'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."
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.
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."
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