The multiple Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, an Albuquerque chemistry teacher who starts cooking and selling methamphetamines to secure his family’s financial future after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The show has excavated some pretty dark places over its four-season run on AMC. But it also paints with a remarkably broad emotional palette, peppering its grimmer plot points with moments of levity, action and everyday drama. ASCAP composer Dave Porter has scored the original music for every episode of Breaking Bad. We asked him how he captures the show’s mercurial spirit.
How did you come to work on Breaking Bad, and what convinced you to take the job?
I originally heard about the Breaking Bad pilot episode from music editor Tom Villano as well as through Thomas Golubic, who would ultimately be hired as music supervisor. I had worked with them previously on separate projects, and both called me within a few hours of each other to rave about a new show for AMC. I first saw it at Thomas’s house – he invited me over to watch it and help him prep for his interview with [Breaking Bad creator/director] Vince Gilligan the following day. I was blown away by what I saw. No convincing required…I actively pursued the job!
What kind of ideas did Vince Gilligan have for the vibe of the music when you first started scoring it? Was any of that a challenge for you to realize in the score?
When Vince and I started talking about what the score might sound like, I took my clues from the artistic decisions he had already made on the pilot. For example, he chose to shoot Breaking Bad on film rather than digitally, which is a rarity for television shows these days. This led to conversations about how music is used in films as opposed to how it is typically used on television. We talked about classic Westerns like Once Upon A Time in the West and how compelling a score could be even when it is spare. Rather than speak about specific instruments or techniques, we talked a lot about mood and tone and the ways that music could be a powerful tool in the telling of Walter White’s story. Vince then allowed me free rein to realize those goals through whatever musical means I thought would work. The biggest challenge for me each and every episode is to do my part to live up to the artistry that everyone else has already put into it.
One of the most intriguing parts about Breaking Bad's music is how many scenes you leave without score at all. How do you make the decisions about when to heighten the drama and when to let it play out by itself?
The decisions about where music should and should not be and what music should try to achieve are made in our spotting meetings. Vince Gilligan and I discuss each episode before any music is written along with the picture editor, the writer of the episode, our music supervisor and music editor. We approach every scene with an open mind, but in general we tend to use score to build tension, to get inside a character’s head, and at times to help connect aspects of the story arc. We generally avoid blatant stings, playing for laughs, or trying to add drama to dialogue-driven scenes.
Are there any trademark "Dave Porter-isms" that you feel you've brought to Breaking Bad's score?
Although I’m a classically trained composer, I’ve also studied a number of traditional Asian instruments, and they play a prominent role in the score. I have been collecting synthesizers and audio effects since I was a teenager, and some of the older pieces in particular get a heavy workout when I’m writing for the show. They can impart a certain raw edge but also at times a frailty that I love to exploit. The blending of the two is an important ingredient in the sound of Breaking Bad.
I also compose a unique piece of music for the end credits each week that reflects the mood of that episode and also incorporates the show’s theme in a new way.
The show is chock-full of characters that you can root for and hate at the same time. Is it important to you to reflect the moral ambiguity of their actions in the score? If so, how do you do that?
Without question the most difficult part of scoring the show is handling the moral complexities at the heart of all of the central characters. As a result, the score also works in shades of grey…and I am constantly checking myself to make sure that I’m never being emotionally “on-the-nose” at any given moment.
We're all eagerly anticipating the upcoming final season(s) of Breaking Bad. Is there anything special that you've got in store for the show's home stretch, musically-speaking?
I specifically avoid reading the scripts in advance so that when I sit down to watch an episode I’m on the edge of my seat just as the viewers will be. I find it really helps me to identify the moments where music will be most effective. So I can honestly say I have no idea what’s going to happen, or where the score will go, but I’m as excited as you are to find out!