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