'Breaking Bad': Michael Slovis, a visual storyteller
Life isn't colored evenly. Take a living room in the afternoon, for example. Streaks of sunlight may squeeze through the opened blinds of a window, illuminating specs of dust and part of someone's face, leaving the other part in shadow. As day turns to evening, those streaks will fade, and then it might be a lamp or the glow of a television that splashes the room with color.
These are the kinds of observations Michael Slovis, an Emmy Award-winning director of photography, brings to AMC's visually arresting "Breaking Bad." Shot on 35-millimeter film rather than digitally, the look of "Breaking Bad" is distinctly cinematic: as is the case in feature films, wide shots are typically favored over close-ups, hot spots and shadows usually appear on or around the actors and a stunning vista of the New Mexico desert is usually just a scene or two away.
That being said, "I have shot shows where the content is not up to the look and then the show becomes about the look," Slovis said. "I would not feel that I did this show justice or I was successful with this show if people noticed my photography [too much]. I don't want them to. I want a marriage. I want the lighting and the look and the performance -- I want them all to be as one. What I would really love is for someone to look at that and think that everything is exactly in the right place and in the right proportion in terms of telling a good story."
With "Breaking Bad," that marriage tends to be the norm. Take Sunday's episode, for example, one that Slovis actually directed instead of shot, though his visual influence was still clearly present. With normal B-camera operator Peter Reniers acting as director of photography, one pivotal scene involved a meeting between Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a schoolteacher turned methamphetamine cook, and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the dangerous meth distributor Walt answers to but may not wholly trust.
Their meeting took place in a conference room of sorts, and the scene began with a very wide shot of the conference room, far away from the two men and giving us a sense of the space in which they sat. As the conversation grew more intense, Walt basically telling Gus that he knew he played a pivotal role in the recent assassination attempt of Walt's brother-in-law, the camera moved in closer on the two men's faces but we never saw either of them wholly; the sunlight coming in through the windows not only colored the room unevenly, but it also illuminated only half of each man's face, leaving the other halves in complete shadow. The darkness of the scene matched the narrative, and the shadow upon those faces doubled as a symbolic touch, both of these men leading double lives.
"It's all about getting you into a mood," Slovis explained. "And a lot of TV is bright, equal, even lighting, but in life you don't always get that." He then looked around the New York City deli in which he sat. "I mean, look at me here, and I'm looking at you now -- there is a harsh light on top of you, and some of your face is in shadow.
"The other thing that 'Breaking Bad' has in its favor, which is very interesting to me, is time," added Slovis, comparing "Bad" to one of his old stops as a cinematographer for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," for which he won an Emmy." There is no need to rush anything in 'Breaking Bad' because it's an ongoing story, so you don't really have to re-explain things visually or storytelling wise, so we have time to actually let people move through spaces, down halls, into homes, in a very sort of European storytelling way. In broadcast network television you sometimes have to advance the story [much quicker] and you'll have to cover days in that short time frame of 42 or 44 minutes."
With "Bad," a show about a dying man, time moves slowly, and that measured pace often allows for some minutes-long sequences that are entirely wordless, such as the one that followed the meeting between Walt and Gus. In the scene, Walt drove away from his meeting through the New Mexico desert, contemplating an attractive new business offer from Gus. Perhaps overcome by emotion, adrenaline or a combination thereof, he closed his eyes, pressed hard on the accelerator and eventually peeled out off the road. After a moment, he regained his composure, put his blinker on and returned to the pavement. No words, just action.
And those desert shots? They come frequently and beautifully, making the landscape around Walter White a character in and of itself. Anna Gunn, who plays Walter's wife, Skyler, grew up in New Mexico and once said, "Every time I land, I always think how the light there is unlike anywhere else, and Michael Slovis just does a great job capturing that." He does so in his own way, using a specific stock of Kodak film that's "almost grain-less" in order to capture the beauty of the desert. He also puts a tobacco filter -- a very thin glass -- over the camera lens to give those exterior shots a particular hue. "The desert in New Mexico is so brown that [the filter] makes the browns really pop and gives it a really pleasing skin tone to me. It's kind of like a tea stain," he said, saying the filter accentuates the reds, yellows and browns of the land.
Slovis commutes to New Mexico each summer from his home in New Jersey, where he also grew up. "I've loved taking pictures my entire life," he said, and at age 9, he built a darkroom in the basement of his childhood home with the help of his grandfather. He later studied photography as an undergraduate before entering NYU film school. After that, he was a set electrician and gaffer for many years before finally breaking in as a director of photography, first in independent films and then television. He spent more than two years shooting the original "CSI" series, winning an Emmy in 2006.
But the travel and time spent away from his family -- he lives in Montclair with his wife of 29 years, Maria, and they have three children who at the time were in high school and college -- began to wear on him. He wanted to stay local. Naturally, that's when AMC called, asking him if he'd be interested in shooting "Breaking Bad," which had just finished its first season.
"I said I'm not really interested in leaving home," Slovis said. "[But] my wife -- she motions to me and goes, 'Stop, wait a minute, get the shows. I know the show.' She had seen one or two of the episodes. So then Maria and I sat and watched the entire first season -- all in one sitting. And I turned to her and said, 'You know you did something really bad here.' She said, 'I knew what I was doing. It really is right. It's what you want, what you need. It's perfect for you.'
"I mean, the minute I saw the first two episodes, I knew this was for me. It's real film-making, more so than even many films that you work on now." So he met with AMC executives, whom he remembers saying, "We don't want television coverage. We want cinema, we want film-making."
"I said, 'You guys know what you're asking for here? Because everybody says this and then in the end, they don't really mean it.' And then a day or two later, Vince [Gilligan] called me and said the same thing -- 'I don't need to see their faces all the time. I love silhouette. I love expressive photography and interesting angles.'" Slovis, who shared the same visual tastes, was sold.
Building upon the visual foundation set by Gilligan and John Toll, who was nominated for the cinematography of "Bad's" pilot, Slovis came to Albuquerque and added his own stamp on the show's look. "I think I made it darker -- I added a little more shadow to it to help the story along, and I wanted more things to play in silhouette when appropriate. At the same time, I think the show is a show of contrasts, and so there are little hot spots in there when something could be completely dark or completely backlit or completely silhouette; there might be a little highlight, you know, that draws your eye to fill the frame. That's another thing I wanted to do to give it that painterly feel.
"And most of what I wanted to do was not mess up, to be totally honest -- I was really afraid of ruining Vince's show, which was already so great."
Rather than mess anything up, Slovis earned the show its second consecutive cinematography Emmy nomination last year (Ousama Rawi won the award for "The Tudors.") And the boss has been quite pleased ever since.
"The thing about TV is the directors come in and out, but the DP is sort of the leading person on set who is always there," Gilligan said. "Mike is the whole package because he's also fast -- you could be the world's greatest artist, but if you're too slow and you never make your days, you're going to get fired.
"We had a couple guys on 'The X-Files' who were very talented but got fired; it's one of the toughest jobs out there because you are expected to do masterful artistic work but in a too-short amount of time that a TV show dictates. There aren't many people out there who do Mike Slovis' job as well as he does, with such artistry. We're just lucky beyond words to have him as our DP because he really is so very responsible for how good 'Breaking Bad' looks."
-- Josh Gajewski
Photos: Various scenes from the third season of "Breaking Bad," lensed by cinematographer Michael Slovis. Credit: AMC.