How Angelita Mendoza’s True Crime Obsession Inspired Her Baja-Set Short Film

'The Last Light' still courtesy of Angelita Mendoza

Horror stories have trained us to think evil lurks in darkness. But after you catch Angelita Mendoza‘s short film, The Last Lightyou’ll be convinced that it can just as easily walk around in broad daylight. The eerie project follows a young girl in Baja as she wanders into an abandoned shack where… well, we wouldn’t want to spoil what it is (or who) she finds there as the sun begins to fall and her mother cries out for her, unaware of where she went.

Mendoza’s film is an exploration of childhood evil (think The Omen) but tackled with the visual precision of a Malick film. Its long, lingering, still shots show off the green countryside in Baja capturing its natural light at dusk while its score amps up the foreboding that makes you attuned to every distant noise in this desolate landscape. It’s no surprise it looks so crisp and cinematic. As Mendoza shared with Remezcla, she and her husband, Victor M. Capiz (who co-wrote the film and was its director of photography) decided early on to shoot in Super 16, knowing they could accomplish the look they were going for in ways a digital production couldn’t. “I would encourage filmmakers who think that they cannot shoot film to do so anyway. Because it’s a lot more efficient than digital,” she said. For someone who edits in her day-to-day work, she knows how wasteful digital principal photography can be – where you’re encouraged to just keep filming and not feel the need to plan your shots ahead.

That precision is evident in this, her second short film, which is screening as part of this year’s New York Film Festival. We caught up with Mendoza ahead of the fest to talk about how her obsession with true crime dramas involving children sparked the idea for The Last Light, why this Spanish-spoken, English-subtitled production was designed to showcase a border sensibility, and how the child actors surprised her during the shoot. Take a look at our chat below.

The Last Light screened as part of Shorts Program 2: Genre Stories at the New York Film Festival.

How did you get your start in filmmaking?

I started in production and post-production in 2005. Just interning here in New York. And then in 2006 as an assistant for a director and editor. I was his only employee—he directed commercials and I just worked on everything with him. From there I picked up more editing. I actually worked for Remezcla for a short while! What I do for a living is I’m a promo editor for A&E network. Before that I was with HBO Latino also doing promos. But I’ve always wanted to direct. I directed my first short when I was in high school—a long time ago! I went off-track and studied other things and came to what was my first passion, what I really liked. I have a small company, me and my husband we work together. We do everything together. We’ve done spots and web videos and also this is our second short that we’ve done together. We co-write. We write the stories together and we write the screenplay—he’s the D.P. and I’m the director and editor.

How did this short film begin?

“We’re really drawn to these really dark stories. Like when a child hurts another child.”

To me it was an image. Actually, the idea of a little girl playing. All of our stories tend to be very dark and it’s what we’re drawn to. I like the idea of a very beautiful image, during the sunset—just having everything very bright and pretty. But having this really dark event happen and the idea of a child, what kind of story can we tell with this child that is dark? Me and my husband we like to watch a lot of like crime shows and read a lot of true crime and forensic files and stuff. We’re really drawn to these really dark stories. Like when a child hurts another child. It’s so unexpected and bizarre and wrong. You just wonder how that happens. What went wrong? What happened? Was there something wrong with the child already? Did something happen in his life? Why would they do that? It’s really sad because one big case that always haunted me is about two little boys I believed they pick out a boy in London, I think. Two 10-year-old boys that picked up a two-year-old boy and tricked him into coming with them. They tortured him and murdered him and then tried to cover it up by putting him on some train tracks. It’s even more brutal and I won’t get into it. That sparked an idea. We didn’t want to take it as far, especially because we knew the children and we didn’t want to traumatize them. We were definitely haunted by that very real story so we were inspired to tell this story this way.

‘The Last Light’ still courtesy of Angelita Mendoza
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And there is no Spanish title for The Last Light, right?

No. There’s no Spanish title. It was always meant to be subtitled. It was never meant to be fully Spanish. It was always meant to be both: from the U.S. and from Mexico. Both me and my husband are from Mexico—well, I was born in California but my parents are from Mexicali and I was raised in San Diego. My husband is from Tijuana. We really wanted to show off the Mexican landscape in Baja. Which I don’t think is utilized enough, really. People don’t really know what it looks like. They have no idea. They think is Mexico is either beaches or desert. But there’s a lot more to it. We actually shot in wine country. We wanted to show off Baja and we wanted the collaboration to be how we are: Mexican and American. Not just that but from the border. All of our crew was from Tijuana or San Diego, except for a couple of people that we brought down from New York. The movie was always meant to be both: it’s in Spanish and in English.

“We wanted to show off Baja and we wanted the collaboration to be how we are: Mexican and American.”

Tell me about working with these two young actors, and what it was like getting them to play what turn out to be, as you say, very dark scenarios.

We always wanted to use these children. They’re not actors. This is their first movie they’ve done. They’re first cousins. Their moms are sisters. I always wanted to use them. Like, when I thought of this story, I knew I wanted to use them for this. I thought it was going to be easier and that they wouldn’t get bored because they know each other and are just hanging out. We read the script to them and thought it would go over their head. I didn’t really want to deal with explaining to them anything about death or anything like that. They’re mothers were really cool about everything and we just decided to not really explain anything to them but just letting them come to their own conclusions. It’s really funny because they kind of figured it out on their own. Dante, who’s the boy, he has a younger brother, and I remember one day they were sitting in the trailer, and they’re like “Oh, Dante kills you, Isabella”—that’s what the younger brother said to them. And Isabella said, “No, he doesn’t. He just hit me. I’m only passed out. Not dead!” So I just let them think what they want. Because we don’t see the violence, so they can come up with their own conclusions. But they have seen the movie and I like that idea that they can watch the movie and not be scared because they know what went into it. I mean, Dante’s favorite part of the whole filming was when he got to burn the dog (which was, obviously, not a dog). He was loving it! “I could do this all day!” Like, give a kid fire and he’ll wanna play with it all day long. So he had a blast. They were really awesome.

‘The Last Light’ still courtesy of Angelita Mendoza
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You’ll be showing the film at New York Film Festival. How did that come about?

It’s really wild. I didn’t really expect it. And we’d gotten so many rejections from other festivals in New York. We live here so for us we wanted to show it here. So we thought, well, we probably won’t get into New York Film Festival or any of the big ones. But let’s just apply to all of them just so we can have a screening in the city. We got into this one! We’re extremely excited. As a filmmaker as strongly as you feel about your movie, you always have doubts. Always have doubts about whether what you’re doing is good. It definitely makes us feel more confident about what we’re doing. That it’s affecting people in some way. It’s pretty amazing.

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What’s next?

Our next step is we want to make a feature. I feel like it’s time. We’ve been wanting to do it for a long time. But we never felt like we were there yet. I don’t think that there’s any time where you’re gonna be there. You just have to do it. Our plan is to make a feature. We’re actually writing a feature script at the moment. Our plan is to shoot it in Baja as well. Yeah, it’s gonna be dark and really crazy and kind of what is expected now after our last two shorts.