At times it seems like “Breaking Bad” creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan views creating his AMC show as its own chemistry experiment—take a few milliliters of the “parent hesitantly selling drugs to provide for family in the face of steep adversity” plot from “Weeds”; add a few beakers of “Dexter”’s skewed morality”; and, most importantly, take a cue from “The Sopranos” and make sure that the Erlenmeyer flask is filled with an absolutely towering performance by the show’s lead actor, in this case Bryan Cranston. The result is television’s most unflinching, heartbreaking and flat-out thrilling show about a terminally ill high school chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth.
Having already directed the season two premiere, Cranston (best known for his role as the father of the title character in “Malcolm in the Middle”) is back in the director’s chair for the season three premiere, airing on AMC Sunday, March 21. Shortly before the premiere, Cranston was kind enough to answer a few our questions via e-mail (and even provide a few photo captions as well). Continue scrolling down to read what a TV director really does, Cranston’s opinion on whether today’s television is superior to today’s film and the actor-director’s five-word summary of “Breaking Bad” season three.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): A third season seems tough for a television drama. Often a show’s characters and tone can be compromised as the stakes continue to rise; things tend to spin out of control a bit. Is this something you and the show’s writers and producers are cognizant of? Is it something you were aware of as you served as leadoff hitter, directing the season three premiere?
Bryan Cranston (BC): A very astute observation. While it takes some series a couple years to “find themselves,” “Breaking Bad” seemed to hit the ground running. I attribute that to Vince Gilligan and our writing staff; they’re just superb. They continue to push the boundaries while staying within plausibility—a difficult trick. I personally wasn’t cognizant of any precedent with other shows in their junior season. I just focus on my character’s experience. As for directing the first episode in seasons two and three, I was honored to be selected to do so, but I occupied the slot solely due to the logistical need to prep while not yet in production. Acting and directing is possible… acting and prepping is not.
MM: I think some people subscribe to the following misconception: “The director of a TV show doesn’t do all that much; unless it’s the pilot, the tone is already set, the characters established.” So set them straight: What sort of decisions can you make? What restrictions are there? Does it help to be the star of said show? Or is this all just an excuse to see your name a second time during the credits?
BC: Directing is too hard to just want to see your name in the credits twice. I liken it to putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle… only the picture is not on the box; it’s in your head. But it is true, you don’t direct in TV to establish your own tone or vision, that’s features. My job in TV is to fulfill the showrunner’s vision, to visually tell the story within what has already been established—a challenge in itself. My goal is to surprise my boss with a few things he/she wasn’t expecting. Still, there are many creative calls you have to make every day. As all stage actors are taught, your first responsibility is to honor the text, so too is it for me directing.
MM: What sort of director are you? A Stanley Kubrick-like dictator, a Clint Eastwood-esque minimalist, an all-out actors’ director, something else entirely?
BC: Coming from the acting world, I tend to trust my actor’s instincts. That being said, if I know they could/should have chosen a stronger interpretation, I won’t hesitate to make suggestions to get them on track. I will do anything to get the right delivery. I manipulate actors all the time. If, for instance, a dumped girlfriend isn’t showing any anger toward her ex when she bumps into him, I’ll whisper into the actress’ ear, ‘I love the seething anger that is escaping from you.’ The seed has been planted, wrapped up in a complement.
MM: How many episodes this season will you direct/have you directed? Any chance of an expanded role behind the camera for the show (to producing or writing as well)? You’ve directed film before, any chance of returning?
BC: I’m still learning how to act… so you can imagine how I feel about my directing journey. I don’t know that one ever really stops learning within an art form. It constantly changes. I am interested in writing, producing and directing a variety of projects. It just depends on what strikes me. I’m currently co-writing a tele-film I’m also set to direct, and I co-wrote a TV series idea, pitched it—and it was bought. I have also committed to some interesting acting roles in a few features. I’ve been very fortunate.
MM: From an audience perspective, television seems to have evolved pretty drastically in the last 10 years or so. With the likes of “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad,” TV has sort of become the place for storytellers to explore ideas further, take the most chances and make a better product—some would say even eclipsing film. You’ve been in television for a long time, have you noticed a difference in the medium recently? Has there been a power switch with movies?
BC: Every great show that you mention could only have been told as a TV series. To try to cram character development, multiple plotlines, etc. in a two-hour feature would be a disservice and a waste of time. I have always contended, ‘The story should dictate the medium, not the medium dictate the story.’ I think we are in another golden age of television, where audiences are more sophisticated and therefore demand more sophisticated storytelling. Gone are the “Murder, She Wrote”s, “Magnum, P.I.”s and “Airwolf”s.
MM: Your IMDb page lists a bunch of movies in your upcoming resume. Do you find it necessary to take on other roles during a long TV series run in order to keep perspective on the character? Or simply remind yourself you don’t have terminal lung cancer, cook meth, etc.?
BC: It’s all about the writing. Truly, the only power an actor has is to identify when something is well written. Only then does it have a chance to be a good project (play, movie, TV show). Conversely, if it is not well written it will not be good. I don’t fault any actor accepting an offer to work. It’s a tough business. But I have worked on TV shows and films that have set the writing bar very high… it would be foolish of me to accept a job just for a paycheck. So I continue to seek features that move me. I love to work, but I’d rather not work at all unless the writing is really good.
MM: Please, if you could, describe the third season in five words or less.
BC: A rollercoaster ride… going backwards.