Vince Gilligan was in France last week to attend Deauville season 4 the American Film Festival event dedicated to TV shows. The creator of Breaking Bad, a show that follows Walter White a science teacher dying from a lung cancer and becoming a drug dealer, gave a great masterclass just a couple of weeks before the last episode of his show, the 29th of September on AMC. Interview of one of the most acclaimed author on American TV. ILTVSW was lucky enough to seat with him for nearly half an hour.
ILTVSW: In 2008 when you created Breaking Bad it was already a super golden age for TV writers, shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under were already hits. Your point with your show was it to make something totally different or did you only focus on telling Walter White’s story?
Vince Gilligan. It was a little bit of both. I was intrigued by this little man Walter White I found very interesting and I wanted to explore his story. I wanted to tell his story but the fun thing in writing for television is very often you don’t know the all story, you certainly don’t know all at first, so it is certainly more about exploring the story and learning who this person is and then being able to write about him. And I wanted to do that. But also as to the first part of your point, I wanted the show to be a very different kind of TV. TV historically is about keeping characters consistent, in others words if you watch M.A.S.H. the TV show, Pierce is the same person in season 1 as he is in season 9, 10 or 11 pretty much because historically television audiences in the United States wanted that consistency, when they tuned in to a TV show no matter what year it was, they wanted to know what they were going to get and who they were going to be watching. I knew that and I thought it would be fun to do an experiment and come up with a TV show in which the main character in the first episode is not the main character in the last episode. In other words he changes with every episodes, he becomes a slightly different person so if you have never seen Breaking Bad and all you saw was the very first episode and then the very last episode you would say I don’t even recognize this guy, what has happen to him? He looks different, he behaves differently, he was good now he is bad…
ILTVSW: Was it challenging at that time?
V.G. Yes it was challenging. I wanted to challenge myself, to come up with something new and original. And it is very hard as we all know to come up with something that hasn’t been done because pretty much every story has been told before. And I think the reason for that is there is only a small number of human emotions so pretty much every possibility of emotions has been told and yet we still strive as writers to do something new and original. And that was exactly what I was doing with Breaking Bad, trying to be different.
ILTVSW: This story of a broken man was it a bit of a challenge also on a personal level for you?
V.G. Understanding Walt’s psychology and it’s behavior was not that hard for me, I have to admit. Because Walter White and I share a lot of similarities. I don’t share too many similarities with Heisenberg the person he turns into. But Walter in his first episode, he and I are more alike that I would care to admit because he is a well intentioned person, who is a little shy, lacks in courage and he doesn’t go forward in his life with great robust strength and instead he kind of coasts through life, he sleepwalks a little bit. In fact in his first episode he says: I am awake once that ends. I could understand that feeling.
ILTVSW: But it has nothing to do with your life…
V.G. Well, it has not now (silence). You know sometimes it has now and then it had too. I was about to turn forty years when I created the show and I was feeling very middle aged and I was feeling like : Gee have I missed my opportunities to do a lot of fun things? I have never backpacked through Europe and stayed at hostels, I haven’t learned how to fly a plane, I haven’t climbed Mount Everest, I am not going to be president of the United States… You realize the older you get that your possibilities become more limited. And I think Walter White feels that way too. So I think he and I had some similarities therefore he was easy for me to comprehend.
ILTVSW: The storytelling is brilliant in your show, the directing and the actors are too but beside that, why do you think Breaking Bad has become such a pop culture phenomenon?
V.G. I don’t know. I wish I had a great answer for that, I wish I did. It confuses me and it makes me very happy that it is such a pop culture phenomenon and it took me years to realize that it was turning into a phenomenon. I only really realized it within the last year even though it’s been on for six years and I have only truly come to understand how big it is on this trip for instance. I have been in Europe for three weeks, this is my last day in Europe, and I didn’t realize how many fans we had outside of the United States and it’s wonderful.
ILTVSW: My question was also why does the show resonate with people so much?
V.G. I have a couple of guesses, I’ll tell you. But I fear that I don’t truly know the answer and that scares me because as a writer you want to be able to repeat your successes and I worry that this one will be hard to repeat because I don’t know that I have completely learned the lesson of Breaking Bad. I would say that Breaking Bad resonates with viewers around the world in part because the actor who plays him is particularly excellent and particularly wonderful and sympathizable. He has a face that you have compassion for even when he does terrible things. There is some humanity in Bryan Cranston that comes across to people all around the world. Even when the character does terrible things people still feel for him. The other reason is that Walter White struggles very hard to do the right thing in the first episode as the show progresses he doesn’t seem to be worried as much about doing the right thing but he is constantly struggling and works very hard to succeed. And even though the things he wants to succeed at are often very bad things it is not easy for him. And people appreciate people who are good at their jobs and who work hard at their jobs and who overcome great obstacles and who don’t give up. People appreciate people who do not have an easy time of it but who persevere nonetheless. Because we all feel, this is a very general and yet true observation about humanity, from time to time that our lives are very hard and therefore when we see someone else having a very hard life and not giving up we say to ourselves : I can get behind that, I can watch that.
ILTVSW: So paradoxically there is an hope message in Breaking Bad?
V.G. A message of hope in some level perhaps, yeah. I like that, yeah (laugher).
ILTVSW: The main strength of cable TV is not for you the freedom it allows but the little number of episodes per season you have to tell a story...
V.G. Yes. At most you have 13 episodes and this last two years we only had 8 episodes. And more time you have to craft each individual episode theoretically the better each of those episode should be. On broadcast television in the United States, some of which is very very good, I used to work on a broadcast show that I was very proud of, we have to do 24 episodes a year. Someone who hasn’t done it could not believe how insane the schedule is. It never ends. It is like playing some video game where you are driving a car at 200 miles an hour and dodging things. It doesn’t allow for you to stop and think things through and do your best work. And that’s why I could not go back to American network television not as a showrunner. I am too old, it’s just too hard, it’s too much work.
ILTVSW. Everybody says that TV is a writers medium but you say very interesting things about your movie like way of writing. The visual storytelling is the most important thing for you?
V.G. I think what I meant was it’s a writers medium but see a writer is a storyteller, just as an actor is a storyteller, just as a director is a storyteller. I’d like to think of myself as a director but I am a writer first. A writers medium meaning that as a writer I like to paint picture visually and very often it’s felt that’s the director’s job and strictly the director’s job. But I don’t see it that way. I see that it’s the writer’s job to visualize everything that she or he is writing, see the all movie or TV show in their head before anyone else ever reads it. That’s a part of my job, an important part. If I haven’t seen the movie in my head before I give it to the actors and the director, then I haven’t done my full job. What I like to do as the showrunner of a TV show, and it shows that I am a bit of a control freak, is to be able to say to the director I think this particular scene should take place here instead of here.
ILTVSW: The end of Breaking Bad will be aired the 29th of September. What was the trap of the final episode?
V.G. It is a very ambivalent feeling. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted it to go on forever but I knew it needed to end because creatively this is a story that demands closure, that demands finality. The trap was the fear I had of failure. It was the fear that I would not come up with a final episode that made people happy, rather I should use the word satisfied people. Happy and sad are not as profound a feeling as satisfaction and I want viewers when they watch the very last episode to seat back in their chairs and just be quiet for a moment and then say to themselves : Wow, that ending, just like it should have. I want people to feel that way.
ILTVSW: Did you need to be brave to finish the job? Did you take a chance?
V.G. I think we took some big chances. My six writers and I spent more than a year talking about these final episodes and months and months talking about the very last one. We spent a long time because we wanted to consider every possibility and we said to ourselves : Should the ending be a complete shock and surprise so that no one sees it coming, is that the most satisfying ending or is the most satisfying ending is an ending that a lot of people see coming but nonetheless it’s proper and feeding? I won’t tell you the answer we came up with but those were all very valid questions. You have to say to yourself what constitutes the correct ending for Breaking Bad.
ILTVSW: Did you ever felt like showing off a little?
V.G. You want to show off a little. There is a human need to show off a little. I am susceptible to it, yes. I wrote and directed the last episode. And it was very hard for me. Every time I direct, I feel like I have never directed before, I feel like it’s a brand new thing. But I feel very lucky to get to dot it and satisfied by this last episode. We got to show off a little not just in the last episode but in all of these 8 episodes and that felt good. And hopefully we didn’t show off too much. You want to do everything just right. You want the proportions of your ending to be correct. But you want a little showmanship too.
© 2013 ILTVSW
Next week in ILTVSW… Oops, not decided yet, sorry.