‘Breaking Bad’s’ Boy Scout Production Mantra: Always Be Prepared

Exec producer Michelle MacLaren reveals behind-the-scenes preparations for tricky final episodes

Prosthetics, fake snow and the death of Margaret Thatcher were just some of the challenges the “Breaking Bad” team faced during the production of its final eight episodes.

Breaking Bad” exec producer and director Michelle MacLaren took a moment from lensing “Game of Thrones” in Croatia this week to reflect on what she called the “magical” experience of bringing the AMC/Sony Pictures TV drama to a triumphant conclusion.

Shooting the final season was tricky, MacLaren says, because of the shifting time frames for the story arc. Producers knew they needed to depict Walter White’s cancer progressing, but at the same time they needed to shoot an extended scene that harked back to the beginning of the show. That not only meant special makeup treatment for star Bryan Cranston’s skin but also prosthetic devices in his cheeks and neck to make him look emaciated and haggard.

Aaron Paul’s Jesse PInkman character also needed to several wigs and facial hair pieces designed in order to depict him as having been beaten and enslaved by Uncle Jack and Co. When production on “Breaking Bad’s” final eight episodes began, the shooting schedule was still in flux because it hinged on the availability of key guest stars including Jessica Hecht (Gretchen Schwartz) and Charlie Rose. There was also a need to shoot in unusual locations. MacLaren says producers were determined to be prepared for anything.

Cranston and Paul “went to L.A. and had their heads cast so we could have wigs and facial hair (pieces) made well in advance so we were ready for anything,” MacLaren said. “Fortunately we were able to shoot in the order we wanted.”

Getting the finale scene with Rose in the can required some juggling to work around the PBS/CBS News anchor’s busy sked. But Rose was such a “Breaking Bad” fan that when MacLaren sent the initial email request for his participation in the finale to one of his producers, a response came back almost immediately from Rose himself. “He said ‘I’m a huge fan of Vince Gilligan,’ so right off the bat he was really into doing it,” MacLaren says.

Still, it took some planning to find two to three open hours in Rose’s sked last spring to do the shoot. Hecht was doing a play in Gotham at the time and also had limited availability. Finally, the scene with Grey Matter’s Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley) appearing on “Charlie Rose” was all set to be lensed on April 8, but that turned out to be the day that former British Prime Minister Thatcher died, so Rose’s schedule was turned upside down. They wound up pulling it off the following day, MacLaren says.

Working with snow for the scenes depicting Walter White hiding out in the New Hampshire cabin was also an unusual challenge for “Breaking Bad” crew. They went location scouting about a week before the sequences were shot in March and found plenty of snow up in the mountains above Albuquerque. They production crew built Walt’s cabin from scratch, but during that time a mini heat wave occurred and much of the snow melted. That forced them to call in the cavalry — a fake snow provider from Los Angeles — to get the job done. The production team also took great care to honor the “leave no trace” ethos by clearing out the entire effort without any lasting impact on the natural surroundings.

“It was challenging physically to send a crew up the mountain,” MacLaren says. “We’re a show that’s used to shooting in the desert, not snow.”

All the efforts paid off with a finale that was embraced by critics and fans alike — to the tune of more than 10 million viewers (and counting). By the time it aired on Sept. 29, MacLaren was already in Croatia working on the first of two “Game of Thrones” segs she is shooting for the HBO drama’s upcoming fourth season. But there was no escaping the excitement generated by the show’s finale (directed by Gilligan). Many of those working on “Game of Thrones” watched the finale via iTunes the following day. MacLaren was able to parachute in to L.A. the week before for the Emmys, where “Breaking Bad” won for drama series. The whirlwind of activity has been exhilarating and emotional, MacLaren says.

“We’re a very close family,” she says. “We were so excited for people to see those final episodes. We worked very hard and wanted to make the audience feel that the story is complete in a very satisfying way.”

MacLaren’s work on “Breaking Bad,” “Thrones,” and other shows has made her one of primetime’s most sought-after helmer-producers. She’s got “a few irons in the fire” for new projects, but at the moment she’s happy to be back tackling the kingdoms of “Thrones” and basking in the glow of “Breaking Bad” going out on such a high.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to work on wonderful shows,” MacLaren says. ” ‘Breaking Bad’ was a magical, amazing experience. I’m honored to have been a part of it.”

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