If you watch the awesome AMC original series Breaking Bad you know that (a) the last episodes launch this Sunday, and (b) that cars are as much a part of the series as the actors. The work of finding such perfect cars takes not only the business acumen of a car dealer, but the eyes of a casting director. Dennis Milliken is that guy. We spent some time talking with Dennis to learn more about his craft, and how he sourced the cars for this incredible show.
SPOILER ALERT: There’s a bit of a spoiler at the very end, but nothing that reveals anything sensitive. Just don’t want to get any hate mail over it. If you don’t want to read it, don’t read the very last line, which we made fairly obvious.
Dennis came into the film industry through family connections, but not with a father who was a film producer, or a brother who was a hotshot director. “My entry into the film industry was in 1975, while in college at David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee,” said Dennis last week.
“My Uncle was a major player in the Dallas Teamsters at that time. Once the industry discovered the Dallas area for filming purposes, there was a need to expand the list of members to work the film projects.”
Dennis’s first break came during the filming of the dystopian sci-fi thriller Logan’s Run, starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. It’s notable because it was Farrah Fawcett’s first major motion picture.
While Dennis was in college, he went back and forth during the summers to work on the set of the smash CBS drama Dallas in 1978.
From there, Dennis worked on a string of successful movies and television shows, as a transportation coordinator. Notably, he was the man who found the cars for futuristic films like RoboCop, as well as period pieces like the TV version of In the Heat of the Night, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, and The Road to Wellville.
We talked to Dennis last week about the cars he helped source for Breaking Bad, and got the inside scoop on what he and creator Vince Gilligan were looking for out of some of the show’s most iconic vehicles.
“As much as I’d like to take all the credit for this, I have to proudly admit that the cars on Breaking Bad have Vince Gilligan’s fingerprints all over them,” says Dennis.
“The process always started with the script. At times he would be very specific about what he wanted for a character. When the description wasn’t defined, I would post a variety of options for him to consider via the Internet and he would choose from those options presented him,” he remembers.
“Our goal was always to try to give Vince what he wanted for a character and to never disappoint him. While many of the cars that made it on screen came from my input or the input of my department, all decisions that lead to what ended up on the screen was 100% Vince. It didn’t matter what it was: Cars, Props, Sets, Wardrobe, Music, you name it, Vince was instrumental [in] it being on the screen. I have unlimited respect and admiration for him and for his total involvement on the project.“
Here’s the backstory on a few of the more recognizable vehicles from the show:
Walter White – Pontiac Aztek
The Aztek was one of two vehicles that had been established in the show pilot, before Dennis came on as Transportation Coordinator in Episode One. He credits show creator Vince Gilligan with a clear vision for what all the cars should bring to the show’s production:
“The story that I got was that Vince was presented a few options and fell in love with his ‘Mr. Chips’ [a reference to the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr. Chips about an aging headmaster] riding around Albuquerque in this vehicle.”
And that distinctive green color was all Vince, as well. Interesting that the Pontiac Aztek was voted as the one of the worst cars made. [It] kinda made Mr. White look somewhat pathetic. [But] Aztek owners tend to be very protective of their vehicles, and this just goes to show you that Vince shares the same view of the majority of those taking the aforementioned polls.”
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman – Fleetwood Bounder
The Fleetwood Bounder motorhome was the second vehicle that had been established in the show’s pilot, before Dennis came along. It presented some special issues, because — like many vehicles that are going to be involved in chase or crash scenes — it can’t be the only one:
“I believe that the Art Department of the Pilot was instrumental in securing that vehicle,” says Dennis. “It was a miracle that it survived the length of the series. It’s currently on display at the Sony Lot. [you may remember, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul actually drove it to the premiere of the final episodes last week.]
“The complicated thing was to find a second and a third one for the show. Once you’ve established a 20 plus year old motorhome, finding a match or two matching ones is an adventure!”
“What complicates this for Breaking Bad is that we weren’t in Los Angeles where there are companies that specialize in picture vehicles and multiples are commonplace,” says Dennis.
“Being outside of L.A., just securing one picture vehicle was a challenge and getting multiples just multiplied that challenge. I was blessed with having great co-workers, such as Chris Hicks and Jimmy Goodman, that aided in gathering what was needed in order to give the show what was what was needed.”
On a show like this, there are vehicles that you can run out and purchase in any given city for less than a few thousand bucks, and then there are very specific types of cars that require enthusiastic owners who will agree to loan a vehicle to a show’s production department.
“Our show was a blend of both rentals and purchases,” says Dennis. “For the rentals, we actually found individuals…and once Vince accepted them for use, we would make a deal to rent them. Not knowing how much we’d see a certain vehicle and not knowing who would or wouldn’t survive the show, it was determined that a purchase might not be the best road to travel for some vehicles.”
“Jessie’s Monte Carlo and Emilio’s low riders were rentals used and established on the Pilot,” says Dennis. “We rented both for Season One but eventually purchased Jessie’s vehicle to start Season Two.”
Jesse Pinkman – 1982 Toyota Tercel 4WD Wagon
As I recall, our instructions were to find something that would reflect a ‘blend in’ [and] ‘totally under the radar’ kind of vehicle,” says Dennis. “Vince…also [wanted] to make a statement about Jessie in his selection of this vehicle, but it was perfect for his character.
“Aaron was great with anything we gave him to drive and he could drive anything. I am so extremely thankful when I have an actor that can drive a stick shift. It’s almost a lost art.”
Gustavo “Gus” Fring – Volvo V70
In my opinion there was only one car for Gus and Vince nailed it with this,” says Dennis. “This could well have been a one shot deal as far as a vehicle for Gus. It screams family, safety, and more importantly law abiding.”
“Considering his enormous wealth you’d think he’d at least have the newest model of whatever car he would be driving. Nope. Put him in not only a Volvo, but put him in a Volvo Station Wagon, and while we’re at it, let’s make it a dozen or more years old. It’s in mint condition, but not new.”
Mike Ehrmentraut – Chrysler Fifth Avenue
“I honestly believe that was one of the amazing parts of the show,” says Dennis. “The age and condition of the vehicles that each person drove. One actor does stand out as loving his car. Jonathan Banks said that sitting in his Fifth Avenue was like sitting on his couch at home. I loved working with that guy! All in all, our cast was top notch and were a delight to work with.”
Skyler White – Jeep Grand Wagoneer
“The Wagoneer could have just as easily been a Suburban, an Expedition, a minivan, even,” says Dennis, but he and Vince Gilligan worked to find something that set not only the character, but the place.
“The Wagoneer stood out as unique and much more of a New Mexico SUV,” he says. “Vince wanted her in a good size SUV. Again, not a new vehicle by any means and definitely not fancy.”
“As I recall, this wasn’t seen in the Pilot and was introduced in the first season. This vehicle was spotted in the parking lot of our studio in New Mexico and we presented it to Vince for Skyler.”
Vince Gilligan’s vision even stretched to paint colors and interiors: “On the condition [that the Grand Wagoneer got a] different paint job and some seat covers — all approved by Vince — Skyler was assigned this vehicle.”
SPOILER ALERT: According to Dennis, Skyler has the Wagoneer until the final eight episodes of season five. “As the other drivers of the family got nice new vehicles to drive, so did she,” laughs Dennis.
Thank to Dennis for sitting down with us for this interview!
Photo Credit: IMCDB.org, AMC