In 2015, Brady Corbet went from supporting roles in films like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (US) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, to suddenly being lauded as one of the most exciting new directors working in American Cinema.
Corbet’s debut The Childhood of a Leader, a historical coming-of-age drama about a petulant 10-year-old boy growing up in a world pulsating with anger, was celebrated for its intelligent exploration of the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in Europe during the 20th century.
This month, Corbet returns with his sophomore feature, Vox Lux. Scrutinising the curation and construction of celebrity, the film follows a pop star named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy and Natalie Portman) and explores the reactionary relationship between art and violence. Positioning Celeste’s meteoric rise to fame against some of the most politically formative events of the 21st century, Corbet attempts to understand how an era defined by reality TV and acts of terrorism will be remembered in years to come. We sat down with Corbet earlier this month to discuss Vox Lux, and his career so far.
Patrick Gamble: Why did you choose music to explore the relationship between art and violence?
Brady Corbet: If you’re going to talk about the 21st century you have to talk about pop culture, and the best way to do that is to have your heroine be a pop star. The main reason is the omnipresence of pop music in our daily lives. Whether you’re in a taxi or at the grocery store these songs have a way of finding you. Whether you wholly embrace the mainstream or swim against it, it’s the one thing that connects us all. What’s interesting to me about pop music is how it’s designed by corporations. It’s the same with cinema too. We all know Marvel is pulling our heartstrings, but for me, the fascinating thing about modern culture is how it feels like there is no alternative to the mainstream anymore.
I’ve been quite surprised by how many people have asked me; ‘what are you trying to say about pop music?’ I didn’t know it was such a fragile field and couldn’t stand up to some scrutiny. The movie is an indictment of certain practices in the pop-industrial complex, but it’s not a criticism of pop stars. The thing that amazes me about that industry is these incredible artisans who are involved in making such highly infectious tracks. Granted, it’s not very personal music, because it’s designed by a group of executives, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a personal connection to it. We all have memories that are shaped by these sounds. I thought it was interesting to tell a story about it.
PG: You’ve labelled the film as a 21st Century portrait, but unlike The Childhood of a Leader which is set against the Treaty of Versailles, Vox Lux doesn’t focus on one decade-defining moment. 9/11, Columbine and terrorism are all alluded to, is that because it’s impossible to know how the present-day will be recorded in history?
BC: Totally. When President Truman left office I think he had an approval rating of 20%. Now he’s regarded as one of the great American Presidents. For example, I don’t think any of us really know exactly how the Obama administration will be remembered in 15, 20 or even 30 years’ time. We know the positives, but sometimes it can be hard to reconcile with the negatives of that administration. At the time it was such a milestone; it was something we were all so proud of, not just as Americans but as citizens of the world. Even now it’s actually quite painful to talk about it in a nuanced way. So I agree, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint which moments of our time will be the defining ones in the future, but making this film is a little like Voyager 2. We took all this stuff that we felt was representative of the time we’re living in, put it into a box, and launched it into space. The truth is, it’s nerve-wracking to make a movie and not know if time will serve it well or not. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the movie really captured something about the moment we’re living in, but I thought it was worth a try.
I’ve always been interested in historical movies, and novels. Everything from Luchino Visconti and Ken Burns, to W. G. Sebald and V.S. Naipaul. I think the only way I can make a contemporary movie was to approach it like a historical film, but one about our recent history. The reason the second part of the movie is set in 2017 instead of 2018 when it was finished is that I wanted the viewer to experience the movie as a historical one, and juxtapose these events which are direly serious, with the seriously absurd. I think the juxtaposition of Apple News updates about the Kardashians and school shootings is something that is unique to this moment in time. So, the idea of making a movie where the first ten minutes open with a mass shooting and the last ten minutes are a pop concert serves as a reminder of how peculiar this era is.
PG: Just like in The Childhood of a Leader you give the audience the beginning and the end of the story but no middle. How did you decide on this structure?
BC: I didn’t lose a second act accidentally if that’s what you’re implying. It was purely for cinematic reasons. I just felt that we’re all too familiar with the tropes of these rise and fall narratives. The idea was: “What if we took celebrities in rehab to operatic extremes.” I liked the idea that by cutting out the middle you’re constantly learning new things about these characters in the second half of the movie. For me, it was a way of keeping a very cliched story alive.
PG: One of the things that makes this leap so abrupt is seeing Raffey Cassidy (who plays young Celeste) return as Celeste’s daughter Albertine. Can you tell me a little about this decision?
BC: Seeing an actor reprise her role serves several purposes. Right from the beginning, I had this vision of a character taking her younger self out to lunch, and giving them a lot of bad advice. I also thought it would be interesting to have this one face that links part one and part two. Raffey’s is the last face you see in the movie, and in a way, the essence of her character lives on even though that character is robbed of you in part two. The film has a Brechtian contract with the audience. We turn the lights off and then when we turn them back on nobody has really aged, but you have a completely new performer who you have to accept is the same person. I also felt it would be devastating to really fall in love with Raffey’s character and then suddenly have to deal with her being replaced with this garish affectation of a pop star.
PG: Would it be fair to say that it also represents the idea that history has a way of repeating itself?
BC: Throughout Vox Lux and The Childhood of a Leader, there are these images that are supposed to evoke one another. So, for example, during the final scene of Vox Lux, there’s exactly the same number of close-ups in the crowd as there is during the rally at the end of The Childhood of a Leader. We recreated those images, but instead of shooting them in celluloid we shot them on high definition. So you have these images that are almost the same, except one is a fascist rally and the other is a pop concert. But it’s one thing to say it, it’s another to see and feel it.
The most powerful experiences I’ve had as a reader or a film viewer is when somebody says something that I have thought myself but could never quite articulate. There’s a famous Jafar Panahi quote; “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” I love talking with people about the movie but it’s rare that I can shed any more light on it. You can talk a lot about the process, but as soon as you start describing the images and the feelings they produce they can lose some of their power. I think movies which wrap things up have a strange way of disappearing from your mind. It’s like there needs to be an open question in order for them to live on beyond the end credits.
PG: Vox Lux also has the lamentable honour of including Scott Walker’s final score. His music is such a dominant presence in both your films, his loss must be quite difficult to process on both a professional and personal level?
BC: I’m in production on my next movie and I’m still processing the loss of my friend. We were very close collaborators and I loved him very much. I imagine it will dawn on me in a year when I finish the movie because he was always the last person I would collaborate with. It’s going to be strange. I think maybe we’ll either do no score at all or just a solo piano. The reason I love Scott’s music is that it’s so extreme and so architectural. His albums remind me of Richard Serra. I can never replicate that again, and I know I have to move in a totally different direction, but I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to know him for the last seven or eight years of his life and I’ll miss him like hell.
PG: And what is it your working on next?
BC: My new film is another historical movie. It’s called the Brutalists and it’s set between 1947 and 1980. It’s about a Hungarian Jewish architect that lost his firm during the war and relocated to Philadelphia after surviving the camps in Birkenau. It’s about him trying to start his career again in the US, but it’s also about the tortured relationship between art and commerce in America. There are no government subsidies for the arts in the States, so it’s private equity that gets these projects made. Therefore, there’s always this unique dynamic between the financial partner and the artist and that’s something I wanted to explore.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble