When Brady Corbet took his debut film The Childhood of a Leader to the Venice Film Festival in 2015, it was immediately embraced. Winning two prizes—the Luigi de Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film, and the Venice Horizons Award—its reception at this prestigious festival seemed to herald the emergence of a startling and exciting new voice. An artist with grand ambitions, an experimental spirit and plenty of ideas, the writer/director managed to assemble an impressive cast in his first outing, including Robert Pattinson, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, and Stacy Martin, which would seem to further validate the notion that he had something important to say. And yet in Corbet’s mind, all this affirmation wasn’t enough. It wasn’t an easily met portal into a new cinematic world, culminating in the possibilities he hoped for most. To break through to a place of some ease, where he could boldly explore the form with the financial backing to be free, he marched on with his second film, Vox Lux.
Positioning Natalie Portman as a Dark Horse in the Oscar race, as a contender for Best Supporting Actress, the drama embodies Corbet’s ideals, as a demanding piece of work not easily contained within a log line. A rumination on the complexities of our times, the film follows Celeste, an ordinary teenager who survives a school shooting in 1999, and goes on to become a pop star, achieving the status of an icon. Anxiously contemplative, Corbet feels as though Vox Lux wasn’t a second film at all, but rather a second first film, built from the ground up. “The reason that I feel that way is that I made one of them in Europe, and I made one of them in America, and [those] are completely different systems,” he explains. “Essentially, having made my first film did not make making my second film any easier at all.”
Speaking with Deadline last month about his audacious undertaking, Corbet was a bit exhausted. “The last six years of my life have taken a lot out of me, physically and mentally,” he says, and this is so precisely because of the films he feels he needs to make, films that he believes “literally nobody wants.” “Nobody asks for them, and it’s very arduous, because every single person that you encounter has to be convinced. You don’t meet any allies in the process of making a movie like this, the exception being my crew, Killer Films, who produced the movie,” the director shares. “Christine Vachon was born a punk, so she certainly doesn’t give a f*ck, and I love that about her. But for most people, it’s just easier to make a more conventional kind of movie.”
In large part, Vox Lux is Corbet’s response to an “Orwellian” world, reflecting his misgivings about the content we consume, the forces behind it, and the standards we set for ourselves. While the film could be considered intellectual or subversive, to its creator, it is something else entirely. “For me, the film is extremely straightforward,” he says. “It’s a populist movie, in my opinion.” Certainly, some of his stylistic choices were more in line with the avant-garde. Playing with structure so as to omit a second act, Corbet found himself at odds with some of his own backers. “If you start coloring outside of the lines, even a little bit, everyone comes down on it. They basically tell you, ‘It’s not allowed; you’re not allowed to do that,’ which is totally ridiculous,” he says. “Part of the issue is that, as a viewer, I can say that I am frequently bored when I watch movies, and I want movies to surprise me. If I want something that is cozy and predictable, put on the Food Network.”
In so many ways, in his art, Corbet has gone against the grain, in the name of manifesting the kinds of films he wants to see in the world, which can be digestible and complex at the same time. “I think that the ambitions of so many projects, they’re very low, and the reason that they’re low is because nobody is asking for anyone to do anything new,” he reflects. “For me personally, in order to want to make a movie, I have to see something inside of the project that will allow me to advance the medium a little bit, even if it’s just 1%.”
From his first short film on, Corbet fully committed himself to his calling as a director, making necessary sacrifices to achieve a higher end. First coming to the industry’s attention as an actor, he appeared in 38 projects between 2000 and 2014. In this time, he worked with many of the industry’s most reputable directors, including Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Michael Haneke (Funny Games), Lars von Trier (Melancholia), Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure), Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), Lisa Cholodenko (Olive Kitteridge), Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young) and more. From each of them, he learned the same lesson, which came in handy when he decided to put that craft aside. Compromising one’s vision can be the same as killing it, and maintaining it through each trial is not an easy feat.
As difficult as this fight is though, and however many years of blood, sweat and grit it entails, the results may inspire, as he had been inspired. They may lead the way to new ideas, and new possibilities. “We have to experiment a little bit, and you have to dare to suck. Because what’s the worst that could happen? You do something and nobody likes it. Who cares?” the director says. “It’s not personal, it’s an object, and they’re allowed to like it or not like it.” Lining up his next project, The Brutalist, this past fall, Corbet optimistically awaits his judgment.
You dedicated Vox Lux to Jonathan Demme, who passed away in 2017. What’s the story there?
Jonathan was on the jury that awarded my last film in Venice a very important prize. Really, because it was a cash prize, it afforded me the time to be able to write the screenplay for Vox. Because Childhood really left us penniless. Part of it is just a personal dedication because I got to know Jonathan at the end of his life, and he was hugely supportive of my film. We’d never met before that, and he was just very kind to me at a time where I really needed someone to be kind to me. Then, when I was finishing the film, I just had the thought, maybe the first time I watched the entire cut from beginning to end, that he really would have liked it. I hope he would have liked it, but I also think he would have liked it. It’s the kind of film that I think couldn’t exist without the kinds of films that he made, that were genre-defying, music-obsessed, and very free, stylistically.
What was on your mind as you set out to write this film? What were you hoping to explore?
My previous film was a historical movie, set in Europe at the early part of the 20th century, and I was keen to come back home to America and make a film about the country that I live in, and the moment in time that I have lived in. So, it was partially written just in reaction to the previous film, and wanting to do the opposite of what I had just done. Around the time that I was writing the script, this format for Apple News Updates had come into being, and I noticed that you would have these headlines from The Washington Post, from People Magazine, et cetera, where one headline is about a mass shooting, and another is about an episode of The Kardashians.
Interestingly, Jason Reitman made the same observation this year. It was this notion that he sat with, as he set out to make The Front Runner.
It’s not that the world is a more dangerous place than it’s ever been, but simply the way that we receive information has created an atmosphere which is anxiety-inducing. I feel like it’s a period where people’s nerves are on as high alert, as they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a really unique time in America, where everybody is a little bit on edge all the time, and so the film is basically about a lot of the trends that I think have so far defined the early 21st century. I felt like putting these things that really don’t belong together inside of the construct of a two-hour movie would really highlight or exemplify how absurd this moment of time is that we’re living in.
There’s an amazing line that I’ve never forgotten from Todd Solondz’s movie many years ago, Storytelling, where a character says to another character, “You know, it doesn’t matter what happened. Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction.” So, there is this funny and very dangerous thing. When you’re dealing with something topical, something [where] every single person in the audience has a very specific point of reference, everyone in the audience is an expert on popular culture. Even if they have different impressions of it, everyone feels that they’re an expert. So, it’s very complicated, because no matter what you do, you are absolutely bound to alienate some viewers from their experience of modern times. It’s a dangerous thing, and it’s one of the reasons I tried to approach the movie as something which is representing the times, as opposed to presenting them. It’s a slightly heightened vision of America, and I wanted the characters to be a bit like aliens, something that could highlight or extract how sci-fi this moment in time is.
With your many experiences of show business, why turn to pop stardom specifically with Vox Lux? Why not draw from your own knowledge of the spotlight, and those in its accompanying shadows?
If I’d made the movie about a reality TV star, I just wouldn’t find it aesthetically interesting. It’s just too trashy. I also loved the idea that there’s these ballads on the airwaves that are kind of these mantras that everybody knows and repeats, and are a huge part of our lives. And many, many, many of them are just completely manufactured. It’s like prefab suburban housing, a “one size fits all” sort of thing. It takes a lot of extremely talented people to make a pop song, but of course, it’s a corporate endeavor. The rub of that is kind of interesting because it’s a promise, a manufactured emotion.
There are absolutely exceptions, and actually, I think one of the great exceptions is Sia, who wrote all the songs for this film. Part of the reason that I wanted to partner with a really good pop star, and pop writer, was because I thought that it would make the experience infinitely more complex. We would never know exactly how to feel about it at the end of the movie. It would leave us feeling a little bit uncertain, as opposed to it being only one thing, all good or all bad. Of course, it’s neither. But we should, as listeners of course, be cognizant of the fact that a group of executives has tailored that thing that we have a very personal connection to, for the masses. There’s something about that which the punk in me is very skeptical of.
So, I felt that I wouldn’t want to make a movie about the movie industry, but it was sort of a way for me to talk about show business without talking specifically about my experience, which I basically just find to be an unworthy story to tell.
Vox Lux demonstrates an interest in playing with cinematic form, using voiceover, unorthodox structure, manufactured home video footage and other narrative elements for your own devices.
In so much of the film, there’s something about the democratization of image making, and how complicated that is. Images used to be more special because there were fewer of them, and they were harder to make—and now, they’re very easy to make. The thing is that I decided to deal with the digital revolution, as it pertains to music, but also to talk about things that I experienced.
One thing that’s very difficult for me as a filmmaker is that every time I make a movie, I have to have a belabored, tumultuous argument that usually lasts for many months about the format that I like to shoot on. That’s very frustrating because there are many, many movies that are shot on digital cameras that I love, and I love how they look. But the idea of taking a tool out of the box, and a more reliable tool—a tool which is not like an iPhone 4 that you throw out a year later because it’s already inferior to the new, new thing…4K, 6K, 8K, 10K, 12K, it will never, ever match the grandeur of celluloid.
There’s a moment in the film during the concert where we intercut between a high definition television camera, which is what they shoot most concerts on—also, the Super Bowl is shot on these cameras—and images that are shot on celluloid, and images that are shot on an ultra high def video camera, and it’s very brutal. When you see them side-by-side, you go, “Oh my god, that’s so ugly. I can see everyone’s pores. It’s vivid, and there’s no grace.” It’s clinical, you know?
Making this film required you to stage two mass shootings. Obviously, these moments are fabricated, but it must have been strange to sit with them, as if you were a documentarian taking this grisly violence in.
This was a very strange movie to make, in a day-to-day sort of way, just because of the nature of the screenplay. Not even just in terms of the violent content versus the flashier content, but simply [because] the film is a mosaic-style narrative, where you have many different parts and styles, and things that generally don’t go together that are arranged together. Every day was like making a new film, but I found that pretty exhilarating. It was a very, very hard movie to get off the ground, but when we were there, everybody was very supportive. The cast really wanted to make a great film, and when you have that kind of support, you can kind of do anything. If the production had been as much of an uphill battle as the preparation of this film had been, I think it would have just fallen apart.
Spending so much of your artistic life as an actor, you’ve witnessed artists making the kinds of films you enjoy—films that take risks, and must have been challenging to mount, financially or otherwise. Seeing this process firsthand from that vantage point, what did you learn?
The biggest thing that I learned from working with many of my heroes was that it is a long and arduous process, and you don’t always have to have the right answer. I think that I was so fortunate to work with all of these people that I consider to be truly brilliant. But of course, when you work with anyone day-to-day, you experience the human side of someone you admire, and you see that of course, they have the same problems that you would have in their position, and it’s okay to arrive sometimes and try to find it. I think that I never felt, when I stepped into the role of being the boss of a production, that I had to play a part. I just felt like I needed to make a movie, and that was my only obligation. I don’t need to be impressive; I don’t need to be tyrannical. I can be very kind, while also being very stubborn. It’s possible to be both of those things, and it’s important to be stubborn. Unfortunately, you’re met with such antagonism that you must be stubborn. Because otherwise, you’ll end up acquiescing to everybody that walks in the door, which would make the project turn into nothing.
As you went about making your first two films, acting naturally fell by the wayside. Do you intend to act again in the future? Would you ever act in a film that you direct?
I’ve never been interested in acting in something that I make, mostly because I would have a really hard time being discerning enough about my own performance, editorially. I know some people are able to do it—somebody who I think does it very, very well, and gives great performances in films that he directs, is Joel Edgerton. But he’s definitely an exception to the rule. There’s not that many. Most of the time, when I see films starring the people they’re directed by, the performances can be a little bit paint-by-numbers, simply because of the fact that it’s really hard to show up, knowing your lines and the material inside and out, and then also be thinking about how it sounds, and how it looks, and how everybody else is working inside of the universe. I need the objectivity of being outside of it to do my job properly. I might perform for somebody else, but I just don’t know. Making these movies, they take up all of my time, and even just my emotional real estate.
As a director, where do you go from here? What can we expect from The Brutalist?
The Brutalist is a film that I hope will be easier to come together than my last two films were, but that said, it’s a very ambitious project. It spans many years, it takes place in several countries, and it’s a good story. Unfortunately, I think that when you get finished doing something, and it goes over well, or pretty well, everybody will allow you to make something, which is exactly the same size as the thing that you just made. But of course, you want to make something richer and deeper; you want to push yourself. I would have loved to have more time to tell the story of Vox; I would have really enjoyed being able to make a two-and-a-half-hour movie. But frankly, we couldn’t afford to shoot a two-and-a-half-hour movie. The film was shot in 22 days, so I just couldn’t do it.
I think that on the next one, the structure of it is not particularly experimental. It’s very classical. I think maybe some of the content will surprise people, but the structure of it is actually very old-fashioned. Part of that is because I have experimented a lot with fragmentary narratives, and I really enjoy it, but sometimes it’s very enjoyable to go back to basics. Hopefully, my schedule will allow me time to make something where I can actually have three acts.
Where exactly are you at with your next film?
It’s very early. My wife and I are still writing it; we’ve been writing it as we’ve been promoting the film, and traveling all over the world, so I think we’re kicking along. It’s in a pretty good place. We really like it, and we think that other people will, too. But we’ll see.