5 Top Showrunners Share Advice for Vince Gilligan on How to Move On
The "Breaking Bad" creator gets encouragement from Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Chris Carter, Shawn Ryan and this line from Aaron Sorkin: "It feels like the first line of your obit's already been written -- it hasn't."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Advice from The Newsroom's AARON SORKIN
I do empathize with him. I don't know him at all, but if I did, my advice to him would be this: "I know it feels like your career just peaked, but it hasn't. I know it feels like the first line of your obit's already been written — it hasn't. It's no fun being compared to yourself, but that's going to happen. Don't worry about it. When the things you're worried about are the things you used to dream about, you're in good shape. (If someone told you when you were starting out that your biggest problem was going to be high expectations due to having created one of the greatest series in history, you'd have felt like that was pretty good news.)
The high expectations aren't an advantage — you're never going to sneak in under the radar again — but they're well-earned and a reason to be proud. Whatever you do next is going to be the thing you did after Breaking Bad, but that's an uptown problem. Take a little time off — it's been seven years since you've spent a single day not thinking about the show — and then write the next thing you're going to write, if only to get it over with. Listen to the people you listen to and smile and nod at everyone else. But mostly just keep using the same compass you've been using — it works. You haven't written the best thing you're going to write yet.
Advice from Bates Motel's CARLTON CUSE
After Lost, I took like about six months off, which I really needed to regenerate my creative batteries, and I think that window of time where I gave myself permission to not think about anything or work on anything was enormously helpful in avoiding the kind of a bad rebound after the show went off the air. There was a rather lengthy period of mourning that Damon [Lindelof] and I went through when we finished the show, and I was talking to Vince about this not too long ago because you have, like, seven endings. You end the show when you type "the end," and you end the show when you cut the last episode, and then again when you lock final cut. I almost immediately got on the plane with my daughter to Switzerland and went hiking, and I think that was really restorative, and also I got myself out of the environment.
People are always asking you, "What's next?" — and you can't take the question personally. It's the question they have to ask you, so you should expect it but not feel obligated to answer it. It took me a while to feel like it was OK to say, "I don't know." I finally got adjusted to that. And I really worked hard at recognizing that there was virtually nothing after Lost that was going to equal Lost.
Advice from The X-Files' CHRIS CARTER
I took a big chunk of time off after The X-Files. For me, it had been 10 years of solid output, and I needed some input. But you look at some of the best TV creators, Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley, who did it again and again. It can be done. Yes, you run this risk that everything will be compared to Breaking Bad, but you've got to ignore that because it hamstrings you. You're always second-guessing yourself, and it's a bad way to go into any endeavor. … I think you're best off doing what interests you, whether or not it's like what you've done before, because in success it will go on for a long time. … I've attempted other things, things that succeeded modestly and things that didn't succeed at all.
So I've been through the experience and have not come out as successful as I [once] did. And each time, I always felt that I disappointed the people who had agreed to come along with me — the crew, the producers and the studio. I always had to step back and regroup. But if you're a true writer, you want to keep writing.
Advice from Lost's DAMON LINDELOF
Vince should do whatever he wants because he's earned it. But he and I have discussed this, and essentially I told him that I just acknowledged that Lost was going to be the first word next to my name in my obit. It never felt like an albatross to me, though. And if there are other things that I produce or write between now and when I die that would actually knock Lost out of that position, boy, that would be special, too. So the fact that Breaking Bad now gets to be next to his name in his obit, and it's arguably the best television show ever produced, well, awesome. You don't need to reach for the brass ring anymore; it's firmly on your ring finger.
Whatever the next thing that he writes is likely going to be extraordinary. The fact that 10 million-plus viewers got together a couple weeks ago to watch a show about a guy dying of cancer who built a meth empire resolve itself is an outlier in every possible way. And who doesn't want to work with the person who executed the dive that was supposed to result in a belly flop but instead was a perfect 10? I will say I think it'll be difficult for him to go into the movie world, unless he's directing, which is what he should do. Speaking from personal experience, no matter how much creative autonomy you have as a showrunner, when you go to work in the movie business, the director is the showrunner.
Advice from Last Resort's SHAWN RYAN
The hardest thing is that when you're on a show that's like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or The Wire, you really get used to doing it your own way, and you kind of assume, even if you're doing it with the same people, that that's going to be how you get to start on the next thing. And it never is. You always start back at skepticism and a lot of, "Well, what about this instead?" That was the biggest adjustment for me. I had to realize that I was no longer on season seven of The Shield; I was on season one of something new. But you can't be afraid of failure.
A baseball player hits a home run and doesn't say, "Well, I'm not going to go out to play again because I might not hit a home run this time." And a quarterback doesn't throw a touchdown pass and say, "Well, I'm not going to throw another pass because it's not going to be as good as that." I just don't think you can get paralyzed like that. You should use whatever clout you have to pursue projects of joy for yourself. Maybe they'll work, maybe they won't.