Vox Lux: Connecting the Dots Between Popularity and Infamy with Brady Corbet

Vox Lux writer-director Brady Corbet unpacks his own history with pop music and Columbine, and how it informed the Natalie Portman film.

Vox Lux is a challenging film by design, yet it’s also one of the best. With the ambitious subtitle of “A Portrait of the 21st Century,” the movie attempts to draw a bright, blood-hued line between a culture of celebrity and the growing culture of infamy. Natalie Portman is Celeste in the film, a pseudo-intellectual and decadent pop star whose evolved with the times since her first hit in 1999: It was a song she wrote in tribute to classmates murdered in a school shooting back when that was a national tragedy instead of a seeming weekly occurrence. Once the angelic survivor of a nightmare (played by Raffey Cassidy), she’s grown up to be pop diva always on the verge of reckoning—especially when terrorists begin adopting her iconography for their own social media-dominating attacks.

It’s obviously a film with a lot on its mind, a mind which belongs to Brady Corbet, the writer-director who at 30-years-old is only helming his second picture after 2015’s The Childhood of a Leader. When sitting down in a Manhattan hotel bar, however, he is quite humble in his reflections. Admitting the picture mixes melodrama and screwball comedy—as well as real-world horror—he thinks it is something of a snapshot of our messy times. Pulling out his iPhone he ably points to the top four news stories an algorithm is trying to grab his attention with: Donald Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, has been sentenced to three years in prison, popular author Stephen King is taunting the President of the United States on Twitter, there has been another celebrity wedding, oh and a new terrorist shooting in France, this time at a Christmas market during the holidays.

It’s a lot to sit with, both in life and a film where Portman struts to musical numbers with an authentically broad Staten Island accent. We discuss all of that and more in the interview below.

As a writer what came first, the idea of Celeste the pop star or a 21st century portrait that kind of led you to pop music?

Brady Corbet: I’d say that it’s the latter. My first movie was a product of the early childhood experiences of a child [character] growing up in the early part of the 20th century. So I wanted to apply that same logic to a story about right now. So I think that the theme led the character.

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I think you and I are about the same age, which is roughly the same age as Celeste in the movie. So I was curious what did pop music mean for you growing up in your formative years?

I don’t have a specific moment in time or tune that I could point out, but if you’re in your 30s, what we had was Total Request Live and “Genie in a Bottle.” My early exposure to popular music wasn’t Madonna, it was Britney. I think that Madonna was interesting because Madonna was an intellectual and she was a provocatrix and she was an artist that was using popular music and bending it very much to her will. And then a lot of artists and boy bands and stuff in the late ‘90s, they were created by or manufactured by the studio, by the label.

Everything we grew up with.

Yeah, so it’s interesting that that sort of prefab housing sort of style of music, which has basically defined the look of our American suburbs, it’s defined the sound of American music.

You mentioned Britney, so when you hear a Britney song or any of those boy band songs, does it take you to, not just maybe a moment in your personal life, but cultural moments, what was going on in that year?

Absolutely, absolutely, which I think is interesting. The year of a popular song, our triumphs and our tragedies are tied to it because it’s everywhere. That song is on the radio, that song is in Taxi cabs, it’s in supermarkets, et cetera.

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Related to that, what is your memory of Columbine, both the day and what it came to mean?

Well, I grew up in Colorado. So not to say that I was more or less affected by my proximity, but if you didn’t know people who were affected, you knew people who knew people who were affected because so many lives were lost.

You knew people who lived in that town?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And I was from Glenwood Springs, Colorado so about three hours away. And I traveled the state and stuff with swim meets, because when I was growing up I was on the swim team, to different sports and sporting events all over the state. So same thing with JonBenét Ramsey, also a Colorado tragedy that everyone in the state had an opinion about. So I remember how unique that event seemed at the time, how shocking, disturbing the scale of it. It was unimaginable to me 20 years ago that that even would become commonplace. The idea that something like this has happened almost every day of the year in this country is beyond my reckoning.

It’s interesting you say that. I was in North Carolina when it happened. I think I was still in middle school, and my parents worried about it, but I’m like “that could never happen here.” Now kids really worry about that every day.

Yeah, I mean now my daughter and plenty of kids all over the country have school shooting drills. So we grew up with fire drills, but now you got fire drills and shooting drills, which is sort of like life during wartime. That’s like preparing kids to get under their desk if a bomb drops.

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Except there’s no end to this war.

Exactly because there are no boundaries. I think that it’s a very complicated moment in time we’re living in because, in general, there are wonderful things about borders being broken down because of our connectivity, that we can exchange information so quickly. It is very easy right now for us to expose a lie or a wrongdoing, so there are so many positive things. However, I think that people are starting to realize that the borders are imaginary and I think that mass shootings are our civil war.

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To take this into the movie, what you said, I didn’t realize you grew up in Colorado. That really recontextualizes, for me, the beginning where I think Willem Dafoe, as the narrator, said something like, “Her personal tragedy became a national tragedy because of the song.” What did that mean to you to see kind of this national outpouring of grief kind of descend on Colorado at that time?

That’s a good question. I think that I was too young to have that kind of objectivity about it. I actually think that only at the age I’m at now, but also more importantly than my age now, because I’m still very young, I’m a father now and I have a four-year-old. So I have very strong opinions about what my child is inheriting. And this film sort of tries to address everything which is direly serious and seriously absurd about what has occurred and become so commonplace in the first part of the century.

The movie is not shy about drawing a line between the celebrity of pop culture and the celebrity of terrorism. I think Celeste says in the movie we’re both chasing headlines here. Do you think in social media that the reasons for celebrity have completely kind of collapsed or blurred?

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Yeah, I mean fame and infamy are the same thing. That’s for sure, like 100 percent the same thing. There is no difference between a great success and a great scandal, and I really feel that way. I don’t know if I would have made a statement so cynical even five years ago, but right now I feel like it was so frustrating during the year leading up to the election, when so many editors were creating these clickbait headlines about Trump because he was a fascinating car accident, and they knew that everybody would be glued to the soap opera that is this stark, raving, mad, narcissistic bigot.

I think there’s blame on both sides and I think that it is very difficult to stand by and see very clearly how those things work. You feel like instead of us just being given information, that information is dramatized in the headlines, or even frequently in the tone of the pieces themselves, that there is a little bit too much personality with the news, which suddenly becomes blogging and journalism—that’s all skewed. It’s hard for many people to tell the difference.

For me, especially because growing up, following certain journalists that you really admire and that you really trust, it’s easy to tell white from gray. But it is tricky because there’s so much information for sale that it’s a little overwhelming, and how are our kids going to—how can we expect them to be discerning?

You bring that up in the movie. There is a terrorist attack in the movie where terrorists wear masks of Celeste and execute a shooting, and everyone is trying to figure out what the connection is. Do you think that’s a little bit of a fool’s errand when it seems like there is just something in the water?

Well, the idea is that in the first part of the film, the culture shapes this young woman, and in the second part of the film, she in turn reshapes the culture. And it’s sort of about how this cycle; this refraction is fascinating because, for me, it’s the society that has created this character in the second half of the film that is lashing out and behaves like such a dragon, because she’s been persecuted and vilified, and so she’s eventually become a villain. So it’s simply only to suggest that everything is connected, and whether those connections are direct are indirect, it’s hard for me to say.

For example, after Columbine everybody came after Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, and so the fact that these are the things that seem to be sort of preeminent in our minds, what’s going on in the news cycle and what’s going on in popular news cycle, and the fact that when you look into the spotlight feature on your iPhone that you have four doors to choose from and at any given time, you basically can choose to read about the French Christmas market attacker, Stephen King taunts Donald Trump on Twitter, Michael Cohen, and a People magazine article about a wedding.

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I mean, it’s always like this. So the idea that you have the juxtaposition of grave tragedy, as well as ultimate distraction, and that you’re faced with that constantly, it’s emblematic of the moment in time we’re living in. So the film tries to address that.

Natalie Portman is someone who has grown up in the public eye with our generation, so casting her in this role I think is very clever. Was that a conscious choice when you started talking with her for the role?

Not too much. I mostly chose her because there’s not that many actors that are willing to throw caution to the wind and dive into something like this, because stylistically it’s a performance of a bygone era. The idea was that we would be doing tragedy by a soap opera. I mean the film is a melodrama. The second half of the film also has elements that are like a screwball comedy. In a way, the idea was to talk about the digital revolution but on celluloid, so you’re treating everything in a very old-fashioned way issues that have become… contemporary issues that we take for granted. And actually when they’re lifted up to these kind of melodramatic heights, I feel like we kind of see them for what they are, how absurd and bizarre they really are.

It’s interesting because I know Natalie is maybe a little more self-aware of the world outside of her bubble than Celeste is, I’ve seen her give very interesting lectures in the past. Do you think it’s possible to be a celebrity and an intellectual leader, as opposed to Celeste seems more like a Kanye West type of ego?

Yeah, I mean of course it is. The thing is that there are always exceptions to the rule, but I would just say that I think that it’s absurd that we expect our pop cultural figures to be our public representatives. It’s okay to hold a politician’s feet to the fire, because that’s what they signed up for and that’s what we elected them for. We elected them to be our representatives, but a pop star or a movie star that has an opinion about something, they’re citizens and citizens only. And yet, we treat them like they’re Secretary of State.

How did you come to the conclusion that she should be from Staten Island and have that outer-borough flavor?

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Well, the idea was that the characters would live across the bay from the World Trade Center. So the idea was always that their proximity to that attack was important, thematically. And then, the character in the second half of the story embellishes. Everything which is true about her becomes an affectation. So she becomes a myriad of affectations that function as a sort of armor for her. She’s turned into a caricature of her former self, which is something I see happen all the time. Everything about the film is extreme, but it is something which exists. Like I think it’s fascinating someone that develops an English accent that they never had or they sound like they’re from Brooklyn, but they’re from Los Angeles, that sort of thing.

I didn’t realize before seeing this that Natalie could sing, so could you talk about developing the musical numbers and dancing in rehearsals, because you save them all for the end where her concert seems as much a Sermon on the Mount.

Yeah, it is, and also the idea’s that at the end of the film, the show is so long that it gives you a lot of time to reflect on everything that has preceded it, and also to see the mechanics of a show like that for what they are. The end of the film is shot like a very conventional concert film. All the mise en scène disappears, and it’s just a show, nothing more and nothing less. The effect is different for everybody, for some people it’s haunting and for some people they just really enjoy the show.

And were you looking for a certain effect from the music that Sia for that scene?

No, not in particular. I was really just trying to shoot it for what it is, if that makes sense.

Thank you so much for taking the time on this.

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Thank you, it was a pleasure to speak with you.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.