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Q&A – Michael Slovis (Director of Photography)

The Season 2 cinematographer discusses his Emmy nomination, turning light into a character and why he really agreed to return to the show for Season 3.

Q: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. What is it about the show’s cinematography that it keeps on gaining such recognition?

A: I think that the cinematography in this show is inseparable from the story. And I think that’s just plain old good storytelling and good cinema. One of the things that I always strive for is I don’t really want people to notice the photography or the lighting. I want it to be an integrated part of the storytelling. And it’s nice when people look at it and think, “It’s beautiful and it’s effective.” But I don’t want people to say it was good because of the cinematography, or even to notice it separate from the storytelling.

Q: So is it then a strange feeling for you to be nominated at all?

A: Absolutely. I think many people are more excited about this Emmy business than I am, to be totally honest. The one thing I was happy about with the nominations is it puts the show on more solid ground. This project is by far not the biggest thing that I’ve shot, but it draws such a reaction from people. I scheduled my whole year around returning to Breaking Bad. This show is a piece of artwork in a very different way from other shows. The cinematography and the look and the camera angles are so distinctive that when you’re flipping through stations, immediately you know when the show is on.

Q: You worked on other shows between seasons. Is it a tough transition to go from shooting Breaking Bad to more typical network television?

A: It’s like a musician who might play in a Broadway show during the day, but then goes and plays in a jazz club at night. It exercises another part of your brain. But it makes sense because the storytelling grammar is organic to the story that we’re telling — and that’s not always the case.

Q: Did your style of shooting shift along with the story throughout Season 2?

A: If that happened, it was only as a result of being true to the material. I think it’s a strikingly dark story. In many ways it fit the style of what I’ve been doing for the last several years very well. Having come off of CSI previous to this, doing things in a graphic fashion was something that I was comfortable with. I can do whatever, but this is the kind of storytelling where lighting is an actual character in the film, and I really enjoy doing that.

Q: How does light become a character?

A: How about Tortuga in the motel room with that shaft of light coming through and just hitting him? That backlit, smoky, shaft of light; one guy, everybody else in silhouette. Here’s a guy in hiding, a guy whose head is gonna get blown off. Here’s a guy where there’s imminent danger all around, with our guy Hank a fish out of water. The minute you see that shot, you know you’re in an uncomfortable situation, and something is going down.

Q: You were nominated for your work on CSI and Breaking Bad. Can you see any parallels between the two?

A: They were both great stories. I think cinematographers, like all other viewers, want to be carried into a different world when they watch something. And the beauty of cinematography is you can have something like Mad Men nominated as well as Breaking Bad as well as CSI. They’re all so different, but the storytelling techniques are organic to the stories that they’re telling. You can have beautiful cinematography, but I would never want somebody to say, “Why did he impose that look onto the show?”

Q: What are you anticipating for Season 3?

A: I’m curious myself as to what happens to these people! [Laughs] That’s one of the reasons I’m here is so that I find out before anybody else. I am looking forward to bringing some subtle new changes to the look — and maybe as Walt’s world crumbles even more, heading into a darker place. That’s what I’m thinking at this moment. I hope nobody gets mad at me [laughs].

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