Breaking Bad: Contemptible Choices Makes Compelling Drama
“We were sort of joking about how we should quit writing and go work at Wal-Mart or something like that, or we should go cook crystal meth. That’s what we should do!”
Vince Gilligan’s description of how he came up with the idea behind “Breaking Bad” sounds like a movie itself. While bemoaning the difficulties of getting scripts sold with an old college buddy and fellow writer, the two jokingly decided driving around in an RV and cooking crystal meth would be as fine a way to make a living as any.
“When we started talking about doing that in a joking fashion, suddenly this character that would do that sort of thing popped into my head,” said Gilligan. “That was kind of odd for me because usually when I come up with the idea for a story it’s very laborious. It takes a while to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and figure out all the minutia about the plot and characters.”
Within 30 minutes, Gilligan developed Walter White, the lead character in “Breaking Bad.” Walter, the father of a son with MS and a wife who’s undergoing a mid-life surprise pregnancy, learns he has terminal cancer. Determined to ensure his family’s future financial security, he uses his skills as a chemistry teacher to make crystal meth. Then he employees a former student to help him break into the drug trade.
“When this guy who’s basically a good, upstanding citizen that decides to cook crystal meth popped into my head, I was sort of off and running, though at that point, I wasn’t sure where in the world I could sell this idea,” said Gilligan.
Gilligan’s first step was to determine if he should develop a movie script or a television program. After deciding that the story idea would make a good series, Gilligan approached Sony Pictures Television. “I thought, boy, this is a long shot; as far as anti-heroes go, this guy is pretty anti-heroic.”
Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht at Sony Pictures Television embraced the idea and got behind presenting the show to various networks. Before long, AMC offered a home to “Breaking Bad.”
Once serious interest developed for “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan contemplated what actor might best embody Walter White. Having previously worked on “The X-Files” as a writer/producer, Gilligan recalled working with Bryan Cranston on an episode he wrote entitled “Drive.”
“I cast him as a really awful, racist, red neck creep. What was so great about him, and why he really stood out for me, was that not only was he a really fine actor, but he played this real creep guy that none-the-less you really felt sorry for by the end of the episode. Cranston just sort of finds the humanity in whatever character he plays, no matter how potentially unlikable.”
Gilligan has high praise for all the key talent in the series: Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt and RJ Mitte. “They all rise to the level that Bryan sets for the show, and boy are we lucky to have them all. If any one of them was really weak as an actor, it would show up pretty starkly.”
Unlike “The X-Files” which had many stand alone episodes, “Breaking Bad” is highly serialized. Gilligan, along with a team of six writers, gathered at the beginning of the season to develop upcoming ideas.
“We spent three weeks just talking about the arc of the season. We started off with the first episode knowing what the very end of the season was going to be. So, we’ve plotted all that stuff out together, and we sat around in a room and basically beat out each episode, and we put what the major beats in each scene were on a big corkboard.”
Knowing the arc of the season before writing the first episode allowed the writers to be creative with hidden meanings. Season Two’s disturbing opening sequence of a teddy bear floating in a pool as sirens ring in the background foreshadows an event at the end of the season. “We’ve got six smart people sitting around in a room for 10-12 hours a day. You get that many smart people in a room with you, you come up with some really interesting stuff, and we try real hard to make the show interesting on a lot of different levels.”
Dealing with a character conceived with a finite life cycle also presents an interesting challenge for the series writers. Unlike a show like “The X-Files,” where the characters are on a quest that can go on indefinitely, Walter White’s days are numbered.
“We can concentrate a lot of living into a very short amount of time. For instance, our first season only lasts about two and a half to three months of life for the White family. So, we let Walt live a lot in a short amount of time.”
Gilligan doesn’t let the knowledge of Walt’s life cycle interfere with the prospect of a short series. “Every story has a different life span to it, and I think we’re going to tell a really intense slam-bang story with a lot of twists and turns that nobody will see coming, and then we’ll take our bows and be out.”
The dry, desolate New Mexico landscapes depicted in scenes of Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) taking their beat up RV meth lab into the desert match the character’s deeds perfectly. However, New Mexico was not the original setting for “Breaking Bad.” Gilligan’s early drafts were set in Riverside County, California. This location was inspired by sites Gilligan toured with a DEA agent stationed in that area. Gilligan also liked the idea of driving to sets or the writer’s room without having to leave his home and regularly fly to a location.
“The reason we chose New Mexico was simple economics initially. The state government offered a 25% rebate that California unfortunately didn’t match. All these more forward looking states like New Mexico and Louisiana, and also Canada, are offering tax rebates and credits that help the producers get more bang for their buck.”
When Sony Pictures Television first introduced the idea of shooting in New Mexico, Gilligan was a bit dubious. He was unfamiliar with the state and the resources at hand. It was suggested to him that he still call the show’s setting Riverside County, but Gilligan couldn’t find a reason to do that. He felt he should embrace the location where the show was stationed. Real street names, locations and landmarks in New Mexico appear in the show. Any studio work is shot in the Albuquerque Studios.
“It’s interesting because you can come in from your plane, and get picked up at the front of the airport, and you can be at the studio in less than ten minutes. Some of our cooking sequences where Walt and Jesse are out in the middle of nowhere are actually within sight of the studio. It’s amazing how much desolate beauty there is in a short distance,”
In working with Ann Lerner of the Albuquerque Film Office and several talented location scouts, Gilligan and his crew have taken every precaution to ensure the production experience is a benefit for crew and townspeople alike. Feeling that Californians are somewhat jaded and take fiscal advantage of productions that shoot on location, Gilligan and his crew make sure they don’t “burn locations.” They don’t take advantage of location owners; they remove all trash, prevent damages, and leave people feeling like the production was a positive experience.
“Although the show was based in New Mexico originally for economic reasons, I just love shooting there. We have a wonderful crew, the local folks couldn’t be nicer, and New Mexico is just a beautiful state. We put things on film every week that haven’t been photographed a thousand times before.”
Gilligan learned a great deal about television success through seven years of writing/producing for “The X-Files.” He also learned about failure when “The Lone Gunmen,” an “X- Files” spin off, was canceled after 13 episodes. Gilligan credits Chris Carter for providing an experience that completely educated him as a writer and producer and prepared him for future endeavors.
“What Chris Carter did, that a lot of show runners don’t do, is he let the writers sit in on the casting process, he let us sit in on the music playback, he let us go to the set and be there to answer questions that the director might have. He let us sit in the editing room and help edit our stories to make sure the stories flowed properly and in a stylized version. That right there is tremendous. You really can’t be a director, and you really can’t know the full scope of your job as a writer, unless you can know your way around an editing room. Knowing what can and can’t be done with the pieces of raw film that you have, it’s just invaluable.”
Gilligan, in acknowledgement of the well-rounded experience he received while working on “The X-Files,” incorporates aspects of Carter’s mentoring in “Breaking Bad.”
“My hat’s off to Chris Carter because he helped make me who I am today by allowing me all those possibilities and giving me all those responsibilities. I try to be like Chris Carter, and always have the writer of the episode in there with me. I’m not doing it because I’m a nice guy. I’m doing it because it’s very practical and smart to want to let the writers take on that responsibility because the more they know how to do, the less I have to do. Maybe I can go on vacation sometime or something!”
A vacation doesn’t seem like an enjoyable option for Gilligan until the season is completely wrapped. His approach to each episode of “Breaking Bad” is “very hands-on.” Although Gilligan encourages and fosters full participation from his crew, he’s passionate about overseeing all aspects of production.
“Every single thing I humanly have time for I want to sign off on: the wardrobe, the locations we’re shooting at. I certainly want to be there in the editing room for every episode and for every music playback and every sound mix. And to me, that’s the fun of the job; all the pre-production and post-production stuff is the most fun.”
Having always wanted to tell stories, Gilligan is very happy with where his life path has taken him. He admires writers and directors that tell a personal story, and counts himself lucky to be part of such a group.
“I feel so lucky to be working in TV and getting to tell the stories that I want to tell. It’s more of a rare thing these days. ’Breaking Bad’ isn’t a story I’m living in any way, but it’s still personal to me in some odd ways. I feel so lucky to be able to tell it.”