Few working DPs can boast as muscular an interplay between feature films, commercials, and music videos as Natasha Braier, whose art-house creds run from the exalted (In the City of Sylvia) to the debated (The Neon Demon), whose more mainstream endeavors (Honey Boy, Gloria Bell) don’t even slightly ring as sell-out gigs, and whose shorter-form works pair her with some of the biggest brands (Hennessy, Nike, Apple) and most-respected major-label artists (FKA twigs, Rihanna, James Blake). It is, frankly, exhausting to weigh, and a conversation with her appropriately expands and contracts from moment to moment.
Present at this year’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE as head of their music-video jury, Braier leads one of the festival’s most in-demand events. We sat down for an interview on the nature of shooting videos, commercials, films, and why putting anything–people or forms–into boxes only breeds trouble.
Tell me about the prep process on a video vs. prep process on a film, and how the compression of time affects you.
You usually don’t have any prep on a video. You go one day to the location scout, and that’s all the prep you get. Most of the time, I find that, in music videos, we have a prep, we figure something out, and it’s a great playground to experiment on the day, new techniques, be a lot more playful because of the nature of the format–it wants different textures and colors to feel like you’ve shot as many situations as possible for cutting–so you have a lot more room to try different stuff and be bolder, more experimental. I love that, to get to play.
What’s the interplay, typically, between a director and artist on crafting a sensibility, and how do you factor in as a third piece?
Most of the time, the musician made their choices, in terms of the visual style or whole concept of the film, beforehand by choosing a specific director, by conversations with the director, so when I get involved, it’s really just me and the director. The musician will just show up on the day and do their thing. It’s not a three-way conversation so much–definitely not in terms of the visual. I am, of course, working with the director for whatever is the vision they had, but when people call me for something, they are calling me because of my work and imagining what I can do with that material, giving me total freedom to come in as an artist and I do my thing.
I’m working for them, of course, at the service of that original vision, but bringing my take on it. Once I’m doing that I’m very free to experiment and bring my thing to the game. I’m not “in service” like I could be on a commercial, where I have to do something very specific where everyone is happy. It’s always more exciting in that way, because it’s that playground of experimentation and having a play date with that artist–I’m bringing this to the table, you’re bringing this, being experimental and poetic and not have to worry about reality or narration. After Neon Demon, when I’m doing music videos, it’s a feast of color and crazy shit because they want me to do all that stuff. I can try all my new ideas and over-the-top stuff that I maybe won’t do in a movie.
This is possibly a superficial response to that, but it seems, plainly, more fun.
Yeah. It’s not a “grown-up” thing. On film, everyone has to survive the shoot. It’s like a marathon: four-to-eight weeks, or ten weeks; you have to tell a story; you have certain responsibilities. A music video is, “Get all these tools, let’s just do something great.” It’s usually challenging in terms of: you don’t have a lot of money or time… which, most of the movies I choose also, because I choose “the artist” that has the stories I’m attracted to. Videos are getting less and less money because, of course, artists are not making money with selling records like they used to, so it’s changing a lot. It’s still been the playground. I think you could compare it with poetry: if you have to write a novel, it’s hard work because it has to have a coherence. But if you’re just having a coffee here and I’m just writing a poem in a few hours, it’s a totally different way of expressing yourself.
Every prep is very different. I like to analyze the script a lot. Argentinians, we’re very intellectual, we like to analyze, everyone goes to the shrink, and my parents are both shrinks, so I really love to understand the script and understand the director’s point-of-view in every scene, so I can see it from all possible windows. Where are they standing? What is this scene for you: anger, abandonment? I like to go through the script and ask if they can define each scene in a line. Before we talk about shots or anything, to talk about the feelings and emotions. Why is this scene here? Why is he talking from here to there? In that process, I kind of get to know them, their lives.
It’s pretty painful to discover a terrible video for a song you love–it feels like you had an entirely different connection than the artist. So when you’re commissioned, how do you start imagining a video?
Because I come late in the process, I get the song and director’s treatment, so the director already thought about the world. I’m bringing my light and camera, and they’ve invented the world that goes with the song. So that translation thing is really happening with them. If I get the package and feel something with the song, with the visuals–I can see how they go together, what I can bring to the table–then I’m like, “Yeah, I want to do it.” If I don’t feel inspired by it–the visual proposal, the song, how they go together–I will say no. You can’t force these things. You can’t force yourself to write a poem if you’re not inspired. You normally just get an email with the elements: this director, this song, this world they presented.
So you’re on the music-video jury.
Yeah. Well, today. Like, I haven’t done any work yet. Today we’re going to see anything.
Oh. You haven’t seen them yet.
Which is obviously so different from the standard day-to-day, let-it-germinate process.
But music videos are different, right? They’re short and you don’t need to reflect too much.
Is there anything you might especially value when you’re watching everything in a theater tonight? What will help you decide quickly?
The “deciding” thing is so weird because I’ve been on juries before and judged many, many times, and it’s so subjective, and most of the time you don’t agree with the rewards. That’s the more uncomfortable part: you go in a room, decide, compromise, and think differently. It’s not so pleasant, actually, but what is super-nurturing is sitting down in a cinema now and seeing the best work of this year’s poetry: people who were painting with light and being quite free to do a very pure, artistic expression. It’s like going to a very nice restaurant where they offer you new dishes to try and taste. I think that’s going to be a good feast.
You’ve implied commercials are limiting.
Some of them.
Can you name some examples where the expressions were freer?
Yeah, lots. I mean, I try to choose the ones that are still inspiring and where I can still do cool stuff–it just doesn’t happen every week. Sometimes you have amazing artistic options with commercials, sometimes you’re just going to be, like, flexing your muscle and making money and helping your crew to make money so they can come to do Honey Boy with you for very little fee. It’s a balancing act, but you always try to find what is more exciting for you because you want to be excited every day you go to set. So half of the stuff I do is very exciting, still.
For example, right after Neon Demon I did this Hennessy commercial with Nic. It was a very open brief because people want to work with Nic and let him do whatever he wants. After Neon Demon, we spent two years doing commercials around the world and having a lot of fun. So all the money we didn’t make with Neon Demon, we’re like, “Okay, now we’re getting paid to have fun. This is good.” So Hennessy said, “You have these five flavors. Find whatever images.” It was fire, flame, wood touches, so we sat down in Italy, in Cinecitta, and said, “Let’s brainstorm what we can do. ‘Wood touches’… okay, let’s explode some trees. Awesome.” We just came up with images inspired by the flavors and what we could do with resources we had. It was amazing and we had so much time.
I feel like a commercial is a piece of poetry. Nic’s mind and my mind after dancing together in Neon Demon for a few months, just going and having this playground like, “Okay, kids, you can have any toy you want.” Sometimes you get those and it’s amazing and like, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid so much per day to do this.” And sometimes you’re doing, whatever, an insurance commercial, because you have one week off and you want to come back to your own bed at night and work with your friends.
Did you get free Hennessy?
That’s a shame.
Yeah. I don’t drink alcohol, anyway.
Oh, so that works out fine.
Sometimes you get Nike shoes.
Are you wearing Nikes right now?
Winding Refn has a reputation for being very serious and self-involved, but I tap into the work almost entirely through a comedic lens. I’m curious if, as a close collaborator, your impression of his work squares with that at all.
Yeah, totally. I think a lot of people don’t get him, and definitely a lot of people didn’t get Neon Demon. It was quite disappointing, because we were very proud of the process and it was sad to see… in Europe, it was seen as a masterpiece. In America, they didn’t say “I didn’t get it.” They said, “I didn’t like it.” Also, Nic is always interesting in polarizations, so it’s the best thing that could happen, having people who really love it and people who really hate it. This is the one thing that he hates, the middle ground. In that sense it was still a good response. But yeah: it’s just fascinating how many in America didn’t get the humor, the irony that we were using those things of the fashion world in a sophisticated way to criticize themselves and laugh about it, and they are just so “in it” that they couldn’t see that. That’s the reality.
Last year you presented The Neon Demon at Film at Lincoln Center’s “Female Gaze” series, which focused on women DPs, and your filmography shows a fascinating interplay between male and female creative roles. Honey Boy, your newest film, is a woman directing a man’s autobiography.
Neon Demon is by a man and about women.
In the City of Sylvia is a movie by a man and about a man who, seemingly, only looks at women.
So a) how important are these concepts when choosing a project, or b) do you just not want to make that a thing, and you’re an artist who wants to work without being put in a box?
I definitely don’t make my choices based on that; I just resonate with artists. It’s interesting, the projects you mentioned. The Rover is by a man and about men; Somers Town is about men and directed by a man. Maybe if you deeply analyze each choice–in therapy or by a film critic–you might see an underlying, common thing, and you might say, “Well, because she’s a woman, Jewish, Latina, immigrated to different countries since she was a teenager, she resonates with all these specific things,” then you might find a common thing and it would make sense. But it’s an unconscious thing. Nothing consciously drives me, like, “Yeah, she’s a woman doing a male-toxicity story.” I just read a script and either feel it in my stomach or not, and I resonate with a director or not. The intrinsic mechanics of why that happens are not something I control or manipulate.
I feel like my connection with directors goes beyond gender. At the same time, you could say that Sebastián Lelio and Nic Refn are, in very different ways, connected with their feminine energy, with a feminine side, so they have a special sensibility. Sebastián has that in all his films about women and grew up surrounded by women, so he’s an amazing artist in terms of portraying female characters. Nic’s filmography has been about men, and been very masculine and violent–except Neon Demon. But as a human, he’s a very sensitive artist, so we resonate in that level. David Michôd also: his films are all very masculine but he’s a very sensitive soul. I just resonate with people. I don’t care about their genitals. [Laughs.] Or sexual preferences.
I think people need to classify things, still. We think we’re very advanced as humans, but we’re not, and people need to put things in boxes to understand and decodify the experiences of people. So you can always do that game and find boxes that make sense, but I think we’re more complex than that. You can always find 20,000 reasons for me to resonate with you or 20,000 reasons for me not to resonate with you. So I don’t know. Tomorrow we’re having the “Diversity Panel” and I’m there with Bradford [Young], who’s probably the contemporary I respect and admire the most, and I think this love is very mutual between us. He’s a black man, I’m a Latina woman from South America–our struggles we carry in our DNA are totally different, yet probably the same struggle for freedom for generations and generations. Maybe we resonate on that level, but I also resonate with a lot of white males [Laughs] which are very close to me on a soul level.
I think we’re all just humans, and humans have an open heart and empathy for other humans, and as an artist in this business, there’s a lot of chances we’ll resonate with each other. It’s not an accountant or police officer; it’s just an artist trying to express something, so it’s putting a lot in the cocktails for us to have together.
Honey Boy is now in theaters and screened at EnergaCAMERIMAGE.