Interview: Breaking Bad Creator Vince GilliganFeatures
I was touched by the fact I would never get to write another episode of Breaking Bad.
With the third episode of the final season of Breaking Bad available from Netflix today, and holy cow what an episode it is, we thought the time was right to share our roundtable chat with the shows’ creator Vince Gilligan who was over in London last week before heading to Edinburgh to deliver a masterclass at the Edinburgh TV Festival.
Can you take us to that moment when you were writing that last paragraph? You must have had conflicting emotions.
They were not as conflicted as perhaps they should have been. It really was sadness and nostalgia that I was feeling. Conflicted would mean that there was sadness and also a sense of relief but at that moment there was no particular sense of relief I just felt sad that it was over and that was why the tears welled up. I was touched by the fact I would never get to write another episode of Breaking Bad, that it was done. It's been such an integral part of my life for six years and as hard as the job was for six years I was sad that it was ending.
And what was that last line?
You know what? I'll tell you! I'll give it away. It was, 'The End' [laughs].
Was there any temptation to stretch Breaking Bad beyond five seasons or was this always the plan?
Well it was not always the plan for five seasons but I always knew in my heart that this show by its very nature, by its very design, was finite. Typically [with] television you want your show to go on as long as possible. But I knew because we were taking our good guy and turning him into a bad guy that just implicit in that pitch is the idea that it won't go on forever, that there is a finite goal. Having said that we knew in our final sixteen episodes, which is our Season Five - Five A and Five B which is what is airing now - we knew that that was it. At no point during the breaking of that final sixteen did I have second thoughts about going on. I feel very good about that because I am someone by nature who second guesses their self a great deal. As sad as I was when wrote the end I didn't have any second thoughts about, 'Gee, I wonder if we should milk this out a little longer. I wonder if we should try to get a few more episodes just for sentimentality sake'. Because it felt right it felt appropriate to end the show when we did. And indeed I have not had, in the many months since that moment, I have not had any second thoughts in creative terms whatsoever.
Can you tell us about the proposed spin-off featuring the character of Saul Goodman?
We are talking about doing a spin-off of Saul Goodman the somewhat dirty lawyer and consigliere to Walter White played by Bob Odenkirk. A man named Peter Gould - who is one of my producers and writers who actually created the character back in Season Two - he and I are at work on a spin-off and I would love to see it happen. I would love to help get it off the ground and then let Peter take it over and run it. I would love to see that show happen because Saul Goodman is a fun guy to write for.
What kind of show do you envision the spin-off to be?
I envision it being very much in the world of Breaking Bad. Clearly Saul Goodman is a pretty funny guy; I don't assume it will be an out and out comedy. The best way I can put it is this; if you picture Breaking Bad being about 80% dramatic to about 20% funny - because we try to put as much humour into it as possible - the Saul Goodman show may be the flip of that, maybe 80% funny to 20% dramatic. But I think there will be a fair amount of drama because I think just as comedy leavens drama, drama can leaven comedy and make it feel more real and more rich.
What would have happened should Bryan Cranston (Walter White) have wanted to leave the show before you had come to the end?
I don't know what I would've done! [Laughs] It's a thought that never occurred to me! It would have been catastrophic because Breaking Bad is a show that absolutely centres around one man and one character and I don't know that Breaking Bad could've gone on without Walter White and therefore without Bryan Cranston. As it turned out Bryan, thank goodness, was such an excellent partner to me and to the rest of us in creating Breaking Bad and he - at a certain point - tried to talk me out of ending the show. He didn't apply too much pressure, especially once I explained to him that I love the show every bit as much as he did and he understood that I loved it so much I wanted it to end properly and fittingly and not overstay its welcome. He understood that line of reasoning and he accepted it and abided by it.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to create a hit show that resonates with people, what have you learned over the years?
That's such a good question and there are so many good answers to that question. I guess I will start by saying don't set out to create a great hit. We all want our work to outlive us, we all want to write stories and create characters that have resonance and that outlive us but the quickest route to failure is to have that be too active and prominent a goal. In other words when I came up with the character of Walter White I was just intrigued by him as a character, I found him interesting and fascinating. I felt like he was someone I could sink my teeth into as a writer. I did not stop to think how crazy a pitch Breaking Bad was! In fact it only really dawned on me the first time I was pitching the show to a couple of the Sony executives in 2005 I think and it was only when I was pitching it to these two executives and seeing these deer in the headlights looks in their eyes that I start to realise this is not necessarily going to be a show for everybody [laughs]. Luckily they wound up buying it. I think my best advice would be to write stories that grip you a writer, to write about characters that intrigue you personally and not think too far ahead about, 'will they sell, will they resonate with others?' The truth is no one knows what will resonate with others. If people really understood what potential buyers of the thing you create - whether it's a new kind of light bulb or whether it's a script - if people really understood what the market wanted that person, whatever it was they were selling, would quickly become the richest person on earth! Some of the biggest successes seem to me in hindsight to be somewhat accidental.
At what point did you lose sympathy with Walt because curiously people do still feel sympathy for him.
They do indeed. By and large I have lost sympathy for Walt. It was very much a gradual, slippery slope for me personally. In our fourth episode of Season One, it's not a violent moment but Walt faces a crucial decision, he is offered a way out that does not involve him being a criminal. He has old friends who are now very wealthy and they say to him, 'We'll pay for your cancer treatment and we will give you a job with our company, no strings attached everything will be great'. It seems to me, if he really cares about his family and wants to do right by them he probably should have taken that job and he doesn't. Instead he says, 'thank you but no' and out of a sense of misplaced pride I think. He instead goes back and cooks more crystal meth. I think at that moment I probably began to lose sympathy for him. But also at that point from a writer’s point of view he became much more interesting to write about. So even though I may have perhaps lost sympathy for him over the series he has become more and more interesting, more rich and full and complex as a character and therefore much more engaging to write about.
You could say the same thing about Jesse Pinkman as a character; he's become more interesting as time has gone on. There was a point when he wasn't actually going to be a regular character, when did you realise that actually he was integral to the show?
That was pretty early on. I was indeed going to kill off Jesse Pinkman at the end of the first season but honestly it was not very deep into that first season that I changed my mind, probably the first episode in fact after the pilot. I said to myself, 'This actor Aaron Paul is gonna be a star' he's a fantastic actor'. He and Bryan Cranston have such great chemistry together, no pun intended! They are wonderful together. They're like a 21st century Laurel and Hardy. I love writing for them, I love seeing them interact and I would be a fool to get rid of this character, I'd be cutting my nose off to spite my face.
How else has the plot changed from what you originally intended?
I tend to forget so many details over the course of the series. I carry a certain level of anxiety with me, I was very neurotic especially in the early days of the show that we needed to be very interesting in order to stay on the air and at the end of our first season I had certain plot developments and machinations that I was going to put into our show that probably would have killed our show at the end of that first season [laughs]. I can't tell you exactly what they were because certain elements of them may or may not happen in these final eight episodes. I got saved from my own worst impulses by the Writers Guild strike of 2007. Hollywood basically shut down for three or four months and it was a tough time in the business for everyone but the silver lining for me personally and for Breaking Bad was that it saved me from my own worst impulses. I would have thrown the kitchen sink into those final two episodes of that first season and I would've taken the plot so far so quickly that it really would have messed up the show. I'm very lucky that the strike didn't allow me to finish those episodes.
Do you ever wear the Heisenberg hat in the privacy of your own home?
[Laughs] I don't. I keep it in a very safe place away from sunlight and very much away from too much humidity or heat. I want that thing to last for a long time because I want to see it in a museum someday.
Breaking Bad Seasons 1-5 are available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix UK now.