Brady Corbet on That Radical Opening Scene in 'Vox Lux' and Cinema's 'Most Impeccable Tool'

Brady Corbet's Natalie Portman vehicle 'Vox Lux' bills itself as a critique of the 21st century. In fact, it's a nightmare of our times.

As an actor, one of Brady Corbet's breakout roles was playing Peter, a nihilistic sociopath teenager who tortures and ultimately murders a family in Michael Haneke's 2007 American remake of his own film, Funny Games.

In Corbet's directorial debut, Childhood of a Leader, he plumbs the banality of evil by exploring the conditions that led to fascism in the 20th century.

His sophomore effort sees him return once again to a thematic preoccupation with evil. This time, though, the evil is much more insidious.

"I'm a very passionate advocate for shooting on film ... The difference between celluloid and digital image-making is the difference between painting with oil and painting with software."

It begins with an obviously heinous act: a school shooting. A 15-year-old student, Celeste, tries to reason with the murderer. She is gravely injured but ultimately survives. Out of the ashes of her fellow students' lives, a star is born; Celeste's performance at a church memorial service for the victims catapults her into the American spotlight. Soon, she's pop culture's most sought-after teen sensation. The moral corruption happens swiftly. 15 years later, Celeste's star is still shining, but it has worn away her humanity. The pop star, now played by a fierce Natalie Portman, is the god of a world governed by acts of terror and gossip-hungry paparazzi{C}{C}a world that will bow down to a robot as long as it's dressed in sequins and can lip sync.

No Film School caught up with Corbet to discuss his stylistically daring film, why he believes digital technology is corroding the art of cinema, and more.

No Film School: You introduce this film as a critique of the 21st century. Why this subject?

Brady Corbet: It was essentially written in reaction to my previous project [Childhood of a Leader] which was set in the early part of the 20th century in Europe and about many of the events that defined foreign policy as we know it. These events inadvertently paved the way for a fascist uprising 20 years later. After making that film, I wanted to come back to America and make a movie in New York, where I live, that tackled some of the defining moments of this generation with the same approach that my previous project had.

"When the film opens with a lot of verve, I think that it creates a suspense for the audience where they feel like anything is possible."

NFS: How did you land on the three-act fairytale narrative approach? It provides a sort of objective remove from the material, which is otherwise quite emotional.

Corbet: I grew up working in a bookstore. I love this sort of novelistic approach. I love playing with language and alliteration, and I felt that this structure would give people objectivity about so much of the garishness that defines the modern era. It would allow the film to operate in a way which was totally representational. It's not neorealist. It is completely theatrical. It has a theatrical approach in Part One that's minimalistic and impressionistic, and then it has a theatrical approach in the second half of the film that is expressionistic and more colorful.

NFS: How did you build out those two different theatrical approaches?

Corbet: There were adjustments in the tone of that performance and performances in the second half of the film, but a lot of that was also built into the screenplay. With monologues as long as the one that Natalie [Portman] delivers in the diner, you kind of don't have a choice but to perform them. There's no way to try to deliver those monologues in a naturalistic way. So I think that as long as you and the cast are very clear about the tone, it tends to go pretty smoothly.

'Vox Lux'
NFS: Can you talk a little bit about the cinematography? You very much create a presence of the camera from the beginning. I think of the shot where we're following a police cavalcade down a road in Staten Island, and suddenly the camera flips and turns around in a circle. It's jarring. 

Corbet: I try to do as much as I can in the first 15 minutes of a film to set the stage stylistically. When the film opens with a lot of verve, I think that it creates a suspense for the audience where they constantly feel like anything is possible. The camera can move up, down, left, right. It's handheld, it's static, and it's always unexpected. I find that that allows the film stylistically, in terms of performances and everything, also to be very free. 

But I shoot on celluloid, and I'm a very passionate advocate for shooting on film. It's kind of bizarre to me that I have to be, because it seems to be a self-evident truth. But what can you do? I'm just trying to make sure that no one takes our most impeccable tool out of the box.

"I think the digital revolution came on a little faster than it needed to and also before it could really stand up to images shot on celluloid."

NFS: Does shooting on film change your process at all?

Corbet: Not really, because I've never shot anything digitally, except for a couple of music videos. It's the only way that I know how to work, and I find it to be extremely efficient. Here's the thing that's very funny about it: When you're shooting a movie, you don't have all the time in the world, right? So even if you wanted to keep rolling, the idea that you could shoot more than 12 or 13 takes on a 22-day schedule is impossible. So the idea that, "Oh, well, you can just keep the camera rolling [when shooting digital]...." Like, I don't really need footage of a makeup artist fixing a wig, you know? You have to take breaks in between takes and setup anyway.

I think the digital revolution came on a little faster than it needed to and also before it could really stand up to images shot on celluloid. But I don't know.

I was having this conversation with my daughter. My daughter's four, and we were watching this really, really heinously ugly animated show that she likes to watch. The animation looks like a screensaver. So I asked her if she noticed any differences between the way that Snow White and Alice in Wonderland look and the way that this shitty churned-out animated program for kids looked, and she did see a difference. She said, "Yes, they look different." And I was like, "Well, does it matter to you?" And she said, "No." She didn't really care.

'Vox Lux'
Corbet: I just mean to say that it's a shame that she's growing up looking at images that are cheaply made—lazy content. The fact that, without that being pointed out to her, she might not notice the difference between that and Miyazaki, who she also loves...it's madness.

Basically, the difference between celluloid and digital image-making is the difference between painting with oil and painting with software. I'm not saying that there's not room for both, because for example, you take the work that Pixar is doing with software, and it's a thing of beauty. It's considered and measured, and it's very, very beautiful. But we should be allowed to use both—whatever suits the project best.

"Everyone's creating hundreds of thousands of hours a second of content that is kind of useless."

NFS: So, for you, to shoot a film digitally in a way that's respectful to cinema, you have to do it with intentionality and care.

Corbet: Yeah, and time. The democratization of image-making is so exhilarating in some ways. I think it's amazing for the exchange of information, which has good and bad results at times. It is really, really incredible that someone can pick up their phone if they see an injustice and capture it so that there's a record of it. I find that a little disturbing, as well, because of course it means there is a kind of Big Brother feeling about it, too.

But because it's so easy to take a picture or a video, everyone's creating hundreds of thousands of hours a second of content that is kind of useless. It's like garbage. So I think that it's important for us to maintain traditions of the past and bring them with us into the future. Eventually, everyone might realize that it is important to have certain things which are tangible and analog.

Not everything can be purchased on Amazon Prime. There is value in walking down the street past a boutique or a record shop and engaging with a human being and having a conversation about how you look in a dress or a pair of jeans or, "Oh, you love that album, but have you ever heard the B-side?" These things are a wonderful part of the human experience. I don't need everything to be purely efficient. I want it to be rich and enriching.

'Vox Lux'
NFS: I want to talk about the first sequence of the film. On a thematic level, I thought it was interesting that you open with a modern nightmare, and then the rest of the film kind of slowly unfurls to be a grandiose version of a different, less overtly menacing modern nightmare. On a technical production level, how did you think about that sequence?

Corbet: I've been in very violent scenes in films, and I've been in sensitive scenes in films. I've directed some sensitive scenes, as well, whether it be because of nudity or because there is some content that makes everybody in the room a little uncomfortable. You just try to treat it as pragmatically as possible.

I think I was more concerned for the kids that were in the scene and their wellbeing and how they felt over the course of the couple of days that it took to shoot that sequence than they were about it.

It says something about the state of things when you need a waiver to allow a 15-year-old to be in a romantic—not explicit whatsoever, but even a remotely romantic—situation, and yet you don't need a waiver to wave a gun around in their face. So I thought there was going to be all of this red tape and that it was going to be really complex, but it turns out that violence is not something that you need to treat with a great deal of sensitivity [while shooting a film], even though we chose to. I was surprised by that.

My four-year-old has school-shooting drills. They put her and her classmates in a closet and they tell them to be very quiet, and then somebody comes into the room and bangs on the door really loud, and the kids are told not to make any noise. So that's the moment in time we're living in. These school-shooting drills are now commonplace in even preschools in America, and it's incredibly shocking. But because of that being the new normal, shooting that sequence in the film was less harrowing than you would imagine, because all of these kids pretend to do this four times a year anyway, at their own schools.

NFS: That's insane.

Corbet: It is insane, but it's true.     

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1 Comment

Voxlux is a really really bad film. Has public shooting scenes which are in bad taste. Has some terrible dancing with Portman - feels unfinished - feels like the editor took the piss with the footage beyond artistic merit - feels like the film ran over budget resulting in cheap low budget scenes mixed with high budget scenes - Has long stupid dialogue - has confusing characters. Plus the story goes no where and isn't developed but rather cut off... like the film was scrapped mid way through.

January 4, 2019 at 6:57PM, Edited January 4, 6:59PM

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