Understandably marketed as a Will Ferrell picture, Casa De Mi Padre is a Spanish language Western that is more than a one-joke movie, thanks to the cinematic flourishes employed by director Matt Piedmont. The story has Ferrell playing Armando Alvarez, the simpleton son of a successful Mexican ranchero (late actor Pedro Armendariz Jr.), a parent whose favorite child Raul (Diego Luna) is a power hungry drug dealer. Genesis Rodriguez is the woman who comes between the siblings and Luna’s close friend (and Y Tu Mama Tambien co-star) Gael Garcia Bernal plays a rival drug lord.
The Casa De Mi Padre Blu-ray, released last week, contains a “Making Of” Featurette, audio commentary (featuring Piedmont, writer Andrew Steele, and Ferrell), a music video, and twenty minutes worth of deleted scenes. The deleted scenes were my favorite part of the disc, since they flesh out a few of the characters (including adding more scenes with Armendariz Jr.).
During a phone interview with Mr. Piedmont to talk about Casa De Mi Padre, the director went into detail about the creative process behind Casa De Mi Padre. The movie, much to my surprise, is actually beautifully shot, and much of the conversation deals with the visual look of the narrative. It was a pretty cool conversation with a director who’s also a music and film geek, so if you are of like mind (or are just a fan of the film), check out the following Q&A:
Outbreak: Can you talk about the importance of shooting Casa De Mi Padre on film?
Piedmont: I love the qualities of film. We shot on film with this, on 35 MM on the Panavision Panasonic Panaflex Gold Cameras with the first series of anamorphic lenses that were developed after Cinemascope. They’re called the C Series. It squeezes the image on the actual negative and then you unsqueeze it when you show it, (thus) creating a wider image. What’s beloved about it is it causes a lot of visual aberration or lens flares, different things that have come to symbolize what cinema is. When you see something, when you see video and cinema, you may not know why one’s different, but you know that video doesn’t look like cinema. And even now with the video stuff, people are always trying to get it to look like film as opposed to rarely do they ever want it to be its own kind of thing because it looks almost like a soap opera. Almost too clear.
My thing is, combining both is good. Having the knowledge of whether it’s music or music production or filmmaking, (it’s good to) start with the basics. When I record, I like to record on quarter inch tapes. It’s an aesthetic choice because to me it looks better, it feels better, it’s part of the fabric of film. It’s almost its own character and that’s what kind of pleases me. It’s been great in digital post production since you can do chemical timing where if you want to change the color of the thing or some other little things, I have them do it, and come back in three days or whatever. If you can combine the two: shoot it on film and edit it digitally, I think that’s a good way to go.
In the same way, in a recording studio, if you use two amps and do it the analog way and getting in there, and using your Pro Tools just like your tape machine…for me it’s all about aesthetics. I don’t know if one’s necessarily better than the other, but for me…I have 5,000 record LPs and I certainly have an iPod with 14,000 songs on it and that’s very convenient and I like it. But there’s nothing like pulling a record out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, putting a needle on it, and hearing the crackle and just doing it. I know they’re phasing film out more and more even, but I still think the best creative choice for me is to shoot it on film. I really love the aesthetic of actual film.
Outbreak: The movie is sold as a Will Ferrell vehicle that’s a Spanish language film. But the project has much more elements going for it. Along with the telenovela aspect, the film also contains the operatic feel of a Spaghetti Western.
Piedmont: Yes, we approached it that way. You got it right. (It was influenced) by very rare Spaghetti Westerns, (movies like) Duck You Sucker or even Sam Peckinpah Westerns. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is one of my all time favorite films. Even classic Hollywood Westerns like The Magnificent Seven or even some more experimental stuff. In selling the movie, the studio wants to market it as a Will Ferrell comedy because that’s what it is. I think that people who came to the film and saw it had either one of two reactions. They thought ‘oh my god, this is genius I love it’ or ‘there is not a single joke in here because it’s not a Will Ferrell film.’ I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s a post post modern comedy in the sense that the joke is we’re playing it kind of straight. There’s funnier stuff in there that has laughs but no one in the movie knows that they’re in a comedy. It’s something that’s polarizing, but it’s something that we enjoyed.
Growing up my influences were Martin Scorsese, David Letterman, and Bill Murray. So I’m trying to combine classic cinema with a comedic sensibility, which could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. For me, even using those lenses and geeking out on the history of cinema and doing it your own way…telenovelas were the starting off point but that would have gotten old in ten minutes. How can we make an epic movie? Imagine if we were making The Godfather, what would that be like. It’s fun to know you’re not doing that but at the same time trick yourself into thinking you are. You’re kind of combining pretentiousness in the best sense of the word with poking at fun of yourself. I can stand by every frame of the film. I love it. I can’t say everyone will agree with me, but yeah that’s what we came up with.
Outbreak: Can you talk about visualizing the film?
Piedmont: Again that’s the kind of definition of cinema. There are things that really inspired me in the past whether it would be Raging Bull or sequences like The Wild Bunch shootouts which are kind of beautifully choreographed. I kind of make my little storyboard, I draw little pictures, but luckily (I was) working with Ramsey Nickell, who’s a DP I’ve worked with before. It’s always knowing going in what you want to do, at least for me. With this movie, there were two giant shootouts and you’re talking about squibs that take three hours to put on and we just didn’t have the time or the money so we just had to be really prepared. But in being prepared I also like being loose on set, so when people come it’s a looser and more fun environment even though there’s a lot of stuff going on and a lot can go wrong obviously. But when you know like “Okay I’ve got 50 extras, I’ve got all this stuff” what are the pieces that I need to get. I’m not a big fan of getting things everywhere and finding it in the editing room. I’m like “No, no, no, this is how we’re going to do it and little movement will go to here, this will link up to this, all you need is this.” So you can conceive it..almost like the shower scene in Psycho. You break that down, maybe it’s 70 shots, those are little pieces. That montage is so effective, but you just get those pieces and then it comes together in the edit room. So I love that combo thing - just super over prepare knowing how this is going to come together and then conceiving it so that it’s almost shot in your head. Of course you have to always be flexible on set because the exact opposite conditions will occur and you might say “Oh, I want to do it this way.” So it’s good to have a plan from where you can also deviate from.
Outbreak: Can you talk about the deleted scenes that’s featured on the Blu-ray? Some of the sequences have a complete dramatic tone.
Piedmont: Some of my favorite scenes I actually deleted, like the scene where Diego is confronting Genesis in the room and slaps her. That’s very dramatic and I love the performances, I love the angles, (I love) how everything came together. As we were starting to put the movie together, Raul, for all of his nefarious dealings, became kind of lovable. You have to be faithful to the spine of the movie, it has to be very tight even if you have to delete your favorite stuff. In editing the movie, in putting that scene after she confronted Will Ferrell, it just kind of seemed to stop in its tracks. The movie always becomes what it’s going to become and it’s always tough to cut stuff that you love. Ultimately, it’s what will serve the film the best.
Outbreak: Can you talk about music for Casa De Mi Padre? There’s one sequence where Armando (Ferrell) just sings along with his compadres over a campfire. It’s actually a highpoint of the movie, especially since the music is well done.
Piedmont: I’m such a music guy. I work with these guys here in Venice (Ca.) called Beacon Street Studios and we had done a bunch of stuff together. I had this thing called The Carpet Brothers for HBO and I had this short film that won Sundance (Brick Novax’s Diary won Short Filmmaking Jury Prize in ‘11). To me, the music should never be a joke. The music has to be great. The music has to super professional and real. It can’t be a joke. That musical sequence in the film, it was just a matter of how to orchestrate it. Luckily, since I work with these guys, I can give them references and you can bring in out of print records and say “here is what we’re kind of thinking” and “can we do this.” We work on it and hammer it out and we do it all on analog. We spend all this money on it, in the way of getting real instruments, hiring musicians to make it sound real and good and not like someone did it on Garage Band. No offense to any of that stuff, it’s all good. Luckily these guys are geniuses. I wanted to use this version of “Heart of Stone” from this Mexican drug band from 1965 I think, but we didn’t have the music budget. I have all these little fuzz pedals and analog gear but we were able to record it to tape but then master it. You can do it kind of old school. I can tell the difference. When you do it kind of organically, it thrives off its own authenticity. I notice it. It always has to be real like that. It should be this giant production. Just because it’s a comedy, that doesn’t mean you have to be phoning it in.
Outbreak: I don’t know the budget of Casa but…
Piedmont: It was just over 5 (million). It was five and a half.
Outbreak: How do you make a 5.5 million picture look expensive, whereas some $40-50 million budgeted comedies…the money is just spent on the top of the line actors and there’s really nothing compelling visually about the pictures?
Piedmont: It all comes down to the director and it all comes down to what your point of view is. Again, I think there are visual directors and I’ve worked in the ad world, directing commercials, and that’s more visual. They always say with comedies you don’t care what it looks like. That’s not true. You see any one of Scorsese’s movies or Wes Anderson’s movies or you go to art films, they’re beautifully composed, they’re beautifully photographed. And that’s part of the experience. It’s not a documentary where you just point a camera and make us laugh. It’s an opportunity at every turn…I would think that if you freeze any image here, it would be its own snapshot and a work of art. For me, it’s all about planning, and like you were saying, I’ve asked myself “why would you choose to make a movie look bad?” It would cost just as much money to make a movie look bad as opposed to saying “No I want it to look like this.” You can light it better, whatever. I don’t know that answer to that, because it baffles me too.
I’m always a stickler of this has to have some depth, let’s get away from the flat wall, let’s make sure there’s some foreground, some background, proper photographic technique and composition. And also some of your own artistic bent. Some of it may not be classically composed but it’s what I find visually appealing. I think that’s what cinema is, it’s not a radio play. Even if it was an independent film with two people talking in a room you would still stage it with lights to make it look good enough and not flat. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that until I die, I will be a stickler for excellent cinematography, no matter what the budget. That is definitely a priority.
Outbreak: Someone said this, and I forgot who, but one should be able to watch a film with the sound off. That whole idea of movies is that they primarily function as “motion pictures.”
Piedmont: That’s so funny you say that. A story I’ll relate to that. I was in New York City. I lived there for 12 years. I was visiting one of my favorite local bars, Bar 288, that’s on Elizabeth Street. It’s just this nondescript, high ceiling bar and they have a great jukebox. They’d taken to projecting movies with no sound onto the back wall as the visual background. I was watching this movie, and there were no subtitles..I was able to figure out it was Infernal Affairs, the original movie that The Departed was based on. I had never watched it, but I get what was going (in the film). I pledged that at the start of this film, and not just because it’s in Spanish…(you can understand the story) when you look at the screen.
I agree with your assessment or whoever said that, one hundred percent. You could put your own music on (with the film). You could be stoned and put on your own soundtrack, and in the background it should look interesting visually and you should know what’s going on. I was very conscious of that, and I didn’t want any frame to be an ugly frame. There’s no need for that. I wanted it to be as good as possible, given the material.
Outbreak: What other projects are you currently working on?
Piedmont: I was supposed to be shooting this movie called King Dork, it’s kind of a John Hughes meets a kind of Rushmore type of movie that’s set in 1987. But that got pushed to next year due to financing. I’m also working on something for Universal which is kind of a college Big Lebowski where a kid gets a fake ID that gets him involved in an after hours night of intrigue and espionage. Another thing is Andrew Steele, who wrote Casa De Mi Padre, and I sold a six and a half miniseries to IFC. We invented a 1000 page fake novel that we have the rights to. So it’s this epic miniseries that takes place in the Texas oil fields from 1934 to 1979. A big Douglas Sirk kind of melodrama thing that they bought straight to series. We should shoot that this fall.
Outbreak: What’s the name of that fake novel:
Piedmont: It’s called The Spoils of Babylon. It’s all made up and we made a big book of it. It’s in the same vein as Casa in that it’s poking fun at the big epic nature, but we’re going to go as epic as possible. It’s going to be played deadly serious like those miniseries but we’re going to have to cut corners obviously like we did for Casa.
Outbreak: Have you cast any of the projects?
Piedmont: King Dork we have Nick Offerman lined up and Thomas Mann from Project X. For Spoils, we do have Nick again for that, Will Ferrell will also (star), and it will also depend on peoples’ availability when we shoot it. That should be a cast of hundreds where we might get these big names to come in and do things for a day. It’s a labor of love, so people coming in, they’ll get a Slim Jim and a pat on the back for doing it. It’s a fun project that people have been excited about so we should be able to get an excited cast.
Outbreak: Last question - what do you love about Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid? (Pat Garrett actor Kris Kristofferson provides a short VO for Casa De Mi Padre).
Piedmont: I guess it’s everything. It’s so perfect. Everything from the opening to the Bob Dylan songs. People kind of diss that album as being minor Dylan but it’s not. You put that on, it’s haunting. Just the way it’s shot. The whole story of two guys who were friends and outlaws and one of them has to turn the other in. What a great drama. My favorite line is when they say “Times are changing, Billy,” and he says “Times maybe, not me.”
It has so many themes but it’s also so perfectly beautiful in the way it was shot, all the action sequences. It just feels to me like a poem, but it grips you. It has the feeling of an art house film that’s also very visceral. It just works for me. For me, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is one of the most perfect films across the board, not even just as a Western. It’s just a great movie.
Outbreak: I forgot which cut it was, but I love the version which opens with Pat Garrett (James Coburn) getting shot in the back, and then the film is told as a flashback.
Piedmont: Yeah. I saw it too. I think it was based on Peckinpah’s original cut. I think Pat Garrett has abandoned his beliefs and he turns his back on his friend. It’s that dark underside where he is justifying his actions to himself, but he really can’t. Even in the other cut, Pat’s the real one who’s lost, and he knows it. I think that weird melancholy comes through, just the performances and the direction, you just feel it.
** Casa De Mi Padre is now available on Blu-ray, and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is out on DVD.
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posted by Greg Srisavasdi: (Twitter: @gsrisavasdi )