By Rob Feld
Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” and its spinoff, “Better Call Saul” (co-created with Peter Gould), played significant roles in revolutionizing the television one-hour drama and expanding what was possible beyond pay services like HBO. Unique in their voice and the depth of their character explorations, the two series blended humor with dark drama, embracing expressionistic turns of filmmaking that push the creativity of everyone involved.
“Breaking Bad” followed terminally ill high school science teacher and family man Walter White (Bryan Cranston), as he reinvented himself into the best manufacturer of methamphetamine that ever was, betraying his family and friends in the process. One of his co-conspirators, the ambulance-chasing, drug cartel lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), winds up on the run by the end of the series as well. “Better Call Saul” presents Goodman’s origin story and depicts how he, too, had initially brighter prospects but followed his darkest compulsions and destroyed everything in his wake.
Editor Skip Macdonald and Supervising Sound Editor Nick Forshager have been part of Gilligan’s team since the first season of “Breaking Bad,” racking up a string of awards for their contributions. “Better Call Saul” just completed its final episodes (the series finale aired Aug. 15), with inevitable, tragic traps laid for all the characters. It’s been a long journey through Vince Gilligan’s morally bruised fictional world, and it seemed a good time to check in with Macdonald and Forshager, two of those who helped give it such depth and specificity.
CineMontage: These shows entered the world with a particular vision of a particular creator, who frequently directs episodes. Can you characterize the footage you receive and how free or conscribed you are while working with it?
Skip Macdonald: All of our executive producers direct episodes and they each have their own style; however, Vince plans his shots when directing by making his own hand-drawn storyboards indicating camera placement and the direction they will be shooting. I get his storyboards and that tells me what he’s looking for. The tough thing for me is picking which takes to use because the performances from the actors are all so great. It’s just a matter of, What’s the slight difference between takes, and which performance do we want to go with? As Vince says, it’s an embarrassment of riches, and we just have to mine the best of it. The thing that I really appreciate is that when any of the directors are shooting different angles, they shoot everything from the start of the scene to the end. They don’t give you lots of little pieces. So, you have many options, and everybody has a slightly different style.
CineMontage: How would you describe the voice of the sound design?
Nick Forshager: The show is really all environmental sound design. We don’t have lasers and spaceships. We have this natural world that we’re trying to be in. Outside of the occasional set pieces where we have gun battles, we try to create tension from the environments in the show. This is the show where I really learned how to craft enviroments into something unique that speaks to the signature of both “Breaking Bad” and “Saul.” Everything in these shows is thought out, every location, every situation. Then I try to look at each situation as its own soundscape to be approached with a sonic identity or signature that can help tell the story.
CineMontage: What wouldn’t be part of the grammar of the show?
Macdonald: We’re given the liberty to try what we want. I cut alternate versions and often will use them in the cut because I feel they worked to get us where we wanted to go. Sometimes a scene portrays being in somebody’s head and we have to consider how much we want to stay on that character versus seeing everybody else talk. Sometimes we stay there much longer than anticipated, as long as it feels real and it’s working. Making that call of how far we can push to stay on a shot is a little on the difficult side.
CineMontage: What’s an example that stands out for you for how you build the tone?
Forshager: We’ve been going back to the laundry location this season, which we established in “Breaking Bad.” In the past, we have mostly used the hum of the machines to create tension, but in the episode with Lalo at the laundry, we also used these industrial fans. Even though the soundscape for this location has been established, we redesigned it to fit the story. We’ve been going back to episodes of “Breaking Bad” and to locations that we did back in Episode One of “Saul.” We want it to resemble what we had done before, but there’s a lot of nuance. There’s a scene in the finale that’s in a location that we know, but we’re implementing many new elements, so we needed to adjust and to record new elements to mimic what we’re seeing. We can’t hide behind traditional sound design—we have to keep what we originally created while tweaking it in a way that makes it more dramatic than what we’re seeing. It goes back to that environmental sound design. How do I make something bigger than what it’s intended to be?
CineMontage: What is a frequent answer for that?
Forshager: A lot of times it’s how it’s recorded. Philip Palmer is an amazing production mixer, and when he can get something, he gets it. Some is the processing I do after the fact, reshaping it with some sound effects to bring the elements together to make one new thing.
CineMontage: How do you shoot seasons?
Macdonald: They shoot one episode at a time, we cut them and move to the next one. We had three editors at the start of this season and then went back to two, doing every other episode. We keep up with camera, cutting to get the director’s cuts done. But one thing we do on this show is, once the director’s cut is done, it gets put to the side until we get to the end of the season. Then the producers come in and start making their pass. So, it keeps us moving. And if there’s anything that you feel you need to pick up or address, you have a little bit of time to do it.
CineMontage: What’s the greatest technical challenge of the show for you?
Macdonald: Having enough hours to get through the amount of footage that we get. Often, they shoot with three cameras, generating as much as eight hours of media to view a day. It’s a big challenge to make sure we can report back to them that, “Yes, everything looks good.” Then it comes down to selecting the takes and putting the scene together.
CineMontage: There must be a great deal of interpreting to do for sound design.
Forshager: The editors can do a good job of putting in a blueprint because they’ve had more discussions as they’ve been editing. By the time we get it, I have a really good understanding between the script, what was shot, the edit and the pre-sound design, so I know where to take it. But a lot of it is scripted, to be honest. Especially if it’s mood, which that dictates a lot. If I go back to the pilot of “Breaking Bad,” that whole opening with the RV in the desert, Vince knew there were bottles crashing, rough terrain, the pants fluttering through the air. He has a soundscape in his head as he’s writing, and Peter [Gould] and the rest of the team have followed that lead. But then as they design it and craft the edit, it really comes to interpretation. I’d say the most gimmicky thing we ever did was the time lapses, but even then we tried to do those based on real things like fast car-bys, horn honks, wind moving. We didn’t try to do it with whooshes and things like that. Other than that, it’s really crafted by what we see and how they approach it. Fifteen years of experience with these guys helps a little bit too. Our spotting sessions are long—I’d say two and a half to three hours; a Vince episode, four hours minimum. And before they have a chance to say anything, I’ve already written the note.
Macdonald: The producers here have all been great, sincerely nice people. They are very open to input, but they also know what they’re looking for. There’s never any cutting corners. Everything is always as topnotch as it can be, and it shows.
Forshager: Vince always says the devil is in the details, and they are really into every single one. If something is too big or too small, one chair squeak in the wrong place, it takes you out of it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s been my favorite part.