Composer Dave Porter was there from the very beginning: Porter scored Breaking Bad’s 2008 pilot and every episode of the groundbreaking series after. Not only that, he’s done the same for every episode of Better Call Saul as well as scoring El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
In our interview, we discuss his history with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, what it’s like to be responsible for scoring every episode in the Breaking Bad universe, and how it feels seeing the end to this long journey coming up on the horizon.
Awards Daily: How did you first come to Breaking Bad?
Dave Porter: Ah, you’re stretching my memory. (Laughs). It’s hard to believe how long it’s been. I guess it’s 12 years we’ve come to. In the very very early days of Breaking Bad I heard about the pilot through two friends of mine. A music editor named Tom Villano, who is still a friend of mine, that I’ve worked with on other projects, and also Thomas Golubic, who is our (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) music supervisor. I had heard rumblings about it and how good it was and then I happened to be over at Thomas’s house the night before he was interviewing with Vince (Gilligan) and the producers for the show and I got to watch the pilot with him and help him with interview prep. Of course, I was blown away by it as well. From there I just kind of kept my nose in it and fed both Tom and Thomas tracks of mine that I thought would be useful for them as they were exploring temp music while the pilot was coming together.
Luckily for me when the time came, Vince and the producers were happy with with a lot of the music that was in there that was mine, and they didn’t even speak to anybody else. I had an interview with Vince and got introduced to the writer’s room, and it was very straightforward from there. A little bit of right place, right time and a lot of persistence and understanding too that this was just a different time and place. Breaking Bad was a show on a channel no one watched – that showed old movies. They hadn’t become the AMC they are today. Any time there’s a new show on AMC now, there’s 100 composers lined up out the door trying to get on that show. But back then it was certainly wasn’t like that. Mad Men had I think just come on the air or was just about to, and it was just the dawning of that era. I was very fortunate to to be there for that.
AD:And then you carried over to Better Call Saul as well.
DP: I’ve been really lucky to be a part of every episode of both series. It’s amazing to think that pretty soon there will be as many Better Call Saul episodes as there were Breaking Bad episodes. (Laughs)
AD: Who would have expected that?
DP: I had absolute faith in Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan when we started with Better Call Saul, but it was a very different animal. And of course, it had very high hurdles to clear and expectations to meet. I certainly didn’t go into it with any sure confidence that it would last this long, but I’m so delighted that it has.
AD: You never know, it could have been After M*A*S*H.
DP: (Laughs). No matter how good it was! Some of some of that is is very dependent
on viewers and their their inclinations and moods and timing. I think that both shows have been
smart enough and lucky enough to have resonated with the times that we are in.
AD: You referenced that Better Call Saul is a very different animal than Breaking Bad. Especially initially, the tone was lighter than Breaking Bad. How did you use music to differentiate the two shows while still remaining connected to the universe they both reside in?
DP: It was one of the most difficult challenges in my career, to be honest – that reset when we first started on Saul. It wasn’t that long after the end of Breaking Bad, and it was all of the same folks in literally the same rooms talking about a very new show. Vince and Peter were very adamant that we start from scratch, that we start wholly new. But as much as we all said that we would, it was still pretty hard to divorce ourselves from a universe we already knew so well and had been pretty successful. There’s that inclination to cling on to a little bit here and a little bit there to things that had worked so well. It was hard not to do.
It took me quite a few weeks of of writing and rewriting and really trying to start fresh, but the the dividends were wonderful in the end because it really helped all of us look at Saul with a very new critical eye and approach it as its own animal, as I said. The gift of as the show it’s progressed – as we get closer and closer to the Breaking Bad time line – is we’ve been able to slowly meld in some of those influences from the Breaking Bad score into Better Call Saul. Which is a lot of fun and also a challenge in and of itself.
AD: The show also uses a lot of silence in the telling of the story. I would imagine that’s a challenge too. Because when score comes in, it really has to count.
DP: That’s exactly right. We we take our use of music – both in score and source – very seriously and we talk as much about where music should not be as we do about where it should be. When we use music we’re using it for a very specific creative reason and a very specific story reason. If there’s some some means by which we think music can help us propel the story or tell an element of the story in a way that is unique, then we use it. We don’t ever use it just to use it. This is the blessing of working on such a great show. We never have to use music to cover up a flaw in the production or to help the audience to suspend disbelief, because that’s all been done so well already in the writing, and the acting, and the cinematography, and everything else. That really leaves us free to use music as a storytelling weapon in our arsenal and exclusively for that.
AD: I’ve always thought there was a bit of a modern western vibe that trailed through both Breaking Bad and to a lesser degree, Better Call Saul. Watching El Camino, I felt like the film really leaned into that. Sure, it’s a modern crime story, but there’s some classic western elements in the movie. That felt very much like a conscious choice.
DP: It was. I think you’re right. There’s threads of that in both shows. I think what it is that made that resonate even more in El Camino is that unlike the TV shows, the film is very focused on one story line. And it’s a consistent story. Obviously, we’re jumping around in time a bunch but, it is just Jesse’s story. So, in that way it really feels like that one gunslinger on his own, out their out there trying to find his way and making dubious choices, but choices that we can overlook in terms of rooting for our our hero’s survival.
That’s certainly true in in both series as well, but because you’re moving around back and forth between so many interlocking story lines that occur in the show it doesn’t come across as as fluidly as it does in El Camino. That’s been it was also very true for the score, in a sense. I got the opportunity in El Camino – while still being in music that would be to those that are knowledgeable of the Breaking Bad universe to write cues that were much more significant in length and connectivity to one storyline that I never able to do in the series, because for the same reason – because we’re always jumping back and forth.
AD: In listening to the El Camino score, I was taken by your mixture of electronic sounds with more organic instrumentation. The twang in the guitar mixed with these more modern electronic textures creates a unique sonic experience. Can you talk about how you developed the pallet of the score for the movie?
DP: I think the bedrock of Breaking Bad, and to some extent Better Call Saul as well, has always been this eclectic mix of of electronics and live instruments. In both series I’ve always eschewed using the traditional western orchestral instruments. Just because they just never felt like the right combination for this universe. The difference in El Camino honestly came down to having more time and more resources. That is such an advantage on a film as opposed to working in TV – the opportunity to do more live recording, settle less for relying on the computer, and being able to polish things, and experiment with different ideas in a way that you just don’t have time to do on a television show.
I hope that comes through in the score for El Camino, in that while the universe of instruments that I used certainly related very much – by design – to the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universes, because score played a larger role in the movie and because we had the time and the resources, I was able to really focus a lot more on recording live performances, putting a lot more emotive nuance in the performances, and make sure that they were as emotional and as vibrant as I have always wanted them to be. I just don’t always have the chance to get 100% there when we’re working on a television schedule.
AD: For the score, it seemed like because this is essentially a survival story, the tone of the music was more consistent in that it didn’t have the lighter elements that the shows sometimes have. Everything about the score feels a little more elevated and anxious and propelling. I assume that was intentional.
DP: It was. I think part of the difference in telling just one story – especially for our viewers who are used to seeing these characters in the TV show – was to concentrate on one character for an hour and a half, it meant that the film needed to move at pace. I think you see that in the editing, in uh how Skip (Macdonald) and Vince ultimately cut the film, and put it together, and made it pretty tight. Things move along very quickly from from one thing to the next. I think music was definitely a part of adding some propulsion back that might have been lost to our viewers who are used to skipping around from story to story.
The way I did that, musically speaking, is that even more than usual I relied on a lot of percussive elements – both traditional and electronic. But also not just typical drum sounds but lots of tuned percussion, that could tell a melodic story while at the same time keeping that tension and that pace always alive.
AD: The recent Better Call Saul episode that involved the pick up of Lalo’s bail money and continued with Saul and Mike taking a long trek through the desert had a similar vibe in that it very much exists in the universe, but sort of stands apart from most other episodes. Did you approach that episode in a similar fashion as you did El Camino?
DP: I did. And I think there’s no coincidence that Vince Gilligan also directed that episode of Better Call Saul. This is something he excels at. We were finishing El Camino, and as soon as we were done with it he was on a plane to go direct that episode. I’m sure that the head-space he was in and the story line for that episode matched. It was unusual for us. That episode is called ‘Bag Man.’ It’s much more of a linear story than what we normally do. It really is that tale of Saul and Mike in the desert. There are some Breaking Bad episodes that fit that bill too.
AD: I’ve been fortunate to speak to a few people involved with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino. They all talk about what a great working environment Vince and Peter have created. You’ve been with them since the beginning of this journey and on every single episode as well as the movie. What has it been like for you to spend this much time in the Breaking Bad universe?
DP: It truly is a remarkable and unique working environment. I’ve had other very creative and productive work environments in Hollywood. I’ve also had some unhealthy ones. (Laughs). I think there’s a sense of camaraderie that has come along for us. It’s based on a shared experience that we’ve had – those of us going back to Breaking Bad. Which was entirely unique to live through. Especially the last few seasons of when it went from a show that the critics loved but no one watched to this pop culture behemoth in such a short period of time. I think that shared experience was very unique to us and we will always bond and be united because of it.
But it all tracks back to Vince. Vince’s wonderful ability to involve everyone and take everyone’s opinions and creative thoughts seriously, no matter how off the cuff they might be. At the same time, he knows in his heart – and Peter’s the same – when the right answer presented itself and then being able to follow through with that, and be definitive about it.
We all feel so invested in in these shows and we take them very personally and we defend all of our choices together, because Vince and Peter have been so loyal to so many of us. We just had a chance to grow as artists in our fields together, and we push each other relentlessly. It’s not a spoken thing. I just want to be really sure that the music is never the weakest part of any aspect of the show. (Laughs). Because have so much invested. We’re all growing each other grow in our craft and succeed. I’m a much better composer today than I was at the beginning of Breaking Bad, and that’s thanks to the good fortune of getting to work on this project, but more importantly to get to work with all these folks.
AD: This next season will be the last for Better Call Saul, and I assume that’s where the Breaking Bad universe will end. After working on this project for so long, what does it feel like to see the end approaching?
DP: I’m trying not to think about it. (Laughs). It’s been everything to my career. I’ve worked on lots of other wonderful things, but it’s been the backbone of what I’ve done for the bulk of my professional career in Los Angeles. It’s a mix of things. Of course, part of all of us will be devastated. We know that next year these stories are over and this universe has played out as as wonderfully as it can. On the other hand, we’ve been in this universe for a long time, and there’s something very exciting about the new possibility, if I’m so blessed to be able to to work with Vince and Peter, and so many of the other writers, and actors on projects that are in a totally different universe, and to explore new new horizons.
I think that there’s going to be a definitely a 50/50 mix of those emotions moving forward. I just feel so grateful to have been a part of it. There’s been a lot of talk in the press lately about people comparing Saul and Breaking Bad within the universe. I prefer not to delve into that. I feel like we’re so lucky that they complement each other so well, and that’s absolutely true of El Camino too. It’s kept the universe alive for such a long time. I think about my son who’s nine and too young to be watching any of this stuff. (Laughs). I can’t wait for the day when when we get to sit down and watch it all and have it be, hopefully, enduring. We have so much content to show between the two shows and the film. We’re very blessed and so thankful for everybody who’s watched them and enjoyed it with us along the way.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.