Filmmaking: <I>Vox Lux</I>
Issue: December 1, 2018

Filmmaking: Vox Lux

Neon’s new feature film, Vox Lux, begins in 1999, when young teenager Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a violent school shooting and, after singing at a memorial service, begins a path to pop stardom with the help of her songwriter sister (Stacy Martin) and talent manager (Jude Law). Flash forward to 2017, and adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) is working on a comeback following scandal that has derailed her career. She is also working to overcome personal and familial struggles, including a teenage daughter, and the sister she pushed aside in her own quest for stardom.

Brady Corbet wrote and directed the project, which features original songs by Sia and an original score by Scott Walker. The film was shot on 35mm over the course of 22 days — two specifically for Celeste’s live performances. Kodak handled the film processing.

Corbet says the project was budgeted for 260,000 feet of film, but only shot roughly 170,000.

“How much footage can you shoot in 22 days?” asks the director. “When you're shooting digitally, you just shoot and shoot and shoot, because, why not? Right? But even when I shoot on a digital camera, when I shoot music videos and stuff, my workflow is pretty much the same.”

Lol Crawley served as cinematographer on Vox Lux. In fact, raw concert footage he shot for an Arcade Fire video a few years back was used in helping to create some of the film’s large concert scenes. 

“He'd shot a lot of it on celluloid, and shot a lot of 16mm,” Corbet recalls. “Basically, it was an ideal situation because it's footage that already exists  — and from your cinematographer, [which] means it has their sensibility to a certain extent.”

The Artery and The Mill provided visual effects services.

“Funnily enough, even though it was the most daunting — the one that we were the most concerned about — that actually was pretty fluid,” says Corbet of the film’s long concert scene, set late in the film. “I mean, there are minor visual effects throughout the entire performance — removing shadows — things like that. There's a lot of practical stuff because we were shooting so quickly. We would get the B camera on the A camera all the time, but we have such a great shot that we would need to remove that camera man.”

Toronto-based editor Matthew Hannam set up shop at Technicolor-PostWorks NY, where he cut the film on an Avid system, working at HD resolution. Corbet admits to wrapping up a number of shoot days, not entirely sure if they had exactly what we they needed, but confident that they would be able to work with what they have or even fix it later on in post.

Hannam calls attention to a few scenes that were interesting to work on from an editorial standpoint. 

“Some of the more rewarding scenes are the ones that are the least flashy,” says the editor.

In one, Celeste is having lunch with her daughter at a diner in New York City. The restaurant’s manager asks for a photo and the interruption sets her off.

“It’s just two shots,” Hannam says of the diner scene. “Kind of our biggest editorial challenge was all the feelings that you needed to [have] happen in there — having her be kind of erratic and also being a mother.” 

Hannam also looks at the second half of the movie, where many scenes make use of long, single shots.

“That is when I think we really had to work, and work really hard at having older Celeste, having her journey sort of feel dangerous and feel realistic and also not be a completely despicable. We still want to care about her and be worried about her when we get to the end. Natalie obviously gives us great material to work with, but monitoring that and working on that section of the movie, I think, was, for me, a lot of fun editorially.”

The project started shooting in February and Hannam worked through the summer on the edit to meet the film’s September premiere. 

“I think we kind of made what we were planning to make,” says Hannam of the finished film. “There [are] a lot of surprises. I mean it changes as the actors change…You don't know what that's going to be until a there's an actor doing it. I think that's the most important part of any movie — how did this script get interpreted and then how do we react to that? Willem Dafoe was not the narrator when we started. [They] cast him later and that also brought something to it. The narrator was a really exciting development for us…Jude brings a certain charisma and warmth to a sleazy character that I never [would have] predicted…I really enjoyed making the montage, when they go to Stockholm. Brady and I went and shot that footage in Stockholm — just doing the research and finding all the strange little bits and pieces that went into that.”

“We've known each other for about six or seven years,” says Corbet of his relationship with Hannam. “He embraced the challenge of not having a great deal of coverage, if any. I mean, every single shot that we shot ended up in the film. There really was not a wasted frame. So it really fell on Matthew to figure out how to combine takes #1 and #9, and make it work, which he really enjoys.”