Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television/AMC
Last Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad, "Confessions," was one of the tightest, tautest, tensest hours of television anybody's seen in awhile: That scene at the Mexican restaurant, Walt's videotape, Jesse going off the rails and pouring gasoline inside Walt's house. In anticipation of tonight's new episode, "Rabid Dog," we caught up with "Confessions" director Michael Slovis, who has also served as Director of Photography on most of the series since Season 2, to talk us through what it was like shooting the moment when Jesse officially "broke good." "It has garnered more chatter, and I've gotten more emails and tweets, than any other episode I've been involved with," Slovis says. "It has been an extraordinary torrent of accolades." And, yes, we asked about what we can expect from the much anticipated Sept. 29 series finale. Based on what he has to say, you need to raise your expectations even higher.
Hollywood.com: So everyone’s still reeling from "Confessions."
Michael Slovis: It has garnered more chatter, and I’ve gotten more emails and tweets, than any other episode I’ve been involved with. It has been an extraordinary torrent of accolades.
Hollywood.com: Walt’s false confession felt like a new low, even for him. It was one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen on TV in quite awhile. How did you go about shooting not only his confession but Hank and Marie’s reaction to it?
Michael Slovis: I didn’t make a big point of that DVD being slid across the table at the restaurant. I didn’t shoot a close-up of it or a low, wide shot of it. I wanted the impact of it to be in the material itself. Then for when Hank and Marie are watching it, we had already shot the Walt’s video and I played it for them when we were shooting.
That scene is the apex of Walt’s arrogance because it shows that he now believes he can control the truth itself. Bryan understood this, and he does so much homework, he’s so prepared and has very distinct ideas about where the show will go. So I went in very, very prepared knowing what this confession would be like. It only took two or three takes to shoot because it was so beautifully conceived, it just rolled out of Bryan’s mouth. We knew we had something golden for Dean and Betsy to react to. But I hadn’t even let them see it before we shot their reactions to it as we played it back on Hank and Marie’s TV. So when they shot that scene in which they were watching it, they really were watching it for the first time.
This episode was full of such powerful moments like that, or even the way Walt manipulates his son into not visiting Marie, because they all had to build up thematically to Jesse finally realizing the evil of this man and never turning back. We’ve been building the whole series to that moment.
HW: It seems to me that selective memory has become a defining theme on Breaking Bad — from Lydia closing her eyes and saying “I don’t want to see” after she’s ordered the hit on Declan’s men to Walt thinking that you can forget the past and start fresh. But Jesse refuses to forget. Do you think he’s asserting the idea of remembering as a moral act?
MS: I view it very, very similarly, though a touch differently. To me, from the Pilot on Walt does something that you do, and I do, and every human being does: convince himself that what he’s doing is for the greater good. Walt still views all of this as an altruistic act to help his family. Remember, he initially just wanted to make $700,000 to set them up, give Walt. Jr. and his daughter an education and have Skyler live comfortably after he passes away from lung cancer. He convinces himself that whatever he’s done is okay because this is all a selfless act. Of course, he’s consumed by power instead and he’s transformed into somebody who has lost any kind of moral compass. All he’s trying to do now is explain it away. What I love about this show is that there’s never any getting away from your actions.
HW: Do you think that at the end of “Confessions” Jesse has broken good?
Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television/AMC
MS: It’s been a long process, of course. It didn’t just happen then when he decided to pour gasoline in Walt’s house. But, yes, I do think Jesse’s broken good. I’ve never heard it put that way, but I think it’s a really appropriate way to call it. Jesse has learned later than most about love, about children, about friendship, and his eyes have been opened. He has taken the exact opposite journey of Walt. And he’s not going back.
HW: I thought that hug Walt gave Jesse was the most violent thing Walt could have done to end their conversation in the desert.
MS: And it immediately follows up his idea that “You can set up a whole new life!” Yeah, what a great idea that is!
HW: Did you see that scene as Walt’s supreme manipulation of Jesse?
MS: That whole scene was Walter White as master salesman. I think at that moment Jesse had been completely broken down. And that hug was the final act of control. That is the thing that a master manipulator would do. It’s that kind of honesty — like also when Marie asks Walt “Why don’t you kill yourself?” — that’s caused the show to resonate so well.
HW: How have you, as a director on the show and a DP, worked to achieve that honesty?
MS: Don’t ever play anything big. Just count on the words and the characters to have their impact. If you think about it everybody was telling the truth in that scene in the restaurant: Walt’s right, he’s not cooking anymore; Hank is going to try to put him away. And we staged that in hushed tones. This was in a public place with people who would know how to act in that situation — they’re not going to be having a shouting match.
HW: I think everybody could relate to that scene, even if you’re not a meth lord confronting his pursuer. Just the idea of having a tense conversation and then immediately having to act all cheery with a waiter…
MS: That’s what’s so clever about the writing. We’ve all been in situations like that scene in the restaurant, we’ve all had tense conversations over meals then have to act all friendly to the waiter. We can all relate to that. This is just ratcheted up to the next dramatic level.
HW: And that’s why people still identify with Walt, I think. This is a more extreme version of scenarios we’ve all been in.
MS: As a fan of the show, I’m still rooting for Walt as well. Because all of us, at heart, want to get away with stuff.
HW: What was the moment for you when Walt broke bad?
MS: When he let Krysten Ritter’s Jane die in that bed. My favorite shot that I’ve ever shot on that show was of Bryan deciding to let Krysten die in that bed. Without exception. People ask, “Why? It’s just a medium close-up at a guy looking offscreen.” It was so honest, so raw, and so bad. That decision was the fulcrum point, the point of no return. Right after that shot Bryan fell into my arms. And I just hugged him. We chatted off to the side for a little bit, and we talked about what it was that he used from his memory to get him to that point — in which he could convey that decision to let her die. And it was very, very private. I was extremely honored that he could share that with me.
HW: Interesting. That was your favorite scene, but what was the hardest scene ever for you to shoot?
MS: When writers write montages, which Breaking Bad became noted for, it’s a major challenge. Because you’ve got so many different setups to achieve. The legwork in advance is astounding. And also because many of the scenes are long, I always looked at a lot of ways to put them on their feet. In Season 4 when Walt gives his “I’m the one who knocks” speech, Bryan, Anna, and I showed up an hour and a half early just to rehearse it enough that we could show it to the crew. Normally you’d do that in just 15 minutes, but for that one we knew it would be so important.
HW: It seems like the Breaking Bad set is a uniquely supportive, collaborative environment…
MS: You know, most film or TV sets are notoriously jaded environments. Crews don’t care one way or the other. The sandbags weigh the same whether you’re on a Hitchcock movie or a commercial. But on this set, every single time that a new script came out, everyone would stop and read it. Every single person would be sitting on top of apple boxes thumbing their way through the script. And then talk about it like fans! I’ve never seen that before.
It’s incredible to see how this show has grown. Nobody even knew where AMC was on the dial when we started. One of the producers used to joke that we’d get viewers by running a contest “Guess where AMC is on the dial!” But we all knew to a person how good this show was.
HW: So the biggest — and best kept — secret on TV right now is “How will Breaking Bad end?” What can you tease about the finale?
MS: Let me tell you…you won’t be disappointed. Everything gets sewn up into a nice tight neat little bundle. I truly honestly believe that it is going to redefine what you think of as a series finale. It is going to be the bar that other series will try to attain in terms of full closure in the future. It is extraordinary.