Vince Gilligan on Why 'Breaking Bad' Will Go Down in TV History (Q&A)
From our archives: The creator of the AMC drama series explains where his legendary show came from, the secret of its success and its long artistic shadow.
The final episodes of Breaking Bad, which returned Sunday night, use the tagline "Remember My Name." In October 2011, before the fifth season began, creator Vince Gilligan talked to The Hollywood Reporter for the annual Showrunners Issue about why history would remember his landmark show.
He also revealed how The X-Files taught him the key to success, why he wishes he'd written SpongeBob SquarePants and where the phrase "breaking bad" came from. Here are highlights from that interview.
The Hollywood Reporter: What do you think is your achievement in Breaking Bad? What’s the importance of that show in TV history?
Vince Gilligan: Well, I’d love to think -- it’s probably not for me to answer whether there’s an importance in TV history, since I’m so close to it. But if there is, it’s our attempt to tell a story that centers on constantly changing character. TV, it seems to me, does very well by protecting its franchise. M*A*S*H, an absolutely wonderful TV show, kept an 18-month war going for 11 years, and that’s what TV does very well. It keeps [Gunsmoke's] Marshall Dillon out there on the main street gunning down the bad guy week in and week out, and it keeps its characters in a self-imposed stasis. That’s what TV does, and that’s a good thing, because as a viewer, you like to be able to visit with your favorite characters week in and week out for years on end.
But it seemed to me that the one thing that was missing in that equation, as far as TV shows went, was the idea of growth and change within a character’s life. I think what Breaking Bad brings is fundamental transformation of its main character. To that end, the mandate here has always been take our hero and turn him into a bad guy throughout the life of the series. So I think a different brand of storytelling in that sense is what we’ve hopefully accomplished, and it may help point the way to telling stories on TV that don’t exactly involve the time-honored way of protecting the franchises, protecting the stasis of the characters.
THR: I think that’s why Bryan Cranston keeps winning awards, because the character is interesting in his changes instead of being the same old guy, like almost everybody else.
Gilligan: I’d say Bryan Cranston is the greatest guy to work with. The thing I’m most proud of about Breaking Bad is that I’ve assembled this amazing team of people, starting with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn and all our wonderful actors, and our team of folks, my producers, and I have six wonderful writers, I have some of the best directors working in the business. I have the best crew. I’m very fortunate. I don’t take full credit for that, I’ve had a lot of luck and help along the way. The thing I’m most proud of is this family of crew people and cast in front of and behind the camera, folks that I want to keep in my life for a long time to come, and whom I’ll miss very much once the show ceases.
THR: Your achievement in making a show built on change screws you out of that enduring work team that you'll miss.
Gilligan: It’s true. That’s the tricky thing, it certainly makes sense concerning why TV shows work primarily the way they work, why they go for a character stasis. It’s so you keep on air for decades on end. But our show is very much a closed-ended show that's meant to end at a certain point.
THR: Where do you come from in Virginia?
Vince Gilligan: A little town called Farmville, which is about 60 miles from Richmond.
THR: And that's where the title of your show came from.
Gilligan: Well, "breaking bad" is definitely an old Southern expression that I thought was more widely known than it is, apparently. I always thought everybody know what “breaking bad” meant, because I grew up hearing it all the time.
THR: Because of your bad behavior?
Gilligan: No, I was actually a pretty good kid. I was a Walter White before he breaks bad.
THR: What made you want to be a writer?
Gilligan: Well, I always wanted to make movies, from an early age, probably about the time I was in third grade, about the time I saw Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. I was just a huge fan of that movie. I think it, and other movies I saw also around that time, inspired me to try to make a career in the movie business. It seemed to me to be kind of a catchall profession. I was interested in directing and writing, making special effects, building spaceships and all that kind of stuff. I think I homed in on being a writer later on, in high school and college.
THR: In a way, it is the Oscar-nominated writing that draws you to Star Wars and in a way it isn’t. Harrison Ford said, “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it.”
Gilligan: I remember that line!
THR: It’s a pretty ballsy thing for a not-yet-famous guy to say. I guess he knew he had carpentry to fall back on.
Gilligan: I guess you’re right, yeah. He was talking to a billionaire at that point.
THR: So George Lucas made you want to be a filmmaker as opposed to just a writer, but what was your first writing job?
Gilligan: I got very lucky very quickly upon graduating NYU film school. I won the Virginia Screenwriting Competition. I actually started entering in 1988, and the second year they had it, in ’89, I was one of the winners. And one of the judges was Mark Johnson, the movie producer who was just coming off of Rain Man with Barry Levenson. He was a judge of the contest because he was an alumnus of the University of Virginia, where the contest was held. He contacted me after the contest telling me he liked my script, Home Fries, and he asked if I had any other scripts. I said yes, and I sent them along, and Home Fries, which I wrote in college and entered into this contest, wound up being made into a movie. It came out in 1998.
THR: What were you doing in the meantime?
Gilligan: I was living in Virginia, writing movie scripts for Mark Johnson. I had three-script blind commitment with TriStar in the early '90s. It was wonderful because I was just coming up with crazy ideas for movies and I would pitch them to Mark and pitch them to the executives at TriStar.