Breaking Bad Nation: Are you OK today? I am not. Luckily, we know who to blame for our nervous state: creator Vince Gilligan and perhaps even more, Michelle MacLaren, the show's executive producer who also directed last night's sandstorm shoot-out.
MacLaren has directed some of Breaking Bad's best and most pivotal episodes, beginning with Season 2's "4 Days Out" — you know the one: Walt and Jesse in the desert, stranded (until science rescues them). As the end of the AMC show looms, Sunday night's "To'hajiilee" was her last in the series. Hitfix's Alan Sepinwall wrote, "MacLaren shoots every image of Walter White in the desert like it's the conclusion of an epic feature film, Walter of Arabia"; Andy Greenwald of Grantland wrote, "She's the most kinetic, expressionistic director of action I've seen since Kathryn Bigelow — that they both are women may be a coincidence, but it's an awesome one."
MacLaren is currently in Belfast working on two episodes from Season 4 of Game of Thrones, but was able to take a few minutes to talk about "To'hajiilee," saying good-bye to Breaking Bad, and what's next for her.
Everyone is talking about the ending most of all. The shoot-out in the desert was both a heart-stopping action scene and a character study, with all of the actors firing looks at each other before they began firing their guns. In terms of your approach, how did you balance those two things?
Michelle MacLaren: What surprised me was the lead up to it, and all those moments took much longer to shoot than the actual gun firing. To me one of the most interesting things about the scene was the anticipation of what's going to happen next — that time that needed to spent on building up to the moment when the guns actually fire; that's an extremely important part of the scene. I wanted to get those looks between everybody, to take a moment to be in each person's head: to understand each person's point of view in this moment. Because the anticipation of Oh, shit, what's gonna happen? is that angst that you want to create in the story that hopefully will give it the big payoff that's due in a moment like that. Boy, how do I balance that? Shoot really fast and try to get it all.
You thought that the shooting itself would take longer, but it was the lead up to it that did?
MM: It was all pretty time-consuming to shoot. When you do a shoot-out like that, everything has to pre-planned right down to every single bullet, and knowing where the bullets are going to go and knowing where the camera's going to go. Once the guns go off, they go off. It's very time-consuming to re-set that. It's kind of like a military maneuver. If you think about each one of those camera moves that pushes in on each of the actors before the guns go off, I wanted to create a lot of tension. I shot things at different speeds. For example, we did some of it in 24 frames, we did some of it in, I think, 150 frames, we did some of it at 96 frames. Each one of those pieces had to be covered in a different take to do the different frame rates. That buildup — it took a lot of time to shoot. When we did the actual gun firing, it's also very time-consuming. We had multiple cameras at once, and we had varying speeds, and we tried to do as many setups at one time in each take — because it's very expensive to fire off a bunch of guns. So you're shooting a lot of different pieces of the action in one take. Whereas each one of those moments leading up to it had to be treated as a separate moment.
You mentioned the tension before the shooting began. The tension leading up to Uncle Jack's inevitable arrival was also horrifying, especially the phone conversation between Hank and Marie. What did you talk about with Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt about filming that? Betsy Brandt in particular was incredible there.
MM: It's wonderful, isn't it? We talked about about the incredible relief. Their life has been so full of pain and misery and angst — and heartbreak, incredible heartbreak. Devastation. In that moment, there's some relief. There's a moment when they get to just smile for a second. I've always loved the relationship between Hank and Marie and the love they have for each other. That relationship has gone through so many ups and downs, but they've always been there for each other. I love this moment: This tough, proud DEA agent — he finally, he finally gets his man, and the first thing he does is call her. Because they share that together. He can't help himself. The love and the pride. Betsy and I talked about how proud she is of her man at that moment. It's a really touching, loving moment. That's a really tricky thing to insert in all that chaos at that time. Dean did a wonderful job with executing that.
Walt does seems to be caught, finally.
MM: When Walt puts his hands up and is making what I call the walk of shame, we wanted it to be a really long, painful walk of shame. I purposely put him as far away from those guys as we did so he did have a long distance to walk. All those moments really need their due. We've been building up to this moment for a while, and we really wanted it to be painful and clear. When he sees Jesse and Hank together, which never even entered his mind — Heisenberg is always thinking a step ahead of everybody, and this did not enter his mind — it's the most impotent moment for Walt in the series to date. And we really wanted to take the time to feel that moment.
The things Bryan Cranston's face is doing when he's behind that rock — he goes through every feeling.
MM: Bryan and I talked about it a lot. There's an utter sense of betrayal. There's a sense of defeat. Heisenberg's always had a way out, and all of a sudden, he doesn't. Bryan and I discussed this being the most impotent moment for him. He feels shock, betrayed, he feels hopelessness, he feels, Oh my god, what am I going to do now? And then, as he realizes he doesn't have an out here, he's going to have to give himself up, as he gets closer to Jesse: anger. So betrayed. So viciously angry at Jesse, and hatred comes in. Bryan Cranston being the brilliant, genius actor that he is, he feels it all.
Here's the scene!
Very worried about Hank and Gomie. Everyone is talking about the shoot-out, but let's not forget about Walt speeding from the car wash. I don't know when I've ever seen a car scene like that on television.
MM: It was really hard to do! Most of it was done green screen. Everyone thinks, Oh, that's easy! Let me tell you: It's not easy! Obviously, all the stuff exterior to the car, we shot ourselves. We shot on a bridge in downtown Albuquerque and on the streets. Then we went out and shot all the plates for the driving stuff. Then we shot the actual scene in the studio. It was one of those things when you go, Gosh, I hope this is going to work, because there was such a big visual effects element to it. Bill Powlowski, our wonderful visual effects supervisor, did an amazing job with it. It was a real collaboration with everybody.
You've directed a number of very memorable episodes. How has your own style evolved since the first one, which is the now classic "4 Days Out"?
MM: Vince Gilligan and AMC are really wonderful people to direct and produce for, because they don't put the demands of any conventionalism on you. Vince always says, "I want you to tell a story." I started directing on The X-Files when I was producing there, and the thing I learned was, Always make sure the camera's telling the story. Vince and I talked about how he wanted this to look like a modern-day Western, and I love Westerns — Sergio Leone is one of my favorite directors. I love wide lenses. So it was a style I absolutely loved. Vince had created this wonderful, beautiful style from the pilot, and also in a way that was unique because we would break the fourth wall — we would put the camera in places where you really can't put a camera. We always tried to make sure that it was motivating the story, that the camera was telling the story, that we weren't doing something gratuitous. We wanted to enhance the story within the Breaking Bad world. For me, it was trying to think out of the box, thinking about the best way to tell the story within this world, and really going for it.
In a rare instance for a TV director, people are now wondering out loud — or out loud on the internet, anyway — when you will be directing a feature. Is that on the horizon?
MM: I don't have anything specific. Would I like to? If the right thing came along, absolutely. I love television. Television is a great medium; I'm fortunate enough to direct amazing television. Would I like to do a feature? Absolutely. I will never leave television. Am I looking? Yes. I'm looking. Have I found anything? Not yet. I haven't yet. I'd like to do both.
As a woman director, being known for action is especially rare. There aren't that many of you.
MM: There's a few of us. There are some wonderful female directors out there. I love it. I can't even explain it. I seem to gravitate toward the dark side of things when it comes to directing. I love action, but I love the drama as well.
What's it been like saying good-bye to the show?
MM: I love my Breaking Bad family, and I miss them terribly. It's the first time in five years that when I'm off doing something else, I know that when I finish this, I'm not going back to that family. It hits me. It hits me in different ways. I'm still very involved in Breaking Bad, and I'm involved in the approval of all the publicity and everything that goes out. I was sent a commercial the other day to approve that was introducing the last episode. And I burst into tears. I was just sitting in my apartment, and wow, it just hit me. I feel so lucky to have been part of this amazing, brilliant creation of Vince Gilligan's — I'm so grateful to him for bringing me along on this ride. And I'm so proud of him for him ending it when he did, because he always said he wanted to end it on top: Leave the party when you're having a good time. And he's done so. I'm so impressed and proud of my friend.
This interview has been edited and condensed.