Spoilers below for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
For five minutes in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are together again, walking victoriously out of a hotel after a marathon meth-cooking session and then having breakfast at a diner, their infamous bullet-riddled RV parked outside.
Minutes earlier in El Camino, viewers watch as Jesse, in true Heisenberg style, kills two villains and burns down their business with their corpses inside. That’s when writer-director Vince Gilligan gives Breaking Bad viewers the gift they’ve been waiting six years to see: a reunion between the meth mentor and mentee that takes place years earlier, right in the sweet spot of the Walter-Jesse journey.
Designed to fit within the second season’s classic “4 Days Out,” which happens to be Aaron Paul’s favorite episode of the series, the flashback sequence delivers on Breaking Bad’s dark humor — “I totally graduated high school, dick!” — and pathos, as Gilligan skillfully reminds us who Walter White was before he got into the empire business. In that Breaking Bad episode, the duo gets stuck four days in the desert, cold and without food and water, because Jesse drained the RV’s battery by mistake. After science saves the day, El Camino reveals exactly what happened next: They spend the night at a hotel and have breakfast at a diner before Jesse drops off Walt, who lied to his wife about visiting his mother, at the airport.
“I just wanted people to see Walt again because there is no Breaking Bad without Walter White,” Gilligan said. “I thought that I could show them in some moment from the past that was very dramatic and exciting. But then I thought, Hell, that’s what the whole rest of this movie was about! How about we show a little quiet moment way back in the day when they weren’t at each other’s throats on such an existential level? Go back to when they annoyed each other, but basically they had respect for one another.”
To pull off the secret filming of El Camino in New Mexico last year, production staff implemented code names, shielded locations, used disguises, and made up backstories for anyone curious about why some of Breaking Bad’s familiar faces were in Albuquerque. The diner where Jesse and Walt have breakfast was populated with crew and family or friends of the crew. “I remember watching it for the first time and seeing Brian Lax, our medic since the pilot, sitting at the counter having coffee. In the booth behind him are two of our producers and one of our producer’s daughters,” Paul said. “It was so beautiful to see friends and family coming together to be part of a pretty iconic reunion.”
But keeping Paul and Bryan Cranston from being discovered together was another matter. “Going from the car to set, both of us would have to wear these ridiculous looking cloaks, like we were part of a very, very, very demented cult,” Paul said. “I also thought it drew a lot more attention to us, but obviously it worked. It was so much fun. It was so nice to zip on skins of these characters that kicked off Breaking Bad. There was some blood already on their hands, but it was a much happier time. And working alongside Bryan once again in this world was something I never thought I was going to be able to do. It was a dream.”
The flashback ends with Walt, who is coughing blood and fearing his cancer is worsening, telling Jesse he’s very lucky. “You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special,” Walt says pitifully, looking out the window. The moment, notes Paul, “is heartbreaking and very telling of who Walt is.”
“Walt has such grandiose ideas about himself as a human being,” Gilligan adds. “But at the end of the day, he’s such a pathetic character. In a way, that makes me sad for him too. This guy is so brilliant. He came close to winning a Nobel Prize. By this point in his life, he is more proud of cooking crystal meth than anything else because he’s the best in the world at it. It doesn’t matter that it’s something as terrible as crystal meth. He knows, in his heart, he’s the best in the world at it. And it’s good to be the best in the world at something. Anything.”
To film the first time Walt appears in El Camino, production rented out the top floor of a hotel so no one would accidentally spot Walt and Jesse swaggering down the hallway after cooking $1.3 million worth of meth, four days of hell in the desert, and a good night’s sleep. “We had that long walk to give the audience what they wanted, this long reveal out of nowhere,” Paul said. But after Gilligan yelled, “Cut!” Paul got an idea he pulled out of his Breaking Bad prankster playbook.
“They didn’t want to do another take, but I ran up to Bryan and I said we should do another take. I asked him, ‘What are your thoughts on coming out in your tighty-whities and just walking down the hallway as a funny joke?’” Paul said. “And Bryan, of course, said, ‘Let’s do it! That’s perfect.’”
As the tighty-whities “were flying to set in a van from a wardrobe truck,” Paul, an executive producer on the movie, tried to buy some time. “They would say we need to move on and I would say, ‘Let’s do one more.’ They would say, ‘Okay, let’s do it then,’ and then I’d have to say, ‘Wait, we’re discussing it.’ But then it was just taking way too long and we were not able to get it on film. That’s the type of stuff that we always did on the show — just funny, stupid, childish things. But in true Breaking Bad fashion, we gotta do it.”