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Q&A – Michelle MacLaren (Episode 9 Director)

The X-Files alum explains how Vince Gilligan’s twisted mind transcends genre, discusses cooking meth in the big leagues and analyzes Episode 9’s most important character — the desert — in’s exclusive interview.

Q: You worked with Vince Gilligan on The X-Files. Has his writing style changed much since then?

A: Not really, actually. On The X-Files, like in Breaking Bad, his episodes were always kind of out there. For example, one of the first X-Files episodes of his that I produced was called “Je Souhaite,” which involved a devious genie. Another X-Files episode Vince did was filmed in a replica of the Brady Bunch house. Vince is sick and twisted, but I mean that with all the admiration in the world! If anyone else had told me what Breaking Bad was about, I would have been like, “What are you doing?” But with Vince, I was like, “Great.”

Q: This episode was written as an homage to The Flight of the Phoenix . Did you try to mimic any elements from the movie in your direction?

A: I re-watched the movie to understand what the writers were going for. There was a grandiose-ness to it — you really get the horrifying sense that they are stranded in the middle of nowhere, so I adopted that feeling. They did a nice job in the movie showing the gradual decline of the people physically, and the effect that decline has on their relationships. Will the crisis bring people together or tear them apart? The movie takes place over a longer period of time than our episode, so they were able to break the actors down dramatically. One of the guys actually freaks out and runs into the desert and dies. We weren’t there long enough for that kind of drama, but we still accomplish the same thing.

Q: Your episode has a meth cooking montage — as do several other Breaking Bad episodes. How do you keep that imagery fresh?

A: This montage was different because we wanted to show that Walt and Jesse have hit the big time. I wanted it to look impressive. I gave the montage a lot of movement because it covers several days, and it needed to show that their relationship is evolving. So the camera was constantly moving, almost like a dance. The message is that Walt and Jesse are getting really good at cooking meth, and the ultimate result is fantastic. The way we shot it gets that across. They could have been cooking apple pie! Luckily, meth is visually very interesting.

Q: How accurate is your depiction of the cooking process?

A: It’s very accurate. We didn’t actually make crystal, of course, but visually it’s accurate. There are all these different stages to it, so we had these consultants we talked to about the right way to do it. There’s the gray goo stage, the white smoke stage, the blue goo stage. We had a DEA consultant, and another consultant who I don’t want to ask where he came from! I would ask him a question about how something was supposed to be done in the cooking process, and he’d say, “Hang on a second,” and grab his cell and go around the corner and come back two minutes later with the answer.

Q: You once said that you’ve known you wanted to be a director since you were 13. What inspired that?

A: I always wanted to be in the movie business, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. When I was producing on The X-Files, my grandmother passed away. My mom was going through old stuff and found a letter I’d written to my grandmother. I’d seen a movie I liked and I said, “I hope I can direct a movie like that one day.” I wish I’d written down which movie! But that was my final push over edge into directing. I went out and took classes and really put myself out there. I like producing, but directing is my passion. When I direct, I finish the day and go, “that was awesome.”

Q: Had you been to Albuquerque before shooting this episode?

A: I had never been to New Mexico before. I think it has some of the most beautiful light I’ve ever seen. I’ve shot a lot of deserts, but never lived in one. The desert, as beautiful as it is, helps the show’s dark and depressing premise. It represents danger, death, fear, loneliness, remoteness. Walt is so alone in what he’s going though, living this unbelievable lie. And that’s all put in contrast to these beautiful vistas and sunsets.

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