Breaking in with “Breaking Bad”
by Michelle McRuiz
Nathan Davis (’06 BA) worked on several movie crews before he joined the widely acclaimed AMC drama series “Breaking Bad” in its fourth season as a set production assistant (set PA), but he’s never felt so strongly about a show before.
“This show is very special. I’m worried I’ll never experience anything like it again,” Davis said. “It’s unusual for a show to not only be fun to work on but that also inspires me as a filmmaker with its creative and groundbreaking storytelling. The crew is a pleasure to work with and people believe in the show; it’s very original and artistic. I think it’s the greatest show ever made.”
“Breaking Bad,” which is filmed in and around Albuquerque, is in its fifth and final season. Its star Bryan Cranston has won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series; Aaron Paul has won two Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor. The show itself has been nominated for four Golden Globes and has either won or been nominated for nearly 100 other awards.
Since “Breaking Bad” began in 2008, Cranston, Paul, and other cast members have generated a passionate following, but Davis insists they are regular people. “I’ve done everything from going bowling to playing laser tag with the cast and crew,” he said. “We are definitely a family.”
Ready for Action
As a set PA, Davis ensures that all the elements of a scene, including the actors, are present and ready for a shoot. There’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait involved. “The cast members are all spread out,” he explained. “You don’t know when [the director] is going to call for action. [Sometimes] you’re filming for 16 or 17 hours or more.”
Waiting is exactly what many people do when trying to break into the film industry, but Davis had the right combination of luck and persistence. He knew since childhood that he wanted to be involved in moviemaking but didn’t want to leave his home state. Although he was told he’d have to put in his time in Hollywood, he preferred to make it in Tamalewood.
While a UNM student in the Department of Media Arts, Davis took classes from Bryan Konefsky. Among other courses, Konefsky taught classes in conjunction with Duke City Shootout, the world’s first script-to-screen film competition and festival. Davis credits Konefsky and those classes with giving him invaluable experience on a film crew. The first Duke City Shootout film he worked on, “Breakout,” won the festival’s Best Actor award; the second, “Lady Liberty,” won Best Picture and Best Actor awards.
Meanwhile, UNM lecturer and producer Charlie O’Dowd approached Konefsky and asked him for names of students who wanted to work on Hollywood films. Konefsky recommended Davis, and soon the UNM student was working with legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman (whose credits include “The Fugitive,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Raging Bull”) on a movie that was never released. “[That was] my first real taste of what it was like to work on a film crew,” recalled Nathan.
Davis then met Ann Lerner from the City of Albuquerque Film Office. “She told me to email her when I graduated,” Davis said. “I graduated on a Saturday, emailed her on Monday, and didn’t expect anything of it. I got an email from her on Tuesday about a show called ‘Wildfire.’” He sent the producer, Dennis Murphy, his resume, had an interview two days later, and hadn’t even driven down the block from the studio before Murphy called him and offered him a job starting the following Monday.
After “Wildfire” ended, Davis worked on the series “In Plain Sight,” where he made the transition from production office to movie set and started earning the 600 on-set days necessary for joining the Director’s Guild of America. He has worked as a set PA on the films “Cowboys and Aliens,” “The Avengers,” “Lone Survivor,” “Fright Night,” and “2 Guns,” getting to know actors such as Daniel Craig, Colin Farrell, Mark Wahlberg, and Jackie Chan along the way.
Davis does the same types of things every day, but there are no typical days on a set. “If we’re on a stage, it’s all controlled,” he said. “If we’re out in the public, chances are we’ll have to deal with distractions and tons of fans. The next week we’ll be in the middle of the desert. Sometimes there’s no power; it’s cold; you’re there for 14 hours; you’re huddled together like penguins. People don’t realize it’s not all Hollywood glamor.”
But the wondrous and sometimes weird experiences Davis has had as a set PA has made the work worthwhile. He loves being able to make a living in big-name movies without leaving New Mexico, and he’s grateful for his UNM and on-set teachers. Bryan Konefsky’s classes and Michael Kamins’ “Word and Image” class comprised his most beneficial UNM experiences. Lester Berman, producer of “Wildfire” and the TV series “Crash,” gave him invaluable practical experience. “Every day [Lester] would say, ‘Come to my office for an hour.’ I was there for big decisions, phone calls, hiring, and firing. I learned all the ins and outs of running a show.”
Succeeding in the film industry, Davis said, requires a combination of technical skill, determination, patience, and networking ability. Now that he has worked more than 600 days as a set PA, he plans to apply for membership with the Director’s Guild of America as an assistant director after “Breaking Bad” finishes and continue establishing his place in the New Mexico film industry.
“You give up huge chunks of your life” to work in film, Davis said. “A film is like a circus: We put up lights, put on a show, then take everything down and take it away.”
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