کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 54

زندگی در چند بخش

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I meet Mike, my onetime business partner, with the intention of getting the names of the informants he’s been paying off in jail. I need that list. Those guys are a threat to my enterprise. They have to be dealt with.

Instead of giving up the list, Mike is smug. He badgers me and tries to diminish me as a man. He tells me that my pride and ego have blown up the entire operation. He says everything would have remained good had I not tried to take over control. He says, “You didn’t know your place!” He turns to leave.

My place?

The old me would have fumed inwardly and walked away, my pride and dignity shattered. But I’ve changed. I’ve become an impulsive, dangerous man. I’m Heisenberg, Walt’s dark alter ego. His id. Heisenberg takes care of repugnant assholes like Mike.

So many people have asked me: How did you get there? How could you be so evil? Jonathan Banks, who played Mike, was so terrific that, in a way, it was easy for me; I had a solid actor to react to. His belligerence lit the flame. I also called on the time I’d been murderous. I conjured the rage and fear I’d felt when Ava was banging on my door. I didn’t commit murder, but I believe I was close. It had been decades since then, but it was easy to summon the feeling. When it was time for Walt to kill Mike, I turned that old key.

After he insults me, Mike walks toward his car. I seem rooted to the spot. But then, suddenly, I’m walking. I haven’t willed my legs to move; they’re at the mercy of some automatic force. I’m standing at the driver’s window, staring at Mike’s face. Time comes to a stop. I fire. Done.

Mike’s car rolls forward and slams into a boulder. Mike manages to get out and limp into the bushes. I follow a trail of blood toward the river and find him sitting there, on the banks of the Rio Grande, gazing blankly into the distance. He’s still clutching his gun.

As we were rehearsing the scene, Tom, the writer and director of the episode, said that he felt I didn’t need to keep my gun trained on Mike. But that didn’t make sense to me. I said, “Mike’s a known killer. He could raise his weapon at any time and shoot me.”

Tom disagreed. He thought Walt would recognize that Mike was resigned. Mike knew he was dying, so he didn’t pose a threat anymore. That argument went against my instincts, so I kept the gun on Mike until I removed his weapon from his hand.

We were working on location, with natural light. We didn’t have a lot of time to argue about the script’s fine points. When the sun went down, our day would be over. I knew that. But I couldn’t help raising another issue. After Walt takes Mike’s gun away, the script called for Walt to say, I just realized that Lydia has the names. I can get them from her.

“Why do I say that?” I asked.

“It’s a shift of audience allegiance away from Walt,” Tom said. I knew he was getting irritated with me, and he wasn’t wrong. I was taking up time, the one commodity we couldn’t replace.

“But you’re going to get a shift of the audience’s allegiance anyway because I just shot a very popular character. That’s enough to sway them away from me.” After Walt shoots Mike, he knows he fucked up. Saying he could have gotten the names from Lydia just makes him look like a huge asshole.

I understood they wanted not only to turn the allegiance away from Walt but onto Jesse. When we were together, partners, it was easy for the audience to root for us as a unit. As the rift grew between us, the allegiance was split. By the end of the series, the intent was to sway the audience from Walt to his former student.

But having Walt say to no one in particular, “You know what I just realized, I didn’t need the names,” that went against the sophistication of the show, the nuance of the character. Instead of savoring another emotionally taut and complex situation, you were left thinking: what a jerk. That’s not where I felt the character should go. That’s not where the writers wanted the character to go, in my opinion. I was afraid the audience would scoff, blanche, cringe. Much better to have Walt realize he let his impulses get the better of him, look with horror at Mike, who has collapsed, dead. Oh my God. What am I going to do? You’d still have the audience hating Walt’s actions, but they’d be ambivalent about the man himself, on the razor’s edge. The guy gives into his impulses, his ego. It’s horrible, but it’s human.

The muddy water of the Rio Grande trickled by. We were losing daylight. Jonathan Banks was getting upset. This was his final scene. He was going to die in this scene. And he was not going to have the time to do it properly. It wasn’t fair to him. And it was my fault. I should have brought the issue up earlier. I wish I had. But it just didn’t hit me until that moment. I felt I had to bring it up.

Feeling the pressure, I offered a compromise—I’d say the line, but as a function of Walt’s anxiety. I still felt uncomfortable saying it even after I made that adjustment. So I wanted another take where I expressed my anxiety by pacing like a caged panther. Tom agreed. We shot the scene, and then I let it go. No hard feelings.

• • •

When the episode finally aired, I watched with Robin. We normally watched Breaking Bad together—though we mostly watched in daylight. She couldn’t stand to see the show before bed. Nightmares.

I’d told Robin nothing of this dispute. I wanted to see how she would react without leading the witness. I trust her instincts. I respect her opinions. And I had a feeling I knew what was coming but I didn’t know for sure. I still thought: Maybe their way is the stronger choice. But when the scene came up, when I said the line I hated, Robin scoffed derisively, as I worried she would. She turned her gaze from the TV to me, rolled her eyes, and pshawed. “What an asshole.” Not an asshole for killing Mike, no. An asshole for not caring that he’d killed Mike.

It pained me.

But it’s such a subjective business. Tom may have watched that episode and thought the beat was perfect. In the collaborative process, sometimes there are differences. Sometimes there are battles. Sometimes you lose.

• • •

In all the hours making Breaking Bad, I got upset only a handful of times. I think any family would wish for so few arguments. The quality of the writing on the show was so superb, we didn’t have to fight. We knew from day one we were all working together to build something of deep quality. So when we did fight, the arguments were always about the integrity of the show and its characters. It was never about early call times or trailer size. It was: “Is this working? Can we do better?”

Difficult. Sometimes actors get that label if they raise a question. As a producer, when I hear someone is difficult, I ask: Difficult how? I worked with Oscar-winning actor Cloris Leachman on Malcolm in the Middle. She played the not-so-lovable Grandma Ida—and won an Emmy for her performance. Before I worked with her, I heard rumors that she was difficult. In reality, she was like a bumblebee, vibrating with ideas. She was fun and theatrical and talented and I just loved being around her. She brought so much energy to the set, and it was always about the work. She’s also a nut, a certified lunatic in all the lovely ways she can be. One day we were doing a scene and she said, “I gotta pee.” Right now? We were shooting. We were on a tight schedule, and she was going to walk off and go pee. She shrugged and grabbed an empty coffee cup and just squatted down in front of everybody, and tinkle tinkle. Like she was camping. And then she handed the cup to one of our wardrobe people. “Let’s get on with it.”

So, yes, she’s quirky. But difficult? No. She channels her creative energy to serve the character and the story. She works at it and comes in very prepared. I don’t call that kind of actor difficult. As opposed to the actor who comes in and says: “There’s no Goddamned almond milk!” Or: “I’m not doing the scene, it’s too cold outside.” Or: “Don’t ever give me direction.”

That is difficult.

Difficult and creatively engaged are not the same. Having an engaged, invested cast and crew comes through on a molecular level. Even as a casual viewer, you can feel that kind of care. On Breaking Bad, the storytelling complex did not end at the writers and directors and actors. The electricians, the technicians, the gaffers, the production assistants were all part of what made the show work. Everyone was all-in, proud to be a part of the show. Stew Lyons, our producer, got calls every day from crew members all over New Mexico and Arizona, who said: I’m dying to work on the show. Our attrition level was really low. Once people got hired, no one wanted to leave. Even guys who were ready to retire said: Not until the show is over.

I remember shooting the scene in the last episode when Walt says good-bye to his daughter. I leaned down over the crib and touched my baby’s soft sleeping head. This was the last time I’d see her. This was good-bye. Forever.

As I was leaning over the crib, my eyes welling, I saw Andy Voegeli, the camera operator, who was shooting me from below. He was shaking, trying his damnedest to stay unemotional and hold the camera still—but he couldn’t. He was a new father himself. And the moment got to him. He wiped tears away as he was shooting.

We hugged when the scene was over. We all hugged one another often. That was the culture: we showed our love and concern for everyone. It was very sweet. And real. And rare.

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