Interview Date: 01/14/2010
Run Date: 03/19/2010
Bryan Cranston has often expressed his surprise that a sweet, unassuming, straight-and-narrow kind of guy like Vince Gilligan could come up with a show as dark as “Breaking Bad,” and having met the man, it’s easy for me to share Cranston’s sentiments…right up to the point when I remember that Gilligan’s from Virginia. Suddenly, it all makes sense. (If you hadn’t guessed, I’m from Virginia, too.) With “Breaking Bad” preparing to kick off its third season, Bullz-Eye took advantage of the opportunity to pick the brain of the man who created the series. Though he remained consistently closed-mouthed when it came to specifics about what we’d be seeing over the course of Season 3, Gilligan spoke to a number of events in the previous two seasons, commented on the evolution of “Breaking Bad” since its inception, and, once in a blue moon, did offer up the occasional smirk-laded hint about the upcoming episodes.
Bullz-Eye: As you guys were talking during the TCA panel, it occurred to me that, to my way of thinking, the only constant in “Breaking Bad” is change. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
VG: Yeah, I think that’s a very fair assessment. I think I said something kind of to that effect, but I didn’t…I like the way you worded it. (Laughs) But I essentially said at TCA that the idea of this show, for good or bad, is about taking a guy from point A and taking him all the way to point Z. You know, I was pitching it to the studio or the network originally as, “We’re going to take Mr. Chips and we’re going to turn him into Scarface.” And that’s really, you know, not what TV does. So when you start doing that, you are automatically putting a clock on a new show. You’re giving it a shelf life. I mean, a show like “M*A*S*H” or ‘ER” or “NYPD Blue” or…I don’t know, name any show, really, “The X Files,” even. (Laughs) With any show, you’re protecting that franchise, and the trick with the typical show is to make the audience think things are changing when, in fact, you’re recalibrating back to zero. So many years on “The X Files,” we wanted to have a big season ender where everything changes…and surely we didn’t invent that. Pretty much every TV show has a big season ender where everyone is at stake. And then by hook or by crook, story-wise you recalibrate it at the beginning of the next season and you bring it all back to zero again. And that’s fine, remember. I’m not putting that down. I’m just saying the experiment here with this show is to really and truly change things. And when you change things, it’s good and bad. I mean, there are going to be things that happen this season that people are going to say, “Gee, I kind of wish it was like the old days, in season two.” (Laughs) But other things come along and it’s, “Oh, yeah, this is cool. I like this.” Hopefully, you know. But regardless, it’s a fun experiment to, you know, change it up. To really change up the character. And he really is becoming a real bad dude.
BE: So do you have a roadmap kind of in mind, in terms of you wanting to go from point A to point Z, where you’ve mapped out how you want to get there and how long you want to take to get there?
VG: I’d like to say “yes,” but, honestly, we’re kind of feeling our way through it with every season. (Laughs) In very vague terms, I think I know where I want it end up. But every step of the way getting there, I certainly don’t have that figured out. I was saying at the TCA about “Lost,” that was the smartest thing that they did. That’s a good show, and it was a very smart move they and ABC made to set the end date. Putting a clock on it. It’s always hard to do. It’s a ballsy thing to do with any show because you want to milk every last bit of story or every last dime. It’s tricky. I mean. I saw that on “The X Files.” I never really had a hand in the so-called mythology episodes, but I watched them come about and I remember thinking, “You know, at a certain point, a mystery collapses under its own weight.” The best part of the mystery is the early going. The best part of a ghost story is before you know the answer to what the ghost is. The best part of any of those kinds of stories is early days.
BE: Well, that’s like “Heroes.” The first season was awesome, but then you start to learn more and…
VG: It’s a real challenge. I mean, my hat’s off to anyone who sustains a series for more than a season or two, because it’s tough. You always have the push/pull going on of “I want to keep them watching” and “I want to keep giving them new things.” I saw the pilot for “Flash Forward,” and it was really intriguing, but I haven’t been able to catch it up since. But, you know, it almost felt like…it was such good story telling, but parts were, like, “What happened?” That pilot would have been a good six or seven, maybe eight episodes in the way that I would have wanted to do it. But they were probably under pressure. I’m just guessing, I don’t have any insight, but they were probably under pressure from ABC to do everything at once and get people hooked. But to me, the way you hook people is to, oddly enough, is to parcel it out slowly. Don’t fill the waters with every bit of chum you have. Just put a little bit of bait.
BE: You talked about the whole “Mr. Chips turning into Scarface” thing, so you obviously knew that Walt was going to be the focus of the show. Did you expect the other characters would evolve as much as they have?
VG: I probably…you know, my brain can only hold so many things at once. (Laughs) So back in the early days, I was probably thinking mainly of Walt. But I look back on it and I’m not surprised when I look back on it, because our actors are so good. You know, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt, they’re so talented, all of them. I mean, Aaron Paul needs to be a star. After this is over, I think he’s going to be, if there’s any justice. You look at Shia LaBeouf or some of those guys, and no offense to them, but Aaron Paul is…I mean, in my mind, this kid is a star. I have been so impressed with him. And he gets better. As good as he was in the pilot, we watch him get better week in, week out. He is so talented.
BE: He’s really good on “Big Love,” too, which is funny. He’s on “Breaking Bad,” a show that for whatever reason a lot of people don’t gravitate to as much as the mainstream stuff, and then “Big Love,” a show about polygamy, is the same thing. A show about polygamy. But you’re right, he’s really good.
VG: Yeah, he is so good. And Anna Gunn…as Skyler, she’s great. When we hired her, I didn’t realize how funny she was. I mean, we wanted a good, strong actress to play opposite Walt, but I didn’t realize what comic timing she has, what chops she has comedically. Betsy Brandt, Dean Norris…there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen with Hank this season.
BE: Oh, yeah?
VG: Hank’s going to have a big year. (Grins) A big year.
BE: You were talking earlier about how Bob Odenkirk’s part got increased significantly.
VG: Oh, yeah, well, getting work with Bob Odenkirk…I mean, that is…(Trails off, shaking his head)
BE: Are you a “Mr. Show” fan?
VG: Oh, I’m a huge “Mr. Show” fan. I’ve got every season on DVD, and that was before we hired him. He turned me on to a book I read recently called “And the Kicker Is...”
BE: Oh yeah, I’ve got that book.
VG: (Surprised) Do you?
BE: Yeah, I got it for my birthday, actually.
VG: Have you read it yet?
BE: Absolutely. Actually, it was really sad, because only a week after I got it, Larry Gelbart (who’s interviewed in the book) died.
VG: Yeah, right. Anna Gunn told me…not to toot our own horn, but…I’m so sorry I never met him, but Anna Gunn met him about a month or two before he passed away and he said that he was a big fan of the show. That was a big deal when I heard that. A big deal. That meant a lot to me when I heard that. Yeah, he’s the last interview in the book. They saved the best for last. He’s the last interview. That’s a good book. That interviewer is good. He asks good follow up questions. He doesn’t just have his prepared ones; he hears something very interesting and he rolls with it. But Odenkirk turned me on to it, and he said, “You know, I was in this book, and I feel bad because I thought it was some college kid doing some term paper and I was, like, not really tuned in. I gave a lot of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers.” But then when you read his interview, it’s great. I mean, I think he was being too hard on himself. But that whole book was good. I liked that a lot.
BE: I interviewed Bob at TCA. We had a nice chat. Obviously, we talked mostly about “Breaking Bad,” but I also got to ask him about writing for “SNL,” too.
VG: Yeah, he’s a good guy. I guess he didn’t have…I need to talk to him about those days, but I don’t think that was the happiest time of his life. But he is funny. Man, I love “Mr. Show.” That was a damned funny show. It was really good. It’s great getting to work with him. It was fun directing him. I had never directed him until last week, for this episode that we’re doing now. And he kind of went for it. I mean, anything he does is funny, any of the scenes he’s in usually have humor to them, but we took it kind of serious in this one scene, and he’s good. He could play serious.
BE: Saul Goodman kind of veers between comedy relief and legal bad-ass.
VG: Yeah, he’s the guy who sort of…he wants you to underestimate him. That’s sort of the character. You know, because those guys can really just… (Loudly smacks his hands together) …get you right between the eyes if you’re not looking. It’s funny: since we’ve started doing this show, there was one guy out here, a local accident attorney with billboards all over town, and now there’s like six or seven of them and they’re just everywhere now.
BE: When I talked to Aaron awhile ago, he told me about the whole Sky Commander Winky connection.
VG: Oh, yeah. (Laughs) That was weird. He came in and read for us for “Breaking Bad,” and I didn’t remember him from “The X Files.” That episode that he was in on “The X Files” was one my friend Tom Schnauz wrote, who’s now one of the writers on this show this year. He wrote two really good episodes this season. But, yeah, Tom named the character after my nickname in college, and…yeah, that’s one of those things where you’re just, like, “What the fuck did that even mean? That’s the best you could do, nickname-wise? Jesus!”
BE: Actually, after I did the interview with Aaron, I sent you an email trying to find the origins of the nickname, and you were, like, “I don’t even know, man.”
VG: Yeah, because, honest to God, I don’t. (Laughs) We were such a bunch of losers. I want a cool nickname.
BE: The scene in season two when Jane died…we asked this of Bryan during a roundtable at TCA, but with that scene in particular, was there ever a sense that maybe you were stepping over a line with Walt?
VG: AMC is great. They are courageous. That was the one time last year where they and my writers and everybody, Sony and everybody, said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” But to everybody’s credit, they were, like, “We thought about it, we talked about it long and hard, and then we all sort of said, ‘Man, let’s go for it!” I mean, if you’re going to be true to the thesis, which is that we’re going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface, then you’ve got to go for it. It was scary. I mean, when AMC said that to us, and Sony, too…because, you know, the studio and the network give you notes on every script. But when they said that to us, some little part of me, I think, almost wanted them to talk me out of doing it. But then our whole ethos last year, our whole philosophy last year was go big or go home. So we went big. You know, the original version was even nuttier. The original version was that he poisons her; that he shoots her up more heroin. And then we all kind of, like, “No, we don’t need to go that far. That’s too far.”
BE: Too big, huh?
VG: That’s too big. You can go too big. Maybe it is better to go home than go too big. (Laughs) So we called it a day and we came back the next day into the writer’s room and we said, “All right.” But if you look closely at that scene, he doesn’t do it on purpose, but he’s shaking Jesse, trying to wake him up…and if you watch in the wide shot, she falls over when he shakes her. And that’s what…you know, because you’re supposed to sleep on your side otherwise you could, you know, aspirate. And if you look closely, you realize that he is responsible for her death. Not just by inaction, but by action. Although the way it plays…I mean, he didn’t mean to do it, he was just trying to wake him up and he knocks her over. It’s amazing how bad that…I mean, it’s interesting to me how bad he seems for doing that, because it is a bad thing he does, but it’s bad that it’s inaction rather than action. This is a guy who…he’s worried about his friend and partner, he’s worried that the kid’s going to be dead within a week. And the truth is, there’s a real strong argument to be made for the fact the kid probably would be dead within a week. He’s got two heroin addicts, or whatever the term is for using meth and heroin at the same time. It’s speed balling, with heroin and cocaine. I don’t even know if there’s a word for it. There probably is. But doing those two at once, having a giant bag full of cash, half a million bucks…? They’re not going to live long.
BE: I’m sure you’ve adjusted your expectations for the series since the first two seasons. I mean, I presume they were probably different two years ago then they are now.
VG: I’ve got an old notebook of ideas from before we even shot the pilot, of where the show could go. And I look through it every now and then, and every now and then we find something we can use. But so often I see ideas for scenes that are really cool, I still think are cool, but just wouldn’t fit the show anymore. There’s just no way to do them anymore. So you’ve kind of got to be rigorous.
BE: With that organic development of the series over time, how did that affect Skyler’s finally figuring out the situation with Walt? Because I’m guessing that you wouldn’t have seen it happening quite this way when the series started.
VG: You know, that’s a very good question. That’s a good example of what I’m talking abou,t because it was…in a lot of ways, it was more fun… (Trails off, then smiles) Well, you’re going to see as you watch this season. And when you watch the season, there’s going to be certain things…I guarantee you there are going to be certain things this season where you’ll…hopefully, you’ll say, “Yeah, it’s still interesting, I still want to watch,” but I would bet money that some little part of your brain will say, “I kind of miss it when this was happening or this was going on.” That’s a good example. It was fun in season two and season one doing the whole Clark Kent / Superman thing. In other words, he’s got a hidden identity. But being organic, you know, as far as trying to tell the story organically, Skyler…she’s just too damn smart. We went round and round about it in the beginning of this season. We were, like, “How do we keep it a secret from her what Walt’s doing?” Finally, we looked at each other and…it took a week or so, because we kept torturously saying, “Well, if this happens or this happens, or we do this and then this happens, and then she’s distracted because of this…” And we finally kind of looked at each other and said, “You know, it’s all bullshit. Of course she’s going to know he’s up to something.” So you’ve got to play the cards that you’ve dealt yourself. You don’t want to cheat at solitaire. We could cheat, but we would only be cheating ourselves.
BE: Did you feel like maybe you painted yourself into a corner at that point?
VG: Oh, every year we paint ourselves into a corner. Every year. Certainly every season-ender we paint ourselves into a corner. “How do we get out of this now?” This episode we’re shooting now is no different. When we get back together in the writer’s room, you know, knock on wood, if there’s a season four, it will be, like, “Now what the hell do we do?” So, yeah, there’s a lot of that going on.
BE: Would you say that Season 4 of “Breaking Bad” is a safe bet?
VG: I hope so. It’s a tough economy right now. It’s tough money wise. You know, even a show like “CSI”, the biggest show on TV and CBS is making them cut like 10% of their budget. You let a show like that alone. That’s what I would do.
BE: I loved that clip that you guys showed at TCA of Walt and Skyler as she’s asking him about what he does, where she’s sure she’s figured it out and he’s kind of hemming and hawing.
VG: Bryan is so good. And in the next bit, which you didn’t see, he tells her about the meth and she’s rightly horrified, and then he says, “I’m a manufacturer. I’m not a dealer, per se.” (Laughs) He’s always got to lawyer it, you know?
BE: Did you know what you were getting when you signed Bryan onto the show?
VG: I kind of did. I mean, I was lucky that I had worked with him before. He was in an “X Files” I did, and it was a very, very dramatic part in the episode, which I wrote. About 18 months after that, “Malcolm in the Middle” started up, and when it came on, I was, like, “Is that Bryan Cranston?” And I watched the first episode, and I was, like, “I had no idea he could be funny!”
BE: Oh, he’s hilarious.
VG: Absolutely. And I knew from then on that he could do pretty much anything you asked of him. So I am proud of the fact that I saw that in him, but, like I say, I didn’t know the extent of the talent that the rest of the cast had until we really started rolling. I mean, I knew they were all good actors. We didn’t hire any bums, I knew that. But when I started to realize just how much range they all had and all of the different things that we could do with them that I didn’t think that…well, I didn’t really give it that much thought to begin with, you know? I thought, “We’ll hire good actors,” and, you know, you’ve got tunnel vision at the beginning. “I’ve just got to get through this pilot. I’ve just got to get through this first season. I’ve just got to get through…” You don’t really see the whole thing in a snapshot. It’s just too big. It’s like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest, you know? It’s just one step at a time if you’re going to get up there at all. But, yeah, I mean, I feel real fortunate about Bryan. I knew he could do it, but even then, he still surprises me. I know he can do anything, but even then… (Trails off) Like, in that scene when he watched Jane die, the emotions he goes through, without any words, in that one frame..? It’s stunning. He’s so danged good. But Aaron’s doing those kinds of scenes this year. too. And Anna’s capable of it, and Dean and Betsy and RJ. They’re all amazing. They’re really good.
AMC: Vince, you’re being summoned, so I think so we’re have to wrap it up.
VG: Oh, okay. Are you guys going to come back to the set?
BE: Definitely.VG: Good. All right, then, we’ll see you there!