Like the increasingly unglued narrator of Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart," the antiheroes of Breaking Bad have often been haunted by bad choices and circumstances embodied by sounds.
In season two, for instance, it’s the "cash register" computer alert chirpily ch-chinging every time Walter White Jr.’s charity page scores another hopelessly insufficient donation for his papa (star Bryan Cranston), who has already raised far more blood money on his own. On the August 26th penultimate episode of the current season, White cohort Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) has to choose whether to flee the playground where his granddaughter is still on a swing set, alone, or stay and get arrested. While he’s making this decision, the only sound we hear is the relentless squeaking of that swing, even though Mike’s vantage point is too far removed for him to actually hear it. Signature sounds like these help emphasize the claustrophobic tightening as the actions of the characters on the show further constrict the world around them. It’s within such audio moments that Nick Forshager shines.
Forshager is the supervising sound editor on Breaking Bad. He is responsible for pulling all the sound effects, dubbing the dialogue, and supervising the mixes. He’s been with the show from the beginning, providing the first ring of Tio Salamanca’s menacing desk bell, and everything since. As the mid-season finale of the show concludes, the soundman talks about the creative decisions that inform the show’s sonic persona, and the intimate spaces where it thrives. (Some spoilers from season one and two follow.)
Co.Create: What is unique about the way audio is used on Breaking Bad?
Nick Forshager: Most (hour-long) shows average about 38-42 minutes of music, and on Breaking Bad we’re down to 10-12 minutes on a 40-minute, almost 50-minute episode. For the sound of the show, the space is really small. There are a lot of intimate scenes that take place between two or three people that are very tight. What makes it unique is the sound; we don’t really look at the world around us very much—we look at the space between the two people. So, if you had a scene set in Saul’s office, or at a dinner table, it’s all about that intimate sound that makes the scene. It’s a hand gesture, it’s a chair-creak. The actors bring so much into that already, but when we put the sounds in, it gives you a feeling in that space—you can really sense how the emotions are coming across, partly because the sound is so small.
That’s where the essence of the show is. If you look at other shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, they’re very rich in sound environment with horses and swords and cars, and ours is very intricate. When we create something like the sound of the bell or the cousins with the axes—we only pick up on the details. We spend a lot of time trying to find the right details for it, and when it comes together, people respond to it. When we have a big shootout or a car chase, those are kind of easy scenes for us, but it’s those real intimate moments where the sounds take a lot of work to feel right.
Did Vince Gilligan talk about his grand vision for the sound at the start of the show?
Absolutely. I remember the first spotting session. [Screenings where decisions are made regarding sound.] I had gotten the script early on. I didn’t know Vince really well, but there was just so much detail in the script. It was actually intimidating; like nothing I’d ever read before. So when I went to the first spotting session, I was a little nervous because it was so rich in detail. Right off the bat, his first comment to me was "Whatever you do, don’t fuck it up. You can only make it better than how I have it." I knew just what he meant. So we walked through every single scene, every single sound, every single moment. He knows exactly what the soundscape of everything is. Once we kind of established the palette of the show in the pilot, it got easier.
Is there a lot of collaboration in choosing signature sound moments for the show?
I’ve worked in television for many years, and this is one of the most collaborative experiences I’ve ever had. We sit down with Vince and the creative crew and go through the entire episode, and they tell us what they want, and we deliver and make sure it’s put together in the way that they want. Vince is certainly a guy who has a distinct vision for the feel of the show, but when we sit down to a spotting session with him and the creative crew, it’s a group effort.
I noticed the sound of the swingset seemed isolated in the playground scene from "Say My Name"; how does a decision like that get made?
By the time of the spotting session, the show is to length, and it’s edited the way the creative crew wants. For that scene, they had started it with the sound of the swing in the black, before you actually see the first image. Vince had the idea that we would continue it all the way through, but then we had to cut it in a way that the sound would come in and go away so that it wouldn’t step on the dialogue when Mike receives the phone call.
At the end of the scene, Mike decides to get out of there, and the music starts, and at that point we made a collaborative decision: let’s go with just the music and the swing. We dropped out all the other background and just had music and the swing kind of carry us so we know that he was really tied to just the swing, and his granddaughter, and having to make that decision to walk away.
It’s one of those things we really explore in spotting, where we really talk in depth about how to deal with that scene. It’s kind of a joint decision. I’ll bring those notes and the elements we need to make it work, and then we explore how to put it together; when to make the cross from just going to music and where we would drop the backgrounds and kind of getting that feel out of it.
Some other sounds have really stood out in past episodes—Tio Salamanca’s bell and Walt Jr.’s dinging computer. Were those similar processes?
That was actually something I kind of came up with on the fly. The ringing bell was something where they called asking for a desk bell when they were editing the scene. I had no idea what it was for until I actually saw the scene and they had already cut it in with the sound we’d provided, and I was stunned. I had never seen a person on a show or movie just communicating with a bell before, and it became obviously this theme that we loved and a signature of the show.
Then, what happened was we got to the scene later on where Junior has a cash register sound for every time the money on the website gets updated. I said, "Let’s put in Tio’s bell." We layered it under the cash register and mixed it in so that every time the website went off, it was also Tio’s bell. I was surprised that people really picked up on that. I guess they were so in tune with the bell sound that instantaneously, they picked it out. We didn’t know if we would ever see Tio again at that point, so we just decided to make it this homage to that sound. Of course, Vince never lets anything go, so Tio kept reappearing.
Any other personal favorite signature sound moments?
In the first season, when Walt kills Crazy 8, it’s another example about the intimacy of the sound. Leading up to the murder, all you can hear is just a furnace and water running through pipes. The furnace is already running, but as the scene got more tense, we would push up the rumbling a little bit, and back it off when the tension dies down. The scene progresses until the point where Walter realizes that if he lets him go, Crazy 8’s just going to kill him. So while he’s making this decision, the only sounds you can hear are the rumble of the furnace and the bike lock around his neck clattering against the pole.
That’s one of those moments where Vince is awesome. Most TV shows want to ladle in the music and ladle in the sound effects, but on this show it’s really built suddenly in this intimate environment and it created just this huge tension that explodes off the screen. You can feel the tension rise with every rumble and scrape. We knew then, early in the show, that Vince was going to give us a pretty long leash to come up with ideas and try different things. We also knew we could get away with it because the images on screen allowed us to do so. Vince will really let us explore the space, which is unusual for TV.
Sometimes noises from the show will reappear during the closing credits. Who comes up with those?
Dave Porter, our composer, decided early on that he would bring something back from a scene from the show in the closing credits. The credits don’t even really get shown on television. The only time people really see the crawl is on DVD. But Dave always tries to bring some element back, whether it’s a scene or a sound, and then builds the actual theme into it. If you go back and watch them, they all kind of end with or have the pulse from the main title in it. Each episode, Dave and Vince will talk about what to use for the credits. And if they’re bringing back something signature like the bell or the swing, they’ll ask for my input and I’ll send those elements. And as Dave is composing, he’ll work them into the close.