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‘Breathe Me’: The Oral History of the Six Feet Under Finale’s Death Montage

Micro Oral Histories

On August 21, 2005, the HBO drama Six Feet Under concluded with a seven-minute montage of flash-forwards revealing how each of the remaining main characters die. The episode, “Everyone’s Waiting,” was immediately hailed as the most satisfying TV ending ever, something the show’s creator, Alan Ball, still hears all the time. “People say they love it, that it was incredibly moving, that they watched it over and over,” he tells Vulture. “All those things.” As part of our micro oral history week, Ball and the scene’s other key players look back at the finale and discuss the Sia song, the process of aging the actors, and grappling with the meaning of life and death.

Alan Ball (series creator and writer-director of “Everyone’s Waiting”): The writers convened for season five to start working on story, knowing the show was going to end. I had always had an instinct that Nate [Peter Krause] would have to die, since his whole journey was coming to terms with his own mortality. But we didn’t want to end the final episode of the series like that. Once we figured out how to have him die three episodes from the end, suddenly it all started to fall into place. Somebody said, “We should just kill everybody” — I wish I could remember which other writer it was who pitched this, because it wasn’t me — and everybody laughed. And then whoever it was said, “No, I’m serious. We should jump ahead in time and see everybody at the moment of their death.” At which point I went, “Of course.” I mean, that’s the perfect way to end this show. How else could you do it?

Michael C. Hall (David Fisher): The word was that Alan had retreated to a cabin to the North to write the final episode.

Ball: I went up to Lake Arrowhead and took a couple of my dogs with me — I sort of shut myself in. I was crying when I was writing that ending. The dogs were looking at me like, What? What did we do? What’s wrong? I was aware that I was writing something very cinematic. There’s no dialogue, it’s all about image. It had to be a montage. And we had to find precisely the right song.

Gary Calamar (music supervisor): We chose the Sia song for the fifth-season promo. Alan did tell me it might lead to what’s going to happen in the final episode, but he was very vague about it. The direction he gave was, “They’re driving to the final journey of life, for the characters and for the show.” He wanted something hopeful and wistful, but with a certain feel that they’re searching for something.

Ball: Gary brought in eight or nine songs for us to listen to.

Calamar: I think I gave him a CD. I didn’t actually sit with him. But one interesting thing is, we had Arcade Fire write a song for that promo. This was when Arcade Fire was a little more open to things like that. They wrote a song called “Cold Wind,” which we actually got a little late or it might have been in that promo.

Ball: There was another one by Iron & Wine. It wasn’t quite as poetic or as poignant as the Sia song was. I can’t remember any of the others. When I heard “Breathe Me,” I was like, “Okay, that’s it. That’s the one.”

Calamar: I had been playing it on my radio show for a while — I’m a radio DJ in Los Angeles, at KCRW. It never really became a hit, obviously, but I played it on my nighttime show often. Thomas [Golubic, the co-music-supervisor] and I went to see [Sia] play at the Hotel Café here in town, soon after the whole thing hit, and from the stage, she goes, “I understand Gary and Thomas are in the audience tonight … I’ll have to give those guys a blowjob” [laughs]. I think she knows it was her big break. I’ve been praised for it throughout my career since then, too: “Oh, that was the best use of a song on a TV show!” I jokingly say I’m going to have it playing out of my tombstone when I’m dead.

Lauren Ambrose (Claire Fisher): I cry when I hear the song. It’s Pavlovian. If it comes on when I’m at yoga or something, I’ll cry. I’m always worried people will notice and be like, Oh, is that the girl from the show? But I live in the woods in the middle of nowhere.

Hall: I just associate it with an image. I see Claire backlit by the sun, driving, right on the crest of crying. It’s that image — boom — it sweeps into me.

Ball: I wrote the scene to fit that song, with that music in mind. I didn’t, like, time out each shot to the song, because you can’t do that. But every shot was pretty specific. It’s not like we shot tons and tons of film and whittled it down to these seven minutes. We knew what we wanted those seven minutes to be.

Michael Ruscio (editor): That was a lot of the challenge. A lot of times in editing people say, “Oh, we had 400,000 feet of film” or “We had 300 shots” — and that’s a challenge. It’s also a challenge when you don’t have that much.

Ball: I knew I wanted the wheels on Claire’s Prius to start turning right at the moment the music sort of amps up, which was a reference to the gurney wheels turning in the title sequence.

Ruscio: Certain things like that were storyboarded. And there were certain things that I wanted to preserve for specific areas of the piece. I love the part at Ruth's funeral where Claire sees [her ex-boyfriend] Ted, Ted sees her, and then there’s a close-up of Claire that hits just when Sia is singing “Be my friend.” That’s really poignant.

Calamar: That part always kind of gets me. It’s the power of music. And Michael, he was a big part of making everything hit like that. He extended the song almost twice as long in the scene through editing.

Ruscio: I doubled up the intro and I was sometimes able to delay where her vocal came in. A lot of it was mathematical. In order to save certain parts of the songs to hit in the right place, there was planning for scenes that hadn’t been shot yet, because the scenes were all shot at different times. I would put in title cards like “missing scene” or “to be shot” or “Claire whatever.” I was telling Alan as it went on, “It looks like there’s this window of time that we have for this particular part of the story.” Just to keep him informed. There also did come a point where I approached Alan and suggested that nobody else fall when they die. I was sensitive about that. A lot of that was addressed in where we went to white, so you didn’t always see people fall all the way. You know, David just sort of starts to fall.

Hall: David falls out of frame, but I was actually falling all the way. They had a pad back there. Every time I fell, I laughed and Alan laughed. Because it was just so absurd. This isn’t really surprising, but I looked like my grandfather.

Jeremy Sisto (Billy Chenowith): They went all out with the aging. They did the full thing — all the different facial pieces. I’d just done a mini-series playing Julius Caesar where I was supposed to be in my fifties, and they did very little. They just put this stuff on that made it look like I had more wrinkles, and I was kind of frustrated by it, because I was like, “This is so ghetto!” And then when I did Six Feet Under I was like, “Now this is what I’m talkin’ about.”

Ball: I wish we could’ve afforded to use that old age face technology that they used in Benjamin Button, although I’m not even sure that was available at that time. I thought Michael C. Hall’s makeup was the best; he looked most realistically older.

Matthew Mungle (aging makeup and prosthetics): Michael’s work took the longest, probably three hours at his oldest. Because his face was covered with prosethetics.

Hall: The more makeup you got, the more you had to exaggerate your expression for anything to read [to the audience]. So I was really overacting in my death scene. But the makeup made it subtle.

Sisto: Getting aged like that would freak me out now because it’s like, closer. But [back] then it was kind of fun. And [the way Brenda dies] was pretty genius.

Ball: Billy just bored Brenda to death, finally.

Sisto: Yeah. I talked her to death. I’m talking to her and she just has this like, “Uh, I’ve just given up.” She’s given up trying to find her own life, I’ve beaten her down.

Ruscio: We appreciated the humor of that. At first we thought, Well, it’s all music, so we don’t really wanna have Billy in there, talking. But then we realized it’s so emblematic of their relationship and their narcissism, to hear a snippet of that.

Ball: He’s still rattling on and on, talking about Claire, which is just really kind of pathetic.

Ruscio: He’s saying, “I expected some kind of response, some kind of an emotional response … I heard from Ted … ”

Sisto: He probably died shortly after his sister died? I’m sure he couldn’t live without her; she was kind of his life force. I remember I ­had just gotten this little dog, Winston, a little King Charles spaniel. And when we were shooting the birthday scene, Alan was like, “Why don’t we make that Billy’s dog?” He thought it was a good idea because Brenda would have a baby and then of course Billy would do something similar — he’d get a dog. Winston’s still with us. He retired early, but he got his pension.

Mungle: Lauren, being the youngest, I think, was probably the most affected by the aging. I’m not saying she really freaked out. She was just amazing by it, I think. So this is what I’m gonna look like, huh?

Ambrose: I was fascinated by it. They put this glue on your face that makes your skin crinkle, like [makes a crinkling paper noise].

Mungle: We didn’t age Claire to her oldest because they knew they were going to go so old. It was a random extra — I think she was in her seventies and we had to age her to 101. We used contact lenses for that final shot of her eyes.

Ruscio: The way that you see those old eyes when Claire dies, and then back to the young eyes … it’s like, even though you know as an audience all these deaths are to come, she is still gonna go down into the valley and live the life that you’ve just seen. That’s what’s great about seeing her there at the end: The “Isn’t this gonna be great, to have this life?”

Ball: I wanted Claire to be the last one to die because Claire is the artist, Claire is the one who sees story. She sees the bigger picture. And because the series started with somebody in a car ending their life, I wanted to do somebody in a car driving off into their new life, into their new horizon.

Ruscio: You think of it as this death montage. But, in fact, there are so many life-affirming moments that are integrated into it — there’s a gay marriage, there’s David teaching his son about embalming, there’s Ruth and Bettina and the dogs, there’s a birthday party. And it all happened; it’s all real. Initially it could be like she’s wondering, What’s happening with mom? What’s happening with David? Then it migrates into what really did happen.

Ball: I wanted to say, “Life goes on. You move on. And, yes, you’ve lost your brother, you lost your mom, and it’s horrible — but there’s still a journey for you.” Once I start thinking about it and I start articulating, it sounds kind of dorky. Like, This means this and this means this, and blah blah blah.

Peter Krause (Nate Fisher): The point of the show, Alan’s point in making the show, was to help people feel more alive and make decisions in life to be more alive — because it is gonna end.

Ball: Nate was a guy who was running from his own mortality from day one.

Krause: I did an awful lot of running as Nate Fisher.

Ball: It’s tragic because he never was able to get past his own shit to sort of be fully alive. Whereas Claire could do that. The fact that she saw him in the rearview mirror — it’s in the past, it’s behind her. He’s still running. He’s in the same running outfit he wore in the pilot.

Krause: It was strange for me filming those last episodes, having closed the book on his life. I felt like a ghost.

Ambrose: I remember him saying that to me, that he felt like a ghost. I love that man, the character and the actor. [When asked about the porch scene, when Claire takes one last picture of the family, Ambrose goes silent and takes a long pause.] I’m crying [audibly sobs]. It’s still in me.

Ball: When we wrapped her last day, she started crying. You know, because she was only 23 when we started the show, so I think it was a really formative experience for her.

Ambrose: It was acting bootcamp for me. I kept the ring Claire was wearing during the picnic scene. I just thought that ring was for such a put-together, sophisticated woman, and I wanted to be like that. And Nadine [Haders, assistant costumer designer], said, “You have to have it.” I have it in my hand right now. It was by my sink; I must have taken it off the other day to do dishes.

Ball: The last actual thing that we shot was all the helicopter work — Claire on the road in the desert. We shot from a helicopter, we shot from a van with a big sort of moving crane arm mounted to the top of it. That stuff was all pretty difficult, technically.

Ambrose: I remember the helicopter. It was in the air with this walkie, telling me if I had to go faster or move to the right or whatever. I had a walkie in the car. At one point the helicopter came down next to me. There was a blade a foot away from my face. It was right there.

Sisto: When the show aired the finale, I was driving a Prius at the time — the same color of Claire’s Prius — and I remember just driving around listening to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” crying. I was like Claire for two months [laughs].

Hall: I watched the finale back in New York with Lauren and her husband. I don’t know if Lauren cried watching it. I didn’t cry. I more sighed. It was more just like a [exhales].

Sisto: I think every series should end that way. Why not? We live with these characters for so long, it always feels like a betrayal to not know where they go, what the rest of their lives are like. It’s like when a parent’s kid gets kidnapped, they say, “I just want to know what happened to them.” That’s a very dark metaphor I’m going for here [laughs]. But you just want to know what happens to your loved ones.

Hall: It was such a simultaneously shocking and obvious way to end the show. And I think that’s why it was so effective.

Ambrose: When Alan told me it was going to be the last season, he said how it was a good thing to go out on top. And I agreed. But I’ve since thought, Couldn’t we have gone a little longer? [laughs] We’ve gotten to stay this gem of a show.