The Voice in Walter White's Head: An interview with Breaking Bad's creator Vince GilliganInterview by Kasey Carpenter
The show that brought us the beat-down high school chemistry teacher who decides to try his hand at the meth game turns out to be a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of pride, vanity, and the old axiom that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Mix in some south-of-the-border cartel/mafia, a hilarious attorney delivered to us via Bob Odenkirk (MR. SHOW), a wife in Skyler who decides she's had enough of being the sole keeper of the high moral ground in the family, and a brother-in-law in the DEA (something one would think might be a problem for a budding meth cook) and the cautionary tale takes on a mythic quality that leaves one wondering how such a story and cast ever came about. Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, agreed to talk about the genesis of the whole thing (a great story unto itself), the joy and pain of writing, why the Pontiac Aztek was THE car for Walt, plus the importance (or the need for de-emphasis) of differentiating between a writer and a writer who sells.
No stranger to writing for the screen big or small, Vince has written for THE X-FILES, the Will Smith feature HANCOCK, and the screenplay that started it all, HOME FRIES. But he's come into his own with BREAKING BAD, a project that, like so many others, made it to screen by the narrowest of margins, so close in fact that fans of the show should be flooding his agent's inbox with letters of thanks, as he was the one instrumental in getting the script read by AMC when no one else wanted anything to do with it. Mind you, this was the AMC before MADMEN, the AMC that aired recycled movies, albeit good ones. Even Vince himself questioned the validity of the choice at the time.
A guy who's sense of humor might come as a surpise, one who is just as ready to laugh as he is able to make you laugh, Vince Gilligan ranks up there in the top of my list of people I'd love to have further dialog with. We were laughing the whole time - I guess the humor makes sense given the darkness of the comedy inherent in BREAKING BAD. So let's put on our protective eyewear and see how all of this came about:
KC: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I imagine you're pretty far along the production schedule? Writing? Shooting?
VG: Yeah, we start shooting in January, it's kind of nice this season because we have a long lead time to get the scripts figured out, so we're breaking episode six out of thirteen right now and we'll try to get through hopefully at least nine of them before we start shooting in January.
KC: I read somewhere that you and a friend had come up with this idea about getting into the meth game, more as a dark laugh at impending unemployment.
VG: [laughs] Yes. Pretty much.
KC: Do you ever laugh at how seemingly random good story ideas can be? I mean, if you and a dozen writers sat down to come up with such a premise, would you? And yet, the offhanded remark from a position of exasperation turns into BREAKING BAD.
VG: It was very much an offhanded remark, you're exactly right, I think all the time about how amazing it is that this show is even on the air because it feels very unlike what you typically see on television, and we are trained, trained in the school of hard knocks, that when we go around trying to sell various ideas for movies and TV shows, we're trained to try to pitch the thing that is currently selling. We are trained not to bother pitching the sort of "hail mary" kind of pass as it were. But this thing just stuck with me. I was intrigued by this crazy, random idea I had that was a joke to friend on the phone, a friend who has since become one of our go-to writers on staff. But we were talking about "what do we do now?" the X-FILES had ended and we weren't making any money as writers, around 2003-2004 and the idea of cooking crystal meth was floated...
KC: [laughs] I hear there's good money in it.
VG: Exactly. But you gotta know what you're doing, so that left us out right from the get-go, neither of us have any chemistry background. It would've been a bad idea all around I think.
KC: Would've ended in a huge explosion somewhere in L.A.
VG: [laughs] That or us both dead from inhaling some toxic gas.
KC: This show is definitely not the formulaic stuff that is pitched and passed, which brings me to: how did you pitch this? I understand you pitched it to several networks, and AMC finally green-lighted it. Why did other networks pass? What made AMC love it versus other networks?
VG: I think the question is why did AMC accept it, versus why the others passed. [laughs]
KC: It has all the hallmarks of an untouchable script.
VG: You know, we were so lucky to find AMC, but to get to them... I was very excited with the idea, excited with the character - it wasn't the crystal meth end of things all joking aside - it was the idea of an otherwise good man, a man who has never so much as jaywalked or littered, not a lawbreaker, and he for the reasons laid out, he decides to do this very bad thing and willfully become a criminal. That character, Walter White, really intrigued me from day one. Then the process began, the process of selling this as a script. Fortunately I had a preexisting relationship with Sony Television, that's our studio that actually produces the show, I knew the two gentlemen who run that, we had worked together on other projects, and I went to them and pitched it thinking it is probably a long shot, but I'm so intrigued by it I want to try, regardless.
KC: Why not.
VG: Yeah, why not? And to their great credit they saw the potential in the story and they signed on. At that point when you get a studio partner, you have to find a place to distribute your product and if you can't, you have to go back square one.
KC: Just like literature with agents and publishing houses.
VG: Exactly right. So at that point we went around town, we didn't bother ever going to any of the networks...
VG: Well it would have been a waste of our time and theirs, because they just don't do shows like that. It doesn't mean they are wrong for not doing them, it just isn't part of their mandate. We stuck to basic and pay cable networks, we went to HBO, we looked into Showtime, I don't think we ever had a meeting with Showtime, but meetings at TNT, FX and places like that. There was interest from various quarters, some more than others, but at the end of the day no one was particularly interested. So we had thought we exhausted all of our potential buyers, and I moved on at that point. You know, you tell yourself that's the way it goes, and believe me, I've pitched a lot of stuff all around Hollywood that never went anywhere, stuff that I still believe could make for a good TV show or a good movie that will probably never see the light of day. That's just par for the course out here. But fortunately one of my television agents had sent the pilot script, without talking to me - and I'm glad he went ahead and did it - to AMC. He knew an executive at AMC and knew that AMC was about to launch their first series, MAD MEN, which I knew nothing about at that point, let alone that they were even getting into the scripted programming business. They had read BREAKING BAD and called him up and said we are interested, can we meet with the writer?
VG: Right. My first response, and AMC then was not what AMC is now, so not knowing what was coming, my first response to my agent was: "Why didn't you just send it to the Food Network?" I mean it is a show about cooking after all...
KC: Seemed like a better fit than AMC at the time.
VG: [laughs] Right. So, hey, if they want to meet with me and buy me a drink, you know, I'm okay with that. It was one of those meetings in a bar, which I'm always up for...
KC: It never hurts to have a conversation.
VG: Yeah, never hurts, but I really thought that well here are some really nice people, I'll get to hear some flattering things, I'll get a free drink out of it and that will be that.
KC: Better than the usual turn down.
VG: Exactly, but I thought even if they're interested, it doesn't mean a thing, everyone was "interested" in it but no one wanted to pull the trigger. It is just so hard to get a project off the ground even with the best of intentions, even with the backing of a studio like Sony Television. But they were as good as their word at AMC and they were then what we know them to be now. They've made a lot of good, courageous choices and they've grown. It used to be said that CBS was the "Tiffany" network, I think the new Tiffany network is AMC.
KC: What was their slogan? "Story Matters Here?" They seem to be backing that up, and filling that void in the networks.
VG: True. And that's not to say there aren't some great things being done in the networks, I had a blast working on a network show in THE X-FILES, and I learned everything I needed to do the job in those seven years. But I'm very much a cable guy. The fewer episodes per season is a good schedule for me, the fewer you are responsible for, the better you can make each individual episode before you get ground down to a nub. And it's nice to be able to put out edgier stories. That doesn't mean we're trying to put out R-rated material, but getting to tell stories about non-conventional protagonists...
KC: Life is not rated G.
KC: Okay, so jumping from this original little funny-ha-ha idea you had with you buddy over the phone, you still had to make the choice of a high school chemistry teacher.
KC: I'm curious about that tack, was that just kind of a necessity of "well, we need a guy with a background in chemistry" and he can't be a successful chemist, he needs to be beat-down-in-life-chemist, and that seemed like the obvious choice? I'm really interested in the genesis of Walter White.
VG: You know where it came from - that's a good question - and forensically, looking back from the get-go, the starting point was the idea of a good man who does something reprehensible. That was the seed of it all that intrigued me. Oddly enough the meth component that my friend and I goofed about on the phone was what really generated the question: "why would someone go out and do this?" Why would someone go out and buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back of it? Well obviously you do something like that for money. Then there is the fact that meth is a synthesized product, as opposed to a grown product, being produced in a lab setting, well a sort of lab setting [laughs]. So you needed someone with expertise in that sense. Then we thought about the clock component, how to put a clock on Walter White, and that was initially the cancer. These ideas are what built up the rapid evolution of the character. Usually when I'm coming up with ideas for a character or a story, it is a slow process. But this character sprung into my head somewhat fully grown. I didn't have a name for him at first, but I knew what he was going to be.
KC: Well it all seems to make sense, even from the pilot. Then a couple of episodes in, you've got ninety percent of the bedrock there for the next three or four seasons, I think.
VG: Good. That was the plan. As to the question of why a chemist, it goes back to the fundamental idea of what is one of the more reprehensible things one can do for profit. And honestly, the idea of a good guy going this route was intriguing to me. So you say to yourself "how bad can bad be?" and you explore the possibilities. The idea of cooking meth for profit popped into my mind as a hard thing to defend. Then the issue becomes who would have that kind of skill set and not really be aware of it, at least in the potential for illegal profit. So we needed a chemist.
KC: I just love the fact that he was a high school teacher that had this history with a lab that was very successful after his departure, and we see that his devolution if you will shifts from doing this for "higher causes" and begins to feed his own ego.
VG: That's a very good point. So much of what Walter White does, the more you watch him, you realize that the idea of "I just need to leave money for my family" is a big whopping excuse in so much of what he does.
KC: He starts to drink his own Kool-Aid.
VG: Exactly! He is a very prideful man who is feeling alive and adventurous for the first time in fifty years of life.
KC: I think the first indication I got of that, at least the most memorable, was the episode where he went to meet Tuco after he "tuned up" Jesse. After the confrontation/pyrotechnics/dealmaking he sits in his car and has an adrenaline dump, and seems to savor it. He did it, he pulled everything off, and he wasn't feeling guilty about it in the least. He didn't care that what he did was wrong, he was like a kid enjoying the "coolness" of it all.
VG: That was one of my favorite moments. The writer who wrote that did a great job.
KC: One of ours too, blew my wife away. The setup from the intro to the ending was just perfect.
VG: I'll pass that along to the writer.
KC: Do you still see this as a four or five season thing?
VG: In my mind's eye, well, it's tricky. I can't see anything past five seasons and we've embarked on our fourth season right now and we've kind of figured out what the end of the fourth season will be although we haven't broken all of those plot details out yet, we have in bold strokes what will take us through season four. Beyond that, it feels like we have in very broad strokes, we have an endgame season in season five. But having said that, it's a funny thing when you create a TV show or a movie, at a certain point if you're lucky and your project sees the light of day, it means that it only happened because someone bigger than you has become your patron, has bought your project, and then at that point you realize "I don't own this anymore." All this to say there are other voices to be heard and definitely investors to be pleased. [laughs]
KC: Some will push for twelve seasons, eh?
VG: Well it's a flattering thing, but yes, there are powers that be that would have a different answer for you when asked that question. But it's funny, last night I was talking with Carlton Cuse, one of the executive producers LOST. Everytime I see him, which isn't often, just when we bump into each other at functions and whatnot, I always tip my hat to them for what they did with LOST, in the midst of this very game-changing cultural touchstone that they created, they still told themselves "we gotta put a clock, an end date, on this thing." The story of how he and Damon Lindelof had to threaten to quit in order to end this thing. You can argue about the ending, whether it made you happy or not, but it was a brilliant move on their part, and from their point of view a very necessary one. They couldn't have this serialized show go on in an open-ended fashion indefinitely. We have to know what it is we are writing toward. Very smart move on their part. With a serialized show, BREAKING BAD being no less serialized than LOST, you have to ask yourself, where does it end?
KC: That becomes the hardest question. You spoke to that in another interview I read where you don't want to be the show that people say "Oh, that thing is still on? Aww what a shame..."
VG: It's so true. I went through that to some degree with the X-FILES. We were having fun right up until the end on that one, and the money was nothing to sneeze at either. [laughs] It was like man, let's keep this going, for a lot of reasons, some better than others.
KC: I've lost my taste for ramen.
VG: Yeah, the money... is pretty nice. But I learned from that experience that it is better to leave the party too soon than too late.
KC: So, just how many timing devices can you put in one series? Cancer? Pregnancy? Hank's investigation? Which I suppose all goes back to the conversation about five seasons or not. You can cheat one or two of these devices, like the cancer thing, which seems to have had the snooze button hit on it. The pregnancy has been dealt with, but then you still have Hank's investigation... You have all these timing devices that are building the tension and keeping us baited... we are all wondering how you're going to get yourself out of this. Like when you talked about the scene with Hank and Jesse in the RV, and Hank's knocking on the door. That was a brilliant little piece of unpainting yourself back out of the corner. How many of these can you put in there and still have this payoff? You can't resolve them all at once, because that looks too convenient, you'd be cheating. How do you address pulling off all of these separate timing devices?
VG: That's the question we struggle with for hours a day. It all stems from me being such a fan of television, from watching, quite literally, a little bit of every show ever made, sort of being a student of television and a fan of what it does well and recognizing what it doesn't do well. What I mean by that is that television is really a world of stasis. Every episode of THE ANDY GRIFFIN SHOW, and I love that show so I'm saying this as a fan, you go visit Mayberry in season one, and it looks pretty much like season four, season five. And that's what you want, this constancy in a real life that changes, you want to go visit your friends in Mayberry. So you check in with those guys, but that is not real life as we know it.
KC: Don't you think we watch TV so we can escape real life?
VG: Absolutely. And I want that too, as a viewer, but having said that there are hundreds, thousands of shows that give you that stasis and constancy, I guess you can use both of those words in this case. But I figured why not try something different, where the characters change, transform, or at least we center it on the change of one character - we don't always change in our own lives, even though we get old, we don't necessarily change fundamentally as human beings. I thought it might be fun to follow a character who is indeed embarking on a fundamental change, and that is Walter White. When things happen to him, there are consequences to be paid, there are ripples afterwards. Seems like on a typical cop show, for example, the main character will kill someone, usually in self defense, and in the next episode it is kind of forgotten about. All of this is a long-winded answer to your question that whereas typically what television does well is NOT change its characters despite the terrible things they may go through in a given hour, what I wanted to show was that the big moments AND the little moments both change you and therefore we have all these things hanging out there: we have the cancer, and as you said we have Hank's investigation into Heisenberg all the while not realizing that Heisenberg is his own brother-in-law. We have moments great and small that we very much wish to pay off before the series ends. I can't promise we won't leave a loose end or two, because it's so hard not to do that, but it would please me very much if we didn't leave any loose ends for the audience when we are all said and done. So we sit around for hours every day in the writer's room and we ask the same two questions every day: 1) what is Walter thinking right now, and 2) what happens next. And we ask ourselves those two questions alternately day in and day out. The other ancillary question is what has happened before that we should not forget about? For instance, the airplane disaster, it was a huge thing and if it were a real life event it wouldn't be something that you'd forget anytime soon.
KC: I loved the subtle details of that, the half life of the event as seen in those little ribbons everyone wore, the blue tape on Walter's new windshield, we see it fade from the consciousness to a degree, as it becomes second page news, but then there is still, on the community level, this adherence to it as it fades from the national scene. I thought that was perfectly timed.
VG: Thank you, good, that's good to hear. About the windshield, that kind of became a running joke with us, even though we didn't mean it to be, how he kept getting his windshield broken over and over again.
KC: So which do you prefer? Big screen or small screen? I understand both have their advantages and disadvantages... One of my favorite screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker said he lamented the compressed nature of the big screen, and how filmmaking has drifted from character development to the payoff of the explosion, the convoluted plot-twist, etc... and that television is the refuge of the character, as you can potentially, have six to twelve hours to build that relationship - and this was in 1999 when he said this. Has anything changed? I know you've had experience in both formats with HANCOCK and HOME FRIES, but what is your take on this?
VG: Well first off, Andrew is a very talented writer and that was very well put. The way I see it, even in the best of years, it's funny, they both share so much in common that if you were to visit our set or a movie set, you wouldn't really notice any difference - we're using the same cameras, the same people. On a mechanical level it is the same process, it's just sped up on the TV side of things. But otherwise you wouldn't really notice any major difference. However, on another very fundamental level, TV and movies are like comparing apples to oranges. The simplest and probably the most helpful way of looking at it is that a movie is two hours of story whereas a TV series is a hundred hours of story, at least theoretically. Having said that, just by that understanding, you're going to have to delve into character because no one is going to watch a hundred hours of car chases and explosions, it's just not going to happen. Look, those things, when done well will more than satisfy you for two hours, and I love those kind of movies myself, but beyond two hours, no. Only then do you realize how important character is and it becomes so very important in television. I guess it is the gulf between what television does so well and what movies do well, and it seems to be widening these days with the news that there are fewer independent movies being made, there are fewer "movies for grownups" being made as the Hollywood studios realize who by and large are going to the theaters every opening weekend; and that is thirteen year old boys. And I think there should be plenty of movies made for thirteen year old boys, but I think there should also be movies for thirty year old women and fifty year old men. We live in a country of great abundance in so many ways and yet movies are becoming more and more ghetto-ized, balkanized, or whatever the right word is, into one kind of movie, you know; "Blow things up." [laughs]
KC: Funny you bring up independent film, I just had this conversation with Paul Auster a week ago, he's a well known writer, but he's done four films, a fact that tends to rest in the shadows of his books. He says that the state of independent film right now is so bad that he wouldn't want to get into it. He kind of lamented the fact that it is so different now than it was say, ten years ago.
VG: And from what little of it I understand, it seems to be true what he's said. I'm a little bit of a masochist, so when BREAKING BAD ends, I'm probably going to take another shot at the movies. I really want to direct a movie, it is something I've never done, and I'd just love to do it.
KC: Yet again, with Paul Auster, when I asked him why he loves film, he goes back to the lure of directing. He cites directing as his one reason to ever do it again. That it is such a thrill, he says it is the greatest thing he's ever done, this from an internationally celebrated author of over thirty books. He lit up as he told me about how you are involved in ninety-nine different things at once, all of which matter and all of which are incredibly interesting. And the intoxicating thing he pointed out was that you have to convince everyone of the reality of the scene, you're there amongst lighting rigs, cables, people, and you have to get everyone to agree to something that isn't there. Seems to be a very evangelical experience. I thought it funny that you mention that, directing seems to be what everyone wants to do.
VG: Well you know, especially for a writer. Very well put by him by the way, we all, as you well know, we all lead pretty solitary lives where you're alone in a room typing away on a computer, and the great thing about being a television writer, and it is one of the things that makes me feel very fortunate, is that it does become more of a group effort. When I first heard of that, I thought, and I'll admit I have as much ego as anybody, but I thought to myself "gee, you gotta work with so many other people, and I'm kinda used to working by myself, getting all the credit for what I write by myself," [laughs] to be terribly petty about it. But it is a great thing to sit in a room seven to ten hours a day with six other writers, all of whom I've cherry picked from the best of the best, and sit with these smart, witty, interesting, funny people as we create. And it's even more of that when you are directing a movie, as Mr. Auster said, you're living a lot more life in a smaller timeframe, you have more challenges, you're involved in all of you pulling the rope in hopefully the same direction, all involved in an interesting creative effort, and as director you're being asked questions right and left, and the sun is always on the move across the sky, you have to get a certain amount of work done before the end of the day, before the plug gets pulled. It's a real challenge, it's not rocket science, and it's not like coming up with penicillin, it's a movie or a television show at the end of the day, but it feels important and it feels worthwhile. It is an active and physical effort, so it's different from writing in that sense. But at the end of the day, I love directing: writing is a lot harder. [laughs] A lot of directors won't tell you that, but it's true.
KC: Seems far more torturous, without the immediate feedback you get on set.
VG: Far more torturous. If you can face that blank screen by yourself, you're showing more chutzpah than a director is... although when you're facing eighty to a hundred people and everyone is looking to you for what to do next, and you're not quite sure, that is it's own very brutal test of courage. [laughs]
KC: Let me ask you about a couple of characters then, if you don't mind, starting with Walt. It seems like the endgame, from the past three seasons, is heading towards the kind of anecdotal demise all suffer when defecting from their "normal lives" into one of debauchery and self-interest. Some sort of dark irony. Do you have hope for Walt? Do you see him wising up? Do you see him sinking deeper? He's taken up this double-life, but the hours in the day seem to be stacking up in favor of the darker side, taking those precious hours away from what he originally set out to protect.
VG: That does seem to be the case for poor Walt. But the simple answer, and the truthful one, is that things are going to get darker before the dawn, as far as he is concerned. He's an interesting character, you know he's suffering from cancer, although he currently appears to be in remission, but the cancer is what started him rolling down this path to begin with, but it has gotten to the point in my mind that Walt doesn't just have cancer, he IS cancer. He's a cancer in his family - and we think about this a lot in the writer's room - that Walt is kind of a cancer on everybody else that he loves, and his soul has cancer. Not to sound too symbolic or simplistic, but there is that element. We're dealing with a lot of ideas that you can put very simply, you can employ a lot of cliches [laughs] but one cliche that makes it all easier for me to understand is "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." But it is arguable that Walt started off this whole process for a good reason...
KC: There's no doubt in my mind that was his initial motivation. At least, as a viewer it comes across completely genuine from the get-go, and then like we talked about before, certain episodes we see him kind of light up and enjoy the darker aspects of it all, look at this big stack of money daddy got for you, all of these little things that point to his hubris, his vanity - and these things eventually take over. Which brings me to my next question: Who do you think is more aware of his surroundings, Gus or Walt? Who is more accurate in his assessment of the situation as it stands now?
VG: Oh absolutely Gus.
KC: Really, you think Gus has the upper hand? I wonder because I think, is Walt delusional for thinking he might make a go at Gus, and that he erroneously believes he isn't expendable? Is Gus too dismissive of Walt, thinking he's merely a chemist who has a modicum of street smarts and the added "weakness" of being bound to his family?
VG: So you think that it is a toss up?
KC: To me it seems more of a level playing field, I get the sense that Gus' actions with the Familia across the border will come back to haunt him, but I also get the sense that Walt might, just might, be biting off more than he can chew, he's already intimated to Gus that they're equals, and Gus didn't respond to that, nor would he. It seems like there is an ambiguity by design between these two, and I was curious to hear your thoughts. It seems like a pretty level playing field in each other's eyes, not in the reality of the relationship. I think the reality is that Gus' tenure in the business trumps anything Walt can do, but then Walt is putting out a unique and desirable product, and he's making sure he's the one who holds the key to it, especially after last season's finale.
VG: Well I can't fault the reasoning there. These are the two smartest guys in the show, Walter and Gus. Most days I would give the nod to Gus because Walt has book learning, his IQ is probably higher than anyone else on the show, but as my dad used to say "Three PhD's and yet doesn't have sense enough to come in out of the rain." I think Gus is brilliant in a street smarts sense and in other ways too, one of his strengths is a will, in a biblical, G. Gordon Liddy sense, he's got the will to do just about anything, as you will see in season four, but one of his other chief talents and strengths is that he can read people, he can read them like a book. And having said that, I think we're going to learn that his one failure of reading someone was probably Walt himself. Walt is hard to read. He's kind of a chaotic mind.
KC: Well see, that's where I think Walt kind of levels the playing field, the fact that Walt got a second meeting with Gus, where in the first meeting Gus said, "No, your partner's a junkie, we're done," and yet Walt convinced him, this machine-like man, to do the deal. That's where Walt saves himself in this respect, and Gus, whether it is a greed motivation or maybe it's the feeling that "fine, I can handle this, I can handle any situation - you want to bring the junkie in? I can make an exception and still be in control." Because this is going to mean something to me. I see the allowance of Walt into his world as a flaw on his part.
VG: It's funny you mention that equality between Walt and Gus. Every now and then in the writer's room we say to ourselves "Gus seems to be getting a little close to Darth Vader..." and we pull him back and say to ourselves, we don't want this guy to be all knowing and all powerful, he's still a human with feet of clay. He has his flaws but he is also very smart. He's a chess player.
KC: Who is responsible for Saul? He's a deliciously shallow caricature, but he has some of the funniest dialog in the whole series. Was that just out of a need to inject some levity into the long stretches of darkness? He certainly makes the talk of money laundering entertaining.
VG: He is an awfully fun character to write for, and he was very much a group effort from the writer's room. He came about exactly for what you just said, we needed some levity, some humor on the show. We had a sister show to the X-FIELS called MILLENIUM, which was something that I never worked on myself, but I was close to the guys who did, and it was a very worthy show in many ways, yet it was a tough show to watch because it was so dark. A lesson I learned from watching that show get produced is that you've got to have some humor even in the darkest of shows, otherwise you're going to slit your wrists, you're not going to want to watch it. Saul Goodman is a reaction to that, and a reaction to the idea that Walter White, in this line of work, should have his own consiglieri, except that this is the kind that Walt would get, a clown with billboards all over town, adds on bus benches, cheap suits... and yet when you just start to take him for granted, he shows us that he's a pretty good legal mind. It's a shame that his whole existence is about breaking the law wherever possible...
KC: We saw him flex his legal muscles when he helped Jesse buy the house out from underneath his parents, that was great, and we were made aware that he is a good lawyer, not just all giggles and haha. He knows how to get things done on a very real level - that added a little extra dimension to him - we saw the smile fade away when it was time to get down to brass tacks.
VG: Good, excellent. Glad that worked. He's fun.
KC: I always get a smile when I see him on the screen, I know something good is coming...
VG: Bob Odenkirk is such a talent. I have every episode of MR. SHOW on DVD. Getting to work with him is a real pleasure.
KC: We have a lot of writers here, and I don't think we've ever interviewed anyone from the screenwriting side of things, but part of the pitch I made for this interview was that BREAKING BAD is such a literary series, and I mean that as a compliment, the character development is so rich, you have the plot devices, the timing devices, all the things that you find in a good novel, but ultimately it's about character. So with that in mind, we are always interested in the actual process for you, as a writer. Can you give us a day in the life?
VG: Absolutely, I love all that nuts and bolts stuff.
KC: Good, we're kind of geeky about that sort of thing.
VG: [laughs] Me too, I always like hearing how other writers work. The way we do it is that the breaking of the episode is the hardest part, and the single most important part. We spend the most time on that. It's very much an all hands on deck scenario. Back on the X-FILES, when we did episodes that were stand alone episodes, writers could retreat to their separate offices and brainstorm, take walks, whatever - to figure out their episode. But with a show as serialized as BREAKING BAD, that just doesn't work, so what we do is we sit around a big conference table in our very un-fancy offices here in Burbank, and it's very much like being on a sequestered jury that never ends. Six writers and myself plus our writer's assistant who, sort of like a court reporter, takes down the notes of what we're saying on her laptop as we talk so every now and then if we need to pick through the chaff, we can find something good that we would've missed if she hadn't have typed it down. It takes us about two weeks per episode to break it out, five days a week, Monday through Friday, seven to ten hours a day. And the average is pretty consistent, two weeks to break out an episode. We stare at these four three-by-five corkboards that ring the room, we fill one at a time, and when we get to the fifth episode in the cycle, we take number one down from the board and replace it, and so on. Two weeks per corkboard. Each board has: teaser, act one, act two, act three, act four - and brick by brick we build out these episodes, we write out on index cards with sharpies, and each card represents not necessarily a scene, but a beat within a scene so that a teaser will be five or six index cards, and each act will be somewhere between sixteen and eighteen cards, and we try to put as much detail as possible into this portion of the creating of the episode.
KC: If you write better in the beginning, you have less to clean up later.
VG: Exactly. In other words, we try to build the best architectural drawings in the beginning so that any of the writers in the room can go off and write a particular episode by themselves. We cycle through the writers, everyone gets their name on at least two scripts, one by themselves and one shared towards the end of the season. The idea being that it is a group effort. And as I said before, we are asking ourselves those two questions, except we're asking them over and over again, where is each character's head at, and what happens next. We can spend a whole day just talking through where Walt's head is at. He's done this, he's done that, and he's responsible for a plane crash, what is he afraid of, what is he hoping for, what is his goal? And we are trying to think thematically, but we're employing simple showmanship as well. We want to keep the audience interested, we want to keep the thing moving along like any good cliffhanger/potboiler story. But also, we're trying to be true to the characters.
KC: What advice do you have for writers?
VG: Well I don't have any advice that hasn't been heard a hundred times before, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. Writers should write, whether or not you're getting paid to do it. You're not a writer unless you're writing. Then the only differentiation is "am I writer who's making a living off of it, or am I writer who is currently unsold?" - and that isn't a big differentiation. The real differentiation is, are you a writer...
KC: [laughs] And you can fall in and out of those two pretty easily.
VG: Yes you can, very easily. So that's not a differentiation worth making. The only one worth making is: are you a writer? Do you write every day? Are you actively involved in creating something, whether you sell it or not. Or are you someone who likes to think about being a writer, but doesn't actually get much done. That is the only differentiation worth noting. Read as much as possible, view as much as possible. As far as the literary end of things, I don't have as much experience with novels and short stories, but I can speak to how it is to get a job in the movie and television end of things, although someday I would like to write a book. I don't know if I'd be any good at it, but that's always the reason to try something new, to see if you'd be any good at it.
KC: Well it is a lot more solitary than your current situation.
VG: Very true. I like the idea that you can do it anywhere in the world.
KC: And you don't have to worry about budgetary constraints, CGI, casting, or any of that - it's just you and the paper, you create your own world and it doesn't cost you a thing.
VG: That's true too. I like that. But as far as making it into television or movies, my best advice I give when I'm asked how to get an agent, how to get your stuff read - which is a time-honored question - my answer to that, to speak to how I got started, is to enter screenwriting contests. I was entering these competitions from college on, and I would enter every contest that came down the pike, and once I started writing feature-length things, I would enter these screenplays in every competition I could find. That is how I got my start in the business because of one of those contests, The Governor's Screenwriting Competition, in my home state of Virginia. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners of it back in 1989, and it was small contest with only thirty or forty entries...
KC: Virginia wasn't a hotbed of filmmaking?
VG: [laughs] Not at all, so there wasn't a whole lot of competition within the competition, but one of the judges was an Oscar-winning producer named Mark Johnson. He called me up after the contest ended and said I really liked your script, do you have any others, and twenty years later we're still working together. He's my executive producer on BREAKING BAD, and my mentor in the business. A great guy. I cannot speak highly enough of entering contests.
KC: That's a good one, I wouldn't have thought that was "the way".
VG: Well you know, it's tricky. Like I said, everyone asks "how do you get an agent?" And the tricky thing, the maddening thing about being a writer, and that is any kind of writing I suppose, is that everyone can and does take a fundamentally different path. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, there's only one way to do that. One path. But the paths for writing, be it screen or novel, the paths are so disparate and varied, so you shouldn't limit yourself to just one entry point. The great thing about competitions is that you have a captive readership. You have a judge and a jury that are bound to your script.
KC: That makes sense, they are forced to read your script.
VG: That's the key.
KC: I never looked at it that way.
VG: That being said, I'd enter the legit ones, not the ones that cost two hundred dollars to enter, the ones that don't look like obvious rip-offs. Aside from that, I'd enter every one that I could.
KC: I have seen no less than three beige Aztek's just in the North Texas area, all sporting one missing hubcap. What does that mean to you?
VG: [laughs] It's funny how your brain tends to notice things more when those things are in your subconscious...
KC: Well, I don't know, because I hated that car when it came out, it was, and is, and ugly car, and the fact that I've seen three beige ones, each with a missing hubcap, true to form, that has to be indicative of some Aztek owners with excellent senses of humor. It's an ugly car, but it also makes perfect sense for the character.
VG: Oh it's ugly. But I'm glad it makes sense.
KC: It does. It's the utilitarian, non-assuming, non-flashy kind of an outcast car, on the fringe, it was made by a well known company in Pontiac, yet if you stripped the badges off of it and asked ten people to identify it, nine couldn't. It just seems like a funny, yet perfect choice. And I'm serious in that I've seen three beige ones all with the requisite missing hubcap.
VG: [laughs] I love to hear that.
KC: I'm waiting to see one with blue tape on the windshield...
VG: I was very proud of that decision. The Aztek came early in the process because it is a truly ugly car and the AMC Pacer had already been used in WAYNE'S WORLD, so I figured, what's a newer ugly car that hasn't been used in film? The Aztek won hands down.
KC: Well, you nailed it.
VG: Thank you.
KC: I know it's poor form to ask you about anything relating to the upcoming season, so I won't. Of course, you are free to fill the next thirty seconds of awkward silence with anything that you'd like to share...
VG: [laughs] Well, season four is a continuation of Walter White's very dark ride, and he continues to reap what he has sown. As does his family. But still plenty of action and levity, Saul Goodman will return...
KC: So Walt continues to trend downward?
VG: Well, as I've said, it is definitely going to get darker before the dawn. And having said that, I'm not even sure what kind of "dawn" Walter is going to create for himself. If you've liked the ride so far, I don't think you'll be disappointed in the next season.
KC: Well we are all looking forward to it.
VG: Thank you Kasey.
KC: Thank you for the time, I know you're busy. This is some good stuff.
VG: I'm flattered for the interest, the interview.
Visit http://www.amctv.com/originals/breakingbad/ for more interviews, backstory, episode guides, profiles, etc...
To catch up on past episodes of BREAKING BAD, seasons one through three are available on DVD.