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'Breaking Bad' Director of Photography Michael Slovis Talks About Shaping the Look of the Most Cinematic Show on Television

By Peter Labuza | Indiewire September 5, 2012 at 12:58PM

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.
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'Live Free or Die'
AMC 'Live Free or Die'

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.

'Gliding Over All'
AMC 'Gliding Over All'

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.

'Mandala'
AMC 'Mandala'

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Breaking Bad, AMC, Michael Slovis, Vince Gilligan