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6 Filmmaking Tips From Brady Corbet

The writer-director of ‘The Childhood of a Leader’ and ‘Vox Lux’ on hindsight, shooting on film, and what modern filmmakers can learn from early film directors.
Vl Dng
Atsushi Nishijima
By  · Published on December 4th, 2018

Brady Corbet began his on-screen acting career at age 11 with a guest role on the CBS sitcom King of Queens, and except for a few unfortunate drabbles in big-budget fare such as the 2004 film adaptation of Thunderbirds, he’s made a name for himself in acclaimed indie and arthouse fare both here in the US and in Europe. Corbet has featured in such films as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria.

In recent years, Corbet has stepped away from acting in order to pursue his aspirations behind the camera. After collaborating on a couple of stories and screenplays (2012’s Simon Killer and 2014’s The Sleepwalker, both in which he also starred), he made his feature-length directorial debut with the critically acclaimed The Childhood of a Leader, co-written with his wife, writer/director Mona Fastvold. A startling and “compulsively dark” period psychodrama set in 1919 France in the lead-up to the Treaty of Versailles, The Childhood of a Leader depicts the development of an unsettling young boy (Tom Sweet) destined for terrible political greatness as a fascist leader.

His equally daring sophomore feature, Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman as a troubled pop star whose meteoric rise to fame was kickstarted by a school shooting, only solidifies Corbet as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch. While his directorial career might still be in relatively early days — he’s only 30, after all — Corbet has been immersed in the film industry for over half his life now, and he has plenty of great filmmaking advice to show for that experience. Here are six of his best pieces of advice:

Leave Your Film a Little Bit Shaggy

With The Childhood of a Leader, Corbet shows a preference for having the camera linger after the subject leaves the frame, allowing greater room for interpretation. In a July 2016 interview with No Film School (and before you ask — no, we’re not related), the filmmaker expanded on his preference for this technique, saying:

“When you leave a film a little bit shaggy, it gives it life. You start playing this really wonderful game with an audience where it’s like, sometimes something might happen. Then other times, we might be waiting for something to happen, but nothing happens, but maybe there’s a moment or something beautiful that’s just worth looking at.”

Childhoood Of A Leader

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Use Old-Fashioned Strategies to Tell Modern Stories

In 2016, Corbet was asked by an audience member of his Champs-Élysées Film Festival Masterclass about the greatest difficulties he faced from a production standpoint and how he faced them. He replied that while “every project is different,” the hardest thing always boils down to “the rub between the ambition of the project and your financial limitations.” Moving on to address how best to handle those limitations, he gave the following great advice:

“The reality of making a film is always that there’s always kind of a lot of sacrifice and compromise, but the thing is that the people who do it, I think, really, really well, they incorporate those restraints into the work and those restraints sort of define the work and give it form. […]

“I think that most of the answers to these kindz of production problems were answered for us in the first 15 to 30 years of moviemaking. And actually, when you look at Fritz Lang or [… D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance‘] —Intolerance was undeniably a staggering work of art and feat, and it’s so interesting because they were working with, you know, very small budgets, and I think that those are the films to look at and see how they achieved something really, really grand with very, very little.

“Because now everybody just kind of animates everything in the background and in 10 years many, many movies from this era are going to look really dated and two dimensional, and so it’s kind of like, we need to go back to the basics in terms of actually producing really grand images in a very simple way. But we have to be modern and move forward in terms of narrative.”

The entirety of the masterclass can be viewed below (the quoted statement begins at 1:12:23):

Shooting on Film is an Option, Even on a Budget

While celluloid has its champions among big-name directors such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, the general narrative goes that actually being able to shoot on film is a privilege available to relatively few. Corbet took issue with this oft-repeated account in a July 2016 interview with MovieMaker magazine, arguing:

“What needs to be communicated is that if you are a young filmmaker or a first-time filmmaker, or you are making your first short film, it is absolutely possible to shoot on celluloid. There has been a really unfortunate lie, which has been perpetuated, that shooting on film is infinitely more expensive.

“Now, it CAN be more expensive depending on what it is that you are trying to do, but it can also be cheaper than shooting with digital cameras, which are in much higher demand, so the equipment rental is much more expensive.

“It also requires more time in the digital intermediate to work on the colors. You are spending a lot of money on extra days. There is also a lot of extra equipment that you need when you are shooting on video than you need when you are shooting on film.”


Vox Lux (2018)

Make What You Want to See

Although it was ultimately incredibly well received by critics, The Childhood of a Leader proved to be incredibly difficult to both finance and distribute. When the film played the festival circuit, it took home major prizes in European festivals such as the Venice International Film Festival, where it received an award for best debut feature and Corbet won a prize for directing, and yet it was rejected from all the major North American film festivals, including Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.

In an August 2016 interview with Live for Films, Corbet laid out both his frustration with the difficulties facing films that try to do something different and a valuable lesson he took from the experience:

“Anybody who thinks that anything should be a certain way and that there’s only one kind of narrative is ridiculous. I have no problem when I make something that someone just doesn’t like but it’s always frustrating when someone assumes that there’s only one way to bake a cake and that this is not as good a piece of cake because you didn’t include as much sugar. […]

“In the long run it’s just a very important lesson for me to keep close to my heart: you’re not really making movies for other people; you are making films that you yourself would hope to see, and in the way you’d hope to see them made, and you hope that some other people discover it as well.

“I think in a way if you’re making something for other people is quite presumptuous, and ultimately it’s quite a corporate attitude to think you know what the masses want. You have to make what you want to make, and you can’t be afraid of it because it’s commercial, yet you should never make something because you think it’s going to be seen by a lot of people, that’s the wrong approach.”

Childhood Of A Leader

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Hindsight Will Be 20/20

During a Q&A session following a screening of Vox Lux at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, an audience member asked Corbet if there was anything he would change about the film if he was presented the opportunity to do things over. The filmmaker answered that he couldn’t pinpoint anything specifically, at least not yet, elaborating:

“I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about it in one year […] Making movies, whether you’re acting in them or making them, they’re like baby pictures, so, you know, you get on down the line and you realize, ‘oh shit, I was a little fat,’ you know, or whatever, and so I don’t know. I mean I hope the movies I make in a decade are much better than the ones that I’m making now, but you know, I’m doing the best with what I have.”

The full Q&A session can be watched below (the quote above begins at 14:00):

You Can’t Control How The Audience Interprets Things

Corbet puts value on making films that are open to interpretation. That said, as he told Eye For Film in an August 2016 interview, such a strategy has an unavoidable side effect that filmmakers just have to make peace with:

“I feel like in a strange way that a film just needs to mean something to the person that made it. It’s like a poem so there’s so much there for people to have their interpretations. The most painful thing about making a movie that’s open to interpretation is that it’s open to misinterpretation, so it’s kind of like, the only thing that ever upsets me.

“I never have a problem when someone hates the film but I hate when someone hates the film for the wrong reasons, then I get really pissed off. Because it’s one of those things where if the film is dismissed as a moral tale… which, I would never participate in the crafting of a moral tale, so I’m like, what movie did you see?

“I think that has much more to do with viewers who want to assume something. That has to do with their expectations not to do with what the film is emitting. It’s a funny thing but I’ve got a bit better at letting it wash over me. It was not meant to be a history lesson or at all didactic. It’s supposed to be a mourning call for the events that define the 20th century that somehow it would touch upon everything that was beautiful and devastating about the century.”


Vox Lux (2018)

What We Learned

Watch or read an interview with Brady Corbet and you’ll quickly discover he’s an incredibly well-versed cinephile, a man who became an actor for the love of movies, not one who entered movies for a love of acting. As such, seeing how he’s fully shifted gears from acting to writing and directing his own projects does not come across like an artist trying a new hat on for size so much as a filmmaker finally getting to walk around in the metaphorical shoes he’s had his eye on for years.

While he worked with several of the most acclaimed living directors over the course of his acting career and undoubtedly picked up things along the way, his aims and attitude as a filmmaker are uniquely his own. Corbet’s dynamic approach that involves both taking cues from filmmakers of prior eras and looking forward in order to tell new and challenging stories is an intriguing one to watch and promises to age well in future.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.