Gustavo Fring’s explosive demise will forever be one of the most spectacular deaths in television history, but it’s also one of the coolest. “Face Off” aired on October 9, 2011 and served as the finale of the fourth season of the critically-acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad. However, since a fifth season wasn’t a certainty, it almost became the series finale with Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad team deciding from the start of season four that if Breaking Bad was going out, it would be going out with a bang. (And if not, they’d just have an awesome season finale, so win-win.)
The result was an episode that had critics and fans raving, particularly about the nursing home encounter between Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Hector (Mark Margolis), a breathtaking act of revenge from the moment Hector angrily begins ringing his bell to the camera’s slow reveal of a fatally injured Gus that is notable for a level of graphic detail that is both upsetting and remarkable. How they managed to pull off that unforgettable moment and achieve that look is, in and of itself, pretty remarkable as well.
Jumping In Throat First
To execute the scene (and Walter White’s deadliest rival), Breaking Bad producers called on Walking Dead special makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero and his KNB EFX Group to work his unmistakable magic. As Nicotero tells us, Breaking Bad executive producer and Emmy-winning director Michelle MacLaren called him before production began on the first episode of Breaking Bad’s fourth season to ask if he’d be interested in working on some “gags” they were planning. Nicotero and MacLaren previously worked together on The Walking Dead, so she was familiar with his gruesome talents. Nicotero, on the other hand, wasn’t really familiar with what they were brewing up on Breaking Bad.
“I hadn’t watched the show up to that point because I had been kind of deep into a couple other projects and I had been out of the country for a while,” he explains. “They called and go, ‘We have this gag, this character’s going to get his throat cut,’ but they wouldn’t tell me anything about it, they were very, very secretive. I kind of jokingly said, ‘Guys, just to be very honest, I haven’t seen the show yet, so your secret is safe with me.’”
The character in question was Victor, played by Jeremiah Bitsui, and Gus did the throat-slicing with a box cutter in the aptly-titled “Box Cutter,” the first episode of the fourth season. Nicotero and his team played around with some different blood spray techniques before settling on the grotesque final product, and from that point forward, he says, they became the “Breaking Bad go-to prosthetic for the rest of the series.”
The Long Build-Up To Blowing Gus Fring Apart
And so the biggest project was soon underway. Getting Gus Fring’s death just right would take a lot of time, and the process began with Gilligan explaining his vision for Gus’s exploded head so that Nicotero could create his initial concept art. The good thing about working with Gilligan, Nicotero recalls, is that he knows exactly what he wants and he’s excellent at communicating just how gory an exploded head should be.
“He’s a very, very creative guy,” Nicotero says of Gilligan. “When you work with guys like Vince, you want to fine tune the creative process as best you can. So, we’ll take concepts he pitches over the phone or he’ll describe something to me and then we’ll do several pieces of concept art. And the thing I like about Vince is I would send him concept art of what Gus’s blown-off face would look like, and he would print it out and he would circle little specific areas. ‘Make this a little bit deeper. Let’s remove the eye and make the eye socket not have a burnt eye in there, but remove the eye completely.’ He was very, very specific and gave fantastic direction in terms of what he wanted. And that made it much easier to get us where we needed to go with this because he was very clear with what he wanted.”
Nicotero knew how to pull off Gus’s particular look, but Esposito’s transformation required more than just a prosthetic. Making Gus look like Batman’s Two-Face required Nicotero to fine-tune the look through digital effects, using Gilligan’s notes.
The good news for Nicotero was that Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead didn’t overlap too much in terms of production schedules, so it wasn’t like he was working days for a meth dealer and nights for the undead. In all, it took him approximately three weeks to create the perfect look for Gus’ death.
“It takes time because you gotta get the actors in, you gotta do the life casting, then you gotta do the sculptures,” he says. “Once the sculptures are completed and approved and molded, then you bring the actor back in and you do test makeups. You get those test makeups in front of Vince for approval. So, all the different stuff that we’ve done — even all of Aaron Paul’s makeups when he got beaten up in the last season — those were all makeups that we had to do concept art and design and sculpt and test and mold. Generally speaking, it’s about three weeks to turn something like that around.”
The makeup and digital teams, including visual effects supervisor Bill Powloski and his crew, worked hand-in-hand to assure that the process was flawless. Once it was determined which effects needed to be done through makeup and which needed to be done digitally, Nicotero would make his own notes and pass them along, instructing the makeup team to remove elements that would be transferred to digital and vice versa.
“This explosion was a marriage of many different areas of expertise, both in physical special effects and makeup and in digital effects,” Gilligan says in the season four DVD and Blu-ray commentary, which reveals additional aspects of the digital conversion process. “Just the sheer work that goes into this is astounding.”
Likewise, Nicotero tells us that Gilligan’s decision to make the big reveal one sweeping camera motion was also “astounding,” and the finished product is certainly a scene that leaves viewers speechless, even five years later. As Gilligan told the New York Times after the episode aired, the entire process took several months, from the decision to kill Gus to the 19 takes it took for the director to get the big reveal just the way he wanted it:
“That one shot where the explosion happens, and then you dolly in on Gus, is actually two shots: the explosion happened in one take, and then the shot revealing Gus – it took me 19 takes to get it right. But we did use Take 19. That was no fault of the actors. That was me being a little persnickety as a director. The big, bravura part of the effect is obviously Gus’s face, what’s left of it, but to me it’s just as amazing how the visual effects guys married the two shots together so that there’s literally no seam between. There’s smoke, but you don’t see the cut in between. It’s just amazing what they’re capable of doing these days.”
Gory And Stunning — The Legacy Of Gus Fring’s Explosive Death
Where Victor’s death was crude and almost hard to watch because of the way Bitsui struggled in Esposito’s arms as blood sprayed everywhere, Gus’ death was artistic and that vision of him straightening his tie, while gory, was stunning. And that, Nicotero says, is what makes the effort for his craft and art so fulfilling.
“I was very proud and very pleased,” Nicotero says of watching the completed scene. “The trick is, any special effects makeup gag that you do, the audience has to be invested. Vince and the writers and his team did such a good job of building up to this particular moment. You always go, can this guy who is so despicable, can anything really match the level that needs to happen for us to feel like they’ve been vindicated? It’s not just about the prosthetic and the visual effects and the makeup. It’s really about building up to that moment so that the audience feels the satisfaction that this bad guy has gotten exactly what was coming to him. It’s always very important because it’s going to always be about how people react to it. It’s not just a special effect. It’s how they’re invested emotionally.”
The moment obviously has significant emotional value for Esposito, as he says in the season four commentary, “I could have never imagined such a fantastic death. But then again I never imagined all the artisans that came together to make it work for television. It’s made history now. How amazing to be able to capture that moment and have it live on forever.”
Not surprisingly, the show’s creator and stars were also heavily invested in the scene. On February 23, 2012, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hosted “An Evening with Breaking Bad,” at which Gilligan and the stars of Breaking Bad, including Esposito, discussed and celebrated everything from what they love about the series and their characters to how they feel about each other. As part of that celebration, Gilligan asked Nicotero to bring one of the heads he made for Gus to the event so they could have it on stage with them, and after that night, Nicotero says, he was contacted by Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, and Esposito, asking if they could have a Gus head to keep as a memento of the show. Nicotero obliged, and all four of them got their own exploded Gus head replicas.
The original prosthetic, interestingly, has appeared in The Walking Dead “several times.” Nicotero admits that at one point he even wanted to have a Gus walk-on, but the other creative minds decided that it might be too silly.
That Nicotero hadn’t watched Breaking Bad prior to working on season four begs the question: What about spoilers? He missed a lot of great television by jumping throat-first into “Box Cutter,” but having worked on so many TV shows and movies, he simply refers to that as the “nature of the beast.” At one point during the production of the fifth season, after he started watching Breaking Bad from the beginning, Nicotero asked Gilligan to hold back any information that might spoil the series finale for him. But the effects guru learned early in his career that there’s a better way to enjoy knowing how something turns out. He worked as a special effects artist on the 1990 thriller Misery, which starred Kathy Bates as the ultimate die-hard fan. It was that experience that helped him learn how to enjoy knowing what happens before anyone else.
“There’s a scene where Kathy Bates breaks James Caan’s leg with a sledgehammer, we built the fake legs,” he recalls. “I took a friend of mine to the screening who had no idea what was going to happen. It was almost as exciting watching her reaction than it was watching what was happening on screen because that’s really what it’s about.”