Director Rian Johnson became a household name last year with his hit Sci-Fi time-travel film Looper, but it’s his repeated work on AMC’s juggernaut Breaking Bad that’s been seen by the most eyes. Johnson first stepped behind the lens for perhaps the show’s most divisive (and, some say, best) entry, Season Three’s tenth episode, "Fly," and he returned to direct another of Breaking Bad’s very best episodes, the fourth episode of this current fifth season, "Fifty-One." The young, visionary director takes his place in the director’s chair one last time on the Sunday, September 15th episode "Ozymandias" – the first of Breaking Bad’s final three episodes. Based on the epically loaded title alone, "Ozymandias" is sure to be one of the series’ most gut wrenching and tense episodes ever.
Rolling Stone sat down with Johnson on the heels of his third and final time behind the Breaking Bad lens to talk about the intense pressure he felt directing his favorite show, his favorite Breaking Bad moments and his desire to get a crack at Game of Thrones.
The last time we talked, you had hinted that you might be back to direct one of these last eight Breaking Bad episodes, but you were still unsure it would work out. How did this all fall into place?
It was actually really last-minute. They had a full slate of incredible directors for this last eight, so I was already in the headspace of looking forward to just enjoying watching it. But I guess there was some scheduling issue where Vince [Gilligan] was planning on directing the final two and that ended up not being feasible, and everything kind of slid up and I got really lucky and got in there for one last one. It was a very last-minute thing.
Were you incredibly excited?
Oh my God. Are you kidding? [Laughs] I got the email right before I was going to bed, late at night, and I was up all night because I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was pretty thrilled.
How did it feel to be back in the saddle?
It’s just such a cool group of folks. It was nice being back for a third time because I felt like one of the family a little bit, and that’s a really nice family to feel a part of. Not only is everyone cool and so talented on the show, but there was also this sense (especially in this last run) that everyone is contributing to something really special. I think there was a tangible feeling on set that we’re all kind of in the World Series with this one, so don’t mess it up. [Laughs]
I know you can’t talk about spoilers, but you did direct one of the last three episodes. Did they tell you the ending? Do you know how it all ends?
Even though the scripts were going around on set when I was there, I purposefully didn’t read the final two, but just from being around while they were in pre-production, I ended up learning a lot more than I wanted to. So I basically know what happens in the end. I don’t know all the details, but I basically know.
But you’re still planning to watch anyway.
Oh my God. Yes. Absolutely. Even with these first few episodes, even having read the scripts and seen some footage from them before they aired, I’m still on the edge of my seat watching these things. It’s a very different experience going through production versus actually watching the thing play out as a viewer. There’s also the added fun of how these things play out on a national stage with everyone watching the episodes and talking about them on Twitter. It’s like how a play changes when it has an audience, so it’s been really fun to see it from the other side of the stage.
Do you think there’s any way it can actually live up to everyone’s expectations?
[Laughs] I don’t know, man. I think it’s going to be incredibly satisfying, and I think that you can always ruin any experience through very specific expectations, but if your expectations are just that it’s going to be a good ending, then I think they’ll be met. That’s probably the healthiest way to go into any ending as a viewer.
In the previous two episodes you directed ("Fly" and "Fifty-One") there have been some really surreal, outside-the-box moments. Since this one is so close to the end, we assume it’s going to be much more plot-based. Will it still have that "signature Rian Johnson episode" feel to it?
For me, when I step into directing any of these episodes, the furthest thing from my mind is the notion of putting my "signature" on it. I’m really just trying to, as best I can, put what’s on the page up on the screen. I’ve been really lucky that, in the past, I’ve gotten two scripts that have really required some creative thinking to execute. But if what’s up on the screen seems out of the box, that’s because what was the on the page of the scripts I was handed was out of the box. It was just a matter of effectively creating that.
But this one is definitely . . . you can tell already from the way the season is going that the train is full speed at this point. There will be no two-characters-trapped-in-an-elevator-for-thirty-minutes-talking on this episode.
"Fly" might be the series’ most divisive episode. Some people love it and some people absolutely hate it. What’s your take on the episode having such different reactions?
When I first read the script (because you don’t get to pick which episode you do, they just send it to you), I was reading from the beginning of the season and, I’ll be honest, I can understand the perspective of people who are frustrated with it because, in a way, the season is chugging along at a good pace and plot-wise "Fly" does stop everything in its tracks. So I experienced that while I was reading the scripts and I can definitely sympathize with that.
I think that there’s so much depth that Moira [Walley-Beckett] and Sam [Catlin] brought to that episode and there’s so much going on with it, I know that once I dug into it and started the actors on it, the layers kept revealing themselves. So I can understand from a plot perspective getting frustrated with it, but even apart from my involvement in it, I really do love that episode. I think it’s an important part of the show.
Are you one of those Breaking Bad obsessives that look for all the Easter eggs in every episode?
I don’t, but I love this online ecosystem we have now where anything and everything is going to get pointed out. I don’t freeze-frame and, for a show like Breaking Bad where the storytelling is so good, I just kind of let it roll over me while I’m watching, but then afterwards I get online and check that stuff out.
Did you see the recent one? The Scarface reference? Oh my God! [Laughs]
This latest episode that you’re directing is titled "Ozymandias" which refers to the poem about the fall of kings and empires. AMC even used it in one of their Season Five teasers. All signs are pointing to this episode being a very big moment (and possibly even a final turning point) for the show. Did it feel that way when you were doing it? Did it feel like a huge moment for the series?
I felt a lot of responsibility when I read the script. Just as a fan of the show, I was both incredibly grateful and also incredibly terrified of being given the responsibility of directing this particular episode. It’s not giving anything away because every single episode in this final eight is huge, but ours is definitely that.
Honestly, I’m looking forward to it airing with the same amount of anticipation that I’ve looked forward to any of my movies being released. I’m really just incredibly proud of having been a part of it. I can’t wait to see how people react to it. But, yeah, it’s a big one.
Is that the most pressure you’ve ever felt in your career?
Maybe, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s not like that. You’re just working with cool people and you’re working through it detail-by-detail and problem-by-problem, and just figuring it out. It’s kind of like running a race. While you’re in the middle of it, it’s not like you’re focused on expectations or pressure. You’re just focused on going as fast as you can in the race.
Now leading up to it, and seeing the attention on the series and leading up to the episode airing, I’m getting a little nervous. But when you’re making it, you’re just in the headspace of trying to do it right.
Do you have a favorite character from the show?
Obviously I love all of them. I’ve been really privileged to have done a couple of really intense episodes with Anna Gunn [Skyler White], especially the last one ["Fifty-One"], and I think that the work she’s done as Skyler has just been incredible. I always feel like I learn so much watching her work. Anytime there’s a Skyler-intensive episode, I lean forward in my chair. I love watching what Anna does with that character.
The "Buried" episode was insane, right? With her and Hank at the table in the diner.
Oh my God! Oh my God! It was so intense, especially the end of it. The way that she played that. Yeah, she goes all the way. She really puts herself through the ringer for this show.
Other than the ones you’ve directed, what are some of your favorite episodes or moments from the show?
I think my favorite episode is still the one Michelle McLaren did that was kind of their first bottle episode called "4 Days Out." It’s the one where Jesse and Walt run out of gas in the middle of the desert. There are so many great episodes, but for me that was one of the first ones I saw where I just thought, "This is going to hold the same place in my head that some of my favorite movies do." Michelle just did such incredible work and there’s intense character stuff between Bryan [Cranston] and Aaron [Paul] and it has that Western desert iconography. I just love that episode so much.
Do you have a favorite memory (on or off screen) from working on your three episodes?
I do, actually, have a really specific one but it would be too much of a spoiler to tell you. [Laughs] I got to be there for some pretty special moments on this episode.
On "Fly," though, my favorite memory from that might be that there’s the one act of that episode that is just a long scene between Aaron and Bryan where Jesse has given Walt the sleeping drug and he slowly rambles on. The very last thing we did, after we shot that whole scene, was put the camera way back in the corner just to get a big wide shot of the whole lab in case we needed it, and we had them run through the whole scene. So we cleared the set and for us, sitting there, it was something that no one else will ever get. We got to just literally watch like a stage play with these two actors perform this entire long dialogue. I can still remember being tucked back by the monitor with Moira and just watching that. That was a pretty special experience.
You’ve directed episodes of Terriers and Breaking Bad. Are there any other TV shows that you’d love to get your hands on and get a chance to direct?
Oh my God, yeah, there’s a couple. I think I’ve actually said this before, but I’m friends with David Benioff and Dan [D.B.] Weiss, who do Game of Thrones, and I love that show so much. That show’s incredible. I’d love to do that.
Another that I’ve gotten into recently (and this is a bummer because it’s off the air now) is Enlightened. It’s too late to work on that show, but for my money, that was the best-directed TV show that was on the air. I just think the way that was put together was so beautiful and so subtly done. But yeah, there’s tons of good TV out there so I have a lot to choose from.
What would a Rian Johnson Game of Thrones episode look like?
I hope it would not be . . . I don’t know. I hope if you take off the credits, you wouldn’t notice there was any difference. See, that’s the thing: If you really love the show (like I said with Breaking Bad before) you’re not approaching it like, "How do I make this mine?" You’re approaching it like, "How do I do a great Breaking Bad episode? How do I do a great Game of Thrones episode?" You’re trying to serve the material. You do that by bringing whatever your skills are to make it as effective as possible, so naturally some of your voice is going to get in there. But the goal when you read the script is to bring that feeling up on the screen as well as possible. At least that’s what I always hope to do.