'Breaking Bad's' Vince Gilligan Reveals Details of 'Saul' Spinoff and Terror Over What's Next
Although he'd avoid the scores of reviews of that final episode -- as he had every previous piece of press, with certain clips boxed up in storage for a day years from now, when he figures he'll need the pick-me-up -- he was barraged by congratulatory messages from an impressive list that ranged from director Steven Soderbergh to Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk. "It all just blows my mind," he says with a sheepish look that implies he's as appreciative as he is uncomfortable with the level of attention he has received.
That it is Gilligan who now is stopped on the street by strangers seeking autographs has him bewildered. "It's wonderful, but at the same time, it's been such a hard thing to process for me. It's like giving a somewhat underpowered computer pi to calculate," he says. AMC president Charlie Collier, who has witnessed Gilligan's transformation from showrunner to celebrity, adds: "What makes Vince so good is that he can actually focus on the task at hand and not get swept up in it. But at the same time, every once in a while, we'd love him to get swept up in it."
Gilligan knows he could be setting up himself -- and his fans -- for the disappointment he so ably dodged by making his next project a continuation of his last one.
"There's obviously a danger inherent in doing a spinoff, but I just love the character of Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk] so much, and part of me doesn't want to say no to this world," he says of the prequel, acknowledging that he's familiar with the potential pitfalls of a follow-up, having worked on the X-Files spinoff, The Lone Gunmen, which was met with critical derision and a quick ax after 13 episodes back in 2001.
Better Call Saul initially was conceived as a half-hour sitcom until Gilligan and Gould, who created the character during season two, realized they weren't comfortable with a certain number of jokes-per-page format. "We're both one-hour drama guys," he says, but more to the point, they realized that so much of what they enjoyed about Breaking Bad was the show's visual elements. "So we figured, 'Why not shoot Saul in the same way?' Let's shoot it in Albuquerque, let's get as much of the crew back together as possible, and let's do it the way we did it before so that it will be of a piece with that pre-existing fictional universe that we had so much fun creating."
While they're still working through plot, they anticipate the series being set in an office with a much lighter tone than that of its predecessor. If Bad was 75 percent dramatic and 25 percent comedic, Saul will be the opposite. The challenge has been finding the dramatic tension in their lead character. Unlike Walter White, who was damaged and needy, Saul has been portrayed as happy-go-lucky until now. Says Gilligan, "We've had to find the ongoing itch that Saul needs to scratch, so to speak, or else we wouldn't have much of a show." The pair made a formal pitch this summer to AMC, which haggled with Sony over money for longer than expected before ultimately deciding to move forward at the eleventh hour. Others, led by Netflix, WGN America and FX, were ready to pounce had the flagship's network passed.
Both Cranston and Aaron Paul, in addition to some of Bad's other actors, have expressed interest in making appearances, which Gilligan intends to make happen. "Personally, I'd have a hard time resisting putting all these guys in for a cameo or two every now and then," he says, smiling at the very thought. He and Gould would like to lure at least a few of the other writers, too, with Bad writer's assistant Gordon Smith already on board. (They'll need to begin staffing up soon as the tentative plan is to have Saul on the air sometime between August and October.) Gilligan says he envisions being in the writers room full-time, at least for the first season, and already is slated to direct the pilot. Once Saul has found its footing, he'll turn his focus to other projects -- assuming he is able to detach.
To this point, Gilligan has not dabbled in the J.J. Abrams school of hands-off producing. "I'm a big control freak," he confesses, suggesting that finding a way to relinquish some control on certain projects will be an important part of his post-Bad chapter. (Bad was the antithesis of that, with Gilligan acknowledging he had "a hand in every decision I could humanly make.") In an e-mail to Abrams, Gilligan, who has never met Abrams in person, told the prolific producer that he wishes he were more like him in his ability to have so many plates spinning at once. "I look at what J.J.'s built and say, 'I would like to do that,' " says Gilligan of Abrams' Bad Robot empire, still unsure if there's a place where he can be effective between fully enmeshed and entirely out of the picture.
The first test will come with his police drama, Battle Creek. He wrote and developed the hour-long entry a decade ago for CBS, which passed at that time. Now, in what is a testament to Gilligan's clout, the network has made a rare 13-episode straight-to-series commitment, and House creator David Shore has been brought aboard to write, produce and run. Gilligan says it'll very quickly become known as Shore's show -- "and rightly so," he adds -- admitting he has little desire to return to a broadcast schedule. "Twenty-four episodes would kill me," he says, acknowledging that he isn't even sure he'll be able to go back to cable's 13-episode schedule after doing Bad's more recent installments of eight. (Those close to Gilligan suggest his next TV creation likely will land at an HBO or a Netflix given his experience and desire to push the boundaries; Bad was able to get away with language and violence five years ago that AMC, now a higher-profile, advertiser-friendly programmer, would not allow of a new series today.)
Gilligan would like to add a few films next, with an eye toward a Western ("I just love them," he says, before noting that he's drawn more to characters than he is to genres). His reps have been deluged with projects for him to consider, but the only thing he seems certain of at this stage is that he'd prefer to write his directorial debut. He's been busy reading upcoming books on topics ranging from historical fiction to science fiction as potential source material, but he has yet to find himself struck by anything. Adding to the uncertainty, he hasn't decided where -- or even if -- he'll sign a new overall deal. Sony is the leading candidate, but Warner Bros. is said to be offering Gilligan an eight-figure pact, while the idea of doing something more entrepreneurial where he could have more ownership isn't off the table. All that his longtime agent, ICM Partners' Mark Gordon -- who, with president Chris Silbermann, was key in getting Bad to AMC -- will say is: "The bar [has been set] very high, and we're being extremely methodical. … Meanwhile, we're all excited for the phone call that some neuron in the dark recesses of his brilliant mind has fired, and there's a crazy character that woke him up at 3 a.m. and he just can't shake it."
As Gilligan waits for that character to jolt him awake, he tries to keep focused on the advice that he knows he should heed: "I don't need to compare the next project to the last project, even if others do. Let 'em. Just move forward and make it as good as you can." He can't help but be reminded of a 30- to 40-foot cliff in the middle of the James River, not far from where he grew up in Virginia. "You could climb up and jump off into the river. But if you stood up there too long, rest assured, you weren't jumping," he says, his lips settling into a smile. "You just couldn't stop to think about it once you were up there. You just had to jump."