Poetry guides every artistic decision Chilean cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littín-Menz makes. Though he enjoys the magic of the visual artifice constructed behind the scenes, his motivation is what the images he crafts communicate.
“I love technique, and I need it, but my main motor is always the narrative, because from the emotions and the sensations of the story you make sense of the technical aspects, not the other way around,” he told Remezcla over the phone from Los Angeles. “What’s most important about each shot is for the audience not to think about the technical elements used in their creation, but for them to be touched by the poetry of the journey.”
That philosophy paired perfectly with one of his latest projects, The Vast of Night, a sci-fi drama set in the 1950s by first-time director Andrew Patterson, which won the Audience Award at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and was later picked up by Amazon for distribution. Otherworldly in tone, the tale follows radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz) and phone operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) as they investigate an extraterrestrial presence in their small town.
Entirely shot at night in the town of Whitney, Texas, the independent film called for great ingenuity and cooperation from the entire team, from a producer climbing a water tower to set up practical lights to the director himself holding the camera before putting it on a go-kart and then in Littín-Menz’s hands during of an elaborate long take that resembled a relay race. To raise the production value, Littín-Menz got creative with the tools at hand, played with darkness to enhance the mood and even devised an artificial moon for outdoor scenes.
A self-described cinephile, Littín-Menz approached The Vast of Night in a peripheral manner. Instead of focusing on the Twilight Zone-like atmosphere, he connected to the idea of humanity trying to make sense of our place in the universe via his own references, such as the works of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos and a short story by John Steinbeck titled “The Great Mountains,” part of his book The Red Pony.
Cinema is coded into Littín-Menz’s DNA. He is the son of producer Elizabeth Menz and Miguel Littín, one of Latin America’s most illustrious directors whose remarkable filmography includes the Oscar-nominated titles Actas de Marusia (Letters from Marusia) and Alsino y el cóndor (Alsino and the Condor), both made while in exile in Mexico and Nicaragua respectively. Yet, despite being embedded in the art form from birth, working in it wasn’t as obvious a choice as it may seem.
“It took me a long time to decide I wanted to work in film. My first dream was to become an oceanographer, to be Jacques Cousteau. But obviously since I was a kid I had the privilege of being on sets with my parents and of growing up in an intellectual environment surrounded by artists and writers,” he explained. “Eventually as a teenager I stopped playing dumb and accepted this was my calling.”
Born in Santiago, Littín-Menz left Chile for Mexico at the age of four during the Pinochet dictatorship, and lived there until he was 16 years old. While he treasures both of his homelands, as well as Spain, where he went to film school, he admits that his bond with Chile was strengthened later in life thanks to filmmaking.
Once democracy returned to the South American country, so did Littín-Menz. Slowly, he became more and more anchored to Chile as he worked on multiple short films and met his wife there.
In Chile he realized he could finally take on a feature as director of photography, and opportunity that came with El Desquite by Andrés Wood, a director with whom he has continued to collaborate on multiple occasions including Machuca, Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta Went to Heaven), and last year’s Araña. Other standouts in his extensive Chilean career are Pablo Larraín’s Fuga and Sebastián Lelio’s El año del tigre (The Year of the Tiger).
“It’s beautiful that what took me back to a part of my roots was cinema. I rediscovered Chile through these film shoots, meeting Chileans and telling Chilean stories,” he noted. Even more meaningful is that now as an established cinematographer back in his birth place, he’s had the chance to work with his father on projects such as Dawson Isla 10, a drama set in Patagonia about Chilean political prisoners in a concentration camp, and La Última Luna, which they shot in Palestine and Israel.
Taking after his father, Littín-Menz’s body of work is mostly comprised of movies with a social justice angle, from Cuban drama Un traductor and boxing saga Hands of Stone from Venezuela filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz to his most recent international title, Resistance starring Jesse Eisenberg. Their topical links are serendipitous, he believes, and it’s through the process of capturing them that he is allowed to enter other points of views and travel to other realities.
“The camera has always compelled me because looking through it provides a wonderful voyage every time.”
The Vast of Night is now streaming on Amazon Prime.