Interview: Brady Corbet
It was only a few years ago that Brady Corbet had become a “That Guy” phenomenon of art film, appearing in one auteur-driven movie after another from Melancholia to Martha Marcy May Marlene to Force Majeure to Saint Laurent. Then The Childhood of a Leader barreled onto the screen in Venice in 2015 with the bewildering and indefatigable story of a diplomat’s Valiant-coiffed brat during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference—a saturnine world vibrating with the music of Scott Walker, starring Bérénice Bejo and Liam Cunningham, and capped, like an extravagant cherry, with a vanishing appearance by Robert Pattinson and a drop-the-mike fascist finale. This year, Vox Lux followed with no less booming ambition. Tracking a flailing pop star (played as an adult by Natalie Portman, with Jude Law as talent manager) and her bemused daughter, the visually striking new film, shot by Lol Crawley on 35mm, underlines filmmaker Corbet’s natural penchant for headstrong characters whose struggles are writ large alongside epochal retellings of history. This time, the span is 1999 through to the near-present in our still young millennium, the contemporary settings and pop-culture messiness treated with both sardonic humor and gravity.
“Childhood and Vox were not met with open arms by other festivals like Venice,” Corbet recalled in our interview during in-between moments on the Lido this past August. “I’m used to the initial reception being some furrowed brows.” Succeeding mostly because of and occasionally in spite of its pretensions, Vox Lux may well furrow more brows, but its gathering frenzy and studious chronicle, climaxing in spectacle, captures the blow-to-the-head impacts and ruthless attrition that characterize our seemingly accelerated stretch of history.
Has the idea of Vox Lux been growing in you for a while? It spans a history that seems to overlap with the timeline of your own adult life.
Sort of. I would definitely say that the movie is marked by a lot of my own anxiety and fear about the era. And I mean genuine terror, the kind of feeling you have at night. I feel existentially burdened at this juncture. And it’s for a few reasons. I’m a dad now. And it’s also because of the dissemination of information: we have all these news updates all the time. Every time something comes up on a phone, you go, “Did somebody just get married or did somebody just get shot in the face?” We’re plugged in all the time, and I don’t really know how to be any other way. I remember a brief period of time when we didn’t have a computer with internet at home.
The movie addresses a number of politically formative national events for a certain generation’s coming-of-age—some combination of Columbine, the 2000 election recount, and September 11.
Completely. It was really difficult to decide what to include and what not to include. The story is such a microcosm, it’s really a fable. All of these major events are scaled down into something that could happen inside of a living room for the most part, until it explodes. But when I thought about the last 20 years, that’s what I would remember: terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and popular culture—not necessarily pop music but popular culture in general. I thought about how sociopolitics and pop culture merged. The truth is I didn’t have to draw parallels between the two things because they already exist, because of a very broken system. I actually think that the popular vote has made sense for the last 20 years.
What do you see in the parallel between the rise of rule by celebrity, let’s say, and this feeling of diffuseness in American consciousness?
The truth is it’s very funny that I ended up making a movie about show business because I tried to avoid it as much as possible in the movie. I was not looking forward to dealing with any of the sequences that you must include. Aesthetically I wasn’t that excited about shooting press conferences and paparazzi, because we’ve seen a lot of those images in movies and it always feels like a comment on a comment—it seems kind of obvious. Part of the reason the movie is structured like an opera is because everything about it is so on the nose that it actually transcends, or at least I hope so. It’s so about what it’s about that there’s no subtlety whatsoever. But it’s very operatic, so it sort of owns it.
The climactic blow-out concert by Natalie Portman’s character has such a strong effect because it raises us to this point of release, but at the same time, the rug is pulled out from under you. There’s just sort of nothing after that.
It’s cathartic but I totally agree with you that it leaves you feeling kind of carved out, for better or for worse. It’s strange because the end of the movie is optimistic for the character’s daughter’s future, just because she seems so savvy and sees her parent for what she is, but obviously for Natalie’s character it’s different. For her character, it’s really a tragedy.
With the kind of star that she’s become, you get the sense of someone who is being driven—she’s no longer driving.
It also looks like Natalie Portman is having a blast with this character. I would hazard that a star feels a sense of release when playing someone like this. What was it like working with her on the character?
It was pretty fascinating. It’s always interesting to work with somebody who’s an expert at what they do, and Natalie is an expert in the sense that she’s really precise, she’s like a sniper. I like all different kinds of actors: I like working with actors who bring a lot of themselves to the role and are just very present. But it’s also just extraordinary to work with somebody who’s a chameleon like her. Because she’s in the more transcendent, more garish part of the movie, it needed to be someone as good as her to do it, or the movie wouldn’t work. It’s a subjective thing about whether an impressionistic first half and an expressionistic second half works, because it’s very experimental, but I felt like I was in really good hands. We quickly learned to trust one another. Every scene was an incredible amount of text and generally a lot of unbroken takes, so it was a lot to bite off. The film was shot in 22 days, which is insane. It’s an almost irresponsible amount of time to shoot a movie.
Let’s talk about the look of the film, which is shot on 35mm. In terms of decisions about angles and placement of shots, at any given time you seem to zig when we think you might zag.
I always thought of it as being in the vein of a Nic Roeg movie or something, especially because the ’80s Nic Roeg movies are so free and wild, and they’re very earnest but coupled with things that are quite extreme and garish. I was thinking, “OK, we’re going to make a movie about America. What are some of the American movies that I’ve really loved from a period of time?” and I kept coming back to the late ’70s. So let’s just do something where we’re on a 15mm [lens] and we’re handheld and we just kind of feel it out. But that needed to be balanced out by stuff that was more precise so that everyone felt they were really in the hands of the filmmaker and trusted us. Because you need that contract with the audience, otherwise it all falls apart.
Earlier than the 1970s, I thought of Peter Watkins’s Privilege.
I love Privilege. It’s so good. For me Alan Clarke and Peter Watkins are the greatest filmmakers in the history of the United Kingdom. It doesn’t get better than that. At one point I even thought about having Peter Watkins narrate the movie.
Yeah, I had an early idea, “I wonder if Peter would ever agree to do something like that.” But suddenly I realized that was a dumb idea.
As an actor, you’ve worked with a number of great directors who are no strangers to the grand gesture. What did you glean from working on a Lars von Trier set [on Melancholia], or Ruben Östlund [Force Majeure], etc.?
I had a major advantage—I didn’t start off with a major advantage, I didn’t come from a family that had a background in cinema or anything. But at a certain point I realized that a lot of the things that I loved, and a lot of the people I loved, it was all tangible. If you want to meet somebody, you should just reach out to them and say, “Hey, I’d really like to meet you.” What’s the worst that can happen? I met a lot of people that I loved just because I reached out to them. It wasn’t ever to work with them or anything, it was just telling them I’d really like to talk. But after I’d made a point of working with a lot of people I already admired, I realized that they had the same trepidation and anxiety and human feelings about their work that I was having about my unmade projects. You know: “What if I fuck up?” Of course it’s hard, and part of the joy of it is that the stakes are kind of high. And then you go, “OK, that one didn’t work out, but I’m going to work on the next one.”
And maybe you realize something from people’s reactions to it, or maybe you go, “Oh I didn’t go far enough, they didn’t realize, and now I need to go further.” After I made Childhood of a Leader, I realized that so few people had a point of reference for what the movie was really about, which was the Paris Peace Conference. It wasn’t about fascism, it was about the birth of fascism in the 20th century being traced back to that one very specific event and moment in time. But I realized that so few people had context for that, so they thought that the movie was a psychological portrait. When you leave a lot of room for interpretation, you also leave a lot of room for misinterpretation. And I found that to be really frustrating, because even people who gave the film great reviews, I was like, “Oh, that wasn’t what it was about.’ It wasn’t about the psychological formation of this character. This character is not a real person, very much on purpose.
But at the same time, I have to say Childhood of a Leader does have that resonance. You’re talking about art as an object, and it ends up exceeding what one intends sometimes. Looking back at that movie in particular, more than one person has probably said to you that it now feels prescient about a certain kind of human drive, a certain type of id that overwhelms a society.
One hundred percent. Those very much were issues that were on my mind, but the writing was on the wall then for that film, and the writing was on the wall the last couple of years for this film unfortunately. So I wish I could claim to have a crystal ball, but I think I was just reacting to what was on everybody’s mind. We shot Childhood of a Leader in Hungary, where they have their Central European Donald Trump, who is just as ridiculous, just as flagrantly absurd, and contradicts himself constantly and is a racist. So I was living under this autocrat for a while when I made that movie, and then I had to deal with him all over again.
You couldn’t avoid it. Now for a nerdy Latin question: how would you translate vox lux?
I translate it to “voice of light.” It evokes the old world and the new.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a movie about a Hungarian Jewish immigrant that relocates to America after the war. It takes place over the course of many years, but we’ll see what it turns into. It’s really early days. I only finished Vox Lux about a week ago [before Venice]. I was interested in the life of Marcel Breuer. I don’t know how much it’s going to have in common with this. I feel like Childhood and Vox work really beautifully as a pair, and so I kind of want to do something totally new.
Nicolas Rapold is the editor-in-chief of Film Comment and hosts The Film Comment Podcast.