In their first interview about the new movie, star and creator reveal why they risked messing with their defining show ("Is there another story to tell?") and how they shot the hot Netflix project in near-total secrecy.
One day late in 2018, the phone of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, man named Frank Sandoval started ringing off the hook. Sandoval runs a local outfit that operates Breaking Bad-themed tours in an RV identical to the battered Fleetwood Bounder that served as a mobile meth lab for Bryan Cranston's Walter White and Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman on the Emmy-winning AMC show. Five years after Breaking Bad went off the air, the distinctive vehicle had — suddenly and mysteriously — reappeared in town outside a diner on a main road. "People were calling us and saying, 'Is that your RV up there?' " Sandoval says. "We'd heard rumors for years that they were shooting. But nobody we talked to ever knew anything." Sandoval asked around about the mystery RV and eventually came across a printed flyer explaining that a New Mexico tourism commercial was shooting in town. He figured that explained it.
In fact, Jesse and Walter's old RV was in Albuquerque that day, as were Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and his cast and crew, engaged in a secret project. They were shooting El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which will premiere Oct. 11 on Netflix and in theaters in 68 cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Albuquerque, before it airs on AMC early next year. Netflix only just announced the project in August, after Gilligan had wrapped postproduction. That's because despite the Virginia-born writer's gentle Southern manner and almost pathological humility, Gilligan, 52, is a showman at heart, and he wants to lift the curtain at the last possible second. "I don't want to open my Christmas presents a week and a half before Christmas," Gilligan says, explaining his insistence on a covert production. Gilligan's producers say they had nothing to do with the tourism flyer, but they did use other means to keep the project hush-hush, including waiting until the last possible minute to share the script with crew, obscuring locations with trucks and screens and relying on a private jet to shuttle a key castmember in and out of Albuquerque without notice.
The two-hour film, which Gilligan wrote and directed over the past 18 months, is premiering six years after Breaking Bad ended with Walter dying and Jesse driving an El Camino to freedom from his imprisonment on an Aryan Brotherhood compound. (A trailer set to debut during the Emmys on Sept. 22 will offer a detailed peek.) The Netflix partnership fulfills a long-standing wish of Gilligan's for a Breaking Bad theatrical experience and follows the formative role the streaming company had in the series' success — Breaking Bad was the first cable show to benefit from a so-called Netflix boost.
El Camino centers on what happens to Jesse after he drives out of that compound covered in physical and psychological scars, and it features more than 10 familiar characters from the show. In deference to Gilligan's spoiler aversion, THR will name only two: fan favorites Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt L. Jones), the Beavis and Butt-Head of the greater Albuquerque meth community.
Returning to the world of Breaking Bad comes with some risk for Gilligan — during the course of its five-year run, the crime drama about a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who transforms into a ruthless drug kingpin came to exemplify a new, golden era of TV, engrossing critics and audiences with its dense, character-driven storytelling, winning 16 Emmys and delivering one of the most satisfying mic drops in the history of television with a finale that more than 10 million people watched on AMC. In the rarefied club of early Peak TV auteurs, including Mad Men's Matthew Weiner, The Wire's David Simon and The Sopranos' David Chase, Gilligan is the first to take a leap and make a film from his signature show (Chase's Sopranos movie is due next year).
There also is the danger of dwelling indefinitely in the world — however rich — that Gilligan created. Breaking Bad diehards already have the show's spinoff prequel, Better Call Saul, which just finished shooting its fifth season. "I'm hoping when the movie comes out, people won't say, 'Oh, man, this guy should've left well enough alone,' " Gilligan says in his first interview about the film. "Why did George Foreman keep coming out of retirement, you know?"
Gilligan works in a nondescript glass office building in Burbank with a view of a dry cleaner and a parking lot. This is the "fancy" office he reluctantly moved to before his team started making Better Call Saul — superstitious, he didn't want to vacate the derelict space deeper in the San Fernando Valley where they had made Breaking Bad, a building they shared with a private investigator, a music charity and an hoc threading business operating out of the women's bathroom. Also, for reasons no one can recall, there was a guy in the building who always wore a kilt. Gilligan, who lives on L.A.'s Westside with his longtime girlfriend, Holly Rice, chose the location because it was convenient not for him, but for his show's editor. When it came time to select offices there, he picked for himself the room that didn't have a window and housed a giant humming server.
His newer, comparatively luxurious space is decorated with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul memorabilia — the special effects bust of Gus Fring's (Giancarlo Esposito) exploded head is next to Gilligan's desk, and bottles of Blue Ice Heisenberg vodka sit on a bookshelf. There also are model helicopters, tokens of Gilligan's other passion, aviation. At 50, he fulfilled a decades-long goal of obtaining his helicopter pilot's license. One of the locations in El Camino is a spot he used to glimpse while choppering with his flight instructor, 500 feet above the ground, en route from L.A. to Albuquerque. "When I'm flying a helicopter, I'm as happy as I ever get, which is not particularly happy, but still, as happy as I ever am," Gilligan says. "I'll never master it. It's one of those … Is that a Zen thing? When you have some sort of avocation that you're continually a beginner at. You're never going to perfect it. But in a weird way, that feels good, because you're never going to get tired of it either."
Gilligan first started ruminating on the story that would ultimately become El Camino before he finished making Breaking Bad. "I didn't really tell anybody about it, because I wasn't sure I would ever do anything with it," he says. "But I started thinking to myself, 'What happened to Jesse?' You see him driving away. And to my mind, he went off to a happy ending. But as the years progressed, I thought, 'What did that ending — let's just call it an ending, neither happy, nor sad — what did it look like?' " It was while planning events in 2018 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Breaking Bad that Gilligan first told his inner circle he had an idea to revisit Jesse, perhaps a five-minute short film, he mused to his longtime producer, Melissa Bernstein. "He just started letting his mind run over that," Bernstein says. "And he started to realize, 'I have a lot to say about this.' "
Gilligan, who wrote the feature films Wilder Napalm (1993) and Home Fries (1998) as well as some unproduced feature scripts, found his comfort zone as a writer in the collaborative, deadline-oriented environment of TV while on the staff of The X-Files. "I was the laziest writer in creation," Gilligan says. "I'd piddle around. It took me two years to write a first draft of a movie script in the early '90s, just because I had no one holding a gun to my head. I just didn't have that work ethic. Working in TV changed everything for me." But on El Camino, Gilligan returned to the solitary lifestyle of a feature writer. "I had been working with excellent writers now for well over a decade, and I'd forgotten what it was like to write something by myself, and it was daunting," Gilligan says. "Suddenly I'm trying to write this and thinking, 'God, I really could use a writers room about now.' " Gilligan outlined the story using note cards, his usual method, and then began on his first draft at his time-share in the Bahamas.
As a business philosophy, Gilligan is a believer in the idea that you "dance with the girl that brung ya," and at a time when many other top showrunners are managing multiple productions and seeking nine-figure deals at streamers, he has remained at Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul studio Sony Pictures Television, re-upping with the company last year in a three-year, mid-eight-figure overall pact that includes his work on El Camino. When Gilligan told executives there about his idea for a Breaking Bad movie, "We all just fell silent in the room," says SPT co-president Chris Parnell. "It was one of the moments when you think to yourself, 'Did I just hear that? Is that something he genuinely wants to do?' " Together with his agent, ICM Partners' Chris Silbermann, Gilligan quietly walked the script into just a handful of offices in Hollywood before deciding to partner with Netflix, as well as AMC. Both companies represented a crucial part in Breaking Bad's history, AMC for picking up the show after FX passed on it and Netflix for building it into the binge TV era's first true streaming/cable hybrid hit.
In 2010, Breaking Bad was at a crossroads: With the show averaging about 1.5 million viewers a season despite being a critics' darling, AMC informed Sony and Gilligan that the series could end with season three. When Sony began shopping Breaking Bad to competitors — quickly finding a taker for two more seasons at FX — AMC reversed course. Netflix, meanwhile, was aggressively licensing shows for its nascent streaming service, and content chief Ted Sarandos made a syndication deal with Sony for Breaking Bad. Originally, the arrangement was for the series to start streaming on Netflix after its fourth season finished on AMC, but, with the show's future uncertain, Sony accelerated the plan, and new fans began discovering and bingeing Breaking Bad on Netflix in time to catch some of the fourth season and all of the fifth and final season on AMC. When season five premiered in 2013, the audience had more than doubled from its previous outing. "We felt that it was a virtuous cycle, where we were introducing the show to new fans, who were then going and experiencing new episodes on AMC, and then when we would launch a new season, we would again see another wave of new folks coming," says Netflix vp original content Cindy Holland. Since news of the movie broke in August, Holland says, viewership of Breaking Bad on Netflix is up, some from rewatchers and some from newcomers to the series. "We were a natural home for the movie," Holland says. "It wasn't a really long conversation. It was a simple, 'Yes, please.' "
Netflix also brought the theatrical component, which was crucial to Gilligan. "Every time we'd put out a new season of Breaking Bad, we would have a premiere in a big movie theater," Gilligan says. "We would watch this quote-unquote television show. I mean, I guess quotations aren't needed. It is absolutely a television show. But we would have this wonderful, very limited, one-time opportunity to watch our television show on a big screen with giant stereo speakers thumping, the image filling 40 feet across. I always thought, 'This thing, it looks like a movie. It doesn't look like a show.' I really want to be able to share that with fans." As with its other theatrical releases, Netflix will exhibit the film in independent theaters for a very limited period.
The secrecy on the project extends to the budget, which all interviewed decline to disclose beyond saying that it is significantly higher than what Gilligan had ever worked with on the show, including the $6 million for an episode in the final season. Gilligan's producers Bernstein and Diane Mercer went to great lengths to keep the film under wraps during production, shrouding locations from onlookers' view, covertly ferrying key castmembers to the set and warning crewmembers to be discreet around town. "Don't be sitting on a barstool somewhere and talk about the project you're working on, because God only knows who's sitting next to you" was the mantra, Gilligan says.
The movie, which plays like a coda to the series, is thick with details that will tickle the superfan base, which is its true intended audience, Gilligan says. One that only the most devoted may pick up on is a key address at the corner of Holly and Arroz streets — a wink to Gilligan's girlfriend (arroz is rice in Spanish). "If, after 12 years, you haven't watched Breaking Bad, you're probably not going to start now," Gilligan says. "If you do, I hope that this movie would still be engaging on some level, but there's no doubt in my mind that you won't get as much enjoyment out of it. We don't slow down to explain things to a non-Breaking Bad audience. I thought early on in the writing of the script, 'Maybe there's a way to have my cake and eat it too. Maybe there's a way to explain things to the audience.' If there was a way to do that, it eluded me."
Breaking Bad was particularly cinematic television, with its wide-angle shots of the stark New Mexico landscape, expressive lighting and deliberate pacing. At one point during the series, Gilligan and his cinematographer, Michael Slovis, made an unsuccessful pitch to Sony and AMC to shoot Breaking Bad in the CinemaScope format that Sergio Leone had used to shoot Clint Eastwood's Dollars Trilogy. On El Camino, Gilligan got his wish — Better Call Saul DP Marshall Adams shot the movie on the ARRI Alexa 65 camera used for The Revenant and in a 2.39 wide-screen format that seems designed to showcase a gunslinger's squint across the desert.
Gilligan is perfectionistic in a way that television schedules rarely have time to indulge. El Camino proceeded at an even more leisurely pace than his shows. Instead of shooting six to eight pages a day as Gilligan had on Breaking Bad, he shot one and a half to three. Most of the 50-day shoot happened in the same Albuquerque locations where Breaking Bad is set, but the larger budget meant he was able to take advantage of some picturesque out-of-state locations, too. "This is my first movie as a director, and I have to say, it made me want some more of that," says Gilligan, who has directed five episodes each of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and two of The X-Files. "You truly have time to get things right. It feels very decadent."
The man best known for jubilantly shouting the phrase "Yeah, bitch!" while perpetrating a series of crimes is now holding a pink sippy cup, his 19-month-old daughter, Story, and a digital recorder. "Just don't delete your dad, or then he'll get in trouble," says Paul, 40, grabbing the recorder out of Story's chubby hands. It's a Sunday morning in September, and the actor is juggling parenthood and film promotion from the courtyard of the Spanish house that he and his wife, actress-producer Lauren Parsekian, just bought in Los Feliz. Since Breaking Bad ended, Paul has acted in studio movies of varying quality, fronting Disney's 2014 video game adaptation Need for Speed and playing a supporting role in Universal's 2016 comedy Central Intelligence, and he's taken meatier roles in the kind of prestige TV for which audiences first came to know him, on Hulu's The Path and HBO's Westworld, which he's currently shooting.
Returning to the character of Jesse Pinkman for El Camino was an unexpected career twist. While making Breaking Bad, Paul had grown as an actor under Cranston's tutelage and shed some fatiguing habits. "The first couple years were really torturous for me," Paul says. Often, after shooting had wrapped for the day, "I found myself in dark alleys in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 3 in the morning, just to try to get more information, which was not a good thing. I just didn't want to mess it up, and so I stayed in that guy's skin, but I learned from Bryan it's OK to shake it off and wash up at the end of the night and just have time for yourself." When the finale aired, Paul says, "I really loved Jesse. I knew him better than anyone, but it was a big weight off of my shoulders to hang up the cleats and walk away. I thought it was goodbye, and I was OK with that." ?In early 2018, while Paul was in New York shooting The Path, Gilligan called him and shared that he had written a movie about Jesse. "I'm like everybody else on the planet — I think Vince and the rest of the writers really nailed the landing with the ending of Breaking Bad, and why mess with that?" Paul recalls thinking. "But it's Vince we're talking about. I would follow Vince into a fire. That's how much I trust the man. I would do anything that he asked me to." (Gilligan inspires a fierce loyalty, and most of his colleagues have been with him for years, starting with Mark Johnson, who discovered Gilligan while judging a screenwriting competition in 1988 and has served as a producer on Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and El Camino.) Within months of answering Gilligan's call, Paul was back in Albuquerque's dark alleys, bearded and in scar makeup. "It was so easy for me to just jump into where Jesse's at mentally, emotionally, because I lived and breathed everything he went through and then some, and so, honestly, it felt like a part of me had gone through that as well," Paul says. "All I had to do was just memorize these words and then play them out when they yelled 'action.' "
Over the years, Paul has given away much of the Breaking Bad memorabilia he collected, but one piece, a gift from Gilligan, holds pride of place in an anteroom in his home — the one-eyed, burnt pink teddy bear that became a recurring motif in the second season, linked, through a series of plot convolutions, to Walter White's role in the death of Jesse's girlfriend, Jane. "That was really truly the loss of innocence and Jesse losing what he thought at the time was the love of his life," Paul says, as Story, not yet schooled in the world of priceless collectibles, begins tugging on the bear's one good eye. "Bye bye Bear," she says, as Paul places the artifact back on the shelf. There is also a bottle of Dos Hombres mezcal, the liquor brand Paul and Cranston launched this summer after sparking to the idea at a dinner three years ago. "We've become just the closest of friends, and we knew we probably couldn't do something onscreen again unless it was Breaking Bad-related, but we were having sushi one night in New York, and he's like, 'What do you think we could do?' I'm like, 'Well, I think it's a little too early to jump into something onscreen, but we could go into the booze business,' and he laughed at me. I go, 'No, I'm being serious. What do you think about mezcal?' "
Gilligan, too, grew up, in a sense, on Breaking Bad, and he has a wistfulness about how it has shaped his life over the last 11 years. "I'm about 25 to 30 years older than I was when I started," he says. "Yeah, I'm just worn out. I mean, part of what excited me about doing this was it was a movie, a closed-ended story of about two hours. If I was starting now, I'm not sure I'd have the intestinal fortitude to fight all the fights and expend all the energy."
Gilligan is not ready for retirement — not at all — but when he looks ahead to life after Better Call Saul, he sees something outside the universe of characters that have become his trademark creation. He plans to make another show after Better Call Saul ends, but what exactly that will be and where it will air, he doesn't know. "Personally, I'd love to figure out something different, which at this point would be, God, not another antihero," Gilligan says. "Is there something else I can do? Is there another story I can tell? But I've got to tell you, it's harder to write a really engaging good guy than it is a really engaging bad guy."
Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.