I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Dave Porter about his work on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The movie, a direct continuation of Breaking Bad, was released on Netflix on October 11, 2019. The story follows Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in the wake of Breaking Bad’s series finale.
Dave Porter studied classical and electronic music composition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He received an ASCAP Award for his work on Breaking Bad. Other composing credits include the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, The Blacklist, and Preacher.
How did you get started in composing for film and television?
I grew up playing piano from when I was very young; my parents both are musicians though not professionally. I was always into music and when I got into high school I started to get into the technology of the time, digital synthesizers and computers. I found all of that very inspiring. I went to a liberal arts college called Sarah Lawrence College which was near New York City and there I learned to combine the two worlds: my interest in electronic music and my interest in classical music. In addition to that I learned to love the collaboration between music and film, TV, dance, theatre, lots of other things. That’s what really sparked my interest.
What was it like to return to the world of Breaking Bad after its been off the air for seven years? Or was it not that difficult since you’ve been working on Better Call Saul since then?
When Breaking Bad ended in 2013 we had a big event at the airing of the final episode, with the cast and crew and a bunch of the fans at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. They projected [the episode] on a huge wall and it really felt at that moment like I was saying goodbye to this world. Then Better Call Saul came along, which is a prequel to Breaking Bad. At the beginning I thought “Oh, I can get right back into the same world of characters” but actually because Better Call Saul happens so far before Breaking Bad it was entirely different. It hasn’t been until recent years, when the Better Call Saul timeline has started to encroach on the Breaking Bad timeline, that the music and those worlds started to meld. So when [El Camino] came up, totally unexpected to me, I was very surprised and excited because I didn’t think I’d get to see a character like Jesse Pinkman again. I was also excited because, in the process of working on Better Call Saul, and working back up to Breaking Bad, I had gotten excited about that idea, so it was in my mind already. In some ways it was not a huge transition, because I haven’t entirely left that universe.
How connected is the sound world of El Camino to that of Breaking Bad? Are the musical themes related?
Right at the beginning of El Camino, the score could have been ripped right out of the finale of Breaking Bad. That was very much intentional to try and connect our audience back to that moment in time. From there it actually does diverge into its own thing. That’s because it is a different story and is told in a different way. It’s also a film, which allows for a different kind of score than on a television show. There’s much more of an opening expanse of time to develop cues and the score. Since we’re focusing on one character, we really get to delve into him in a way I really didn’t get to during the series. The only exception to all that is in a few flashback moments within El Camino where we are once again placing ourselves back into the original Breaking Bad timeline. In those situations I’m going back and bringing back the score I used originally in various forms. That is to say, a newly tailored version of something I had already written for Breaking Bad.
On a related note, how did you decide on THIS type of sound world for El Camino? Given the plot, I was expecting something with more action in the score, but much of this feels very laid back.
There’s two aspects to that. One, part of it is grounding the sound of the musical score in a way that is relatable to all of the other aspects of the Breaking Bad universe. That way, when an audience hears [the music] they’ll feel that connection. There’s a certain world of sounds that I use on the shows that I definitely adhere to as well in the film. I don’t use a traditional, classical, Western orchestra. There’s no oboes or solo violins in this world, which was very much by design because, in Breaking Bad, I wanted Walter White to feel very much like a fish out of water.
The other aspect of figuring out what we wanted El Camino to sound like involved talking with Vince Gilligan about what the story really was. The story of El Camino, while it has a lot of tension and fast-moving elements about it, it’s actually a very cerebral movie. It’s a movie where we spend a lot of time in one character’s head, that of Jesse Pinkman. It’s his struggle to survive and also making right the wrongs he has made the best way he can. The score really takes a macro look at the storytelling as a whole. It certainly plays into the action. For the most part, though, the role of the score is to help us be with Jesse and be deep inside where Jesse is.
What was the scoring process like for this film? What was your starting point in putting the musical themes together?
That’s a good question. I don’t always do this, but in the case of El Camino I did it very much in sequence. I started at the beginning and worked my way through it. I did that because that’s how the film was constructed. First of all I knew we were starting right as Breaking Bad ends. I knew how I wanted the beginning of the movie to feel. Then I wanted to feel my way through Jesse’s journey. I thought the best way musically to approach that and have the music remain on a trajectory across the whole film was to do it in sequence. I was afraid if I jumped around that I would lose the overhead vision of the film. I was trying to keep an eye on the larger story of the film.
About how much time did you have to put the score together?
I was fortunate to have a good block of time. Music and sound are typically one of the last things to get done on a TV or film project. That was certainly the case here. I’ve been blessed to almost always get to work with a “locked picture” on Vince Gilligan projects which means that almost every aspect of the show is complete by the time I see it. I spent around six to eight weeks on the score for El Camino. By comparison, I generally have three or four days to do the score for an episode of Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad.
Do any of the tracks correspond to specific characters?
Actually they all relate to one person, which is very different from the TV shows. Everything about the music in El Camino is focused solely on Jesse Pinkman. It is really telling his story, his physical journey. It’s also his intellectual and psychological journey from where he is at the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie where he has a glimmer of hope for the future.
What kind of instruments are used in this soundtrack? Some of the tracks sound very non-traditional.
Good, I’m glad to hear that because that was definitely the goal. With Breaking Bad and El Camino, maybe not so much with Better Call Saul, I’m definitely spending a lot of time trying to create sounds that are new, sounds that are interesting to the ear. I create sounds that are evocative and familiar that you can’t quite place. I take a lot of interest and joy in working with sounds that are electronically created or “found sounds.” There’s also taking a recording of something else and manipulating it into something that feels organic, like something you’d hear with your own ears in the real world. That’s part of the goal and what I’ve always wished for on these Vince Gilligan projects.
There were a lot of live performances [for this music]. One of the beauties of working on the film as opposed to the TV show is that I had the luxury of a lot more time. In that time I was able to record a lot of musicians and spend a lot more time recording myself playing instruments that found their way into the score of the film. There’s a lot of interesting instruments in use, including some non-traditional stuff in terms of the percussion and world instruments. Almost everything I do I’m later processing with various computer and synthesizer elements to blur the lines between real, organic instruments and what is synthetically created.
Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?
Yes, there are a few moments that I love and I’ll give you a Top 3. There’s some music right after Jesse learns the fate of Walter White over the radio and he’s thinking about his next move. A second moment would be a piece where Jesse sneaks back into his childhood home. These are all things where Jesse is being forced to deal emotionally with things he would rather not. And the third moment was one of the hardest pieces to write by far, which is the very end of the film. I love how we worked to tie together all the emotion from Jesse’s journey in as few notes as possible and then leave the audience with silence at the end of the film-as we have so often in the Breaking Bad universe-leaving it open for the viewer.
When you started Breaking Bad, did you ever think it would come to all this?
Definitely not. When we began Breaking Bad, I knew I was blessed to be a part of something very special when I saw the pilot episode. It was unlike anything else that was on TV at the time. Twelve years later…to imagine that I still get to work not only with Vince Gilligan but so many of the wonderful people who have been part of that world for this long. This is something I’m so grateful for and I never could have imagined it.
My thanks to Dave Porter for taking the time to talk about his work on El Camino. You can find Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul readily available on DVD while El Camino remains available on Netflix.
Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460
Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)
Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂