The Emmy-winning star of Breaking Bad discusses the difficulties of directing himself in the Season 2 premiere.
Q: Was there any particular reason you directed the first episode back?
A: Last year I wanted to see how it went being the lead in the cast and being in almost every scene. I wanted to see how that would play out, and whether my desire to direct would be beneficial to the show. They gave me this episode only because I needed the prep time. The only time that I, as an actor in the show, could prep properly would be the first episode when we’re not in production yet. It wasn’t like giving me a place of honor of directing the first show back — it was chosen out of necessity.
Q: What’s it like to direct yourself?
A: I always start by complimenting myself. As a director you come in and tell the actors how good they are. The thing that you have to be cautious about when you’re directing yourself is when you’re in a scene you can’t watch the other actors, so you need to make sure you’re getting what you need. I always advised the producers on set what I was looking for, and to make sure that we got it. I appreciate my role as an actor much more after I direct because it’s just easier. You’re focused on what you as a character want and need and how to go about getting it. As a director you’re worried about everyone.
Q: The episode begins with a mysterious shot of a stuffed animal in a pool. How did you approach that?
A: I had to talk to Vince [Gilligan] to say, “I’m reading this information, but I have no idea what it means. Do I need to know what it means?” And it was interesting because he didn’t have any specific idea about it – at the time the story was still evolving from a writer’s standpoint, and so we talked about it and I just pitched the idea that instead of this bear laying on the bottom of the pool, I wanted it floating – I just thought that image looks a little creepier and a little more interesting. So that was my pitch and they went for it.
Q: There’s a stark contrast between the pink bear and the rest of the scene being shot in black and white. What was your motivation?
A: That was actually done in post-production. I shot it in color, but I think they wanted a sense that it was other-worldly. And when you watch it in black and white, it does feel like, “Where are we?” There’s a conceit that if you see something in black and white it’s out of current, and I think that’s why they chose to do it.
Q: What tone did you try to set with the episode?
A: When you’re directing an ongoing series, the tone has already been set. So a director will come in and fulfill that tone — reinforce the characters and their behavior. The challenge is to find unique ways that you can visually tell the story while keeping the established tone and the pace and the characters. I know the tone, the pacing, the characters; so it was just finding interesting visual ways to tell the story that reinforce the mood, or are counter to the mood: The scene where Jesse is freaking out at the hot dog stand, for example. I wanted the little flashing dog in the background where the tail is wagging happily. Then in the foreground you see Jesse who’s about to puke. That kind of juxtaposition is always interesting visually.
Q: How did you approach the scene where Walt attacks Skyler?
A: I had to grapple with the idea of how we have our lead character rape his pregnant wife. How is that even possibly justified? I approached it from the point of view where he’s so bottled up he can’t tell anyone what he just witnessed – the murder of a man. The horror of that doesn’t leave his head. He doesn’t know what to do. He just needs comfort; he wants to say something, but he can’t. We get confused sometimes – that’s how I justified it as an actor, and that’s how I directed it. Emotions fly around and they hit you a certain way and it doesn’t always make sense. And when she finally yells “Stop it!” I wanted him to look like he’s in shock. Then there’s this long wide shot where he’s sitting in a chair outside and Skyler comes out, and it’s a lovely shot that helps enforce the loneliness and the chasm between the two.