You may or may not have watched any of his previous work as an actor – although, for instance, he’s starred in Mysterious Skin, Funny Games, and Melancholia –, but his debut as a film director, titled The Childhood of a Leader (2015), acquired great praise. Now, Brady Corbet is presenting his second feature film, Vox Lux, with Natalie Portman and Jude Law as the main characters, and with Willem Dafoe as the narrator of the story, which explores the effect of creating a media icon, a teen pop star from the 21st century.
Furthermore, with his new film, Corbet has managed to merge American independent filmmaking with the pop music industry. The soundtrack, together with Scott Walker’s original score (as in Corbet’s first feature film), counts with nine original pop songs by singer and songwriter Sia. “It was just logical to choose somebody who’s literally faceless in public”, Corbet explains. In addition, some critics foresee Portman may end up receiving her second Oscar for this performance, in which she plays a diva who once survived a school shooting and turns into a pop star at just fourteen years old.

Corbet is premiering Vox Lux around Europe as you read this. After his success at the 75th edition of the Venice International Film Festival, he also attended the Stockholm International Film Festival, where we had an intimate talk about this modern satire and also to understand the struggles of a young filmmaker who is coping with the challenges of Hollywood, yet continuing to make independent cinema.
When I first read that you were the director and writer of Vox Lux, I was like, why does he look so familiar? Then, I realized you had worked with Antonio Campos, who I met when he premiered Simon Killer a few years ago.
Exactly. He’s a sweetheart. Antonio is one of my best friends. He just had a baby a month ago!
I wonder whether you want to continue acting on a regular basis or keep focusing on your career as a film director.
Honestly, I do not have enough time to do both very well. It takes a lot of effort to raise the money for these kinds of films, and it really becomes a full-time job. It’s funny, I would say that on average, I was on the phone or in meetings about Vox Lux between eight and twelve hours a day every day – sometimes, even over fourteen. And that was for three years…
What happened is that I realized I cannot be taking breaks from the pre-production period to go and shot with other filmmakers, even if just for two or three weeks. You realize how crucial they can be. For example, I went to act in a European film for three weeks and, because of that, when I came back to my own project, I had to wait for another three months to be able to resume a subsidy. So I only have time to do one thing.
I understand you feel more comfortable making films then.
Performing is something that makes me a lot more nervous. To me, making films is a natural instinct that I’ve always had, even if directing is often very unpleasant.
Why is that?
Because you are constantly in conflict with everybody. For somebody who doesn’t like conflict very much like me, it’s a strange job to choose. When you perform for someone, that doesn’t happen.
Do you mean decision making?
Basically, unless you have a big problem with someone you are collaborating with – which can happen but is kind of unusual. Normally, if you are happy to show up and do the job, it goes very smoothly. With that said, as an actor, I wasn’t that outgoing in that way.
As a film director, you started with The Childhood of a Leader (2015). Now, you’re presenting Vox Lux (2018), your second feature film, for which you chose a very experienced casting crew. Did that feel overwhelming at some point?
When you start working with a really, really experienced casting crew, it makes your life a lot easier – they’re famous or well-regarded for a very good reason, usually. They are technically skilled and extremely charismatic. I tend to find this makes things very smooth. But I like working with people who’ve never worked before as well. For example, my first film starred a nine-year-old boy who had never acted before, and I had a great experience working with him. I like working with young people because they always bring something unexpected to the performance.
What was the most challenging part of making Vox Lux?
It’s a very complicated movie. There are nine original pop songs in the film, which means we needed to have a soundtrack before it was shot. Preparing these nine tracks means having a financial structure. The film needs to be very specialized. On average, it costs about a million dollars to make a pop record. A convincing hit requires a lot of participation and many hours in the studio, so there are many people involved. Of course, an album could be produced for ten thousand dollars, but pop songs, because how pristine and immaculate they are, they tend to be very expensive.
Did you spend a million dollars on the soundtrack?
In our case, we had a budget of just a couple of hundred thousand dollars to make all the music. But that money wasn’t accessible to us until we started the film’s production, which meant we had to get people to work for free in a business where they’re not used to. This is not how their industry works. It was very tough to get the music industry to merge with the film industry, especially with the independent movie business, in a way that made sense economically and in terms of timeframe.
Why did you decide to use Sia’s music to bring Celeste alive?
Sia was the perfect partner for this because she writes not only her own music for herself, but for a lot of other artists as well. When we were trying to come up with a soundtrack for a fictional character, it was just logical to choose somebody who’s literally faceless in public. That way, the songs would be regarded as the character’s, not the artist. That’s what is genius about her and her work.
The real artist doesn’t overshadow the fictional character.
Speaking of musicians, just out of curiosity, how did you end up starring in a music video for Conor Oberst?
Oh, I’m very good friends with the director of that music video. And I also know Conor, his manager is also mine; we’ve all known each other for years. How long was that, like thirteen or fourteen years ago?
What other challenges did you encounter in Vox Lux?
The movie starts with the main character as a teenager. It is always difficult to find the right person to play a role like this because the storyline expands twenty years. Also, it deals with difficult subject matters and takes place in a very expensive universe, so it took a long time to learn how to value the project, how to weight it effectively to be able to raise the money for it.
How did the idea of working with Natalie Portman and Jude Law come about?
When you write something, you have two or three people in mind that you imagine playing the role. Sometimes, you even have just one. Natalie is someone that always comes to mind when you have a role that is worthy. She’s a very technically gifted actress, she’s fantastic with text, and very, very precise with her preparation (learning choreography, etc.).
But when I finished writing the script, she wasn’t available to do it because she was pregnant. So after all those years that took me to raise the money, the film almost fell apart. The good news is, and that’s something funny about movies, is that they always end up being what they should be.
So I guess it wasn’t easy until things came together.
The movie fell apart many times so that she could do it. She’s such an integral part… There’s a lot of anticipation, she doesn’t appear until the second half of the film, so you really need a performance that justifies the wait.
What about Jude?
I just love Jude’s work and I wanted to work with him.
Some critics believe that Natalie will receive her second Oscar for this performance. Since you are the writer, could you please tell us what you were looking for in her and if she took the role beyond your expectations?
I expected a lot from her, and she delivered. She had four-page monologues, all uninterrupted. It’s a very theatrical performance. It’s rooted in something very expressionistic, in a very old-fashioned style of performance. Something that belongs to Billy Wilder or so.
What were you looking for in her character?
I just wanted somebody very brave because the role required it.
Did you write the score of this move entirely after your first featured film or was it a more organic process over the years?
It was written after The Childhood of a Leader because, in Venice, one of the prizes the film won was in cash. I essentially used that money to live on through these six months that I was writing this. That’s why those cash prizes are so necessary. Generally, you don’t make any money with films like this – it is shocking what percentage of the budget the filmmaker normally sees. It doesn’t usually start that way; usually, you have a normal fee, which you end pre-investing almost completely in the movie. Every film director I know is in that position constantly because you care more about the project than about your own wellbeing. That’s complicated. In my case, I have a family. It’s a very tricky thing to balance.
Sounds like continuing acting would make your life easier…
(Laughs) Yeah! Well, hopefully, I’ll make more money in the next one.
What is the main thing you wanted to explore with this film?
The film is supposed to be a sort of journey across the first twenty years that have defined the 21st century – what we know so far. It was supposed to be a meditation and reflection on our contemporary values, not only in America but also throughout the world.
A survivor from a school shooting who becomes a pop star overnight sounds pretty much America now.
Absolutely, but the film is also about the people we give a platform and a voice, social icons, and that’s a problem in Hungary or in the United Kingdom. It’s a global problem.
You premiered the film at the 75th edition of the Venice International Film Festival. I think you love it there, but is there any particular reason why you have premiered both of your movies there?
Partially, it’s because they were shot at the exact same time of the year (at the beginning), so they were ready in the summer to premiere in early fall. It’s important that you get the movie out into the world as soon as possible, so your investors start seeing some returns of that project. It’s usually for very pragmatic reasons that you go to a festival.
That being said, Venice is my favourite film festival in the world. There’s no market, it really is just about people who love cinema. It’s an incredibly beautiful place and I love the programmers, they’ve been so supportive of me. Nobody was interested in my previous film, it was rejected by other major festivals around the same time. But they loved it, they saw something in it – and thank God they did because it may have disappeared otherwise. I’m very fortunate to have their support.
Are you currently working on any new project or are you just focused on promoting Vox Lux?
Yes, I’m developing a new project called The Brutalist, which is a movie about a mid-century architect.
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