Today’s culture is obsessed with beauty and the power of beauty. It’s not just the United States; it’s universal — although you could say the preoccupation is more extreme in the U.S., because the U.S. is generally more of an extreme country on all levels. It’s not even so much about how we look, but how we want to be viewed or perceived. We no longer even have an image of ourselves; rather, it’s an image of our perfect self.
My intention with The Neon Demon was to make a teenage horror film — a funny, melodramatic horror film — but without a horror film’s DNA. It’s about the aspirations of the illusion. It’s about “observed perfection” — the static [nature] of beauty — and in order to zero in on what essentially drives the movie, I wanted to keep [the images] very static. Camera movement would have gone against the kind of artificial life that the frames represent. I wanted everything to feel like a static photographic image, which is composition within a single frame.
I find that a moving camera can feel very unrealistic; on the other hand, it can add a whole new landscape to the composition. There is no question that [camera movement] has to be used properly; it has to have a function. In Demon, the first introduction between Jesse [Elle Fanning] and the photographer is static. The design I had in mind was that by introducing her static and him static, and seeing him observing her, it’s like turning a page in a photo book. And then the camera starts pulling back. It tracks back so far that it becomes out of the norm — to the point where you say, “this is an unnatural movement.” Jesse gets so tiny that the shot suddenly becomes subjective.
That first shot — like any first shot in any film — defines the style, which then continues through the rest of the movie. In general, I do very few setups and I’m very specific about them. I always shoot chronologically and prefer using one camera. I love slow motion and used quite a bit of it in Demon. When used correctly, it has the same effect as a moving camera: It’s a visualized unreality. I also love to zoom and did a lot of zooming in the film. I find it much more emotional than a tracking camera, which is more about the dynamic. But it depends upon what the scene is about. Moving the camera is very much about how you want to tell the story. When I [incorporate] a move, it is a very specific one, as in Demon’s opening pullback.
I don’t like curves as much as I like straight lines. I always have difficulty working with Steadicam because once it moves out of its clear lines, it reminds me even more of the illusion. A moving camera doesn’t have to be a physical movement, however; it can be an emotional one that moves subconsciously. You can move the background and it feels like the camera is moving. A change in lighting can make the viewer subliminally feel that the camera is moving.
I am partially colorblind. Red and blue aren’t a problem; green and some other colors are difficult. But I can only relate to what I can see, which means I tend toward extreme and highly saturated colors. And I demand a lot of contrast. My cinematographer, Natasha Braier [ADF], was very instrumental in the film and in [achieving] what I wanted to do — so inventive, and wonderfully talented with lighting.
I set Demon in Los Angeles for two specific reasons. The first consideration was a practical one: It was the only place my wife wanted to go. Second, L.A. is a magnet for everything. Even though the cultural world is spread out — the high-fashion industry is really in New York and Paris — the dominant cultural aspects of the Western world [flow into] Los Angeles and then are beamed out to the rest of the world via digital link.
Perfect beauty is unattainable, yet we all strive for it. It’s universal. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a common denominator. And it’s moving toward an ever-younger age. The window when one is considered beautiful or desirable keeps shrinking. It’s never about aging up; it’s always moving down. What’s going to happen if it continues to flow downward?
Links to a short clip highlighting AC's July cover story on Braier's cinematography in The Neon Demon and a trailer to the film can be found below.