When it comes to ambitious television, we tend to talk about the showrunner as the equivalent of the auteur in a film. But the original meaning of that term was more about director imparting his or her visual imprint on a work. And on a show as visually perceptive and imaginative as "Breaking Bad," there's a second creative force shaping what's on screen in just as influential a way as showrunner Vince Gilligan: director of photography Michael Slovis.
Since season two, Slovis has been creating the unique visual language of "Breaking Bad," which is leading the charge of TV truly becoming equal to cinema. Each episode is interested in photography telling the narrative as much as dialogue. With only one half a season of the AMC drug drama left to go, Indiewire chatted with Slovis by phone this week to discuss how "Breaking Bad" came about its distinctive style and why it looks like nothing you ever seen on the small screen.
First of all, congratulations on finishing another great season. You came onto the show in season two, and have since been the director of photography in all but five episodes. What initially drew you to "Breaking Bad"?
The story is now with the annals of "Breaking Bad" history. I just came home from traveling. I was shooting in Eastern Europe. I got a phone call from AMC — we would like you to come in shoot this little show, which I had never heard of, in New Mexico. I actually said, “No thank you, I’m not interested in traveling anymore.” And I hung up the phone!
My wife goes to me, “What was that?” and I said that they wanted me to shoot some show I never heard of in New Mexico. "What’s the name of it?” "Breaking Bad." She says, “Call them right back and tell them to send you the first season.” So I called them and said my wife says I should see the show. My wife said to me, “When you see the show, you’re going to go and do it, and it’ll be one of the great things that ever happened to you."
The next day, the first season arrived, and I sat down to watch it, and watched all seven episodes in a row. Literally, before the teaser of the first episode was over, I turned to [my wife] and go, "Oh my God. I want to do this show!" I was recommend by my friend Adam Bernstein, who directed episodes two and three of the first season, and even since then, I’ve been integrated — sucked in, if you will — by Vince Gilligan.
When you first met with Vince Gilligan, did you have a particular visual look you wanted to bring to the show or was it a collaboration? How did you guys decide where you wanted to take the show visually?
During subsequent conversations with AMC and Vince, I said to them — and I believed it, and I believe it now more than I did then — "This amazing show should have a real look to it, and the photography should be a character. The writing and the performances are so strong, it’s a show that can stand up to a real commitment in terms of look." And they said, “No, that’s what we want!”
Now, anyone who has shot television or worked in it has heard that before, and usually they backtrack on it afterwards. So I said, “Do you know what this means? It means stuff that doesn’t look like television — stuff that’s expressive and emotional, dark in places and bright in places. It’s a whole different way of telling stories." And they said, “No, that’s what we want!”
When I first got there, my first set of dalies were in the basement of Jesse's aunt’s house (which became Jesse’s house over the course of the next few seasons), which was a set on our stage. We shoot in New Mexico and the film goes to Los Angeles and gets processed there. DVDs are made of the day's work and are sent to those who need to know. A call came in from Sony, “What the hell happened out there? What’s going on? Everything is so dark!”
And I knew, I’m packing bags and getting out of here because I’m going to be fired… and then maybe an hour later, I get a call from Vince going “Oh man, it’s beautiful! It’s gorgeous! Keep doing what you are doing!” After that, I get a call from AMC going “Wow! It looks like what it’s supposed to look like. Keep doing the same thing!” So by the end of that week, I get a call from Sony saying, “It’s wonderful! It’s gorgeous! Keep doing the same thing!” When Sony found out when AMC and Vince were on board, they were on board.
Well, I think many of the critics and fans of the show love it because it has such a bold visual style. And for me, it reminds me of some of those early Hollywood New Wave '70s films: "Mean Streets," "Sugarland Express," "Badlands." Were there specific films, television shows, or even photography that you had as influences for ideas you wanted to bring?
I didn’t copy anybody for this. I think one of the reasons the show works so well is that the visual language is inseparable from the show itself. The photography is an organic character that comes out of the story rather than being imposed on the story. So it’s honest in terms of elevating the story, or helping to nudge the story along.
When Vince and I really sat down and chatted, the only references he gave me, which will be very evident when I tell you what they are, were Sergio Leone westerns — "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" — and "The French Connection." He never told me or insisted, “Do this!” He said, “If you want to know where I’m coming from, and where my sensibilities lie, you should watch 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,'" which I’m incredibly familiar with and love as well.
Vince loves that movie so much that he and I, between seasons three and four, made a pitch to Sony and AMC to shoot the series in widescreen like a Leone movie, in 2.35 or what would be called Cinemascope. We wanted to do the whole series in that size frame. The two of us were arguing, saying, "If you want to be noticed, if you want people to see what’s going on, we’ll be the first! Everybody will see!" But they didn’t let us do it.
In many ways, since you are the visual stylist on every episode, you are sort of the auteur more than directors themselves. What is your relationship with the various directors? Are you working with them in the storyboarding process? How much guidance are you giving them versus they coming to ideas with you?
The important thing to remember in episodic television is that the people who direct are called guest directors. When they come in, they are guests. If they know how to be a good guest, they don’t insist on anything. I’ve had one or two directors come in, and go, “Listen, I’m gonna show you guys how to do it. You’ve got a great show here, but, let me show you how to do it.” Those guys haven’t been asked back, and they will never be asked back on any show.
Let’s say I’m a guest director on "Law and Order: SVU." I don’t go in and tell them what to do. I watch the shows, do my homework, look at the language of the shows that they’re telling, and try to fit it in. And if I have a question, I ask. I say, “I have this idea for a shot, what do you think?” And that’s how people do it.
Now, on Breaking Bad, I am kind of the last word on the set for the look of the show. And I’m very open. We don’t have rules there. Our rule is to tell the story honestly — that’s our credo. We don’t say, “You must tell it in long shots, You must tell it in wide shots, You must tell it in close-ups, you must do this…" What we do say, if that you must get to the essence of the story, and tell it organically.
When you do something like that, then it kind of rolls off of the screen. It doesn’t feel like the photography is a separate job from the writing or the acting or the art directing or the makeup. Everything feels of a piece, and that’s the best compliment you can pay to any visual artists, I think — hen it all feels like it belongs there.
A lot of "Breaking Bad" is defined by this extreme visual style that comes out of the story. In Sunday’s finale, you’ve got that overhead plane shot of the houses lighting up almost like cancer cells. Are there any shots like that throughout the series that you wanted to do but then there was a technical difficulty or that it was infringing, because it was becoming more about the visuals and not enough about the story?
If you look at the episodes that I direct, there are very few of those specialty shots in them. I try to tell the story honestly, and I think some of the most successful shows don’t have a lot of them. Vince's analogy is that if you order an ice cream sundae, and they bring it with pineapple and chocolate and marshmallows and whip cream and seventeen kinds of nuts and caramel syrup and this and that, then you lose the fact you are eating an ice cream sundae, and that you’ve overdone it. But if you get a really nice scoop of vanilla with some whip cream and some chocolate and some nuts, what a great sundae that is! So we try and not to go too far.
I also believe very strongly that you do too many of those what are now called the “POV shots,” they lose their impact. If you cut to them, they don’t have the kind of strength they should have. Film, to me, is a medium of contrasts. A great way to show speed is to put something slow next to it. A great way to show light is to show something dark next to it. There’s that great fight sequence in the John Wayne movie "The Quiet Man" with Maureen O’Hara where they stop in the middle of the fight to have a drink at a bar! It makes the fight so much better! What is scary about horror? It’s not the "bam" of the shock of the image — it’s the three minutes of quiet that proceed it.
I try and do the same. When directors come in with all kind of fancy shots, I say, “Let’s pick the ones that really work,” especially because they take time and can be expensive. But at the same time, we do things in very old school ways that don’t cost a lot of money.
In season two, there’s a shot where Jesse takes heroin, and he floats up off the bed and off of the set. I can’t even tell you how old school we did that shot! We did that with pulleys and a piece of wood that we tied him down on, and we put the camera over his head, and we hoisted him up off that set. There’s no visual effects or computers. And the reason the set behind him sort of swirls — if you go back and watch it, you’ll see it drifts from left to right — was that right before the camera started going up, I gave the bed he was on a little push, and then we hoisted him up. And that was it!
Because you are so essential to the series, do you ever become involved in story discussions? Especially if the writers need to think about how they’re going to envision certain plot points, so they come to you and say “How can we pull this off?”
One of the reasons they had me direct the season opener this year was that nobody knew how they were going to do the magnets. They had ideas, but said, “You can direct this but you got to tell us how we’re going to do this sequence.”
Well, I love that sequence because you give that visual humor — you have the tricycle moving, which feels like you’re watching a parody of a horror movie. So what conception of that and how did you bring that together?
Vince had written it, and they were so excited by the fact things were going to move. When I went to him, I said, “There’s a story within a story here. What I’d like to do, Vince, is like to start off with the smallest, teeny, tiny little thing. I’d like to show the room, and then go to a paper clip. And have just the paper clip turn. And have it build throughout the sequence.” My reference for that was "The Birds," the scene where behind Tippi Hendren, one bird lands, and the audience sees it but she doesn’t, then there’s two birds, and then four, and then eight. So let’s let this build slowly and be a story in it of itself. He got very excited when I told him that and then we were like kids in a candy store.
Well, what’s unique about "Breaking Bad," which is now rare in both film and television, is that you are still shooting on 35mm. I find this essential to the series because you get those sharp yellows and blue filters. Were there ever any talks that you’d have to switch to digital at all in the show?
There are digital shots in the show. You don’t know them, but they are in there. Little things that help facilitate our day are shot on Canon 7D and Canon 5D. An example would be when there’s a shot from the bottom of a pool in season four when Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) gets killed. We’re looking up from the bottom of the pool and he gets shot and falls right onto this — that was a Canon 7D in underwater housing. We have them intersprersed throughout the show.
The original reason we shoot film is that AMC, when they started production, shot everything on film, because they saw themselves as film producers and storytellers and not just television producers. The world has changed since then, but to stay consistent, we stay with film. Nobody wants to mess with the look on "Breaking Bad," because it’s such an integral part of the show. I think it would be a shame to at this point, and we’re not going to. We’re going to finish the show on film.
Well, when you are working in television, there’s so much you have to get done in a day and so little time to cover. Do you feel that fuels your creative instincts in some ways because you have to constantly be thinking on your feet? Or do you do a lot of storyboarding and planning ahead of time to make sure everything is going to get done smoothly?
Well, you’ve mentioned storyboards twice now, and I don’t use them. The only time we use storyboards is for complicated effect sequences. I don’t believe in storyboards. Storyboards can cost you a lot of time and a lot of money. Directors come in with them and they show you a picture of a frame and they don’t realize it, but it’s 17 different angles on things that cannot happen in the real world.
I believe in shot lists. I believe if you can’t put it into words, you haven’t thought it out well enough to be on the set. You have to understand, there’s no way to save money, which everybody on the set is charged with. We do this for a price, and that’s extremely important. This show is made for so much less than most shows, most dramas, I cannot tell you. It’s made for a very small amount of money compared to most dramas out there.
So you really must know what you are doing when you come in. You must have a very clear idea of what you want. I think the best way to do that is to have fully thought out a shot list and have it in words of what it is that you are going to do. When I direct, I publish a shot list, and everybody on the crew gets it, so they all know where we are going. I learned that from the great TV directors I respect the most.
We’re talking about this “Golden Age of Television” right now, but as someone who watches a lot of cinema, it’s great to see shows — foremost "Breaking Bad," and a little "Mad Men" and "Louie" — that are really trying to tell these stories visually, as opposed to shows that are driven by writing. As you finish up "Breaking Bad," how to do you want to continue to challenge the way audiences are watching TV and shows instead of listening to them?
It’s a problem! It’s a real problem for me. I don’t know what I’m going to do! I don’t think I can go and do, so soon after "Breaking Bad," pedestrian stuff. This has ruined me. I love doing this show. I would not leave New Jersey to go to New Mexico if I didn’t love the show. We’re flattered by how many people are emulating what we’ve started. We get shout-outs all the time from people who are using the visual language now that we’ve introduced. I don’t know what we’re going to do.
One of the reasons "Breaking Bad" looks the way that it does is that I’ve been given an inordinate amount of control. I conceive the way the show is going to look and shoot it to be finished in a certain way, then I work with the people who finish it [in post-production], so it’s finished in the way it was intended to be finished. Most shows, that does not happen. You shoot, you send stuff out, and that’s the last you hear about it. But I get approval or at least consulting all the way to the very end of the process, which is right before it goes out to the network.
This is why, good or bad, the show looks consistent. It may not be a great-looking show and a lot of people may not like it. There’s a lot of people who criticize the way it looks. But it’s of a piece. It feels, when I watch it at least… I don’t feel the photography independently of the story or the way it’s being told. I feel, 80% of the time, the right visual words are being used to tell the story.
That’s because Vince does an amazing job, an enviable job, of corralling everybody. That’s what a showrunner does. A showrunner makes sure, in addition to the writing being great, the makeup, the wardrobe, the effects are appropriate. He’s a conductor at the head of a big orchestra. His job is to make sure is synchronized and appropriate to the story that is being told at that moment, and that’s what he does better than almost anyone that I know.