When Brady Corbet began thinking about a follow-up film to his directorial debut, “The Childhood of a Leader,” he reflected on the defining events of the early 21st century.
“And when I think about the last 20 years, I think of mass shootings, I think of terrorist attacks domestic and abroad, and I think of pop culture,” says Corbet. “And I think the way that the news cycle functions now, and the way that we refer to our Apple news updates and you’ll have a headline about Ariana Grande cutting off her ponytail, or a celebrity has just gotten engaged or divorced, next to a headline about mass casualties and mass shootings somewhere, usually in this country. And so I think that these things coexist and the one thing is designed to distract us from this more burdensome news.”
Mulling over these thoughts led to “Vox Lux,” which Corbet wrote and directed and which stars Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law and Stacy Martin. The film is structured in three parts, but subverts the expected three-act narrative arc of most dramas while using the tropes of a moral tale. Willem Dafoe provides intermittent narration, underscoring the allegorical quality of the film.
“It wasn’t supposed to be something topical or totally presentational, it was supposed to be representational. So it’s a version of America, a version of a pop star, it’s a little bit removed from the banality or the reality of the last 20 years,” says Corbet, who premiered the film in competition at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year before its December theatrical release. “It’s a moment in time which is direly serious and seriously absurd. And the rub of that is fascinating. So I think the film is sort of a combination of good taste and bad taste, and grace and trash. For me, its emblematic of the moment of time we’re living in.”
The film opens with a scene that immediately plunges into the horrific, an event which both acts as the main character’s call to adventure as well as providing tonal framework. Portman and Cassidy both star as the main character Celeste, who becomes a pop star. In addition to playing the younger version of Celeste, Cassidy returns in the third part of the film to play Celeste’s daughter.
“I thought that it would enhance the sort of notion of what is it that our children will inherit?” says Corbet of the double-casting choice. “I thought that it would be amazing for the audience to have this through line that even though the character is ripped away from me, but somehow the spirit of that character that is embodied in the same actress would be the thing that takes you through the disparate parts.”
Corbet rounded up an impressive cast of collaborators for the project; in addition to the cast, Portman’s husband Benjamin Millepied choreographed and Sia wrote nine original songs.
“I was super fortunate that [Millepied and Portman] were living under the same roof because we had very little time to prepare it. He was working on the choreography and training Natalie simultaneously,” says Corbet. “It’s really wild; it’s exactly what I hoped it would be: sort of bold and absurd.”
As for Sia, the singer managed to nicely fill out some of the script’s placeholders.
“When I wrote the film, I had these sort of italicized lyrics and placeholders that sort of conveyed what the song should convey at different moments of the film,” says Corbet. “Because Sia not only writes her own material but also writes for many artists as well, she was an ideal choice. And also because the fact she’s sort of a faceless artist is interesting too because it allowed the character’s songs to be the character’s songs.”
Corbet is already hard at work on his next film; he’s currently writing the screenplay for the upcoming project with his wife, Mona Fastvold. The movie will be produced by Andrew Lauren Productions, which also produced “Vox Lux.” The film is tentatively set in the aftermath of World War II.
The 30-year-old Corbet might have only been a second-time feature filmmaker, but he had years in the industry as a child actor during which he was able to observe and soak up the process; if his name isn’t instantly recognizable, it’s likely you’ve seen him on screen, in films such as Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” or Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Even with a film background, though, it’s hard to get movies made, much less ones that don’t follow the normal narrative rules.
“What’s interesting is that the film seems to frequently leave audiences a little befuddled, sort of fascinated, and people have a lot to say and some people are kind of stunned. And that was the desired reaction,” says Corbet of the “Vox Lux,” which culminates in an extended pop concert.
“As a viewer, I really, really enjoy work that surprises me,” he continues. “I think it’s interesting for us to start poking holes in some of those traditions and torture them a little bit, because there are infinite possibilities for narrative. And the thing is not only is this a young country, but cinema is a young medium, and I think it has much further to go. And what’s amazing is if you color outside the lines even a little bit now, people come down on you for it. Because the system does not support anything which is progressive, because the thing is, it’s a gamble. So it’s a difficult time to make films, but it does make the rare movies that actually are not made by a committee very, very special.”
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