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Q&A – John Toll (Cinematographer)

When two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll ( Braveheart , Legends of the Fall) read Vince Gilligan’s pilot for Breaking Bad, he decided to return to television for the first time in nearly 20 years. Not surprisingly, his work on the first episode has garnered him an Emmy nomination. He shares his experience launching the show in AMC’s exclusive interview.

Q: How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?

A: I’ve known Vince for quite a while. I met him through [Executive Producer] Mark Johnson and really liked him and thought he had great ideas — he had a unique style, sort of dark and irreverent humor, but not offensively so. Then out of the blue he sent me this script for Breaking Bad and he came to visit me to talk about a look. Vince had been talking about an interesting style where the whole story takes place in the Southwest. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because I hadn’t done television for a long time and at first I thought I might be out of touch with it. But we started talking about a visual style that was rich in contrast and stark. I’ve got a library with all kinds of visual reference materials, so I pulled some off the shelf and we started looking through it, and within a half hour we were talking about when I would come to New Mexico with him and start looking at locations .

Q: Did that style carry over to the actual shoot?

A: We didn’t bat 1000, but that style was always our guide. There’s definitely a real sense of it in the finished product. What happens in filmmaking is everyone needs to be in sync with the primary creative: the cinematographer, the production designer, costume designer, and so forth. And it was funny because we had a meeting with everybody, none of us had ever actually worked together, but I walked in to the reception area and met Production designer Robb Wilson King and Costume Designer Kathleen Detoro. We looked at the reference and within five minutes, it was like we’d been working on the project for a week!

Q: Was it a big difference for you to shoot for television?

A: I didn’t really make any distinction between it being a television project as opposed to a feature film. In my mind you’re there to tell a story and you use the camera to tell it in the most appropriate way. Everybody wanted to be there and make a movie. It didn’t matter what the size of the picture was, the scope of it, the budget. It was like, okay here’s a good idea, here’s a good script, and here’s a guy, Vince, who you really like and want to help make this film. In terms of composition you’re trying to compose things for the way they will look on a smaller screen as opposed to a larger screen, but that’s the only distinction in my mind.

Q: What was the most interesting scene to shoot?

A: The opening and the ending, with everything that happens with the Winnebago and the road and trying to tie those two ends of the story together. Not that it was photographically that difficult, but the most interesting thing to me was the whole opening of the picture and then the transition to when you find him in the bedroom at night lying awake and then trying to exercise. I think opening up the show with momentum, then getting a sense of where this character came from immediately created a lot of interest.

Q: Did you notice any changes when Cinematographer Rey Villalobos took over for the rest of the series?

A: I really have a lot of respect for cinematographers who do episodic television, because it is so demanding in terms of scheduling and just the amount of time they have to accomplish the work. I’ve known Rey a long time. He’s an excellent photographer, and he fell right into place in terms of where we left off. He expanded on it a little bit, but shooting episodic is extremely difficult for cinematographers to maintain any kind of look and keep it going — sometimes there are days when you just have to shoot. I think Rey did a fantastic job maintaining the overall visual style throughout the series.

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