“The Vast of Night” is a treat for science-fiction fans. Set in a quaint New Mexico town, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her DJ friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) are working the high school switchboard one night and start hearing strange sounds over the airwaves. After a report of strange sightings, Everett and Fay find themselves investing a possible government cover-up and extraterrestrial activity in their quiet town.
Directed by Andrew Patterson in his feature film debut, “The Vast of Night” sees him teaming with DP Miguel Menz (“Ramona”). Menz talks to Variety about how the classic “Lawrence of Arabia” inspired the crew while filming and why a fade to black was important in creating tension in the film, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
What did you and director Andrew Patterson talk about initially about the look of the film?
I was in Chile when Andrew first contacted me through our mutual friends, ONER Vfx’s creative collaborators Rodrigo Tomasso and Marcelo García. He sent me the script and an email explaining the indie spirit of the project, its small budget, and that it would be shot in Whitney, a small town in Texas simulating New Mexico.
One sentence in the email that always pointed the path of the project, which also made me accept the offer immediately without even reading the script first was: “We have to make a movie that hopefully won’t have any cuts, film it as if we were reading a tale, that the audience feels that we’re going to tell them a story in just one shot.”
We agreed on two big things from the start: The camera had to travel at ground level, wrapping our characters and the geography and we would create a slow camera narrative but with quick-fire dialogues, dynamic and really electrifying. I think that combination was explosive and it worked really well; it truly respected the original and poetic spirit of the script.
How did you achieve that one long tracking shot?
The issue was that we had to not only cover a lot of different surfaces, but we also had to negotiate these really narrow gaps and it needed to be fast, really fast, but in real-time and affordable.
One day during the pre-production, tired of arguing about this shot, Andrew, (executive producer) Caleb Henry and I went to Dallas to watch a newly restored copy of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and we got so excited that we talked about it the whole two-hour drive back to Whitney. I went to sleep and around midnight I heard a knock on my door and I found the two of them standing outside with wide-open eyes screaming,”We got it.”
We put the camera at ground level on the go-kart with (camera operator) Marcus Ross, and all our tests were amazing. Celebrating with euphoria, we hugged like kids. The spirit of Lawrence helped us.
Can you break down discussions and your eye to lensing the stillness of the camera that frames Everett when he is in the radio booth. We never hear Billy’s voice.
The challenge in that sequence was to create some kind of sensorial and mesmerizing experience. The camera moves almost imperceptibly through the first part of Billy’s story, on Everett and Fay’s faces, while the magic of his voice and the power of his story do the rest of the job. In the second part of the story, when we come back from a long fade-to-black the camera is completely static on Everett’s face, keeping the audience’s
attention focused on the oral story. That stillness and framing is only broken when Everett has to frantically adjust his equipment, emphasizing that he manages technology in a very precise way.
What was the thinking behind letting the screen go black while the audience sits with the sound?
We tried to push the audience into focusing on the story as much as we could. Billy’s powerful storytelling talks about contemporary topics that persist in today’s society like technology, racism, and the fear of the unknown.