For cinematographer Marshall Adams, ASC, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (Netflix) marked an opportunity to pay homage to Michael Slovis’ lensing of the seminal Breaking Bad series. Slovis over the years earned five Best Cinematography Emmy Award nominations for Breaking Bad.
Adams actually shot an episode of the original Breaking Bad--the season five opener--for which Slovis settled into the director’s chair. Adams later DP’d multiple installments of Better Call Saul, the prequel to (and spinoff of) Breaking Bad.
Meanwhile for editor Skip Macdonald, ACE, El Camino provided the opportunity to potentially add to his own Emmy legacy--four nominations including a win for his cutting of Breaking Bad, as well as a nod for Better Call Saul. His Emmy haul also includes two noms for his episodic work on Fargo.
Both Adams and Macdonald reflected on their experiences shooting and editing, respectively, El Camino. Adams recalled his start with the initial Breaking Bad series when he was brought in to shoot some pickups at the end of season four and then got asked back to kickoff season five with the episode helmed by Slovis. “We spent time together. I ‘downloaded’ his approach, learned a lot from him,” recalled Adams who said Slovis gave him a simple yet valuable piece of advice. “He told me when you’re running out of ideas, go back to the script. It (shooting) all has to be based on the story. That really elevated my cinematography, my storytelling, my approach.”
Also elevating for Adams has been his collaborative relationship with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and El Camino creator Vince Gilligan. Adams described Gilligan as creatively inspiring and “a loyal guy,” the latter reflected in the fact that “he could have offered the job (El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie) to any cinematographer and they would have jumped at the chance but he called me.” The decision to accept, said Adams who hadn’t shot a major feature of this length before, was easy given the creative pedigree of the story and the prospects of being able to add to it. Plus there were the emotional ties to the work--teaming again with a great cast including Aaron Paul and having Bryan Cranston on set for a couple of days. “There was a lot of love on the set...And there was a specialness to this project. This was the end to Breaking Bad. Film crews can bond really well most of the time as kind of a big family. It was tough to leave this family, the time and experience working with Vince and such a deep and talented cast and crew.”
Since Gilligan and Adams were looking to tip their hats to Slovis’ cinematography on Breaking Bad, one would assume that El Camino would have been shot on film. But ultimately the decision was to go digital after Gilligan and Adams tested different cameras spanning digital and film, spherical and anamorphic options. Adams did a double blind test for Gilligan, meaning there was no identifying giveaway as to what camera was used for particular imagery. Gilligan and Adams wound up gravitating to the ARRI Alexa 65, drawn in by different attributes, including its effectiveness in low light. ARRI DNA lenses were selected along with some Prime 65s to get the desired look and feel from the large-format camera.
For editor Macdonald, perhaps the biggest challenge of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was “trying to pare it down without affecting the story.” The first cut, he recalled, was nearly three hours.
But making it easier to deal with a challenge, no matter how daunting, is being able to work with Gilligan. “He’s a true filmmaker,” said Macdonald of Gilligan, citing his extraordinary creative vision. The editor added that Gilligan creates an environment which is “open to ideas and things you want to bring to the work...Some shows you come in and just do your job. If you try to throw ideas out, they kind of get pushed to the side.” That hasn’t been the case on Gilligan-created projects, which Macdonald affirmed are conducive to “learning so much every day,” continually exploring things “we could do and try.”
Macdonald’s family roots are in editing. His dad, Neil Macdonald, cut such TV series as Mission: Impossible and Mannix. “We talked about editing and eventually I got into it,” recollected the younger Macdonald who started out doing sound effects work in movies before slowly transitioning into the picture side of things in television; his first notable credit being episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Macdonald then continued in the TV arena for a number of years before being brought on board to help out on season one of Breaking Bad. Also editing the series that year were Lynne Willingham and Kelley Dixon. Willingham cut the pilot, which won her an Emmy. Dixon earned four Emmy nominations (including one win) over the years for Breaking Bad, followed by five more for Better Call Saul. Dixon’s last Emmy nod for Better Call Saul came in 2017 for her work on the “Witness” episode, which had her teamed with Macdonald.
Comparing El Camino to the Breaking Bad series, Macdonald observed, “There wasn’t a big difference between the series and the movie. El Camino obviously had a longer format and introduced new characters. We were trying to work those characters in to make them feel part of the entire world. It was all there--the writing the acting--so it was just a matter of getting the pieces together as seamlessly as possible.” Macdonald added that for El Camino, actors “came in and would get right into those characters,” capturing their motivation and mindset without skipping a beat.
As for what’s possibly next, Macdonald was working on the new Foundation series for Apple TV+--but then the pandemic put everything on hold. Based on science fiction author Isac Asimov’s book, Foundation marks Macdonald’s initial foray into the sci-fi world. While fascinated with sci-fi, the editor stressed that a key priority for him on Foundation was to maintain its strength as a character study.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 12 and 13, and the Primetime Emmy Awards on September 20.