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.
THR: What was the craziest?
Gilligan: I got a movie I wrote for them in 1990 that still from time to time gets bandied about as something that directors and actors want to do. Something called Two-Face, a comedy about racism, and folks dating back to Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan were interested in making it back in the very early '90s. Every year or so, somebody pulls it out of the file drawer and blows the dust off and thinks about acting in It -- most recently it was Will Ferrell. I don‘t know that the movie will ever get made, because at the end of the day, it’s a little bit tricky, because it’s a comedy with the N-word in it.
THR: And it’s a multiple personality kind of thing, right?
Gilligan: Exactly. So it’s a tricky one, but people seem to respond to it when they read it. So, at some point, if I’m lucky, the grandkid of one the original producers who read this way back when will be interested and finally make this thing. There’s that, and then I had something about scientist who accidentally kills God. That didn’t go over very well at TriStar.
THR: It was an accident!
Gilligan: He didn’t mean to do it. He invented a new kind of MRI scanner and it kills people’s beliefs, and you could be the most fervent fundamentalist Baptist in the world and you get scanned by this thing, and instantly you’re an atheist. It had some moments, but it was not going to be a big crowd-pleasing movie.
THR: What was your worst writing job?
Gilligan: I’ve been very lucky, really blessed. I was making a living writing movie scripts from about 1990 to ’95, then I moved out here [L.A.] from Virginia to get into TV, because I had a job waiting for me on the staff at The X-Files. I was on The X-Files for seven years. That was a very close second to Breaking Bad as far as my favorite jobs go. Just a wonderful job on which I learned pretty much everything I know about writing for TV and producing TV. Truly, that was my film school for learning how to do the job that I do on Breaking Bad.
THR: I was the first national reporter on the set of The X-Files, and the producer said, "If only we could get the ratings of Unsolved Mysteries!" That’s what the goal was.
Gilligan: You know, the story I remember was, the exec that ran Fox TV at the time were betting big on Brisco County Jr. "If it isn’t a hit, I’ll eat my desk." And then when The X-Files came out, he watched it and said, “Nice try” to Chris Carter. He didn’t believe in it at all.
THR: Who’s your industry idol?
Gilligan: Clint Eastwood. This is a guy who’s still directing movies, and he does what he wants to do, and he’s interested in telling good stories with a minimum of muss and fuss and drama behind the camera -- he just wants to put the drama in front of the lens, not behind it. He just plugs away through thick and thin, and does what he sets out to do and makes great movies, and is making the best work of his career late in his career, having done good work all along. Contrast that with Orson Welles, who I would also want to be if I were lucky enough to get direct a movie like Citizen Kane, but it’s tough to have a movie like that at age 26 and have that be the highlight of your career and then the rest be all downhill. It’s much better to be Clint Eastwood and have your best work still ahead of you.
THR: Have you never had a bad writing job?
Gilligan: I’ve had some rewrite work on movies that I’d prefer to have go nameless that was less than thrilling, but it kept food on the table.
THR: What made it bad?
Gilligan: It’s a kind of torture to work for producers or execs who just ultimately don’t give a shit about the movie. When you bring up a problem about a character, they look at you with a mixture of annoyance and pity and say, "The audience does not care about that, just keep the story moving and it’ll be fine.” Of course they’re going to question it if I’m questioning it -- I know other viewers will question it as well. The writer is the first viewer of the movie, who's viewing it in his or her own head in the privacy of their office, and they’re typing it down on paper. And if I’m calling bullshit on it as I’m writing it down, why am I thinking the audience is so stupid that they’re not going to have the same problem as I have with it? But I’ve had those kinds of meetings all kinds of times with movie producers where they say, "Just write it, just keep the story moving. All the audience cares about is shiny things dangling in front of their eyes, like little babies."
THR: What did you bring to the party at X-Files?
Gilligan: I got there about two years into the show. I wrote a freelance episode for Chris Carter, and he hired me off of the strength of that. In Season 2, it was called “Soft Light,” about a particle physicist who, through an experiment gone wrong, his shadow turns into a black hole that sucks people in and kills them. That was fun. It was the first one I ever wrote, and then after that, I worked my way up to one of the executive producers. I probably wrote 20-something episodes, and I rewrote many, many, many uncredited others. So I had a great time on that show. That was the first time I ever got to direct, not counting film school. I got to direct two episodes, and I learned so much from that, and that’s helped me on Breaking Bad. That was fun.
THR: What do you like and hate about showrunning?
Gilligan: The best thing is getting to put your vision on screen in an unadulterated fashion. The difference between writing for movies and writing for TV is that TV happens so quickly that you don’t have time for the death of 5,000 cuts that is the development process that movies always seem to undergo. But TV, in my experience -- as fortunate an experience as it’s been -- you either get a quick no or a quick yes. The execs at these companies, when they believe in something, they let you run with it.
What I love about being a showrunner is getting to tell the stories that interest me, and getting to have a hand in every aspect of production: the conception and the writing, and also I get to be the final arbiter of who the actors are, what they’re wearing, what car they drive, what house they live in, the editing, the music -- I get to weigh in on all these, the cinematography, all the elements that make the show what it is. It’s a wonderful thing for a control freak such as myself.
THR: And the worst thing?
Gilligan: One simple thing: There are never enough hours in the day to do everything you need to do -- you’re always running for your life. That’s the nature of the beast, and if that’s the worse thing about the job, I’d say that’s a pretty good trade-off.
THR: Which show do you wish you’d created?
Gilligan: Oh, gosh, Twilight Zone and The Andy Griffith Show -- that show just puts me in a good mood any time I see it. It’s kind of part of me. A part of me wants to live in Mayberry. Spongebob Squarepants, I think that’s a good show.
THR: Now that you’ve done something as distinctive as Breaking Bad, do you want to do something completely opposite, something even crazier than that crazy thing you told me about?
Gilligan: Despite what I just said about movies versus TV, I’d like to direct a movie -- I’ve never done that before. I’d love to do a Western, an old-fashioned Western. Just a good old inexpensive, meat-and-potatoes Western.
THR: What did you learn from X-Files and Breaking Bad that’s going to help you make your movie?
Gilligan: Well, whether it’s a movie or a TV show, it’s all motion pictures, and I don’t draw that much distinction between the two. The only real difference is, are you telling two hours of story, or are you telling a hundred hours of story? To me, it’s all about telling a great story that centers around interesting characters whom we care about. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a science fiction movie, a Western or romantic comedy -- it’s all the same tools. Even with a comedy or drama, it’s all the same fundamentals, which are: Do we care about these characters, and do we want to see them succeed? I learned that from my early days with Chris Carter on The X-Files, and it’s held me in good stead ever since.