Christine/Antonio Campos

Described by her boss at Florida news station WXLT as “the smartest one here,” journalist Christine Chubbuck was nevertheless unable to fend off her encroaching mental illness. The agony of her struggle is portrayed in compassionate detail by director Antonio Campos, who eschews the sensationalism of her death in favor of the humanity of her vision. Click here for the trailer. Availability: Opens New York City, Film Forum, and nationwide October 14. Check local listings for theaters near you. Thanks to Caitlin Hughes, Brigade Marketing, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Let’s talk first about the work you did with Rebecca Hall—her performance was extraordinary.

AC: She was pretty amazing. We did a lot of talking, a lot of conversations, a lot of ‘What is it about?’  Talking about Christine, talking about ourselves, talking about our lives, talking about what the film meant. There was so much time from when Rebecca got involved to when we made the movie—over a year—that it wasn’t like we were rehearsing all the time; more of it was just having natural conversations. A lot of directing in my opinion is just talking things out and coming to an understanding about a person or character, and also getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other and trusting each other, because when you trust the people you work with, you tend to do better work: You’re not closed up, you’re not scared to say something, because there’s nothing you can say or do that’s wrong. You can always just get better. And so in that way working together was just a very organic process.

Because of the fact that we got to know each other so well, because of the fact that we had this inherent trust, by the time we got on set, she’d do a take and we would just look at each other; she’d look at me and I’d look at her and sometimes I wouldn’t even say anything, and she’d say, “OK, I got it. I know what to do.” And then she would do it, and the next take would be great. Or I’d come in and give an adjustment to what she was doing and then she’d give the performance with that adjustment and I’d say, “Throw it all away and do what you want to do.” Sort of a one-for-me-one-for-you kind of thing. It was very freeing.

Technically, Rebecca doesn’t have a method, but she’s very methodical and very thoughtful. She understands every scene and tries to find references for things  that the character is saying, filling in blanks like, Where does this idea come from? and things like that—the homework that a good actor does. The next thing to do after a lot of that work was the more technical stuff of the voice and the movement. Rebecca found a couple of examples of Midwestern Ohio accents, and we had a recording of Christine [Chubbuck], so we had a sense of what she sounded like and what her body language was like, but it was literally only thirteen minutes of her sitting in this very drab talk show that she did. So we had that to go off, and Rebecca was doing a lot of her own homework and practicing, and then eventually she’d start sending me recordings of what she was doing. At that point she was getting there on her own, and I’d chime in and give her a note.

But a director’s job is different for every actor. Sometimes a director’s job is to get in there and really steer every moment, sometimes it’s to instigate and get someone going—or reign somebody in—and sometimes the director’s job is to just not say anything and to know when the actor is going in the right direction on their own. At the end of the day I did a little bit of all of that with Rebecca, but the reality is that Rebecca is just a brilliant actor, and I think more than anything she needed and deserved the role that allowed her to shine and explore all the layers that she as an actor is capable of doing. So sometimes I just let her go. She’s a genius.

 

DT: One of the things that really got to me was the rhythm of your sequences. Each sequence led to a perfect ending. How did you do that? On set? In editing? What was your attitude toward creating a sequence?

AC: It’s a combination of different things. The script was very thought out, and then we continued to work on the script even on the days that we were shooting. When you make an independent film, and you’re working with a really tight budget but still have big cinematic ambitions, you have to be as specific as possible. Coming from an editor’s background as well, I think a lot about how a sequence should potentially play out. There’s working on the script and thinking a lot about every scene before you get there in order to have a very clear plan of action so that you’re not necessarily looking to try and correct things in the edit; it becomes more about how you can perfect things in the edit. The other thing is that my wife edited this film—every night and every day she was editing what we shot the day before, so we were very current and could see full cuts of scenes basically a day after we shot them.

DT: Was she on set?

AC: Not on set but on location, back in the edit room. She doesn’t like to come to the set. She’s doing more of the legwork…the amount of stuff a director has to process is overwhelming, especially when you have such a tight schedule, so when you have that kind of intimacy with the people you work with, and I don’t just mean the fact that we’re married—I’m very close with my writer, very close with my DP, very close with my producers—there’s a level of honesty and there’s a level of trust. Sofia, my wife, will say, “This thing didn’t work, try and get it like this,” or “See if you can just get a closeup of that.” There’s a lot of, How do we make this perfect? What is the missing piece? And because of the fact that we had access to the news station throughout—that was 60 percent of the movie—we could always go back and pick up a shot if we felt, ‘This sequence is missing this little detail—let’s go get it.’

Anybody who says that to make a movie you lay it out, you storyboard it, you go and shoot it—yeah, you can do that, but I think the reality is you prepare yourself for the unexpected. There are going to be things that you don’t foresee, but you prepare yourself so that you can come back and get those details eventually. You can prepare yourself for the fact that there are going to be things you don’t expect and then make the room to go back and get those things. So it’s a process—it’s all a process. Young filmmakers think there’s a streamlined way to get from A to Z, but there isn’t. You really have to think and try, and then if it doesn’t work, make sure you have the room to go back and try again. And if you budget carefully and schedule carefully, you can do those things. It just takes a lot of preparation.

 

DT: Let’s talk about colors. There were obvious colors in the film, like the yellow background for the TV station, Christine’s yellow car, her yellow lamp, but there was a more subtle use of colors, like in the pool room scene, where you had that green on Michael C. Hall’s face—it looked to me like the exact same green in the transformation scene in Vertigo. It felt like there was a hyperconscious use of color, but also a really subconscious use of color that was employed to build suspense and a sense of impending doom.

AC: We were embracing color. To counteract how sharp high-definition video is, people often go more desaturated and less contrasty, while we were looking for saturation and color and embracing color and using color cleverly to convey a state of mind. And not only color; patterns too. How busy or not busy a frame was conveyed a kind of mental state as well.

 

DT: Christine’s mother’s flowered couch was fabulous.

AC: Exactly. Christine’s sitting on that couch was very specific, versus the lack of patterns in her bedroom, where there are a lot of solids and warmer tones. So the use of color was completely conscious. You do your best to create a set of rules that you stick to—for instance, we were very conscious of not using red so that when the gunshot happens, red has a huge impact.

In the pool room, there was a kind of disorientation, a sense of corners falling into shadow. As you said, there is a Hitchcockian use of color there, but Hitchcock just kind of throws green or red across someone’s face, while we were trying to motivate it more. We were trying to end up in the same place, but we were trying to find where that color was coming from, and for us it was the pool table and the shade over the pool lamp.

You try to get your cinematographer, your production designer, and your costume designer all on the same page so that the story that each one is telling is in line. So much of what each of these people is doing is color related; what color clothes are we going to use in these spaces, what color is the production designer going to paint the wall, but contrast that with this piece of wardrobe to make them pop, and if there’s less light, how do we use the light that we do have to convey the mood that we want? All those things are being considered for every scene in the movie. In the pool room scene in particular we wanted it to feel kind of dizzying and disorienting. That scene was being driven by George’s state of mind, which was a bit buzzy and starting to get a little drunk and wobbly;  that was the mood we were going for.

 

DT:  I also loved the balance between that in-depth, compassionate portrait of Christine and putting her in the context of larger social issues, like what responsibility do we have to each other, or why do some people have coping mechanisms and others don’t? I especially loved the way that final scene played out. I imagine that was in the script, but you must have achieved that through directorial choices also so that it wasn’t just a film about social responsibility, and it wasn’t just a film about Christine.

AC: Again it goes back to the script and to the editing, because in the editing you’re continuing to write the script. You’re finishing the script in the editing, really. In terms of how complicated this film was to write, it was like balancing on a tightrope. We were dealing with a true story, so some people might know it, some people might not in terms of what happened in the end, but you don’t want to start the film off with the final act or acknowledging what happens in the end for those who don’t know it. And as a writer and a filmmaker, you don’t want to say this is a movie about how this woman commits suicide or someone who commits suicide, so you have to create a character that’s interesting enough and a scenario and a world that are interesting enough that that day-to-day pulls you through and drives the story. Then we introduce little obstacles, like her looking for news stories, those kinds of things that drive the movie. And because of the fact that you don’t know what she’s going to do in the end, the movie can’t tell you what it’s doing necessarily…it can only talk about the things that are happening in front of you, so it’s not about guns and what she does at the end until it becomes about that. Until then it’s just about a woman dealing with mental illness, and that’s the driving force. We grounded in that. I think that was the start of why it does work, why the layers of all the other things work in the movie, because it is grounded in one thing, and then that one thing allows us to touch on all these other things. But we never lose sight of the fact that it’s really about a woman dealing with her mental illness. She has a specific point of view about the things that were going on at the time, but that specific point of view also goes through a filter of mental illness, so there are all these pieces that we’re building on as the movie continues on. By the time we get to the end, we’ve explored so many different layers that when she commits the final act and she dies, you have a lot of stuff to process. That’s the reason I think it’s a film you should sit on. I’ve been at Q&As where they raise the lights a little too soon and then started the Q&A, and those Q&As never go as well as the ones where they just let the credits roll and people can sit there with it for a few extra minutes before the lights come up and the moderators say, “OK, now it’s time for you to ask questions.” I think there are so many layers in Christine that you need a little bit of time to process them.

 

DT: That’s fascinating. Last question—how much did you work with the composer, because I really felt that the music betrayed your affection for Christine.

AC: Did you say “betray”?

DT: The music was surprising. It betrayed your affection for Christine, like discovering a love letter that you had written to her and then put away in your desk drawer because you didn’t want anyone to see it.

AC: There is a romantic quality to the music. There are two things that the music’s trying to do. It’s injecting a certain kind of busyness; there’s almost this kind of clingy-clangy tick-tocking kind of thing going on in the music that serves the function of propelling things forward and capturing the mood of the world they exist in. On a local level, news has a certain kind of energy that we were trying to capture.

But a lot of it was this: There was a warmth I felt toward Christine that I didn’t want to deny. In some ways the movie is a love letter to Christine. The music is also the way we say, ‘Listen, we care about this character, we’re not being cynical, we’re not scoffing.’ The film has a kind of observational quality that’s offset a lot of times by the music to make sure you know where we’re coming from as filmmakers. The music is acknowledging the humanity of the story and saying, ‘Listen, we’re not going to be cold about it.’

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

Infinitely Polar Bear/Maya Forbes (director/writer) and Imogene Wolodarsky (actress)

Left to right: Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Zoe Saldana, Mark Ruffalo and Director Maya Forbes
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In this landmark performance, Mark Ruffalo plays a manic-depressive dad who’s forced by circumstances into caring for his two wild daughters on his own.  Basing the film on her own childhood, writer/director Maya Forbes turns lemons into lemonade:  sweet, tart, and refreshing. •Availability: Opens nationwide June 16.  Check local theaters for listings.  Thanks to Gary Springer, Gary Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

 

DT:  In many ways, the film is a lighthearted look at mental illness, but it’s also a personal movie about your own childhood. How do you transform what must have been a painful experience into a sweet one?

 

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

MF:  I’d been trying to write the script for a long time, working to make it palatable, like a Hollywood movie. I’ve written a lot of Hollywood films, but it just wasn’t working. I thought, Maybe the parents should get divorced, because that’ll be believable—everyone knows what divorce is—but how am I going to explain the mother going off and leaving the kids with this bipolar dad? Then I realized, I’m just going to tell it like it happened. I don’t have to get into justifications; I’m just going to reflect what happened.  And that was very liberating. From that point, I also thought, I’m not going to make the dad likable, I’m just going to make him like he was, which wasn’t always likable but was in some ways lovable.  My father was so human in his vulnerabilities, in his highs, his lows, and he was also very funny. But the core of it was that he loved his children, so I just stuck to the truth of that.

My father would have said that taking care of us was his greatest achievement. It wasn’t until many years later, until I was almost making the movie and I had seen more people with bipolar illness, that I realized, from an adult perspective, that it was a huge achievement for him. He held himself together as best he could to take care of us, and he just doted on us.  So the way in to the movie was: The dad dotes on the kids and the kids are mean to the dad.  It came when I realized I had empathy for him having to take care of us, I had empathy of course for the girls being stuck in this situation they didn’t want to be in, and I had empathy for the mother, who really wanted to figure out a way to get her daughters more opportunities to break out of what she saw as a downward cycle. So I think the way in to autobiography is empathy.

 

DT:  I’d like you both to talk about working with Mark Ruffalo. His performance was incredible, and also he’s known for loving to work with kids.

 

MF:  Mark was attached early on, right after The Kids Are All Right. He wasn’t scared of my being a first-time director. The script spoke to him, and he felt that I had a handle and a very strong point of view on the material. I felt this was a wonderful way to approach trying to make a movie: it’s my first movie, this guy’s a brilliant actor, he’s going to be doing things he hasn’t done before, playing a character from this kind of world. I couldn’t imagine a greater person for making this movie, which was so important to me. He obviously understood the painful elements from a very real place, and I knew he’d play them authentically. He was funny, which he doesn’t always get to do. I could also tell he’s a good dad, and I knew he could relate to that aspect of the script.  He loves his children, and that came through.

I got financing and I lost financing multiple times. Mark was attached the whole time, so over the three years it took before we actually started shooting, I sent him videos of my father. We talked a lot about how the character held himself, how he moved, the way he expressed himself, so there was all this stuff percolating with Mark, which I think was really helpful. Then, when we got to shooting, I told him, I want you to let go of all of that. Mark was born into this role; it feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like he’s putting on airs. And that’s who my father was, so I said to Mark, Get rid of any kind of affect and just be yourself with these little touches. Unless you’re doing a very broad comedy, that’s the way to go, because you want the actor to feel very natural.

But as much as I was the leader of this thing, he was a teacher to me too, and that was a very comfortable place for him.  He’s very respectful of the director, but I was very open to his input because he knows so much about the craft.

 

Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart
Photo by Claire Folger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

IW:  If you spend any time with Mark, you already know he’s a great father, and a really great person. He’s so willing to pass on his talent and help you when you’re struggling.  He was never, ever condescending.  He was always warm, and working with Mark and Zoe was like taking an acting class. I didn’t have any experience acting, so going into this with them made it so much easier. For instance, I was having a lot of trouble in the scene where he’s really angry and he’s trying to leave the house after we’re being brats and singing and dancing and not listening to him. He said, “Get in my way. Just stand right in front of me and don’t let me leave.”  It’s so simple, and it just clicked, and I understood how to do it.

 

MF:  I want to add that working with Mark was amazing for me because he was very open to the fact that I was a first-time director. There was something very fun about the fact that I didn’t know the rules. Part of me said, I’m going to make up my own rules.  I feel like some of the best filmmakers say, What rules?  There are no rules.  Just do it your way.

 

DT:  That’s what makes them the best.

 

MF:  Not knowing anything was exhilarating.  I was very open about asking anybody about anything I didn’t understand.  I didn’t pretend to understand things I didn’t.  I felt very confident in that I had a vision.  I knew how I wanted it to look, and I knew how I wanted it to feel.  Maybe I didn’t know how I would technically make it look the way I wanted it to look—

 

DT:  In terms of camera angles, lenses…

 

MF:  My DP, Bobby Bukowski, who’s done a million films, is also a good teacher.  I think he likes working with first-time directors for the same reason as Mark—there’s this freedom to it.  You don’t know how things are supposed to be. When Bobby and I were shot-listing, I would always started with How is this scene supposed to feel?  And then we got into what the camera was going to do. It was always from a very emotional place, and that’s how I thought of the movie, because I wanted the movie to have an emotional, visceral feeling, like a vivid memory.  I wondered, Can we achieve that?  But I was undaunted by the fact that I didn’t know the terminology because Bobby was going to teach me. I knew I could tell him what I wanted it to feel like like and what I wanted to see and the kind of movement that I wanted, and he’d figure out how to do it.

 

DT:  You talked about working with Mark, but how long did you rehearse together as a cast, and what kind of preparation did you do?

 

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Imogene Wolodarsky as Amelia Stuart, Mark Ruffalo as Cam Stuart, Zoe Saldana as Maggie Stuart and Ashley Aufderheide as Faith Stuart
Photo by Seacia Pavao, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

 

MF:  I did a lot of preparation with Zoe.  She met my mother, and we went through all sorts of old clothes and pictures.  She wanted as much as she could get.  She read letters that my parents had written to each other.  Both Mark and Zoe wanted access to as much actual real-life photos and images and interactions as they could get.  Mark saw videos of my dad, Zoe spent some time with my mother. In the film she does a whole thing with her voice as well; she changes the way she speaks in the movie to sound more like my mother. Both Mark and Zoe were attached to the film for a few years, so we got to do a lot of this work in little bits and pieces along the way. That was nice,  because I think it went into the recesses of their mind and grew, and developed.

 

IW:  I feel like we’ve been preparing for me to play this role since I was young, because my mother would always tell me and my sisters stories at night about my grandfather and about her childhood. Then a lot of the preparation we did was mainly on set.  We’d go through a scene once, I’d talk about what was happening, and the context, and at night I’d rehearse my lines at home with my father.

 

MF: My husband was very helpful in terms of getting her prepared, then we had two days rehearsal in preproduction, with everyone there. We delved into a couple of difficult scenes, then we said, Let’s stop; we don’t want to beat this scene up.

It was great in terms of establishing a family dynamic with the four of them. Mark and Zoe were wonderful with the kids. It was fun and playful and it felt like a family, so that was when I felt, This is going to work, because they really have a very natural feeling together.

 

DT: On this film you were director, writer, daughter.  Were there times when the director in you said, “OK, I have to do such and such,” but the writer in you said, “Hey I didn’t write that!” or the daughter in you said, “But it wasn’t like that”?

 

MF:  We wanted to have an improvisational feel, but it was very written, and everyone pretty much stuck to the script, except for some funny lines here and there. Occasionally I would bear down pretty hard on a line or two that someone wasn’t getting, and say “It has to be delivered like this.”

 

DT:  What surprised you about directing?

 

MF:  What surprised me was that I liked it so much.  When I was little, it was what I wanted to do—be a writer and a director, and then I got scared as I got older. My mother always said, By the time little girls are thirteen or fourteen, the world has beaten their dreams. When girls are eight, nine, they’re so free, and they think they can do anything, then bit by bit they go along and they’re told, You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.  She was upset by that, so she was saying, Look out for that with your girls.

That’s what happened to me. I’m a pretty confident person, but I went off to schools where boys were the leaders and I got scared to take risks. I was scared to direct. I’ve been a writer all these years, which is kind of antisocial, so what surprised me is how much I enjoyed the collaborative experience. I loved being in charge, because I thought I was good at it. I tried to get people inspired and bring out their best. It was a great project because everyone was there for the love of the project, and that’s a terrific place to start—Mark, Zoe, and all the way down.

I loved the decision making.  I loved deciding what pictures were going to be on the wall and getting into the world of costuming and what you can say about the characters through the costumes.  I loved it all.  I loved working with the actors.  So that was the biggest surprise for me, after all those years of protecting myself as a writer in my little writer bubble and thinking it would be a horrible headache to have to deal with so many people.  And it is a headache, and there’s tons of frustration, but it was completely exhilarating because I worked with so many talented people.

 

DT:  Is this going to change the way you write?

 

MF:  It already has. Now I think, Would I want to shoot this?  Is this a dead scene?  Even if I’m writing a script for a studio, I just want lots of juice out of each scene.  I want to get to the meat of what it’s about.  I don’t want all the extra stuff. I want energy.  You don’t want the stuff that’s not getting you anywhere; you just want the stuff that’s keeping you moving forward.  That’s the big thing.  As a writer you dwell on building stuff up, but as a director you want to get to the story.

 

DT:  What are the differences between writing for TV and writing for film?

 

MF:  Writing for TV you can let things play out for much longer now, especially with these limited series. In some ways writing a film is harder in that you’re trying to condense and tell a story. I like shorter movies, so I’m always looking to try to tell it more concisely. It’s really hard to get down to the essentials in movies, and I feel like in TV you can linger more and just exist in a world of character dynamics that aren’t necessarily leading you forward with your story.

 

DT:  Why is it hard to get to the essentials in film?

 

MF:  To launch a story, and let you know who the character is, and do all the things you need to do to keep the story going without having it get bloated and long—it’s hard to get things to be concise and elegant.

 

DT:  One of the things I found very interesting was the fact that your mother was black and couldn’t get a job in Boston. Could you talk about that historical reality?

 

MF:  When my mother went to New York to get an MBA, her plan was to come back and get a job in Boston, but what she found when she came back was that Boston was really much more provincial than New York.  Much more closed. This was 1980. They were looking for Harvard MBAs right out of business school, and she was a thirty-eight-year-old black woman.  In that world, there weren’t even a lot of women in the financial world, and she had her kids on top of everything else, so she couldn’t get a job.  She felt New York was more cosmopolitan, more open, more free, and she ended up getting a job at EF Hutton.

She told me a funny story. She was working at another financial firm, and one of the partners quit the firm, leaving behind all his accounts. When the supervisor handed them out, he did it in the men’s room! It was like the golf course all over again…it’s just the casual way these things perpetuate.

 

DT:  Typical. What was the hardest part about making this film?

 

MF:  What made this film complicated was the tone, which is really something you have to find and create in the editing. We didn’t want to go too funny, or too heavy, so that was a very interesting, important part of the process. I don’t want to make light of mental illness, because I think it’s a serious thing, but I also loved my father, and he had lots to offer me, so I wanted to make a movie that was happy and sad and struck the right balance…sort of a celebration of misery.

 

DT:  How much did you participate in the editing process?

 

MF:  Completely.  I didn’t physically participate, but I was in the editing room the whole time.

 

DT: So you were essentially directing the editing.

 

MF:  My husband was there too.  It was a really delicate thing to achieve the right tone.

 

DT:  How different did the final film end up from the script?

 

MF:  The manic episode at the beginning of the movie was longer, and it was very dramatic, and it was too much. That was the biggest piece that came out, because it just felt like we needed to know he was having a breakdown and ended up in the hospital, but we didn’t need this breakdown to go on and on. It’s very hard to start off with your main character in an unlikable place. You don’t have to instantly love somebody, but you don’t have to feel like something horrible is going to happen, either.

 

DT: What’s your next project?

 

MF:  My husband and I just finished a script for Jack Black. It’s a comedy, but tonally it’s sort of Coen brothers. It’s a real-life story, about a guy who came from Poland. He became a polka singer sensation in Pennsylvania and ended up running a Ponzi scheme and defrauding all his elderly fans. Sort of by accident; he didn’t want to.  He dug himself into a hole. It’s like a Bernie Madoff story if Bernie Madoff was a lovable, warm guy, which Bernie Madoff obviously was not.

 

DT:  How did you find the story?

 

MF: There was a documentary about it called The Man Who Would Be Polka King, and someone sent it to us. This character was just a guy who wants the American dream so badly.  He comes from Poland to live the dream, and he just goes down a really bad path. But there’s also a great element of fun singing and dancing, and there’s this very funny subculture of the polka world in Pennsylvania.

 

DT:  “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.”

 

MF: I love that song!  It just seems like that’s the role Jack Black was born to play.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015