'Breaking Bad': Secrets of Scoring the Hit Revealed at Industry Event

Breaking Bad Music Event - H 2012
Arnold Turner

Breaking Bad Music Event - H 2012

Creator Vince Gilligan, composer Dave Porter and music supervisor Thomas Golubic discuss the music for the AMC show at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference.

"I have to confess I think in mostly visual terms," said Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan Oct. 24 at a Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference panel at Hollywood's W Hotel hosted by THR's Gregg Kilday. "I was definitely thinking of Sergio Leone. I wish I had a keener musical sense, but when it came to putting a score to the pilot, I was a bit at sea."

Gilligan was rescued by composer Dave Porter and music supervisor Thomas Golubic, who joined him on the panel. "I wish I did speak in terms of composition and whatnot," said Gilligan. "I can speak in terms of the emotions required of a given scene. I wish I could speak in musical terms -- what is it, is it like allegro, pianissimo?" But Porter always asks for the emotional bottom line. "Dave is very long-suffering," said Gilligan.

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While Porter's scores are propulsive and menacing, the source music Golubic selects for the series is generally more playful, and makes sometimes ironic commentaries on the dark activities portrayed on screen. Irony is used with precision, as in the meth-cooking scene featuring "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." "The original thought was not to have a sense of irony," said Gilligan of the meth scene. "Celebratory," said Golubic. "Mission: Impossible-y, capery," said Gilligan. But the nonironic songs didn't work, so they tried a Serge Gainsbourg tune. "We could not get the rights," said Gilligan. "We won't start on that, it's a long, bitter conversation," said Golubic. But everyone loved the version of "Clear Day."

"The trick is to keep folks guessing," said Gilligan. "You could go in a direction where everything becomes ironic, and then it's just too much hot fudge in your sundae. Hot fudge is great, but only in limited amounts. You want the ratios to be correct." Whether you're cooking meth or five seasons of hit TV.

Porter described his compositions as "a palette that has grown. 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 whose shriek Porter slowed to a roar in the recording.

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"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."

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 [meth chef Walter, played by Bryan Cranston] 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 very hard to find any moment that actually needs 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 you see on TV," 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."

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Porter said that they established early on that they would show AMC executives no 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. Vince does feel like there's a correct answer in that massive wall of possibilities."

Gilligan scoffs at the idea of Golubic having bad ideas, likening Golubic to an art director who "presents you with a Rembrandt and a Picasso."

One of Golubic's favorite jobs was concocting a narcocorrido -- a popular Mexican gangster-ballad genre -- 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."