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Q&A – Phil Abraham (Episode 10 Director)

A cinematographer and director for The Sopranos and Mad Men, Abraham describes changing the pace of Breaking Bad and living vicariously through Walt’s double-life in’s exclusive interview.

Q: You’ve worked on AMC’s series Mad Men. Were you a fan of Breaking Bad before you came on to direct?

A: It’s a show I loved from the first season. I was completely bowled over by it and I couldn’t watch enough. So when I stepped into that world I could see things I had never seen before. I was like a kid in a candy store: “I’ve never seen this cool angle of this room before! Let’s do that!” I’d never had the experience as a director of going into a show that is already established that I hadn’t been a part of initially. I had done The Sopranos, but I’d been so involved in that world because of my work as the cinematographer. Same thing with Mad Men. Breaking Bad was a world I’d only known through the television, and that was definitely fun for me.

Q: Does your work as a cinematographer influence the way you direct?

A: As a director I come to locations and see where the sun is and gravitate toward the angles that I would as a cinematographer: What time of day will we be here? Will it be front lit or back lit? You’re used to looking at things through a camera, so you can make your decisions along those lines much more easily. I also had a shorthand with [DP] Michael [Slovis]. We’d go to a location and I’d go, “Michael, I know you’re going to hate this, but I have an idea and I can see a way out of it.”

Q: Your episode focuses on Walt’s relationship with his family. How do you maintain the show’s edge when the script moves away from the criminal elements?

A: This was a definitely a quieter episode. Vince was calling it the Mad Men episode because it’s more an in-Walt’s-head kind of show. But I think those elements that were in my episode are prevalent in all the other episodes — the dynamic between the family. As far as it being a more internal drama with Walt and Jesse, though, I thought it was a nice change of pace.

Q: Betsy Brandt went into labor while you were shooting. Did you have to make any last-minute changes?

A: That was actually pretty exciting. The day we shot the interior scenes of the party was the day that she was due. We were all crossing our fingers, but we kind of knew once we got through the interior stuff that we had what we needed. The crew had a betting pool, but I had to stay out of it because of conflict of interest.

Q: You worked on the episode of The Sopranos where Meadow gets sick from tequila. Then in Breaking Bad Walter Jr. drinks it. Do you have an affinity for the beverage?

A: What can I tell you? Tequila does that to people. There’s actually a famous story involving me and that beverage during the shooting of the season opener of the final season of The Sopranos. But in the time-honored code of film crews, I think I have to say that what happens on location, stays on location.

Q: How does Breaking Bad‘s depiction of crime compare to The Sopranos?

A: I think they both have a strong penchant for depicting crime with as much gritty realism as possible. Violence is a great background and it ups the ante. But in both shows you have the violence and the drug world along with the family world. And the conflicts those two things present for Walt and for Tony is what keeps the drama going.

Q: The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad all have main characters living double lives. Has that inspired any fantasies of your own?

A: I can only wish to be that kind of person. I’m way too straight and narrow to bend the way great dramatic characters do, which is of course why they’re so compelling. The whole Don Draper thing, being so mysterious in Mad Men, and then Walt leading this very traditional high school teacher life, but then getting involved in this criminal element — you know, I suppose people do it. But it’s certainly more fun for me to experience it with them dramatically than to think that I would actually be doing anything like that.

Be sure to also check out our interview with Phil Abraham for his work on Season 2 of Mad Men.

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