Composer Dave Porter on Better Call Saul’s Final Season

ComingSoon’s Jeff Ames spoke with composer Dave Porter about his score for the final season of the acclaimed Better Call Saul.

Dave Porter is a Los Angeles-based composer for film and television. He began his classical musical training at the piano at age five, but it was his interest in electronic music as a teen that led him to start composing his own music. He studied both classical and electronic music composition at Sarah Lawrence College under John Yannelli and started his professional career as an assistant in Philip Glass’ recording studio in New York City.

Dave is perhaps best known for his enduring creative relationship with one of Hollywood’s most respected figures — Vince Gilligan. In the past few years, Dave has also worked with James Franco on his masterful film The Disaster Artist, for which Franco was awarded a Golden Globe. Dave is scoring his 9th season (nearly 200 episodes!) of the worldwide smash James Spader drama The Blacklist, and will soon begin work on the 3rd season of Starz’s hit series Hightown. Other recent credits include AMC’s boundary-defying series Preacher — produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Sam Catlin.

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Jeff Ames: So, you’re coming to the end of Better Call Saul. How are you feeling right now?

Dave Porter: Denial — in great big capital letters. I’m so busy and emerged on purpose in what we’re doing that I’m just blocking all thoughts of the end out of my head. I can’t even wrap my head around it. When I do stop to contemplate it, the feeling is very bittersweet. It’s such a unique experience for anyone to work with the same group of people for fifteen years and its jut hard to imagine not having that in my life. At the same time, I’m so incredibly proud of the body of work and how we’re going out here. There’s so much thankfulness and appreciation and pride in that feeling too.

When you first started Saul, was there a notion that you had unresolved business — like, you had a second opportunity to explore different themes and concepts that you weren’t able to tackle in Breaking Bad?

Absolutely true. And I didn’t even know how much that was going to be true. When we first started Better Call Saul, my feeling was, “Ok, some of these characters we know, some we don’t. Same story.” I figured I could expand upon the world of music I wrote for Breaking Bad while still keeping it tethered. To my surprise, that idea was immediately rejected [laughs] by Peter and Vince, who absolutely wanted to start fresh. At the time, I didn’t fully understand it. I felt like we knew the character already and it wasn’t necessary to need to be so tonally different.

As the years have gone by, the importance of that have been key, because what it did was allow me to establish this very new universe and these new characters knowing how much the story was going to eventually catch up to the Breaking Bad universe that we knew from before. That allowed me to slowly integrate pieces of that Breaking Bad sound — or palette, if you like — as we moved along, but I didn’t have to start with any of it. I could introduce it fresh — each little piece here and there as we meet these little pieces of the universe from Breaking Bad in Saul’s story.

I would say no that we’re in Season 6, the score is more than it’s ever been like the score in Breaking Bad.

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Where did Saul’s theme come from?

Glad you asked. I actually had nothing to do with that theme [laughs]. That was actually decided so early on that I wasn’t even on the project yet. They had found a piece of music by a band in England called Little Barry. Something about that exact vibe just resonated strongly with Peter and Vince.

Did that help inform your music at all because you could see which direction they wanted to go?

That’s a really good question. I don’t think I ever thought of it that way. A little bit, I think, is the answer. What it did was help me get a gauge tonally where Vince and Peter were at the beginning of Better Call Saul and the change we needed to make. Probably, if it had an influence tonally on the score it would’ve happened early on. Now, the score I’m writing is very far away from where they stood. In the same way that the music for Season 6 is much different than the music in Season 1.

And as you said, it’s much darker. That being said, the show has quite a bit of levity as well. How do you reconcile the lighter moments with the darker ones?

That is one of the trickiest parts and has been consistently throughout the run of Better Call Saul — navigating between the different story arcs. All cross paths here and there but they all have their owns stories. The trick for me, especially in this final season, for example, is in the fun Jimmy/Kim moments where they’re doing their capers and playing their pranks on Hamlin, but I want to enjoy that levity but also make sure there’s gravity in it. Make sure there’s enough gravity in it that there are some bigger picture stakes that you feel even when they’re having fun. We know that they’re doing these things for many reasons that reflect something about who they are because normal people wouldn’t go to those lengths [laughs] to do those things.

So, in those moments I’m always trying to focus on the bigger picture. To me, that’s one of the the most important roles that score can play in a great drama like this one is to keep an eye always on the bigger picture and what are the reasons why this is happening and what are the motivations behind the people that are doing them. Because, you know that these writers are bright enough that it matters. And the reason behind all these things, even if they seem small or funny, whether it’s Jimmy hosting a BINGO night or one of these seemingly lighters moments, they’re grounded in the story of these characters and what drives them and ultimately there’s something really tragic about all of that.

As a composer, do you want people to hear your score or would you rather manipulate from behind the curtains? 

My personal take on that is that the vast majority of the time the score should be always in subservience to the story and the storytelling. And most of the time I think if you’re a first time viewer, if the music is what you’re noticing first than I haven’t done my job well. It should be a seamless part of all the creative choices that have been made from how something is shot, edited and acted — all of those elements together form this experience. Hopefully you don’t notice any of those particular parts of the craft. You enjoy the experience of being a viewer and having the story told to you. I think that’s always my foremost goal. There are some instances where music can be a little showier than others and that’s fine so long as it works within the context of story and the overall production of the TV show.

I know you can’t spoil anything, but is there a particular piece of music coming up that you’re excited for audiences to hear this season?

[Laughs] Obviously, I can’t say anything about anything that’s coming. I don’t think it’s any secret that the most enormous question marks are what are the fates of the people we know that we don’t see or hear much about in Breaking Bad. Those characters, specifically Nacho and Kim, are going to have important character arcs and stories to tell. If you’ve watched the first few episodes, Nacho has been one of the characters I’ve loved writing for this whole series. Following his journey has been a special pleasure to me. I’m very proud of the score we’ve written for his story arc.

Is there a chance we get a record release of Better Call Saul similar to the El Camino soundtrack?

Nothing has been announced yet. I’ve been so busy with the show. There have been discussions about it and I certainly hope to do it. It just comes down to timing. Normally I have another season to work on, so the window is usually large for me to get that out because there’s still interest. Now, we’re coming to a brick barrier and we’ve got to be able to release this while it’s still useful for folks. I certainly hope we can do it, but no news on it yet.

What’s next for you after Better Call Saul? Are you taking a break?

I actually am hoping to take a little break. The end of this particular journey, this Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul/El Camino journey, like I said, I haven’t even begun to wrap my head around it. I’m so deep in it right now and I will be for the better part of this year to be honest. When that’s all over it’s going to give me a chance to think about what does come next for me. Is it going to be working on more films? Or an album? Or some kind of record I’ve been too busy to do over these past years. Also, the bittersweetness of the end of Better Call Saul has a silver lining in that I’m very sure all the talented I’ve gotten to work with over the years on these shows have more stories to tell within them. I’m not sure what the future holds, but I’m confident that while we may not all work together again in this same way, I’ll have the opportunity to write music for these people again later on.