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.