Prop It Up! ‘Breaking Bad’ Production Designer Mark Freeborn Talks Walt’s Final Chapter

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He is the one who props. Since Breaking Bad’s third season, designer Mark Freeborn has been the man behind the blue meth. Before Walt dons his final porkpie hat, asked Freeborn what ingredients he combined to set the stage for one of the best shows of all time. 

How did you go about creating the world of the show? How much did Albuquerque influence the look of Breaking Bad?

I was actually invited to join the band during season 3, so part of the look was well established before I got there. Generally speaking, New Mexico is “the look.” It is by turns stark, barren, unforgivingly dangerous and extraordinarily beautiful. Historically, New Mexico is also a prominent drug shipping crossroads, so that made it right.

One of the great gifts New Mexico provided was the freedom it allowed our DP, Michael Slovis. The panoramic canvases were provided us by natural backdrop, all we had to do was fill in the details! For me, it was a fresh visual canvas.

My first set, in season 3 was in To’ hahijili, a century-old abandoned stagecoach stop. The skeleton of the town set the mood for the episode (and for me, the show). Its desolation and the fact that we were shooting very close to a sacred Native American icon underscored the course we were about to take!

The scope of the locations and cinematography had a huge influence on the freedom the writer’s room had on their already great scripts. From season 3 onward, it was the art department’s job to visually assist in the slow deterioration of the Breaking Bad universe….And, of course, the meth labs!

If Vince Gilligan and I have anything in common, it’s an obsessive need to get the details right. For example over the course of the show, we built no less than five meth labs, with at least two different processes.

We wanted to show how insidious this problem really is, and as we progressed, we actually had our concepts observed and approved by professional chemists and field agents. The same went for every location/set we built or found. If it wasn’t right, we made it right or found it right.

Challenging? Yes! Rewarding? Absolutely! Frightening? Indeed.

The White home has become sort of iconic now, and in fact the owners say sometimes 200 people drive by in a day to look at “Walt’s house.” What was the process like to find the location and build the inside sets? What did you want the house to say about the White family?

I had virtually nothing to do with the White house design. I inherited it when I came onto the show. What I can tell you is the location was chosen specifically to take advantage of the light, approaches to the house, and the neighborhood as it connected to the script.

The set interior was only loosely based on the real house layout. For shooting purposes our set was slightly larger, and more designed to accommodate camera moves and specific character points, such as the long corridor to the master bedroom. I did make some minor adjustments, to make the ‘crawl space’ work , and redecorated Walt Jr’s room as he matured. Of course the nursery was also dressed for the newborn Holly.

Even after the new family business was established, the interior was never painted or decorated simply because the Whites’ lives moved too fast for such trivialities!

Tying into that, in the premiere the audience was shocked to see the White house completely destroyed. There seemed to be a lot of things going on visually, from the dredged pool to the graffiti. What went into that process?

Ahh! If you want a house trashed, I’m your man! From the perspective of the story, Walt is gone, and his family is in jeopardy. For reasons of safety, they’ve all moved out. By this time, we are led to believe everybody knows about Walt’s high crimes, and because the house has been abandoned, it has been fenced off. (As is the process in Albuquerque.)

Given the recent real estate debacle in the U.S., it was plenty easy to find real reference, and we took a beat from that. The empty pool was an ‘in your face’ from the local youth, an excellent script vehicle to show Walt’s loss. (Because, as we all know ‘I may not paint the house, but don’t f**k with my pool!!’) The trashed house also reveals, for the first time, “Heisenberg” is more notorious than they may have thought.

Physically, the pool was a challenge, because it was fiberglass. We had to drain it, age it, shoot it and refill it in the space of five days, because hydraulic pressure from below could have pushed it out of the ground. We also had to degrade and restore both the exterior house and the stage set within the eight-day arc of an episode.

From the pork-pie hat to the hazmat suits and the teddy bear in the pool, there have been a lot of iconic and easily recognizable Breaking Bad props. Which were your favorites? 

By far the porkpie! I now own four! Next would be any of the meth labs, the giant magnet…

What was your most challenging moment on Breaking Bad? 

Episodes 301-516. Probably the superlab. We had some supplier issues and the writers, bless their hearts, rewrote the script to buy us some time. Next would be the compound which plays in the final few episodes.

What was your biggest triumph working on Breaking Bad? What are you most proud of accomplishing on the show? 

As cliché as it may sound, the entire show was a triumph. Rarely does one find an entire crew who was so cohesive, so devoted to turning out the best television they possibly could. I am most proud of being a part of that crew. We became a family in the truest sense of the word.

Props from Breaking Bad are currently on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. What’s it like being associated with a show with such a massive fanbase? 

To quote our producer/director Michelle MacLaren, “awesome!!!” It has reduced the necessity to attend job interviews significantly.

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