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Interview: Inside The 'Breaking Bad' Writers Room With Writer/Producer George Mastras

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage August 13, 2013 at 3:03PM

On Sunday, "Breaking Bad" returned for the first of its final 8 episodes. Anticipation for the premiere was at an all-time high, reviews were ecstatic (read ours here) and ratings were 5 times higher than when the series first debuted back in 2008. To celebrate the final curtain closing on this highly acclaimed series, the cast and crew have been taking a well deserved victory lap — a 90 minute Times Talks event, LACMA Live Read and Q&As at FilmLinc are just the tip of the iceberg — but before Heisenberg cooks up his last batch, we sat down with writer/producer George Mastras who was one of the first writers brought onboard by creator Vince Gilligan back in Season 1. In this age of showrunner-as-auteur, Gilligan is one of the few to loudly refute this view, crediting his team of writers (which includes Mastras, Peter Gould, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, Gennifer Hutchison and Tom Schnauz), as well as the cast and crew for making the show the success that it is.
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So how did you come to direct that episode? Just from a production standpoint, that seems like a huge episode considering it was your first-time directing for the show.
I was slated to write that one and I just feel lucky that I got to direct it. We knew the story needed to be about Walt resolving this methylamine problem which we had established early on in Season 5. So we pitched it around and we talked about trucks and at one point somebody suggested that we do a train heist. There's been a lot of talk about "Breaking Bad" being a modern western which is always really exciting for us, so we pitched it. The writers all got excited about it but I think in the back of my mind thought that it probably wasn't going to happen because it's just this huge, huge thing to take on. But to our producers credit, they found this area outside of Santa Fe that had been used in "Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid" that had this whole western mystique to it and then we got the greenlight.

Normally we shoot 7-8 days and this was 10 1/2 days so it was just really exciting for us all, the production and the crew. It's always remembered as the train heist episode but I always looked at it as being about the dissolution of the partnership, this event that was going to break them up, which was the death of the kid. It had already been set up earlier in the episode that no one can die. I think if we were just doing a pure western, we would've just let the audience enjoy the heist [laughs] but this is "Breaking Bad." And so I wanted to make this a "Breaking Bad" train heist and the important things to me were not to make it about the train heist but to make it about the consequences of the train heist and what these guys were doing.

We're not a western, we're a post-modern western so there are consequences and we have to challenge the audience. Why are you rooting for these people? Who are you rooting for? You're rooting for criminals. And these guys are all responsible for the murder of this young, innocent kid that we had forgotten about. Just like in the show, we forget what these guys are doing, we're so caught up in Walter White's world that we at "Breaking Bad" like to remind people of that. The show, if it's about anything it's about morality and the consequences of decisions.

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It's great to go immediately from the moment of elation that they've pulled it off and you can't believe it and then the consequences come through.
The train heist is great fun and everything but it's there to pull the wool over the audiences eyes about what this episode is really about, which is the next step into the abyss. But then the logistics of the train heist have to be "Breaking Bad," so it's not guys running around with guns intimidating people. They essentially rob the train with science, which I hope it's every bit as thrilling as a violent armed robbery would be.

It feels like if something like this had occurred earlier in the series when the characters were more innocent that they could've pulled it off but at this point in the series it's almost a fake-out that delivers the audience what they're looking for before you take that victory away and remind them that these are no longer small stakes that they're dealing with.
I have to say that I don't think of it as a fake out because a) the very first scene, we're introducing this kid so you know he has something to do with it. And then b) the entire premise is about how can we rob this without anyone knowing it got robbed, where we can't kill the witnesses. There's a lot of talk in that interrogation scene with Lydia about children, like the one thing that keeps these people honest is that they have children and that's important to them. That's the whole reason that Walt went into this [meth business].

So it's just that the audience forgets about the kid because they get caught up in the thrilling aspects of the train heist but it's not a fake out at all. Which is what makes it beautiful. If we had never seen this kid and then he shows up and they shoot him, then I would have felt like this episode was about that. But this episode was really about calling the audience out to say, "You know that you're rooting for criminals." It's really a fantasy fulfillment and then bringing that to light and saying, "Well, wait a minute," and challenge the audience to think about what they're rooting for here.

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Between Vince, the script and DP Michael Slovis, it seems like there is a big support system in place but all the directors on the show all bring something different. How much freedom do directors on the show have?
You have quite a bit of freedom. There's a look to the show so you can't come in and shoot everything in extreme close-ups and everything but otherwise it's your show. How the scenes are shot, how you stage those scenes, where you want the actors, that's your prerogative. You'll work with the actors through the rehearsals and then the shots, camera angles, all that stuff is the director's prerogative. And you have that big support system so you can ask, "What about this? What about this?," as any director on any set would. But people want you to get in there and do your thing. This is the kind of stuff I like to write so it was nice to be able to direct. As I write I can also visualize it and know that if I had this location, I could write for the location.

For instance, on "Dead Freight" when I got out to the location and I saw the trestle bridge, I knew that's where we would do the heist. I conceived of the opening shot of the train coming right at the camera when I was out there. How are we going to reveal the guys? I wanted to have the train moving right at the camera and I wanted to have a crane and be able to move down the trestle bridge and see these guys down there hanging with their hoses like soldiers in World War I with their rifles. Things like Todd jumping off the roof is something that I came up with while I was out there. When the train starts to move but I wanted the whole thing to go over Jesse but Todd should be up there too. That's really the fun of directing.  

The episode also had a great act and a half in the basement. Picking out that location with the textures on that ceiling, talking with DP Michael Slovis and talking with the gaffers, how do we light this so that you almost feel like it's a third world dungeon down in that basement. And little things like the metal working table that Lydia is handcuffed to, I wanted to be able to shoot up through this table if possible, so the art department proposed these tables. It's really just working with people and them imparting you with options. That's really what directing is all about.

Stay tuned later this week for Part Two where we discuss the devil in the details, writing themselves into a corner the and the pressure to deliver on the final episodes.

This article is related to: Interviews, Breaking Bad, TV Features, Interviews, George Mastras


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