(L-R): "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, music supervisor Thomas Golubic, composer Dave Porter, and journalist Gregg Kilday (Photo: Arnold Turner)
"I wish I had keener musical sense," opined Vince Gilligan, creator/executive producer of AMC's cult hit "Breaking Bad." "When it came to putting a score to the pilot, I was a bit at sea."
Gilligan drifted ashore once he met composer Dave Porter, who introduced him to music supervisor Thomas Golubic. But even after four-and-a-half seasons, Gilligan still hasn't learned to speak in musical terms. "I speak in terms of the emotions required of a given scene," he said. "Dave is very long-suffering."
Gilligan, Porter and Golubic appeared at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference on Oct. 24 at the W Hotel in Hollywood. The conference continues on Thursday.
"Breaking Bad" recently concluded the first half of its fifth and final season. Over the course of the series, we see Walter White (Emmy-winning actor Bryan Cranston), formerly a mind-mannered high school chemistry professor, morph into a ruthless drug kingpin using his chemistry skills to cook an unusually pure (but no less deadly) brand of crystal meth.
While Porter's scores are propulsive and menacing, the music Golubic selects for the series is generally more playful, and makes often ironic commentaries on the dark activities portrayed on screen.
Porter described his compositions as "a palette that has grown, but has existed from the pilot. I didn't want to use Western orchestral instruments, so I use world instruments and synthesizers." Porter tries to eschew recurring motifs, though one of Gilligan's favorites played over the Cousins, two Mexican assassins, which Gilligan describes as "a fan in hell." It was in fact an Aztec war whistle of which Porter slowed the recording.
"The show has gotten darker as the stakes have risen," Porter said, "so the score has evolved. But, sonically, you always know you're watching 'Breaking Bad.'"
(L-R): Dave Porter, Vince Gilligan, Thomas Galubic, Gregg Kilday (Photo: Arnold Turner)
When adding music to episodes, "We try not to have too many rules, but one rule is, we know when not to have music -- when, by its presence, it tells the audience what to feel," Gilligan said. "I want the score to be a mirroring of the place [Walter] is emotionally. I don't want Dave and Thomas to try to milk something that isn't there."
"Restraint is the word," Golubic agreed. "It's hard to find places that need music -- we're enhancing the story in a meaningful way. We dial it back as much as possible."
"There's too much music in a lot of things," Porter added. "We're not asked to come in and save a scene. We play up those moments in Walt's head -- moments that are surreal or where the tension's off the charts. We have moments of big drama, but most of the strongest moments for me are internal."
Porter said that they established early on with AMC executives that they would not show them any episodes with temp music, so that when they saw the final cuts, they wouldn't have any "preconceived notions."
Golubic usually presents Gilligan with a handful of choices for scenes calling for source music. "I find different interpretations of the scene, different angles or approaches," he said. "Vince allows me to have bad ideas, and I have a lot of bad ideas. That helps me when I stay up to ludicrous hours in the morning looking for the correct answer."
For his part, Gilligan scoffs at the idea of Golubic having bad ideas.
One of Golubic's favorite jobs was concocting a narcocorrido, a Mexican ballad about the myth of Heisenberg, Walt's deadly alter-ego. They tracked down a narcocorrido songwriter, and found a band -- "these sweet-looking guys who come from this underground world" -- who recorded the song and appeared in a video that looked authentic to the culture.
"I love that you could see that and wonder, 'Is this American television?'" he laughed.
All three insist they never think in terms of creating music for a soundtrack album (though a couple have been released). "We're not rock stars," Porter declared. "We're not supposed to make music that's released on CD. We make music to complement the story."