Bronwen Hughes has been hopping between film and television as a director for thirty years now. On film, she directed Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock in Forces of Nature and Thomas Jane in the far too overlooked South African crime thriller Stander (seriously, seek it out), among others. She has been particularly prolific on the small screen, directing episodes of The L Word, The Walking Dead, 13 Reasons Why, Berlin Station, as well as Breaking Bad and the season 5 debut of Better Call Saul.
In our interview, we discuss her work in both mediums, how television has advanced into a golden age, and of course, her work in the Breaking Bad universe.
Awards Daily: You directed the eighth episode of Breaking Bad in season one. Did that have any bearing on you getting hired for the Better Call Saul season 5 premiere.
Bronwen Hughes: I presume so! I don’t know how they choose who they choose. The lucky thing for me is that I I had just done a film called Stander which is a story about a South African bank robber who turned out to be the captain of the police.
AD: Terrific movie.
BH: Thank you! Then I got a call from Vince Gilligan who said I’ve seen your movie, and I’m about to do this series and I think your visual language and your style is just what we would like for this thing I’m going to do called Breaking Bad. That’s a compliment. Although, of course the thing is that you don’t realize when you’re working on a first season – it’s not a “hit” show. You don’t know what it is. You hope somebody wants to make this show and go beyond the opening pilot. You don’t know what you have. It was a lucky position because, with Vince, I was working in my own taste. Which is huge. Quite often you get hired on a show when you’re just supposed to become the conduit of the taste of the vision of the show runner, but in this case I was already in my wheel house. The tone was already my jam. So, I got this fantastic script from Vince, and we did it. Vince is fantastically open and hungry for ideas. In those early days, we started doing things that carried on as sort of signature language through Breaking Bad and now continuing through Better Call Saul.
The unique sort of ingenious aspect of the Vince Gilligan – Peter Gould universe is people doing bad things for good reasons and you’re rooting for them anyways. It’s just so seductive. Finding that tone which is enough fun that you’re buoyant and enjoying yourself but never swinging over to broad, and dark enough that it keeps it real but not so much that you could no longer enjoy the ride. It’s like a tightrope act. He was also open to us doing unique shots like putting the camera beneath the floor of the exploding crystal. That continued with Saul by sliding the camera down the drain pipe with the baggie of drugs. Let’s just try things. That kind of spirit carried from Breaking Bad over to Saul.
The other thing was the use of montage. Like one sentence in the early script of Breaking Bad with Jesse dealing drugs both uptown and downtown, you just get one sequence. So, I would go out on my off hours driving around the bad parts of Albuquerque looking for cool places because anything could go in the sequence. That became part of language. You see that continuity in the sequence of him selling the burner phones to the skids of Albuquerque. (Laughs).
AD: There was some distance between your Breaking Bad episode to your work on Saul. What was it like to return to the universe?
BH: Sometimes it feels like a long time and sometimes it’s like a blink of an eye, because you’re busy in between. The best thing is is kind of what I hinted at, which is that when I came to talk to Peter Gould and Vince about Saul, it was like coming right back to the sweet spot that I enjoyed so much the first time. It was a joy. Between times you’re working on different things and some are close to your taste and some are not so close and this is so precisely my taste. The thing about the the time between is both shows have become legend. When you step into their production office and see the sheer volume of fan paraphernalia, like people who have made tribute art, you realize that you have this enormous responsibility to make sure you’ve done them proud. That lingered in my thoughts, although of course, you just get busy and do your thing. The fact that everything had become so deeply entrenched in people’s loves and fan base means the responsibility’s enormous.
AD: You mentioned working the challenge of working on shows that don’t allow for stylistic flourishes like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul do. I imagine that can be a creative challenge, especially if you’ve done something like this that gives you more freedom.
BH: The best thing is when you can end up working with people with good taste and who have a a sense of storytelling. I believe that the way you should something is a great deal of the story – it’s not just the words that come out of the actor’s mouths. To me, it’s the melding of form and function. If you are working with the show runner or a person who has a sense of that, even if they have made some decisions or choices that are not exactly what you would have done, then you get where they come from because they’re put thought behind it. You can drop into that so long as you’re open. It’s less fun when someone has just dug their heels in because they decided this will be the rule of our shoot, and you’re like, but it’s a chase scene! How can I just use that rule because we’ll never feel the our hearts beat faster if I do it your way! (Laughs). There are frustrating moments when you’re trying to abide, but don’t really believe in it. You try to, for the most part, work on good stuff with good people.
AD: Managing the shifting tones between comedy to drama in both Breaking Bad and I think even more so on Better Call Saul would seem to be a bit of a tightrope act.
BH: I’m a sucker for bad guys with charm and swagger. Even though I would be working on a sequence with the cartels, we’ve got Lalo Salamanca – who’s a walking threat – he has such charm and such swagger and such a quick tongue that you’re enjoying his ride. You’re feeling dread with your enjoyment. Whether you’re in the drug cartel world or the Saul world, stakes are still pretty high for both. They’re not so divorced in tone. What you call the comedy is never played for comedy, right? It’s for real.
Saul is really playing it straight. This is a man with plans, and he’s going to make it happen. That’s not comedy. It may be two separate worlds, but it’s not played as opposite ends of the spectrum. You try to be as true as possible to these worlds, it’s just the circumstances are so extreme you can’t help but laugh. (Laughs). I guess that’s a long winded version, but the short version is that although there are two worlds between the drug cartel and Saul, they are not so different in the way you approach them. You just try and make them real.
AD: I interviewed Tony Dalton recently and I think he might be the breakout star of the season.
BH: Yes! He is that sort of swaggering and charming…you’re not trying to pull blood from a stone – he is that. You just know that everybody else in this scene is kind of wound up like a the a coil because you never know what he’s going to do next.
AD: The flash forward sequence in the premiere with Saul working in the Cinnabon has a much different visual style – it’s very dark and grim. It’s like Saul has been murdered and brought back to work in a food court. (Laughs). How did you approach those scenes?
BH: I think the guiding touchstone for the Gene Takovic sequences is to find the paranoia in the nothingness. The guy is is living paranoia at the idea of ever being recognized. It’s profound and yet nothing is happening. You look for frames that unsettle. You frame him looking out of the window, but there’s a tiny little thing in the corner with all these kind of weird angles around. It’s just a guy looking out the window, but you try and load the nothingness with possibility of what is around the corner.
And is that the waitress just a waitress or is her look lingering just a little too long? Peter (Gould) encourages this. The pace of the Gene Takovic sequences is significantly different than the pace of the rest of the show because you need to have enough time to worry about what’s coming next even though you’re looking at nothing. The approach is to load the emptiness with tension. In that sequence, I think it’s the most talking Gene has ever done. To hear Gene talk is not very common in the in those wrap-around stories. There’s that moment when the taxi driver is looking at him. It’s supposed to be a casual encounter, but is it? With the actor I pinpointed for him three different points when I said to him you might mean nothing with this, but you might mean something. So, just hang on that longer than you normally would. We would pinpoint where to put this tiny extra bit of weight on a word or a pause that made it possibly mean something that it didn’t seem on its surface.
AD: It was nice to see Robert Forster one more time on the show.
BH: I am proud to have Robert Forster in my episode. They had a rare opportunity to shoot with him (on El Camino) and they picked up my scene while the movie was being shot. So, I didn’t get to meet him. The scene is the other side of a phone call so anything goes. The framing style is my favorite kind of framing. Depriving people of what they can see is infinitely more interesting than just showing them face on what it is. Vince gets that for sure and it was a joy incorporate that scene.
AD: In talking to you and looking over your CV, you seem to have a certain affection for pulp. Which I share, by the way. (Laughs).
BH: I’ve never called it pulp, but I do have an affection for the moral grey zone in which people do bad things for good reasons and you root for them anyway. Spies live in that moral grey zone, undercover agents live in that zone – people pretending to be one thing but actually intending to do another. Sometimes it can be by the plan or just because of survival. They need to become something that they are not. My projects that I have done that fit that category include my film Stander and Walter White and Better Call Saul, but also the films and shows that I am trying to make. One’s about a spy, another’s about an under cover alcohol-tobacco-firearms agent. They are all walking this fine line, and so I think that’s much more interesting than a white hat white hat black hat – obvious bad guy/good good thing.
AD: For someone like yourself who goes between episodic television and film, do you find there are any major differences in working between those two worlds?
BH: First of all, my favorite kind of television are really long movies. (Laughs). Which is what this new era is about – the long arc seasons. It’s really the joy of being able to do the fully fleshed out characters in the longer format. That is the great news about the new modern television. My shooting style doesn’t change at all. It’s really about what the story is needing. If you need to feel paranoia or elation – I make choices for that. Once upon a time – this is so long ago – you needed to frame closer because the TV was small. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now the TV is bigger than the one in the movie theater. (Laughs)
I don’t change my framing I just shoot what I think is right for that given story moment. Sometimes it’s about an epic wide shot with a man who’s a tiny little guy in the desert – like Mike sending off the Germans to their future. In old fashioned television you’d be like “Oh no we can’t keep them that’s small in frame, nobody will see them.” On this show, I’m particularly lucky. The Peter Gould/Vince Gilligan universe is is a fantastic place to dwell.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC.