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Brady Corbet’s ambitious new film Vox Lux spans the first 20 years of the 21st century, opening in a Columbine-like scene that propels a young Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) to grow up in the spotlight through the tragedy of 9/11 into a huge pop star (Natalie Portman). Adult Celeste is a barely functioning alcoholic, haunted by dreams of the tragic incident from her youth, and now by a new mass shooting where killers wear masks from one of her most famous videos. Jude Law plays her sleazy manager, Stacy Martin her angelic sister, and Cassidy plays a dual role as her daughter Albertine.
It’s the age of anxiety, inspired by, as Corbet put it, “many sleepless nights.” He wanted to capture the the first two decades of the new millennium and the general emotions that have taken us to where we are now. The film is propelled by a soundtrack from Scott Walker and original songs by Sia. The second feature film from the 30-year-old actor turned director premiered in Venice in competition this week before moving onto Toronto, where it will be looking to pick up a distributor.
THR spoke to Corbet and Portman about portraying a complex subject like PTSD, school shootings and what it means to manufacture pop music today.
Is it accurate to say Vox Lux explores PTSD both as an individual disease and as a larger symptom of America?
CORBET: That’s exactly right. If I could say the movie is about anything, it’s really about that. It’s the way that one character internalizes the nation’s experience and the nation in fact has PTSD and has been driven a little bit mad. The country, at least the optics of it internationally, because of the president, it’s so garish and brash. We’re the worst we’ve ever been right now.
PORTMAN: I think this has become part of our culture, the violence, and it absolutely has an effect on who we are and how we’re relating to what we consume culturally and how we react to everything.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
CORBET: We shot the film very quickly, in 22 days. Some of the simple things like two people talking were especially difficult. It’s all a bit of a blur. Of course the most ambitious thing in the film is the concert. It actually functioned really well because everyone was extremely prepared. It’s often the smaller bits that can get a bit wild.
With, on average, one school shooting a week in America this year, was there a worry that people were going to be numb to the experience of watching this?
CORBET: No, I tried to treat it in a way that was extremely frank, pretty brief. It was just part of the story. I wasn’t too concerned about how it’d be perceived.
PORTMAN: I thought that one of the reasons I was so excited by the writing and moved by the writing, was it felt to me like a real portrait of the moment we’re living in and the country we’re living in. It really felt that it reflected our culture in a way that was interesting.
Do you think you could be a pop star in another life?
PORTMAN: [Laughs]. I think one of the most fun things about being an actor is that you get to experience for a little bit different lives. I loved the character. I loved getting to have the kind of complexity that Brady wrote. She just feels like a real extravagant character. When you play a character that’s what you have to do. You have to feel that you are the character.
Did you have to train a lot for the singing portion?
PORTMAN: No, it was actually, we just kind of went into the studio. We had really wonderful people helping record and doing effects to it.
What does it mean to manufacture a pop star today?
CORBET: Beyond the fact that, of course, with pop songs that are incredibly produced, that’s a tool, they only work if they’re performed. They have to be performed, acted actually. There are some very talented pop stars and there are some not so talented pop stars. What the very good ones have in common with the mediocre ones is that they can all act it. And so it was interesting to create a fictional pop star, because we got to peak behind the curtain a little bit and see how they’re made.
Was Sia a very precise choice for you since she very consciously created her career as a pop star?
CORBET: For sure. You write a script and then “she sings a song that rocks the nation.” And fuck we have to figure out what that is. But Sia, because she wrote for so many different artists, and the character is sort of an amalgamation of so many different personas, in terms of when I was writing it. I thought it was a way of being everyone and no one. I feel very fortunate that she lent her skills to this.
She’s written so much material over the years. And so what I was trying to do was mine some material that was unreleased a long time ago, and actually try to keep some of the production of that era, because the synthesizers have changed and the beats have changed. We tried to do something that was very of the moment for all of Natalie’s stuff and for all of Raffey’s stuff in the first half, stuff that was from earlier in Sia’s career.
The film shows a very uncomfortable press junket. Have you had a bad press experience? Brady, you were on the infamous Melancholia panel in Cannes with Lars von Trier.
CORBET: Nobody’s that interested in me. I haven’t had too many bad experiences with the press. The idea was to show the procedural part of it, to see someone dressed to the nines in a completely banal environment, with hotel chairs stacked up behind them. It was very important that she and the journalist both have a point of view and they’re both right.
In Cannes, that was a tough day. I know Lars really well. I know his family really well. I know his kids. I think it’s very difficult when somebody tries to bring their personality to the public. The thing about Lars is that he is very special, extremely eccentric. English is not his first language, and people forget about that. And so he’s doing a press conference for 30 minutes in English and trying to make all sorts of extremely cerebral jokes and so it was just a very tough day. I understood where he was coming from and I understood the reaction to it, in terms of the soundbytes.
How important is the 50/50 movement to you?
CORBET: It’s super important to us. I think it’s obvious this year, in regards to gender parity here [in Venice], and in other festivals, something needs to be done about it. My sister-in-law is a curator in Norway. She curates for the contemporary art museum there. And she said something very interesting to me, which was she said that she realized that even as a woman she was programming mostly male artists for a period of time in her gallery, mostly because those were the artists that she knew. And one day she woke and she just realized that she needed to try harder. We all need to try harder.
PORTMAN: It’s a major concern of mine, and I’m really happy and proud to be part of the movement that’s demanding a change. I think it’s really something that isn’t just to say, “Oh, there’s not enough films or whatever,” but a moment to be active in making sure there are more films made by women and that they have unbiased receptions at festivals and by distributors and by critics and all of this and that there’s more parity on every level.
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