Vince Gilligan – Talking TV Drama

by Paul Duane

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan doesn’t look at all like I’d expected him to look. It’s a hardboiled name, and I was expecting somebody who looked more like the show’s barrel-chested DEA agent Hank Schrader. The man himself, however, is tall and bespectacled and looks uncannily like a Daniel Clowes drawing brought to life. He’s a Virginian and has a wonderfully slow, discursive way of talking – he calls it rambling, I’d call it expansive – and is prone to apologising if he feels he’s using a mildly offensive word or phrase, which – given the Irish propensity for using swear-words as noun, verb and adjective – I found terribly charming.

He was speaking as part of the Galway Film Centre’s Talking TV Drama seminar, a terrific initiative bringing together writers and producers from shows as distinctive as Waking the Dead, The Silence, The Body Farm, Mistresses, Beaver Falls and Being Human to talk about how they work, what inspires them and the problems they face.

I’m excerpting a few small items from several hours of discussion, but if you want to hear more (and more specific) insights, the Breaking Bad podcast on the AMC website is your next stop.

Need I explain that there are spoilers ahead?

THE WRITERS’ ROOM

The writers’ room is a technique I stole lock stock and barrel from my seven years on The X-Files. We break our stories (that’s what Chris Carter called it so that’s what I call it too) around a long boardroom table, like a sequestered jury that never ends. I got lucky – the six writers and me are a good match, we really enjoy each other’s company. It’s a hard thing to sit, even with people you like, for that long. Seven of us staring at each other and asking fundamental questions, like – Where’s Walt’s head at right now? What’s he want, what’s he afraid of? Eight people, actually – there’s a writers’ assistant who sits with a laptop, like a stenographer, typing everything we say, bits of dialogue and so on that we come up with on the spot.

THE SHOW-RUNNER

I guess my role is, there’s a ship to be steered and I’m the helmsman. I’m the ultimate arbiter of “We’ll do this and not this.” You can make it an adversarial room if you want, the Sergeant-Major method. I know some show-runners who do.  It seems to me, though, that the best writers’ room is a safe room, a gentle room where writers can feel free to seem mentally deranged if needs be. I want their creative juices to flow, want ’em to be free to stumble. Sometimes blurting something stupid out leads to a brilliant idea.

THE BOARD

Each episode begins with two and a half weeks of seven people staring at a board trying to visualise every beat of the story, trying to fireproof it. Every last detail. We write each scene on a file card and pin it to the board. Some people use a dry erase board for that – I think they’re insane. Mad Men do it, for instance. I mean, what happens if somebody brushes against it, or, you know, you have an over-conscientious cleaning lady? Weeks of work – gone in an instant!

After the board is complete, we go to a ten page outline by the writer of record on the episode. Breaking Bad is unusual as we have most of the season figured out ahead of production, because we do thirteen episodes as opposed to twenty-four. We’d do fewer if I had my way, to be honest.

HONESTY

We try to be very honest in our storytelling even if it leaves potentially dramatic moments on the table. You can fall in love with some big bravura moment in episode eight but if you have to lie to get there, if you have to make characters do what they wouldn’t do, you’ve failed. You need to throw away the thing you love and go back to square one.

COMMITTING TO THIS THING

Our first ideas were, “In this episode, he makes a lot of money but he leaves it in a stovepipe, somebody turns on the stove, the money’s all burned up, oh God! He’s gotta cook another batch of meth!” Really lame, mechanical, only dipping a toe into the guy’s  amorality. “I’m a good guy, I want to make my family some money before I die, only the crows keep flying away with my money and now I gotta make more money.” But we decided we had to commit to this thing.

We had an episode where we meet Walt’s former lab partner from college who is now like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, he takes Walt aside and says “I’m gonna pay for your treatment, give you a job, no strings attached, solve all your problems” – but Walt is so prideful, so broken on some deep level as an individual that he would rather cook crystal meth than accept help from this guy who he’s very jealous of.

When that moment came we were all scared of it but in hindsight we did the right thing at the right moment or it would have been Rube Goldberg contraptions for the rest of the season. We dove in and said “it’s about flawed character- this guy says he’s doing it for his family but he has an infinite capacity to lie to himself.” It became the show that it is now.

KILLING JESSE

When I pitched to the studio – ideally, you want to sell them a hundred hours of story. I pitched to them that Walt would have this doofus kid partner, and that I thought this kid would die terribly at the end of Season One, making Walt reassess his choices. But man plans, God laughs. Aaron Paul is a tremendous actor. Seeing him in the first few eps – we were so blessed. No way I was gonna kill this kid off. Not to say that it won’t happen – just not in the first season!

SKYLER DISCOVERS WALT’S SECRET

We tried to push off Skyler’s discovery that Walt was cooking meth, leave it as late as possible so as not to make the franchise suffer – but she’s too damn smart. Finally she’s got to figure it out. Part of that is the actress, Anna Gunn, who’s whip-smart. The character too.  And who wants to be surrounded by stupid characters? You don’t ever in the eleventh hour want the hero to win because the bad guy turned stupid just for expediency. That would not satisfy an audience. If we’re not satisfied how can we expect anyone else to be? You want any mistakes they make to grow from character flaws.

DIRECTORS

I hate surprises. I want all their great ideas, but I want them to tell me about them in advance. We talk it through beforehand, before they get on the set. Somebody asked me if I’m ever pleasantly surprised – I’m only ever really unpleasantly surprised, when something doesn’t go the way we discussed, because I’m a bit of a control freak.

PACE

Give the audience the least possible for as long as possible. The writer’s strike curtailed Season One, meant we had to finish early instead of doing the whole season – that was the best luck we ever had. I was about to throw the kitchen sink into those last few episodes, Hank was about to find out, all that – it all came from lack of confidence. But the more you throw at people, the more you exhaust their appetite and cut off avenues of further exploration. The more stuff you do, the less you have left to do. You can’t – and I apologise for using the expression – you can’t shoot your wad too early.

Your correspondent (L), Vince Gilligan (R)

EXPERIMENTATION

Season Two was an experiment we got through by the skin of our teeth. It started with an image of something floating in Walt’s pool, total silence, a feeling that some catastrophe had just happened. “Is it an umbrella? What about a teddybear? Yeah, that’s it.” I just liked the idea of beginning the season with a burned-up bear in Walt’s pool – is it a meth explosion? – and making the first image also the last image in the season. That was a tricky season. It almost killed us.

SAUL

I love the Godfather movies, and can watch the first two endlessly. We realised that as Walt is the bargain basement Michael Corleone, he should have a bargain basement consiglieri too. Saul Goodman is what we call a bus-bench lawyer, the kind you see advertising at bus benches. He’s inspired by an Albuquerque lawyer called Ron Bell – great, big hair, a porn-star moustache. Amazingly enough he’s recently been involved in a controversy around crystal meth use too…

I started off as a comedy writer. I saw myself – before  X-Files – as a comedy guy. But it’s all about people, and to me I always thought if there’s not any humour in this to leaven the darkness of this show, people are gonna want to slit their wrists! We put humour in every chance we get, as long as it’s real and doesn’t feel tacked on.

AMC

I’ve been very lucky working for an upstart, up and coming, brand new network – being newcomers they didn’t want to pee on every hydrant, to put their mark on every script – I was quite prepared for them to do that – there’s always a moment where the exec who’s said ‘we love it, we love it, we love it, it’s great’ – you turn in the script and the death by a thousand cuts begins. “He’s so dark…” “Yeah, but you loved that when I pitched it to you!” “Yes, but does he have to be so… dark? Can he have a hobby?” None of that happened.

INTROSPECTION

I don’t want to be a criminal. But I want to have more confidence and I want to have more courage and I want to go out and meet the world better than I do. Walt does exactly that – he does it in a very negative way, but it’s very easy to only notice the negative things about Walt, well, we’ve made it very easy… But he thinks on his feet, which I don’t particularly do, and he gets in peoples’ faces and he imposes his will… We love characters who can accomplish the things we fear to do ourselves. That’s why we love bad guys as much as we love good guys. It’s all about force of will. A lot of writing comes down to – I have to say this very carefully – wish fulfilment, on some level, not about what Walt does, the end results, the bad things he does, but the fact that he goes through life with boldness. And he started off as anything but. He was more me than he is now.

THE END

This is a show about transformation – good guy to bad guy. Therefore it exists on a continuum. A continuum has a finite length. Most American TV is in it to the bitter bloody end and I can understand that but I like knowing that this show has to have an end to it, the best end we can possibly give it. It remains to be seen if we can pull it off. We have sixteen more episodes and it’s up to us to succeed or fail – you don’t want to leave the party with people saying, “here’s your coat! Let me show you to the door!” You want to leave the party with people saying, “God, he was fun to have around, why did he have to leave so suddenly?” We want Breaking Bad to be like that.

Paul Duane is one half of Screenworks, whose drama series “Amber” screens on RTE in 2012

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