Elle Fanning in "The Neon Demon"

In a movie about beauty, the makeup must not miss. That was the challenge handed to Erin Ayanian Monroe, the makeup department head on “The Neon Demon.” The Nicolas Winding Refn-directed teen horror flick pushed Ayanian Monroe, a longtime member of Elle Fanning’s glam squad, to help Fanning embody her most provocative role yet: a naive small-town ingenue who sets out to become a supermodel, only to be sucked into Los Angeles’ cutthroat cult of superficiality. WWD chatted with the makeup artist about her work on the film, social media and nabbing big beauty contracts.

WWD: When did the makeup for “The Neon Demon” gel?

Erin Ayanian Monroe: We had a makeup test day, and that’s where it all started coming together in my mind. Of course, I’d read the script and had gotten a few ideas. Nic Refn is color-blind, so he likes all his films to be colorful and contrasty, nothing too subtle or he won’t be able to see it himself. If you look at all his films, you will see similarities in how they look.

WWD: How did you design the look for Fanning’s character, Jesse?

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E.A.M.: We wanted the look to reflect the transition the character goes through in the movie, while speaking to the perception others have of her. At the beginning, she looks childlike and innocent. Elle has beautiful skin, so we kept her makeup to a minimum, with a little rosiness on the cheeks. She looks pure. Then, as we see her becoming something more sinister, a certain hardness appears.

WWD: The opening scene in the movie, as well as the poster image, shows Fanning with bright makeup and blood streaming down her neck and chest. What was the thinking behind that makeup?

E.A.M.: On the makeup test day, Nic said her throat is going to be cut, but first we are going to see her face. He said he wanted the makeup to be “happy, happy, joy, joy” and very colorful. It would be more startling with the makeup joyful looking.

WWD: Did the role elevate Fanning’s acting to a new level?

E.A.M.: It pushed me to a different level. Her performances are always multilayered and subtle. Elle is preternaturally grown up. She has a depth of understanding about why people do what they do. She has always been a young girl doing grown-up performances.

WWD: What were some of your go-to makeup products for “The Neon Demon”?

E.A.M.: I relied on MAC’s [Fluidline] liner Blacktrack. It doesn’t budge at all. It’s even hard to get off in the makeup room. That was invaluable. We used a lot of Silver Dusk highlighter (also from MAC), and I went through a ton of Chanel products, as far as lipsticks and eye-shadow shades.

WWD: What’s a favorite moment of yours from the film?

E.A.M.: It’s one about Elle’s character transition, where you don’t actually see her face. She’s lying in her hotel room, and there is a wall that cuts off the top of her body. You see her legs and her ankles, and you get the idea she’s falling in love with herself.

WWD: How did you begin working with Fanning?

E.A.M.: We met doing a music video/short film for the Icelandic band Sigur Rós [that starred Fanning and John Hawkes]. Floria Sigismondi who directed it had directed “The Runaways.” She asked if I’d be interested in doing this short film that was out in the desert, and there wasn’t a lot of money to make it. Elle and I hit it off on that, and we’ve been working together ever since. That’s going on five years ago, and I’ve seen her grow considerably. It’s not very long in the scheme of your life, but there’s a huge change between 14 and 18.

WWD: What’s your working relationship with Fanning like?

E.A.M.: It’s just a dream. We have so much fun. When we have a new project, I sit down and read the script, and we talk on the phone about what we are seeing for the character. I know her really well, and she understands what I do, so we usually have sort of a shorthand. A lot of the things we’ve done together have had very mineral makeup. We have something coming up called “A Storm in the Stars,” and she plays Mary Shelley. She has to be really pretty in it, but not made-up, which can be harder sometimes than making her really made-up.

WWD: You did Elle Fanning’s makeup for the New York premiere of “The Neon Demon,” to which she wore a pink Gucci gown and her hair in braids. What did you want to accomplish with that makeup?

E.A.M.: I thought the hair was the big statement, as far as the beauty look. She had beautiful, ornate braids and fresh flowers in her hair. I didn’t want to compete with that. I wanted to stay minimal, so her skin could shine and the hair would have the moment. I used RMS cream cheek color, and its Living Luminizer on her cheeks. I used a mixture of MAC Eye Gloss in Pearl [Varnish] and the RMS cream cheek color on the eyelids. I used Charlotte Tilbury’s Legendary Lashes for mascara. On her lips, I used a MAC color called Steady Going.

WWD: Is “The Neon Demon” satirizing how our society views beauty?

E.A.M.: When I was Elle’s age, to walk around openly saying you think you are beautiful and love yourself would have been frowned upon, and now it’s affirmed and celebrated. It is really a commentary on narcissism and how it’s not a dirty word anymore. It’s rewarded. You see it on social media. Some of the people with the highest followings post pictures of themselves all day. It was set against the backdrop of the fashion world, but it’s not really about the fashion world. It is more about cultural changes and how it’s not only permitted but also rewarded to be an out-and-out narcissist, and what that can lead to.

WWD: You work with both Elle and Dakota Fanning. When are these sisters going to sign contracts with major beauty brands?

E.A.M.: I don’t know. They really both are so richly deserving of them. They are both so beautiful, and full of character and substance. If it were up to me, they would both have them. Unfortunately, so much of it goes by your social media following these days, and both of those girls started public social media this year.

WWD: What’s your approach to social media?

E.A.M.: I started Instagram, like, seven months ago and have a few thousand followers. I was very resistant, but it is a tool, and it can be what you make it. It is a fun way to create a catalog of images that add up to your aesthetic. I have let it be more for me than [for] anyone who might be following me. I think the danger is when you start posting for your followers more than yourself. Then it owns you rather than you owning it.