Co-written and directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), The Neon Demon explores our society’s current obsession with beauty. Aspiring model Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, arrives in Los Angeles and her ethereal beauty and energy take the fashion world by storm. That is until a group of jealous—and ravenous—models try to stop her ascent by any means necessary. The beautifully shot digital film also features Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks. “With The Neon Demon, I wanted to create a funny, beautiful, violent, sexy, melodramatic, titillating teen horror film, but without the horror,” Refn said in his director’s statement. “This idea had been simmering in my brain from the time I started making films, but it was my beautiful wife who inspired me to turn it into a story about beauty and insanity, resulting in a very visceral experience.”
The Neon Demon was shot by Argentinean-born cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Rover, The Milk of Sorrow). At 16, Braier started out as a still photographer, then discovered the role of the director of photography while at the cinema. After moving to Europe with her family, she studied cinematography at the National Film and Television School in London. “When I graduated, I had done maybe 15 short films,” explains Braier. “I put together a reel and started looking for an agent. From there I started working as a cinematographer on smaller productions, moving my way up.” In 2013, Braier was featured as one of Variety magazine’s “10 Cinematographers to Watch” and has recently shot commercial campaigns with directors Mike Mills, Roman Coppola, Vince Squibb and Frank Budgen.
The Neon Demon was Refn’s first collaboration with Braier, who was recommended to him by colleagues. “I went to his house and met him,” says Braier. “From that first interview, we immediately clicked and were on the same wavelength. I got the job two hours after that.”
During their two-month prep, Refn and Braier did not have a philosophy of what the film should look like, nor had they selected any movies or photos for style references. Instead, Refn gave Braier and other crewmembers a list of movies to watch, selected not for their photography but for the mood they evoked. The list included Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and several short films by Kenneth Anger. “They were more to get the feeling of an atmosphere and mainly a statement that this was going to be a very strange movie,” says Braier. “There was nothing specific from one movie to the next. It was more like, watch these movies and welcome to the trip.”
Director Nicolas Winding Refn
Refn typically stocks his films with a diverse soundtrack. He gave Braier a music playlist ranging from electronic music from the 1980s to Brian Eno. According to Braier, the music served the same purpose as the films they watched: to help build moods and feelings. “The same music he gave me as a playlist—which I was playing in my car every day while driving to set—was music he was playing often while we were filming,” she says. “He would play it from his iPhone or on a little speaker so the music would be in the background. It would help the actors and the crew to really feel the flow from the music.”
Braier shot The Neon Demon with the ARRI Alexa XT in anamorphic format, capturing ARRIRAW files with the XT’s Open Gate sensor mode (3414 x 2198). “Nicolas wanted to shoot the film in digital, and for me the Alexa is the best camera for skin tones, so there was no doubt,” Braier says of the camera selection process.
Braier knew she had to have the right lenses to capture a film about beauty. After weeks of searching, she ended up with vintage Cooke Xtal Express anamorphic lenses. Xtal Express lenses are Cooke S2 and S3 spherical lenses from the 1930s and ’40s that were rehoused and modified with anamorphic elements by Joe Dunton Cameras in the 1980s.
“All of the movies that were references from the ’60s or ’70s have this timeless feel to them, so we wanted our movie to feel like that, instead of a fashion commercial,” explains Braier. “It was important to have old lenses that would bring this timeless quality to the movie, as well as be more flattering. We did a lot of work in finding them and we were very lucky to get one of the last few sets. We had Panavision work on them a bit to get the best quality for the faces, but also to keep their original aberrations and flares.”
According to Braier, the Xtal Express lenses are softer than current Hawk V-Lites or ARRI/Zeiss Master Anamorphic Primes and have a gentler, more organic feel. She shot with a 40mm or 50mm for the majority of the film. In terms of exposure, she tried to shoot at an f/4 because it was the widest position at which she could obtain sharp definition on the eyes. “I wanted to have depth of field but I also wanted to be sharp enough on the big screen,” she reveals. “Sometimes at night I didn’t have enough light, so of course I was shooting them wide open at f/2.8.
“I usually have diffusion on the lenses, but because we were already using these soft lenses, I shot clean with no diffusion,” she continues. “Also, with anamorphic, it’s like adding another level of softness because backgrounds get more out of focus. I didn’t feel it needed anything on top of that.”
The lighting challenge on The Neon Demon came from the production’s limited budget. According to Braier, Refn told her when she was hired that they had $5 million to do the movie but it had to look like $30 million. Would she be able to do that? “I said yes, and I had to make it look like that every day with three electricians and three grips,” says Braier.
“I had an amazing crew that worked very hard. Every day was a challenge,” Braier continues. “Probably the trickiest thing for us was a party scene at the beginning of the movie. We shot the whole movie in chronological order because that’s the way Nicolas works. This party scene was probably our biggest scene for lighting because it was the biggest location and there are a lot of lights with changing colors. It was our second day of shooting, when you’re just warming up, and suddenly we had a huge scene where we are using all of the lights from the truck and all the people. It involved a lot of Sputnik lights and a lot of LED panels backlighting the girls as they walked. Everything I had, I used in that scene.”
Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier
With a title like The Neon Demon, color would obviously be a major factor in the film. “Nicolas really loves color, but I had no idea I was going to use so much of it,” says Braier. “It was great how much Nicolas pushed me to explore color. Because the film was shot chronologically, the look really began to evolve, and I grew with it. I worked a lot with LED panels that could output different colors. I also did a lot with the Sputnik lights, which are LED units that can be put together like Legos to make a big light. LED lighting has become more useful these days because it’s very easy to try out different colors without having to change gels on lights.”
It was important to Braier that they try to capture everything in camera because the project didn’t have a huge postproduction budget. She and DIT Lawrence Razo created LUTs and applied the look to all on-set monitors so Refn would not have to look at flat Log C footage. “We knew exactly what the film would look like [when they would grade it six months later], and the final look ended up being very close to my intention.”
Jena Malone in
The Neon Demon
Braier completed the color grade in Denmark over three weeks with Refn. Since she set her look in camera, most of the grade involved slight touch-up work and fine-tuning the contrast level. She estimates 90 percent of the finished movie was captured in camera.
The Neon Demon was released in theaters on June 24.