How Dave Porter Merges the Music of ‘Better Call Saul’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ (Audio)

John Campopiano

It’s hard enough creating music for one show. But for almost every theme Dave Porter creates for “Better Call Saul,” he has to think about how it fits in with the musical world he already created for “Breaking Bad.”

Porter ambitiously created individual pieces for key characters on “Breaking Bad,” and gets to use some of them again for “Saul.” But because “Saul” is mostly set years before “Breaking Bad,” Porter needs the music to reflect those characters earlier in their lives. (The title character, for example, isn’t yet the smooth criminal lawyer Saul Goodman of “Breaking Bad” — he’s still struggling attorney Jimmy McGill.)

If that’s not complicated enough, sometimes “Saul” takes place after “Breaking Bad.” And Porter says that sometime soon — ready for a huge spoiler? — the two shows might even overlap.

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You’ll hear many snippets of Porter’s work at the Emmys on Sunday, if nominees for “Saul” get to walk onstage to collect some well-deserved awards. You can also hear his music on NBC’s “The Blacklist,” AMC’s “Preacher”… and embedded in the interview below.

TheWrap: Can you walk us through the musical genesis of going from “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul”?

Dave Porter: When we began to work on “Better Call Saul,” Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were adamant that the show would be very different than “Breaking Bad,” which meant reevaluating everything and creating a whole new musical vocabulary for the show. At first I had a hard time with that, admittedly. I had gone in expecting to do a lighter variation of what we had done so successfully for “Breaking Bad.”

“Better Call Saul” End Credits Music (story continues after):

And since “Better Call Saul” takes place in the same universe and features some of the same characters, and we know that at some point at the end of Jimmy/Saul’s journey, we’re going to catch up to the beginning of “Breaking Bad,” wouldn’t we want to start out with something that already relates? But I’m so glad we invested all of the hard work to make “Better Call Saul” stand on its own from the start, because it really helped guide us in our exploration of Jimmy in a way that wouldn’t have been the same if we started out with any preconceived connections to “Breaking Bad.”

One important stroke of good fortune for me was that we almost never used score for Saul during “Breaking Bad.” He was comic foil interjected in between moments of tension, and as such never needed it. This freed me up at the beginning of “Better Call Saul” because it meant that when it came to establishing a sound for Jimmy/Saul I could start from scratch. Compared to the “Breaking Bad” score, I’m utilizing far fewer synthesizers and sound design, instead relying on a palette of instruments that feels a bit more spontaneous and intimate. This includes alto flute, old organs, guitar, vibraphone, mellotron, and other instruments that I lean on much more heavily in “Better Call Saul” than I did for “Breaking Bad.”

So with the exception, of course, of the flash forward to Saul’s post-“Breaking Bad” life in the pilot, the score in the “Better Call Saul” pilot and throughout most of the first season is purposefully very different.

In terms of certain characters from “Breaking Bad” that have shown up in “Better Call Saul,” how have you approached giving them unique musical identities?

This year in season two we followed two major arcs as they moved towards the characters that we know from “Breaking Bad”: Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut. Musically, both are evolving, but at their own pace. Jimmy’s score has changed a little — it’s a bit more reflective this year, a little less carefree, as his actions are now leading to consequences that are potentially more damaging in the long run. Mike, however, seems to be moving at a much quicker pace toward the Mike we know from “Breaking Bad.” The music I’ve written for him reflects each step that brings him closer to involvement with the ABQ underworld. It still isn’t as dire as it becomes in “Breaking Bad,” however, as Mike is still a free man making his own decisions and fighting his own battles. In time we know that Mike’s skills become co-opted by more powerful forces.

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Unlike our major players in “Better Call Saul,” when previous characters well known to “Breaking Bad” viewers have returned, I’ve gone right to the music we’ve always associated with them. That’s been true for Tuco Salamanca, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, and most recently The Cousins.

For the most part, these characters have the same looming presence they had in “Breaking Bad.” This is particularly true for The Cousins, as they are largely silent characters.

The Cousins’ Theme (story continues after):

Did their music change from “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul”?

Since introducing them in the third season opener of “Breaking Bad,” we’ve told their story through music — and we continue to do so, even when they first appear looking down on Mike in the episode 206, “Bali Ha’i” of season 2 of “Better Call Saul.”

We experimented briefly with a tamer musical version for that first sighting on the rooftop, but quickly realized that they are just as ominous now as they ever will be in “Breaking Bad.” Mike immediately recognizes this, so there was no reason to hold back. The distinctive score we created for them in “Breaking Bad” — with its brushed Mexican drums, low pump organ, hand percussion, and traditional Aztec war whistles — felt very satisfying to revisit since it has always been part and parcel of who The Cousins are.

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When it comes to the storytelling element in general, are you encountering any musical similarities or overlapping themes between “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”?

One thing that remains the same between the two shows is our love of the process of crime, both large and small. While we have never shied away from acknowledging the devastation that crime creates, we still enjoy the details and ingenuity of successful criminals at work…and getting away with it. That was true in Breaking Bad in scenes where Gus Fring’s empire smuggles drugs around the southwest in chicken batter and later when Walter White takes over his business. In “Better Call Saul,” it manifests itself in the little cons that Jimmy pulls off, all the way up to something like the extended teaser in episode 208, “Fifi,” which follows a drug shipment through a border crossing and ultimately all of the way to Hector Salamanca. The score that I wrote for that scene has a bravado that we reserve for those kinds of moments, and in this case was the second-longest piece I’ve written for either show — second only to another example from “Breaking Bad”: the train robbery sequence in, “Dead Freight.”

As we move slowly closer towards a point when Breaking Bad possibly overlaps with the “Better Call Saul” timeline, it will be interesting to see if other characters reappear and how we handle them musically. Speaking for myself, I’m not in any hurry. I’m very much enjoying our exploration of Jimmy and his world as well as Mike’s unfortunate entanglements. In due time, both paths will lead to where we know fate must take them.

“Magic Hands”:

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