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On a crisp January morning, the Breaking Bad crew huddles against a concrete spillway in Albuquerque. They're here to get one shot: It's at this location where Jesse will come to a decision that, as the episode's director Michael Slovis tells me, "pushes all the stories forward" in the final eight episodes. But first, the sun has to rise.
Aaron Paul emerges from his trailer wearing a fur-lined parka, which he'll shed before filming starts. (Gennifer Hutchison, the episode's writer, explains that the show maintains a constant "spring" look, meaning the actors always wear light jackets. "So in the summer they're sweltering," she says, "and now they're freezing.") His hair has grown longer since last we saw him, as has his beard. "Jesse's so haggard," Paul laughs. "I feel bad for him."
"We've got sun!" a crew member shouts, sparking a frenzy of activity. Paul quickly sheds the parka and positions himself on top of a crate. At his feet is what Hutchison calls the "smallest circular track ever," which will carry a camera 360 degrees around Paul as the scene develops. Slovis calls "action" and Paul's demeanor instantly shifts as he becomes Jesse, right before everyone's eyes.
Breaking Bad editor and podcast host Kelley Dixon talks about having to keep Walt's secrets on the podcast and her favorite edits from the show.
Q: You've edited many of the big meth montages throughout the series, going back to the Pilot. What makes you such an expert on the visuals of meth-making?
A: I'm not an expert at all on meth-making! [Laughs] Even when I cut the first montage in the Pilot I didn't even know what order the steps were supposed to be in. I freaked out a little bit, because I didn't want it to come out wrong. I was assured that the steps were shot in order, so I just looked for visually interesting shots and cut them together. Then I messed around with speed of them and jump-cutting them, and it ended up that Vince [Gilligan] just loved it.
Q: Have you done any montages for the upcoming season?
A: I can't tell you that!
Q: What sorts of shots do you look for when editing your episodes?
A: Vince really likes wide shots. He likes things to look very cinematic and not at all like television. So we don't use a lot of close-ups on peoples' faces, which you see a lot of in television. Instead, we like to use shots that are more complex with people in the foreground as well as the person we're focused on. Then even if you do see a closeup on the show, we'll cut back to a wider shot so you can see more of what's happening. And that's really unique.
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?
Breaking Bad's ACE Award-winning editor Skip MacDonald talks about his work on the infamous train heist episode and which character would make the best television editor.
Q: Congratulations on winning the ACE Eddie award for Season 5 Episode 5, "Dead Freight"! What do you think made it award-winning?
A: For me it was the tension of how they were going to get the methylamine off the train -- to keep that intensity building. Also, the moment when Todd shot that little boy on the motorcycle. I think that was a big surprise for a lot of people and I'm hoping that's what brought it all together.
Q: What was the most difficult part of putting together that scene?
A: Just getting through the amount of footage we had; it was one of the most difficult scenes to edit. Finding the pieces that I felt worked the best and weaving out some parts to use the best of what was there was really a challenge.
Q: What are some guiding principals you have when choosing which shots to use in a Breaking Bad scene?
A:. We like to play with scope a lot. I'm looking for the big wide vistas, and when we have them I try to use them without overusing them. In the closer coverage, it's important to get the looks of the actors. Sometimes, I find that the look on someone's face is actually more telling than some of the dialogue.
Q: Do you ever spend time watching old westerns or searching for outside inspiration for specific scenes?
Breaking Bad's Co-Executive Producer Melissa Bernstein talks about the logistics of finding the right train to rob in Season 5 and her new original series Rectify, premiering next month on the Sundance Channel.
Q: From a producer's standpoint, what are some challenges that are unique to Breaking Bad?
A: One challenge is that Vince [Gilligan] spends most of his time in Los Angeles, because the writing and editing is based there, and we're shooting the show in Albuquerque. The show is quintessentially Vince Gilligan; he has a say on everything from what color shoes Skyler is wearing to the make of the drill that Walt is holding. To be able to maintain that with him 800 miles away is definitely a challenge. And some of that requires us really understanding what he will respond to.
Q: What are some things you've learned that he likes?
A: Vince is really into wide shots, and very interested in seeing Breaking Bad as a modern Western. In casting, he likes real faces, and in the set design and locations he likes things you don't ordinarily see on television. Callbacks are another thing: the color blue for Skyler, the color green for Walt -- things that can go full circle in the series and speak to the thematics of the show.
Q: What are some of the riskier and more dangerous shots that you've green-lit for the show?
A: It's something you take very seriously as a producer and it's terrifying to put anybody's life at risk. In the Season 3 Premiere, where the cousins blow up the truck, that sequence was really scary. In the "Fly" episode in Season 3, Walt falls from the top level of the superlab down and hits a piece of equipment, and that was a real stunt guy. That was quite a fall and he absolutely could have hurt himself. Things with cars are also really dangerous. At the end of the day, as much as we're proud of it, it's still a television show and you want everybody to live.
Q: You're producing the original series Rectify for AMC's sister network, Sundance Channel. Do you see any similarities between that show and Breaking Bad?
Breaking Bad's longtime cinematographer and episode director Michael Slovis talks about directing the cast for the last time and his favorite shot ever in the show's history.
Q: Now that you're shooting the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad, are you starting to feel pressure?
A: Well there's a lot of pressure from many directions that we actually haven't felt before on the set. This set is a very congenial easy-going place to work for the most part. The last eight episodes, however, are bigger-conceived, bigger stories -- there's a lot more action. There is also a wistfulness running through the cast and the crew right now, that indeed we are in the last episodes and that after this we're going to go our separate ways.
Q: As a cinematographer, are you approaching these last eight episodes in any different visual way than you have the previous four seasons?
A: Vince and I have always talked about a descent into darkness. And in terms of an overall palette it's really dark. It doesn't mean you don't see stuff. It means that there are a lot of blacks in the frame; it's contrast. One of the advantages of shooting a show for five or six years is that we know who these characters are. So I don't need to light their faces up all the time. If a bald head that's around six foot walks into a room, you know it's Walt. We all know who these people are, so it gives me a lot more freedom than I may otherwise have.
Q: Over the years Breaking Bad has become known for its signature shots -- its desert vistas, its POV shots. Do you have a checklist for what you need to pay tribute to before the series ends?
Veteran actor Larry Hankin, who plays Old Joe in AMC's Breaking Bad, explains what makes him such a good junkyard owner and describes what went into creating the infamous magnet scene in Season 5.
Q: You've been on some of the more iconic television series of the last twenty years: Seinfeld, Friends, Home Improvement, now Breaking Bad. Are you the secret to a show's success?
A: Here's the yin to that yang; yes I've been on these really great iconic shows, but I haven't been on more than two or three times! I've always wondered about that. I get invited to the party once and then, what happens? So maybe I'm not lucky. I'm just tripping out; I don't know how that happened that I'm on all these big shows -- to me it's amazing.
Q: What's the secret to pulling these gigs?
A: A long time ago when I wasn't getting any jobs at all I had a very thick New York accent. I asked an agent, "What's going on, why aren't I getting any jobs?" He said there's only two ways to get a job: One, you walk in the door and they're looking for you -- the job is yours to lose. Or two, they're not looking for you at all and you have to convince them to go a whole different direction. He said, "They're not looking for you, Hankin. You gotta convince them!" So that kind of calmed me down. It wasn't my fault, it's just that I'm a unique character. And then finally when they got used to me -- now I'm a type. There's nothing I do differently now. I just walk in and get the job.
Q: Did the experience from your long career prepare you for everything on the set of Breaking Bad?
A: I have an ADD type of thing, ever since I was a kid. So learning lines for me is like climbing a mountain. I started out in Second City as an improviser, where I didn't have to learn lines, so it never came up. After the audition for Breaking Bad, the worst thing in the world happened, which would be the best thing for other actors: On set, they handed me the script and it was a page-long speech, all legalese -- I was telling Hank why he couldn't get into the Winnebago and I was quoting law. I was thinking I would get fired from my favorite show in the whole world! You know about the script supervisor? She marks down all the mistakes you made each take. After we do one, I see her walking towards me, pencil poised. Every other word is circled on the script. We did it again and through some miracle, the director said, "Ok, moving on!"
Q: You had an integral part in one of the now more infamous of Breaking Bad sequences: the magnet. What was that like to shoot?
Q: After five seasons, are you an expert at playing a drug addict?
A: [Laughs] It's challenging -- that's what I love about doing Skinny Pete. However, when I get offers from people saying, "Hey play this druggie character in a show," I now say I want to do something new. I have a five-year-old daughter and a nine-month old son, and at some point I'd like them to be able to watch something I'm in before they're in college!
Q: Do you ever read what people write about the show and your character?
A: I do happen to read the internet message boards for Breaking Bad. After that episode in the beginning of Season 5 people were commenting, "Wow, turns out that guy is actually an actor." I wonder what they thought I was before! When I played that song, Solfeggietto in C minor, on the keyboard, that apparently threw a lot of people for a loop.
Q: How did one of your secret talents end up as one of your characters' as well?
A: I had heard one of the writers in a previous season say that they kind of listen to the actors off-camera to get clues about special talents or quirks they have. When we were shooting a Narcotics Anonymous scene a while back, the location was in an old church. During our break, I decided to take a minute to sit down and jam on the piano. Some of the writers were nearby and one of them heard and came by. They spent a season-and-a-half figuring out how they were going to be able to use it. They asked me what songs I could play and I sent them a list of songs. I practiced like a madman for the rest of the month!
Q: Do you think you and Skinny Pete have any overlap in your musical tastes?
Actor Michael Bowen, who plays Todd's uncle Jack on AMC's Breaking Bad, talks about the real life hit-man who inspired his performance and discusses some unfinished business he has with Aaron Paul.
Q: Jack is a pretty tough dude. Have you ever known anybody like him?
A: Deadly serious, quiet-types of people? I've met a few of those. I'm not saying names; I grew up in San Francisco and it's obviously quite different, but I was surrounded by a lot of interesting characters -- revolutionary-type people. For this Jack character I had to do some stuff to learn about how someone gets to this state, being a calculated sociopath.
Q: Did you model Jack on anyone in particular?
A: I was thinking about Richard Kuklinski, who they called "The Iceman." He was a contract killer on the East Coast for the mob, meanwhile he was maintaining an entirely upper middle class, family life, with children, a wife, and a home. And if you watch, "The Iceman Tapes", which you can find on YouTube, Richard Kuklinkski has this kind of quiet confidence. And a lot of the inspiration I got for the character was from him. It's not about miming the guy per se, but it was about absorbing this calm, frighteningly matter-of-fact air he has when describing horribly vicious things.
Q: You've played a few badasses in the past. How does Jack stack up?
A: I've played quite a few, but he's probably the baddest I've played. He doesn't need to say anything and you know that it's dead serious. It's the polar opposite of who I am. I grew in a very liberal family. My mom was Jewish, my dad was like living with the great Santini who was a hippie. I get home now and it's like I better do the dishes, or fix my wife's car. I have girls -- I have 5-year-old girl, I have a 20-year-old girl, I have an 18-year-old girl, a 15-year-old boy. They and my wife run the show. It's pretty funny.
Q: You co-starred with Aaron Paul in The Last House on the Left--
Veteran actor Louis Ferreira, who plays Declan on AMC's Breaking Bad, describes suffering through a mysterious affliction on-set and shares how Breaking Bad has changed his appearance on other shows.
Q: Had you watched Breaking Bad before joining the show?
A: I'd seen the first season, but being that I'm a single parent I don't have a lot of time to watch television. When the audition came through I was in Vancouver doing something else. I was thinking there was no way I'm going to get this thing , but when I got the call back I was like, "What?!" As an actor you swing the bat, and if you're lucky you hit the project. I was thrilled to be part of that.
Q: Declan is a bit mysterious, even to viewers. Were you able to figure him out?
A: For me it was like, "Who is this guy?" You don't really know what he's capable of. We don't know -- he could be a crazy psychopath or he could be some spiritually evolved person coming from a totally different angle. But I love the ambiguousness of it all. And it was left open that way. I also had two scenes with two incredibly strong actors -- and I knew I had to hold my own against these people.
Q: You've had a long career in TV and film -- anything on set throw even a veteran actor like yourself?
A: The one thing for me was that I went to Albuquerque for the first time and I was really dizzy; my head was spinning and I felt like I was choking, a bit. I was like, am I nervous? But really it was the altitude -- I had some vertigo and I hadn't quite acclimated.
Q: You've played serial killers before. How similar is it playing a gangster?