The Music Men Of ‘Breaking Bad’ & ‘Better Call Saul’ On Jimmy’s Evolution, Future Seasons, & Tonight’s “Unbelievable” Finale
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ve probably vaguely (if not obsessively) been aware of a little AMC series called Breaking Bad. Created by Vince Gilligan and starring Bryan Cranston as ultimate antihero Walter White, the epic drama followed White as he went from cancer-stricken chemistry teacher to Albuquerque meth kingpin. The accompanying music, an atmospheric, menacing score composed by Dave Porter (The Blacklist, Flesh and Bone, Preacher) , was complimented by the delightfully unpredictable, incredibly curated song choices of music supervisor Thomas Golubic (Six Feet Under, The Walking Dead, Love), and the duo were seemingly a match made in music heaven.
When prequel/spin-off Better Call Saul was announced, it seemed only natural that Porter and Golubic reunite to score the origin story of one Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a tonally fluid tale of what it took to turn this morally ambiguous attorney with a heart of gold into a criminal lawyer. Once again at the side of Gilligan and Saul co-creator Peter Gould, Porter and Golubic embarked on a new journey of sound and story and have delivered some of the best music on television in the process. As Saul steadily creeps towards Bad, the duo have buckled down to seamlessly balance storylines as dark and looming as Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gustavo Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) with the occasionally clownish, fickle antics of Jimmy McGill. Decider spoke with Porter and Golubic about the loyalty of the Bad/Saul family, what it’s like scoring different characters, how hard it is to find the time to watch TV, and what we might expect for Jimmy in the future.
On getting involved with Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul
Music Supervisor Thomas Golubic: I got introduced through Christina Wayne, who was an executive at AMC at the time…. She invited me to help out on this first AMC original series which was essentially a miniseries and that didn’t really come together. And then she brought me on board in the beginning to help out on Mad Men when they were trying to figure out the main title and the sound of the show, but that show had another supervisor involved, so that didn’t really happen. And then the third time we gave it a whirl was on Breaking Bad, which was wonderful. When I got hired to work on the pilot, one of the difficulties that we had was in trying to figure out the tone of the show. I had strongly recommended going in a very different direction than what they pitched in the meeting I had with them, which is not usually a very good idea. But they were actually very open-minded and interested in some of the ideas that I was trying to bring to the table.
Composer Dave Porter: We’re talking ten plus years ago, which is hard to believe how much time has gone under the bridge. It was a very different landscape in television then. There just wasn’t this gluttony of excellent television shows out there that there is now. When I had a chance, over at Thomas’ house to watch through the very early versions of the pilot of Breaking Bad, it was immediately and remarkably different. Just on a different level. It just felt much more like a 60-minute feature than a television show. Other than HBO, there weren’t a lot of regular cable channels investing in this level of television. In a way, we were all very fortunate to be added at ground zero. In those days. In these days, if you want to do an AMC show, you’re up against everyone in Hollywood because everyone wants to work on those shows. But back then it wasn’t like that – thankfully for us we got in early.
TG: They were very open to having anyone and everyone back that wanted to come back from Breaking Bad. One of the things we are so blessed by is the loyalty that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and all the other producers have shown us over all this time. But this was definitely a whole new creative challenge. Despite the fact that we were all the same folks, it was a very different show to start.
On bringing new empathy to Jimmy’s character
TG: The very first meeting we had with Vince and Peter, part of what was very exciting for us was that they were very clear that “we are not doing Breaking Bad 2.0″. We are not going to essentially do the exact same thing. Or even do a related venture to Breaking Bad. This is going to be a unique story where we had to get to know Jimmy McGill and the world around him as we were developing it. We were all moving very quickly into the show, and trying to figure out the tone of the show and the personality of the characters as the show was developing. We were literally shooting episodes one after another. Part of what was exciting about that was that we all had great trust in each other, and that was very much influenced by Dave’s choices in score and how I was approaching songs.
I think that listening very closely to what Peter and Vince had said about how they were articulating the character, and also we were very informed by Bob Odenkirk’s performance – there’s an empathy to Jimmy that did not really exist in Saul. And so we really had to dial into that. The fact that Bob brought so much soul into the character…. Somebody had mentioned earlier in an interview, and I don’t wanna steal their line, but there are so many ways to hurt Jimmy McGill. And I think that is something that’s really helpful and informative to us as contributing storytellers. How do we help to make the audience recognize the nuances of this vulnerable and fascinating creature? And how do we paint his world in a compelling way? We took turns, going back and forth on what would be a source moment and what would be a score moment. How would each contribute? And I think those years of working closely together and having such an environment of trust and respect really helped. It would have been much more difficult if we had a completely new team and were trying to do this improvised jazz band without knowing quite where we were headed.
On Better Call Saul‘s tonal transition as it edges closer to Breaking Bad
DP: You know as much as we do in terms of where we’re going. But I think that everybody is on track to get to a place where we know they will be at the beginning of Breaking Bad. I think for me, on the score end of things, Mike’s motion that direction has happened more quickly and more obviously. And I think that’s clear in the way that we know Mike much better from Breaking Bad than we do Saul. As Thomas mentioned, as important a character as Saul is in Breaking Bad, we don’t know much about him. He plays a very specific role in the show. But now going back into his backstory, we know him so much better that the evolution of him from where we see him at the beginning of Better Caul Saul to where we know he needs to get in Breaking Bad is both a further distance emotionally and also more fleshed out and more interesting. I’m enjoying that process and taking my time getting there. And personally, I hope we get to do it for a few more years before he gets there.
On the process of developing the sound for each episode & those flash-forward tunes
TG: We have a very collaborative approach to getting to the right answers. Everybody is able to weigh in relatively comfortably on different angles on things and make sure that we’re all steering in the same direction. And I think also with source [music], I tend to build lots of different ideas early on and then keep revising them. So I had done arcs for where I thought Saul’s character might go in the season, and looking back on them I don’t even recognize where those ideas came from because so much has changed in the process. I think Dave is able to very much be in the moment and speak to the audiences experience and awareness of what’s going on in Better Call Saul through the score. In comparison, I may be sketching out strategies in a broader sense, but then revising those ideas as they don’t hold up when the story develops. So I’m always looking 8 or 9 steps ahead and then changing and revising whereas Dave is very in the moment and capturing the moment and making sure he’s speaking to the audience’s experience in a clear and intimate way.
In the very first episode of Saul, we had this wonderful flash-forward, or this present-day story. And it was a very exciting adventure to figure out, how do we capture the tone of this? I think that we have found a rather interesting way of telling that story with music, where there is a disconnected quality to it. There is a hovering above quality which is very different from the rest of the show. I think in many ways those pieces will help to inform how we approach featured songs if we end up spending more time in Omaha and following the story of Gene – again, which we don’t know. We know right now that each season begins with a moment of his current status. But I think it’s been a very collective experience. The ideas will come from different areas. They come from Vince [Gilligan], they come from Peter [Gould], they come from the writers, they come from members of my team, myself, directors. It’s a very collaborative environment. And that ego-free approach has been really helpful because we’re all looking for the right idea, and we’re all trying to collectively capture that moment in the right way.
On character theme music (and why they don’t use it)
DP: [I use themes] very rarely. What I’ve come to find is, just because of the nature of these Vince Gilligan shows, these characters are evolving so much and so quickly, that to pin them down to some sort of musical identity is very hard to do. I’ve found it very limiting. The same goes for reusing pieces of music. We just don’t do that on Bad or Saul. Even if I wanted to, a piece of music I wrote for Mike two episodes later just doesn’t fit. He’s become someone different already. The score needs to very much be in the moment, right where we are in the storytelling. There were a few things in Breaking Bad, like a little motif when he [Walt] put on his hat. We haven’t worked up to much of that yet in Better Call Saul. Hopefully there will be a few things. But generally speaking, no, I don’t do much of that.
TG: The characters are changing so much that, rather than being in that genre, we’re trying to capture a tonality and capture an emotional state. And because an emotional state changes so quickly and is so individual to the moment, we have to be very sensitive to where those characters are in those moments. What we’ve found is that there have been lots of very surprising solutions from genres that we did not expect. We had some of that in Breaking Bad, so maybe that’s reflective more of the approach than the subject matter. In a way, we’re trying to DJ the room, and the room is basically the performances and the cinematography and the dancers are essentially the writers and the scripts. And we’re just trying to read it as well as we can. And sometimes you’re surprised with what you end up with just by being in the moment and trying to keep up with it and trying to be truthful to the story and the characters at all times. And I think that in many ways the work that Dave has ended with and the work that we have ended with on our end have really reflected an evolving show that has enormous nuance and great sensitivity, so we’re trying to reflect that in our contribution.
What they’re watching (and wish they could be watching)
DP: I have very little time to catch up with the stuff that’s out there. I am currently watching The Americans. It’s a real nice show. There’s at least 10 others that are on my list. I haven’t even seen an episode of Fargo!
TG: I watched the first season [of Fargo]. It’s such a good show that you really want to dedicate the time to it, and you end up stopping and then wanting to start up again. And then you think, “oh, I’m not doing this thing service”. As working professionals, we’re hoping for a constant flow of inspiration. I would love to sit down and watch Master of None Season 2, but I know that I’ll get through 3 or 4 episodes and then suddenly I’ll be in work mode for like a month and a half, and by the time I get back in there, I’ve unfortunately stumbled into 3 or 4 really smart analyses of the show that I don’t have the discipline to not read. And now I’m like, “I know what’s going to happen.” It’s this weird dilemma that we have, that there’s so much great television right now, but it’s hard to even keep up with what we’re doing. I think that time is the great challenge of the modern age when you have so many wonderful ways to spend it.
On tonight’s Better Call Saul finale
DP: [Saul] just keeps getting better! And I think you’re in for an unbelievable treat next week. And I’ll leave it there. I’m very proud of everyone’s work on the finale. It’s really something.
TG: Some of the work Dave did on the finale is some of the best work I’ve ever heard him do in his entire career. If there’s any justice in the world, he’s going to be walking away with an Emmy nomination for score this year.
The Better Call Saul Season 3 finale airs on AMC Monday, June 19, at 10pm EST.