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Interview with Breaking Bad's Line Producer Stewart Lyons - Happy 10th Birthday Breaking Bad! #BrBa10

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In honor and celebration of Breaking Bad's 10th birthday. I had the pleasure of talking with Line Producer Stewart Lyons. Stewart was the only one among the entire cast and crew that was on set everyday throughout the series.

Shirleena Cunningham: Stewart, You were a Line Producer for Breaking Bad. Now can you explain exactly what's the difference between a Line Producer, and  an Executive Producer, and a Producer?

Stewart Lyons: Okay. In television, the Executive Producer, the most important
Executive Producer, is referred to as the Showrunner, and that was Vince Gilligan. He
was the one who came up with the idea, and he was the one who supervises all the key
creative choices that a choice makes, like what episodes to do, who gets cast, just
oversees what the show is. The Line Producer is the person who basically makes that
happen according to the vision of the Showrunner. There are other Executive Producers
on Breaking Bad, Mark John was an important part of the show in terms of getting it
set up, and then he's an extremely experienced Producer.

So shows are complicated things, so he would take on many of the studio and
network relation responsibilities, and also advise Vince as the case develops. There
were other people who later became Executive Producers, like Michelle MacLaren, due
to their importance to the show, because she wound up directing more episodes than
any other Director that we had. As a Line Producer, I'm responsible for basically
budgeting, scheduling, overseeing the operations of the show, facilities, safety, just the
equivalent of a COO in a corporation.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay, because I noticed on Breaking Bad, some of the episodes, it says Produced by you, and then some of the episodes it doesn't. What does that exactly mean?

Stewart Lyons: Depending, in the earlier shows, I was a Producer, and I was always
the UPM, the Unit Production Manager. So first two seasons, Karen Moore was the Line
Producer, and then she left the show, and I took over.

Shirleena Cunningham: What was your first impression of the script?

Stewart Lyons: Just how different it was, from anything else that I had read, that it just
didn't fall into ... This was just at the very beginning of quality television taking over
the experience, so we were reading something about a 50-year-old guy in a very
depressed economic situation and gets a death sentence, and is dealing with a really
horrible drug, and commits murder. So I thought, "Well, this isn't going to go."

I mean, the writing's brilliant, and I do remember thinking that some of the
writing was just off the charts, most of the writing of that first script was ... I just
stop, and that wasn't my usual experience with reading television
scripts. So it was impressive but did I have any vision that it was going to be as
successful as it turned out to be? No, I don't think I did, and I'm not sure anybody did.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. I was watching the PaleyFest when Breaking Bad was on it and Vince was talking about they wanted to do Mr. Rogers turning
into Scarface.

Stewart Lyons: Yeah, that's how he, well, he called it Mr. Chips. He may have said Mr.
Rogers on Amazon, but his initial pitch was Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah, that's exactly what it was. It was Mr. Chips. I just said Mr.Rogers right now in my head but, yeah, it's Mr. Chips turning into Scarface, and I was just like, "That's exactly what happened."

Stewart Lyons: Yup.

Shirleena Cunningham: Walt was this depressed, school teacher and then he turned into a mass killer. That's crazy, but yeah.

Stewart Lyons: But do you see? That, although the pitch is very simple, no one had
ever taken a good person and turned them into a bad person on television before.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yes, exactly!

Stewart Lyons: As a matter of fact, television is based on nobody changing, so that you
can keep doing episodes. So there are several layers of innovation just in that one
statement, that you begin to get an idea of what a departure the show was.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah.. Now, what was the first day of shooting, what scene ... I think you said it was the drug bust, if I remember correctly.

Stewart Lyons: Yeah, the drug bust was the first day.

Stewart Lyons: Well, this was the SWAT bust, when Walter White is on the ride-along
with his brother-in-law, and Gomez is there, too. So they're busting a drug lab, and
next door to the drug lab Jesse is having a tryst with a woman, and he falls out the
window, or he jumps out the window to make sure that he escapes the drug bust, and
runs off. Walter White sees Jesse doing that, recognizes him as a former student. So
that was day one.

Shirleena Cunningham: What was the energy of that day? 

Stewart Lyons: Well, the first day of any shoot is always exciting. It's actually my
favorite day because it means that, since I'm responsible for getting all the equipment
and people there, and making sure we have a schedule and a budget, means that I've
succeeded in doing at least a good part of my job right there, and then I just have to
keep the show running. Everybody's learning everybody else, and trying to get it going.
We had a terrific crew, and the cinematographer was John Toll, who had won two
Oscars by that time, and it was a beautiful, crisp, clear day, cold, but it worked out
pretty well.

Shirleena Cunningham: Oh, that's awesome. Now I have a fan question here. At what point did the writers or Vince decide to not kill off Jesse?

Stewart Lyons: Sometime after they shot the pilot, and before we came back for season
one, is my guess.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay.

Stewart Lyons: It might have actually been during the shooting of the pilot, those
discussions might have happened, because the chemistry between those two people was
just so, so spectacular.

Shirleena Cunningham: Between Bryan and Aaron, are you talking about?

Stewart Lyons: Yes.

Shirleena Cunningham: Let's talk about when they're blowing up the truck behind twins.

Stewart Lyons: Yeah.

Shirleena Cunningham: They were mentioning that none of it is CGI.

Stewart Lyons: Oh, absolutely not. It's completely real, and nothing was compiled. It's
not two separate shots. It's you see the truck explode behind them, and they don't even
blink. They don't even blink. It's just like, are you kidding me? And the explosion was a
pretty good size.

Shirleena Cunningham: Unbelieveable! So what else about that day you can mention?

Stewart Lyons: Well, couple things, first, it was supposed to be done a previous day, but
the fire department had given an unclear instruction regarding how high the grass
could be around the fire area, because they obviously didn't want to have a fire started.
So the first day that we thought we were going to do it, we couldn't do it because the
grass was too high, so we had to re-mow it, [and] come back. Second thing was that the
explosion was a little bit bigger than we anticipated, and flying debris went over the
heads of the twins, and that we didn't anticipate. Nobody got hurt and there were no
fires started, but it was quite an impressive bang.

Shirleena Cunningham: Wow. Now whose idea was it to do that head on the turtle?

Stewart Lyons: That's the writer's.

Shirleena Cunningham: The writer.

Stewart Lyons: Uh-huh.

Shirleena Cunningham: Well, I mean, but who ... I don't remember who wrote the episode, but to this day, I can't even watch that part, because I have a pretty strong stomach, but I can't even watch that scene.

Stewart Lyons: Well, that's quite understandable. Vince called me up because
obviously we needed a little lead time, and said, "This is what we're planning to do,"
and I said, "Well, okay, let's make that happen." So the deets were that he wanted a
real tortoise from that area, which is North of Mexico, and as I started doing research,
it turned out that native tortoises are all endangered, and a little bit smaller than he
needed, so we couldn't touch a native tortoise. However, there's a feral population of
African horned tortoises that people had given up off and set free in the wild, and so we
used one of those.

I found that [one] at a reptile store in Albuquerque. The way that the head was
attached was with a toilet seat, a toilet ring, the way a toilet gets attached to a floor. We
put that on the back, because obviously you can't nail it, and that's a soft piece. The
other fun stuff is that it was a cold day, and we had to keep the tortoise warm.
Otherwise, it wouldn't move at all, and that tortoises are highly motivated by romaine
lettuce, so the motivation. In terms of that head, that head was specifically cast. At that
point, we didn't have the bad guy, and then I pointed out to Vince that we're going to
need time to build that head, and so they had to jump ahead on casting.

Shirleena Cunningham: Huh.

Stewart Lyons: Vince still has the head, I believe, but that guys
keeps getting killed in movies, and asking for the head to be used, and Vince is very
gracious about letting him borrow his own head back.

Shirleena Cunningham: That's nice. I always skip that part. I can never watch it.

Stewart Lyons: Yeah.

Shirleena Cunningham: All right. So let's talk about Bob [ Odenkirk] and Jonathan [Banks] first day on set.

Stewart Lyons: Well, Bob's first day on set was a day in which his character's being
taken out into the desert, and he thinks [he's] going to be killed, and that is a night scene, and that night was an amazingly bad sandstorm, and Bob was a total trooper, because he has to do that scene in both English and Spanish, and it was physically painful to be out there. He just completely stood up and did it, and that was very impressive.

Jonathan's first day was following the death of Jane, and Jonathan is just, he's
so centered. You just don't see any ramping up. You don't see him sweat. He just does it
perfectly, and so he came in to do the scene. It was an interior stage day I believe, and
he is just amazing, and that character was not originally part of the series. As a matter
of fact, it was not supposed to even be Jonathan. It was supposed to be another
character doing it, but Jonathan was available, and that's how that happened. So that
to me [ that] is a happy accident.

Shirleena Cunningham: Oh, wow. Yeah, he own's that character, same with Bob.  I know the writers are amazing. Did Bob ever improvise, any of the Saul Goodman character ?

Stewart Lyons: You don't improvise on a Vince Gilligan script, and there's a couple of
reasons for it. One, the immense respect that we all have for his writing, how carefully
every word has been chosen. The other thing is if you're doing a single standing
episode of some show, let's say, a hospital show or a detective show, where everything
wraps up at the end, it's possible that you could improvise a line, but the problem with
doing serialized drama, is everything has to line up.

If you start going off the tracks, because the tone of an improvisation is wrong,
or the facts that you talk about in the improv are wrong, then the lines are not going to
connect. And remember, they're writing the whole season so that everything connects.
So it's not what the actor's task is to do. You don't need to come up with a better word,
better way of saying something on a Vince Gilligan show.

Shirleena Cunningham: Right. That makes sense. Do you know that episode when Jesse, Gus,and Mike go down to Mexico with the cartel, where was that shot? 

Stewart Lyons: Everything except for the train and the stuff out at the ... Basically,
everything was Albuquerque.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay.  That was a beautiful episode. It was just stunning.  Now the episode when Gus gets blown up, Greg Nictero did the makeup?

Stewart Lyons: Yeah.

Shirleena Cunningham: What's it like working with him?

Stewart Lyons: Yeah. Well, Nicotero is the genius behind Walking Dead's makeup, and
again, every shot, every part of that was planned. It took months to set up. You have to
do that casting of the mask. That takes a while to build, and that is a combination of
makeup, prosthetic makeup, CGI, and CGI.

Shirleena Cunningham: Oh, so it was makeup and CGI with Gus's head?

Stewart Lyons: Yes, yeah.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay.  Which aspect of Breaking Bad production would you consider to be the most impressive in comparison to all other TV shows you've worked on?

Stewart Lyons: Couple things. One was the quality and the visuals that were done. The
crew, the sense of camaraderie and professionalism that just was there from the
beginning, and just built throughout the end. By the end, we had almost over a 90%
New Mexican crew. The respect of the cast and professionalism of the cast was
extraordinary. All of those things made it, and then of course, the quality of what
everybody was doing was just ... We all knew not very quickly but certainly by getting to
the second season, that we were likely on probably one of the best shows being done at
that time, and then it turned out to be one of the best shows in history. So that's a
privilege. You don't get that every day.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. Who were your favorite guest stars?

Stewart Lyons: Oh, it was certainly Gus, but he became a series regular.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah,

Stewart Lyons: There was nobody who was bad. It was just fun to see everybody.
Krysten Ritter was terrific. The guy who makes everybody disappear, I'm just trying to
think of his name. I'm so sorry. He's such a great character actor. He was just terrific.
The twins were amazing to work with, all of these people. Look, the casting people that
we had were just fantastic. You basically had not heard of any of those folks really as
leads on our show until they were cast in there. Dean Norris was pretty well established
but he wasn't a household name, and Bryan Cranston was certainly well respected but
he was, not a supporting actor, but he was not the lead in Malcolm in the Middle.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah.

Stewart Lyons: So this is a show that-

Shirleena Cunningham: Made everybody.

Stewart Lyons: Yeah, that made everybody, and a great deal of that credit is to Bialy  [and] Thomas, for casting it, and for Vince to make the selections and fight for the selections that he wanted for the show.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. All right. So Breaking Bad covered extremely dark contexts. Did anything cross the line for you? Did anything get too gross, like the head for me?

Stewart Lyons: Too gross? No, because you're involved in the fictional reality, and I'm
watching it being put together. So no, I didn't quite get totally grossed out. Sometimes
when they would beat Jesse up, and you'd see his beat-up face, it was a little hard to
look at, but no. The things that struck me would be the kind of casual cruelty of some
of the characters towards other people.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. What were some of your favorite moments from filming, and any bloopers or moments that you can share?

Stewart Lyons: I think that when we went out to do, in the pilot, the work out in the
desert, that was really very special. Certainly, there were episodes that I think were
some of the most brilliant episodes I've ever seen in any show, and all of us, it's just too
numerous to get into, but those are the kinds of things.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay.  How challenging was it to maintain the movie-like feel of a show that had such a quick turnaround?

Stewart Lyons: I think part of it is that you can waste a
tremendous amount of time guessing as to what should be the best route. The kind of
talent that we had from the writing, to the cinematography, to the post-production, the
kind of talent we had all the way through just meant that people had a very clear line
as to what the best solutions were going to be. The writing never flipped around in
terms of, "Oh, we're going in this direction. Ope, no, we're going over here."
So that, if there were things that needed a lot of preparation, we knew about
them in time to do the preparation. It's not to say that we weren't scrambling or under
time pressure, because we were, but it was just a terrific team, and everybody was
operating at full capacity, and that makes a difference. We also had a lot of support
from Sony was the production company, and we just had a tremendous amount of
support from their executives, and pretty much all the way through.

Shirleena Cunningham: Right. That's wonderful.  What is the best advice a mentor has ever given you?

Stewart Lyons: Well, I think treating people with respect, I think,
is pretty much, I think, the key, because if you do do that, then it will grow. People will
remember that, and you have no idea how things can hook together, because everybody
is freelance, which means that everybody is completely doing two jobs, the job they're
doing, and trying to find the next job they're doing.

So being honest and decent has its rewards, and that's not to say that there
aren't a lot of creeps in this business, or in every business, but I think you have to
make a choice as to how you want to be handled, and how you want to handle other
people, and try and stay with that. If you fall off the path, and nobody's perfect, then
you've got to realign yourself, and get back to just focusing on doing the work in the
best possible, honest, decent fashion.

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