‘Breaking Bad’: Episode 4, from the inside out
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I show up and Bryan Cranston has his pants down. “Excuse me,” he says. “I see Josh and I drop my pants.” He looks like Walter White usually looks –- the mustache, the calculator watch, the green button-down, the ugly pants. Only right now the pants are unbuckled and dropped down off his waist as a crew member runs a microphone up his shirt for the following scene, one in which he’ll surprise his family with morning pancakes in the kitchen.
Our locale: inside Stage 5 of the Albuquerque Studios, where “Breaking Bad” is largely shot. The interiors of the White household are here, and we’re standing with Bryan in the living room, along with about a dozen crew members. It feels a bit like 1985 –- the floor is covered in a plush brown carpet, and the walls and decorations are all earth toned as well, but not in a good way, really. Basically, this your grandmother’s house –- the one that hasn’t been redecorated in decades.
Cranston tucks in his shirt and buckles up, and soon enough the adjacent kitchen is ready to go, too –- the lighting is right, the pancakes ready.
Bells sound, the air conditioning cuts off, silence.
“Rolling!” … “Marker!” … Crack. … “Aaaaaaand, action!” Ah, the sounds of Hollywood, in the middle of New Mexico.
“Walt, you didn’t have to do this,” Skyler (Anna Gunn) says to her husband in the scene. “I wanted to,” he replies, and goes on from there, trying to make nice with the fam after putting it through hell -– he went missing recently, was discovered naked in a supermarket, and just the other night told his wife that he didn’t know anything about a second cellphone … to which she responded by turning away from him and clicking off a bedside lamp.
In this scene, Walt and his son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), playfully jab each other’s musical tastes before the kid rushes off to school. Then Walt tells Skyler, an aspiring writer, about a fiction seminar at the local university and says that he’d be happy to come along. She smiles. Then he doesn’t shut up. “Oh, and, um, you know, I was thinking about what you asked me the other night? You know, you were wondering if I had a second cellphone? You know, I’ve been thinking about that a lot and I think what you heard was my cellphone alarm going off. …” Her smile fades, and as he blabbers on while clearing the dishes, she sneaks away and out of the house, closing the door behind her. “Skyler?” He sees her pulling away from the driveway, then tries to ring her cell. It buzzes against the kitchen counter -– she left without it.
The whole scene is 4½ minutes long on screen, but shooting it takes most of the day. Different angles are shot. Lines are occasionally flubbed, like when Mitte gets mentally blocked as he gets up from the table to catch his ride to school. “Ah, Boz Scaggs, there’s another one,” his dad says to him in the scene, referencing another of his favorite musicians. “Whoever they are,” he is supposed to answer, but “whoever they is” and “whoever that is” comes from his lips, along with other variations. This happens to every actor at one time or another. In this case, the real victim may be Gunn, who, for the sake of continuity, has to keep eating grapes on camera until the thing is right. She will have many grapes.
Between takes, as lighting is sometimes adjusted or makeup applied, the actors converse quietly. “What do you do to get rid of hangovers?” Mitte asks Cranston. “Huh?” “What do you drink?” “Tomato juice.” “Oh, the tomato juice,” Mitte says, and Cranston stares at him for a moment.
Later, when Walt is trying to phone Skyler’s phone, the cellphone on the counter continues to buzz even after he’s already hung up the phone in his hand -– a timing issue, of course (someone else is ringing the cell), but Cranston rolls with it and stays in character, slamming his phone repeatedly against the receiver until the cell phone finally stops buzzing. Cut, says director John Dahl, and the crew lets go of a collective laugh.
Around midday, show runner Vince Gilligan shows up to the set after spending the morning scouting locations around Albuquerque. Staffers immediately descend upon him with questions. “A DEA agent wouldn’t actually pull his gun in this situation,” one man says about a moment in another episode that’s yet to be shot. “Oh, well, let’s do what they’d do,” Gilligan says, and the change is made.
Meanwhile, Mitte comes over to me with an invitation to his upcoming 16th birthday party, making me feel instantly cool, and he and his mom catch me up with the goings on of his life: He’s recently acquired a learner’s permit and a MySpace stalker. Also, Mom’s dating rules for him are finally “bending,” which is cool. Oh, and a TMZ reporter kept flirting with him at a party the other night, thinking he was much older. “When alcohol was passed around,” Mitte says, “that was the bummer moment.”
Cranston comes by. “What are you drinking?” he asks his TV son. It’s a Red Bull and Mountain Dew, and Cranston cringes. “What? Before this, I couldn’t remember my lines,” Mitte grins.
Nearby, Gunn sips on a Diet Coke while sitting in a chair with her name on the back of it, her prosthetic baby bump still beneath her shirt. She wears it all day. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised,” a writer tells her about upcoming storylines, which the actors aren’t privy to –- they get their scripts only a week before shooting them and aren’t usually informed about what lies ahead. She asks a couple of questions about her character –- would Skyler do this, or would she ever do that? -– and then says to the writer, “There’s just much more to her,” a statement she later echoes to me as well. “Sometimes it was frustrating,” she says of her character always being so in the dark as to what’s really going on with Walt, “and I wanted to jump up and go, ‘My God! Ask a question, Skyler!’ ”
Luckily, that’s what this episode is all about. She’s no longer Mrs. Nice Girl. She knows that Walt is lying about something, and she refuses to take it, cancer be damned. “Shut up and say something that isn’t complete ...,” she says to him during one testy moment. “No more excuses, no more of these obvious, desperate breakfasts.” He refuses to give in, though, and her desperation leads her to a convenience store, which is where this episode will end; Skyler returns to her car with a fresh pack of cigarettes, takes one into her lips, then notices a woman in another car scoffing at the sight of a pregnant woman doing such a thing. Skyler lights up anyway.
Gunn tells me that she loves the scene, and I ask if she has any ideas about what Skyler might do if she were to also “break bad” like her husband. “Yeah, I really do,” she says, lowering her voice to a sneaky Catwoman-like drawl. Anything you can share? “Nooooo,” she says with a smile.
Lunch time arrives –- the greatest moment on film sets everywhere –- and Cranston invites me to join him in the lunch trailer, where he piles a load of fried chicken and barbecue ribs onto his plate. Nothing with a lot of carbs, though –- that’s how he keeps his weight down, along with the four or five miles he runs every morning, something of a breeze for this former marathon runner. He tells me where to find the best margarita in town and suggests that I visit nearby Sandia Peak, home of the world’s longest aerial tramway, before I leave town. I will do this tomorrow and will be stunned by the glorious views of Albuquerque. I will also be unnerved by warnings of bears and bobcats.
After lunch, Aaron Paul, who inhabits the role of Jesse, arrives to the set even though he’s not on screen today. He does, however, offer up his voice for the scene in which his character calls Walter at home (only Walt’s side of the conversation is being captured on camera today). Between scenes, he munches on various items from the craft service table and kindly mops up spilled soda on the floor. When his scene arrives -– he calls Walt at home repeatedly, even though he’s not supposed to -– Walt rips the phone out of the wall and slams it against the counter.
Afterward, Cranston sits down next to me and his hand is bleeding. “I took a gash out of it somehow,” he says, and an on-set medic named Brian (we know this because he’s wearing an old-fashioned nametag that says his name is Brian) quickly arrives with cotton swabs and disinfectant. “I don’t know when I did it exactly,” Cranston says. “It’s kind of like being in a fight.” I ask him if a scene like that is satisfying, when the buttoned-up Walt lets out a little anger.
“Yeah, I think at some point it’s Walt releasing the tension that’s been bottled up so much,” Cranston says. “I think he’s finding that he’s not as calm and collected. He’s a pretty controlled guy –- scientist, one-plus-one-equals-two, I pay my bills, I go home, everything is orderly and now everything is chaos, out of control. I can’t even control my house anymore. My wife is behaving in this fashion and I don’t know that I deserve that, and it is just so frustrating. So hopefully it’ll convey the frustration a little bit. I’m trying to go for it.”
During further breaks in shooting, I get to talk to perhaps the two most important people off camera -– Michael Slovis, the director of photography, and Helen Caldwell, the script supervisor. They sit in chairs apart from each other just off the set, watching a monitor as every scene unfolds, the former making sure it all looks right and the latter keeping track of continuity -– if Walt holds a cup of coffee in his right hand in one shot, for instance, she makes sure he’s holding it again when that same scene is shot from a different angle.
Slovis, who won an Emmy for shooting “CSI” in 2006, is remarkably quiet and relaxed, a demeanor that seems to trickle down to everyone else. He sips on English Breakfast tea. “I was going back and forth between L.A. and New York for two years, and then I got this material –- a friend recommended me,” he says. “This is honestly one of the three to five best shows on television. The material is just exactly what I want to see on TV.”
Caldwell spends the day with a giant three-ring binder on her lap along with clipboards, writing notes all over a shooting script as the day wears on. The notes are for an editor who will eventually take the day’s footage and begin piecing the scenes together. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years,” Caldwell says. “This is the best show I’ve ever been on. The crew, the best directors, the writers, the scripts -– I just love this show. It’s good to be on a show where you actually look forward to getting the next script because you’re like, ‘What happens next?’ The only thing I would love is to get paid a little more, but you know …”
Caldwell must walk a mile per day just moving from monitor to set throughout the day, correcting the actors’ lines and movements. A hair stylist also wears out the soles of her Chuck Taylors, walking to and fro to maintain everyone’s hair (except Cranston’s, of course). Today, Gunn’s hair keeps falling across her face. “In 13 hours, there’s only so much product you can put in someone’s hair,” she says. “But have you noticed the weird vibe?” What do you mean? I ask. “The love that’s here. Everybody just loves being here, and everybody gets along great.” Unusual? I wonder aloud. And she rolls her eyes at me.
At 11 p.m., dinner arrives –- calzones –- and everyone makes a break for them. Slovis asks me how long I’m here for, and I tell him just the one day. “One day? Too bad you’re not out there outside with us when it’s 110 degrees –- that’s the true ‘Breaking Bad’ experience.” I tell him I’ll live.
About 90 minutes later, the final shot of the day is cut and printed. It’s past midnight, the end of another 13-hour day that will deliver only six or seven actual minutes of the episode –- such is the pace of making a TV show. With tired eyes and feet, members of this cast and crew begin to trickle out, some snagging a leftover calzone or two before hitting the door. One of the last to leave is Caldwell, who finally closes up her giant three-ring binder full of script notes and scene breakdowns. On the back of her white T-shirt are the words: We may have limped across the finish line … but we still got the gold.
-- Josh Gajewski