christine would've been thinking.
I'm attracted probably to the same things you are in postmodernism, which is the idea that truth is a movable thing. To me, that's very interesting in 1974 [when Christine Chubbuck died]. I want to take that instinct of questioning, and this postmodern idea, and make it cinematically meaningful.
That seems extra significant now, because people keep writing about how we're living in world full of cameras, and we perform for them. We take selfies, and all that.
And that's what we understand nonfiction to be now. If you were just making a observational documentary about something, I think if your audience is an audience of selfie-makers, there is potential for them to say, "This is all bullshit," or, "How am I supposed to connect to this?"
Documentaries are obviously in constant conversation with the culture that's creating the documentaries. We're in a time now where people are aware of that mechanism, of the performance aspect of their own lives. You can then take that as your starting place, as a sort of soup that they understand. Let's start from the place we all understand, and make something about something else.
You've been critical of HBO's "The Jinx." I ended up watching all of it after it had aired. My college students didn't seem bothered at all by the idea that the footage was manipulated. To them it was like, "Of course it is!" Other people lost their minds, like, "Did you know that sometimes documentarians mess with things?"
The nature of the form is there's a tension between manipulation and what really happened. That's the thing. That implies that there's always manipulation. Absolutely true. In the Maysles there's always been manipulation. Frederick Wiseman claims he doesn't get performances, which is absolutely ludicrous, but I don't think he understands what performance means. We're seeing people at welfare office perform their jobs, and that's welfare.
But what does the manipulation lead to? What is the fabrication about? For me, "The Jinx," and things like it, want to make addictive television. Addictive television is not anti-art, but it's not what I'm interested in. I'm not uninterested in watchability, and I'm not uninterested in tension on screen; these are things I crave and desire and want to do myself, to make something that someone can't take their eyes off of. I completely understand that instinct. But there's a cheapness that can happen when the manipulations aren't there to challenge, but to put all of it in a box so you understand it better, not to make you question everything you're seeing. Those are two different instincts.
Everything's manipulated, but to what end? What are you doing it for? If you're just manipulating because you don't give a fuck about the reality of the situation, or because you want to make something more dramatic, or whatever, that's problematic.
Memoir writers talk about this all the time, too, because you always have to conflate people, you have to alter details. And how do you do it? Can we talk about the morality of that?
It's bullshit. Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer is my favorite book for a reason: there is a ravenous, vulturous quality to interviewing anyone and turning them into a character for you. Documentary's highest nature is still exploitative. You could shade that in one direction or another and say, "Exploitative sounds cynical." I don't mean it cynically at all. I mean it like, let's just lay the cards on the table so that we can actually make interesting, meaningful, powerful films. That's just the truth.
But that doesn't imply the subject has no power. For my last two films, that's been a pleasure: working with an actor, because I'm no less an exploiter, but I'm working with someone who's aware.
Who's used to it.
Who's used to it, and who is able to take that power exchange and turn it into something productive. [In "Actress"], Brandy Burre was certainly able to do that. Kate is a master at doing that in this film. The film is ours. It's not mine. I made the concept; she's very polite about it and will say, "It was all Robert's idea." But there's no film without her, and without Sean Price Williams who shot the film, and Bennett Elliott who produced it. They believed in my concept. My whole job was fighting for the concept to stick, because I'm also the editor. I have another hat.
But working with an actor allows for an exploration of that concept, on a heightened level. I'm not exploiting a person in the same way.
Actors are used to having the camera trained on them.
Actors create. When people think about performance and acting, they often think falsity, or contrivance, or lying. What actors are really doing is projecting, creating a thing to look at. But they're not always in control. If they were always in control, that would suck. There's always a mix of documentary and fiction in every performance. Kate's performance is a marvel at this—she's able to make you think everything at once. You're thinking that's really her; you're thinking this is a complete performance; you're thinking she's got Christine Chubbuck; you're thinking she'll never understand Christine Chubbuck—all at once. That's not me. That's me knowing how to work with someone who's doing most of the work.
It's not dissimilar to what Janet Malcolm is doing in The Journalist and the Murderer.
I was thinking about Janet Malcolm the whole time.
She articulated an idea that everyone knows to be true: you're only as good as your interviewee. You could be brilliant, but you're only as good as that person's willing to come to you. All documentary's the same. When you add an actor to that scenario, it heightens that whole question.
Have you read Forty-Two False Starts?
Yeah. What a great title.
In the title essay, she just keeps trying to rewrite the beginning of this article about this artist. She can't get a handle on it, and what she discovers as she rewrites it over and over is that he's performing for her as much as she's performing as she writes his piece as a writer.
I want to make a movie with her.
Can I ask you about criticism? You write some criticism, and both "Kate Plays Christine" and "Actress" feel like critical essays, in a sense. Do you see those two things feeding into one another?
The lines between critic and filmmaker are really blurry. Especially when you're editing. My favorite thing to do is to come on a film when it's in a rough cut stage and take it to the finish line. It's criticism two steps earlier—that's how I think of it. In both editing and criticism, you're basically assessing the thing and prescribing your opinion about it.
But also, I care about the medium a lot. I care about nonfiction. I think it's incredibly vibrant. As an art form it's like there's the endless possibilities. There's obviously endless possibilities in fiction, and there's endless possibilities in all art forms, but nonfiction is the one that's most exciting to me.
It's still pretty untapped.
At the same time, the traditional cinematic nonfiction goes back to the Lumière brothers. It's untapped because documentary at some point in the 80's became seen as instructional manuals for an issue, or a replacement for classical ideas of journalism.
But you can pick out a masterful film made every single year since the dawn of movies that would be a great example of “blurring the lines” between fiction and nonfiction. All of the great literary filmmakers understand this.
Because it has a misunderstood, or under-understood history, there's so much to talk about—especially because there are so many great films adding to that tradition every year now, because it's easier to make a film, because we can afford cameras. That's the reason that's why I write about it. I don't write because I think I have authority; I write because I'm excited. I write because I started writing thinking I needed to explain what I was hoping to do with “Actress” to the world. The writing and “Actress” were absolutely one thing. You're right to pick up on that as a sort of critical essay film—they're both the same. For both “Actress” and “Kate Plays Christine,” I want to take the questions, the excitement, and put it on screen, rather than run away from it. Most documentaries are running away from the actual tensions of the form.
So what was a tipping point, where many more people started thinking about documentaries and nonfiction filmmaking in a different way?
“The Act of Killing” was the tipping point. I really believe that. “The Act of Killing” and “Leviathan” basically came out at the same time. Many more people saw “The Act of Killing,” but they're both tipping points about what documentaries are. ["The Act of Killing" director Joshua] Oppenheimer claimed so many different possibilities for what nonfiction can be. Can it change the world? Yes. Can it be political? Yes. Can it be a piece of journalism? Yes. Can it be a piece of art? He did all of it, and he did all of it masterfully, in “The Look of Silence” as well. “The Act of Killing” will be a moment that we look back to. Whether films were happening before or after doesn't matter because that one's the one that took a moment and did it.
Being in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance with a movie like “Kate Plays Christine” is a sign that I'm not nearly as radical as I think I am, and that's awesome. I don't want to be radical. I want everyone to talk about this stuff. I don't want to be avant garde. I want a large amount of people to watch movies, and be excited by the ideas, and get dragged into the story, just like they were dragged into some Scorsese movie in the 80s. It's not about doing it in a vacuum; I want to be loud. Maybe we're at the moment.
It also makes me think we've got to push further, because there's so much more to do, and there's so much more to explore.
I wonder, given the memoir boom in the 1990s, if that sort of personal viewpoint in filmmaking has some potential as well.
This is one of the things I say to my students. (Whenever you say the things you say to your students out loud to the world, it always sounds a bit ridiculous!) A good way to look at documentary film throughout history is one attempt and failure after another to capture reality and to tell the truth. One after another. It's not linear. The first “documentarian,” quote unquote, Robert Flaherty, of course was fictionalizing things. He was as radical a filmmaker as Oppenheimer is.
You can look at great films throughout history and say that was an attempt to get to some deeper understanding of reality. The difference with writing—on the page, there are many traditions you're working from from the page. There's strict news journalism, all the way to fantasy writing. They're always in conversation with each other because there's relatively more stability with words than there are with images. Words can be highly problematic, of course, but images are infinitely more problematic by their nature.
I think there are two kinds of creative writers—the kind who's like, "I'm going to explore myself, my soul," and the one that's like, "I'm going to think about my audience a lot." Does that spill over into filmmaking?
There's valuable work made in both modes. I just recently saw a couple of independent filmmakers whom I really like, basically saying, "There's no meaning in my work. What does meaning even mean?"
I was like, "Wow, I feel the exact opposite of that." I feel I want to be in conversation about what meaningfulness is. Maybe that's because I think like a documentary filmmaker, which means I think I can't control things. So if I can get to meaning, it's a fucking miracle. I'm not a good writer, I'm not a good director. I'm not like, "I can write a great piece of dialogue that can explain the world to someone." No, I can fabricate a situation, and then within that, I can see something, and observe it intimately, and know how to contextualize it, and edit it so that it's deeper, so that you get some meaning out of it.
I don't think the meaning's coming from me! It's coming from the thing that happened. That's a different locus of where the meaning is happening. What I mean by “meaning” is a deep care for the audience. The viewer has to be in conversation with the images.
Watching both “Kate Plays Christine” and “Actress" (pictured above), I was struck by how well, and how frequently, you layer some narration and voiceover over an image, and they're working together or even against each other in a really unexpected way. It feels like it draws out meaning that wasn't even in the minds of the speaker.
That's what I love about editing. In editing, you can find a voice, where in reality it's noise. We start the program at the Murray Center with editing, with me teaching editing. That is the first thing you should think about. It's not the last thing you should think about, because editing is where all the ethical questions come up.
Editing and nonfiction are completely combined. If it's not edited, it's a live feed, and that matters when you talk about nonfiction. The writing process in fiction is much more important, because with your writing you're really setting the stage for everything you're going to do down the road. In nonfiction, the editing is the writing. You have to let the footage tell you how to write for it.
There are multiple places in "Actress" where Brandy is talking about playing a “role,” and there's so many layers to what she's saying that it feels scripted.
Actors certainly say those things. The thing about Brandy was that all that “playing your role” stuff was suddenly radically present tense in her life. That sort of collapsed in who she is as a performer, as a person who—camera or no camera—is always performing. As I like to say, she's projecting to the rafters, whether you're intercepting that with a camera or not. It was a moment which we didn't expect going into it, had her very real situation was in conversation. I would never say something like her life has ended up the way she is because she's an actor, but we were just happen to be making a project that brought up all that stuff.
In “Actress,” it feels like you got lucky as a filmmaker with how events unfold in the film. In “Kate Plays Christine,” it feels like you're constantly unlucky throughout. I talked to someone yesterday who said, "I liked it, but then I was really frustrated that they just couldn't find anything they were looking for."
That's also by design. The premise of the film is that we're not going to be able to solve this riddle. Let's make a film about not being able to solve something. Those interviews, I was so excited when they were—well, I didn't have to edit them to be uninsightful. For example, the first thing the historian said is, "I don't know anything." I said, "Perfect." He's like, "What do you mean perfect? How can that be perfect?" If he really doesn't think there's anything here and he's the preeminent soul of the story, that's great—that says everything about why I was obsessed with the story from the start, which is that I don't know anything. I can't know anything. That is frustrating, and also says everything at the same time.
Then there's the anchor at the news station who's very serious about saying that Christine's actions were “all for nothing,” that she “accomplished nothing.” Kate's reaction is so great.
That's Kate's reaction whenever I say anything stupid, too.
You watch it and you're like, "Maybe he's right. He seems authoritative. He's the guy who's used to being on screen, too." Right?
That's a total performance in every way. He believes very much in what he's saying. It was a rough moment, because that is totally what you think: what he's basically saying, "Why are you making your stupid movie?" I could be offended by that, or I could be like, "Good point."
We're talking about these questions of manipulation, or whatever. It really is trust. If you trust the people making the film to be honest about their manipulations, then there's some chance for productivity there. The moment you break that trust, that feeling it's over.
It's such a wishy-washy word, but I really love that documentaries are not about truth—they're about honesty. Honesty implies I'm doing the best I can to tell you what I know, not I'm telling you the God's truth about this. I feel like, for example, someone who's super Christian and explains the world via her understanding of the Bible, is being honest. Do you see what I mean?
I'm vehemently pro-choice but, when I'm talking to an anti-choice person, I'm like, “I can understand your fire because you really believe that we're killing those babies; you really believe that we're taking that person's life.” That's what the filmmaker's job is, to speak from a position of I'm doing my best here to tell you the truth. It's limited, because it's subjective, but I'm going to try my hardest. For me, that means that in “Actress,” when she's walking over the bridge, no one's surprised to know that we shot that later. That is a staged moment.
The reason it's a staged moment is because that actually happened, exactly as we show it, but I was not going to film it the first time around because I was super creeped out. My choice was, do I not film it, and then it turns out it was important to Brandy so we decide to reconstruct it? Or, do I hide in the bushes and zoom in from the side, film super grainy, zoomed in close up of her making out with some guy? That's more truthful and it's much more of a lie, and it's much less productive, in every way.
No one watching “Actress,” 25 minutes in, is going to be like, "Wait a minute, is this real?" They're already in tune with what we're doing. That's your job as a filmmaker. I tell my students this all the time, you teach your viewers how to watch the movie.
Which happens right at the beginning of “Actress,” when Brandy interrupts and repeats herself, and it's obvious it's for the camera. That's the moment where you're like "Oh! I get this. Okay."
I know what I'm watching.
Yeah. I'm so glad that wasn't at the end of the film.
One self-critical aspect of your question about criticism and filmmaking: when you're writing criticism, when you're writing anything, you really want to sound smart about the thing that you're responding to. That's what my filmmaking is too. Maybe that's bullshit, maybe that's a dumb way to approach anything.
But I want to be like, "We're all smart here, I'm just going try to be smart too." And that's what you're doing when you're writing criticism. You're like, "Come on, I'm smart. Look at my turn of phrase to describe this moment that is indescribable in some ways." Right?
That's how I feel, as a filmmaker. I'm like using turns of phrase in my filmmaking, in a sense. But hopefully, it rises above that, because that would be terrible if that's where it stopped.
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