June 23, 2018

Interview: "Breaking Bad" Composer Dave Porter


Composer Dave Porter shares his thoughts on the upcoming final season of “Breaking Bad.”

Interview:  "Breaking Bad" Composer Dave Porter

Finding inspiration isn’t a problem for Dave Porter. “Breaking Bad” has been one of the most acclaimed TV series in the past decade, mentioned in the same category as “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” and “Mad Men.”

So how do you score the decline of a man who’s okay with losing his humanity? Very carefully.

Porter was able take a break from composing the final season of “Breaking Bad” to talk with the Topanga Messenger.

Topanga Messenger:
We’ve seen a certain progression from Walter White over the past few years. As he’s a fictional character, you’ve composed that progression. How do you feel you’ve grown as a composer in that time frame?

Dave Porter: There is no question that I’m a better composer now than I was five years ago when I started working on the pilot episode. A huge part of that is just having had the opportunity to collaborate over that time with Vince Gilligan and all of the incredibly talented people who work on the show. Musically speaking, the most important skill I’ve worked hard on is the ability to shift between very subtle nuances in a way that is felt more than obviously noticed. Despite the occasional big bang, “Breaking Bad” is much more about those delicate psychological battles that are more difficult to score.

TM: The series is wrapping up, obviously. What is your favorite scene that you’ve composed for “Breaking Bad?”

DP:I’m not sure that I could choose just one! Here are a few off the top of my head: Walt flicking matches into the pool in the pilot episode; Jane’s unfortunate demise; Tuco’s assassin cousins’ first appearance in the Season 3 premiere; Walt’s emotional collapse in the crawlspace of his home in Season 4; and his standoff with Gus on the rooftop of the garage in last season’s penultimate episode.

TM: Okay, onto new business. We’ve seen Walter in this downward spiral for five years. What’s the balance between creating new work for the season versus a series-long theme?

DP: I’ve always approached scoring “Breaking Bad” predominantly in the moment with an occasional eye towards where the series is going in the long term. Certainly, the music has gotten darker and more intense as Walt has descended deeper and deeper, but there has also been a lot of ebb and flow. I have never reused a piece of music over the course of the show… the dynamics and nuances are always too fluid to make that practical. In addition to Walt’s series‐long spiral, each season also has its arcs, so there is always plenty to inspire me.

TM: When composing is your thought process focused more on the particular episode or a season (or even series) motif?

DP: I’ve always been wary of getting tied down to obvious musical themes or repeated motifs because, over the course of many seasons, that can easily become very tiresome and obvious. Instead, I make distinctions though the use of different palettes of instruments. For example, Jesse’s quieter moments often feature processed guitar. For Walt, I often employ a range of traditional Asian instruments. And I used an array of Aztec-inspired Mexican drums and percussion for the Cartel assassins in Season 3. We avoid using score as a tool to look ahead towards future plot points, with the exception of the show’s opening theme. The “Breaking Bad” theme was always designed as a tease of what Walt was destined to become towards the end of the series — far from the man he is in the pilot when we first hear it.

TM: John Lennon said, “I’m a musician, give me a tuba and I’ll get you something out of it.” How much does the show’s concepts play into your compositions?

DP: Well, John Lennon had more musical knowledge than I could ever hope to attain, but I appreciate what he meant. In terms of “Breaking Bad” one of the things that I strive to accomplish is to have the musical score grow seamlessly out of the naturally occurring sounds. To that end, I’ve incorporated everything from ticking clocks to desert insects and hospital respirators into my music. These “found” sounds are generally processed and “performed” in a way that makes them part of the score, but also blend in so that, hopefully, they add a level of quiet and subtle tension. I have yet to incorporate a tuba, though!

TM:There is so much going on in “Breaking Bad.” As a composer, what are the obstacles that you face to enhance a scene?

DP: The toughest obstacle creating music for “Breaking Bad” is enhancing what are already powerful performances and dynamic scripts without commenting more than you should. I’m always mindful of avoiding anything that is overly telling or in any way pushing the audience to feel a particular way, other than tense and on the edge of their seat! The reason for this is simple: there are no heroes or villains on “Breaking Bad” and each person who watches it has their own reaction to what happens.

For example, there are those who feel Walt became a horrible person early in Season 1. There are also those who will defend his actions to the bitter end. I would never want to discourage either view by overly influencing the storytelling in a particular direction.

TM:What do you listen to for inspiration and what are you listening now?

DP: To be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of other music while I’m working on a job. My ears get bombarded all day long as it is! But I always fall back on the classical music that I grew up listening to and playing. Lately, I’ve had Alexander Scriabin’s piano works in heavy rotation, which I adore. In terms of current music I’ve been enjoying the new Silversun Pickups record. I have a 16-month-old son, so factor in an enormous amount of overly bubbly children’s music, too!

TM: So … what’s next?

DP: Well, most importantly, our fifth and final season of “Breaking Bad,” which I started working on last month. Beyond that, I’ve got a few film projects in the works and I’ve just started working with producer Jack Bender on a pilot for a new Syfy series called “Rewind.”

The final season of “Breaking Bad” premieres on AMC July 15 at 10 p.m.