Breaking Bad Habits, Making Better Calls: Director Ronni Thomas on the Pandemic Final Production of AMC’s The Broken and the Bad
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The broken and the bad

What do you do when a week before the end of a documentary project about the world's greatest and most famous TV series and the world decides to end?

It all started normally about a year ago. AMC reached out to the company I work for, IKA Collective, with the concept of creating a documentary series that would focus on real-life stories that would mirror the fictional worlds of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The show's creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, loved the idea and soon I was on my way to Green Bank, West Virginia, to document the electromagnetic sensitivity. a disease that Chuck McGill (Better Call Saul) claimed to be suffering from.

In retrospect, there were a number of signs that this project was going to be unique. The first one met me on the way to the Green Bank. I've been a filmmaker for 20 years, neither commercially nor independent, but the difficulty of directing a project on two of the biggest and most famous series in TV history suddenly became very strong. The crossing of miles markers on the freeway, that self-doubt and the uncertainty that is at the core of many filmmakers, collapsed into the front seat. Thanks to the encouragement and support from my team at IKA (EP Ian Karr and producers Jonathan Jacobson and Robbie Chafitz), I was able to keep from going back to my earliest days at Troma films and wondering how I got there in the first place.

I know. As a director, you should be confident, brave, or even arrogant, but that's bullshit. It's good to be a little scared and question your skills and talents. One of those famous directors once said, "If you're not scared on the first day of shooting, you're doing something wrong."

By the time we got to Green Bank, WV, my confidence had thankfully won the fight. Or at least the marriage of my trust and my creative self-doubt produced a strong child. Some people call it something stupid, like a moment they come to Jesus. I call it the "fuck it" moment.

We shot in six cities in two countries. During the filming my small but highly qualified crew (mostly Bobby Carnevale and Alan Kudan who act as general purpose film people) spent time in renegade attorneys' offices, crossed the border with law enforcement officers, cleaned up a meth lab, and drove to a meth suppression unit.

In Indiana, we were also treated to the most idiotic sandwich I've ever seen that almost killed Alan (it was essentially a massive pork tenderloin, deep fried and cartoonishly between two small buns).

This project was really an adventure that suited Saul Goodman or Walter White. Because we were so slim, my boys and I had to think quickly and be creative. At home, while our editor / VFX designer Vince Rose was pulling the changes together, we hung on the sides of police cruisers, strapped Go pros to meth house vacuums, and teased border guards while we flew a drone between Mexico and Arizona (on joyful encouragement from ex-customs broker Terry Kirkpatrick). It sounds like fun and it was.

My trial would scare a college educated filmmaker (and my mom). I am very spontaneous and free in my interviews and tend to lose all filters when I get bored. But I'm also an editor. So if I turn it off, I think that's an edit. I knew I had to channel the fictional world of Breaking Bad, but as the shooting progressed, life mimicked art and the universe seemed to manifest itself. While we were filming, a real Utah family was executed by a Mexican drug cartel just 12 miles south of where we had lunch. A woman blew herself up in a homemade laboratory with two children in the other room. And Adam Reposa, a Texas state defender, faced a bunch of angry soccer moms … on camera. It was wonderful. Adam can be seen under the law in the first episode. Many of the subjects in these films have become good friends.

We had an incredible tour of the network. AMC managers Allie Dvorin and Kevin Dreyfuss and serial producer Melissa Bernstein were particularly supportive, and their enthusiasm for our progress only made us more eager. The quality of the characters and stories really got us at IKA Collective to work as hard as possible to honor the legacy of the Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul franchise –

And then the world decided to end … or at least to go into quarantine.

We were done with all the shooting, but still had to pack some B-roll and especially the host with Giancarlo Esposito. We were in NYC and Covid-19 was the worst. All production was completely stopped and Giancarlo was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

We were literally a day away from completing this amazing project and now everything was in question.

Fortunately, problem solving is at the heart of all good filmmaking, and often these problems (or their solutions) turn out to be gifts. We threw everything around from using a voice over to redesigning green screen outtakes by Gus Fring, but that wouldn't be good enough. Not for me, not for the teams at IKA and AMC, and not for Giancarlo. He went straight back to his indie roots and offered an inspired solution. Giancarlo's teenage daughter Ruby is a budding filmmaker and he suggested that we allow her to be our second unit and shoot him in Albuquerque. I have to admit I was careful at first. But after an initial call with Ruby and her father, I was impressed. She had great creative sensitivity and was excited to do what needed to be done. I saw a lot of my young filmmaker in her and it felt great to look after a new generation. In twenty years, Ruby may draw on that experience while traveling to West Virginia.

My crew and I built a cinema-quality 4K drop kit that we shipped to New Mexico and the Espositos found a fantastic location. Ruby initiated a Zoom call from "set" using her laptop connected to her phone's internet connection. Together we achieved what no one would have tried three weeks before … from a distance of 2,000 miles. Remote control was a bit strange, but it worked very well. And it's surprising how quickly everyone got used to the process. The Esposito team really delivered and the footage exceeded our wildest expectations.

We were finally at the end of this eerie adventure and wrapped in quarantine. No party. Not a big goodbye. I'm not much into social media and neither is my team, so we couldn't even party like that. The process was as much a battle between my self-doubts as it was a wild adventure … But when you watch the movies, is there some satisfaction in not having a major degree, like saying that the best is yet to come?

All six films are freely available on The Broken and the Bad website and on most streaming platforms.

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