Shooting in Scope, Smearing Blood on the Lens, and Getting Booed at Cannes: A DP's Journey with Nicolas Winding Refn

Director Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, a visually mesmerizing, surreal gorefest set in the modern gothic world of fashion, is not exactly what you think it is. Yes, it elicited boos at Cannes (more on that later), head-scratching from some critics and, deadliest of all, indifference at the box office. But the controversial film, an early offering from Ted Hope's Amazon Original Movie division of Amazon Studios, deserves another look, especially to see just how Refn and his team achieved what they did in camera on such a limited budget. Cinematographer and new Academy member Natasha Braier, whose credits include XXY, The Rover and the Oscar-nominated The Milk of Sorrow, explains.

StudioDaily: Was this the first time you'd worked with Refn — and was this your first horror film?

Natasha Braier: Yes, in both cases. I'd never met him before I went to our first meeting. But we've been working together on everything he's done since this film. The last thing we did was a fashion shoot for Vanity Fair in Rome. The Italians were asking us how long we had been married, which was so funny. It's a really fantastic creative marriage, though, even though we've only been working together for a year and a half. It feels like we've known each other for much longer.

What was your first reaction to the script? On paper, I'd imagine it would be fairly jarring.

It's funny you ask me that, because my reaction to the script is what got me the job. He actually first gave me a fake script. And I didn't like it at all. There was way too much dialogue. But when we sat down to talk about the film during that first meeting, I really liked what he was saying about the film, how he wanted to shoot it, and his vision of being a foreigner in L.A. — something I shared, having been born in Argentina, living in Spain, studying and working in London and eventually transplanting to L.A. But at some point in the conversation, I was totally honest and said, "Everything we're talking about completely resonates with me and I feel like I really want to do this movie with you, but there are all these things in the script I'm not so sure about." I brought up a few specifics and he smiled and said, "Oh, you got the fake script." I said, "OK, great! So what is this movie about?" He told me it basically had the same scenes with a lot less dialogue [and] a much more visual narrative. I was driving home and my agent called to tell me Nic had offered me the movie. And I said, "But I haven't read the real script yet." He wasn't going to get me the latest draft for a week and so I took a leap of faith and accepted the job. I had such a good feeling from my meeting with him but also, having seen most of his films, I completely trusted him as an artist. I knew it would be rewarding to collaborate with him, and I was right. The real script I got a week later was more like the movie we eventually made.

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Elle Fanning, who stars as the teenage model Jesse, with director Refn on set. Photo: Gunther Campine

But not exactly what you shot?

Oh no. Because we shoot chronologically, the script kept evolving all the time.

Was this new script when young playwrights-turned-screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, who share a co-writing credit with Refn, got involved?

No, he started working with them very early on. Those early drafts were written in a more literal way so it would feel more like a classic horror film and the financial backers would understand it. It's much harder to get Nicolas Refn's Fever Dream financed! But that's an important thing that many seem to forget: a very strong, age-appropriate female perspective was always there from the beginning. The characters were talking like these girls talk. As a 40-year-old woman, I brought my perspective as well, but Mary and Polly are still young enough to get inside the characters' heads. I think Nic is very clever in that way that he surrounds himself with the right people and he lets them bring their best. On this project, he knew, as a man, he had to surround himself with people who can complement his vision and keep him honest. The actors brought even more to that. On set, he'd always ask, "Would you do this? Would you say this? How does this feel to you?" He was very aware that this was the first time he was going to tell a story about women with a woman protagonist. He was very humble and open and generous, giving us the space to support him throughout the process.

Do you think his upbringing had anything to do with that?

Oh yeah, for sure. This generation of Danish men — and I have a lot of Danish friends who are Nic's age — were all raised by hardcore feminist mothers. And a lot of them have since married equally strong women. It has given them a very egalitarian approach to everything. But he's also a true iconoclast, so that combination is what makes his films so unique.

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Jena Malone. Photo: Gunther Campine

How did you two plan your scenes?

We did two months' prep and scouted a lot of the locations together. We knew we didn't have the budget to build or dress sets how we wanted them, so we had to find exactly what we wanted. In each place, we talked a lot about how we would shoot a scene and I would take photos. Then we would create a sort of draft of a concept for each scene. Not a storyboard, per se, but we discussed clear ideas of shots, like blocking and angles and where to put a mirror and colors. And there are not a lot of shots, either. Nic is not about unnecessary coverage. He's about how you can tell and advance the story in one shot or two shots. Again, visually poetic. I'm used to working with directors like this, who are not so literal and are more interested what's underneath the script, so I've learned to do as much work as I can beforehand to understand what each scene is really about. Nic and I did that through our conversations at each location we eventually chose, so I knew exactly what we really wanted to say in each scene. On the day, when we arrived there with the actors, these concepts still got tweaked or even inverted. Because we shoot chronologically, we're going on an emotional journey with the actors, and we embrace the change as it evolves. But we still know what the essence of the scene is and we know how we got here. It makes it a lot easier to change and keep moving forward.

I also read that he is color blind. How did that affect the way you two worked together, especially on a film that radiates color across the spectrum?

He does see a couple of colors. He sees blue and red, and that's why all his films have such a strong presence of intense blue and red. But I was pretty clear that I didn't want to use the same colors he always uses, so the variations we used were more cyan, turquoise and pink magenta. Sure, he loves intense colors because that's what he can see. But his color blindness really served this movie, because of all the neon lights. I always work a lot with color when I shoot, but mostly we first develop the palettes and then paint the entire movie with them. But definitely on this film, my palette was stronger and more vibrant than on any other film I've done before. For me, it was like jumping into a swimming pool of rich color, and it was very liberating to use color in a more expressionist way. Nic is not interested in reality, and color became a way to more fully enter that dreamy, trance-like world. It gives us a little more room to be poetic. I work mostly with arthouse directors, so I'm usually quite free with my tools and what I can do. But still, there's always been a degree of social realism we have had to adhere to in telling those stories, so we couldn't really shift the parameters that much. But with Nic I felt I was freer than ever before and I could go in any direction. And actually, he would push me to challenge myself to move even further out of reality. For example, to bring in a red light when it makes no sense, or use different lenses, or manipulate my lens in odd ways — to really play with the full set of tools that visual language has in movies.

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Elle Fanning. Photo: Gunther Campine

You shot with the ARRI Alexa. Was that your first choice?

Nic's an organically digital guy and he's shot all his films on digital. He's not nostalgic at all about film. But when I first met him I told him, "You have to shoot this one on film." Of course, I've been shooting digitally for commercials for quite some time, but I've shot all my features on film and was kind of hell-bent on going film for this one. This is a movie about the extremes of beauty, and I knew film would be much more forgiving, especially when shooting close-ups. But during that first meeting it soon became clear that there was no way he would give in. So Alexa became the obvious choice, because for me, and for many other cinematographers, it is the most filmic-looking camera.

Then you took it to another level with the lenses.

Absolutely. We used Cooke Xtal Express anamorphics. We put a lot of work into researching lenses. We wanted to shoot scope [2.35:1 aspect ratio] and we wanted to shoot with old lenses. To me, they are softer and have subtle variations, so they can fight against the hyper-realism you get with digital. My mentor, when I lived and worked in England, was Joe Dunton, whose company JDC used to rehouse, modify and rent these beautiful anamorphic primes. So I was very familiar with them, but there are not so many sets of them out there. Panavision, which bought Joe's company about nine years ago, now has them. We still tested six different kinds of older anamorphic lenses to see what would be the best. We compared them all with [Panavision VP of Optical Engineering] Dan Sasaki, who I think is probably the leading lens guru in the world, at Panavision Woodland Hills. After all that work, it was clear that the Xtal Express lenses won, hands down. They gave us the best skin tones and were the most flattering overall. They also created a very moody retro feel that gives the film a timeless, David Lynchian quality. Because of the budget, we knew we couldn't fix a lot in post, so I had to photograph them as perfectly as possible. In normal fashion photography, these models get days of Photoshop retouching afterwards. It was a challenge to achieve something similar in camera, but the Xtal Expresses were like magic on the skin of the actors.

What was the strangest thing you did to manipulate your images in camera?

OK, here's a great example: I was putting a lot of different substances on the glass to make the images look more organic and at one point I asked him, "Can I put blood on the lens?" His answer was a resounding yes! So I did. And I added glitter and experimented with flares. We're a great combination, because I like to be allowed to try things but it's rare when you can be pushed to be even more crazy and inventive. And he continued to let me explore that.

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Braier and Refn on location. Photo: Gunther Campine

And how did your lighting set-up enhance those effects?

We used a fairly new LED lighting concept called Digital Sputnik. They have a showroom in L.A. but the headquarters and development is in Tallinn, Estonia. They are much stronger than most other LED cinema lights on the market. So you get more light for the size. Also, the developers all used to do post-production, so the lights are extremely precise in terms of mixing RGB and getting a number, so you can replicate color temps later. We rented some of the lights and they also lent a number to me. Their system really saved us a ton of time when gelling lights because we didn't have to waste time experimenting. It was really fast and precise to change from one color to the next. It was so perfect for this film.

Was it challenging to shoot with a strobe using the Alexa?

It was really only about finding the right strobe light so the Alexa didn't freak out and you get a line. Other than that, it does make you a little dizzy to shoot through a strobe, but that was good for the narrative.

How did the actors respond to Refn's filmmaking style during the shoot?

Elle [Fanning] has been on sets since she was a baby, and she's a very clever girl. But all of the actors loved the fact that by shooting chronologically, they got to go on a journey with their characters, which is increasingly rare. Elle's character is meant to transform through the film, so she could transform throughout the shoot, from the innocent Alice in Wonderland to this empowered woman. This in turn meant she could have a lot more dialog with Nic about it as they shot because she's living this transmutation as she goes. We all grew throughout the process because everything was so organic.

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Photo: Gunther Campine

When the film was booed at Cannes, were you all surprised?

You know, it was really weird what happened there. It was after the press screening that the wild reactions broke out. We were all headed to the test screening at the Palais that night and we heard what had happened at the press conference, which was not very nice. Basically, an Italian journalist started shouting abusive things at the screen and others joined in with boos. So we anticipated that the audience at the premiere, which was the following night, would have a similar reaction. But that's not what happened at all. People loved it. There was a standing ovation for more than 10 minutes. It was amazing, and everyone I spoke with after that until the end of the festival who had seen it had loved it or were at least very respectful and enthused about its vision. One colleague told me, "I'm not sure what I think yet, but I do know it was the most cinematic trip I've taken in a long time." It was weird, because there were no echoes of what happened when the press first saw it. But like the critic who drowned out the credits at the press screening, once others heard that it was "booed at Cannes," that part has drowned out the rest of the story.

Why do you think there was that dissonance?

I think many critics were expecting a conventional horror movie. But come on — Nicolas is never going to do a conventional anything. If they've seen his other films, they should know that by now. Of course it's not for everyone, either. Some will get it and some won't. Nic wants to shake up and polarize his audience, so that is intentional. At the same time, he really wanted to make a teenage horror classic for a new generation, and it was a surprise to him that more of them didn't go to see it when it was released in theaters. But I'm not surprised at all. It's so much more than just a teenage horror movie. Everyone, including Amazon, expected it to get a much wider audience.

Do you think it will eventually find a wider audience online?

Who knows. Nic is very brave, and he's not scared of failing. And it was gutsy of Amazon to support that. I think the theatrical and streaming package was appealing to Nic as a concept, but he never worries about staying in the safety zone. I can't really say that about even some of the more avant-garde directors I've worked with. Working with Nic, if we want to jump, we jump. If we crash or go too far, at least we tried. Every day making this film was like coming back from a play date: I went home happy that I was trying more and more daring techniques and my director was loving it and encouraging me to go further. That's true exploration, and for me as an artist, it's exhilarating.