The look of Breaking Bad is crucial to the feel of the show, and its Canadian production designer, Mark Freeborn, has a lot to do with Jesse’s underground cage, the Whites’ ransacked house and Walt’s super-lab.
Freeborn, who grew up in Kingston, Ont., and moved to B.C. in 1986, got to know Vince Gilligan when they worked together on the X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen. Fast forward a few years and Freeborn, after spending time with his ill mother back in Kingston, had no work upon returning to Vancouver. Channel surfing one day, he came upon Bryan Cranston in his underwear. When he discovered that it was Gilligan’s show, he sent his old pal a congratulatory e-mail. The next thing he knew, he had a job offer.
“I knew he had the facility, the boundless creativity, and boundless enthusiasm and energy,” says Gilligan, who describes Freeborn as “a cross between Santa Claus and a Hells Angels biker.”
In Albuquerque, Freeborn’s first big project was creating the Santa Muerte shrine for the spectacular season-three opening sequence, where devotees crawl through the desert dust on their bellies to pay their respects to the saint.
But it’s the two-storey, underground meth lab that Gilligan calls Freeborn’s crowning achievement. Created with meticulous precision – with some alterations so viewers could not model a DIY home meth lab after it – the lab passed inspection by a DEA chemist, who was impressed with its authenticity.
“I may be the only production designer in North America with two DEA members on speed dial,” says Freeborn, whose early work includes the original Porky’s, and who is now working on Bates Motel.
Bent on finding the right desert location for the final episodes, the creative team spent about a month-and-a-half “looking, rejecting, re-looking,” covering hundreds of square kilometres in the search, says Freeborn.
Viewers can see Walt’s demise reflected in the production design. “Visually what we did was we just pushed the entire process into darker spaces,” says Freeborn. Think of the dark cabin where Walter hides in New Hampshire during the penultimate episode.
“In the final few episodes, everybody’s trapped, everybody’s boxed,” says Freeborn. “Walt spends time in a box with Saul. Jesse spends time in a box under a cage. There’s no bright light any more. It’s all night, it’s all dark, it’s all hidden.”