Breaking Down the Score with ‘Breaking Bad’ Composer, Dave Porter

By  · Published on June 27th, 2012

Breaking Bad has not only pushed boundaries through it’s no holds barred story lines and the stunning performances of its cast (most notably Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul), but it has also created a soundscape that has helped to shape the chaotic world of Walt (Cranston) and Jesse (Paul.) Unlike most shows where the score is full of rich instruments and emotion, Breaking Bad stands apart with a score that is certainly based in classic instrumentation, but infuses it with found sounds, design elements, and unexpected instruments to give it’s score an almost otherworldly feel.

With the show set to return to our television screens this coming Sunday (July 15th) for it’s fifth season, I spoke with the show’s composer, Dave Porter, about how he has created Breaking Bad’s distinct sound over the past four seasons and where he sees things going from here.

How did you get involved with Breaking Bad? Was there anything specific you did to prepare for taking on a project like this?

Two friends of mine that I had worked with previously, music supervisor Thomas Golubic and music editor Tom Villano, both called me independently within a few hours of each other and said, “I’m hoping to get hired on a new pilot called Breaking Bad that you simply have to see – you will love it!” I went over to Thomas’ house that very evening and was blown away by what I saw. Even unfinished, it felt much more like a feature film than a television pilot. I pursued it relentlessly until I was hired as the composer.

There wasn’t anything specific that I did to prepare myself when I started, but I knew that the score would be different from anything I had done before. Breaking Bad has required me to draw on everything I’ve ever learned about making music, and is always challenging me to discover something new.

Breaking Bad toes that line between drama and the seemingly intangible head-space of a drug trip, and it is your score that helps fill out those moments. You have mentioned that you incorporate found items and sound design into your scores (particularly if a character on screen is having a drug induced trip) – how do you come up with these odd and unexpected sounds? Do you create these sounds as needed or do you have a “library” (for lack of a better term) of sounds you compile as you find them or have the opportunity to record something interesting?

A little of both. The production schedule for scoring a television show is brutally short, so between seasons I am always collecting little bits here and there that fall within my Breaking Bad palette. These little morsels get filed away so that they are quickly available to me when I am working on the show. When I’m composing a new episode, though, I’m always still experimenting, recording, and mangling to create new sounds.

Your score certainly makes up the emotional undertone of the show, but there is also a combination of placed music – do you collaborate with Golubic (the show’s music supervisor) to decide where your score will go or are those decisions you usually make with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan?

Thomas Golubic and I have a spotting meeting with Vince Gilligan and others before we start work on the music for an episode. During that meeting we watch the entire episode and discuss every scene. We analyze where we think music should be used and, just as importantly, where it shouldn’t be used. Then for each scene that will have music we decide what kind of music it should be (score or licensed) and what it should accomplish in service of the story.

We are all involved in this discussion, with Vince being the final decision maker. Once that direction has been decided the source music is Thomas’ domain and the score is mine. Occasionally when we are uncertain, we both cover a scene and Vince decides which works best.

The theme you created for the show has a very distinct sound – was that piece what you used as a jumping off point for how you approached scoring the first season?

Yes and no. I suppose it did provide some directional clues in terms of blending instruments that might not initially seem to work together and the incorporation of found sounds and vintage synthesizers. But actually when I wrote the theme I created it as a tease for where the story was ultimately headed, not where it begins. Vince Gilligan has always said that Breaking Bad is the story of Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, and the brashness and bold tone of the theme are a glimpse of a Walter White that is coming… but still a long way off when we are introduced to him in the first season.

Since the score plays to the internal emotions of each character and Breaking Bad is full of such complex characters – who’s head do you like getting into the most?

I love all the characters, and they’ve all developed and become very complex, but I will confess that I’m going to miss Gus. I’ve had a terrific time the past few seasons creating music to accompany him and his tension-filled standoffs with Walt and Jesse.

How has your score changed and/or evolved over the past four seasons?

The score for the show has definitely evolved right along with the storylines. As everyone has sunk deeper and the consequences of their actions become more severe, the score has gotten darker, grittier, and weightier. And while we are always very selective in how often we use music, as the story has intensified we’ve used more score in each successive season.

What can we expect from the score for the upcoming season? Even darker moments, lighter moments, even more unusual sonic choices and combinations?

Without saying too much, I think that it is a safe assumption that as we near the end of Breaking Bad we may see the extreme highs and lows of the major characters – both for good and for bad – and the score will be there to reflect that to the very end.

You can learn even more about Porter and his work by visiting his website.

Breaking Bad airs on Sundays at 10pm on AMC.

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