When cinematographer Natasha Braier first read “Neon Demon,” she didn’t particularly like writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s script.
“When we met at his house he asked what I thought of the script and I was honest about what wasn’t working for me,” Braier told IndieWire in a recent interview. “Nicolas smiled, ‘Oh, you got the fake script.’ Apparently he is very cautious about sending his real scripts out into the world.”
On her drive home from Refn’s, Braier’s agent called saying she’d been offered job.
Nicolas Winding Refn
“I said that I’d love to work with him, but I don’t really know what the movie is about,” Braier recalled with a laugh. Her agent asked if she wanted to wait for Refn to send her the real script. Feeling she had made a connection with the director and being drawn to his visual approach to storytelling, Braier decided not to wait. And so began one of “craziest and most artistically challenging collaborations” of Braier’s career.
The Unique Creative Process
Refn had Braier watch 10 films, including “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Clockwork Orange,” “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” and “Scorpio Rising.”
“These were not visual reference points for the film,” Braier said, highlighting that the common thread of each film is that the filmmakers created their own universes. “The reason he showed us these films was letting us know we would be going all the way, no matter how over-the-top, in carrying the ideas of the film to their extreme and without fear of failure.”
“When you see ‘Neon Demon,’ every shot, every aesthetic decision is so extreme and so confident that you’d think it’s totally planned from the beginning, but the interesting thing is that it’s not,” said Braier.
According to the cinematographer the only way Refn and her could have pre-planned the hyper stylized world of “Neon Demon” is if they had a $50 million-plus budget to build everything from scratch. A budget that size though would mean Refn would have to relinquish his creative freedom. Working with only $5 million the collaborators would have to create the film’s look based on their locations, which they intensely scouted for two straight months. Beyond the financial necessity of having to work this way, Braier says it also fits Refn’s unique way of working.
“With Nic, you find the combination of two types of directors,” explained Braier. “He is a highly stylized filmmaker, with the concepts and thinking behind his images, but he also rides the wave of the unexpected to the extreme, so much so that he even shoots his films in chronological order and his script completely mutates while shooting.”
The result for Braier is she was pushed outside her comfort zone. Although Braier is drawn to shooting edgy films and boundary pushing directors, she admits there’s always a instinct for most cinematographers to play it safe and not make mistakes. On “Neon Demon” she found herself constantly pushing the film’s bold visual language by rejecting the instinct to play it safe.
Nowhere is this bold approach more visible than in the film’s color palette. This is evident right from the start of the film which begins with an extreme use of color as Jesse (Elle Fanning) has her first contact with the LA fashion world. Braier never wanted “Neon Demon” to be a realistic portrayal of the fashion world, nor did she want the to reference the cool, slick look of the magazine print ads featuring super-models. Instead, her reference for the big fashionista party, where the innocent Jesse first comes into contact with other models, was the feeling Alice had entering Wonderland.
“The colors are always subtly changing in this scene, the blue becomes turquoise, and then liliac,” said Braier. “The shifting colors does something to your brain, I want you to feel how alien and overwhelming this world is to her.”
For the first half of the film, the color of blue is extremely prominent in Braier’s lighting scheme, as Jesse’s story arc mirrors that of the Greek myth Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in the water. This culminated in the runway scene, which is a turning point for Jesse and the film.
“Instead of a garden and pond, we worked minimally — around the runway is all black — and we created a conceptual interpretation of water using blue light,” explained Braier. As Jesse walks to her reflection in a mysterious triangle, Braier found a way to give the light the texture of liquid. “We were bouncing [the light] off mirrors, through water, I was doing everything I could to make it feel like water.”
Once Jesse sees (and makes out with) her reflection, she becomes aware of the power her beauty gives her and sheds her innocence. To mark this sharp shift in the story, Braier transitions the film’s color palette from blue to red.
“Red is not only the transformation and Jesse’s sexual power, it’s also danger,” explained Braier. “Jena Malone for example would always have red, either with light or wardrobe. We wanted on a subliminal level for her to represent a sense of betrayal.”
“My first instincts were to shoot this on film because of the beauty and the skin tones — it’s more flattering on film and easier to make the girls look stunning,” said Braier.
Refn, however, was devoted to the shooting digitally, as he has on all of his previous films. There wasn’t room for debate.
“I had to find the best digital camera and for me there was no doubt that the Alexa had the more gentle tones and filmic response,” said Braier. “It was a no-brainer, but the real journey was to find the right lenses.”
The key with the lenses was to give the film a timeless feel. The DP tested out a number of older lenses, which have natural imperfections and don’t capture the hyper detail associated with high definition video.
“The older lenses have a more organic feel and we don’t need to see everyone of girls’ pores when trying to capture that idealized version of beauty,” said Braier. After two weeks spent “casting” her lenses, Braier settled on Crystal Express lenses, which were made with from old Cooke S2 and S3 Panchros. She was thrilled with her choice, crediting 1960s lenses with helping create the desired porcelain skin tone.
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.
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