September 29, 2013

'Breaking Bad' Creators on Developing the Story of Walter White

As I write this, there's no doubt that a large number of you are sitting in your living rooms, bedrooms, or tucked quietly inside the bathroom at work watching the final episode of Breaking BadThe show has been captivating audiences and inspiring filmmakers and screenwriters for 5 seasons, and as we say goodbye to Walter White, let's also take a look at one aspect of the show that made it one of the most important shows to watch and study: the writing -- the process of taking a simple high school chemistry teacher and turning him into a deadly meth dealer.

Cinephilia and Beyond has shared a treasure trove of Breaking Bad goodness: scripts from several episodes including the pilot and images from the Breaking Bad writer's room, where index cards litter corkboards in order to map out scenes. The show is known for its excellent writing, so having the scripts right there at your fingertips is definitely helpful if you want to learn more about story structure, character development, and dialog.

Again, big thanks to Cinephilia and Beyond for gathering these resources!

In an episode of The Writer's Room, hosted by Jim Rash, the show's creators Vince GilliganThomas SchnauzMoira Walley BeckettPeter Gould, as well as others including Bryan Cranston, sit down and talk about the show -- how it came to be, pitching it as "Mr. Chips to Scarface," their writing process, and the difficulty of writing a character like Walter, who changes more than most anti-heroes in television do.

Gould describes the script as "a real filmmaker's script," and Writer/Co-Executive Producer George Mastras says that "it had an independent film feel to it." The show is definitely daring. It's organic. It takes risks. It's the kind of show that you watch and think, "Oh yeah, those filmmakers are making exactly the show they want to make." And the star of the series, Bryan Cranston, touches on a great aspect of screenwriting. He describes reflecting on reading the pilot episode:

And I realized that what he was saying didn't have a precedent -- that to change a character in a television series has never happened before in the history of television. To actually allow a character to change -- it's always been about stasis, and that's the comfort that most people find. They tune in, there's Thomas Magnum -- there's Archie Bunker -- and all these characters are about staying the same. And this was all about allowing us to change.

Breaking Bad writer's room

Taking the narrative risk of allowing your TV characters to change and grow in appearance and demeanor -- and in such drastic ways can lead to amazing results, like a hit TV show, but it can also lead to more complicated writing. The shows writers discuss how they were always asking the question, "Where's Walt's head at? Where is he now?"

Writing a character who keeps the same characteristics through the entire series means that a good writer will really be able to grab ahold of who that character is and develop the hell out them. You know it when you see it -- when you watch early episodes of a show and then later ones, the characters are streamlined and solid. It really says a lot about Breaking Bad's writers that they didn't have that luxury -- that they didn't have a Walter White mold to really fall back on and go back to.

Check out this great episode of The Writer's Room here. And check out this depressing video of Cranston and co-star Aaron Paul gearing up to read the final episode for the first time.

What do you think of Breaking Bad's screenwriting? What shows on TV speak to you in terms of great story/characters/dialog? In what ways have you expressed your despair that the show is over? Personally, I'm about to put on my trusty pork pie hat, sit on my steps in the pouring rain and cry over a bowl and spaghetti.

Links:

Your Comment

21 Comments

Best show I've ever watched. The writing is just ridiculous. The finale definitely delivered. I loved all the shots Gilligan came up with to tell the story and emotion. Mainly the shot of when Walt and Skylar are talking in the kitchen and there is a wooden pillar separating them. The symmetry as well...just wow. And right before that how Walt was revealed. And how he watched his son walk into that house and him looking through the glass as he's on the outside looking in. Just amazing and i'm really gonna miss this show. But it definitely inspired me and made me realize how important story and characters are and not just plot.

September 29, 2013 at 10:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Brad Watts

SPOILERS ABOVE.....but yeah...that pillar thing was already used when sky finds out all that meth thing!!! It's brilliant the whole package!!!

September 30, 2013 at 8:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
jesuan

The writing had its flaws and alot of people are being prisoners of the moment

Overall definitely was one of best shows on T.V

3. They're also milking the 'everything was THIS CLOSE to being fine but then...'-moments; Hank finding the book after Walt resolves to leave the meth business, now Jesse with his big realization, seconds before hopping into the van and being gone forever

assumed it was that, because what else?, but Jesse making the connection via noticing he's been pick-pocketed is a pretty big, inelegant leap, no?

I suppose if you take for granted that thousands of people on the internet are happy to play detective in figuring out your show, you can get away with making massive plot points essentially easter eggs--Lily in the Valley, anyone?

1.It was too hot outside for a flowering Lily of the Valley. It's a cold/cool weather plant and Walt was sitting next to his pool in the bright sunshine with the Lily of the Valley in a pot. You can't even buy a potted, flowering LotV in hot weather. And it's a shade plan

2. Hollywood gets so many things wrong. One show (not BB) showed a plane that had presumably crashed in the White Mountains of NH, but the mountains looked nothing like the mountains of New England. They looked more like the Grand Tetons.

Again very good show dont get me wrong but GREATEST SHOW OF ALL TIME , stop it, it just so happens that it may perhaps be the only show worth watching on T.V

FYI HBO "THE WIRE" was greatest show every created, ever and never won an EMMY, not to play the race card, but if WALTER WHITE was a black man in GEORGIA cooking meth selling to the world, i seriously doubt it would be crittically aclaimed , instead critics would probably say , just another THUG gangster typical role.

September 30, 2013 at 4:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
JAYEEE

i agree with nearly everything you say!

September 30, 2013 at 6:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Peter Kelly

I just recently finished watching the Wire. It was a great show, but I feel it hit it's peak after the season on the docks (FANTASTIC). It got a little boring at times for me, though I finally finished because I was invested in the characters. The last season was good, the ending was terrific.

Still, my opinion is that Breaking Bad sets the bar, and high. The culmination of writing, cinematography, direction and acting is better than any show that i've seen (IMO). Sopranos used to be the "too good for TV" show. Well, Breaking Bad surpassed them.... looking forward to seeing who sets the new bar!

September 30, 2013 at 8:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

10
Reply
Dan

The wire was amazing because it included a medium for every , every race, evey genre, social status could relate too.

You have your upper class politics , mid lever politics, and .lower level, you had police dept both good and bad, you had your CSI , your education system, You had the gutter , drug dealing, social workers, I mean the show seamlessly integrated America in a melting pot.

I think the newspaper press included in last season was not needed.

As for SOPRANOS definitely was a good show, but honestly for 2 to 3 season the tey milked the h3ll out of the show and it was even worse in times of including scripts then abandoning scenes without explainations.

Take for instance the Sopranos scene where the russain they tried to kill the russain associated who is connected to some high people in the snow , then he breaks . The show never revisted the important scene or gave an explanation. It took for several devoted fans to ask the show creator several times at confrences until he finally answered the question , and still never gave a good reason, any other show would not be able to get away with that.

Also as far as endings, Sopranos may have been one of best shows with worst endings in t,v of all time.

September 30, 2013 at 9:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
JAYEEE

Watching Breaking bad from the pilot all the way to that final episode has pumped so much inspiration into me as an aspiring filmmaker. The show is perfect in every way, the constant plot twists that always had me on the edge of my seat, the amazing choices in music and sound, and the humor thrown into such a dark tale, this show is a masterpiece and as sad as i am to watch it end, I am also very happy because of the amount that i learned from it.

September 29, 2013 at 11:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Saim Tariq

The show was milked and alot of the connections on the show were not realistic

If anything , the wertiers were great on one thing, that was leaving the glass half full

the writers did a great job on at time feeling the audience in on what would happen before actors knew and on other instances not feeling in the audience while the actors knew, one of the few shows that utilized this great style,

TOP TV SHOWS

1. THE WIRE
2. E.R
3. SOPRANOS
4. TWILIGHT ZONE
5. THE SHIELD ( Greatest TV ending of all time)
6. Breaking Bad
7. Homeland

September 30, 2013 at 4:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
JAYEEE

What a wild ride. But here we are, it's all over. I think the show ended perfectly, and at the perfect time, too. I am sad yes, but I am also excited for what the future will bring (no I'm not talking about the Saul Goodman spin-off). Breaking Bad set the bar, high as hell, for drama, and writers now are going to strive to match what has been achieved with this series, if not hit the ground running and surpass it. This era of story telling is no doubt the most exciting, and I see it only getting better.

September 29, 2013 at 11:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

2
Reply
Mike

Vince isn't afraid to write long action scenes. Often, a TV drama is mostly dialog.
.
Speaking of dialog, the way Vince writes is considered "in" these days. Forget Calder Willingham, William Goldman, Quentin Tarantino or even Richard Price. If you want to be read, write it like Gilligan.

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

1
Reply
DLD

I agree 100%

September 29, 2013 at 11:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Brad Watts

Long live A$AC

September 30, 2013 at 8:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Natt

Gilligan was my favorite X-Files writer after Frank Spotnitz (sp?). It was that show that inspired me to go to film school 14 years ago. The episodes Gilligan wrote were some of the funniest in the series. He also claims a few of the scariest as well. His name attached to Breaking Bad is what drew me to tune into Breaking Bad 5 years ago. I loved Breaking Bad, but I look forward to Gilligan's next project.

September 30, 2013 at 9:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Amy

TV shows like this one have totally changed me from a feature film DP to a long-form DP. There is no comparison between a feature and a show that can run for 5 seasons. All of the best writing has gone over to long-form and I predict that all the best shooters eventually will too.
The novel-like complexity that you can achieve in 80 hours makes watching features feel almost like flipping through children's books.

People's tireless hunger for long, complex stories will drive a renaissance in the coming years. It's a good time to be a filmmaker.

September 30, 2013 at 9:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

2
Reply
Harry Pray IV

That's because the money for writers has been in TV for the last 30 or so years. First, it was for the comedy/sitcom writers. Now, given a far greater choice of product for the cable offerings and the global syndication of the 1-hr US dramas (overseas, they also can be shown with more nudity and some salty language), the drama writers got on that gravy train too. Vince himself just signed a nice deal with CBS (http://www.forbes.com/sites/maxrobins/2013/09/26/why-cbs-made-a-great-de...)

By the way, a while ago I suggested a discussion of well known screenplays along the way of the various video clips that are posted here from Red, BMD, Canon, etc. The "Breaking Bad" pilot seems like a perfect opportunity to do so, what with the episode being a mini-film of sorts. To writers out there, if that script landed on your desk with you tasked with rewriting it, what, if anything, would you change? (assuming that the general concept and the storyline remain the same).

September 30, 2013 at 11:28AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

That sounds like common sense to me since it only stands to reason that TV would pay writers more due to there being more writing to do.

September 30, 2013 at 1:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Harry Pray IV

Great article DLD!

September 30, 2013 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Dan

Thanks (search for "Darabont fired", "Matt Weiner", "Man Men", "Walking Dead" for similar topics).
.
As to the linked "Breaking Bad" scripts - nNo one wants to discuss the pilot? The rights, the wrongs and the maybes? Come on. Vince is rich. He can handle a little critique now and again.

September 30, 2013 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

What was the 1 minute youtube clip there- I'd love to see them doing the cold read. Is that just a teaser to buy the box set dvd?

October 1, 2013 at 2:56AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

10
Reply

yeah, what was that clip about?

October 2, 2013 at 7:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

2
Reply
jojo

what about michael slovis and all the DOP involved in Breaking Bad? i think he was great too and they need credit

October 2, 2013 at 12:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

2
Reply
Pablo Saldana