Breaking Bad’s Executive Producer and Director Michelle MacLaren talks about making Albuquerque look like Germany and drawing inspiration from Wedding Crashers.
Q: You’ve become one of the go-to directors for Breaking Bad‘s biggest episodes: Hank’s shootout in Season 3, the prison murders in Season 5… which was the most logistically challenging?
A: They’ve all been challenging for different reasons. With “One Minute,” we actually lost our location for that two days before we shot it! It was supposed to be in a department store parking lot, and the store pulled out. I was shooting something else, so I couldn’t go scouting. I went out to the place we eventually used by myself at 10PM at night, pitch black, there’s nobody else around and I suddenly thought, “Oh dear, this probably isn’t very safe.”
Q: How did the prison murder montage compare?
A: We did a lot of research into how people were actually killed in prison, and we found a shutdown jail in Albuquerque that was ten minutes from our office. I couldn’t believe it. When we first went in there, everything was shut down including the water, so you can imagine the smell. It took us two weeks to clear the bad air out and get it suitable for shooting. We only had one day to do this and we were supposed to be in three different prisons, so we took three areas of the prison and our art department turned them different colors — and we put the prisoners in different color uniforms.
Q: You directed Episode 502, “Madrigal” which opens at a location in Germany. What did you do to make Albuquerque look more European?
A: It was challenging because we couldn’t find a modern upscale board room. In the scene they’re doing food testing, and our locations department found a brand new school they had just built for cooking classes; we walked in and it was as if they built it just for us. Then we used the lobby of the school — which was very high-tech looking — for the lobby of Madrigal.
Q: As a director, where do you draw inspiration for some of your more creative decisions?
A: In general, we like to shoot Breaking Bad like a modern day Western, and Sergio Leone is one of my all-time favorite directors. Once Upon a Time in the West is one of my favorite films. But I will watch a lot of different movies to get inspiration. With the prison montage, for example, I had certain images in my head. I wanted to have one guy that’s murdered standing up, but when he falls to the ground he’s a different guy — that was probably inspired by the movie Wedding Crashers.
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Q: You’ve directed episodes of three AMC shows: Hell on Wheels, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Why do you think your style meshes well with AMC’s shows?
A: Well, I always say that AMC hires filmmakers and they let them be filmmakers. The three shows are very different but they all have the same philosophy; they want their shows to look like movies and they give you the freedom to be creative and give it a feature look.
Q: As Breaking Bad goes on, by nature of it’s story it gets darker and darker. Does that affect how you approached the final season?
A: I would definitely say that as the show gets darker, we get more extreme with our style. And when you’re shooting dramatic moments you can be extreme with the camera, but less so with the comedic moments. We’ve also done a lot of callback shots: One of the episodes I did, when Jesse, Skinny Pete and Badger are getting high, there’s a moment when Badger goes down and slowly snorts a line of meth off camera. So I thought it would be fun that when Badger goes down on frame to then have Skinny Pete pop up. Then in 508, Walt is talking to Hank and he puts his drink down and he looks back up and he’s in a Tyvek suit — that’s a callback shot to Skinny Pete and Badger getting high.
Q: Has the filming of the final season been easier or more difficult compared to the ones that came before it?
A: They’re pretty big! I can’t say much. I guess the biggest challenge, like every other year, is you get these amazing scripts and you want to do your best. We’ve certainly enjoyed making these, and we’ve all worked very, very hard.