The world according to Vince Gilligan:
“The worst thing the French ever gave us is the auteur theory,” he said flatly. “It’s a load of horseshit. You don’t make a movie by yourself, you certainly don’t make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work. You make people feel comfortable in their jobs; you keep people talking.”
With the success of the TV series “Breaking Bad,” who are we mere mortals to argue Monsieur Gilligan?
As the groundbreaking show winds its way to a conclusion, there have been — rightfully so — a bunch of articles and features written about it. This one from The Guardian is one of the best, providing an inside look at how Gilligan and crew produced the show. Some excerpts:
In his room, he said, all writers were equal, an approach that he insisted had less to do with being a Pollyanna than with pure, selfish practicality. “There’s nothing more powerful to a showrunner than a truly invested writer,” he said. “That writer will fight the good fight.”
On this day, a Monday, he sat at the head of a conference table as his writers gathered for work after the weekend, chattering about the heat. Forty-three years old, he wore light jeans, an orange T-shirt and silver sneakers; his face, with its goatee and glasses, was poised at a precise fulcrum between relaxed southern gentleman – a young Colonel Sanders, maybe – and eager fantasy geek. Gilligan started his path to TV with a semi-successful career in feature films. His TV break came with The X-Files, where he rose to executive producer and penned some 30 episodes before returning to the frustrations and snail’s pace of feature-film making, working on Hancock, a movie about a surly, alcoholic superhero. In the midst of the endless rewrites, in 2005, Gilligan was on the phone with an old friend and fellow X-Files writer Thomas Schnauz. The two were complaining about the state of the movie business and wondering what they might be qualified to do instead.
“Maybe we can be greeters at Walmart,” Gilligan said.
“Maybe we can buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back,” said Schnauz.
“As he said that, an image popped into my head of a character doing exactly that: an Everyman character who decides to ‘break bad’ and become a criminal,” Gilligan recalled. It was a powerful enough image that he got off the phone and began jotting down notes. The heart of the show came together in a hurry. The main character, Walter White, is a mild and beaten-down high school chemistry teacher who finds himself diagnosed with lung cancer. Inadequately insured, with a baby on the way, he is desperate to provide for his family when he’s gone and hits on the idea of going into the meth business with a junkie ex-student named Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul. Thanks to White’s chemistry expertise and relative (by the standard of meth dealers) discipline and devotion to quality, Walt and Jesse’s product becomes much in demand. Legal, familial, and moral complications ensue.
There you go, the inspiration for the show.
Nearly every discussion in every writers’ room, Gilligan explained, boils down to one of two questions: “Where’s a character’s head at?” and “What happens next?” Ideas v action. Text v subtext. This, as it happened, was a “What happens next?” day, in which the details of a relatively banal plot point need to be worked out.
To borrow a handy acronym, the question was this: WWJD? What will Jesse do?
With lunchtime approaching, there was a marked increase in shifting in the writers’ office chairs. In the centre of the table, there were three categories of items. In ascending order of importance: things to play with (magnets, puzzles, paper clips, a lump of clay) things to write with (stacks of legal pads and index cards, a pretzel jar filled with pens and Sharpies), things to eat (candy and snacks of every description). There were more and more bathroom breaks and a brief conversational detour into quotes from The Big Lebowski. A small faction of the writers took a quick trip downstairs to see how extreme the temperature had become.
Throughout it all, Gilligan kept up a stream of talk about the problem at hand, sometimes as if to himself. “Fuck,” he finally said, spinning around in his chair. “Why is this so hard?”
Money quote for me. If Vince Gilligan can be reduced to uttering, “Fuck, why is this so hard,” then all of us who have the same experience should take comfort. ‘Coz you know what? Writing is hard.
For the rest of the feature, go here.
Special treat: A glimpse of their writers room:
Hey, Breaking Bad fans: What’s your single favorite moment in the history of the series? See you in comments.