Interview: Dave Porter, "Breaking Bad" composer

by Garrett Tiedemann, Special to Minnesota Public Radio
December 20, 2013

Recently AMC's Breaking Bad came to its conclusion. In the opinion of many viewers, over the course of its five-year run the show set a new television benchmark with its epic, engrossing narrative.

Much has been made of the show's outstanding writing and acting, but the score and sound design contributed enormously to Breaking Bad's success. The second volume of Dave Porter's music was released a few weeks ago; hearing the music again impressed me with how sparingly but effectively Porter's music was used on the show. The show's approach allowed Porter to focus his attention on key moments and create an enormous emotional impact.

(Spoiler alert: Our conversation touched on many plot developments throughout the series, so if you haven't yet seen the whole run of the show, you might want to hold off on reading this interview.)

When you're sitting down for a composition, where do you begin? Do you typically start with percussion? A lot of your tracks are very percussion-driven.

They are. In film music you're working against something that already inherently has a rhythm to it: the picture and the way it's been edited. Certainly [rhythm] is a big point and I do start with percussion, although [that] does vary, and I think it's different every time. I should say I was very fortunate on Breaking Bad to be working with basically a finished product except for me; the music came last, so I got to watch the show almost done and that really is inspiring for me. I'm sure other composers work other ways, but I've been writing music for pictures now for so long that the germs of my ideas are usually found in my personal reactions to what I'm watching. So, my goal in the studio is to have all of my music-making devices on and at the ready so that while I'm watching it for the first few times I'm really trying to capture that feeling or that essence that I think is most powerful and most interesting about the scene that I'm watching. My hands are kind of improvising on whatever instrument feels most appropriate.

Do you record those sessions?

I do. One of the beauties of the current state of technology is that it costs nothing to to record everything, so I always have Pro Tools in record and I'm always capturing ideas. If I'm working on a specific scene, I'll just have it looping, and I'll record everything and after a few minutes of that I'll go back and see if there's some little nugget there that sounds like the foundation of a cue. Sometimes it's a rhythm, sometimes it's just a sound, sometimes it's something that is rhythmic, but isn't percussion, something that just seems to fall into place. I wish I could explain it better or say that there's a concrete system to it, but it just kind of happens. It's all based in improvisation.

With Breaking Bad, would you often talk about ideas for the show either while they were filming it or in the writing stage — or would you only talk about it afterwards?

No, actually, in talking about the score, there was almost no discussion about it in advance. Because of my aforementioned love of watching things and having them be my creative spark, I didn't even read the scripts, though I could have. I told them that I'm better served to watch the show almost like a fan and be able to have the constant kinds of shock and visceral reactions that someone who doesn't know what's going to happen feels, and I felt that helped me know what role would be most effective for me and the score, coming in blind.

Did you find, watching the show from that vantage, the sound that was in place played a role in your composition process?

The sound is the other thing that happens last. So usually that's not there either. Unless it is something that was scripted, something that is very obvious and visual, the sound doesn't get done. What we do have is a meeting called a spotting session. Basically in Breaking Bad world that meant myself, the music supervisor who's doing all the licensed music, the sound staff — both for dialogue and all the effects and sounds — and [series creator] Vince Gilligan, and whoever wrote the episode, and whoever edited the episode. These were very important meetings for us. We took them very seriously and we watched every scene sometimes many times. Watching one episode could take four to five hours. We'd talk about every scene: whether there should be music, [or] whether there shouldn't be music — which is equally important, by the way. [We'd] talk about also all the sound and what role each [element} was going to play. There is no point in me going crazy, finessing an important musical moment if it's going to be drowned out by a car chase. So, you have to coordinate a lot with the sound guys and mutually respect each other and know when each is going to play a more important role and take a lead.

I especially think, in listening to Volume 2, about how much the scene when they rob the train is driven by music. The kinetic energy of that sequence and how it all plays out works mostly because of what you have playing with it.

Well, thank you, I hope so, certainly hope it helps. That was a very unusual scene for us.

It was one of the longer scenes you scored, wasn't it?

Yes, by far, by far the longest cue I wrote for the series. In fact, the version on the record is several minutes shorter than the real one. Just for time I edited it out because there were a lot of parts to the track that didn't play as well on its own as it did under dialogue and all the other things. But, yes, and one of the great things about Breaking Bad is that of course we're never afraid to break the rules that we made for ourselves. While we are usually very spare with music, here was something we'd never done on the show before, which was this enormous action sequence that was literally an entire act — it went from commercial break to the end of the show — and the score likewise covered the whole section. That was a special challenge certainly, as it is always for composers doing big action sequences. How to keep it driving and keep it interesting and follow the action as closely as you can over a very long period of time.

How long did that piece actually take you to find?

I probably spent three days on that piece. And to put that into context, I'm usually given three or four days per episode.

Yeah, because TV is so much faster than movies.

Oh yes, TV has a very brutal schedule. No doubt about it.

Is that all you in the studio, or do you bring other people in?

In terms of composing, it's only me. But, I do rely on other musicians sometimes to play instruments that I don't personally play or to add some additional aspect to it. On the "Dead Freight" cue, I had someone play some guitar parts for me because I'm not a great guitar player.

There's a section in the middle of "Dead Freight" where there are so many varieties of percussion hitting all at once. Does that ever get really complicated for you — arranging how to keep so many different rhythms working all together, but also having their distinct voices?

Well, yes. In general I'm an advocate of less-is-more when it comes to orchestration. Percussion I love and find fascinating and I find it's such a great way to layer, to build tension and release tension through layers of percussion. I do that a lot in my music. Certainly, the trick is not to overdo it. A lot of times when I am building big pieces, like that one in particular, sometimes when it's not feeling quite right the answer is not to add something else, but is actually to take one of the things out and suddenly everything speaks better and more clearly and is more powerful.

Throughout the show's run you manage to hold onto the core elements you were composing for the show, which fit the tone so well — but it seems like you started to bring in, especially on the low end, these heavy, weird schizophrenic bass lines on tracks like "Gas Can Rage" or the opening of "Salud." It's almost like you're starting to bring in these violent ghosts around the edges of these tracks.

I hope so, yeah.

I especially noticed it with the opening of Volume 2, which is the ending of the episode "Sunset." When I listen to that I think of chamber music, because it sounds like you brought in cellos.

I did.

For me, it speaks to this idea that at some point the show has to atone for itself. Like it has to come to terms with what it's done.

Yes, I think that's true. One of the blessings and one of the challenges of working on a TV series is that it goes on for quite a while. You've got quite a long arc of stories; stories that start, stories that end, and many years' worth of work on one project.

Well, and that piece for "Sunset," now that I look back on it, seems particularly significant because that's the first time Hank is being offered up in exchange for Walt.

Yes.

His life is being put on the line by someone else, and of course now we know where that goes...eventually.

Of course, right, there's definitely a new level of intricacy in the story that occurs right there; and, also, a new understanding for us of the power of Gus Fring. Of the machinations. I generally, by the way, did not use classic western instruments in my score. But, occasionally for Gus, I loved it because it gave him a level of class. A level of depth that he brought to his character and that his character had that I wanted to use to distinguish him.

That's interesting. One of the things I was wondering was whether throughout the process you found yourself more often composing for scene or for characters. So many of the pieces you released on the records and throughout the show give me the perspective that we are almost seeing it and reacting to it through Jesse's eyes rather than other individuals. I remember hearing that he was supposed to be gone after the first season and seeing how his arc goes, I was wondering if there was any truth to that idea for you while you were composing.

Well, I'll preface that by saying that the end credit cues, like the one that we were just talking about, are a little different because each week I was writing a new end credit cue that was a version of the main title theme, and its goal was to reflect something important I wanted to say about either that entire episode we just watched or where the story is headed. So I approached those a little differently than the cues within the body show, which I think you're right were less about a macro view and more really, I hope, connected to what was happening in that moment.

So would that speak to the track — in the liner notes it says it's built together from various parts from the show — titled "Gas Can Rage"?

Right.

Is that really the downfall of Jesse throughout the last season?

Yes, exactly.

What is that sound — the underbelly of it — that just descends in an odd fashion?

It is a semi-modular synthesizer. I don't know how technical you want to get, but I'm very into synthesizers and this one is called a S1 Mark 2 and it's made by a very talented synthesizer designer in Europe called Cwejman. I discovered this thing at the beginning of season five because I had a much older synthesizer that I have owned for a very long time, an Arp 2600, that I've used extensively on Breaking Bad, that was in need of repair and to get it repaired was a many month long process of sending it to the east coast and waiting. So, I needed to replace it with something and this was in some ways the modern version of it, but I really fell in love with it and I used it for many of the most aggressive sounds of the final season.

So is that why a lot of the tracks for season five really have this grittier, more violent, and dirty tone to them?

Not because I bought the synthesizer, but I bought the synthesizer knowing that the story was going there. One of the beauties of knowing when our story was going to end and how many episodes were left before I started was to know that I could also conclude my journey, musically, and there was no reason to hold anything back within these last 16 episodes particularly and really go for it and to make the bottom that they hit as low as I could go.

Well, that really comes through. The quality of the music has always been top-notch, but you really found this avenue of holding onto what you had done, but almost destroying it in the process of holding it up — which obviously maps very well with the show as they constantly try to hold up what they've got while it's falling apart beneath them.

Right.

Speaking to the idea of concluding your process — the track that's titled "Dimple Pinch Neat," which ends the second-to-last episode, did you see that as your end because you finally got to bring the theme into the show?

I did in some ways. I always viewed the show's main title theme, even when I wrote it very early on, as symbolic of where the story was going and what Walter White was going to become rather than who he is at the beginning of the series. When you start writing on a TV show you really don't know where things are going to go or what the show's going to be like and you have to design a theme that is going to be reflective of an entire series that no one's really sure about yet. The one thing we did know was that Vince always said this story is about the journey and transformation of Walter White into something very different. So, I always viewed the theme as a sign post, a marker, to say this was where we're going. Especially in the early seasons when it seems like the stakes are small and he seems like a milquetoast guy, just a reminder that we are heading for this. It was always in the back of my mind to find a place to reinforce that by actually putting the main title theme cue into the body of the show.

I honestly wasn't sure it would ever happen. I didn't know that that moment would ever come. But, when I did see that final scene in the penultimate episode, I had an inkling it would work. I had a feeling it would work, I didn't know if anyone else would go for it or not and in fact I didn't even mention I was going to try it in our spotting session, which was unusual. I wanted it to be a surprise for them and then go through the thought process and explain why I felt it was a powerful thing because it makes a large statement musically, which is not something we do a lot of.

Didn't they pull out all the other sound, or at least the majority?

Yeah, ultimately. For the most part. Not entirely, but the music certainly plays a big role and, to my pleasure and fortune, I think everybody really bought into the idea that it was a great place and a powerful usage [of the theme] to say hey, really the journey is over.

There's another important cue for me earlier in that episode when one of the very few other motifs that are recurring for me, the Heisenberg hat theme, I used that also in that episode, but putting the hat on fails him. Heisenberg fails him. He doesn't have that to rely on anymore. So, from a story point those two entities are now fully converged, they are one in the same person, and either Walter White or Heisenberg or whatever mishmash of the two he is now, he's going to finish this story as that one person. And so, for me yes, from a score perspective, it was a logical moment that felt like a conclusion in a way.

It almost puts the show in this place where that's almost its ending and then there's a coda. So instead of the last episode being it's ending you have all this stuff that has to happen in order to absolve the show.

Right, exactly.

Was the idea of the hat always on the table, from the very beginning?

I don't think so. To answer that you would really have to ask Vince, or Bryan Cranston.

It comes in at the tail end of the first season, right?

It does, and in that moment I believe we have a song playing. So, my motif doesn't appear until later uses of the hat. It was something that developed over time. The hat reappeared, and then I started to think it was an interesting nugget in the show that might appear more than once. I originally wrote the hat theme for a scene at the end of season two when he is walking across the desert to meet with Gus and he has to screw up his courage to do that. I didn't realize I would end up bringing it back, but when it did I certainly thought, here's a chance to really make more of that moment and make more of the hat and I think all of us in various ways helped that aspect become an important one.

You almost don't notice its presence throughout, but it's a solid signifier of this forging of identities and how you literally take one hat off and put another one on.

To kind of change paths a little bit, when it came to putting together the records, how was that process for you? How did you go about making the tracks really work as records because both really work as such?

I'm glad you think so. It's a challenge and it's the last thing on my mind when I'm writing any of this music. My job as a composer for film and television, as I view it, is to write music that does the best possible job of helping the storytellers and actors tell a great story. That may or may not intersect with making music that sounds great on its own and I would argue that often times those are not the same thing. I had to comb through a lot of music to find cues that had enough substance and depth on their own to stand up to being on a record and, as you said earlier, part of that meant combining related cues that happened in different episodes or ones that have some underlying connection to them to make longer pieces that felt like they belonged on an album as opposed to just a cue in the show. I definitely spent a lot of time with a critical ear, remixing a lot of things so that they had more power and punch on the record.

Did you add anything to the tracks on the record?

No, generally not. There might have been a few occasions, but for the most part it was just balancing what was already there and having it very nicely mastered for CD so it sounds good. When you're mixing or creating music the end goal is a little different for film and TV than for CD because for TV you have to dodge dialogue and move things around, so just to take a track and put it on CD wouldn't be a great experience in my mind. It's a lot of work and effort and I was nervous about it. I just didn't know if people would enjoy the music on its own, but I was very pleased by the response, which was why I was able to do a second one — which I never could have imagined, to be honest.

Did you want to do a record in the beginning?

It became something I wanted to do when the show became a bigger deal. It's a money-loser from a financial sense for composers, but it's a permanent record of the work I did and my involvement with a historically important television show and it's great for those fans that really were in tune with the music. I'm wonderfully thrilled to be able to share it like that. But, would I do this for every show? Probably not. It's a lot of work and you have to have enough music that stands alone to warrant it and it has to be something that I feel passionate about doing. It's something I'd reserve for special projects.

Now that the show is done and your work is done, how does it all sit with you?

I'm still not sure I've wrapped my head around it. I'm enormously blessed to have been a part of it and to work with so many talented people. Just the experience of being with it has made me so much better at what I do. The ability to work on something like that, which allows you to spread your wings, was enormously important to me and my career. Obviously just working on the show has opened doors for me, but more than that it's made a lot of lifelong friends and people I'll collaborate with — for instance with the spin-off. No one's asked me yet, but we'll see. It was a very mixed and emotional end. Obviously it's such a special project that may never come back in that form again, but [I'm] so fortunate to have had [the opportunity].

Are you working on anything now, or are you on a break?

No, I am. I am working with M. Night Shyamalan, who is doing his first television series. We're doing a short, cable-length series for Fox called Wayward Pines.

Is your composing for him influenced at all by the fact that he's worked primarily with James Newton Howard?

Only that those are very terrifying shoes to fill. James kindly recommended me for the job. I cannot be James Newton Howard — he is one of the absolute masters of our craft, and if I tried to be him I'd surely fall flat on my face. The trick is to be me, but of course expand what I do and what I feel are my strengths as a composer in a new direction that suits what M. Night Shyamalan is working on. So, I think the score for Wayward Pines will have some echoes of what I did for Breaking Bad because that's a huge part of the music that I make, but it's also going to go in entirely new directions with a much more classically-oriented score. And, one of the things I was eager and careful to do when considering new projects after Breaking Bad was to not do something that was asking me to do [the same thing] I've been doing.

Is there any particular piece you wrote that always stood out for you as a high water mark for the show?

I have a number of favorites. One of the cues talked about a lot is from the crawl space episode, which is a big one in terms of music playing a really big role in that scene. There's one piece that will always be very dear for me, the very first cue I ever wrote for the show, which is "Matches in the Pool." [That] honestly set the wheels in motion for the entire series. When I was writing that and working on the pilot, the table was so open for creative choices and when I wrote that I had a feeling inside that this was a sign post for the way to go. It was spare, it was working between dissonance and resolution in subtle ways, it was a little unsettling, but also had a little something that was beautiful about it without being overbearing or saying too much. Those were all things that instructed me with where to go with the show.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.


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