In 'Christine,' South Jersey screenwriter tackles TV news tragedy

Craig Shilowich was on his computer one day in 2010, working on a film project, when he got sidetracked by a click-bait listicle thing, something like the 10 Craziest Things That Ever Happened on Live TV.

On the list: the story of Christine Chubbuck, a TV news reporter in Sarasota, Fla., who, on July 15, 1974, sat at the WXLT anchor desk, faced the camera, and announced, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first - attempted suicide." Then she pulled out a gun and shot herself.

Christine, which Shilowich wrote and produced and which stars a fiercely committed and at times disarmingly funny Rebecca Hall in the title role, plays Wednesday at the Philadelphia Film Festival and opens Friday at the Ritz Bourse and Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

It is a remarkably powerful, sad, startling film, and thanks to Shilowich and director Antonio Campos, it is a film that isn't merely, morbidly, defined by its protagonist's final act.

Costarring Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and Maria Dizzia, Christine offers a portrait of a smart, ambitious woman trying to deal with the challenges of being a smart, ambitious woman in 1970s America. The film gets Hitchcocky and haunting at times, and gets a little Mary Tyler Moore Show-ish, too.

Here's this cash-strapped, minor-market TV news operation, with its goofy weather guy, the cute sports girl, the gung-ho anchor. There are battles - sometimes confrontational, sometimes comic - with management. There's the mounting clamor for stories that'll grab bigger ratings.

"You think you're going to watch this super despairing death-march-type movie, and it doesn't deliver on that, necessarily," said Shilowich, who was on hand for Christine's world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Because it is based on a true story, for whatever reason, audiences bring certain expectations. And that's been interesting, to see how much ownership people feel they have over this story."

(Coincidentally, a second film about Chubbuck, Kate Plays Christine, a metadocumentary about actress Kate Lyn Sheil's research into and portrayal of Chubbuck, was also on the program at Sundance.)

'There's a lot of me in there'

Shilowich, who grew up in Voorhees, the son of an HR executive and an insurance inspector, felt his own kind of ownership of the Chubbuck story. Toward the end of high school - Eastern High, Class of 2000 - he started experiencing bouts of depression. Intense, debilitating.

"It came out of nowhere, really. I was very stable, grounded, I had lots of friends," he said. "But I started feeling unsteady, and it got worse and worse and worse, and the nature of an illness like that, it has an effective quality where you just start micro-analyzing your feelings. You're trying to figure out how did this start? What did I do wrong? Was it this thing? Was it that thing?

"It's an inherent quality of depression that you're focusing on all the negative things in your life. So when I came across Christine's story, so many things clicked. . . . In a way, the process of telling Christine's story was a personal exercise - there's a lot of me in there. And I really wanted to do justice by her."

Pennsylvania Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer's on-air suicide during a 1987 Harrisburg news conference also had an impact. "Watching that Budd Dwyer video was sort of a rite of passage for young men when I was in high school," Shilowich said. "I remember watching . . . and just feeling sick, frightened, and confused for like a week. I just remember thinking, 'Why did he do this? What did this prove? What does watching this prove about me?'

"I should note, I never put an ounce of effort into trying to 'track down' the footage of Christine's suicide. Nor did Antonio. It was the least of our concerns or priorities, and remains such."

The acting life? Not for him

Shilowich lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the film editor - and Narberth native - Jennifer Lame. When he was a kid growing up in South Jersey, he was an actor. He was in a production of A Month in the Country at the University of the Arts. He was in a bike-a-thon commercial with Ukee Washington. He did regional theater. And he continued to act when he moved to New York, where he studied screenwriting and film at NYU.

"I was in people's short films in school, and then after school, I thought, 'Oh, I should give this another shot. But I just hated the [acting] lifestyle so much. I just couldn't do it. And, also, wasn't very good, if I'm being honest with myself. I wasn't bad, but I don't think I ever could have been like a big-deal actor."

Of course, Christine cast member Letts, who plays the gruff, demanding newsroom manager and who has a busy career as a character actor on stage and screen, is also the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County. Shilowich says that, despite his own shortcomings in the acting field, he sees Letts as a role model.

"Tracy has these dual careers, and he has no trouble reconciling the two paths he's taken. I want to continue to have a dual career, as a producer and a writer . . . and when I'm confronted by people who say, 'A producer and a writer - that's an odd combination!', I'm comforted by the fact that Tracy Letts found a way to do a version of that."

Shilowich, whose first credit was as a producer on 2008's Oscar-nominated indie Frozen River, has a number of projects on his docket. He's shepherding along several small independent films by other writers and directors. And he's working on a new screenplay, a thriller set in, yes, Philadelphia.

"I'm finishing a draft as we speak," he said. "It's about guys who work in scrap recycling, about a guy who has this thing that everybody wants - and the thing is worth money and people are killing each other trying to get it. . . . There's a black-comedy element to it. It's about Philly and what a kind of savage place it can be. It takes place over the Christmas holidays, and it culminates with the Mummers Day parade."

"I've never seen Philly done to my satisfaction in movies," he said. "There have been movies that have come close, but I wanted to do a movie that gets at the sort of brash, confrontational, funny nature of the people. . . . So mostly it's just an excuse to write some really over-the-top Philadelphia characters."

Note: Shilowich is scheduled to appear Friday for Q&As at both the Ritz Bourse and Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Check with the theaters for details. Ritz Bourse: landmarktheatres.com/philadelphia. Bryn Mawr Film Institute: brynmawrfilm.org.

steven.rea@yahoo.com@Steven_Rea