Actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s devilishly entertaining Vox Lux premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday to a strangely polarized reaction. Some were delighted by the film, which tracks the rise and attempted reboot of a glittery, Lady Gaga-esque diva; others walked out of the press screening, which was met with scattered boos. Everyone agreed, though, that nobody could fault the 35-mm. musical drama with a lack of ambition.
Divided into two chapters, the film follows Celeste (Raffey Cassidy in part one), a sweet and musically gifted 14-year-old who survives a school shooting reminiscent of Columbine and parlays her newfound notoriety into music-biz stardom. When we pick up with her in part two, now played by Natalie Portman, Celeste has slugged it out atop the pop charts for the past 15 years, with all the scars and addictions to show for it—and an arsenal of all-new tunes by songwriter extraordinaire Sia.
On the day she’s meant to kick off her comeback tour, news footage emerges of terrorists wearing Celeste-inspired garb while killing innocents. Violence gave the singer her name, and now threatens to take it away.
We spoke with Portman and Corbet about the film, their respective careers, and why directing is like sex, shortly before Vox Lux’s red carpet premiere on Tuesday.
Vanity Fair: Natalie, I saw that you have an executive-producer credit on the film, as well as an acting credit. What has your relationship with this project been like over the years?
Natalie Portman: I do? [Laughs] That’s awesome! I didn’t have a relationship—I guess that’s something my agents added in, and I didn’t realize. [Laughs]
Brady Corbet: When you’re putting a film together, you always have to start with the cast—the film wouldn’t exist without Natalie’s participation, Jude [Law]’s participation, Sia’s participation. And so I would assume that was the producers’ reasoning. But I don’t know; I didn’t negotiate the deal.
Portman: [Still laughing] That’s hysterical! I totally didn’t know that.
Raffey Cassidy plays the teenage Celeste in the first half of the film, and Celeste’s teenage daughter in part two. Did you work with her to develop your shared character?
Portman: Not really. It was guided by Brady, because everything was fast and furious, shooting-wise. It was a bold choice of Brady’s that was really interesting, because it’s a constant reminder of the first half of the movie and what that character’s been through and that story, next to what’s kind of a different person 15 years later. It sort of reminds you of the past that brought her to where she is. Also, I think Raffey is such a strong actress.
Corbet: I think the idea is that Natalie is having a dialogue with herself, in a way. And yet it’s someone who has advanced a little bit, is a bit further along than she was at that age, 15 years [prior]. The idea was that the first half of the movie is minimalism, and the second half is maximalism. So you have this character who is like a seed in part one, and is not a fully realized character until part two.
Portman: She’s like a man-eating plant in part two!
When we return to Celeste, she’s spent the past 15 years in the public spotlight. You’ve been there even longer than that. Has the nature of fame changed in recent years?
Portman: It’s changed a lot. In some ways, it feels a lot more invasive, because of things like camera phones and the Internet, which did not exist when I was first starting, of course. But, also, it feels a lot more dissipated, because there’s just so much information and so much out there that every little bit seems less valuable and less important. So it’s also become more relaxed, in a way.
How did you get into the mind of a pop star?
Portman: I watched a lot of documentaries. I don’t want to reveal them, because I don’t want people to think it’s based on particular people, which it’s not. The writing was so specific and inventive that I don’t want people to say, “Oh, it’s a mix of this-meets-that,” or whatever. I watched all of them. [Laughs] All the documentaries about pop stars.
What about the music? What was your collaboration like with Sia?
Corbet: I needed so much material, and so basically we mined through tons and tons of musical ideas—unreleased material, etc.—and mixed and matched, putting lyrics and music together to make the soundtrack. So some of these songs, especially the songs in the first part of the movie, were written a long time ago. And we tried as much as we could, because sometimes we had trouble recovering the elements, because they were written and produced a long time ago. But we tried to keep as much [of] the original production as possible. And then the contemporary songs were, you know, contemporary.
Did you go to Sia and say, “I have this character. I have this movie. What can you do?”
Corbet: Absolutely. Yes. I went and sat down and listened to many, many, many different songs, or parts of songs, or demos. And I started to identify something that would function really well for the character. But, then, everything was reproduced and the vocals were recorded, or in some cases re-recorded [gestures towards Portman].
Portman: It was really fun and surprising to just see what they could do in the studio—how you can layer your voice. The whole process was completely new for me. We recorded with Sia’s people, so that was really fun. You’ve got the headset on, and you’re in this recording studio . . .
Celeste survives a school shooting. She becomes the face of it, and that fuels her rise to fame. Has it been surreal watching reality imitate fiction this year, seeing the Parkland survivors chart a similar course?
Corbet: Here’s the thing: the film is not that prescient. The writing’s been on the wall for this stuff for forever, right? I mean, we have a reality star in the White House. Parkland is just one of the many, many, many tragedies that seems like we’re repeating on a weekly basis. I wasn’t more cognizant of the Parkland attack than I was everything else that’s happened this year, or San Bernardino a couple years ago. [However, with the Parkland kids,] it seems like maybe things are getting healthier. We finally are giving a face to the victims, as opposed to only the attackers.
Celeste loses control of her image in the second half of the film, after terrorists use visuals from her music videos while committing unspeakable acts. As film artists, do you worry about people appropriating your work and image?
Portman: I don’t know if that’s a fear in my life that I think about a lot. But it is something interesting for the character—to have her external perception so out of her hands. She obviously wants to control the narrative a little bit more.
Corbet: I think any time you’re portraying acts of violence on-screen, it can be argued that they immediately become iconic. I was mostly focused on doing something that was quite banal. I tried to make sure that it was not an iconic act of violence in the film . . . The creative process is something very insular, so, really, all you can focus on is doing the work as well as you can, and try to do it with integrity, which is what I tried to do. I’m not particularly worried about there being any acts of violence that are associated with this film.
Both of you began your careers as actors, and have moved toward directing. How does such a background help you as filmmakers?
Corbet: Hopefully, it makes us especially sensitive to whatever everyone who’s in front of the camera is going through. The more radical and dramatic the material, the more vulnerable it is for the cast. So, hopefully, it made us very patient and understanding. Every time a day player comes in—even if they only have two or three lines—they come with so much responsibility and stress because they don’t know everyone; they’re not familiar with the group. I’ve been in that position many times, where I’ve come in and just have one or two scenes in the movie. So I especially felt for people like that, and so I think we achieved something that was even better than if I had been not patient and not understanding.
Portman: I think it’s lucky to come as an actor to directing. Mike Nichols always used to say to me that directing is like sex—you don’t know how anyone else does it. And you look at other people and just kind of imagine, “oh, they must be really good at it!” [Laughs] As actors, you know how everyone else does it, cause you’ve had sex with all them! [Laughs] Obviously not actually had sex, but you’ve worked with all of them. You’ve had the experience working them, of course, so you know how everyone does it.
What lessons will you take from your first experience as a director, now that you’re beginning to work on your second film?
Portman: I think you [better] know the editing-room experience, of seeing what you are missing, or what you wish you had done. I imagine—because I haven’t done my second yet—that that will be a big change. Also, the music—I feel like I would start [working on] the music much earlier. I feel like music happens so late in the process, and I realized that it takes a long time to find the right stuff, and you almost want to shoot to music sometimes. I just realized that for the next time I would do it, I would want it much earlier in the process, rather than something to just add on at the end.
What can you tell us about your next project, which is about the relationship between Dear Abby and Ann Landers?
Portman: It’s very, very early. We’re still working on the script, and I think it’s going to be a while. I’m really interested in how you can become your own worst enemy, and how identical twins [are] kind of a personification of fighting yourself.