October 28, 2013

Vince Gilligan: From Breaking In to 'Breaking Bad' at the 20th Austin Film Festival

Vince Gilligan Breaking Bad Austin Film FestivalThe series finale of Breaking Bad left most viewers quite satisfied - an exceedingly rare feat in television. Yet, the finale also left a vacuum in our collective entertainment. Now what are we supposed to watch on Sunday nights? Or on Netflix? Or iTunes or Amazon? Breaking Bad changed the way many of us discover and watch television as well as the way we view the basic cable landscape. Now that it's over, we want our next fix. Until then, the 20th Austin Film Festival and Conference recently presented an in-depth and candid conversation with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. The conversation ranged from Gilligan's early influences to breaking in to Breaking Bad.

Early Influences

Gilligan's father shaped his early influences in film, waking him up to watch the late night movies on the local television station. His father would tell him that he had to watch a particular film, such as The Caine Mutiny with Humphrey Bogart and José Ferrer, just to see a great scene. He also credited his father with introducing him to such films as The French Connection and The Godfather, marveling at the body of Coppola's work before the writer/director turned 40.

Like most children of the 1970s, Star Wars was a seminal moment for Gilligan, arriving in theatres when he was 10. What fascinates Gilligan in retrospect is how he and his friends knew Star Wars was going to be such a big event before its release without the benefit of today's publicity tools of the internet and social media. He doesn't remember how he even heard about Star Wars, but he recalls how much anticipation he had for its release in his small hometown.

Film School in the '80s

Gilligan attended NYU in the mid to late 1980s, but readily admits that you don't need to go to film school to learn the trade. He figures he could have simply moved to New York City, worked on the sets of student productions and learned just as much. With today's democratization of equipment, Gilligan noted, making movies is much easier, but making good movies is still just as hard as it has always been. Without film school, though, Gilligan wouldn't have met many of his current collaborators, including fellow writer Thomas Schnauz.

Getting Discovered

Vince Gilligan Home Fries Austin Film FestivalJust after film school in 1989, Gilligan submitted a screenplay to a competition at a film festival in his home state of Virginia, and went on to win the competition. Breaking Bad producer Mark Johnson, known at the time for producing such films as The Natural and Rain Man, was a judge for the competition (he is alumnus of UVA, who organized the film festival.) Johnson loved the script, which turned out to be Home Fries, and asked Gilligan for more. Gilligan sent him his script for Wilder Napalm, and Johnson produced both films.

As for Wilder Napalm and Home Fries, Gilligan doesn't think he nailed either of these scripts. He explained that Home Fries fell apart in the final act, but he completely shouldered the blame as the writer because he could never quite get the ending to work on the page. In addition to these two projects, Gilligan also wrote a script called 2 Face in 1990-91, which Johnson has been trying to produce ever since. At this year's conference, AFF held a staged reading of 2 Face featuring Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini and Thomas Haden Church, directed by Rian Johnson.

Moving from Film to Television

When The X-Files premiered, Gilligan was a fan from the first episode. Soon after the show began, Gilligan asked his agent if he had seen the show. His agent explained that he was cousins with the wife of creator Chris Carter, then asked if Gilligan wanted to meet Carter.

By the time Gilligan met him, The X-Files writing staff was breaking season two, which had just received a request from Fox to expand from 24 episodes to 26 episodes. Completely swamped, Carter gave Gilligan a freelance offer to write an episode for the end of season two.

Shortly thereafter, Carter asked Gilligan to join the staff full-time. Gilligan still lived in Virginia and had recently bought a house. Plus, he had a new film screenplay that he thought was "the bee's knees." So, he turned down Carter's offer to move to Los Angeles to join The X-Files.

Unfortunately, Gilligan's new script was soon met with a collective yawn, and his WGA health insurance coverage had expired. Without work or health insurance, Gilligan called Carter back to see if he could somehow retroactively accept the original offer. Gilligan moved out to Los Angeles to join his first TV writing staff and was so convinced that he would be fired quickly from The X-Files that he left all of the food in his refrigerator back in Virginia. Thirteen weeks later, a friend had to clean out the fridge when Gilligan obviously wasn't returning.

Learning to Pitch in the Writers' Room

The biggest lesson Gilligan learned from Chris Carter was the process of writers pitching stories for the series' episodes. Carter's system involved a 3' x 5' corkboard that writers would fill with notecards to beat out their episodes. Each writer would present his/her board in front of the room during the pitch and walk through the notecards, talking around gaps not yet worked out. Gilligan said that the beauty of this system was all eyes were on the corkboard, not the writer, putting all of the focus on the story.

Inevitably, Carter and his senior writers would suggest substantial changes, then send the writer off to rework the story and write the episode. Gilligan laughed about the "walk of shame" back across the Fox lot, corkboard flailing in the wind, walking past The Simpsons building where all its writers would be playing foosball and laughing. Because The X-Files was episodic, each of the writers could disappear to an office or home to write and bring back the completed script.

Breaking Bad Starts as a Joke

After The X-Files wrapped in 2002, Gilligan explained that he was "in the wilderness" for a few years. He worked on the script that would become Hancock for four years before the project went through a series of writers and rewrites (originally titled Tonight, He Comes, Gilligan soon realized this title did not have the connotation he desired).

After striking out with a few pilot pitches and staring at unemployment, Gilligan was talking on the phone to his writing friend Thomas Schnauz about what they should do next. Schnauz mentioned an article he read about a meth lab in the Bronx and joked that they should put a meth lab in an R.V. For the next several days, Gilligan couldn't stop thinking about the idea.

As Gilligan considered the R.V. meth lab idea, he wondered who would conceive such a plan. Eventually, he thought about a middle-aged man diagnosed with terminal cancer and desperate to provide for his family after his death. Together, Gilligan put together the rare idea that his inner critic didn't silence. He asked his friend Schnauz if he could run with the idea, and thankfully Schnauz agreed.

Worst Series Idea Ever

Gilligan had done a pilot with Sony Television that never got picked up, but Sony executives had an open door policy for Gilligan as a result, so he pitched them Breaking Bad. To pitch a story, Gilligan typically writes a 8-10 page document outlining the idea, then commits the document to memory. For Breaking Bad, he was particularly excited to pitch his concept.

Upon hearing the it, the executives looked horrified, according to Gilligan. Convinced they hated it, Gilligan was shocked to receive a call a few days later that Sony would produce the show. Gilligan discovered much later that when these executives pitched the show to the head of Sony Television, he told them it was the single worst idea he had ever heard for a show, but he trusted the executives' instincts.

The Breaking Bad Writers' Room

Gilligan adopted Carter's corkboard method for pitching stories for Breaking Bad. Because of the serial storytelling, however, all seven Breaking Bad writers would break every episode together. For each beat of every show, the writers would ask, "What is Walter thinking now? What is his obstacle?" Then, they would repeat the process for each of the main characters. Gilligan noted that breaking the episodes took two to three weeks per episode, and was the least fun yet most crucial part of making the show.

Gilligan described a time-lapse shot of the writers' room they put on the "making of" documentary for the final Blu-ray/DVD set in which several days pass and very little goes up on the corkboard in the corner as they struggle to break one episode together. Here's a quick clip of the timelapse. (The complete timelapse covers 12 days and lasts over 8 minutes!)

After breaking an episode, writers would then go off and write 10-14 page outlines detailing every element in the story. These outlines would go out to crew members to start pre-production before the 45-page scripts were even written and submitted.

Gilligan expressed sincere gratitude to both AMC and Sony Television for giving him and his writing team the time they needed to write the series. He also credited subscription video-on-demand services in general and Netflix specifically for keeping Breaking Bad on the air by helping people catch up with the series so they could start watching new episodes on AMC. Gilligan firmly believes this hybrid model will be key to the success of shows in the future.

Many thanks to Erin Hallagan and AFF for inviting me to moderate at this year's conference, so I could attend Gilligan's panel as an audience member and learn from his experiences. Be sure to subscribe to AFF podcasts at On Story to hear daily updates from the 20th festival and conference going on right now.

What lessons do you take away from Gilligan's experiences as a screenwriter and TV series creator? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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14 Comments

I think the pilot was 58 pages, not 45. Both HBO (for whom the pilot was intended) and FX (for whose parent corp Gilligan had worked earlier as an X-Files and Lone Gunmen writer) passed. To take a contrary view to the Sony execs, I have always thought the premise of the show was very creative, though I think Vince went way overboard with the car wash station bit in his pilot.

October 28, 2013 at 11:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Funny. Vince Gilligan said 45 pages. I think I'll take his word for it :)

October 28, 2013 at 11:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

October 28, 2013 at 11:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Hahaha....you just got burned Mr. Boone. You take Gilligan's word...I'm with DLD.

October 29, 2013 at 1:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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bmd

Well played, sir. Well played :)

October 29, 2013 at 7:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

When I re-watched the first couple of seasons, I noticed the pilot I originally watched was longer then the one I saw the second time. Missing was one of the most cringe-worthy, hilarious and memorable scenes of the series - the awkward ebay/hand job scene. That was classic, and a total WTF moment for pilot, but actual was pretty revealing and relevant.

October 30, 2013 at 12:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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joe

Damn he did get burned. Not so funny now Mr. Boone. Lol I'm sure Vince forgot exactly how long it was 8 years ago.

October 29, 2013 at 2:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Ryan

Yes the pilot was 58 but in general, the principle ideal length of hour long drama is around 45 pages. Nice article.

October 29, 2013 at 6:00AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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A Wills

Really is that important if the pilot was 45 or 58 pages??

October 29, 2013 at 6:38AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jesuan

A Wills every film maker know that a page of script is (more or less) a minute of screen time, so an hour long drama would be sixty pages not forty five, an 'hour long' drama on US network TV is generally 40 - 45 minutes to account for up to twenty minutes of adverts. Cable shows are approximately 50 -55 minutes.

Incidentally the pilot of Breaking Bad was 57 minutes long.

Jesuan you should know in these forums that posters are armchair film makers that don't have any real film making to post about so have fuck all else to say other than argue about pointless facts and figures that have little bearing on actually producing films.

October 29, 2013 at 1:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Filthy Punt

The reddit mentality of arguing about pointless facts should be saved for reddit.

October 29, 2013 at 4:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jake

amen brother.

October 29, 2013 at 6:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Well, you have to be an armchair filmmaker before you spool your takes in anger.
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In any case, the pilot was a tad too racy for the broadcast TV and, obviously, written with something like HBO in mind. And HBO can handle 58 pages/minutes easily. Once the show went into production on AMC, it had to abide by the cable TV restrictions (though, "Mad Men" often runs longer than the normal 1-hr time allotment, albeit with commercials but that's another story for another time). I mentioned the page count as a minor point simply because I happened to read the pilot for the first time only a couple of weeks ago and made a mental note in that regard. And yes, it is much ado about 13 pages.

October 29, 2013 at 7:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

and?

October 30, 2013 at 10:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jesuan