Mixer Michael Koff speaks a little Casa de mi Padre

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If you’re going to see one Spanish speaking movie starring Will Ferrell this year, I highly suggest Casa de mi Padre. Touted as Anchormanin a telenvoela world, Will Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, a dependable, family-loving dreamer who also happens to be a patron saint of animals and lost causes…

The backdrop is Mexico. Armando has worked on his father’s ranch his whole life and when it falls to financial devastation, the one to save it is… Raul – Aramando’s younger and much more successful brother played by Diego Luna. The ranch’s troubles seem to be over now that Raul is in town, but when Armando falls for Raul’s fiancé Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez) and baby bro’s business legitimacy turns out to be mierda, the Alvarez family finds themselves in a full-out battle with one of the most feared drug lords, Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal).

To help track the audio of Armando’s world that’s now been turned upside down, director Matt Piedmont looked to production sound mixer Michael Koff. S&P sat down with Koff to talk workflow behind the scenes and what it’s like working with Will Ferrell.

¡Hola!
¡Hola!

That’s about as far as my Spanish goes, you mind if we continue in English?
Not at all.

So was speaking Spanish fluently one of the prerequisites for landing this gig?
 (laughs) No. I actually didn’t know any Spanish at all before this film. Most of the crew didn’t know Spanish either. I had about six weeks before the start of the film to prep, so I learned as much as I could from the script. Our script supervisor, Liliana Molina, was fantastic. I ended up working next to her a lot. Her on set notes became very helpful for our recordings.

Do you remember how they pitched the movie to you?
This was my second movie with the producers, who have been absolutely great. I did Will’s Everything Must Go a few months before and when they called me up, of course I was interested. They told me about the film and its basis… calling it House of Fathers, and about fifteen minutes into the conversation they mentioned to me that it was all in Spanish. When we hung up, it then sunk in how difficult this movie was going to be from the standpoint of dialogue cues and Will’s improvisation.

Michael Koff with Ferrell

After reading the script, what were your concerns?
Well, it was a thick script. It was all in Spanish with English lines underneath. There was only one scene in the entire movie that was English, but the musical cues became more of a concern than anything.

Was there not a plan to prerecord?
No, they did end up prerecording the campfire scenes you see in the film. We utilized a Pro Tools playback rig and gave everyone Phonak Earwigs for those scenes, but several other sets randomly had a mariachi band show up out of nowhere, which we recorded live.

Dialogue nightmare?
Sorta… In multiple scenes, they had it where the music would intertwine with dialogue. We ended up changing that on the shooting day in order to record a clean dialogue track.

Who did you call for your crew?
My first phone call whenever possible is to my boom operator Kate Jessie. I’ve been working with her for about 6 or 7 years now — she’s absolutely fantastic. We have such a great line of communication. For utility, we had David Bernard with us. He stepped up a lot for us, as we ran two booms throughout most of the show.

Two booms is increasingly becoming the standard.
Yes. Especially with this film. We shot it all in about 22 days with a very small budget. We didn’t have any time at all to rest, but it was a lot fun. Our director, Matt, was a great guy. Just awesome. He comes from a bunch of Funny or Die work, but he is very sound oriented. Whenever I did need something, he’d usually give it to me.

Smaller budget? So, I’m guessing you didn’t get to travel to Mexico.

Unfortunately, not for this film. We spent two or three days out in the desert of Chatsworth and Simi Valley. The studio work was filmed at Hollywood Center Studios and our other locations were these amazing estates that had a desert backdrop to them.

How did the sand affect your cart?

I bring along a sound trailer that has all my gear. I pull off what I need day to day, but I did a little conversion on my rack-based card for this show. I drilled a whole on the side of the unit and made a plug for it. This way I could put the rear cap on to help block sand that was kicked up by the wind. When we had a big setup or a walk away, I could push the drawer of the mixer into the console and put the front cap on. It made for a tight rig.

mi crane es su crane?

Did you add anything to your package for this show?
Actually, yes. I found out Will would have a translator working with him on set so during camera testing, I bought an extra Phonak, a handheld microphone and a Comtek BST station for the translator. This way he could talk to Will during a scene if he was stuck on anything. They ended up not needing it at all, but it’s always good to be prepared.

With such a tight schedule, did you get to record anything besides the dialogue?

Yeah, we were able to set up some Sennheiser 416s for some of the gunfire for post to use. I also got to do something I’ve never done before and mic a horse.

Cool.

It was. You could hear everything so clean from the horse. The grunts. The movement from the hoofs. The leather from the saddle when it was rubbing against the rider — it really breathed a lot of life into the track.

Speaking of leather, how did you work with Ferrell’s white suit?

That was a bit of a challenge. It was skin tight, very stiff and starchy. We ended up creating an inseam on the inside of the jacket from cotton with a bunch of Overcovers. We were able to put the mic in there and then send the transmitter down his leg.

How did you and your crew approach a given scene?
I’ll try to watch rehearsals if I can, but if I’m moving the cart, I’ll leave that up to Kate. She’ll come back and let me know if it’s two-booms, two-wires, etc. It’s nice. We’ll barely have to say anything to each other. It wasn’t always like that, but it’s great now. We’ll then work out any kind of sound problems that can’t be seen on camera like generators, carpet, etc. Then, I’ll address the wires needed to be used since I use a numbering system on my board.

Ahh… the mixer board. How did you set up your workflow for Casa de mi Padre?

For this show, we didn’t go above 8 tracks so my PSC M8-8 channel console worked perfectly. I paired a Fostex DV824 8 Track Recorder with a Sound Devices 788T for dual recording. Similar to everyone else, track one is my mix track followed by the booms and then the ISO tracks. Nothing too exotic, but I tend to record the 788T backup around 3db higher than the master.

Filming on Location

So no bag work?
Nah, I got lucky this time. But on most shows, I‘m usually far away so it’s easier to hear. On this project, I was right next to the set every day. This way I could get my cues without the camera’s eye. To be safe, I wired our fluent speaking Spanish actors most of the time, but wouldn’t bring it into the mix until I knew they might say something extra off boom.

Casa’s all about its presentation — a rollup of telenovelas and spaghetti westerns. How did they get sound involved in that process?

We shot on 35MM film which was a nice change. Matt and our DP Ramsey Nickel created a pretty classic feel for this movie. I’m not sure if it made the final cut or not, but there were several scenes where Matt wanted the boom to bop Ferrell in the head and face. Will would literally end up swatting it out of the camera line during a scene. It was hilarious stuff.

The shootout scene in this movie is awesome… how much fun did you guys have there?

(laughs) The entire crew was laughing during that scene. The Art Department was on ladders just dumping buckets and buckets of gun shells to the ground… I swear it was up to the actors knees by the time they were done. Unfortunately, because it was a oner — I’m not sure with all the laughing everyone was doing how much post was able to use.

This is your second film with Will, how was working with him?
One of the best experiences in my career. He is an amazing person to know and work with. Very respectful and nice. He’s the kind of person you want all actors to be. But yeah, this is my second film with him. The first, he played a recovering alcoholic and this one, he was speaking Spanish the entire time. I went to visit him on set while filming Campaign with Zach Galifianakis. Ken McLaughlin was the sound mixer, and it was the first time I got to see a Ferrell movie where it’s a totally English speaking comedy. Hopefully, I’ll get to see that firsthand every day in a future project.

What can audiences expect from Casa de mi Padre?
As long as the audience knows it’s in Spanish and you’ll have to do a bit of reading, it’s very, very, funny. Matt, Will and everyone on the cast brought their best. I had an amazing time working with this crew — when can we do it again?

S&P would like to thank Michael for taking the time out of his schedule to share his story with our readers. You can check more of his work out here.

Photos by: John Estes

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