"Breaking Bad" director and executive producer Michelle MacLaren is in Northern Ireland shooting episodes of "Game of Thrones," so she's mostly missed out on the hubbub over Sunday's episode of the AMC drama, which many fans of the show are hailing as one of its all-time best.
"I'm a little bit unaware of what's going on back home," MacLaren said in an interview on Tuesday. She added that she has been getting emails and texts "from people I know and people I don't know," so she's gotten the impression that there's been a "little bigger reaction" to this episode than others she's worked on.
"Game of Thrones," which shoots in Northern Ireland (among other locations), is "very different, it's very green and wet" -- as opposed to hot and dry like the deserts around Albuquerque, MacLaren said. But she put herself back in a New Mexico state of mind to discuss directing "To'hajiilee" and the challenges of staging that epic Hank-Heisenberg showdown. You can find the entire 27-minute conversation in a Talking TV podcast below, but here are eight highlights from the interview:
- You weren't wrong if you thought for a moment that Walt might kill himself, wavered and then thought better of it. As Walt (Bryan Cranston) came out from behind a big rock and surrendered to Hank during the episode's climactic sequence, there was a moment in which he ever so slightly raised his gun. In that split second, many viewers (including myself) wondered if he'd use the weapon on himself. That moment, which MacLaren and the crew took care not to oversell, wasn't scripted: It came from Cranston, the director said. "We were very careful to do it very subtly ... but that was one of those things that evolved on the day," MacLaren said.
MacLaren is a stickler for preparation: She worked closely with the writer, George Mastras, and with the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, to firm up what they'd actually shoot, and she relied on detailed shot lists before rolling any film. The production wouldn't have had enough time to shoot what was in the original script, so alterations were made before shooting, MacLaren said. But once the script was set, no serious changes were made during production. "Those scripts are so well thought out that by the time they come to us, they're so beautifully executed that we don't tend to waver," MacLaren said. (Fun fact: MacLaren and Gilligan first worked together on "The X-Files," which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its debut today.)
The most intensely planned sequence was, not surprisingly, the shoot-out at the end of the hour. "Everything had to be [very] pre-planned," MacLaren said, given that gunfights tend to eat up the most time and money. But for all her preparation, MacLaren said she stays open to "throwing out" the plan to go with a better idea, if one arises. This season especially, she said, "you feel this incredible desire and pressure to do the best episodes you can."
Many TV shows overdo the visual bombast and insistent music when trying to create tension, but "Breaking Bad" often uses silence and wide open spaces to create tension and almost unbearable anticipation. The show consciously uses music and sound "sparingly," MacLaren noted, adding that "we definitely wanted to play out those long, drawn-out silent moments" in Sunday's episode. The show often uses the wind (as it did in "To'hajiilee") to enhance the mood of desperation and desolation, and the desert location in which they shot the key scenes had "an incredible echo," which made Hanks shouts to Walt even more effective. A big inspiration for MacLaren's approach was the opening to Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," which is "absolutely a piece of art," she said. "It's a showdown at this train station, and there's very little sound aside from a windmill spinning."
One of her biggest concerns was making sure that all the revelations and character reactions landed properly. MacLaren made sure that Walt and Hank were far apart when Walt finally surrendered, so that long walk to Hank's location would give this huge moment the weight and heft it deserved, and she also wanted Walt's reaction to seeing Jesse and Hank working together to register strongly for viewers. "Heisenberg has always been one step ahead in this game. [Their alliance] never occurred to him, and it's one of the most important moments for him in the series to date. The shock, betrayal, anger ... you needed time for him to feel all these emotions and really build up the tension," MacLaren said.
The production got an extra day to shoot the episode (and three or four of the nine total shooting days were spent in the desert). "There's never enough time or money, you're always running for your life" in TV production, MacLaren said. But the show's studio and network, she added, were supportive of the "large" nature of this last set of episodes and so gave the crew the extra shooting day. Still, she was "concerned at the end of every day." A key part of creating the tension in the episode was getting all the reaction shots from all the key players in the desert sequences. Every day, "I was ticking off the shot list, hoping we got all the pieces," MacLaren said.
Editor Kelley Dixon was a key part of making sure that the episode's pacing and tension ended up working as effectively as they did. Dixon and MacLaren have worked together a lot, the director said, and they are so simpatico that Dixon's cut of the episode was very close to what MacLaren had envisioned. She and Dixon honed it further together, and once she and Dixon came up with a cut they both liked, Vince Gilligan didn't change a thing. "We were both delighted that he was so happy with it," MacLaren said.
MacLaren was pleased to hear that several "Breaking Bad" reviewers felt sick during the course of the episode. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I have a huge grin on my face right now," MacLaren said when I told her of my reaction to certain sequences. "I love hearing that. That's what we want -- to evoke emotion." We discussed the fact that the Hank-Marie phone call was one of the toughest scenes to watch. "Everything has been so horrible, and his first thought is to share [the arrest] with her, because he knows it will give her a little bit of relief. She's so proud of him," MacLaren said. The fact that so many viewers felt bad for Marie and Hank is "exactly what you hope for," she said. "You want them along for the ride with you."
The Talking TV podcast of my conversation with Michelle MacLaren is below, here and is available on iTunes. My review of "To'hajiilee" is here.
"Breaking Bad" airs 9 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.
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