As 2011 comes to a close, EW.com wanted to honor some of the hardworking names and faces from behind the scenes for their outstanding achievements. Over the course of 13 thrillingly tense episodes, the fourth season of Breaking Bad gradually built up to the final reckoning between teacher-turned-criminal Walter White and druglord demi-god Gustavo Fring. Vince Gilligan is the creator and showrunner of Breaking Bad. He also wrote and directed the season finale, which featured one of the great horrifying images in TV history. Here, Gilligan describes that scene’s long journey from his brain onto your television. Needless to say, there are spoilers — but come on, how have you not seen it yet? For more behind the scenes access to the year’s best TV and movie scenes, click here for EW.com‘s Best of 2011: Behind the Scenes coverage.
As told by: Vince Gilligan
Gus is a man who had one Achilles Heel, as far as we know: His burning desire for vengeance against the people who killed Max, who was very important to him. We don’t tend to nail things down on Breaking Bad. It’s fun to be a little mysterious, and it’s nice to have the audience come up with backstories on their own. Having said that, I personally think Max was more than just a friend to Gus. I think they probably were lovers. And therefore it was understandably a very crushing, terrible loss for Gus, one that he would never forget. That one bit of emotion that he allowed himself ultimately proved to be his undoing.
Many months before we got to the point of writing that last episode, I had the image of a bomb going off. Kaboom! I could almost watch it, like a little movie inside my brain. The oblique angle of the door exploding outward. We’re thinking, “Wow, that’s the end of it. That was a great explosion.” Then we’re still holding. Why are we still holding? Out walks Gus Fring in profile, and we come around on him…
I had that image very squarely in my head. It was a matter of making it a reality. Our wonderful crew of very, very talented people made that happen. It was a joint effort between our physical special effects department, who did the explosion, and Greg Nicotero and his amazing team of prosthetic makeup artists and sculptors. Greg Nicotero, of course, is a producer on The Walking Dead. He and his team are responsible for all of the really amazing zombies on that show.
Greg and our visual effects supervisor, Bill Powloski, married together separate images. There was one take of a real-world physical explosion. Then a second take with smoke and Gus Fring and this wonderful make-up. Then they took the make-up a step further in post-production, erasing entire swaths of Giancarlo Esposito’s face, and instead inserting images of the sculpting that Greg Nicotero and his team had given us, and marrying it all together very seamlessly into this one uninterrupted take. It was a hell of a deal.
It took a half a day to get it, which is a lot on an eight-day, one-hour television schedule. We had the camera pointed at the door. The special effects team blew the door off its hinges with tiny air mortars that shoot compressed nitrogen. It has to be nitrogen. If it were normal compressed air, as soon as it hit the atmosphere it would turn into these long jets of white smoke. We didn’t want to see that. So it had to be pure nitrogen under tons of pressure, blowing the door off the hinges. These guys are such masters, they did that in one take.
So then we yell “Cut.” The camera stayed in the exact same spot. Then we had to remove some of the debris, including the door itself, because it’s lying in the path of the dolly. Bill Powloski took photos of it and had to digitally recreate that debris later. Then we started doing the second half of the shot, which is Giancarlo stepping out of the door. Even though we only did one take of the door explosion, we did 19 takes of the next shot. And I was going nuts.
NEXT: “Everybody was mad at me.”
The camera department kept doing all 19 takes flawlessly. Giancarlo kept walking out just as he was supposed to. I had a couple extras running in from the background who were reacting in horror to Gus Fring’s demolished face. The problem was not with anybody but me. I wanted the timing just perfect. So I kept saying “Cut! Do it again!”
Everybody was mad at me, and I don’t blame them. Out of 19 takes, we probably had 10 or 11 that were perfectly useable. Because it was a one-er and it had to be as close to perfection as possible, I wanted everything just the way I wanted it. Apiece of debris that falls from the ceiling behind Gus as he stands there adjusting his tie. I wanted that at just the right moment. I wanted the two women in the background to react just the right way at just the right moment before the camera comes around to reveal Gus’ empty eye socket. Little tiny things. At a certain point, you go all Kubrick. That’s my dream, anyway, to be half as good as he ever was.
So you’re thinking, “Well, maybe take 17 will be better. Maybe take 18.” Meanwhile, your producer’s tapping his foot. We actually used the very last take we shot. So at least the first 18 were not wasted!
On the set, Giancarlo stepped out of the room, and we dollied around him. On the far side of his face he had this make-up that Greg Nicotero and his team had done. Wonderful make-up, but there’s no way you can take away parts of a person’s face without giving them grave medical damage. The make-up on his face was a placeholder.
We moved onto something else while our visual effects supervisor kept a camera in that position and reshot that move with a head-and-shoulders sculpture that Greg and his team had provided us. It was a life-cast of Giancarlo Esposito, with half his face torn away and sculpted away in very amazing detail. You can see through it’s head, partially. The magic of the visual effects is that it marries all these disparate elements together.
I have the sculpture in my living room, back here in Los Angeles. I keep it covered up, because I don’t want to scare the neighbors. Maybe at Halloween next year I’ll put it up in the window. We have one of those speakeasy-type doors where you can open it up and see who’s outside. Next time there’s a salesman or something, I’ll say “Yes?” through the door, and then just have that face there.
I think that Gus’ tie-straightening is an autonomous reaction. The last rift of a thought going through his ruined brain is: “Better leave a good-looking corpse.”
For more on the Best and Worst of 2011, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s new issue, on stands now.