Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan talks about his AMC dark comedy-drama about what happens when a mid-life crisis collides with a life of crime.
Writer Vince Gilligan is probably best known for his long stint on The X-Files, where he was responsible for such memorable outings as Bad Blood, a sort of comic Rashomon with vampires, and Pusher, which taught viewers why cerulean blue is an inherently evil color. Since Mulder and Scully went into retirement (on the small screen, at least), Gilligan has kept busy penning episodes of the short-lived series Robbery Homicide Division and 2006's revamp of Night Stalker, as well as rewriting Vincent Ngo's spec Tonight, He Comes into last summer's Will Smith superhero flick Hancock. His most recent accomplishment, however, is also the one he's most proud of: AMC's Breaking Bad, which tells the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter H. White (Malcolm in the Middle's Bryan Cranston), who, after learning his imminent death from lung cancer will leave his family in dire financial straights, begins cooking and selling crystal meth with a slacker ex-student (Aaron Paul). But while Walt's knowledge of chemistry may help keep him alive in the grimy underworld of drug trafficking, there's no magic formula to save him from the collateral damage done to his life.
CS Weekly's Jason Davis spoke to Gilligan last summer as part of our X-Files retrospective. This week, we present a previously unseen portion of that interview, just in time for Breaking Bad's second-season premiere this Sunday night on AMC.
How did you come up with the idea for Breaking Bad?
Talking to a buddy of mine, a writer friend named Tom Schnauz . He's a fellow NYU film grad, a really talented writer, and I got him his start on The Lone Gunmen. He wrote for us on that show, and then he wrote for The X-Files. Now he's a successful writer on the TV show Reaper. I was talking to him one day about three years ago, and we were bemoaning the business, how hard it is to get a pilot going, how hard it is to get a script sold and produced. Just sort of pissing and moaning about everything under the sun, because writing sucks. The writing itself is great, but all the professional aspects of it stink. So what are we gonna do next? How about being a greeter at Wal-Mart? That looks like a job you don't have to take home with you every night. What about selling crystal meth out of the back of an RV, traveling the country? That kind of hit me, not as a potential career move, but this idea of the character that became Walter White popped into my head at that point. This guy who is not a criminal, but is involved in criminal activities. He's very much a straight arrow, and yet he's "breaking bad," which is an old Southern expression that means to raise hell. He's this otherwise good man, so what reason would he be doing that for? Then it quickly came that he has nothing to lose; that he's dying of cancer and he's trying to provide for his family. They usually don't come together that quickly, but this character just launched himself into my head. I had the luck of my ignorance, because I came up with this character who cooks crystal meth to save his family, and I thought, you know, I've got as good a chance of getting this made as anything. [laughs]
How much research about crystal meth did you have to do?
A fair bit. I read several books on the subject, both from the point of view of the DEA and from the point of view of the addicts. Fortunately or unfortunately, all this stuff's readily available. [X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz's] brother-in-law, Grant, is a DEA agent, and he was very helpful. I got to have lunch with him and his partner and ask some questions about what it's like from the DEA point of view. We have a character on our show who is a DEA agent who is a bit of a cowboy, but a very good cop. We try to show the DEA as realistically as we can, which is an organization of people who really believe in what they're doing and who work very hard.
I knew nothing about crystal meth before all of this started. I just knew it was really bad for you. That's not even the point of the show, for me. The point of the show is about a guy who's having the world's worst mid-life crisis, and who does something terrible in order to do something good. But then the question arises, do the ends justify the means? And I think we're gradually making the point that no, they don't.
I spoke to a MacGyver writer a while back, and he said there was always a point never to show the audience all the steps and all the ingredients in the contraptions he would construct. Is that something you're conscious of, making sure you don't give the audience too much knowledge in the show?
Absolutely. Thermite, in particular. Thermite couldn't be much simpler to make. It's basically just two ingredients. We only really talked about one of them. Your MacGyver writer, I agree with him completely. We want the audience to know that the science exists, and the science itself is fascinating, but we're not a primer for how to make crystal meth or how to make thermite or how to make fulminated mercury. That's not what we're about. MacGyver was a fun show, and we're borrowing from that a little bit in the sense that there is really a MacGyver element to Walt. He is a teacher and a chemistry whiz, and there is that sort of post-modern MacGyver element, where he puts together a bomb or some sort of poison.
Breaking Bad obviously surpasses AMC's limits for profanity -- you mute the F-words when they appear. What was behind the decision to put the language in the show and then mute it when it airs?
This is still an ongoing argument. They really don't want me doing words that they have to mute. I don't want to go backward. To me, the horse is kind of out of the barn now, and we've got characters on our show that are never going to say "freakin'." They're never going to tone down their language. I feel like the audience gets it, the audience does the math. I know some people were expressing their disappointment in the words being dropped out, but to me the alternative is less palatable, which is to change the way people talk. I'd rather have them talk the way they would talk. Even having said that, even last season we'd have the occasional F-word, but we'd only have two per hour that we'd have to bleep. So it's not like we had a string of them. There are very byzantine rules that seem to change week to week. They don't seem hard and fast; they seem kind of arbitrary.
I prefer bleeping, because then you know you're missing something. I think we made a mistake first season to dip stuff, but that was AMC's call. I think the audience gets it, and it feels more authentic that way. You're not having the actual word, but everyone knows what the word is, and then you have value added when you get to the point of a DVD set, because then you can sell the DVD uncut or unbleeped. That's my argument. There's no perfect scenario there, because we're never going to be allowed to be HBO and have the F-word uncut, but the least egregious way to go about it, the smallest sin, would be to have them talk the way they really would talk and then just bleep the objectionable words. I'm hoping to win that battle, but we'll see. [laughs]
What do you look for in hiring writers for Breaking Bad?
I look for good visual storytelling. We take pride in our dialogue, but TV and movies, this is visual storytelling. It's the difference between a play and a screenplay. A stage play is all about the dialogue, and I've seen and read some wonderful ones, but that's not what we're doing here. We're telling a story through the images. I specifically look for visual writing, which is to say not the dialogue on the page, but the action lines, the scene description. How much is the writer getting across through a look, through a bit of body language, the omission of an action or the action itself? Versus a writer who gets everything across verbally. Because in real life, very often we don't say what we mean; very often we say the opposite, or we don't say anything at all.
We had two more episodes we were going to do. We had eight, and we only got through six because of the strike. I'm very sorry the strike had to happen, it was a shame for a lot of reasons, but a bit of a silver lining for us, oddly enough, is that we didn't get to do our final two episodes. We had plotted out all our episodes before the show ever went on the air, and we didn't know how well the show would be received. Not knowing how the public would take to it, you tend to want to be a little more sensational. You want to really keep the show exciting and interesting and keep 'em watching. All of that to say that those last two episodes, because of that, would have been really big episodes, and would have taken the characters into a hugely different realm than that they were already in, and it would have been a hard thing to come back from, coming into season two.
We're not just doing those two episodes coming into season two. We threw those out completely and we're starting somewhere else. We're building more slowly than we otherwise would have built. I think that's really good, because I know we've all had our favorite shows that were really interesting up to a certain point, but maybe they just go too far, and then there's no going back from it. To me, the trick is to do as little as possible with the characters, and yet keep them as interesting as possible. It's a real balancing act. You don't want to be incredibly dramatic week in, week out, you want to bury it. We start off this new season with a couple of really dramatically big episodes, then we want to throttle back a little and quiet things down, modulate it, have some quieter, more character-based episodes, and then the bigger, plot-ier episodes. Mix 'em up, that's what keeps a show interesting.
David Michael Wharton compiled this article from an interview by Jason Davis.
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Breaking Bad official site
Breaking Bad pilot script via Lee