Better Call Saul Q&A — Composer Dave Porter on Reinventing the Musical Wheel (Again) for the Final Episodes

Dave Porter, the composer behind all of the original music on Breaking Bad, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Better Call Saul, explains how acting choices influence the music he writes, why Mike was his favorite character to score, and reflects on the profound effect the shows have had on his career.
How connected were the musical themes of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – and how might that have changed as Better Call Saul crisscrossed with the Breaking Bad timeline?
There was definitely a sound and a distinct, I hope, musical vocabulary that we used in Breaking Bad. That of course grew in tension and scope and stakes as that story grew from a small town chemistry teacher to a much larger kingpin. Then, when it came to starting the music on Better Call Saul, Peter [Gould] and Vince [Gilligan] were adamant that the show have a different sound. This was a new character that we were meeting in Jimmy McGill, at the time, and they really wanted a fresh start, which sounds simple but it's actually one of the trickier creative endeavors I've had to do because we were not that long off the end of Breaking Bad when we began Better Call Saul and it was all the same team of us together and a lot of the characters were not new, for example Mike Ehrmantraut. And so in my head I was thinking, "I'll make it different, but not that different. After all, Breaking Bad was pretty successful, so why rock the boat too much?" But they were absolutely adamant about it and they were right and I didn't realize why creatively until much later when, several seasons into Better Call Saul, more and more Breaking Bad characters arrived on the scene and our timeline moved closer and closer to Breaking Bad. It enabled me to have a new springboard to move from and to reintroduce some of those sounds and motifs we used in Breaking Bad. They felt fresh and new again against the backdrop of a very different viewpoint since we're seeing so much of this now from a completely new vantage point in a side of Jimmy/Saul/Gene that we never knew in Breaking Bad.
In particular, how did you change your approach in the final four episodes, which almost feel like an entirely different show?
Once again, it was a complete reinvention. Vince and Peter talked about it on every level of the show, obviously, from how they're shooting it to art direction. Everything. When it came time to the music, it was a chance to reinvent the wheel again, which I very much did in Episode 10 ["Nippy"], and not unlike the beginning of Better Call Saul. As we move through these last episodes and we're seeing Gene, as he's now known, not able to get out of his own way and making his familiar mistakes, I'm reintroducing some of those tones from both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul again against the new backdrop of the new score which we introduced in Episode 10. So it's a little microcosm here of the larger musical story in these last four episodes.
Given the ever-morphing identities of Jimmy, Saul, and Gene as the series draws to a close, what kind of challenge does that pose for you?
Yeah, it is tricky and I ask a lot of questions of the writers whenever I can to try to get the best sense I can of where Jimmy/Saul/Gene's headspace is and sometimes just the timeline because it's easy to get turned around. But, yes, one of the things that I'm trying to do as the composer for the show and helping to tell the story of the show is to clarify a little bit those different moments and help the audience follow us as we jump around, which we do. For example, in the beginning of Episode 11 ["Breaking Bad"] when we have the flashback with Walt and Jesse and Saul, I very purposely went all the way back to around Breaking Bad Season 2, Episode 8 ["Better Call Saul"] from which that scene connects to make sure that I was using a lot of those sounds and similar drive and creative ideas there to hopefully help the audience make the connections as we jump around.
Yet you're able to make the music different enough as well so that you're not like plagiarizing yourself.
Right. There are a few moments in the show and actually in the film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie where we're very purposely revisiting exact score because we're revisiting an exact scene from another angle. We have done that in the past, but not so much with Saul because so much of what we're seeing in Better Call Saul is actually new. It's just moments that were happening concurrently with things that we've already seen in Breaking Bad.
Kim is a fan favorite. How did you approach the music for her, especially in the second half of Season 6 when things change drastically for her?
In truth, I have responded musically in a fashion that tries to tell the story of their relationship, rather than Kim herself. I mean, it's an amazing and also tragic love story but, at the end of the day, it is through Saul's eyes ultimately, for the most part. And so I didn't do that much music this season or actually in past seasons specifically for Kim, but a lot of score related to how their relationship was evolving and I think you'll see some continuation of that in these final episodes. Also, as those who have seen Episode 12 ["Waterworks"] will know, we decided very purposely not to score Kim at her worst, at her bottom, and we very carefully left that quiet and miserable on its own.
Are you referring to the scene on the airport bus when she's sobbing?
That's certainly the prime example. But in that entire episode there is no score under any of the scenes with Kim in Florida or on her journey to and from Albuquerque.
It did seem like there was very little music in that episode.
There's very little. There's some that relates to Gene as he's breaking into houses and making his fatefully foolish decisions. But no, that's true and it's actually very rare for a penultimate episode, an episode that's so close to the end to be so quiet. But there was just no doubt when we watched it that it told a more powerful story, and particularly on the Kim side, to have her just be alone. Hopelessly alone.
As a fan of Better Call Saul yourself, did you have a favorite character to write music for?
That is a hard question, but I would say that it's a close tie between Nacho and Mike Ehrmantraut and I'm going to give it to Mike only because I've had the pleasure of scoring Mike Ehrmantraut now through two series. He says so much so wonderfully with just that craggy face of his and of course he does such wonderfully fascinating things in the show that he's lent me some of my favorite opportunities to write score for both series.
Such as?
Let's see. I mean, certainly in terms of one of those cues where you're watching him and you're wondering what he's up to, there's one early on in this season where he's breaking into Nacho's safe at the beginning of Episode 2 ["Carrot and Stick"]. That was a particularly fun one. But going back to previous seasons, when he was snooping around trying to see what Gus was up to, we had some great scenes of him moving around Albuquerque doing his sleuthy stuff, which I loved working on.
You’ve mentioned on the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast that your process is to do the music for the show pretty late in the game in post-production. Why is that your preferred way to work?
Honestly, that's just kind of how it is for composers. Some composers do get involved very early and they want to be more involved. But to me, sound and music are the last things that happen always on TV and in film, and I take so many cues from the creative decisions that get made before mine. That's why I love to be last and, as I've said before, I am a fan of the show and I'm lucky to be last because the first time I get to see any episode of these shows, I sit down just to watch it as a fan. I'm not thinking about music. I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do. I'm not taking notes or anything like that. I'm going to enjoy it because it's the first time I get to see it.
Just to be clear, you're referring to the cut before you've composed any music for it?
That's right. It won't have any music in it and not much sound. But otherwise it's complete, which is a wonderful gift for me because, as a fan, then I get to gauge my own reactions and my own feelings about what's going on, because we all view these things through our own lenses, right? Then when I watch it the second and the third time, I can think about, "Well, when I first saw this, I felt this tension and how could I make that amazing amount of tension even greater?" Or I can see that Bob Odenkirk chose to play this a certain way with a very subtle touch of anger or fear and how can I subtly reinforce that without making more of it than was already so well-played? There are so many decisions like that. So many things change from the script to the final product and makes my job easier because I have all these pros ahead of me making these amazing decisions and it's just up to me honestly not to screw it up from there!
How does working on these shows (and El Camino) differ from other projects you've worked on, such as The Blacklist and AMC's Preacher?
They're all very different. Even, to some extent, Better Call Saul's been different from Breaking Bad, but there's a lot of continuity there because there's so many of us that have been so fortunate enough to work on both series. I think the environment that Vince and later Peter foster is very similar creatively. But I've been really lucky to have such positive experiences on all the things that I've worked on. They just all work a little differently. Working on a network show like The Blacklist where we're doing 22 episodes every year and there's a good deal more music per episode than there would be in a show like Better Call Saul requires a bit of a different mindset. You have to be really in sync sometimes with your coworkers and move very quickly and you maybe don't have all the time as we do to ruminate over things on Better Call Saul. (laughs) That's just a difference in the way that those shows are made. But at the end of the day, it's really similar. For me, it's about trying to glean as much information from the creators or the writers about how I can most help tell their story. The more communication I have with them, the better. Always.
What has this experience – from Breaking Bad through Better Call Saul – meant to you?
Everything. It's been the backbone of my creative and professional career as a composer. I was pretty green when we began Breaking Bad and this world. I had recently moved to LA not too many years prior to that and had only worked on one drama series prior when we began Breaking Bad. It's been sort of that creative and professional pillar that I've had in my life for this whole period of time, the last 16 years I think it's been. It is quite the end of an era and I can't say that I've wrapped my head around it yet. I just feel enormously blessed for it and for all that it's taught me. Knowing that I'm going to work with so many of these folks again in the future, but probably never all of them all at once again, is a heavy thing, for sure.
So if Vince or Peter or Melissa Bernstein gave you a call and said we have this project and we need you, would you be there?
Without question. All these people are like family to me. I think that gets overused a little bit in our world, but if it was ever true, it's true of this group because it's just such a unique situation to have worked together for so long on not one but two very successful projects. It's really lightning in a bottle, twice. Again, I'm so appreciative and thankful.
The series finale of Better Call Saul airs on Monday at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on the entire final season, read all our cast and creator Q&As here.