Torture The Form: An Interview with Vox Lux’s Brady Corbet

Brady Corbet is making a name for himself, ‘torturing the form’ as a big vision indie auteur around town. He first won Venice with a faux-bildungsroman centring on a young Damian-like antichrist, born to one of the architects of the Versailles Treaty in The Childhood of a Leader. His second film is Vox Lux (Voice, Light in Latin), another mock bildungsroman, but set over the last 20 years. In two acts it covers the life of another seemingly satanic personality, as she evolves from school shooting survivor to pop superstar. Natalie Portman leads in a role that is more meta than if it were played by Rooney Mara (Corbet’s first choice), with meta pop songs written by Sia, and a haunting and operatic score by avant-gardist Scott Walker. The film has divided audiences and critics alike with its experimental architecture, confronting themes, and imagery.

Now that the Oscars have blown over, we can sharpen our gaze on this charismatic gem, which flew under the radar this past week; Vox Lux came and went without making a fuss. In a perfect world it would have swept an actress award for Natalie Portman and a prize for Sia’s original song writing. But Lady Gaga’s work attracted the attention – with a frankly surprising snub for acting – and so the demon twin to A Star Is Born came and went like a Sia track on the Billboard Charts – unrecognised, and quietly genius.

Rough Cut staff writer André Shannon and guest contributor Jack Atherton had the pleasure of talking to child-star-turned-director Brady Corbet about what feels to be one of the first grand statement films of the century about the century, and what it’s like to work with cinema’s most underrated musician, Sia.

André Shannon: Are you cool to talk about Sia for a little bit?

Brady Corbet: Of course!

AS: Do you mind describing her involvement in the film, and why she was someone you were really drawn to as a collaborator? Why was Sia someone perfect for Vox Lux?

BC: Well, for a variety of reasons. First of all, my initial instinct was that, with my screenplay, we needed nine or ten original songs for the film. I knew of course that the movie would not be made for $50 million so I needed to create an entire original pop soundtrack, which is something that is labour intensive and very expensive.

The only reason I hadn’t sat with a pop-star was because I didn’t know many pop-stars that completely write their own material. And there’s also the fact I couldn’t imagine a pop-star taking time from their busy schedule to have me put this together. However, the only person who would probably try is Sia. For a variety of reasons: First reason being that, not only does she write her own songs, she also writes music for many other pop-stars, so I loved the idea of working with someone who was as famous for their own body of work as for [being someone else’s] writer. And I felt that it was a great way for the soundtrack to represent, y’a know, more or less the full spectrum of pop music in the last 20 years.

We wanted some pop songs that had, you know, a bubblegum influence, we wanted other songs that had an EDM influence, and so I reached out to her representatives a few years ago. I said, “I’m making a movie about a pop star and I’m looking for someone to make the music for it.” And to my surprise I got an affirmative kind of quickly.

Jack Atherton: That’s so cool.

BC: So, I feel very fortunate. I think the movie wouldn’t exist without her participation, honestly.

JA: Can I just say that I’m from Adelaide so I have this personal connection to Sia knowing that she’s a hometown girl. A lot of her music was about trauma, and was a lot more personal. It does sound like now she just ‘churns’ out hooks, like she knows how to [do it] really quickly. And, that seems like a similar trajectory to Celeste in the film.

BC: The thing is Sia is wildly, wildly, prolific. The truth is that if this is the language you speak, it becomes about constantly re-ordering, restructuring, adjusting the pattern. There are more complex patterns in classical music, but it’s the same principles, you know? Some people just speak the language. I for one do not, you know? I can bang on a guitar, and use a monitor, but that’s about it.

Brady’s phone starts buzzing.

BC: Sorry my phone is buzzing off. My daughter is on winter recess, she’s just dying to go back to her school and hang with her friends.

JA: Oh my god, that is so cute. How old is she?

BC: She’s four years old, she’s going to be five this summer.

JC and AS: Oh my god, that’s so cute!

AS: Jack and I noticed there are a lot of films that feature Sia songs coming out recently, we kind of think she’s a bit of a secret ingredient in movies, but Vox Lux is the first time she’s had a lot of creative input in a film. Why do you think Sia’s music is so cinematic?

JA: And also, why the hell has she not been nominated for an Oscar?!

BC: You know, it’s such a shame. With a film like this, which is quite radical and at times quite confrontational, you know, it’s just political. It’s a political thing. And sometimes those politics favour a film, and sometimes they don’t, and it’s just the nature of the beast. I can think of dozens of examples of people that could have or should have been nominated for all those prizes over the course of their careers, but – you know – she is still very young. I still think she’s got time, she’ll get it for the next one.

AS: Sia and Natalie Portman are very recognisable artists, did you want people to draw comparisons between their previous work and Vox Lux, like Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, or Breathe Me and Titanium by Sia?

BC: The answer is no. It’s a way of marketing a film. The thing is that as an artist, you know, making a movie is not like painting a painting. You’re inviting 100 personalities to come and put their mark on the film and so I think that with Natalie’s body of work, every performance is reflective of previous performances and related to things she’s done in the past, and things she plans to do in the future because that is in and of itself its own art project. That’s her own personal artistic contribution. So, I think it’s natural that people make those comparisons.

JA: On our podcast Cinema Girls, we were talking about how Vox Lux is maybe our new favourite film, but I was in a room with a bunch of other critics when I saw it who were older and seemed perplexed by it, and were using words like ‘mess’. When I grew up in the time that this film is set in, and related to it in such a deep way.

BC:  The thing is it’s because of the film’s very progressive construction, I’m not even remotely surprised by the befuddlement that it’s occasionally met with. And I’m also not surprised by people who are in tune with it. I can say only this: the film is a very carefully constructed piece of architecture. There’s nothing there which is accidental. I understand that there are things people like or dislike or understand or don’t understand, but none of it’s an accident. I would have to disagree with the assessment from anyone that the film is a mess. Just because the characters are quite a carefully choreographed mess, and give the appearance of being a mess or messy, does not make the film itself a mess.

JA: I feel like a lot of films feel post-neo-realistic, or something, or try and create some kind of sense of reality and this cohesive whole, whereas this film just sort of says ‘fuck that’ and tries a bunch of different styles to make different points.

BC: I basically think there are no rules when one sets out to make a movie. And I really, really despise genre as a concept altogether. I mean, I can’t tell you how many fucking meetings I’ve had to endure where someone talks to me about, ‘We’re looking for something that’s romantic with some thriller elements.’ You’re like, ‘What are you talking about? Just tell a story! Just tell the story you want to tell.’ Stop trying to market it before it even exists yet. You know? I am resistant to the notion that there is one way to bake a cake.

I believe that we can show viewers new ways of receiving and thinking about stories if we torture the form a little bit. Something me and my cinematographer talk about and are trying to achieve, is creating perfectly imperfect pictures, right? Images are often underexposed and then pushed, and you know for us, there is beauty in that mess. When we extract grain from one image, it’s something that for us gives the image character and richness and we think it’s beautiful. For us, it’s important to wear flaws on our sleeves.

I agree with you that we do live in a moment where viewers tend to think a performance is very good if it’s very natural, and I love naturalistic performances, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen a lot of neorealist movies that I absolutely adore. But I also love really operatic movies, you know, really operatic performances, and I think it’s important for us to test those boundaries as much as possible. Most of my favourite films – the movies of Nicholas Roeg or F.W. Murnau – we’re not talking about naturalistic films whatsoever, they have their own universe, and I like that very much.

Distributor on the line: Hey guys, we’ve actually run out of time now.

JA and AS: No!

JA: Argh, I have so many questions, I want to talk about Nicholas Roeg now! Thank you so much for talking to us, it’s such a shame we didn’t get to Gregg Araki…

BC: Hey no worries! But thanks a lot for giving the movie your attention, I really appreciate it.  

This interview comes as an edited version of a work which appeared on FBi 94.5. Listen to the (re-enacted) conversation here.

Read Debbie Zhou’s feature on Vox Lux’s eerie examination of celebrity culture here.

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Jack Atherton and André Shannon are the collective Australian Reflexxx; queer filmmakers who also work in film criticism. They host Movies, Movies, Movies on FBi 94.5 every Monday morning, and when they’re not dissecting film culture they are fighting about The Hours. Find them at www.australianreflexxx.com.


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