Interview: ‘Breaking Bad’ composer Dave Porter talks Vince Gilligan and final season

POZNAN, POLAND: When “Breaking Bad” returns Sunday (11) for its final eight episodes, composer Dave Porter”s haunting theme will usher fans into Walter White”s life for one last go-round. Porter was here in Poland to teach a master class at Jan Kaczmarek”s Transatlantyk Festival, but will be back in Los Angeles in time to have a few friends over to watch along with the rest of us on Sunday night.

Up next for Porter will be a new series, which he can”t announce yet, but having only finished scoring “Breaking Bad” two weeks ago, right now Porter is looking forward to some down time. “August is going to be me and my two-year old playing in the backyard,” he says. “I have to see him and get some sleep.”

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HitFix discussed with Porter what it”s been like to score one of the most acclaimed television series ever, working with show creator Vince Gilligan, and his favorite episodes.

We ended the interview with Porter naming the five scores from television series that he most admired.

How hard was it to write the “Breaking Bad” theme based only on the pilot?

That”s definitely one of the hardest things to do as a composer. You have to try to encapsulate everything you know about that show in a very short period of time. You”ve seen very little over it. I talked to Vince Gilligan at length about it to gauge as much as he knew about where the story was going. In the end, I decided that I wanted the “Breaking Bad” theme to represent not where Walter is at the beginning, but where Walt is ultimately going to be at the end.

Who was your favorite character to write for?

Without dodging the question, I would say my favorite music to write was the interplay between Gus and Walt in Season Four. The two of them were fantastic together. It was just such a special rivalry and brought out the peaks of the show for me personally. It was most fun musically.

Did it get easier to write for the characters as the seasons evolved since you got to know them better?

A little bit, although, in truth the whole basis of “Breaking Bad” is it”s evolving over time. The characters are evolving over time in a quite serious fashion, so, for example, not that I have anything against re-using music, but I have never done it on “Breaking Bad” except for a few themes I bring back on occasion. The characters and the situations change so much. When I try to put in a piece from a previous season or previous episode even, they don”t even work.

Did you like writing for Good Walter or Bad Walter better? He wasn”t good for very long.

No, he wasn”t, but there was a wonderful innocence to him and I do love that about the first seasons. Obviously that goes away, but I did love writing Walt”s early steps downwards.

How much has Vince guided you throughout the process?

He”s certainly guided me every step of the way in terms of my role in supporting his story. We don”t talk about music specifics in terms of notes or measures or bars, but we do talk about what the music should be, how the music should be serving the story. We certainly talk a lot about not using music, which is equally important to me and to Vince. As long as I”m meeting my goals for him, I don”t think he cares, necessarily,  musically how it gets there. That”s my job.

What was your favorite episode?

I would have to say, one of my favorite episodes, you probably haven”t seen yet.  I love the episode “Grilled” in Season Two, in the desert. There was some great music there and some great interplay between music and sound design usage, the bouncing car after it gets shot, and the uncle”s dinging bell. That was a lot of fun.

What was your hardest episode to score?

Toughest challenge was the train heist cue in the episode, “Dead Freight,”  (Season Five), just in that it was very unusual for “Breaking Bad.” We don”t, in general, do a big action sequence that goes on for a long time and this was a 13-minute cue. I usually don”t have that much music in an entire episode. To do it with the palette of instruments that I have defined as the sound of “Breaking Bad” was tough because I never had doing a big action sequence in mind. I didn”t expect that to come up. The  beauty of “Breaking Bad” is that nothing is off the table. It was a ton of fun.

What is your palette of instruments?
From the very beginning I ruled out classical western orchestral instruments. I”ve occasionally used them, but when I do, I”m processing them in some way to make them sound very different, so that leaves me essentially with a palette of sounds that are electronic, ethnic, and also sound design-so found sounds, sounds that I”ve made, sounds that appear in the show sometimes. I borrow from that all the time. My role is keeping everything a little off kilter in the show and certainly when it comes to moments of tension being able to use that palette rather than a classical western gives me a broader range and more power.

Are you going to miss it?

Oh yes! I”m tired, sort of brain tired from working these last few weeks especially. It”s  very mixed feelings. I”m going to miss the people more than anything else. This was the core of everything I was doing professionally for six years and very few people who were on “Breaking Bad” ever left  so it”s been like a family. They became friends. It will remain that way but I”ll never work with all of them in the same room again, so that”s sad. But on the other hand, musically and creatively, I”m definitely itching for something different and something new. I love and stand by all the choices that I made musically for “Breaking Bad,” but I”ve been doing it for six years, for 62 episodes.

Can you tell me anything about the ending? A little hint? 

No. I will say that from a musical standpoint, it was great. Vince set an end for himself so he could know how to write to the end and that”s wonderful. For me, the same thing applies, I knew it was the final season, not to leave anything on the table, just put it all out there and bring some of the themes and concepts to their natural conclusion.


“Twilight Zone” (Bernard Herrmann and others):
“He only scored a handful. The theme is him. It”s very Bernard Herrman. I think he did eight or nine episodes. Fantastic. It”s has this incredible, as most of his music does, atmospheric quality all built out of strings and harp. It”s so gorgeous and simply creepy.”

“Miami Vice” (Jan Hammer):
“I”m actually not a big fan of the theme, never particularly was, but the score was hugely influential for me. First of all, it was largely, if not entirely, synthesized and just had this darkness to it that at the time wasn”t on TV. It was fearlessly electronic in that way, but very brooding and dark, and, of course, very ’80s. Some of it was really very, very simple, the score was in particular, but super effective.”

“Twin Peaks” (Angelo Badalamenti): “I love the show as a whole and the music especially. I grew up on it. It was hugely influential to me musically. That ability to be dark but quirky at the same time is not easy to pull off and he does it perfectly in that show all the time. And also one of the hallmarks of that show and David Lynch”s stuff in general that I”ve always admired and tried to bring to my work is that blend and blurring the line between music and sound design, the sounds that appear in the show are also very interwoven into the score. The theme is terrific.”

“Pushing Daisies” (Jim Dooley):  “Full confession: he”s a friend. That show was so inventive and bold and the music was what helped put you in that space every time. A colossal job he did on that. The score was grounding almost. It was whimsical, but it was by no means over the top. It was at times understated.”

“Band Of Brothers” (Michael Kamen):
“Just a masterpiece. It”s a little unfair in that it had essentially a feature-film budget and you have to keep that in mind. What a haunting theme to it and the music and all the action sequences. Like the show itself, it really managed to capture that golden generation feeling without feeling dated. It felt like a very modern score to me when I listen to it now, but it definitely also connects you to that time. It”s quite an accomplishment.”