Vince Gilligan is hardly Victor Frankenstein. But, like the wickedly gifted scientist in Mary Shelley’s immortal novel, he has made a marvelous monster in Walter White, the amoral anti-hero of his chilling AMC series, Breaking Bad. Premiering Aug. 11 for its final-ever eight episodes, Breaking Bad – Southern slang for “raising hell” – has been a crucible of complex characterization for five savvy seasons. Bad creator/writer/executive producer Gilligan and his writing staff have kept viewers rooting for Walter (Emmy Award-winner Bryan Cranston), even as he morphs from a cancer-stricken high-school science teacher into a power-mad murderer who cooks crystal meth for a living. Indeed, Gilligan’s wily way with words has given Walt, arguably, the most compelling character arc anywhere on TV.
“What is remarkable about Vince’s writing is his real affection and respect for his characters,” says TV and movie producer Mark Johnson (Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy, Toys) who is also an executive producer on Breaking Bad. Johnson has known Gilligan since judging his early screenplay Home Fries in a screenwriting competition in 1989. He also produced Gilligan’s 1998 movie of the same name. “You never sense that Vince is talking down to a character, no matter how fallen, compromised or ungifted he or she may be,” Johnson says. “There are no marginal people in a Vince Gilligan screenplay.”
Nor are there simple moral lessons in Breaking Bad. Add in ironic, sometimes self-referential humor reminiscent of The X-Files – on which newbie writer Gilligan cut his TV teeth – backed by superb acting, editing and stunning New Mexico locations, and Bad’s bad has carved a unique niche in TV history. Along the way, the shrewdly produced show has racked up multiple writing awards, undying critical praise and an avid fan following.
Now, of course, Bad’s ride is ending. Gilligan has already penned Walt’s final days. Sorry, no spoilers or clues to Bad’s fateful finale. But Gilligan does share his thoughts on monsterizing Walter White, writers’ rooms and writing Bad.
When you wrote the first episodes of Breaking Bad, did you know how corrupt you wanted Walter White to become? Or is the show a sort of experiment to see what might happen to a character like Walt?
I didn’t know just how dark Walter White would get. In the early days, I liked to think of Breaking Bad as an experiment in storytelling – and in fact I still do. One of the things that intrigued me as a possibility of doing Breaking Bad was the idea of doing something TV doesn’t usually do, which is to show a character in a constant state of change. TV is very good at stasis. If you have something good, you stick with it. You stick with Sheriff Matt Dillon [on the classic Western series, Gunsmoke]. You don’t have him have a midlife crisis five years into Gunsmoke, and suddenly he doesn’t want to be a sheriff anymore. And that’s a good thing. You know what you’re going to get with these characters. They are comforting friends that you invite into your living room every week.
TV is great at that, but I knew TV had done that a million times over. And I love the idea of changing Walt step by step. If you invented a time machine so I could go visit myself six years ago and show myself episodes of Breaking Bad, I’d be saying, “I cannot believe this son of a gun got so dark as a character. I never saw him turning this evil.”
So when people tell you, “I’m gonna run my show for X number of years, and I know exactly how it’s going to end,” they’re either fooling you or themselves to a certain extent. You just don’t know, especially over the course of many years, where it will take you. And if you too rigidly try to keep from going in certain directions because you have a fixed target or destination in your mind, then you’re robbing yourself.
You seem like a pretty cheerful guy. Where does the dark vision of Breaking Bad come from?
The simple answer is that I’m darker than I seem to be. I find that I write about things that I’d like to exorcise, to get out of me. Having Walter White inside my head, has been, I don’t want to say a hardship – it’s been mostly wonderful – but I mean having this character deep in my head, and having had to look through his eyes for 62 episodes, it’s made some of that darkness more pronounced.
I’m making it sound a little more dire than it is. There’s no danger of me cooking meth or killing a bunch of guys in prison. It’s just sometimes the darkness that one might naturally have within themselves can be vented in a more positive direction through writing.
Describe the writing process on Breaking Bad.
The hardest part, the heavy lifting of each episode, is the breaking. Breaking is the process of coming up with every story beat and writing it on a three-by-five index card and then putting it up with a pushpin on a three-by-five-foot cork board. We’d sit around a boardroom-type table in our writers’ room in our dumpy little offices in Burbank, California, the seven of us [For the last eight episodes of Breaking Bad the show’s writing staff included Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Sam Catlin, George Mastras, Moira Walley-Beckett and Gennifer Hutchison.], for eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, just concentrating hard on the story at hand.
We all respected one another. We always joked, “It’s a safe room.” But it very much was a safe room on Breaking Bad. It was as democratic as possible.
We would say, “OK, last week the episode ended with: Walt has come clean to his wife and now she knows he has cancer. Now what happens? What does Walt want next? Well, he wants a minimum of muss and fuss, but I guess his wife – what does she want? She wants the whole family to know. Now Walt is going to share his news of cancer, so how is he going to do that? And how is she going to want to do that?” It’s very organic and it’s insanely detailed.
With success and with more episodes under our belts – and therefore with new ideas a little harder to come by – the process of breaking expanded. It used to be it would take us about a week and a half to break an episode, and then we would average about two weeks and the last eight episodes probably averaged three weeks.
Typically the person who was going to write that particular episode would be taking extra notes on their own notepad the whole time. When the breaking was finally done, then the writer of that episode would go off and have about two weeks to write the episode into about 45 to 55 pages of script. At that point, they could work anywhere they wanted. They could work on top of the Empire State Building. It didn’t matter to me, so long as they could get it done in the limited time allowed. And they always did.
And actually, the last several years, there’s been no rewriting. There’s just me giving folks notes – written notes or verbal notes – and then their going off and doing a little adjustment here and there.
At the end of the day every now and then, I would pull rank and say, “I think we ought to do it this way,” just to keep the ball moving forward. But having said that, I got talked out of a great many ideas by my writers. Sometimes I’d be talking to them and say, “Hey, how about this? I’m very excited about this,” and they’d all look kind of uncomfortable and somebody would finally say, “I don’t know if that works.” And I would get kind of bent out of shape, and then I’d realize they were right.
How would you parcel out script-writing assignments?
We would go more or less in an order of most-senior writers to least-senior writers. Everyone would get one or two episodes, or one and a half episodes, however the math worked out. I found it easiest to write an episode at the beginning of the season when I had more time. So typically I would write the season-opener. Although for this final eight episodes, my writer, Peter Gould, wrote the season-opener. And typically I would do my best to write the last episode of the season. I pulled a little rank there and figured it was my prerogative to write the last one.
How much would budget limitations dictate your scripts?
At a certain point the house that Jesse [Walt’s sometime-partner in crime, played by Emmy-winner Aaron Paul] lived in became no longer available to us as a location to shoot in, so we had to roll with it. So our breaking process on that one was, “OK, so now Jesse’s homeless. His house has basically been taken away from him. Where is he going to spend the night? Does he go to a friend? Does he ask that friend, can I crash with you for a while? OK, the friend says no. Now where does he go? What about the RV? OK, where is the RV right now? It’s in this impound yard. What obstacle does Jesse face getting to the RV? Well, he climbs a fence, and there’s a junkyard dog.”
And that was the original break on that one. Jesse runs from the dog and it bites his leg and tears his pants and he just barely makes it into the RV or maybe he climbs up on top of it because he can’t get in in time and he has to avoid the dog.
But when it came time to shoot this, my producers came to me and said, “OK, this junkyard dog you want is going to cost $25,000.” And I said, “Whaaaat?” And they said, “Well, we’re in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the really A-level cinema dog-trainers are all in Los Angeles. We’ve got to go to one of the A-guys in L.A. and we’ve got to get them to train the dog to chase Aaron and we’ve got to get a second back-up dog trained in case the first one gets sick or doesn’t want to do it, and we’ve got to fly them in and we’ve got to blah-blah-blah and $25,000’s a bargain – but we can’t afford it.”
So my writer on that episode, Sam Catlin, and I were standing around this impound yard, and we’re looking at the chain link fence and thinking, if we don’t have a dog, this is going to be a very boring scene – it’s just a guy climbing a fence. And then we looked across the street, and there were literally a thousand port-a-potties, because the city of Albuquerque owns thousands of port-a-potties for public events, and this is the yard in which they keep them. We’re standing there saying, what if you put a port-a-john on the other side of this tall fence with razor wire on the top, or barbed wire, and Jesse’s going to climb over very carefully but then he’s on top of the port-a-john and he falls through its roof and he’s got all this blue chemical stuff, nasty stuff, all over him.
And it turned out to be a much better scene and a hell of a lot cheaper, too, because the port-a-john gag cost under $5,000 versus $25,000. It’s funny, and it’s fun to have limitations actually spur your creativity and make your storytelling better.
How different is the Breaking Bad writers’ room from The X-Files’ writers’ room where you got your start?
For me, it’s a very striking difference. Because Breaking Bad is so very serialized – I say it’s hyper-serialized – very often an episode will pick up the instant after the last one ended. So all of our writers have to be up to speed with where the story is at any given moment. By and large, The X-Files was a series of stand-alone episodes and therefore the writers’ room was much more of a catch-as-catch-can sort of operation. At least in the early days of The X-Files, I as one of the staff writers would go off and spend three or four days working by myself and try to come up with an idea for an episode and then I’d go meet with Chris Carter [X-Files creator] and Frank Spotniz [executive producer] and some of the other writer-producers and I’d pitch what I had up to that moment. They would give constructive criticism and say, “This works, that doesn’t work. How ’bout you head off in this direction?” And “Go away for another two days and come back and we’ll talk again.” It was a very different kind of a room, and it worked great for The X-Files.
When you’re writing an episode, do you have any personal quirks or rituals?
TV is the virtual gun held to your head to make you write. I had more quirks back before I had the terrifying and rigid deadlines of a television schedule, back 20 years ago when I was writing movie scripts. I had to sit down at a certain time of day and had to have – I’m not a big coffee drinker – the glass of iced tea sitting at a certain angle. But TV deadlines have a way of sharpening the mind. It’s gotten to the point where I can write just about anywhere. I can write with headphones on, listening to music. I can write without music. I can write in my office or at my dining room table or in an airport waiting lounge.
When you talk about your writers’ room, you make it sound like fun. Is writing fun for you?
The best way I can put it is that it’s fun having written. There’s a deeper emotion that’s attached to writing and that is one of, hopefully, potentially, profound satisfaction. But I would not qualify it as fun.
Usually, when I’m talking to my other writers on Breaking Bad, they will say I’m always complaining. Not because I don’t love my writers; I love them all personally. It’s just because, as you know, the process of coming up with a story is very hard, and it is for me, too.
With writing, you sort of have to put your butt in a seat and get going on it and do it. It’s the getting started writing that’s the hardest part. It’s like making yourself jump into an ice-cold shower or a cold swimming pool.
There are moments when I turn a phrase a certain way or I come up with a certain bit of dialogue that I’m very proud of. Occasionally I have fun writing dialogue for Saul Goodman[the sleazy lawyer, played by Bob Odenkirk, who helps keep Walt’s meth business in business]. But the dialogue is sort of the cherry on top. The structure is the most important part, and most of that structural work is done in the writers’ room talking through story and plot.
Have you had any mentors along the way, as your TV career progressed?
Growing up, I watched pretty much every TV show that ever existed. I should have had a life, but instead I was watching movies and TV. There are the people who inspired me who I never met, and never will meet, like Rod Serling [writer/producer of The Twilight Zone]. I wish I could have known him. I still to this day think Twilight Zone was one of the top TV shows of all time. In movies, I think of Coppola [writer/director/producer Francis Ford Coppola]. He won the Oscar for the screenplay for Patton. He went on to do The Godfather, Godfather: Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, all by the time he was 40. So you look at a guy like that and say, “Man, what am I doing?”
Chris Carter who created The X-Files was definitely a mentor and taught me everything I needed to know about writing for television and producing television. And when I say “everything I needed to know,” I needed to know an awful lot. I would have failed miserably at this [job creator/writer/executive producer of Breaking Bad] if not for all the good things I learned from Chris and the other writers of The X-Files. I learned about storytelling, I learned about production, I learned about self-discipline.
So what qualities do you need to become a successful writer for television?
There’s the TV writer who works on a staff, and there’s the TV writer creating his or her own show. Let me approach it from where most people start, which is staff writing.
As a staff writer, you have to be able to write the characters as the showrunner [Gilligan or others who oversee a show] sees them. You have to shape your writing to the needs and the wants of the showrunner.
I think personality is important. People think, “Well, you know, writing talent – that’s all you really need. That trumps all.” And that is very important.
But I’ve seen people who were so indispensable in the writers’ room because of their attitude, their enthusiasm and their structural ability that they made themselves worth their weight in gold.
When you have to spend countless hours with your fellow writers, you have to be able to get along with other people. You have to allow for everyone to have a good experience in the room. You have to not berate or belittle people for their ideas or try to be competitive or combative. You have to be democratic, and you have to have a sense of humor. You have to realize that at the end of the day, you’re not curing cancer. You’re creating a TV show.
You can have great success as a television writer even if you’re not the best in terms of creating dialogue or putting words on the page, if you are indispensable in the writers’ room. And I’ve seen a great many examples of this in my career.
I didn’t have anybody like that on Breaking Bad. I had people who were indispensable in the writers’ room and in the scripting department, folks who were the whole package.
Any advice for new writers?
There’s always the question of how do you get people in power to read your work, because it’s hard. Because the last thing most of us who do this for a living want to do is read a script over the weekend. It’s like a busman’s holiday. So my best advice to folks just starting out is to enter every legitimate screenwriting competition that you can find, like the Nicoll Fellowship [sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. You have a captive audience of readers, who are, by and large, if it’s a legitimate competition, actually industry bigwigs.
It’s what got me my start. I entered a screenwriting competition in my home state of Virginia back in 1989, and I was one of the winners. One of the judges was the movie producer, Mark Johnson. He liked my script enough that he contacted me after the contest was over and said, “What other scripts do you have?” and I’ve been working with him now for a quarter of a century. I can’t promise that’ll happen to everyone who enters their script in a contest. But it seems to me a great way to get people to read your stuff.
After Breaking Bad, what comes next for you?
I would definitely like to see a Saul Goodman spin-off series. Saul is such a fun character to write for. Bob Odenkirk who plays him does such a marvelous job that I would love to see a Better Call Saul [Saul’s signature
catch-phrase] spin-off. We’re at the early days of discussing it, but I am guardedly hopeful that we can make something happen.
Gotta ask. Any teases for the final episodes of Breaking Bad?
I have to be coy on that. But I am really proud of these final eight. I’m not usually particularly confident in terms of saying, “Oh man, you’re really going to like this.” There were many months where I was very concerned that the episodes wouldn’t satisfy – and I think they do. The show ends as it should.
Kinney Littlefield is a New York-based entertainment journalist who has covered TV for The Associated Press. She is a former staff TV critic for The Orange County Register in Southern California.
THE VINCE GILLIGAN FILE
Vince Gilligan is the creator/writer/executive producer of Breaking Bad. Born in Richmond, Va., Gilligan received a BFA in film production from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He lives in Los Angeles.
Co-creator/executive producer/writer The Lone Gunmen (TV series, 2001)
Executive producer/co-executive producer/supervising producer/co-producer/writer, The X-Files (TV series, 1995-2002)
Screenwriter, Hancock (feature film, 2008)
Screenwriter, Home Fries (feature film, 1998)
Screenwriter, Wilder Napalm (feature film, 1993)
Writers Guild of America Award for Drama Series, Breaking Bad, 2012
Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for the Breaking Bad episode, “Box Cutter,” 2012
Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, 2009
American Film Institute Award, TV Program of the Year, Breaking Bad, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2008
Peabody Award, Breaking Bad, 2009
Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award, Home Fries, 1989