Cinematographer Natasha Braier, ADF, discusses her work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s film "The Neon Demon"

Paint it Black

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Natasha Brier was very much in view at Cannes in 2014 for her work on the Australian suspense film The Rover, and she is back at Cannes this year with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The Neon Demon is set within the fashion industry, and portrays Elle Fanning in the role of a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles to work as a model. The ambiance mixes horror and sophistication for a film that seems to be one of the craziest by the director of Drive, which won the award for Best Director at Cannes in 2011. (FR)

A young girl arrives in Los Angeles. Her dream is to become a model. Her rapid rise to success, her beauty, and her purity provoke jealousy and envy. Some girls bow before her, while others are ready to do anything to steal her beauty.
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote

Nicolas Winding Refn, au viseur, et Natasha Braier règlent un plan - DR
Nicolas Winding Refn, au viseur, et Natasha Braier règlent un plan

This was my first collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. I do not know exactly why he chose me. To tell you the truth, we never spoke about it. In any case, it all happened very quickly. Two hours after meeting him for the first time, my agent called me and confirmed that I would be doing the film. In a way, either because I had seen his earlier films or because of the discussions we had together after, I felt confident working with him, and I felt that we could both explore a shared madness through our work on the visuals. I think I really share his extreme side from that perspective. And he’s a very poetic director. More poetic than he is narrative anyway ! Oh yeah, this was also the first of his films in which the main characters are female. Maybe that counted for something ?

We discussed a few films like Suspiria, by Dario Argento, The Valley of the Dolls, by Mark Robson, and also some films by Kenneth Anger. Nicolas also gave me a playlist of a dozen pieces of music to inspire me... Nothing specific, but a kind of "mood board" to put me in the mood of what he was imagining.

Nicolas likes colours but is unable to see all of them. He sees red and blue well enough, for example, but not others. So when he mentions the colours in the visuals, it’s really got to pop on screen ! So does the contrast. He loves very high contrasts and he always wants more. It was for the best, because so do I ! Throughout filming, he pushed me to use more saturated colours and move further and further into this type of interpretation of reality, of stylization. You should know that Neon Demon, like all of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films, was shot in strictly chronological order. It’s a luxury he allows himself in terms of production, but the experience of moving forward and making the film chronologically is quite unique in itself.
Imagine, regularly going back two, three or even four times to a single set in order to reinstall the cranes, the lighting… the gaffers and the grips have a hard time understanding the value of this approach ! But gradually, the team begins to play along, and everyone begins to understand why this is important, especially for the actors’ performance, which strictly follows the plot. Everything becomes more real on set, and you evolve as a person as the shooting schedule progresses. In my case, I felt more and more confident with my tools, and the visuals became more audacious as the story progressed, especially since the film literally explodes in the third act, in a kind of dream.
It also allows Nicolas to change his positions as a director, to change the script without having to worry about bridging shots. This type of work can be compared to a painting that slowly takes shape on the canvas, with its do-overs, its temperament, and its strength.

Haute couture
The language of fashion, with its share of "softlights", very pretty girls, perfect skin tones : all of that was present. But I tried to find a visual style that was different from what is typical in fashion and advertising. For example, I became more and more daring with crazy colours, and after a while I began to use various substances on neutral glass filters (oils, other liquids…). By the end of the movie, I began walking around with my little kit of bottles containing my “paints” that I would literally paint directly onto the filter in function of the shots in order to create diffractions, diffusions, and lots of other effects. Making a specific part of the image blurry, giving a halo to a particular light source in the field. These are all things that nowadays we often do in post-production, but I felt sure and confident enough to do it myself, on set, the old-fashioned way.

Work in progress
Filming lasted eight weeks, or forty days. There were a lot of back-and-forth to certain sets because of the chronological shooting. This system was in total opposition to the commercial and capitalist rationale that dominates most projects !
As I mentioned, with Nicolas you are in the position of a painter who is able to choose your brushes and pigments freely according to your inspiration. How would you feel as an artist, if one day you were made to paint all of the blue bits of your painting, and then the next day, all of the red bits, or to work with a broad brush because you won’t be given your 00 brush until the end of the week ? The creative process would be completely disturbed, wouldn’t it ?
The financial decision to reduce the number of days spent filming in exchange for allowing the film to be filmed chronologically was a true artistic choice by the producers. We got to work on a film that was in constant change, on a living thing instead of on the pieces of a puzzle that will only suddenly take form in the editing room. As for me, I just watched the dailies, like the rest of the team. But Nicolas was monitoring the editing in parallel to filming with Mathew Newman (who has been working with him since Bronson). His vision of the work in gestation allowed him to tell me what he thought worked and what needed improvement. I also think that the precision of the film’s fabrication, especially in it’s second part, because it is so daring and extreme, is a result of this method of working.

Digital addict
Initially, I really wanted to suggest to Nicolas that we film using 35mm. I thought 35mm would be perfect for the skin tones, and generally for the unrealistic side of the story. But I immediately realized he was too accustomed to digital to consider changing. It was really impossible to change his mind !
So I had to look for ways to make the Alexa’s image look more like film. I admit that it was hard, especially at first. My lack of faith in digital made me constantly stuck to my video return, ignoring the actors and the director. After two weeks, I was able to free myself from this phobia and work almost like I would using film.

Party time
To allow shooting to take place in chronological order, a lot of sacrifices had to be made, especially on the team. For example, I had one gaffer and three sparks, same thing for the grips, which is really very light according to US union standards. We had to find places that were adapted to this small team, making timely use of some reinforcements. Among the things that were difficult for me, I especially remember the second day of shooting where we had the scene with the fashion party. We weren’t yet used to this unaccustomed way of working, and the location was too big for this small team. On this set, I used Sputnik LED projectors whose colours could be quickly changed from the console. That allowed me to mix violet with turquoise and even pink. I also used the stage lights, LED bulbs as prop lighting, and a Lava-Lamp-effect projector that projects images of moving liquid. For the general appearance, I looked for ways to get away from the Alexa’s digital feel by introducing softness into the image using very old anamorphic lenses.. These lenses, the Xtal Xpress series (originally manufactured by Joe Dunton, and now stocked by Panavision) allowed us to obtain splendid flares, which are 99% real in the film and gave the image a hybrid aspect, a 1960-70s side in the image while being anchored in the present by the Alexa’s digital images.

No matter the scene, Nicolas always left me complete freedom on the film. By always making sure I had space to create and allowing me to express myself, even sometimes pushing me to go further in my crazy ideas when he felt like we were losing that energy during shooting.
It’s great to work with someone who doesn’t tell you you’re going too far and who encourages you to be more extreme... In fact, the only time he asked me to touch something up was to ask me to make the image even darker !

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)