Hello Film Doctor friends.
Dave Porter has composed original music for some of the best-loved TV shows in recent history including BAFTA, Golden Globe and Emmy-winning drama Breaking Bad, its thrilling prequel Better Call Saul, crime thriller The Blacklist and Seth Rogen produced comic book series Preacher.
Dave has won three American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) awards for his work and has just wowed audiences worldwide with his amazing score on James Franco’s touching buddy comedy The Disaster Artist.
Here Dave joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about composing for the film, how he got started in the industry, his creative process and scoring Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
Where are you from and how did you become interested and involved with music?
I was born in San Francisco but moved very young to the Washington DC suburbs, and grew up there. My parents are both very musical people, but not professional musicians. They met singing in the Duke University choir in the 1960s. I think they always envisioned music as part of the educational upbringing for myself and for my younger sister; music was always around in the house. Although, unlike most kids, I was almost exclusively exposed to classical music until almost junior high school. My parents were just not into anything more modern than that [laughs] … so that was my world when I was young.
My father started piano at a young age and he wanted that experience for me and my younger sister as well. It was just something that we did every day – after school came piano lessons. As a kid I did a lot of concerts and competitions up and down the East Coast. But for me it was purely educational. It was my schooling and, frankly, a lot of my friends did it as well. So it wasn’t until I made that leap into pop music – as a teenager at the height of the 1980s, when I got into synthesizers and music technology – that I started to wrap my head around the idea that music could be something that I could make myself, as opposed to just performing an existing piece of music.
As a teenager my musical expression was purely electronic; my classical music world and my electronic world were completely separate. It wasn’t until I got to college when I started experimenting and mixing the two, and also working more directly with other artists… using music as a collaborative art alongside theatre, dance, and film.
I think those things cemented the core pieces of what I still do today – which is always a mixture of different mediums and trying to use the strengths of each — both acoustic and electronic.
So how did you get into working on TV shows?
My career really happened in two stages, in two different cities. I went to school close to New York City and as a result – or as a benefit of that – I did internships around some of the big New York recording studios and got to meet some people in that world.
My first job out of school was as an assistant engineer at Philip Glass’s studio which, at the time, was in Lower Manhattan. It was a great place: I not only got to experience more of his work, which I was already influenced a lot by during college, but it was also fundamentally a working studio. A lot of other artists came through as well, like David Bowie, for example. I got exposed to a lot very quickly, which was very eye-opening to me to see how lots of different kinds of music got made, in a professional environment, as opposed to an academic one.
I got intrigued by this group of guys that were coming in, doing TV work – which at that time in New York was primarily commercials and some sports & news music. When I saw how it was done, it dawned on me that this could be something I could do.
So I moved out of the studio and engineering world into assisting composers like that, who were still working in studios, but more on the composing end. Then, ultimately, I had my own company with a few other talented guys in New York for a few years. And that’s where I learned my chops: how to be fast, how to be decisive, and I learned the technology, etc. I was in my 20s, in New York, and loving what I was doing.
But there was a part of me that had always yearned to do dramatic tv and film work and there wasn’t a lot of that available in New York at the time. There was always something that had me thinking “I have to move to LA”. And, actually, it was 9/11 that did it for me. It was just time; it was a moment of change. And a few months after that I relocated to LA.
I got there thinking “My New York credits will do it, I’ll be working in no time” and then spent 2 years sitting on my ass, watching all of my savings disappear [laughs] because, as you can imagine, it’s a very different world. And I just didn’t know anybody.
So it took a lot of perseverance and persistence. Ultimately, I got to work on my first TV series for TNT. It only lasted a season but through that you meet people and you get into the mechanism of how the business works. And through some other friends, I was fortunate enough to see the Breaking Bad pilot and I could see it was terrific and I just pursued it, doggedly. Thankfully, I was able to work on that, which solidified my career.
When you say “pursued it doggedly”, was it a case of coming up with things and sending them or was it a case of conversations? How did it work?
Well, I was very fortunate to already know both the music supervisor and the music editor, who were already hired – or were in the process of being hired – on the pilot. So I had that ‘insider connection’.
But I think also I was very fortunate that, at the time, Breaking Bad was on a very unknown US cable channel [AMC] that was just starting to branch into doing original content. Their first series was Mad Men, and it only pre-dated Breaking Bad by a few months, I think, or maybe a year at most.
So they were very new to it and kind of flew under the Hollywood radar. There weren’t a million composers banging on the door for those shows yet, thankfully. So I was there and was contributing music very early on in the process and folks liked it, and it worked. So when it came to hiring a composer, as far as I know, I was the only person they spoke to – so very fortunate in that regard.
Of course, now AMC in the US is a power player; and I have been fortunate enough to work with them on a number of projects – and now everybody wants to work on those shows, because their standard of dramatic quality is so high.
Tell us a little bit about working on Breaking Bad. The music evolves so much over the series.
Part of it was evolutionary. And this is the beauty of working in TV, at least, when you’re fortunate enough to work on series that lasts for a while. You have this real estate of time to experiment, to build out certain parts, to follow themes, to bring back themes from before, to evolve things slowly, over a long period of time, along with the story.
I also had a sense – from the moment that I first saw the pilot – that it was so unique in the television landscape that a ‘traditional’ score would be just the wrong match for it. I was really determined to have it sonically stand out in the television landscape, as much as it does visually. So that was the goal. And that was what led me to rule out, almost entirely, orchestral instruments.
What you’re left with on your plate after that is the technology – synthesizers, sound manipulation – all the amazing and interesting things you can do with computer technology. And world instruments, which is a very broad term, obviously, but by which I mean everything that is not in the traditional Western orchestral palette. And I certainly leaned on that very heavily as well.
And then, finally, ‘found’ sounds – recordings of things that I made, or sometimes even sounds that appeared in the show which inspired me in a musical way. Like the beeps of a hospital respirator or Tio’s [Hector “Tio” Salamanca] bell. Working alongside our sound team and rerecording mixers to create that complete sonic universe is something that is always rewarding to me, and we are still at it today on Better Call Saul.
It’s also amazing that the end credit music on Breaking Bad is different each time – not something that happens on every show. How did that happen? Was it planned or organic?
That came about organically, and not from the beginning. We didn’t do it in the original season, which was purely a technical thing, actually – because in the first season we were able to roll straight into credits from the end of the show. But each subsequent year we had to break for commercials before the credits. So where we used to end on a song or a piece of score that continued through the credits, we couldn’t do that anymore.
Starting in season two when we tried to just use one piece of music over the end credits it didn’t always work because the endings were so varied. The emotional place we were leaving our audience was very different from one week to the next, so sometimes that music would work, but other times felt wrong. That led to my doing new cues for each episode’s end credits that always incorporated elements of the original theme, but were meant to be reflective of where we’ve left you at the end of the episode.
I didn’t realize, of course, what a big task I just created for myself when I embarked on that road [laughs] but I am proud of it and I do think it was worth doing, and definitely added something to the show.
And it is worth pointing out, too, that when we began Breaking Bad there was no Netflix, there was no Amazon — there was no streaming and no binge watching. So we were very intent on leaving people with an emotion that they were going to stew over for a week. Now, people’s viewing habits have changed so much; doing it now might not have the same effect. There are plenty of positives to binge watching, I think, and I’m as guilty of that as everyone else, but it has it’s downsides as well.
And what about Better Call Saul. Was that a challenge to live up to Breaking Bad? Of course, it’s a very different show with a different vibe.
To be honest with you, it was tough, for all of us, coming into it. Vince [Gilligan] and Peter Gould, who originally created the character of Saul, were adamant that the show be different. Everything about it is different – it’s shot differently, it’s written differently – and the music needed to be different too.
On the other hand, when we walked into it, it wasn’t that long after Breaking Bad had ended and it was all the same crew. We had gotten the band back together, to use the cliché. And it was hard to break the mould of something that had worked so well.
So it took some time, to be honest, to really break free, emotionally – especially since there are some of the same characters involved in Better Call Saul – and, at least at the beginning, we needed to go somewhere else creatively.
What I did through orchestration is to move away from the synthesizers and sound design and instead lean on what I call a “classic rock palette”. A 1970s rock palette – guitars, bass, drums, electro-mechanical keyboards, organs, and hand percussion. That allowed for a sound that was lighter and a little more nimble. Fast moving. But it still had the opportunity to be poignant and a get dark where necessary.
Now it’s interesting, as we’re moving closer and closer to the Breaking Bad timeline – Better Call Saul is of course a prequel – and we’re being introduced to more and more characters from the Breaking Bad world. The show itself is descending into a darker place. I’m slowly being able to integrate some little pieces and nuance from Breaking Bad and we will see where the story takes us. The idea being that we may eventually get to a sound that is very close to where Breaking Bad began.
Before we discuss The Disaster Artist, is there a “standard set-up” in your studio that you like to use? A list of instruments or tools that you just must have in place?
I have a little self-contained studio in my backyard – it used to be a detached garage – which is incredibly common in LA. I work in Pro Tools for both editing and recording and I have a big mix of both digital, computer, and hardware things that I’ve collected since I was a teenager.
I’m really good at buying gear and really bad at selling it, so I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years [laughs]. But I do use it. I find a connection to physical instruments often in a way that I don’t with software, which is not to say I don’t use software. I definitely do. In particular, I love to use effects plugins. The flexibility of them is just unmatched.
But my creative process, when I’m really starting with a blank page, is to have everything in my room turned on. And I have a nice little system now where everything can be patched into Pro Tools through software and I don’t have to think about it too much and can just walk around the room and experiment with different instruments.
I’d often put whatever I need to be working on video-wise on a loop – just rolling and rolling, while I’m walking around and experimenting with things. And, hopefully, eventually there is a little nugget of something that I think is interesting, so I’ll record that and use it as a springboard to, hopefully, add more things from there.
So is that where you do most of your actual output? Or do you have to go to another studio, etc. to finish things off? How does that work?
Yes, that’s a good question. For all my TV stuff I do my own mixing. So it starts here and ends here. If I need to record live instruments, sometimes I do that here in my little composing room. But more often than not I’d hire a place, locally. But that’s only to record. Then I’ll bring it all back home and mix. That’s for my television stuff, for which the masters are all stereo.
When it moves to film, that’s a different story as it has to be mixed to film specs in surround – and, although I consider myself to be a decent mixer, that’s a step too far for me. That’s where I’d rely on those folks who are experts at that to create final versions.
What’s your discipline? Or work routine/ethic? Obviously many music folk like some space and time.
I think one of the things that working in New York in a commercial environment helped me with was that ability to just turn it on. ‘Go’. Oftentimes, I’d be writing with the client there in the room; they would show up with their commercial or their sports promo at ten o’clock, and I’d shake their hands and we’d sit down and talk about it, and then I’d write it while they sat on the couch behind me. So there wasn’t a lot of time to just dally creatively; it taught me that important skill.
In terms of the time management thing, it’s something I’ve gotten better at with age. I wasn’t that disciplined when I was younger but as I got older and I got busier – that and having small children [laughs] – it definitely made me have to prioritize my time and how I work. It’s funny how it has changed.
Back in my earlier days, I remember so much of my daily focus centered around when the FedEx cut off time was. This was true even in the very early days of Breaking Bad. There was no manner of sending complete videos so easily over the internet as we do now. So there was this drive to be done by 5 o’clock every day, or whenever the FedEx cut-off was, in order to get your latest music off to your client. No one would even understand that these days.
One thing that I’d say I always require are solid blocks of time. I’m very bad at working on something for a few minutes and then getting distracted and trying to get back to it. I know some people can do that, but I’ve never been good at it.
How did The Disaster Artist come about ?
I’d already had the pleasure of working on Preacher, which is executive produced by Seth Rogen and his producing partner and long-time friend Evan Goldberg. It’s one of their babies – they’ve directed a lot of the episodes and certainly been very present and active producers. It’s been great to get to spend a lot of time with them. And It was during the course of one of those Preacher music meetings that I overhead them talking about what would become The Disaster Artist, another project that they were producing.
I was intrigued, because I’d heard about The Room but had never actually seen it, and it inspired me to buy the book, which is what those guys were treating as their ‘bible’ for the movie.
And I loved the book; I was just amazed by it [laughs] and I recommend it to anybody who enjoys The Disaster Artist or The Room. For all the great stuff they were able to put in 100 minutes of The Disaster Artist, there are even more amazing stories in the book.
So I mentioned my interest in it to those guys and thankfully they thought I’d be a good fit and they introduced me to James Franco – and that’s how I was fortunate enough to get involved.
How long was your commitment on The Disaster Artist? When did you start building it, when did you record, etc.?
We actually had quite a lot of time, which was great – especially for me. Coming from television work, it felt like an eternity [laughs]. But it was great to have that time, because it was tricky to get to the right tone for the movie. And there was a lot of discussion and a lot of thought to be put in. Not just from me, but on the whole – how the movie would be approached, edited, etc. I was fortunate to come in early enough and we were able to use music as one of the tools that helped all of us wrap our heads around what the movie should feel like.
The easy road – the obvious road – would be to make fun of these characters; put them down and be hard on them. But that’s not the story that James ever wanted to make. Once we worked that out of our system I think we found a lynchpin for the score – and the movie as a whole – in the opposite direction — which was a very positive view of their enduring friendship and shared journey. That, I think, and embracing the naiveté of their vision; the honesty and just this naïve belief they had, which makes total sense for Greg, who was so young, but seems completely paradoxical for Tommy, who you might imagine would already be too jaded to be that optimistic.
I wanted to include some of that earnest-ness, something that is not very prevalent in current scores but used to be very much the norm in older Hollywood films; and, of course, there isn’t a more obvious ‘Hollywood story’ than this one. It just felt right to be big and swelling, and unabashedly ‘Hollywood’.
At the same time, I didn’t want it to be completely a throwback, because I wanted the music to have a sense that this is an enduring story – something that could’ve happened in the 1990s as it did, or in the 1970s, or it could happen 20 years from now. Which is the story of this dream that so many people share, including all of us who worked on the movie. We all came to LA with our own version of this story and for those of us who were lucky enough to find any modicum of success or reward in doing it, it always comes in a way that isn’t how you originally imagined it.
The Disaster Artist is, of course, the extreme example of that [laughs] but I think there’s a kernel of truth in it that anyone who’s dreamed that dream can relate to. And I really wanted to make sure that the audiences felt comfortable to embrace that feeling.
So with these big orchestral pieces, what would be the tech process behind that? MIDI and then take to a recording studio?
Yes, they begin as “mock-ups”, as we call them. When you’re working back and forth, it doesn’t make sense to be actually recording stuff that then is going change. Then the samples are ultimately replaced by live musicians.
What advice can you give to emerging composers?
The best advice I ever got, creatively, is to get yourself to a place where you can be comfortable enough with the underlying technology so that you can divorce your creative process from it. Beyond that the key for me has been learning how to think more like a storyteller; more like a writer or a scriptwriter – those are the folks that are most akin to what we do as composers. Learn and listen from them about how to put the story first, without exception. Define what the objective of the score should be – not for it’s own sake but in terms of the whole collaboration. And then try to figure out how music can best play its role. Sometimes that’s a leading role and sometimes it’s a purely supportive one.
Whatever is in the best service of the story, in my experience, is always going to be the best answer.
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!