'Breaking Bad' Director on Doing Death With Dignity -- And How Baby Holly Cried on Cue (Q&A)
Rian Johnson reveals why "Ozymandias" didn't show Jesse being tortured or Hank's and Gomez's deaths: "I didn't want to do anything that could feel at all like we were cheapening the moments or disrespecting those two characters."
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias."]
Rian Johnson had already solidified himself in the pantheon of great Breaking Bad directors with season three fan favorite "Fly."
The director's Bad cred reached the stratosphere after Sunday's "Ozymandias," which show creator Vince Gilligan and others are calling the series' greatest episode ever. The ambitious episode saw the deaths of key characters, the destruction of relationships and the culmination of years of storytelling.
"Usually there is one scene or one act where we are like 'Oh, this is the biggie. We need to concentrate on this,' " Johnson tells The Hollywood Reporter. "As Moira Walley-Beckett wrote it, literally every act would be the one big act in any other episode."
Among the most "electric" moments on set came after Walt (Bryan Cranston) abducted baby Holly, and the infant started calling for her mother. The scene originally called for Walt to bring the baby up to eye level and have a change of heart as he looked into her eyes. But on set, the baby's mother was standing behind Cranston as they shot, and the infant locked eyes with her.
"She started saying the word 'mama' over and over," Johnson says. "Bryan used it and played it perfectly. Obviously the baby was brilliant, but the credit goes to Bryan for using that and playing off of it so well. That's the sort of thing you can never plan, and you have to go with it when it happens."
The episode also saw Hank (Dean Norris) and Gomez (Michael Steven Quezada) die, and Johnson says he wanted to treat the characters' deaths with "real dignity," which is why he didn't show the gruesome details of their demises.
"It's harsh enough, and I didn't want to do anything that could feel at all like we were cheapening the moments or disrespecting those two character," Johnson says.
Find THR's full conversation with Johnson below, where he also discusses the honor of being on set for the series' final day of shooting and capturing Walt's mean-spirited confession about Jane's death.
Vince Gilligan says this greatest Breaking Bad episode ever. It's so big and complex -- what were some of the challenges of getting it right?
It's tough. Usually there is one scene or one act where we are like, "Oh, this is the biggie. We need to concentrate on this." In this episode, as Moira Walley-Beckett wrote it, literally every act would be the one big act in any other episode. I was just overwhelmed and kind of petrified when I read the script -- in the best way. I think just about every scene in it was hard in its own way.
The episode is so big and ambitious. Did you get any extra shooting days on this?
We took one extra day during the filming proper. The guys at [Breaking Bad production company] Gran Via and also at the network were terrific. They were like, "Look, we know this is huge. If you need more time, let's talk about it." We did have an extra day on top of that to shoot the teaser. Because it's a flashback, Bryan had to shave his goatee to do it, and they didn't want him to wear a fake beard for the last two episodes. So I went away for a month and I came back and we shot that teaser.
So that was the last thing shot for the series?
It was a series wrap. It was the very last day of filming. I felt very privileged to do that. Not only is it the last day, but being out there in the desert with the RV -- the first episode I directed was in season three so I never got to shoot in the RV. I just know that stuff as a fan, so for me it was just a total blast. For the crew, many of whom have been working on this for six years now, it was pretty amazing to see those emotions go down in that context.
This episode features beloved characters facing violent ends. But we don't see their deaths in graphic detail, unlike other deaths in the series. What was the decision process on that like?
Moira and I talked about it with Vince, and we decided with both of these guys there should be some real dignity to the way they go out. So both in how we shot the death, but also really purposely in how we shot them after they were dead. It's harsh enough, and I didn't want to do anything that could feel at all like we were cheapening the moments or disrespecting those two characters.
And with Jesse, we don’t see him get tortured.
It was never in the script. It's so brutal, the reveal of it, that I don’t think I could have stood watching that. I think the writers are really good at finding the fine line. For myself, if a TV show or a movie feels like it's being gratuitous in the sense of playing on these emotional investments you've made in the characters in a cruel way just to make you cringe, it feels unfair. This is a pretty cruel episode, but I don't think it ever brings you to the point of "they're just messing with me." Seeing Jesse tortured, I probably would have stood up and walked away. (Laughs.)
The Baby Holly moment with Walt in the restroom was a standout moment. How did that work out so well?
We got really lucky, actually. You can't really direct a baby. We were playing at the scene, and originally as written it was just going to be a beat where Bryan lifts Baby Holly up to eye level, and just looking at her Walt has this change of heart and realizes he can't do it. He lifted up the baby, and the baby's mom was three feet away behind the camera, and the baby had eye contact with the mom, and she started saying the word "mama" over and over. Bryan used it and played it perfectly. Obviously the baby was brilliant, but the credit goes to Bryan for using that and playing off of it so well. That's the sort of thing you can never plan, and you have to go with it when it happens.
That must have been amazing to watch.
It was pretty electric on the day. We were all gathered around the monitor just off set and we all just looked at each other. Our eyes went wide. "Oh my God! Tell me we're rolling."
In the first episode you directed, "Fly," Walt is wracked with guilt and seems to be close to telling Jesse about his role in Jane's death. Here, there is no guilt and he uses it with malice to hurt Jesse. What was getting that scene like?
I was kind of amazed to get that moment. The closest he's come to that is the episode Moira co-wrote with Sam Catlin and I directed. It was the first time Moira and I worked together. Thinking about that moment in "Fly" versus the moment in this episode, it's kind of like the contrast between Walt and Skyler in the teaser versus where they're at now. The scene where [Walt] almost spilled it in the superlab to Jesse -- it was out of very different feelings than what led [Walt] to tell him in this episode. The fact that they've come so far -- and that contrast was a pretty powerful thing to be a firsthand witness to.
What scene did you enjoy shooting the most?
All of them were fun in that they were really challenging and I got to see some incredible stuff go down. They were all fun in that sense. The one that was most purely fun might have been rolling the barrel, when he meets the Native American gentleman. Even though it's Sisyphus -- it's something that's really tragic and heavy -- it’s the closest thing in the episode we got to having a little more fun. So we savored it.
You've tweeted out a photo of Walt's pants from the pilot, which are visible in the barrel scene. Are there more Easter eggs we need to be looking out for in this episode?
(Laughs.) There's a lot of stuff we put a lot of planning and detail into. The pants, like everything else, were in the script. That's one thing I can't repeat often enough, is just how detailed the Breaking Bad scripts are, both in terms of details like that and walking me through emotionally what's happening beat to beat. It really is all there on the page. That pants moment was on the script so we shot it.
Looking back on your three episodes, what has Breaking Bad meant to you?
I feel lucky to have had that whole experience. I don't know if anything will be able to top being there the last day out there in the desert. I am so grateful I was able to have a small part in this. And I'm really grateful I'm able to watch the last two episodes now not knowing what happens.
You don't know how it ends?
I know a little bit, just from being in the production office, but I don't know all the details. So it's the closest thing I get this season to just sitting back and biting my nails along with everyone else.
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