'Breaking Bad's' Vince Gilligan Reveals Details of 'Saul' Spinoff and Terror Over What's Next
The anxiety-ridden showrunner on what he's mulling (a Western film), saying no to dozens of film pitches and how Jeffrey Katzenberg courted him, even as he admits "the odds of winning the lottery [twice] are pretty infinitesimal."
Deciding on an encore will not come easy, a point the anxiety-ridden creator is cognizant of every time he turns down a project -- and outside of a Breaking Bad spinoff, which he will help showrunner Peter Gould get off the ground (more on that later), he's found himself saying no with startling frequency. He knows he'll need to agree to do something eventually, if for no other reason than he needs to move on; but what it will be and what will happen if it isn't as beloved as Bad remain the types of questions that could torture him.
Although Gilligan never explicitly says so, it's hard to believe he isn't aware of the industry's lengthy list of one-time hitmakers who serve as cautionary tales about the mercurial nature of creativity, to say nothing of how ephemeral Hollywood heat can be. For every Steven Bochco or David E. Kelley, who were able to churn out pop-culture touchstones with astonishing regularity, there are several more examples such as Marta Kauffman (Friends), Diane English (Murphy Brown) or Gilligan's former boss, Chris Carter (The X-Files), who, despite efforts, have yet to produce a comparable follow-up.
Perhaps it's for that reason that Carter urges Gilligan to block out the comparisons to Bad and simply focus on writing. "You've got to ignore it because it hamstrings you," he says. "You're always second-guessing yourself, and it's a bad way to go into any endeavor." Lost showrunners Lindelof and Carlton Cuse insist he close his ears to the inevitable line of "what's next" questioning, too, while Shawn Ryan, who found himself in a similar situation to that of Gilligan following The Shield's seven-season run on FX, adds that he can't be afraid of failing. "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,' " he says. "I just don't think you can get paralyzed like that."
Anyone who has worked with Gilligan knows that anxiety already is part and parcel of his process. And never was that more pronounced than in the final year of Breaking Bad, when he says he leaned on his writers as much for creative inspiration as he did for therapy.
"They got very good at talking me off the ledge," he says of his Burbank-based writing staff. He regularly would turn to the six of them in a panic, asking often whether it was too late to go back and take another crack at a script because he feared they'd made a terrible mistake and would disappoint viewers if the scene weren't rewritten. "Vince would literally hit his head against the wall. There were times where he'd just go silent and then say, 'We've taken a wrong turn somewhere,' " recalls Gould, a writer/co-executive producer on the series. Adds Sony's other programming chief, Zack Van Amburg: "He's a guy who throws himself into the work like I've never seen, and every year it became an all-consuming endeavor for him, where he would eat, sleep and breathe Breaking Bad."
His writers, having had ample training over the years, perfected ways to get him through what he describes as "a lot of dark nights of the soul." Gennifer Hutchison, who was Gilligan's assistant on The X-Files before segueing to a writer on Bad, would consult a detailed journal she kept so she could prove to him that he'd had similar concerns and everything had worked out. And Gould, with whom Gilligan is co-creating Better Call Saul, the tentatively titled Bad prequel, constantly would trumpet unflagging positivity, uttering affirmations like, "Good things are happening," with frequency. "It buoyed me that someone I trusted in the room believed it even if I didn't," says Gilligan of Gould. "He's very much a glass-half-full guy, and I'm very much a 'the glass is more than half-empty and has a booger floating in it' kind of guy."
Much of that time together in the final year was devoted to the series' conclusion, which at points included alternate endings ranging from Walt killing the cops to Skyler (Anna Gunn) taking her own life. The writers would sit around for hours at a time hashing over their favorite TV finales and film endings, with M*A*S*H and Casablanca among the standouts for Gilligan. It was during those conversations that they came to an important realization about what they were looking to accomplish with their final hour. Says Gilligan, "What we realized is that we wanted to satisfy the viewers more than we wanted to surprise them."
Having had months to tinker with it in that room and in the editing process, Gilligan was able to reach a place where he felt confident -- "for the first time in my career," he jokes -- about the sense of closure he and his writers would be able to provide Bad's loyal audience. So much so that when Jeffrey Katzenberg ran into him at the Polo Lounge the morning after the Emmys and offered him $75 million -- roughly twice the cost of a Bad season -- to make three more episodes to be doled off in short digital segments, he wouldn't even entertain the idea. And by the time he arrived at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Sept. 29, where the finale would be screened for about 3,500 fans, he was more concerned with the evening's logistics -- Would the projector work? Would there be enough portable toilets? -- than he was with the public's reception.
Getting a unique opportunity to see the series' fans, including Netflix's Ted Sarandos and billionaire financier Warren Buffett, alternatively gasp and cheer at all of the moments he had hoped would land was, says Gilligan, an "out-of-body experience." But by 11 p.m., as the postshow party for the Bad actors and fans -- several costumed in hazmat suits and other Heisenberg regalia -- still was heating up, he and Holly had slipped out. That night, Gilligan lay awake in bed reminded of a feeling he'd had as a child on Christmas night. "You'd have that sort of post-Christmas letdown because you had been looking forward to it so much," he says, "and I had a little twinge of that when I got home from the cemetery." But he wouldn't have much time to dwell on it since a driver would be back at his Westwood home at 5:30 a.m. to take him to the airport for his last-minute appearances on The Colbert Report and, the day after that, CBS This Morning.