Bleak, Brutal, Brilliant 'Breaking Bad': Inside the Smash Hit That Almost Never Got Made
Eight years earlier, Breaking Bad was little more than a lesson in what not to pitch. A drama centered on a 50-year-old crystal meth dealer with cancer had studio and network executives running scared. Sony TV's Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht recall being on the receiving end of Gilligan's presentation dumbfounded.
"He was talking about a character who had no joy in his life. He had no special skills and was living a very mundane existence. Oh, and then he gets cancer," Van Amburg says, adding: "Jamie and I were looking for the hidden cameras in the room and trying to figure out what was happening."
But 20 minutes into Gilligan's "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface" pitch, he hooked them. The former X-Files writer had shifted gears, talking more broadly about what happens when you have a life-changing moment and have to take stock as a person, a journey Breaking Bad's Walter would go on. The idea was born out of a phone call from fellow X-Files scribe Tom Schnauz, who had read an article about a guy cooking meth out of an RV.
"I said, 'That sounds like a good way to see America.' It literally started as a joke," Gilligan says, recalling his post-X-Files career uncertainty (he spent seven seasons on the series). "The idea of it suddenly struck me as wonderful for a TV show because who would do such a thing? And if he were indeed someone like us -- meaning a couple of dopey middle-aged white guys -- what would that look like?"
That strait-laced Gilligan could tell the story through a character as naive about methamphetamine as he was made the creative process that much easier. "They say, 'Write what you know.' And while I've never cooked or sold meth, I know what it feels like to be desperate, and Walt was desperate in the pilot," notes Gilligan, who spent time at the Riverside, Calif., DEA's office early on and remained in touch with drug agents.
More surprising for those who know the Farmville, Va., native is that such a genuinely sweet man could be so full of dark tales. "I like being nice, but this darkness within me allows me to write these kinds of characters, and I surprise myself sometimes with some of the images or thoughts that I come up with," he confesses, adding, "There is a difference between thinking and doing, and writers very often think a lot more than they do."
Recognizing that Gilligan's concept was better suited for cable, Sony began setting up meetings. Showtime passed because it already had Weeds, about a pot-dealing suburban mom, in development. TNT and HBO passed as well; the former because a more mainstream network couldn't center a series on a meth dealer, the latter because the execs in place at the time didn't envision it as a series. ("They wouldn't even grace us with a 'no.' They were basically like, 'Just get out of the office, please,' " says Gilligan.)
FX bit in 2005 and started to develop Breaking Bad around the same time as Courteney Cox's L.A. tabloid drama Dirt. But the network, which already had three male anti-hero dramas on the air, was eager to lure females. So Dirt got the order, and Breaking Bad was passed over. "It was as dead as a hammer," says Gilligan, who turned to another rewrite of the Will Smith action feature Hancock. (FX chief John Landgraf has since said: "If I had known that Vince Gilligan was going to be one of the best showrunners in television, and Breaking Bad was going to be literally one of the very best shows in television, I would have picked it up despite the concept.")
What came next is the stuff of TV legend. Jeremy Elice had been director of original programming at AMC for a matter of days when he set up a meeting at the West L.A. eatery John O'Groats in early 2006 to discuss potential projects with one of Gilligan's ICM agents, Mark Gordon. The network had no originals on air, and Mad Men had yet to progress much beyond the spec-script phase. Gordon passed along two projects that potentially could put AMC on the map: a drama from State of the Union scribe Bruce Wagner and Breaking Bad. Elice, who had gotten his start at FX (and now heads up Legendary TV), was desperate to make the latter ("It was a totally original story about an underdog with about a one-in-a-million chance," he recalls), and soon AMC's then-programming execs Christina Wayne and Rob Sorcher would be, too. Gilligan was less confident, joking to Gordon: "Why didn't you send it to the Food Network? It is a show about cooking, after all."
Still, Gilligan agreed to meet the trio at Beverly Hills' L'Ermitage Hotel to discuss the possibility. "I thought, 'Well, I'll get a good $14 Scotch out of it,' " he says, laughing now over burgers near his rundown office in Burbank. "But this will be one of these meetings where they say, 'Hey, we love your work and we want to start doing TV shows,' which at the time, I thought was akin to, 'Hey, we love your work and we're going to build a base on the moon, and we want you to design it.' " To Gilligan's delight, he had underestimated AMC's desire to get into the originals space with a noisy, nowhere-else-on-TV project, and the drinks turned into a working meeting.
In the year or so that followed, FX agreed to release the project, allowing Sony to ink an AMC deal. From there, the pilot location was moved from Riverside, where Breaking Bad initially was set, to Albuquerque to capitalize on tax incentives, and a cast was hired. Wowed by Cranston's 1998 guest appearance on X-Files, Gilligan was dead set on hiring the Malcolm in the Middle actor for a role initially conceived for a 40-year-old. ("We pushed for him to be 50 because at 40 he's a little too young to have this crisis. It was just so much more impactful to have him a little bit older," says former AMC vp production Vlad Wolynetz.)
But the suits had trouble envisioning Fox's suburban dad as their star and threw out film-star names including John Cusack and Matthew Broderick (both passed). "We all still had the image of Bryan shaving his body in Malcolm in the Middle. We were like, 'Really? Isn't there anybody else?' " recalls one former exec whose mind was changed when he saw the X-Files episode Gilligan urged each of them to watch, in which Cranston plays a desperate man suffering from radiation exposure. "That was a tricky part to cast on X-Files," says Gilligan. "We needed somebody who could be dramatic and scary yet have an underlying humanity so when he dies, you felt sorry for him. Bryan nailed it."
As for Cranston, Breaking Bad offered the type of challenge and creative freedom he craved after years on a network sitcom. "I wanted a change of pace, and whether that meant a comedy or drama, it was going to be different because I didn't need the money anymore," he says. "And I never wanted to be in a position where I should make a creative decision based on financial need. I didn't want a 'job.' I didn't need to work ever again."
Paul, too, was far from a unanimous choice, and it wasn't until he was auditioning for the part that Gilligan realized that the actor had appeared on X-Files as well. The concern was that Paul was too old and too "pretty boy" to be believable in the role of a young meth dealer. "He's too good-looking? I had never gotten that in my entire life," the actor laughs as he recalls the initial resistance. The cast was rounded out by Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt and Deadwood's Gunn, who had recently given birth to her second child but was persuaded to audition by her friend and casting director Sharon Bialy. "I didn't think I wanted to start working again so quickly," Gunn says, "but I sat down and read the pilot and was like, 'Oh my God, this is unreal.' "