‘El Camino’ Composer Dave Porter on Returning to the World of ‘Breaking Bad’

     October 14, 2019

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie not only marks the return of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, or the many other familiar faces who returned for cameos (or larger roles), but the Netflix film reunites many of the behind-the-scenes talents from Breaking Bad as well. That includes composer Dave Porter, whose iconic score for the Emmy-winning AMC series served as a vital backbone for the show as it progressed into darker territory throughout its run. Porter’s soundscape helped build out the world of Breaking Bad as a tangible place; a tactile world that made the character beats all the more impactful.

With El Camino writer/director (and Breaking Bad creator) Vince Gilligan bringing Porter back for the Netflix film, I recently got the chance to speak with the composer about his terrific work on the movie. Unfortunately, at the time that we conducted the interview, Porter was forbidden from getting into specifics and I had not yet seen the film, so the conversation doesn’t delve into and plot details or character revelations.

That said, we did have an engaging chat about the benefits that scoring a film gave Porter, the key way his working relationship with Gilligan changed on El Camino, how he first found out a Breaking Bad movie was getting made, his outstanding work on Better Call Saul, and the evolution of the core creative team from Breaking Bad over time.

It’s a fun, wide-ranging discussion with one of the key creative brains behind two of the best shows on television, and while we don’t go into specifics, there are fascinating insights to be gleaned about the El Camino experience. Check out the full interview below.

For more on the film, check out our breakdown of the ending and find out why it was almost three hours long.

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Image via Netflix

How did you first learn that Vince was doing a Breaking Bad movie and what was your reaction?

DAVE PORTER: That’s a good question. Well thankfully, and in some sense I think, as you probably know, in the filmmaking process, the music is very much towards the tail end of things. So I was blissfully left in the dark I think for longer than some folks. And that’s good because it means I had a shorter period of time to keep these secrets. But I think Vince has been so unbelievably loyal to me and to so many of us who worked with him on all of his projects, going back 10, 12 years now in the Breaking Bad universe. And so they were very thoughtful to include me in it at the time. I got to go into the Better Call Saul offices and read the script under lock and key, which was all very spy like and caper-y. When I had to go to the bathroom I had to turn in the script and go to the bathroom and then come back and finish it. It was signing away my first born if I was going to speak about anything.

But of course I wouldn’t, and I think that’s the beauty of it. I mean, all of us who have been so fortunate to work with Vince on these projects, we’re so proud of them, and we’re so proud of the legacy of them. And we certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would spoil that for anybody.

You hit upon something that I find really interesting is that Vince is still working with the same collaborators that were with him at the beginning of Breaking Bad. And that goes on through Better Call Saul, which is much of the same crew. And I think one of the things that critics have noted on Better Call Saul is that it’s just one of the most immaculately crafted shows on television, and I think that just speaks to the level of talent and the curation of that talent that’s kind of stuck around for this same period of time, working together.

PORTER: You’re right. And I would add to that that we’ve had a very unique opportunity for all of us to grow at our individual specialties together for such a long period of time. I mean I’m a phenomenally better composer today than I was in the first season of Breaking Bad. I mean that just comes through the ability of getting to work on projects, and especially being so fortunate to work on great projects, that really push you creatively, and to have that support of lots of years of confidence, and working together as a team. It makes it a very special place to work for sure.

So after you read the scripts, obviously without giving anything away, what were your first conversations with Vince like in terms of like what does this sound like?

PORTER: Well, first of all, I didn’t talk to him about it at all for quite a while. I kind of just digested it myself because at that time they were still shooting, and things were very under wraps. And I’m in LA and they’re elsewhere. So a lot of it was honestly just me mulling it over for a long time before I had a chance to talk to Vince. But it gave me a chance to really come up with some of the core questions that I wanted to discuss with him before we got started. One of the biggest ones is that, “Hey, here’s what’s different about this than what we have done in the past. This is a movie.” Right? This is not a series, this is a movie. This is a movie length experience. What does that change, if anything, about how we’d approach the music?

And then related to that is sort of some questions about workflow and how we would go through the process of writing the music for this because the timeline on a film is so very, very different from the timeline on TV. We really do ultimately use that to our great advantage, I think, on the movie. That was a central question.

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Image via Netflix

Then of course creatively, I think while I was happy and eager to experiment with some sort of radical musical departure from what we’ve done and everything else, in my heart I knew that, while a worthwhile exercise, like everything we’ve always done in the Breaking Bad universe, the music is going to be an evolution of what it was before. Not something radically different, because there is a beauty in the way the show has come to sound over the years that helps identify it, I think, to that whole universe, sonically.

And I’m not just talking about me here, I’m talking in terms of writing the original music, but that carries over to how we approached using licensed music, how we approached sound effects and foley and all of those things. I mean, we’re not looking to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to say, but at the same time, what is it about a film experience that we could do? And what are the things that we never got to do working on a TV series because of either budget or time constraints that we could do doing a movie that would make sense to do? And so those were the kinds of things that we talked about early on.

Are you able to tease kind of specifically anything that you were able to do differently with a movie budget and a movie schedule?

PORTER: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, the most critical thing of all honestly is just time. When we’re working on a TV show, they’re getting turned over to me every week. So I’m getting a new show every week. That particular show has to get written in that week, and moved on and mixed, so we could move onto the next one. So there’s an inherent time constraint that you just don’t have in a movie. You have just more time. And so what that meant for us is, I mean for example, just time spent together, working together on the music. Vince had never in the history of us working together been to my studio before, prior to working on the movie.

Oh wow.

PORTER: If you can believe that. Because it just, workflow wise, it’s just too time consuming. It would not have made sense. He’s got 400 things he’s doing. He’s working on color, he’s working on edit, he’s working with the sound people. There just isn’t the time. But here for a period of probably a couple of months in the summer, Vince was here a day every week. And he’d come and he’d bring other members of the crew and they sit with me and we play through music. We’d talk about scenes, we’d talk about music I’d written, and talk about what about it was impactful and worked great, and what could be better, new ways to approach things. We just had that luxury of time.

So how did that then change your process? I mean, I’m sure you guys spoke when you were doing the show, but did his physical presence kind of alter anything?

PORTER: I don’t think it changed too much except that we were able to be entirely satisfied by the time we were done. You know what I mean?

Yeah yeah.

PORTER: Like I think working on the TV show, like he’d give me some notes, I’d give some notes back, I’d do some revisions, but at a certain point you have to be like, “Cool.” Because it has to mix.

It’s got to go. Yeah.

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Photo by Ben Rothstein/Netflix

PORTER: You know what I mean? It’s got to go, you know? And there’s a beauty in that too because it had, over the years, forced us to get to—as it would any TV composer and their showrunner—a good working relationship to quickly get to where you need to be creatively, or at least ballpark wise. But here there was no reason to leave any stone unturned. We had a chance to try things and throw them out entirely, and not worry about how much time that would waste. And time to really polish everything, and as a result, I think you’ll hear the results. It feels more filmic and it feels even more… I mean we would always think everything to death, but even more so on this than on the series.

I understand you created kind of like little musical retrospectives for the movie, maybe bringing back cues from the show that would kind of trigger a memory for the audiences. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that?

PORTER: I can’t really get into where they are. But I’m certainly allowed to say this is a continuation of one enormously important part of the Breaking Bad story. And as I said before, this is not a new story to us, it’s just a continuation. So yes, of course there’s connections as there are throughout the entire Breaking Bad universe that we’re very cognizant of, and that music as an important storyteller can really bridge those links. And we certainly give that a lot of thought.

I think Vince has said this, I mean I think that while the movie certainly stands well on its own and it’s super fun to watch regardless of your Breaking Bad knowledge, there’s no question that it’s exponentially more exciting for those that are knowledgeable about what’s come before it in the Breaking Bad universe. And those people don’t need any prior info. And that’s a unique position to be in generally speaking. It’s like we’re doing a sequel to a big Hollywood movie that everyone’s already seen. But in fact it isn’t that.

Yeah, it feels like it. I mean the show was huge. Kind of looking back, because I really think the show is going down in history as one of the best series finales of all time. I was kind of curious what you remember about scoring those last couple of episodes, and nearing the end of the show, and if you ever thought you’d be back doing new music for the show again.

PORTER: No. I mean the whole Breaking Bad experience obviously was an enormously unique and crazy experience for those of us who were lucky enough to be in it. I mean, back in season one we were just hoping the show would get picked up. I mean, it was a super cool inventive little show that looked gorgeous, but we just weren’t sure anybody was going to watch. And I think Bryan Cranston helped us enormously, of course. But specifically his Emmy nomination in our first year.

Yeah, that too.

PORTER: That brought some attention to it early on, and just enough to keep it floating. We got through the writer’s strike, which was going on in that first year, which was such a mess. But what’s unique about it, or fascinating to me about this thing coming around full circle, is the important role that Netflix played in Breaking Bad.

For sure.

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Image via Netflix

PORTER: Even though that wasn’t where it was airing. But when later it became available on Netflix, suddenly Breaking Bad went from the show that TV aficionados had only seen to a show that a lot of people had seen. And the truth of that of course was bared out in how many people watched the final season when it was airing on AMC. And to get back around to your question, I mean it was an amazing time. There was an enormous amount of pressure, to be honest, in that last season that we weren’t accustomed to. It really blew up fast and came out of nowhere. And I can distinctly remember we watched, as a crew, all of us here in Hollywood, we watched the finale as it aired live projected on a big screen in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which is a place where when people come here in LA to watch movies and stuff. And we were all there with an amazing group of fans watching the finale. It was just very emotional for all of us. And I really, I put it to bed mentally. I really didn’t think we would ever come back. This was before I knew a thing about Better Call Saul or any of that. So I didn’t expect it to ever come back around.

And Better Call Saul obviously was a wonderful surprise to be able to come back in a very different way to that world. And especially early on in Better Call Saul, it was a very different world. And then Better Call Saul has progressed in this timeline closer and closer to the beginning of Breaking Bad. Musically we’re evolving very consciously closer and closer to the sound that we were at at the beginning of Breaking Bad. So that part of it was coming slowly a full circle for me. And then to have this very unexpected feature come along was just so joyful to go back and have another chance to say something about some of these characters that I thought I would never see again.

Better Call Saul is interesting, I love that show. But I remember when it was maybe going to be a half hour comedy. And I really like that Vince and Peter had a willingness to just kind of see where things go. Like I know they thought, “Oh, he’s going to become Saul at the end of Season 1.” But as the show progressed it was like, “Oh, let’s spend a little bit more time with him as this character first.” What has that experience been like for you, feeling that out as the composer on that show?

PORTER: Well, again I’m blessed to not have to make those decisions because I’m so late in the process. I don’t know how they do it either. They’re amazing. And they freely admit that they box themselves into corners and have to find their way out of them. And they do it every time, always in an unbelievably eloquent way. I mean, for me, I think a lot of those decisions get made before me, and I’m sort of the end result of some decisions that get made. In the script the actors may have things that are lit, how they’re shot, how they’re edited, all those things affect the tone and the mood of where we’re at. But one of the great benefits of working on these series with these guys on Better Call Saul, is that they’re always available to me. And all the writers are. And I take that responsibility very seriously too, because I want them with me so that I can ask them what any given character is thinking, or what our intention is here, what is it exactly what we’re going to try to say? And how can I help musically? Or not, how can I hurt? How would it be better if I just stayed out of the way? Which is an equally important answer I think. So yeah, again, the beauty of having worked with some of these folks for so many years, and their trust and respect in me and vice versa goes a long way.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is now streaming on Netflix.

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