Marshall Adams has been working prolifically on television as a cinematographer for nearly two decades. He first worked with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould on Breaking Bad’s fourth season in 2011. Adams eventually moved over to the Breaking Bad prequel series, Better Call Saul during its third season in 2017. Gilligan and Gould then tapped Adams to shoot his first feature film with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
In our conversation, we talk about how he came to the Breaking Bad universe, the looming end of Better Call Saul, and taking inspiration from Sergio Leone while making El Camino.
Awards Daily TV: You first came to Breaking Bad in 2012 with the “Live Free or Die” episode?
Marshall Adams: I think we shot in 2011 but that probably aired in 2012. I was there at the end of shooting on season four around 2009-2010. Michael Slovis had to leave a little early, so I hung around did a couple of days of pick ups. That was actually my first introduction.
ADTV: Some time went past before you moved over to Better Call Saul. How did you join the show?
MA: My connection to the show was through Jordan Slovin, Who is Melissa Bernstein’s husband. Jordan was working with me on one of the CSI franchise shows in our camera department. He’s been a friend for many years and we heard all about this crazy show that they were putting together in in Albuquerque. Eventually, he left us to go work with Michael Slovis and that was the connection. That’s how I kind of ended up there to begin with. I’ve maintained a relationship with both Melissa and Jordan ever since. I was not available at the end of season five to potentially come back in, I was working on another series, and Arthur Albert was offered the job and did a fantastic job finishing out Breaking Bad.
I was supposed to meet with Vince before they started Saul before they committed to a DP, but stuff kept coming and eventually they made the decision that they were going to stick with Arthur, which I think was kind of the idea to begin with anyway. And he did an absolutely fantastic job on the show. I knew I had big shoes to fill. When they postponed the beginning of season three Arthur had a conflict with a feature that he wanted to do in Spain. Luckily I got an interview and went in and reintroduced myself to everybody and then took over at the beginning of Season 3 on Saul.
ADTV: And then you moved on to El Camino, which felt like it rose up from nowhere when Netflix announced the release date. It’s really hard to surprise people with a major release in modern times. Did it feel that way to you?
MA: It absolutely was. It was kind of the worst kept secret though. I remember it was broken in the Albuquerque Journal while we were in prep. They even have the code name for it: “Green Briar.” I’ll never forget when one of my camera operators arrived in town, just a day or two before we started shooting, and he said he was watching the news and one of the entertainment reporters came on and said, we have it on good authority that they’re shooting a Breaking Bad movie in Albuquerque, and that if you happen to be driving through town and you see a little yellow sign that says “Green Briar” just follow it to the set and say “hello” to everybody. (Laughs). So, the were a little freaked out. None of our signs actually had the name “Geen Briar” on it. Vince was a little upset about it because he was hoping to keep it hush hush until he wanted to talk about it himself. It kind of went away after that and nobody really talked about it again. Then it was a year and a half before I think it became public knowledge that the movie had been made and was going to be coming out.
ADTV: Because Saul and Breaking Bad exist in the same universe, but have different tones, was it a challenge to go full Breaking Bad with El Camino? Because the shows have to both match to a degree and still distinguish themselves from each other.
MA: Vince and I had some long conversations about that While we were prepping the movie. There was a conscious decision – we’re living in two different time worlds – we wanted the audience to be able to distinguish them but without doing the usual color saturation – be it blue or orange or something that that tells you that you’re in a flashback. It was Vince’s idea, because so much of Breaking Bad has been shot handheld – that was going to be the big difference. Everything that was a flashback was given a handheld look, and pretty much everything that was present day was more anchored and locked down, and a little bit more in the Saul vein. It was much more deliberative and a little bit less frenetic.
There were some challenges. I needed to be able to match some of Michael (Slovis’s) stuff. Like inside of the compound, a lot of the exteriors that had been seen before, and the interior of the vacuum store. I twisted them a little bit to kind of make it my own, but for the most part, like the first moment we see Jesse in the El Camino driving, that’s almost a direct cut from the last time the audience saw him. We were in a different aspect ratio, obviously, but we wanted it to feel as smooth as possible and we went to great lengths to make sure it matched. Not to mention that I absolutely loved Michael’s work. Michael elevated cinematography in the genre. He and Vince and that whole crew pushed TV to raise the bar visually. It was an absolute pleasure to try to to do some of Michael’s work. (Laughs). Luckily I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with him during the prep of that first episode on season five of Breaking Bad. He gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from a director of photography. He reminded me that the show always had to be based on the story, and any time that you were looking for a visual idea, always go back to the script. Those are words I’ve lived by ever since.
ADTV: I really loved that El Camino truly felt like a movie and not just an extra long episode of Breaking Bad. I imagine it helped to have more time to shoot wider vistas and really craft the visuals to make them cinematic.
MA: Absolutely. One of the things that I think that Vince – in his genius – was able to really get TV elevated by going wider and treating it more like a feature and not catering to the concern of people watching it on a small screen. I think we took that even a little bit further on El Camino just thinking about the fact that because we were in the widescreen format, we had such an opportunity to really show it off and so, let’s do it. Let’s not get in there with screaming close-ups unless we really feel like it’s telling us a story. Let’s show the world a little bit wider and a little bit broader than we’ve been able to before. That was a conscious decision.
ADTV: I really thought about it in the scene where Todd takes Jesse into the desert to bury the cleaning lady. That wide scope really added to Jesse’s sense of hopelessness. Here he was in this wide open space with nowhere to go.
MA: He rode in the back of that car as a prisoner. It was ireally nice to be able to show that know that no matter what he was still their prisoner. Even at the end of the scene, you find out how emotionally locked in he was. The great thing about the painted desert is you’ve got all these crazy formations and colors going on. The tough thing about it is that once you get down into one of those canyons, in-between some of those mounds, you couldn’t see any of the stuff off in the distance unless you pulled back and got up in the air. To really project that loneliness was an important thing for us to be able to show how far out in the middle of nowhere Todd had chosen to to take the cleaning lady someplace nice. (Laughs).
ADTV: In Todd’s way, he probably though he was doing Jesse some kind of a favor.
MA: And the maid too! (Laughs).
ADTV: Hey, he did want to say words over her! (Laughs).
MA: I really loved that scene.
ADTV: Turning to a more interior scene, the shootout at Candy Welding, can you talk about that? There’s a real gunslinger quality to it.
MA: That’s all Vince. I have to give a lot of credit to my A camera operator, Paul Donachie, who’s just absolutely an amazing operator and has this incredible sense of composition. That was definitely something Vince wanted to bring, this kind of the spaghetti western, with crazy close ups. That sequence took forever. I think that was a week of our lives in that little tiny set. I actually had walking pneumonia during that scene.I was a little bit delirious. I think Paul actually took over for me for a few hours one day when I had to go home and pass out. (Laughs).
It was such a fun sequence that had so much going on, with the drugs and the face-off with this guy that he’s obviously had issue with for a long time. I think Judy Rhee did a great job building that set in a way that we could move around in it quickly, but also gave it the right flavor. I went with that kind of uncorrected green look to take the dirtiness and the sliminess of the interior, so you could almost feel the grime you feel if you’ve ever sat inside of a garage. It was a real group effort. Vince is very specific about what he wants to do going into scenes. He decided a long time ago that he works much better if he’s already thought about all of the coverage. So, he gives us these amazing overhead plans with literally every shot in it described. He’s always open to ideas, but for the most part we’ve talked scenes through, so that we know exactly what we’re doing.
ADTV: I know from talking to Judy Rhee, Dave Porter, and Skip McDonald that they all felt there was a modern day western feel to El Camino. The southwestern vibe, the stand-off, and Jesse’s lone gunman type journey – you basically just traded horses for cars. I assume that’s something that informed your work as well.
MA: Absolutely. That was a conscious decision of Vince’s early on. I hadn’t shot any features really since I started – mostly TV movie stuff. Vince probably could have gotten any cinematographer in the world to say yes to this job, and the fact that he gave it to me was such an incredible gift of loyalty. He’s a big fan of Sergio Leone’s, and the whole idea of going widescreen and embracing that western feel even more so than they were able to do in Breaking Bad was definitely a conscious decision. Even to the point of almost paying homage to Leone.
ADTV: I’ve noticed throughout the history of the Breaking Bad universe, there’s a lot of minimalism punctuated with moment of maximalism. In the same way that the shows use silence with in combination with the score, there’s also a lot of stillness around more frenetic scenes. What kind of challenges does that sort of patience present for you?
MA: I think to a certain extent it’s almost a little easier to to hold still and really be able to control the composition and the lighting, because you know that you’re not going to end up walking and doing crazy close ups where you can’t get the light. On some level that stillness can almost be helpful. Vince is very deliberate in that way. He loves to let the actors bring that emotion to the cinematography. It’s almost a counter approach that allows it to really stand out. He’s right in that oftentimes when you go charging in or you do a frenetic hand-held thing where you’re chasing somebody all around as they’re frantically searching for something – it almost takes away from it, because you’re trying so hard to inject some extra emotion into it. If you just lock in and let this person go through this moment that they’re that they’re going through, it’s much more based in reality. On Saul, we never do push-ins on somebody except in very rare occasions and when we do, they really have to mean something. The few times that we have, they have been so emotionally powerful because we almost never do it.
ADTV:Speaking of restraint, what was it like working with Robert Forster in the vacuum cleaner shop? It was so great to see him on film one more time, but two sad to learn of his passing just a night or two after the Netflix premiere.
MA: I can’t say enough about Robert. Such an amazing man and so talented and such a special personality. I’m trying to remember the film that he did in the sixties with the great cinematographer, Haskel Wexler…
ADTV: Medium Cool.
MA: There you go! So, he’s been a fan of of what I do ever since. Literally the moment I arrived on the set, we were actually making a a change of location – it was mid-day – and he had asked one of the PAs to introduce himself to me whenever I showed up, so he could say hello and say what a big fan of mine he was. He’s such an amazing amazing talent and so much fun to watch. The great thing about him is you never knew what was on his mind. You never had a clue as to his real intentions. I still don’t think anybody knows exactly what the vacuum cleaning store guy was up to! (Laughs). It was a pleasure. We were there for four or five days. I think that we had our Christmas party that he attended that weekend. Just to be able to hang out with him and listen to stories and his career was was a gift – an absolute gift. I was really worried when he didn’t show up to the screening because I knew there was nothing that would have kept him away. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel about having the chance to to get to know the man and watch him and Aaron Paul working off of each other. Aaron’s another one – just tne nicest human being on the planet – and to watch those two class act be able to play off of each other and have so much fun together…I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I had worked with Aaron a little bit but I had no idea kind of how good he really was and is. I’ll never forget the moment…it was our third or fourth day during the first week of shooting, and we were at Skinny Pete’s house. We did close up of him when we first see him after the door opens up, and Pete’s trying to figure out who he is, and without moving a muscle on his face, he went from incredibly guarded to so vulnerable, it’s just incredible. There was a real sense of specialness during the making of that film, because it was very clear to everybody involved – it’s the same crew from the entire series, pretty much – that this was obviously the end. Everybody knew that this was a special moment and everybody should really try to enjoy it as much as they could, because it was never going to happen again. In a lot of ways that made the the whole experience even that much better. Everybody knew to enjoy the ride.
ADTV: And now with Saul heading into its final season, the true end of the universe is coming. How does it feel to be on the cusp of the end of such a legendary piece of television history?
MA: Oh, it’s really sad in a lot of ways. I’m so thankful to been given the opportunity to be part of it. But it’s exciting that we’re that we haven’t gotten there yet. We still have he whole season to shoot. There’s still a lot of question as to what the what the end moment is. This is just me personally, but I think it’s possible the Omaha flash-forwards may actually have taken place after El Camino. It’s always exciting to go back and see what the writers have in store for us.
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.