Sicario

by William Sarokin CAS

Sicario began with a bang. Literally. Shot one was a stunt/special effect of a booby-trapped shed exploding. The efx guys said it would be big and they are known as masters of understatement, so I set up my cart as far as possible from the blast, placing a house between me and the shed. My Boom Operator, Jay Collins, was closer, behind a cinderblock wall. My Third, Andrejs Prokopenko, was at the sound truck pulling goatheads out of our flat tires. More about that later.

The efx guys weren’t kidding. The shock wave went around both sides of the house and hit me on both sides of my face. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the stunt guys in the midst of it. The scene in the film is harrowing. I had a boom with a Sennheiser MKH50 and the pad enabled fairly close to the blast, pointed away to favor reverb. There were also a couple of Sanken CUBs into Zaxcom transmitters scattered about. After everything was slated, I dropped my mic preamps as far as they would go, using Zaxnet remote control and hoped I would get something useable.

Here’s where I have to apologize to the transfer guys. I heard later that in the transfer session, after I dropped my gains, they thought something was wrong, so they raised all their gains … on the board, their power amps, whatever they could pot up. The bad news for them is that the recording of the blast did not clip. It sounded pretty cool in fact. But I should have warned post more forcefully. You can imagine what it sounded like in the transfer bay.

As groundbreaking Sicario is as a film, it was relatively simple for me. It was shot by the ‘governor,’ Roger Deakins. Roger operates himself and takes responsibility for every frame, so there are no ‘splinter units,’ six camera action shots, B units, tandem units, simultaneous wides and tights, etc. There wasn’t even a B camera. Filmmaking is a much saner endeavor when there is one camera and a smart, knowledgeable director. We pretty much knew exactly what every shot was. Roger would give a frame line that was terrifyingly accurate. I’d watch on the monitor, as he’d bring the mic down right to the edge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen insecure operators tilt up until they see the mic and say ‘that’s good.’ Not Roger. The onus was totally on Jay and frequently on Andrejs as Second Boom. This was my first time working with Jay as my principal boom. He’d been my Third/Second Boom for years, but his mentor and the person who always made me look good, the legendary Joe Brennan, had just retired so it was time for Jay to bump up. He was nervous but I wasn’t. He’d learned from best.

The difference between a good boom person and a great one is their command of the set. It’s easy for a younger boom op to be intimidated by the camera crew, especially when a world-famous DP is also the operator. Numerous times I heard Roger tell Jay there was no way he could get the mic in, in a particular shot, and every time Jay would go for it and find a way. The finale of the film, where Benicio del Toro catches up with the cartel head while he’s eating dinner, was lit with bare incandescent bulbs. Roger just laughed as Jay worked his way in, telling him there are a hundred bulbs and a hundred shadows. But Jay pulled it off. We actually used two booms and a couple of plants. So, as I said, the job was relatively simple for me … but very rough on my crew.

And then there was the arroyo. Three full nights of shooting dusk until dawn as the Delta squad enters and returns from the cross border drug tunnel. The tunnel itself was a set at Albuquerque Studios … thank God. The arroyo was a steep-walled sandy canyon with only a few points where there was safe access to carry in equipment. I went in handheld mode for these scenes. To complicate matters, those scenes were shot with either night vision or infrared, so there was very little, if any, light. Our eyes got so used to the dark that the display on my Nomad was blinding. Fortunately, there are software commands to turn down the display and LED brightness.

There was one 9 light on a Condor two hundred yards away from the set. The generator for that was placed by the Rigging Electric, Lamarr Gooch, who always cares about sound, so it was inaudible. But, power was needed in the arroyo so electrics brought putt-putts down for DIT and video village. Fortunately, I was saved by our Greens Department who were able to scramble up a dozen hay bales and would follow the electrics every time they moved their generators. They’d build a wall of hay surrounding the putt-putts on three sides with the sandy wall of the arroyo as the fourth. That did the trick. I had an amazingly quiet location to work with. Once again, I had it easy while Jay had to scramble around in the pitch darkness with the boom, Zaxcom 992 transmitter and Schoeps CMIT. Andrejs was busy with the aux cart, wiring actors and changing batteries. Most of the wires were in their helmets, which worked very well. At least until Emily decided to take her helmet off mid-scene.

Almost the entire film was recorded with boom mics, Schoeps CMIT and CMC6/41. Plant mics were mostly Sanken CUBs and the Audio Ltd HX/Schoeps ‘stick.’

The interview scene where Emily is chosen for the mission was shot in an all-glass conference room built within an all-glass office. There were five speaking characters spread out around a large conference table. Being a coward, I wired a couple of the actors, which I only ended up using for a line or two. The rest was done on booms and plants. Even Roger seemed impressed that we got the boom in since the camera always took the only position that was not reflected in any of the windows. Again, my guys made my job easy and kudos to Roger. He knows the exact dimensions of his frame and allows the boom guys to bring the mics or their reflections right up to the edge. Perhaps it was the hot New Mexico sun, or the previous day’s tequila, but I could have sworn that once or twice I saw Roger slightly correct a frame to help my guys out. If pressed, he’d say it was the hot sun.

In the end, there was only one scene that played entirely on wires. After the firefight at the US/Mexican border, the team arrives back at their base. Emily Blunt jumps out of her vehicle and has a confrontation with Josh Brolin. The first setup was a wide master with Emily and Josh playing deep in the background. It was late in the day and everyone was wondering how we’d get the coverage before dark. But after two or three takes, the AD shouted “wrap!” I love directors who know what they want and have the guts to do it! Later on, when the film premiered at Cannes, I read a couple of reviews that specifically mentioned how well this scene played as a wide master.

We filmed in and around Albuquerque, NM, with one day of convoy driving shots in El Paso, TX, right beside the border fence. One very unusual location was the old village at the Laguna Pueblo, an ancient Native American village forty miles west of Albuquerque. It’s common for productions to film on pueblo lands, but no one had ever been granted permission to film in the village. Our illustrious Location Manager, Todd Christensen, pulled it off. We spent three days, doubling the Pueblo for a small village in Mexico. During the shoot, some of the Pueblo leaders would hang out by the sound cart. I had monitors, numerous Comteks and most importantly, an umbrella, so my cart was a popular destination. I was also fairly close to Craft Services.

On the third day, one of the Pueblo chiefs asked me if I had noticed their village elder. I had. I previously saw him walking by the set with an aide rolling an oxygen tank. He appeared close to one hundred years old. The chiefs started asking me questions about recording. The elder was the last person in the Pueblo who knew their creation myth in their own language, Keresan. The leaders of the Pueblo were worried the young ones were losing the language, so they wanted to record the old man telling the tale. I was about to volunteer when they told me it takes three full days to tell the story. Couldn’t do that on our production schedule, but I had a plan B. I carry a beautiful Nagra SD handheld recorder that I used for ambiences. It has an excellent built-in mic and easy one-button operation. I left them the recorder with instructions on how to use it and a request to mail it back when they no longer need it. I think my grandchildren will receive a mystery package from the Laguna Pueblo many years from now!

I can’t say enough about our Director, Denis Villeneuve. He’s calm, quiet, focused, good-natured and incredibly talented. Two years ago, I was flipping channels in Taos as a movie started. It was Prisoners. Within a minute I was saying to myself, ‘Who shot this?’ after another minute it was, ‘Who directed this?’ So when I got the call for Sicario, I realized it was the same director and DP. It didn’t take long to say yes!

Sicario was that rare perfect storm of script, cast and crew. Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are superb actors and consummate professionals. My crew, Jay and Andrejs, are young but incredibly talented, hard working and unflappable. The Key Grip, Mitch Lillian, can put anything anywhere seemingly by magic. And the Gaffer, Chris Napolitano, was a master at sympathy whenever Roger lit a scene with bare bulbs. Thank you to Prop Master Keith Walters and Wardrobe Jennifer Gingery, for their help in wiring actors in full Delta team gear. Although I never met him, my thanks to Mexican Mixer Fernando Camara, who came in for the few days when the company shot drive-by scenes in Mexico City, doubling for Juarez.

After working on a number of movies and television shows that seemed a bit divorced from the art of filmmaking, Sicario was immersed in it. Films like this are the reason, I suppose, that most of us are in this business.

Oh yes, the goatheads. I think they appeared in New Mexico shortly after the Atomic bomb tests in Alamogordo. They are incredibly hard and sharp seedpods that attach to everything and love to puncture pneumatic cart tires. They are at their diabolical best when they stick to your boots and fall off in your hotel room eagerly awaiting your bare feet. A subtle reminder of the previous day’s location.