You don't have to be an art history major to know that "Breaking Bad" looks like nothing else on television. It's shot on film, in New Mexico, at a pace that would never fly on broadcast TV, and every episode seems to include at least one sequence filmed from the perspective of a sink drain, or the bottom of a skateboard, or the inside of a meth-cooking cauldron.
As the director of photography for Breaking Bad since its second season, Michael Slovis is the man responsible for setting up those shots. He also works very closely with series creator Vince Gilligan and the rest of the crew to choose locations, design sets, and determine the overall look of the show. Slovis has directed four episodes of the series, including last weekend's riveting "Confessions," and he shared a few behind-the-scenes secrets with HuffPost TV in a phone interview this week.
CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Two Walter Whites
This shot of Walter racing to the car wash to fetch his frozen gun from the bottom of the Coke machine was trickier than it looks. "No one thought I could do this shot," Slovis said with understandable pride. "We still see Skyler on the right hand side of the frame. We see Walt drive up really fast. That was a stunt man driving, because he had to drive up and accurately stop. We did the old switcheroo on that. If you notice, when Walt gets out of the car he goes behind a column. So the stunt man goes behind a column and Bryan comes out the other side. It was the only way we could get it. Bryan comes in all tired and composes himself at the door. It’s hysterical!"
The Camcorder Advantage
Watching Walt and Skyler record his "confession" on a retro camcorder, viewers had to be asking themselves, "Why aren't they shooting this on a smartphone?" Short answer: it wouldn't have looked as cool. "Having that [viewfinder] screen off to the side allowed us to do that shot, where we pull back and add focus to it," Slovis said. "We see Walt out of focus in the background and in focus on that screen. There aren’t that many cameras where you would’ve been able to do that move and get it as elegantly. Also, how sophisticated are our guys? They are sophisticated at keeping a meth lab clean. But when you look at that house, it’s like your mom’s house. Everything’s a little dated."
The Telltale Exhale
Slovis requested an all-new desert location for the scene where Walt, Saul, and Jesse rendezvous to discuss sending Jesse away. "I wanted a fresh canvas for that," Slovis said. "If you really look hard, you’ll see breath coming out. It was 5 degrees or 4 degrees. People were dropping like flies. It was so cold, you have no idea. Behind the camera, we were all wearing down vests and hats and we had heaters going. Aaron and Bryan and Bob never ever once complained. Bryan in his email to me on Monday said, “Oh my god, when I saw the scene. It brought it all back to me!” According to Slovis, the scene took about six hours to shoot.
Freeze Dried Tarantula
The human actors may have been troopers, but what about that tarantula? "Tarantulas hibernate when it’s cold out," Slovis explained. "That tarantula was being kept warm in a box to the side. We were just hoping that he would go across the frame. Every time we let him out, he would go half way and freeze and go into is vegetative state. So we would have to take him back and warm him up." Eventually, the little guy appears to have limbered up enough to get the job done.
In her review of the episode, HuffPost TV's Maureen Ryan singled out this shot, writing, "The fact that the concrete blocks in that place look like grave markers is no mistake." Naturally, we had to ask Slovis if that had indeed been the intention. "On the day, people did mention that," he acknowledged. "That’s a dam. It’s at the base of an arroyo and it’s used to slow the water from rushing down the mountain when they get these torrential rainstorms during monsoon season in Albuquerque. I chose it not because they look like tombstones but because it was distinctive and you’ll remember it and it was graphic and it was stark. We were also always on the lookout for things that were uniquely Albuquerque. I’ve never seen anything that looks like that anywhere else." (To Mo's point, the blocks look exactly like tombstones -- and the fact that the resemblance wasn't necessarily intentional doesn't mean it isn't meaningful.)
The View from the Gas Can
It wouldn't be an episode of "Breaking Bad" without a clever shot from the perspective of some unlikely inanimate object, and in this episode the honor went to the gas can Jesse hauled to Walt's house after discovering his former mentor's treachery in the Brock incident. Slovis said he prefers to use such shots sparingly, but in this case the choice was obvious. "To me, that was a very important shot for a lot of reasons," he said. "Not because it was cool. But if you missed what he was grabbing or you didn’t really register, right smack in front of you, in great big letters, it says, "DANGER GASOLINE" -- filling the frame with a little Jesse on top. And it’s red! So to me, that made total sense."
"Breaking Bad" may be the most meticulously constructed TV show ever, but at the end of the day it's still a TV show. As Slovis put it, "We do the best that we can to create art, but the truth of the matter is, unlike movies, we are just damn lucky to get the whole thing into the can in the time that we’re given with the money that we’re given."