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Natalie Portman in Vox Lux

Vox Lux director: ‘Pop stars are not politicians, give them a break’

Brady Corbet discusses the absurdity of our time, his new film, and the madness of ephemeral celeb gossip occupying the same space as world events

Is there a parallel between pop singers and terrorists? It’s an outrageous question raised by a journalist in Vox Lux. Celeste, a megastar musician played by Natalie Portman, is grilled at a roundtable before a concert. Earlier that day, mass shooters disguised themselves with Daft Punk-ish masks that reference Celeste’s pop persona. So a reporter demands to know: don’t these two forces amass fame in a similar manner? Celeste laughs and snarls, “I mean, who cares?” But throughout Vox Lux, pop singers and terrorists intertwine and share occasional headlines. “If everyone stopped paying attention to them, they would cease to exist,” Celeste sighs. “So would people like me. That’s the only link.”

Writer-director Brady Corbet, then, delves into risky material, and Vox Lux, his audacious follow-up to The Childhood of a Leader, goes hard with its zeitgeist-y provocations. The opening scenes, set in 1999, deliberately evoke Columbine. A young boy, in Marilyn Manson-esque makeup, unveils a gun in a Staten Island classroom. Only Celeste (as a teenager, she’s played by Raffey Cassidy) steps forward and pleads with the attacker. Right there and then, a star is unwittingly born: Celeste survives her bullet wound, and wakes up in hospital as a global celebrity. 

So at 13, Celeste’s personal grief is processed, packaged and AutoTuned for public consumption. Her older sister, Ellie, depicted by Stacy Martin, composes an annoyingly catchy tune called “Wrapped Up”; the siblings perform it at a vigil, record companies pinpoint a marketable angle, and Celeste is fed into the machine. For PR purposes, the lyrics are tweaked from “I” to “we” – that way, Americans could reclaim her pain as their own – and a sleazy manager, played by Jude Law, does the rest. “That’s what I love about pop music,” insists Celeste, still a teen with doe-eyed sincerity. “I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.”

Celeste’s optimism, though, is declared in the dial-up era of 2001. When I meet Corbet in London, it’s a few days after Cher’s bizarre tweet about immigrants; Trump retweeted her sentiments, and portions of her fanbase felt betrayed. A single tweet, full of typos, can be a political weapon. “That’s absolutely what the movie is about,” Corbet says. “Listen, I don’t mind holding politicians accountable for everything they say and do, but we should give pop stars and movie stars a break. They’re not our representatives, and nor should they be.”

He details the stress of doing press. “It’s easy to say something ill-conceived or dumb when you’re tired. I usually get off a plane and directly come to a junket. I’m not at my best. I have a four-year-old daughter who keeps me up at night. Sometimes you’re doing a press conference of 200 people asking complex or antagonistic questions. It’s easy to misspeak.”

“I don’t mind holding politicians accountable for everything they say and do, but we should give pop stars and movie stars a break. They’re not our representatives, and nor should they be” – Brady Corbet

So when the journalist pesters Celeste about pop music and terrorism, is he being antagonistic? “I thought that by having a character ask that, I would no longer be asked that question. But it didn’t stop anybody,” Corbet laughs. “The thing is, the movie is about a generation where heroes and villains are in pursuit of spectacle. The desire to be iconic is something that celebrities and mass shooters share in common. It’s social media – so it’s not just an American problem, it’s a world problem. It’s the desire to commit crimes in as public a way as possible. Recently, it was the shooting in New Zealand that was live-streamed on Facebook.”

Corbet, like Celeste, grew up with fame. He landed roles in Thirteen and Mysterious Skin before turning 16. In his early 20s – he’s now 30 – he was cast by a who’s who of arthouse auteurs: Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello, Mia Hansen-LøveNoah Baumbach and Ruben Östlund. His face should be familiar and frightening – he was one of the intruders in Funny Games.

”It’s social media – so it’s not just an American problem, it’s a world problem. It’s the desire to commit crimes in as public a way as possible” – Brady Corbet

However, Corbet switched to directing with his 2015 debut, The Childhood of a Leader starring Robert Pattinson, a wicked period-drama about an innocent kid who grows into a fascist. It’s a sort of Vox Lux in the 1920s. Both films contain haunting, cinematic scores by the recently deceased Scott Walker. In Vox Lux, pinnacle scenes – such as drug benders and terrorist attacks – are heightened by Walker’s piercing, dramatic strings.

“It’s really difficult for me to imagine not finishing my next movie with Scott,” says Corbet. “The next one, especially, was conceived to have this gargantuan score. And now that Scott has passed away, I can’t imagine trying to recreate, with anyone, what he did so effortlessly. For me, I lost a good friend, and I lost arguably my closest collaborator, or at least one of them. I’m just coming to terms with that now.

“Normally, Scott and I would see each other when I’m in London, and now I can’t call him. It’s really tough. This trip, in particular, is really tough. He didn’t see the movie finished, which bothers me, too. I would have loved for him to see it mixed. I wanted him to see it on the big screen, and I didn’t have the opportunity to show it to him.”

Like Celeste, Walker was a musician with a complex relationship with fame. “For Scott, especially, the themes were evident to him,” Corbet notes. “I didn’t find myself having to explain this movie to any of the collaborators.” Those collaborators include Sia, who composed Celeste’s megahits and allowed Corbet to peruse her demo library. In turn, the film’s songs feel authentic. After all, Sia has written for the likes of Beyoncé and Katy Perry; on this occasion, it happens to be Natalie Portman.

To prepare for the shoot, Stacy Martin studied a handful of Sia demos. “I had a phobia of singing, which is great,” Martin jokes. “I took singing lessons. It feels very intimate and personal to sing in front of people.” Ellie writes all of Celeste’s music and can be seen constructing melodies on a keyboard. “It’s that yin and yang situation. Without one another, the concept of ‘Celeste’ wouldn’t exist. When the tragic event happened, Ellie took on the role of the elder sister. She sacrificed her life to make Celeste alive.”

Were there any reference points? “I don’t have siblings,” Martin says, “but I looked at Amy Schumer, who works with her sister. There were a few. I find it fascinating when people work with siblings or parents – the personal is intertwined with the business, which is great but can be dangerous.” For instance, on 9/11 (the film doesn’t aim for subtlety), Celeste, as a 15-year-old, is furious to find Ellie in bed with Jude Law’s character. I interpreted Celeste’s rise to pop stardom as one driven by irrational bitterness. Or am I projecting? “We’ve all had that moment in our lives,” Martin says. “I had it when people told me I’ll never be a successful actor. It sparks you to say, ‘Oh, you’ll see what I’ll do.’”

As the lead of Nymphomaniac, Martin morphs around the two-hour mark into Charlotte Gainsbourg. However, in Vox Lux, she plays Ellie across two decades – like an ageless protagonist in a Mia Hansen-Løve movie. “Brady and I loved the idea that Natalie would come in and you don’t know what age Ellie is anymore,” Martin recalls. “I enjoyed playing her young because she has a carelessness which she totally loses in the second part. She sacrificed herself, so I wanted to make her invisible.”

“The idea of a victim of violent trauma becoming a major pop star – it sounds absurd, but it’s indicative of the times we’re living in. It’s not that far-fetched” – Brady Corbet

When the film leaps to 2017, Celeste cruelly remarks that nobody cares about authorship anymore, and that Ellie simply lacks “an angle”. There’s an unspoken implication here. It reminds me of Louis CK’s controversial joke that you’re not automatically more interesting if you survive a school shooting. However, Vox Lux demonstrates how Celeste’s words – even if they’re Ellie’s – connect with fans. “I’m a private girl in a public world,” Celeste sings to a crowd of 30,000. “I’m a private girl in a public world,” they chant back. For better or worse, Celeste’s background injects extra meaning and passion into the lyrics.

“I don’t dare tackle the issue of Louis CK’s stand-up,” says Corbet, avoiding a Cher situation. “But irrespective of that, the idea was not supposed to be that cynical. It’s about how the business exploits this character’s tragedy. The idea of a victim of violent trauma becoming a major pop star – it sounds absurd, but it’s indicative of the times we’re living in. It’s not that far-fetched.

“In the second half, the character is quite Trumpian. She spews conspiracy theories and philosophy bullshit and narcissistic waste. But she’s also a human being. In her pinnacle of crisis, she’s talking about how ugly she is. In the beginning, the character isn’t concerned with her appearance. Most people start with self-doubt, not self-idolisation.”

Portman’s arrival, then, signals a wild transition. It’s utterly baffling and I’m still processing it – in a good way, I think. Unlike Cassidy’s shy, introverted interpretation of Celeste, Portman transforms the character into a heavily accented, egocentric, gum-chewing alcoholic. It’s not too far from Portman’s SNL rap parody. “The character was supposed to be an outsized, garish spectacle,” Corbet explains. “It’s not a neo-realist movie. There was supposed to be a level of theatricality that would feel like the inverse of part one. I told Natalie not to mimic Raffie’s mannerisms. I wanted the character to be reincarnated.”

For several years, Rooney Mara was attached the role, but she eventually dropped out for scheduling reasons. “Natalie and Rooney are actors I love for totally different reasons,” Corbet says. “The thing that’s so extraordinary about Natalie is that she’s extremely prepared. Her role was shot in 10 days. She came in having recorded all the songs, and having prepared all the choreography and long monologues. It should be a given that Natalie is ultra-talented, but I was blown away. She’s a great actor. She’s like an assassin.”

In Willem Dafoe’s sardonic voiceover, it’s speculated that the rise of Scandinavian pop – particularly ABBA – stemmed from a fear of “degenerate music” from America. It’s in Sweden that Celeste records her breakthrough single. So is all pop music inherently political? “You’re always a product of your environment,” Corbet says. “It’s about the cyclical nature of everything. In part one, society shapes this young woman. In part two, she in turn reshapes society. She is moulded and formed by an event that her American government is absolutely responsible for. And in the second half, she becomes this deity who rules over the masses. Both Childhood and this take it to fabulous extremes.”

Whereas Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born sorely sags in the middle, Vox Lux is a three-act movie that skips its second act. Financiers were flummoxed. “You get a lot of people asking, ‘Are you aware that Natalie Portman doesn’t show up for an hour? Can you reconceive this?’ We’re so familiar with the tropes of rise-and-fall stories that I wanted to omit anything that would be boring. I wanted the movie to be alive and urgent and propulsive. I thought people would appreciate that the movie wasn’t two hours and 40 minutes. I had somebody ask me if I cut the middle part for budgetary reasons. I didn’t know how to answer – it seems pretty deliberate to me!

“But since a lot of people wanted a second act, I made sure that the second act of my new film is really long.” That film is The Brutalist, which he’s written and is currently casting. “It’s about a Hungarian Jewish architect that emigrates from Hungary after the war, having survived a period of time in the camps. He’s lost his firm, and goes to Philadelphia to start a new business. And it’s about his wife who’s stuck in a displaced persons camp on the Hungarian border, and a client he has a different relationship with. It spans many years.”

We end by discussing the climactic Staten Island homecoming concert. The film is dedicated to Jonathan Demme. Did Corbet watch Stop Making Sense in preparation? “Totally, and the Justin Timberlake concert film was a big inspiration,” he says. “Vox Lux wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for two filmmakers: Demme, who I knew at the end of his life, and cared for very much, and Nicolas Roeg.

“I wanted the second half to have this patent-leather ‘80s look, to reference that Reagan was the first movie star in the White House. Without Reagan, there’s no Trump. Reagan had better bedside manners than Trump, but it was the beginning of the end. In the 1980s, Nic Roeg and Jonathan were making movies that were super-radical, garish, wild and free. I love that combination of formalism and playfulness.”

Likewise, Vox Lux is shot in 35mm but introduces harsh HD cameras for the concert. You anticipate a catastrophe. But it’s Portman belting out Sia songs, with professional dancers, to an adoring audience rapt with religious attention. “That was important to me: she’s good. You expect her to fall, but she doesn’t. It becomes this procedural of a pop concert.”

So it’s a triumphant ending? “I don’t know if there’s room for triumph in a movie that opens with 16 kids being murdered,” Corbet says. “It’s not not triumphant. I think it’s about: how do we reconcile headlines about mass shootings sharing the same amount of space in our news updates as personal details about the Kardashian girls? That’s not their fault. I always try to be careful about referring to anyone – the Kardashians, Madonna, or any public figure – because the character is inspired by contemporary celebrity, not anyone in particular. I would never want anyone to get their feelings hurt.

“But it’s strange that trivial pop culture gossip shares the same space as world events that we need to be made very well aware of. It feels like we’re confronted now with an option to go down door number one or door number two. It’s a choose-your-adventure every day. You decide if you want to mourn, or distract yourself with some trivial news.”

Vox Lux opens in UK cinemas on May 3 and was screened at The International Film Festival of Rotterdam.