Six years back, Vince Gilligan created a series called Breaking Bad, a crime-drama, picturised on a humble chemistry teacher. This teacher transforms into a drug lord with the help of his former student.
The idea of a chemistry teacher who made methamphetamine to support his family was sympathetic. Until he realises how much he enjoys it because he is good at it. Slowly taking a formidable turn of adopting the persona of ‘Heisenberg.’
Set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad included many interesting characters who deserved an independent series themselves and thus it happened.
Better Call Saul, a Breaking Bad spin-off, entered the fandom in 2015 with Saul, the lawyer but basically the guy who knew the guy to get things done in the former series.
El Camino, on the other hand, was the movie which narrated Jesse Pinkman’s story, the student who abetted White in producing and selling methamphetamine. The movie is the latest edition, released in October 2019, that acts as a link to the hit series that ended in 2013.
Vince Gilligan was not the only common factor amongst the three. It had one more integral person who set the entire theme of the series straight. Music composer, Dave Porter.
Dave, needless to say, enhanced the viewers’ experience through his sound. The theme song for Breaking Bad was potent to leave the audience with a piece of intriguing and dark music that worked as a prelude to the protagonist’s degrading humanity.
Before becoming a composer on his own, Dave worked for two years as an assistant in Philip Glass’ New York City studio. Before that, he was a college student who attended Sarah Lawrence College, which is located just outside of New York in Yonkers.
Life after college was a big transition for Dave compared to when he was in school, he had the advantage of creative freedom. But after entering the world where he needed to make a living, “no one actually” let him do that. Being useful for somebody else was a huge responsibility. Hence, Dave studied hard to be a good engineer until he took a shot at making his own music.
Also, he belonged to a family which was musically inclined but not professional musicians. Growing up, he was surrounded by music which made him realise its power along with other art forms where music blended well, such as dance or musicals.
Music Plus in an exclusive interview with Dave asked as many questions we could to bring the West to the East.
Music Plus (MP): How was the news broken to you about Breaking Bad?
Dave Porter (Dave): It happened very slowly. I knew two people who were already interviewing for jobs on the show. They told me about it and thought it was something I would like and I would be good for. I was carefully feeding them with music (for free) to put into the show, they happened to like what they heard. When the time came for the interview, I was the only person they spoke to. Thankfully back then, Breaking Bad was on a smaller channel and wasn’t very popular as it is now.
MP: How long have you known Vince and rumour has it that you would drop any other work if Vince needed you. Is that true?
Dave: I met Vince when I first interviewed for Breaking Bad. I didn’t know Vince before that. I have been very fortunate to work with him in everything he has done since then.
And of course, (laughs) the rumour is very true. I mean I owe my entire career to Vince Gilligan. He put me on the map. First and foremost, I will always be known for the work we have done together. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities he has given me.
MP: Your compositions for Breaking Bad are contrary to the formal music education you received. How did you manage to pull it off?
Dave: It’s interesting actually. I grew up studying classical music as a performer. However, the electronic instruments got me interested in making my own music. The promise of fairly new technology when I was younger, made it possible to make interesting and different kinds of music as a composer. Then later in school, I learned how to incorporate my classical music in electronic with more modern techniques and blend them all together. So, for Breaking Bad I decided early on to not use any orchestra which was unusual for me but for the series seemed like the right choice. The medium was very different at the time it was on TV.
MP: How do you decide the progression of the soundtrack of a series?
Dave: So many decisions get made before me but I am lucky to be the final call to the process as a composer. I am just trying to heighten the experience that’s already been created to the greatest ability that I can. I am not sure if I always do it perfectly but I certainly try to do my best. The important tool for music is to be part of the story. By that I mean not always thinking about what’s happening right this instance but also keeping an eye on the figure story. Thus, it gives room to grow and change along with the characters as they change.
An example of that would be the Breaking Bad theme. The idea was to not sound like Walter White at the beginning of the series but to give you a picture of what he is going to be like at the end of the series. So, the theme song does not sound like the rest of the music at the beginning of the series but as you get closer to the end, the score starts to feel more and more like a poem of the theme. That’s what the forecast is for the audience.
MP: How much does teamwork matter in the process of making music?
Dave: Before every episode, we sit down and have a spotting session and that’s where the composers, music supervisors and sound effects people sit together and watch the entire episode very carefully. We talk about how every scene is going to sound. Where music can be and just as important, where music should not be used. Then we talk about what that music should be. Should it be an original score, which would be mine, or should it be a song that we should license? We talk about this creatively in terms of what the scene means and what music can do to help the audience understand the story we are telling.
MP: You’ve also worked in films like Term Life, The Disaster Artist before El Camino. What major differences do you encounter between films and TV?
Dave: Some of the processes are very similar. The process of working with directors and what role can music play in the story and talking as much as you can, having as open a conversation you can even before you start is very important, it holds true for both TV & Film.
The difference would be the availability of time. Films offer you plenty of time while Television schedules can be very brutal. We often have to turn around a new show every week which only allows a few days for every episode which is very intense. Two weeks is the longest number of days I have taken for composing for a series. Typically, four or five days, the shortest.
There is no time for relaxation while working in a movie. For example, during El Camino, I took two months to complete also because I had other work running in parallel.
MP: What kind of challenges did you encounter while working for El Camino?
Dave: Well, it’s a lot of trial and error. I work creatively by using a lot of instruments and I try to keep them all accessible to me at all times. I know the emotion and what we are trying to achieve with music in a given scene. Very often, I put a scene on the screen and walk around the room experimenting with different instruments. So, I find something interesting that seems to work and then I record it and from there build on top of that and give it good direction.
MP: Do you think soundtracks have a chance of becoming as popular as mainstream music because of streaming platforms?
Dave: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so. Soundtracks are a whole world in themselves, however, I do think that plenty of people have started listening to soundtracks more than they used to. There will always be popular music which will overshadow soundtrack music. Although, all these worlds tend to combine somewhere along the line. There is a lot of new classical music that sounds like film music. However, I feel there is a lot of inspiration drawn from Pop music.
MP: The film industry in India is very different from Hollywood. We have an album from every movie released, so there is a lot of music everywhere. How do you view the differences in industries as a composer?
Dave: Well, the difference in Bollywood and Hollywood is just Hollywood has a much broader creative sphere. There are people making musicals but it is certainly not all that we have. I think India and all around the world, there are platforms like Netflix which is committed to making local content. This opens doors for filmmakers and composers to do whatever is resonating creatively in specific countries.
I am sure there is an enormous appetite for drama, comedy and all kinds of television and film. Certainly, India supports that infrastructure, all it needs is more outlet.
Interestingly, Dave is the man not only behind Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and El Camino but he also lent his music in the popular American crime-thriller, The Blacklist. Currently, he is working on the next season of both The Blacklist and Better Call Saul.
The entire conversation took place on the night of Diwali and the telephonic conversation was interrupted by the bursting of crackers here and there. Also, by the time we neared the end of our conversation, I mentioned how interesting his job was. Dave, the nice guy that he is, burst into laughter but nonchalantly said, “It is interesting but it is still a job. I have bosses and deadlines like everyone else.”
Both laughing we logged off.
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