'Breaking Bad's' Vince Gilligan Reveals Details of 'Saul' Spinoff and Terror Over What's Next
This story first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was mid-February of this year when Vince Gilligan settled in to finish the script for Breaking Bad's 62nd and final episode.
Filming was set to begin in a little over a week. He sat down at the dining-room table of his Albuquerque, N.M., condo, which had doubled as the temporary home of Bryan Cranston's Walter White when his wife kicked him out of the house a few seasons earlier. With an Old 97s version of "El Paso" playing on a continuous loop on his iPod, he wrote the final scene in which the camera pulls away from White one last time. After five seasons of morally reprehensible behavior, the chemistry teacher turned meth dealer -- one of television's least sympathetic antiheroes -- finally would meet his demise.
But as Gilligan typed "End of Series" at the bottom of the page, his hazel eyes grew heavy with tears. "I knew it was the end of an era for me," he says. "The end of the best job I will likely ever have."
By the time Gilligan folds himself into a booth at Westwood's Napa Valley Grille on Oct. 2, it has been three days since that pitch-perfect series finale of Breaking Bad first aired -- and seven more since the exceedingly dark show earned its first drama series Emmy. Amid the adulation, Gilligan -- whose face shows no evidence of satisfaction -- must now confront the rare and daunting by-product of extreme success: He has to figure out what to do next.
"I can't seem to let loose and enjoy it. It just sort of washes over me," he says of the fuss being made of him and his AMC series, which, in its final season, transformed from a beloved cult series watched by fewer than 2 million viewers to a zeitgeist phenomenon, with a record 10.3 million tuning in to bid farewell. "I'm just sort of preoccupied by, 'What if this goes wrong?' or 'What if that goes wrong?' It's as though I don't have the enjoyment gene."
It's more than an inability to fully process joy that's plaguing the creator of a show that critics, including THR's own Tim Goodman, claim belongs alongside The Sopranos and The Wire in the pantheon of all-time-great television series. There also is a deeper-rooted fear of not being able to replicate the success he's just had, a concern with which other top creators, from Lost's Damon Lindelof to The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, can empathize. As he idly nudges ravioli around his plate, he suggests he's all too aware that he'll never be able to fly under the radar again, that every project from this day forward will be compared to Breaking Bad. "It scares me," confesses Gilligan, 46, a Virginia native who, despite some two decades in Los Angeles, has yet to lose his disarming Southern drawl. He pauses for a bite, then continues, "The odds of winning the lottery two weeks in a row are pretty infinitesimal."
Between fulfilling a to-do list that, for the first time in a long while, entails such mundane activities as getting a haircut, tidying up the house from which he walked to get to this lunch and catching up on episodes of History's Modern Marvels and an airing of Columbo, Gilligan intends to give some thought to the question that has been hanging over him for months: What now? While he remains far removed from an answer, the advice he has received repeatedly from friends -- including Lindelof and The Walking Dead's Glen Mazzara as well as his longtime girlfriend, Holly -- is to get going on something immediately. And he's inclined to believe them, having learned a valuable lesson following a lengthy stint on Fox's 1990s cult hit The X-Files. "I thought [at the time], 'I'll be known henceforth as an X-Files writer, and I'll probably be able to get a job anytime I want, so maybe I'll take like a year off.' But people forgot all about me, and I had to rebuild what little brand recognition I had," he says of a costly misstep he'd like to avoid repeating. "I realize now that this is a fast-moving business and there's always something new around the corner. You've got to strike while the iron is hot."
The challenge for Gilligan won't be a lack of options. With a best drama series Emmy situated in his bedroom and the uncommon mix of critical and commercial success, he has become one of the most in-demand writer-directors in Hollywood, courted for high-profile TV pilots (he got the call to direct FX's Tyrant after Oscar winner Ang Lee dropped out) and major feature films (his reps have fielded dozens of movies for him to consider writing or directing, none of which he's likely to do). He's at the center of a feeding frenzy, both among talent agencies looking to lure him away from his longtime home, ICM Partners, and TV studios eager to lock him into an overall deal. "Vince is in a rarefied class," says Jamie Erlicht, programming president at Bad producer Sony TV. "He now has as much marketing strength behind his name as any actor that would be put into the series."