Four years ago, Brady Corbet was the toast of the Toronto International Film Festival. Okay, that’s misleading. The American actor was not the most praised or highest profile performer at the 2014 fest, but he was certainly the most unavoidable. That year, Corbet appeared in five TIFF selections (Clouds of Sils Maria, Force Majeure, Eden, While We’re Young and Escobar: Paradise Lost), mostly European films that cast him as the token American guy, a result of Corbet living overseas at the time.
At this past fall’s TIFF, Corbet enjoyed another robust presence – although this time for his work behind the camera, with Vox Lux. The dark drama, chronicling the beginnings and burn-out of pop star Celeste (Raffey Cassidy in the film’s first act, Natalie Portman in the latter), is Brady’s second feature as a writer-director, and quickly earned a polarizing reception. Some critics considered it a refreshing and idiosyncratic alternative to A Star Is Born, others a pretentious answer to the same.
While the urge to pit Vox Lux against Bradley Cooper’s film is natural – the two directors even share the same initials, for god’s sake – the projects were created in entirely different artistic ecosystems, with vastly divergent goals. Where Cooper’s film is a slick, meticulously constructed ode to finding your one true partner (when not acting as a love letter to Lady Gaga herself), Corbet’s work is complicated and messy, with big ideas about entertainment, violence, the media and trauma. In other words, it’s the kind of movie you might expect from someone with one foot in Hollywood, the other in Europe.
While at TIFF this past September, the 30-year-old Corbet spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about provocation, pop culture and online echo chambers.
There are so many ideas going on in Vox Lux. What are your hopes for its reception?
It’s easy to be brave inside a bubble, because you work on something for a long time, and you’re not trying to be provocative or anything. You’re just trying to execute it. But when you present it to someone, you see all the ways it could go wrong. When you leave something open to interpretation, you leave something open to misinterpretation. It’s an experiment for me. The aim was to be as transcendent in the minimalism as we were in the maximalism – to fully commit to both. But then the result is strange, even for me as a viewer. I’m happy that it mostly seems to work for people.
It feels like a film of extremes. There’s one moment, where we follow a young Celeste hopping around Europe in grainy home-video footage, which reminded me of the European vacation montage in Roger Avary’s Rules of Attraction, maybe one of the most frantic few minutes I’ve ever seen.
A friend of mine actually brought that up during a test screening, as it wasn’t on my mind at the time of filming. I was thinking more of [Harmony Korine’s] Julien Donkey-Boy and the Dogme films [of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg], and how we could use video in a way that would invoke the nineties. There are so many references to pop culture in the past 20 years in there. Sometimes things happen not on purpose, but it’s in your mind. You realize that you tipped your hat without being cognizant of it until later on.
What do you think of those who’ve so far called it deliberately provocative?
We’re in a strange position, filmmakers. It’s very painful to make a movie, so it’s too much of an effort for a film to just be a provocation. You’d never spend three years of your life trying to get something made just to piss people off. Well, I’ve met some people who are exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, it’s never something that conniving. You make it because you care about it and you care about the characters.
The film is split in two halves, each opening with an incredible act of violence. How much of this is you trying to examine pop, and how much is it about looking at the sociopolitical climate that surrounds pop culture?
I didn’t have to draw parallels between the two because they’re already drawn – they’re one and the same now. It’s embarrassing to boil it down to this, but the real impetus for the whole film was that I have these Apple news updates on my iPhone, the Spotlight feature, where there’s four or five news headlines that appear on the screen, and are therefore equated. Let’s look right now. … We slide the screen, and there’s a story about Don Lemon airing embarrassing footage of Republicans, one about Cardi B injured during Fashion Week … and more frequently, these are paired with stories about mass murder. You sort of wonder why do any of us give a damn?
I’ll tell you, Spotlight is a coveted feature for journalists. If we’re able to get a story selected by Apple there – and no one knows how they do it – we’re almost guaranteed huge traffic.
I don’t make movies because I need everyone to see it and find it. I think in the future we’re all going to look at the last 15 years and realize we all behaved badly and stupidly, without grace. If anyone can be popular, then why does it matter? I don’t see why anybody would feel more gratified by 10,000 people reading their story or 10 million – it still gets out there. And on Twitter, I can only talk about my community, but I’m embarrassed for so many journalists who have a persona on Twitter instead of letting their work speak for itself. I find they can gang up on people.
Film writers on Twitter, we have that reputation.
I think it’s in every field, we’re just aware of it because we work in film. I don’t have Twitter, but I do get these press breaks, where I get screenshots of everybody’s tweets, what they’re saying about the film. And there’s times when I just … I happen to be a fairly self-possessed, happy person, but you’re met or faced with a fair amount of cruelty when you’ve done something that is very difficult. Everything has become a little hyperbolic, too. I don’t think we should hand out “masterpiece” all the time, that’s too much. [Twitter] appeals to our worst selves. We have to try to collectively rise to the occasion and be less juvenile.
I’m getting the “time’s up” signal here from the publicist, which is good a time as any to ask about that extremely uncomfortable junket scene between Celeste and Christopher Abbott’s journalist character. It got quite a reaction during the press screening …
Well, I’m writing a film right now about the relationship between art and commerce – it’s about an architect’s relationship with a financier. And the most important thing when you’re dealing with two sides who need each other but are in opposition to one another is that you treat everyone fairly. It’s not fair to only err on the side of the journalist or the artist – you have to be equally critical and also treat them with equal respect. The idea of that scene was to do that. He’s a bit condescending, and Celeste is extremely affected. But they both have valid points of view.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Vox Lux opens Dec. 21 in Toronto