Editor Skip Macdonald entered the Breaking Bad universe during its first season, way back in 2008. He’s been a part of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s world ever since – hopping over to Better Call Saul, and then editing El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie as well.
In our interview, we talk about what it’s like to work on two groundbreaking series and the stand alone film, as well as the experience of being an integral part of such a legendary universe.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the Breaking Bad universe?
Skip Macdonald: I had just finished up a show and I got a call saying that they were looking for some help. I knew the post producer at the time. I went over and interviewed for the first season of Breaking Bad with Vince and they brought me on board. Since then, it’s been really wonderful to continue on working with that same team.
AD: When you started working on Breaking Bad, it was this little show on this network that mostly showed old movies. It must be something else to see what it has turned into.
SM: It’s really amazing. Like you said, it was a network known for old movies and this was a brand new venture for them to get into. With the subject matter of the meth cooking, no one knew where it was going to lead. When I was able to watch the pilot episode, I thought this is really great and so interesting. It contained visuals and told a story no one had ever talked about before–at least on television. It was exciting to be involved with it. And then to see as the seasons progressed how it got its legs and people really jumped into it. Once it hit Netflix, you would hear about new people getting into it and binge-watching two or three seasons at a time. To be involved with something that took off like that has been a great experience for me.
AD: I came to it late myself. I foolishly didn’t think the dad from Malcolm in the Middle could pull off the part. (Laughs). I’m still recovering from the shame. I got into it during a Christmas marathon a few years ago. The way I describe getting into Breaking Bad is you watch a couple episodes and you think, “this is pretty good.” You watch a few more and you think, “this is really good.” And then you watch a few more and you say, “I could come to worship this.”
SM: (Laughs). I still run into people today that I am acquainted with that tell me they know I worked on the show, but that they didn’t start watching it until just recently. I always think, after all the hype and the talk, you weren’t even curious? They will say they never found the time, but then tell me they are now losing sleep because they watch so many episodes in a day.
AD: When you moved over to Better Call Saul – which is a different animal in a lot of ways – how did you manage to make that show fit into the Breaking Bad universe, but also avoid making it into too much of a copy of what you had already done?
SM: That’s the whole thing. Between the writing, the acting, the directing, and then what we bring to it in editing, we do try to do what we can to keep it familiar while not taking so directly from it. Where Breaking Bad was a lot of hand-held, Saul is more of a locked down camera. There are some times when we use hand-held on Saul, but we try to have slight differences in the feel. We still try to tie in certain things like the big wide shots and we’ll let a single shot play out much longer than the average TV show would. That brings us into the Breaking Bad world, but there are differences. Saul was a lighter series starting out with the use of color and stuff, but things are getting closer to Breaking Bad as we continue on.
AD: I would imagine having a lead character like Saul/Jimmy and the way Bob plays him had to give the show a different sort of bounce.
SM: We did play more into that bounce and his liveliness and his excitement. Bob brings that extra life to it. We would try to focus on his bubbliness. That helps keep the two shows separated more.
AD: I felt the tones of the two shows merging more than ever on this last season of Saul as he became more intertwined with Lalo. Everything feels more dangerous and seems to be segueing into Breaking Bad.
SM: We are certainly getting more into the darker tone and leaning into the threat of things going bad a little bit more. It’s building and building to where Jimmy is turning into Saul–to where his character was when we met him on Breaking Bad. He’s also bringing everyone else down with him. We are working in a darker, more terrifying world.
AD: I thought the Saul episode “Bagman” this year was pretty unique – with Saul and Mike walking through the desert after the money drop goes bad. What’s it like to edit that kind of linear episode versus the typical Saul episode which cuts between storylines more?
SM: That episode was more of a straight, linear shot. We did go back to Kim a couple times, but it was more about the two of them in the desert, trying to survive, and how they are connecting, and how Jimmy is relying more on getting information from Mike. When Mike spills his emotions out to Jimmy about why he is going to survive and what he’s doing it for, it becomes reciprocal.
AD: I’ve always thought that both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul had elements of a modern western in them. El Camino seemed to really lean into that.
SM: That was the original intent (for El Camino). You could feel that in the script – that western feel, the stand-off – that’s how it was laid out from the beginning.
AD: I know from speaking to other folks who worked on El Camino that you had a lot more time to work on the film versus the time you would normally have on the series. I imagine it was great to have that extra time.
SM: For me it was really great to have that extra time. It gave me more time to work on the individual scenes and build the flow and the pacing of the scenes. I know that when Vince was directing it, it gave him more time to lay out the blocking and the shots that he wanted. I think we were able to come up with some interesting pieces and design shots and the cutting pattern more fully.
AD: Speaking of the cutting pattern, one of the things I’ve always loved about the shows and the movie is the mixture of longer takes and then bursts of more frenetic editing.
SM: It always depends on the feel of the scene. If scenes are playing well in a single shot, I will continue to let it go. If there’s information that plays out that way without hitting you over the head with it, then let’s keep it that way. Once we start the rapid cutting it’s usually because there’s more information to deliver and we want to get it to you a little quicker. If it’s more of a dialogue driven scene – if I can play those out, it really helps me get the audience more focused rather than cutting around to see each person who’s talking. I like to cut to someone who’s not talking to see how they’re soaking in the information. That sometimes says more than all the words. I think it engages the audience more.
AD: It must be a pleasure to edit Rhea Seahorn in that way. She’s just fabulous at taking in the latest bit of crazy that Jimmy is sharing with her.
SM: She is so good. She gives you such great moments to cut to. She’s such a great actress.
AD: Can you talk about editing the scene in El Camino where Jesse is in Todd’s house trying to find the money? I love how it starts out slowly and then becomes more frantic as he tries to avoid being discovered by the fake DEA agents.
SM: Getting that together was a challenge. The building of the tension, the fear of Jesse getting caught, and him thinking this is really the DEA. It started with an overhead of him tearing through the place and finding the money and then once they show up, changing that pace and bringing them in, and then the neighbor coming in – it was a big challenge to make all the timing work without taking away from any of the character work.
AD: I would imagine it’s also a challenge to keep the audience oriented as to where Jesse is in the apartment while also having this natural sense of confusion that the character is experiencing at the same time.
SM: Like when we brought the one cop into the room and we don’t know where Jesse is. Then the cop looks into the closet and he’s not there. I thought the reveal of Jesse being behind the mattress was really great. That was one of my favorite shots.
AD: I think there’s no way to have a conversation about El Camino without talking about the Candy Welding scene. I mentioned before that El Camino felt like a modern western to me when I was watching it, and that scene really sealed it for me. I loved the way the gunslinger-type tension built in that scene.
SM: We referenced the Clint Eastwood movie, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – where there’s a big stand-off. We tried to give it that kind of feel. It was a real big challenge to keep the concentration between Jesse and Candy while also keeping the guys on the sidelines alive. The surprise of Jesse having the gun in his other pocket – I just thought it was a challenge to make the viewer aware of everything without giving anything away until it happens.
AD: Then there’s that great scene with Aaron Paul and Robert Forster in the vacuum cleaner shop which couldn’t be more different than the Candy Welding scene. The longer takes, the holding of the shot on Forster’s face, it’s really terrific. Can you talk about editing that sequence?
SM: Because the performances of Robert Forster and Aaron Paul were so amazing, the biggest challenge was finding which take to use. There were such little, subtle differences. Robert Forster is amazing at not giving anything away in his expressions. You could stare at him all day and he would never give you any idea of whether he was really going to call the cops or not. It was such a pleasure to cut that scene. Then later, after he had passed, it meant even more to me. Their performances were so great at bringing out the little moments.
AD: With the next season of Better Call Saul being the last, what’s it like seeing this long chapter of your career in the Breaking Bad universe close?
SM: It’s going to be tough. For all the years I’ve been with these people – the whole group – it’s like a family. It’s such a pleasure to work with everybody. It’s so collaborative–no ideas are ever brushed off. There are no big egos. It’s really made my career what it is. It’s going to be sad to have it come to a close. I’m sure it’s going to go out in great fashion. I don’t know exactly what that ending will be, but I know Vince and Peter have an end game in sight. I’m sure the audience will be satisfied.