Judy Rhee is a Production Designer with over ten years of experience in the business. You know her work from such projects as Alpha House, Patriot, and Jessica Jones. She was recently hired to take on season 4 of Better Call Saul. During that season she was asked by producers to also do the design for the Breaking Bad movie, El Camino.
In our interview, Judy and I discuss what went into recreating set pieces from the series, creating Todd’s place, and working under the pressure of pleasing a rabid fan base that would notice any discrepancy in her work.
Awards Daily: Before El Camino, you came into the Breaking Bad world last year with Better Call Saul season 4. How did that come about?
Judy Rhee: Melissa Bernstein, the producer of Better Call Saul, came to me because she saw my work on Patriot. She set up an interview for me with Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan on Skype and we got along famously. I was hired and I was thrilled because I was such a fan of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
AD: Was the transition over to El Camino pretty seamless?
JR: El Camino came up very last minute. There had been quiet discussions between Melissa and Vice, but none of us who were working on Better Call Saul heard whispers or anything. It was a surprise to us as well – of course we were thrilled. We had to go into production very quickly because Aaron Paul’s schedule was committed after January and we had a very small window with him.
AD: You didn’t work on Breaking Bad and El Camino picks up right where the final episode left off. Even though Better Call Saul exists in the same world, was it challenging to manage the continuity between the Breaking Bad, the movie, and Saul? Because it all has to match.
JR: It was. Having worked on Better Call Saul first, a prequel, I did have to go back and watch Breaking Bad to see what was established in the future. Whatever we brought up on Saul had to make sense in a logical timeline. And then also looking for Easter eggs. It’s interesting when you do a prequel because there’s so much detail and layering in the writing, you have more opportunity to do that. There’s also a lot of things to keep track of. That’s something that took a lot more time and energy than most movies would.
AD: There’s so many moving pieces.
JR: Right. With each individual character, and when did they meet, and when would they have known this particular part of the storyline. There’s a lot for the writers to keep track of. We watched every episode of every season to make sure we dotted our i’s and crossed out t’s. The fan base is so meticulous as well in terms of what they remember and the logic of the characters – what they would do and say – and what would make sense.
AD: El Camino often feels like a modern day western. Was that intentional?
JR: It was. Vince and I had many conversations along with Marshall, the DP. There were references to classic westerns and certain films Vince wanted to make an homage to. Specifically, the whole end sequence at Candy Welding. That was laid out like a classic gunfight at the end of a lot of westerns. That set was designed for the stunts and the blocking of the camera, as well as to match the exterior of the architecture we all loved. We wanted it to look like the real space of how a welding business floor plan would be laid out.
AD: That sequence is fabulous. I can imagine with how much the camera moves around the space of the welding garage; you had a lot of design to cover. What all went into that design?
JR: We started with the location first and how the script laid out Jesse’s arrival. How he had to walk along the fence and see it at a distance. Where he would have parked, where he would have jumped over the fence, and how he would have come upon them and discovered what was happening there. All that laid out well for the exterior. The challenge was to build an interior onstage that made sense, that would have connected to the interior garage that we only see a bit of when he goes in to blow up the tanks. There was available space for us to build out our fictitious shell that we then went onto the stage to shoot the interior of.
Then the glass office. Vince wanted some breakage. Something dramatic to happen in addition to the blood splattering. Basically, we wanted to take what was written on the page and make that as visually interesting and action-packed as possible. A lot of work went into it from various departments. Vince is very focused on detail and authenticity. You can only stretch the truth so much with him. He really wants the scene to look and feel how it would in real life. I don’t feel that any part of that set was a coincidence.
AD: The other space that I thought was particularly fascinating to view was Todd’s place. What went into creating the look of his home?
JR: For me, it starts with the writing. Vince writes his characters so well. For fans of the show, Todd is such an interesting, complex character. When I read the script and knew I had to design his space, I was thrilled. What more unexpected and challenging gift could a designer have than to design his place? Everyone has an idea of who he is, but he’s so complex. On the surface, he’s the boy scout helping the old lady across the street, but also, without blinking an eye, he’d shoot someone if something rubbed him the wrong way or did something they weren’t supposed to. He’s this weird duality of sociopath and boy scout.
Knowing that, what would this person’s place look and feel like? I thought that on the surface it shouldn’t feel creepy. So, when you first walk in, it’s like the surface Todd you meet. This sort of polite person. It’s meticulous, it’s clean, everything is in its place, there’s no clutter, there’s order. He seems like a very orderly person. He also has a sunny disposition. If you were to meet him, you’d think, “What a polite young man. His parents raised him well,” until you got to know this other side. So, what does that look and feel like? For some reason, I thought it would be interesting to take the palette of Easter eggs, because it’s sort of childlike, and there’s something that’s arrested development with Todd. Vince and I discussed this, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but maybe Todd’s private view of himself is arrested in some way.
Todd is a sunny person and he has this Hallmark version of the person he needs to be in the world, but then there’s this darker side. We thought we’d start with his living room when you first walked in with this Easter egg palette. Then, as you go further into his space, closer to his bedroom, it would become darker – more of his darker soul. I had come across antique anatomical charts. I thought it would be interesting to go from the Easter egg palette to the palette of anatomical charts. Whether it was the liver or the heart, those colors spoke to me as something darker, richer, and deeper in its colors, and somehow reflected who he was in his inner life. That’s how we ended up with his bedroom. Those are the colors of a very specific chart. The dark reds, the burgundy, the almost, but not quite cobalt blue which somewhat links to the Easter egg colors.
AD: In watching El Camino, I felt like it was a little more wide open. The vistas were a bit grander. Was that a conscious effort to avoid making the film feel like an extra-long episode?
JR: Vince took his time telling the story in terms of the wide shots and he really took advantage of the lens in a where on the show he might have been more restricted to a certain beat he had to meet. It’s luxurious visually and a little bit less economic than you would normally see for TV shows. I think he really enjoyed that process. That he did have more time to be languid in his shots and being a little more generous is staying with a particular scene.
AD: The third set piece I really loved in the film is Robert Forster’s vacuum cleaner shop. Can you talk about the work that went into designing that space?
JR: The vacuum cleaner store was obviously from Breaking Bad. That location really was a vacuum store when they shot Breaking Bad. Since then it had been sold and turned into a furniture store. We had to recreate that location from scratch. We knew one of the bigger challenges going into it was going to be to find all those vacuum cleaners and parts – all the products. Thankfully, we did have the prep time of a feature film to source all those materials. We had a special buyer whose sole goal was to fill that space with parts, cleaners, and signage. They did an amazing job tracking those pieces down. Going to flea markets and old stores and salvage places. That was a lot of hard work. We tried to recreate what was shot before to match. We knew that fans would be eagle-eyed about seeing these recurring sets. One addition we did make was the lights behind the counter. We never saw the reverse in Breaking Bad. We only saw one angle towards the door.
AD: One of the themes of this conversation is the need to please the fan base by being consistent and authentic. That adds a whole layer of challenge to your work.
JR: It’s a factor that has to be considered because the show established itself before I came along. You don’t want to disappoint the fans. I know as a fan of the show myself; I would have looked at it very closely at all those details. The interpretation of Todd and the revisiting of certain locations – those things are very important to this world that we recreated.