Bullz-Eye Goes Back to “Breaking Bad”

It all started, as many things do, with a seemingly innocuous question.

In early January 2011, Bryan Cranston was doing a small round of press for his new Atom.com series, “The Handlers,” and once I learned that there was a very decent possibility that I could pull one of the few available timeslots, there was never any chance that I wouldn’t throw my hat into the ring. As regular Bullz-Eye readers know, I’ve chatted with Mr. Cranston on several occasions – on the phone, at the TCA tour, even on the set of “Breaking Bad” – and he’s never proven to be anything less than a fantastic interview.

Better yet, as a result of these recurring conversations and encounters, we’ve reached a point in our relationship (such as it is) where the man actually knows who I am. Having spent many years being steadfastly convinced that no one knows who I am, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to get on the phone with him in January and have him kick off our chat by asking A) how I was, and B) when I was coming back to the set of “Breaking Bad.”

I answered the only way I possibly could: “You tell me when I’m coming, and I’m there.”

“All right, we’ll work it out again,” replied Cranston. “We’ll have another caravan.”

My heart soared at his words, of course, but as time passed, I…

Okay, you know, this would be the perfect place for me to say that Cranston’s words faded into hazy memories, and that I received a pleasant reminder of his comments a few months later when I received an email which said, “Come join us on the ‘Breaking Bad’ set!” But that’s not what happened.

What really happened was that I committed his comment to memory, dwelled on it for two months, and when a fellow TV critic got his invite and I didn’t, I promptly dropped a line to Cranston’s publicist and said, “Hey, remember when Bryan asked me when I was coming back to the set? I hear they’re doing that press caravan he mentioned!” A few days later, I got an email from Sony in which, without preface, they asked to confirm my travel arrangements to Albuquerque.

Eh. Either way, I still got to visit the set of “Breaking Bad” again. I ain’t complaining.

Day 1:

As ever, attempts to get to bed at a decent hour the night before my departure proved fruitless: when I woke at 5:00 am ET in order to get to the airport for a 6:50 AM departure, it was after having had all of three hours rest, tops. I wasn’t able to sleep as much on the plane as I’d planned, either, which meant that when I eventually arrived in Albuquerque, I was dragging serious ass. I was met at baggage claim – where, thankfully, I had no baggage to claim – by the driver of the town car that would be taking me back to the Hotel Andaluz. I say “back” because I stayed there on my previous ABQ excursion as well, and when I stepped into the lobby again, it all came back to me just how much I’d liked it. Once upon a time, it was the Albuquerque Hilton, and it’s probably just as classy now as it ever was back in those days, but now the place possesses its own unique sense of style that charms you from the moment you walk through the door.

After checking in and heading up to my room, I immediately felt as though almost every part of my body was screaming simultaneously, “Seriously, dude, we need to take a nap.” Unfortunately, there was one notable exception: my stomach, which immediately vetoed the rest of the organization and said, “C’mon, big man, break out the iPhone, pull up RoadFood.com, and let’s find us one of the culinary landmarks of Albuquerque so we can eat!” It was hard to argue, but given how tired I was, I was surprised at how easy it was to find the strength to walk 3/4 of a mile to the nearest place of note. I guess I was hungrier than I’d thought. That, or I sensed somehow that the lunch I was about to eat would be absolutely worth the walk…which, for the record, it totally was.

Say “hello” to the Butter-Bourbon Burger:

See that slab on top of the burger patty? That’s butter, my friend. Bourbon-infused butter, whipped up by the good folks at The Standard Diner. If the name of the place sounds familiar, it may be because Guy Fieri shined his spotlight on the restaurant in an episode of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” where he also made a point of showing just how awesome this burger is. All advance reports assured me that I should bypass all condiments, even leave off the cheese, and just bask in the awesomeness of the bourbon butter. Lest you fear that this piece is being published posthumously, let me assure you that I had to remove the remaining non-melted portion of the butter before I’d even gotten halfway through the burger. By then, the majority of the damage had been done, anyway…but, oh, my God, what delicious damage it was. Everything about the lunch was delicious, frankly, from the bread that led off the meal to the milkshake that I used to close the proceedings.

Yes, that’s right: I followed a Bourbon-Butter Burger with a milkshake. An Apricot Creme Brulée milkshake, even.

I regret nothing.

Having paid my bill, I walked…some would say waddled, and they’d probably be more right than wrong…back to the hotel, at which point I took the elevator back up to my floor, clawed my way into my room, collapsed on my bed, and slipped into what was possibly the best two-hour nap of my entire life.

At this point in our story, I would in no way blame you for wondering when the hell we’re finally going to get to some “Breaking Bad” content. I mean, that’s why you’re here, that’s why I was in Albuquerque in the first place…frankly, I think we’ve both waited long enough, don’t you? Blame it on a combination of airline schedules and production schedules, but although all of the journalists and most of the publicists had arrived in ABQ by early afternoon, the first official item on our itinerary didn’t kick off ’til 8 PM.

Oh, hey, look: it’s 8 PM right now!

Refreshed from my nap, I freshened up and headed to dinner at the Artichoke Cafe…which, as it turns out, is located only a few hundred feet past The Standard Diner. Go figure. Escorted to a private dining room, I was welcomed by some of the fine publicists from Sony, some of whom I’d met on past TCA tours, along with our designated publicist from AMC, who I also already knew. As it turned out, I was the first journalist to arrive, but others soon trickled in, including a few more familiar faces: Alan Sepinwall from Hitfix and Rick Porter from Zap2It. (You may remember that the latter gentleman and I earned our badges of TV critic courage back in January when we joined forces with Sean Daly of the New York Post for a Tommy Lee Jones roundtable.)

Not long after that, the “Breaking Bad” folks began to turn up, including a blend of directors, producers, and, yes, members of the cast as well. I’d never actually talked to Dean Norris in person, so it was nice to be able to introduce myself to him, and it was even nicer that he remembered talking to me, specifically that we actually had two conversations. (When we first talked, I’d seen Episode 3.5, but I hadn’t yet received my screener of Episodes 3.6 and 3.7, which I was supposed to have had in hand to watch before the interview took place. Once I actually saw the episodes, I understood why Norris had been so willing to call back after I’d seen them…and why he was so reticent to let anything slip about the goings-on within the episodes. Talk about your must-be-seen-to-be-believed TV.) Having neither met nor even spoken to Betsy Brandt before, it was especially nice to meet her. Unfortunately, both she and Norris ended up sitting at a different table – the number of people was more than a single table could accommodate – so I didn’t really get to talk to either of them very much until the next day.

I was pacified, however, by the fact that I found myself sitting at the head of the other table, with Bryan Cranston on my left and Giancarlo Esposito on my right. As such, I spent the entire meal thinking of this shot from the last episode of Season 3:

The big difference, of course, is that, unlike in the photo above, Mr. Cranston and Mr. Esposito spent virtually the entire evening with big smiles plastered on their faces. In fact, if memory serves, the only time they ever really shifted into completely-and-totally-serious mode was when they were discussing the upcoming season. Esposito admitted that after reading the script for Episode 4.1, he had to set it down and just walk away. It was just that jarring an emotional experience.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know why it was jarring. I don’t want to know…and from what I could tell, none of the other journalists did, either. This, I suspect, is one major reason why the bunch of us were selected to visit the set. If we were all spoiler-happy and whatnot, they’d never have considered us for a second. In fact, unlike a lot of shows on the broadcast networks, I feel like AMC makes a concerted effort to avoid working with the spoilsports. Certainly, the folks at “Breaking Bad” seem to be insulated from them: at one point, I was witness to Bryan Cranston asking with complete earnestness, “Who’s Michael Ausiello?” Let that one sink in…

The point of this story, of course, is that you won’t find any Season 4 spoilers in this piece. Yeah, I know, I probably should’ve told you that up front, but, really, would you have read this far if I had? Besides, there’s still some cool stuff coming up, I swear.

Okay, so no surprise here: dinner was awesome. Cranston’s a man who loves to hold court wherever he goes, so he was telling us tales all night long, including one about working on “Seinfeld” that gave him a chance to break out his very credible Larry David impression. He also told an absolutely hysterical story about auditioning Hayden Panettiere for “Malcolm in the Middle” (she played Malcolm’s girlfriend) that’s too long to tell here and would never be as impressive without the physical schtick that accompanied it. Wish you’d been there. You would’ve laughed as hard as I did. Meanwhile, Esposito isn’t quite as consistently gregarious as Cranston, but he still proved to be an entertaining dining companion, particularly when he was telling us how he’d worked with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones when he was 8 years old. There were plenty of things discussed that were underlined as being off the record, too, which is a journalistic code that I do not break…but, y’know, it’s actually kind of cool, because it means you end up privy to some pretty awesome stuff!

Long story short: everybody who’s a part of “Breaking Bad” loves it, can’t believe they’re lucky enough to be a part of it, and wishes like hell that you and I could see what they’ve filmed of Season 4 so far, because they reeeeeeeeeeeeeally want to be able to talk about it.

Dinner’s over. Time to walk back to the hotel and get some rest. Morning’s coming early.

Day 2:

Yep, morning came early, but despite all the wine I drank the night before, I am hangover-free and ready to hop in the van and head to the set. It’s a nice, not-too-long drive to Albuquerque Studios, and as soon as we step onto the pavement, we’re greeted by Stewart Lyons, line producer for “Breaking Bad.” He’d been at dinner last night as well, and he seemed as surprised as we were that we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but he opens the door and escorts us inside.

Everything in the studio offices looks approximately the same as it did in 2010, but when we walk onto the sets themselves, it’s clear that some rearranging has gone on since the last time I was here. First and foremost, the inside of the White house is fully furnished. During our previous visit, they’d been filming a flashback scene to when Walt and Skyler first bought the place, so it was utterly devoid of…well, everything, really. As such, it was nice to finally get to see it as it looks on an ordinary episode of the show.

I worried for a moment about the condition of Saul Goodman when the set for his office wasn’t in the same spot as it had been before, but you’ll be pleased to know that they’d just moved it elsewhere in the studio. The so-called SuperLab is still as awesome now as it was last year, except now I don’t have to keep my mouth shut about having seen it…thank God! (That was by far the hardest secret to keep.) I also got to see a few other sets, but…well, they’re not new, but we haven’t seen them in awhile, so I’d better not say what they were.

I know. I suck. Sorry.

At this point, we leave the studio, pile back in the van, and head over to where they’re doing a couple of location shots. As they continue to film, we head over to the Craft Services fan to grab some grub, then it’s time to go upstairs in the building across the street from where they’re shooting. I soon discover that they’re actually getting ready to shoot a scene on the 4th floor of this building as well, but while they’re doing that, we’re going to be doing one-on-one interviews with five members of the cast: Cranston, Norris, Brandt, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul. (Alas, Mr. Esposito was unavailable to join us, but after dinner, he assured me that all it would take was a phone call to get another interview with him, and I plan to take him up on that when Season 4 kicks off.)

In the end, I only actually got to interview four of the five, as one of them – God forbid I should tell you which – was still in the middle of shooting a scene, but the four folks that I did get to chat with were all great, even if it was ultimately familiar territory: everybody who’s a part of “Breaking Bad” loves it, can’t believe they’re lucky enough to be a part of it, and wishes like hell that you and I could see what they’ve filmed of Season 4 so far, because they reeeeeeeeeeeeeally want to be able to talk about it.

Oh, and because that one straggling actor was still filming a scene, I was invited to watch as that scene was being filmed, and as a result, even though I didn’t want to get any spoilers, I got one, anyway…which means that I learned one thing that I reeeeeeeeeeeeeally want to talk about, too!

Soon enough, it was time to depart for the airport…and, of course, within two minutes of leaving the building and driving away, I learned that Cranston had been cast as the villain in the “Total Recall” remake. I swear to God, they timed it that way on purpose

So there you go, folks: “Breaking Bad” is coming back this summer, and everyone in the cast and crew says that it’s going to blow your mind. Keep your eye on Bullz-Eye for the next few months as we roll our these four interviews in the all-too-long lead-up to the Season 4 premiere in July.

Trust me, we’re just as excited about it as you are.


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