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The Breaking Bad Interviews: Vince Gilligan
The creator/writer/producer/director on lucky breaks and Al Pacino

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Warning: Contains spoilers for seasons 1 to 5A.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Vince Gilligan

What made you decide to remove the 'Watching Scarface' scene from the pilot and then include it in the first half of the final season?
I hate to admit it, but I'm drawing a blank on that one. That was so long ago. I do recall that first episode was so very long because I was very greedy. I wanted to get every idea I had out there for what would be become Breaking Bad. I was very impatient with that pilot episode.

You know what? I remember now, you're right, there was going to be a moment where Walt was watching Scarface in that first episode and I think simply we ran out of time. There were going to be a couple of other scenes in the pilot episode and we ran out of time with which to insert all these fun ideas.

So years later, lo and behold, we found the right moment to have Walt and his son watch Scarface.

Is Al Pacino a fan?
I can't speak as to whether Al Pacino is a fan - I don't know if he's even heard of the show - but I can attest to the fact that he's a stand-up guy. As the lead in Scarface, he has the right, through the power of the Screen Actors Guild here in The States, to say whether he wants his image to appear in Breaking Bad or whatever it might be, and furthermore, he didn't say we had to pay him a $1 million - he could have set any figure he wanted - but though I had no direct communication with the man, I heard through Sony that he said, 'Yeah, that's fine.'

And he set a remuneration figure that was very agreeable to us, and I feel very fortunate in saying that because though we have enough money to make this show, and I'm very happy about that fact, but it's only just enough (laughs). We don't much extra cash, so the fact that he said, 'Yeah, sure, Scarface is going to be in your TV show and I'm not going to soak you for money,'... I thought that was a really stand-up thing to do.

It was such a marvellous thing to have a clip of the great Al Pacino from one of my favourite movies, playing Tony Montana, and being able to thereby show Walt's descent. Walt is way more evil than most of us ever fear becoming, but he also has the same schoolboy dreams of being a tough guy and he loves gangster movies just like any of us. And it was fun being able to show him enjoying a moment with his son, watching this movie that most guys my age love quite a bit. It was fun being able to show this moment of vicarious enjoyment on behalf of our character, Walter White.

How do you personally account for the popularity of the show?
I am surprised to this day that Breaking Bad has lasted as long as it has. I'm surprised it ever went on air in the first place.
That is the $64,000 question. That is a great question, and one I fear I don't have a great answer for. I am surprised to this day that Breaking Bad has lasted as long as it has. I'm surprised it ever went on air in the first place. As I often say in interviews, on paper it doesn't make sense that Breaking Bad ever got made, because it is about a middle-aged man who very quickly in the first episode finds out that he's dying of cancer, and then decides to go cook crystal meth to make money. Those are three big strikes: middle-aged guy - typically in American TV, you want somebody very youthful and handsome and definitely not middle-aged - and then the dying of cancer is a downer, and the meth angle is just preposterous... I am amazed that this show ever went on the air.

Now I've said that, now that it's on the air, how does it speak to the people it speaks to? I'm groping at this but my two best answers are these: firstly, Bryan Cranston is the perfect actor for the role. He is an outstanding actor who can be hilariously funny, incompetent and silly, then with the quickest of turns can become suddenly very dangerous and scary and formidable and angry. He has such a control over his instrument, if you will, such a control over his emotions, that he can portray anything. Anything between fiendishly scary and evil to bumbling and affectionate and dopey and clueless. His range is amazing.

But more important still, aside from the artistry, is that he's supremely likeable. That is something that is hard to qualify, and it's something that you wish you could bottle and sell, this ability, but there's no defining it. You know it when you see it, and Bryan Cranston has it in spades. He is able to portray a character that is absolutely awful at times, that does despicable, unspeakable things, and yet you never lose sight of the character's humanity and his sympathisability. And that is due completely to Bryan Cranston.

The writers and I do our best to write Walt as relatable, but if it were another actor playing the part, I don't think Breaking Bad would be as satisfying as it is and I don't think it would be as relatable as it is. In short, I don't think it would still be on the air.

Other than that, I think there is a vicarious thrill that those of us who love rollercoasters and gangster movies get when we ride rollercoasters and when we watch gangster movies: the thrill of partaking in those moments of excitement and those dark lives, if only for an hour at a time. We get to live Walter White's life with him, and then we get to shrug and shower it off and go about our lives and not have to pay the consequences for his terrible actions.

But we do enjoy our vicarious thrills as consumers of entertainment. That's the best answer I can give, albeit one that feels a little incomplete.

How bad is the pressure right now?
The pressure's not so bad right now. The pressure's been very bad for the last year, and it's been a very much a self-imposed pressure. We've been very lucky to get really nothing but love from our viewers, and from the studio and network we work for... they've all been very supportive. No-one has come saying, 'Boy, you better not screw this up.' But we've been very fortunate to not feel much in the way of external pressure, but internally there's an awful lot of self-imposed pressure. I've been very neurotic, this past year or more, and very anxious and very nervous that I would drop the ball, that I would fail.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Vince Gilligan

A little like Walter White?
Well, you're right, there's a lot of him in me, which is why he's been easy for me to write, even when he does his dark deeds. Even when he does all the things I'd never do - it would be impossible to do half the things he does - but it's not hard at all to imagine them, somehow... I'm not sure what that says about me. Probably nothing good.

I freely admit that there were times in the last six months where I was very depressed and very anxiety-ridden. I was sure that the ideas we'd come up with made no logical or emotional sense, and worst of all, that these ideas for an ending wouldn't be satisfying.

But we got through that thicket of self-doubt, and we have now shot all the episodes, including the finale - which we wrapped on April 3 - and we're now editing them. And I am really pleased and proud of the end result. I'm very close to it, admittedly, maybe too close to have the best vantage point on it, but I have to believe we've come up with the proper ending for this show, and that fans will be satisfied by it. I certainly hope that they will be. I am much more confident now than I was six months ago.

Which other TV shows do you look up to, and which other TV shows do you think have got their endings right?
I love so many TV shows that, by necessity, I am going to have to leave a bunch out, but I have to start with The Twilight Zone. It was just a wonderful show, written by a master storyteller (Rod Serling), with a twist at the end of every episode, and you'd think to yourself, 'Once I know the twist, I never need to watch that episode again.' But the deep satisfaction of The Twilight Zone comes from the writing and the storytelling, not from the twists, and that's why I can watch episodes of The Twilight Zone dozens of times.

Any time even a halfway good episode is on - unless it's really a clunker, because when you do 156 episodes, they aren't all going to be fantastically great - I'll watch it, no matter. I'll drop everything and watch half an hour of The Twilight Zone.

I love All In The Family, which is a marvellous show and a real groundbreaker. I love M*A*S*H, I love Wiseguys - such a great show, we were really lucky to get to work with Jonathan Banks on Breaking Bad - so many shows I'm forgetting here.

As far as great endings go, I have cite M*A*S*H as a touchstone for a series that went for a great many episodes - over 250, I think - and ended in a satisfying fashion nonetheless. I think M*A*S*H is an excellent example and when you think about it. M*A*S*H structurally has the perfect ending and the obvious ending, in fact, built into the show right from the very first episode. M*A*S*H is a show about people who don't want to be where they are. They want more than anything to get out of Korea and back home, so while the ending of M*A*S*H was on some level very obvious, it was nonetheless perfectly satisfying. And sometimes the most satisfying ending is the most obvious ending... and I think M*A*S*H realised that and pulled it off very nicely.

Have you ever felt like your artistic freedom has been hampered in any way by the studio?
One time in particular the network called up and said, 'Gee, do you really want to do this?' - it was when Walt let Jane, Jesse's girlfriend, die.
I really have been very lucky. I have no reservations in saying that. I have to say at this point that I'm too old for a death by a thousand cuts. If that had happened, which indeed happens to a lot of TV runners - where you get noted to death by the studio and then by the network - well, I'd have quit a long time ago.

It's been a wonderful experience, working for both Sony and AMC. All you have to do is look to the fact that there's nothing else like Breaking Bad, certainly not when it first went on the air. Both companies took a huge chance on a show that on paper shouldn't work, and that showed a lot of courage and a lot of belief in the product.

No half measures, then?
No half measures involved! They went full measure. We've got notes along the way, but they haven't been intrusive at all. There have been many fewer notes than I'm used to working in the jobs I've had in television. And they have been, 'Do it or don't do it.'

That said, there have been a couple of times along the way when we've been at a major crossroads creatively. One time in particular the network called up and said, 'Gee, do you really want to do this?' It wasn't an argument, it wasn't a fight, it was just a great deal of concern communicated to me by the two companies back at the end of season two, when Walt let Jane, Jesse's girlfriend, die. Watched her die as she chocked to death in the middle of an overdose.

That was the single biggest note I'd received from both companies. When I say it was a note, it was actually everyone calling me up and saying, 'Okay, we read this - it's very dramatic, we're a little scared. We know the whole point of the show is that he's going to become darker and darker and more despicable, but our fear is not that you're doing this, but that you're doing this so soon, maybe a season too soon.'

And I said, 'You know what? I'm scared too. You're right to be nervous about this, but I think it's the right thing.' And we talked about it for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, and they were still nervous, but they said if I wanted to do it I should go ahead and do it. And for six years that's who I've been working for, and I've got nothing but good things to say about how little inference there is. It's practically non-existent. I've never had that experience on a TV show or a movie before, and it's held us in good stead and hopefully we've repaid the favour by policing ourselves and making the show as rigorous story-wise and as satisfying as we could make it.

Are there any particularly lucky breaks you've had over the course of the show?
Keeping Aaron Paul in the first season and moving to Albuquerque for tax reasons are excellent examples. There have been so many lucky moments. The people I've got around me, making this show with me, the producers, the directors, the actors... I feel fortunate - I feel blessed, in fact - beyond fortunate, beyond lucky, at every turn, with this show. I feel lucky that it exists, and that it exists as it does. I don't even know where the luck ends. I feels like - and we use this expression a lot here - lightning in a bottle. And when you say you've got lightning in a bottle, the first question is, 'How did you catch it?' And I couldn't even begin to tell you, and that's what worries me about the future. I think to myself, after this lightning in a bottle is done and put on the shelf, how do I get another bottle full of lightning? And the answer is: 'I have not the faintest clue.' (Laughs) But then I say to myself, "'I had one bottle full of lightning, and that should be enough for any man.'

Are you worried that this potential Saul Goodman spin-off show could dilute the Breaking Bad brand?
I personally would like to see it happen, because I think it would be its own creation and its own creature, and I think it would exists in a Breaking Bad universe, as it centres on a character that was integral to Breaking Bad, but I think it's its own thing. It's like comparing an apple to an orange. Or white meth to blue meth.

We would do out very best to make it a very good show indeed, as we always do with Breaking Bad. There's the intangible question of whether it'll affect people, whether it'll move people as much as the mothership show did, and there's no real answer to that. In fact, the safest answer to that is: 'Probably not to the same level.'

Then you ask yourself, does that mean it's not worth doing? I think it is, and the way to approach it is knowing that it's not going to be the same thing. It's not going to be completely of a piece with the original show, but if it's a challenge, and it's interesting to us to do it, that's reason enough. Worst case scenario, it's like the spin-off to M*A*S*H, AfterMASH, that nobody remembers - and I don't think it hurt M*A*S*H any that it existed. I don't think we're going to have that problem, though. Anything based around the character of Saul Goodman and any show starring the wonderful Bob Odenkirk has more than an even chance of being quite good indeed.

You never assume lightning is going to strike twice. Having said that, I think a Saul Goodman show would be a great deal of fun, and a great challenge, and something I would look forward to doing. It's definitely not set in stone yet, it's definitely the early days of the process, and it may happen or it may not.


Empire Breaking Back Interviews THE BREAKING BAD INTERVIEWS
Head back to the interview hub for more exclusive interviews with the cast and makers of Breaking Bad

Interview by Ali Plumb

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