Whether you know it or not, Dave Porter is messing with your mind. The award-winning composer — who began his career working as an assistant at Philip Glass’s New York City studio — has been the musical brain behind projects like Preacher, The Blacklist, and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist. But he’s best known for his ongoing collaboration with Vince Gilligan, which began more than ten years ago with Breaking Bad and has continued on through Better Call Saul and, now, El Camino.
Especially in the Breaking Bad universe, Porter’s work has served as a reminder of how music can serve as a kind of emotional narrator. It tells a viewer when it’s okay to feel at ease … and when all hell is about to break loose. After El Camino dropped on Netflix, Porter spoke with Vulture about his creative process, the benefit of time, and shortening the audience’s life span.
How was working on El Camino different from Breaking Bad?
The beauty of El Camino is that we had the wonderful blessing of time. So Vince was able to come and hang out with me in the studio, which, in over ten years of working together, he has never done because it’s just not practical in TV. So he and the other producers would hang out for a whole day once a week for a good chunk of the summer. I’d play him a few reels I’d been working on and we’d talk through things really in-depth and make sure that no stone was unturned.
The movie picks up where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse driving through that gate to what we assume is his freedom. It’s a very Breaking Bad world, adrenaline-fueled music and all. But as El Camino goes on, the music moves away from that and establishes its own identity.
That was absolutely intentional. I wanted to have that energy and drive right at the very beginning and have it be transitional. The movie is much more cerebral. It’s much more psychological. While there’s plenty of tension, it’s not so much of that fast-paced adrenaline.
El Camino is filled with flashbacks. Was there a specific difference you wanted to maintain in terms of the music being used in flashbacks versus the present day?
We were very conscious of that in terms of the use of music, We didn’t want to cross those boundaries. If there’s music in the present day, you were going to end it abruptly on the cut to the flashback to help make that delineation. There were also plenty of flashback moments that that didn’t have any music. The movie starts completely bone dry, with the riverbank scene between Jesse and Mike. But for the flashbacks, I was very purposely trying to get as close as I could to our original Breaking Bad sound. Which, by its nature, was a little spare, a little less cinematic, and a little more intimate. There were some flashbacks that were direct references to music that we used in the series.
How did you decide which moments from the original series you wanted to reference?
It’s been a few years, so first I had to go back and rewatch the series. If we’re doing a flashback scene that’s related to a scene we did in the original series, I wanted to score it very similarly. Surprisingly, there were only a few of those moments. And sometimes we decided not to connect a flashback scene musically — the [riverbank scene is] an example of one scene where we did that.
There’s another flashback that we didn’t actually see in the series, which was the welding scene where Jesse is chained up. We saw similar scenes in the series, though we didn’t see this, but we know about this contraption. So that was a scene where I was very interested in having music that would connect us to those times when, in the series, we saw Jesse under the thumb of the Nazis.
The biggest example of a callback was using a score directly lifted from the original series. It was a piece called “Almost Alaska,” which I used in season five when Jesse originally goes to [Robert Forster’s] character to disappear and then chickens out. In the film, you’ll hear a version of that music again.
What were your main goals in creating a sound for El Camino?
I knew it was a film that some people were going to see in the theaters, so there were some aspects of wanting to take our sound and evolve it into something that’s new but still relates in a generational way to what we’ve done for Breaking Bad — which is not unlike what we did when approaching Better Call Saul. We wanted to link back to a score that we used in the series and it wouldn’t feel jarring or strangely out of place. If I had scored El Camino with an orchestra and then tried to go back and shoehorn in cues from the past, it wouldn’t have blended as well.
Jesse, in many ways, was the heart of Breaking Bad, but he wasn’t the focal point. Was there a tone or feeling you incorporated to better illustrate his character in El Camino?
The only thing that was important to me was that it was different. That it was an evolution and that it was a Jesse we hadn’t seen before. The beauty of having this time with him was that I could get more nuanced with the music. I didn’t have to say what I needed to say about Jesse in 30 seconds. I had these big expanses of time. And Jesse, now more than ever, is such a complicated character.
I love that opening scene because I see similarities between Mike and Jesse, except that Mike is beyond repair, yet Jesse still has hope. That plays itself into the score, too. Yes, there’s a lot of tension, but there is still hope and optimism throughout. Which was not the case for Walter White. There was no redeeming Walter.
Has your creative process changed, if at all, since Breaking Bad began?
Interestingly, I don’t think my creative processes changed too much, but I do think that I’m a much better composer. I feel lucky to have gained experience on projects like these and to be a part of the Breaking Bad family. We really push each other. And Vince, to his credit, cultivates this in his world in a very positive way. There are no wrong answers. There’s no mistake you can make that’s problematic. Of course, we all feel enormous pressure not to screw it up, because everyone else has worked so hard and done such an amazing work.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons about things that work and things that don’t work. Experience helps in identifying when something isn’t working and identifying it quickly, rather than going down a path that isn’t going to work and then having to backtrack.
Having recently rewatched the series, were there any particular moments where you thought: I would do that much differently today?
I just attended the El Camino premiere and saw it again. Though it’s only been a few weeks since I last saw it, I saw at least three things that I would change. But honestly, if that was ever not the case, I’d be worried.
When I watch older stuff that I’ve done, it’s almost like when you hear a song on the radio that you haven’t heard in ten years. It puts my brain back to the person I was when I worked on it, and I’m not that person anymore. If I was given that scene today, there’s no chance that I would score it the same way. My score for El Camino is the way it is in part because of who I was in the summer. That’s a healthy way to look at it. And I’m very content with what it was because I know that it was honest from the person that I was when I wrote it. I’m so lucky that I get to work on projects where the music really gets to do what music does best, which is create a heightened emotion.
I won’t lie: I don’t think a show has ever stressed me out more than Breaking Bad, particularly in the lead-up to the finale, and so much of that was because of your music.
If I shortened people’s lives a little bit, I hope that it was worth it.