Written by Dylan Callaghan
The Emmy-winning AMC drama Breaking Bad is the kind of show pitch that, if you thought about it too long, or really at all, you might just decide to abandon even trying. A nice-guy-schlub chemistry teacher becomes a meth cooking drug dealer after a terminal diagnosis doesn’t scream hit show...
But creator Vince Gilligan, a veteran of the X-Files, didn’t give himself a chance to think about that. He just followed his own fascination with his lead character, Walter White, played with tighty-whitey-ed bravura by Bryan Cranston. And even after getting rejected by nearly every network in town, he couldn’t let it go.
Eventually, as with a much more saleable Hollywood plot, his creative courage paid off. The show not only sold but has become a hit, one critically lauded as exactly the kind of programming that reproves the power of original television.
Gilligan spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his journey with Breaking Bad and how, ironically, the whole idea for the series was hatched during a bitch session with a fellow writer about the biz.
Did you know when you had the idea for this show that it was a big one, or was it like others?
I’ll give you a little lead up to it. About five or six years ago I was talking to a buddy of mine, Tom Schnauz, who I attended NYU film school with. He and I and been on the X-Files as writers up until 2002. So this was probably three years after that show had ended. Pickings were slim. Both of us had tried to pitch various movie ideas around town without much success. Both of us had been unemployed for a while, and we were wondering what to do next. Either he or I joked about putting a crystal meth lab in the back of an RV and driving around the country cooking meth and making money. As we were talking, the idea for this character just kind of popped into my head. It was that proverbial lightning strike. It felt unusual because that doesn’t happen for me. My ideas tend to come in much smaller pieces, and it’s more work pulling it out and turning it into something usable.
I had this full-fledged character, this good, law-abiding man who suddenly decides to become a criminal. I was so intrigued by the character that I didn’t really give much thought to how well it would sell, which is good because Breaking Bad is such an odd, dark story, it’s not easily sold. If I’d spent too much time thinking about how tough it was going to be to sell, I might have psyched myself out of even trying.
It’s ironic that this show came out of a bitch session about the TV business because what came out of it is the kind of fresh, unique storytelling TV can do at its best. Is that like the power of negative thinking or the Secret in reverse?
Photo: © 2010 AMC
Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad.
I’d love to say I have a secret, but I don’t. The only secret is to just keep swinging and not give up. It’s ironic and amusing to me that Breaking Bad came out of a bitch session, as you say. That magic idea can come at anytime. Sometimes you know it right away and other times you don’t know it until later. It happened to come for me in the middle of a gripe-fest about my lack of employment.
It could have come at a high point or a low point. The secret is to just remain open to new ideas and not give up when they get turned down. Breaking Bad was turned down all over town before AMC finally bought it. That is not, as we all know, a remotely unusual story.
Like any good script, this show seems to have taken on a life beyond its logline. Did the resonance of this premise and where it went surprise you once you started really breaking story, no pun intended?
That’s a good question. And yes, I would say this concept and this show has had legs beyond what I ever would have imagined when I first came up with the idea. I was thinking of strictly this main character, this Walter White character. The idea of a kind of Walter Mitty, milquetoast character who reinvents himself and turns from somebody good to somebody bad and profits in the process. That was the sum total of the concept.
As the show has gone to air and as we’ve shot 33 episodes, the richness of the other characters and the aspects of this world that we’re able to comment on are all things that are new and surprising to me.
They also show what a group effort television really is. So much of the show that is great and that I’m proud of is stuff that I didn’t see coming and stuff that’s not even my creation.
I have seven other really talented writers here who add immensely to the show, and I’ve got a wonderful ensemble cast. It’s immeasurable what they’ve added to this show. These characters exist because of the writing and because of the acting, and it’s hard to separate and measure which is the bigger contribution. A similar thing could be said about the directing, too.
Can you give me a specific example of a theme or a tone that has emanated from this show that you didn’t anticipate?
Well, I guess it’s tried and true, but I didn’t realize how much family would play into the show. The idea of family being the bedrock of a person’s existence and as something to be nurtured but also something that’s easily destroyed. There’s not a reinvention of the wheel in telling a story about family, but we come back to it as writers so often because it’s so important to all of us as individuals. I guess I didn’t see that coming when I set out to do this.
As for the business, the writers’ strike actually helped you by delaying the last two episodes of the first season?
It really did, it’s true.
At the time, you didn’t know if the show would stick, and you wrote some pretty sensational last two episodes of that first season, hoping to grab what attention you could. But the pause that the strike caused helped you see how the show was gaining traction, and you were able to take a slower, deeper arc with these characters. What did that teach you about how to balance the pressure of the business with your creative intent and instincts?
There’s an old joke I love about the old bull and the young bull, they’re standing up on a hill looking out over a pasture of cows and the young bull says, “I’m gonna run down there and have sex with a cow,” and the old bull says, “I’m gonna walk down there and have sex with all of them.”
I’m trying to word it a little less crudely than usual.
It’s weird because I’ve heard that joke, and it almost sounds more gross when you don’t use the “f-word.”
I guess it does, that’s true. I guess I learned and am in the process of learning that less is more and oftentimes it’s a benefit when you don’t throw the kitchen sink at it…
Out of fear or…
Exactly. Especially that you don’t make any of your plotting decisions out of fear or desperation. That is an important lesson for anyone to learn, to keep to the story and the characters simple rather than letting it all get away from you in an effort to please what is perceived to be an increasingly attention-deprived audience. The show’s either gonna work for you or not. The odds tell you it won’t. Most shows don’t work. And when they do work, it’s kind of like winning the lottery. With Breaking Bad I feel like I pulled the lever at the slot machine, and it came up cherries. If it was something I did, I don’t know if I could repeat it.
Having said that, in hindsight, my good fortune was that I didn’t have the opportunity to go with my first instincts and throw the kitchen sink plot-wise into our first season. If I’d done that, I would have painted myself into some seriously unpleasant plot corners. My general philosophy now more than ever is to give the audience the least possible, which sounds like a weird philosophy, but you want to parcel things out as slowly you can. Of course what that means is, you want to parcel things out as slowly as you can while keeping things gripping and interesting.
I don’t necessarily believe the conventional wisdom that the audience is more restless than ever and always needs more stimulation. People still like storytelling that can slow down enough to explore characters and examine them closely. I think there’s still room for that. Hopefully, that never gets lost completely.