Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is part one of a two part conversation with Vince Gilligan, the creator and showrunner of one of the great series in television history, Breaking Bad and one of his key collaborators on that series, director/executive producer Michelle MacLaren.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In addition to discussing the works and artists who shaped their creative thinking, we zeroed in on one particular piece of their work. 

With today’s guests, we, of course chose, Breaking Bad.  In Part One of the conversation we will hear about Vince and Michelle’s respective paths into storytelling, as well as covering how Vince conceived the show, and how he, Michelle and their colleagues built the system that allowed them to sustain such a high level of quality for each and every episode.  In Part Two of the podcast we will talk about the actors and will zero in on two of the show’s episodes to discuss how the details of their creation offer us broader insights into the unique creative process behind this television masterpiece.

And so, here is part one of this very special Crime Story Podcast.

Kary:

All right, without further ado, Breaking Bad. Please join me in welcoming Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren.

We have a really full house this evening, which is, I know we’re all really excited about having you guys here. One of the central aims of the class is to assess our filmmakers values in crafting crime dramas. And I say that with a small v, what their intentions are, how they approach the stories they’re telling, and what inspired them, and what their intentions are in communicating with the show. And Breaking Bad is perhaps the most distinctive and most aesthetically sophisticated moral character journey, perhaps in the history of television. I think there’s a wide consensus about that. And I think that’s a key part of why it’s reason in the pantheon of this golden age of television. So I’d like to start with asking both of you to tell us where you’re from, and what were the forces, both positive and negative, that shaped your value system, or sense of ethics or morality, and your sense of aesthetics. Growing up, through school, and as you entered into the business.

Vince: 

I grew up in a small town, Farmville, Virginia. Actually, it was Farmville and then a suburb of Richmond a little after that. And I just, I was always interested in movies. It’s become a very boring, often told story from a lot of men and women my age who got in the business, that they were inspired by Star Wars, because folks my age, I was 10 years old when that movie came out in 1977. So I’m yet another one of those folks who was inspired by Star Wars, and a big fan. But then just the idea of telling stories cinematically, movies, television, I lumped them all together as a kid. They were all the same thing to me and in a lot of ways still are. I still think of movies and television as being somewhat interchangeable. And as we move forth into this brave new world we’re into now, embarking upon in terms of the business, it does seem increasingly the case that the two are somewhat interchangeable. But I just grew up knowing what I wanted to do from about the age of 8 or 9, and that was to make movies, and to make t.v. shows. And that was just the only thing that ever really interested me.

                                                                                      That was a good question you asked. And as far as, in terms of my aesthetic I think, as with most folks probably, with yourselves you find as you age, as you progress through life, your aesthetic perhaps changes somewhat. I was a big fan of Star Wars, and then I became a bigger fan of movies like 2001, A Space Odyssey, and the Godfather, and the movies of Kurosawa and John Ford. And then your aesthetic kind of changes over the years, but I was inspired by a great many wonderful movies. And when it came time to do Breaking Bad, I was drawing upon a lot of these inspirations.

                                                                                      And I think when we started with Breaking Bad, when I was contemplating directing the pilot, I was really thinking a lot in terms of The French Connection, the work of William Friedkin and The French Connection. Specifically, when you watch the show, there’s that steady handheld, basically kind of news gathering or combat photography, handheld where you’re holding it as steadily as you humanly can because you can’t carry a tripod into a war zone or whatnot. So it’s the kind of footage you’d see shot with a Filmo or whatnot back in the, during World War II or whatnot, the combat footage. So not the caffeinated shaking the camera around thing, but basically that news gathering kind of footage that Friedkin used so well in The French Connection. So I was thinking of that, and you know, just ripping off everybody I could think of, all the stuff that I liked.

                                                                                      And then when we got into… I’m kind of jumping around here in answer to your question, but when we got into making the show, we realized how much Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we happened to be shooting initially for financial reasons, to save money ultimately, was very much the Southwestern feel made it feel like, it dawned on us, “Heck, we’re making a Western here.” So suddenly then, all the influences of Sergio Leone, and John Ford, and all that kind of stuff came in.

I feel like I’m missing part of your question. Was that?

Kary:

Moral value system, relationship with the community, and man’s kind of, human beings’ struggle to make sense of the moral universe, I guess.

Vince:

That’s a great question. I don’t know that I’m going to do it justice, except to say that I, like most people, I feel like we want to believe we live in a moral world. We want to live in a world that is a meritocracy. We want to live in a world where right and wrong are not only easily differentiated, but that good is rewarded, for lack of, simplistic way of looking at it, but good is rewarded and bad is punished. And the world of course, as we know, does not always work that way.

But in creating Breaking Bad, and I want to stress I was not actively thinking these things I’m saying to you now, I just wanted to tell an entertaining story when we started out. But as the show progressed, I realized, you’re right. There is a moral component to it. There’s an ethical… Best way I can put it is there is a desire to see that happen, to see that we do indeed, you know, the world we live in, the clockwork of the universe is so exceedingly large, maybe there is ultimately karma or maybe there is, to put it again simply, good is rewarded, bad is punished. But from our tiny little vantage point, our ant like vantage point, if that is indeed happening, we can’t tell for sure. We have to be a bit agnostic on that. The assumptions we make are only assumptions. So whether or not the universe itself is a moral place, where it does indeed work like that, I can’t tell. I don’t know. I wish it were. But I knew this little universe of Breaking Bad could be.

                                                                                      But even then, a lot of times it feels like no good deed goes unpunished on Breaking Bad. And sometimes it feels like well, the bad guys seem to do quite well, thank you very much. But I guess, again, to say it again, I was thinking mainly in terms of just want to be entertaining. Want to tell an interesting story about a character that I personally find riveting, and hopefully, the viewers will too. But I guess as it progressed, there was that desire for this universe to make sense on some moral level, this fictional universe of Breaking Bad.

Kary:

Michelle, just give us a sense of your aesthetic journey into the business.

Michelle:

I’m from Vancouver, Canada and I wanted to direct from a very young age. I went about it a different way. I worked my way up through P.A.ing, and locations, and A.D.ing, and production managing, and line producing, I went around really the long way. But I always wanted to become a director because very much like Vince was saying, I always wanted to tell stories. And when I was younger, we had a summer cottage that had no electricity. And we’d go up there for a couple of months in the summer. So we had to make our own entertainment. And we would play charades a lot, and make up plays, and take scary walks and try to scare each other. So that’s probably why I do lot of really scary stuff.

But when I was producing, on the back of my mind, I always wanted to direct, and I finally got the opportunity on the X-Files. And the first time I was directed, it was written by Vince Gilligan, so I got very, very lucky. And I think that we really, we share some certain sensibilities. And one of the things that Vince and I, Vince has taught me, and I’ve learned a lot from Vince, is whatever you’re directing, is to always think about how people would really react in that situation, and are you being honest with what is happening in that situation.

And I think that my influences are very much, especially for Breaking Bad because we shot it like a modern day Western, are Sergio Leone. I love Sergio Leone movies. I think every frame is a piece of art. And I learned on the X-Files, and I learned from a number of different directors that I was fortunate enough to be producing, about always making sure that the camera tells the story. So aesthetically, I would say that it really depends on the story that you’re telling. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of different types, of different genres of shows. So the aesthetic choice is what is best for the story. But like Vince is saying, I’m highly influenced by the people that have come before us. And when I was researching for The Deuce, for example, I watched French Connection. I watched all these Needle, and Panic Park, wait…

Vince:

Panic and Needle Park.

Michelle:

Panic and Needle Park.

Vince:

That’s right.

Michelle:

Saturday Night Fever. I mean, there’s so many… Taxi Driver. There’s all these amazing movies that you get to reference. So I guess my aesthetic really depends on the story. But on Breaking Bad, I had pictures from Sergio Leone movies, Once Upon A Time In The West, which was my favorite, all over my office wall. And it was really fun to work on a show that welcomed the twelve [inaudible 00:13:59], which was exciting. But Vince did a really cool thing for any of you guys who are going to become show runners. Vince would hire directors and then say to them, “Look, you’re here because I really like your work. I don’t care what style you tell the story in as long as you’re telling the story that we’ve written.” So actually, if you look closely at Breaking Bad, there’s a lot of different styles in the show, but it’s very consistent because the scripts were so tight.

Kary:

Can you tell us some of the stepping stones from when you decided you wanted to make a go of being a television writer, or a film or television writer to becoming a show runner?

Vince:

It’s interesting, because I always think if you want to be a lawyer, or you want to be a doctor, there’s only, which I kind of would find refreshing, there’s only one way to do it. You’ve got to go law school, you’ve got to go to medical school. As you guys all know, there’s a lot of different ways to get this job. Well, I mean, as you will continue to find out once you graduated, we’re all like snowflakes in the movie and t.v. business. There’s no one path. In my case, and it is only one person’s case, I went to NYU Film School which was a great experience. Although it probably should not leave this room, I don’t know how much I owe of my success to, not just NYU, but film school in general. I don’t know how much… It was a good experience, but I can’t point to any point where I say to myself, “God if only for, if it hadn’t been for film school, I wouldn’t have been anywhere.” I don’t know if it works that way to be brutally honest. But-

Kary:

There was no crime drama class, I’m betting.

Vince:

There wasn’t, yeah. But it’s, being surrounded by like minded people who are interested in the same thing as you are, was back then, harder to find like minded communities, especially in Virginia because this was pre-internet. I mean, I guess it existed in some defense contractor lab somewhere back in the early, mid 80’s, but it definitely didn’t exist in my house. So going to a film school was helpful to be surrounded, for the first time in my life, by like minded, folks of the same interests because they didn’t have that in Virginia.

I was much more prolific back than than I am now because I was doing it for love. Somehow when you start getting paid for it, it’s not as much fun as it used to be. I don’t know why that is. But I would write like crazy. Got very lucky right out of film school. My first feature length script that I wrote for an NYU class, but I would have written it anyway, I was lucky enough to win a contest in my home state of Virginia. Probably had only 20, 30 entrants in it at all, this contest. Because you had to be a Virginia, born and raised in Virginia screenwriter, and there just weren’t that many in 1989 when I won, was one of the winners of this contest. And one of the judges was a gentleman named Mark Johnson, who was an executive producer on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. We both know and love him. He contacted me after the contest and he said, “Do you have any more scripts? I really like that one.” And he became sort of my mentor in the business in the very early ’90s. And I considered myself a movie writer for the first five years of my career, 1990-95.

And I was living in my home state of Virginia and I had bought a house, and I had a girlfriend back there, and my mom, and my dad, and my uncle, and my brother were back there. So that’s all I knew. And I thought it is a lot cheaper to live in Virginia than here by a damn sight. So I figured I’m going to keep living in Virginia and write movies and FedEx them out to the West coast there. And it was kind of fun for a while, but I am not much of a self starter. That’s why one of the many, many reasons t.v. has been so good for me, is that there are other people holding a gun to my head every minute of the day. Because I just, being a self starter, and being that Stephen King, Isaac Asimov type writer that just can’t wait to jump up in the morning and start pounding away on the typewriter, man I was never that.    

Anyway, the first five years I thought, “Man, I’m a movie writer. This is great.” Got one thing made, a movie called Wilder Napalm with Debra Winger and Dennis Quaid, which was a fun experience. But it was just like a turd on a pond when that thing hit. Nobody saw that thing. And then I lost my li… not my license, Jesus. I lost my insurance, my writer’s guild insurance because I wasn’t getting much work done in the latter half of that five years. And then thought, “God, I’m done for. I had all this great good luck at the beginning of my career, and I’ve kind of pissed it away. I’m not working like I should. I’m not pounding the keyboard there like I should everyday.” And t.v. came along and saved me.

My agent, a woman named Rhonda Gomez, it was an agency called Triad Artists, she had an assistant, a young guy named Chris Silverman, who was sitting on her desk, was her assistant for a couple of years there. And he and I would talk. I had never even met him, but he and I would talk, he in California, and I’m in Virginia and he would say, “You ought to write for t.v.” And I said, “Oh I wouldn’t, all I know about…” And I was not a snob at all about it. But I said, “The only thing I know about t.v. is I’d have to move to California because there’s like a writer’s room, right?” And he said, “Yeah, but that would be good for you. Because all you tell me is you’re just eating Cheetos and masturbating all day. You’re not doing anything. You’re just a bum.” He was very much a straight shooter. So I said, “Well yeah, but I’ve got a house here.” And he said, “Well think about it.”

And then the X-Files came along, and I was just a fan of that show. I just loved it. It started in 1993, and I was watching from the first episode on. I was hooked. And I happened to tell his boss, Chris’s boss Rhonda, my agent, about this show and she said, “As luck would have it, I’m related to the guy who created that show by marriage. Would you like to meet him sometime when you’re out trying to hustle movie scripts, movie jobs?” I said, “Yeah.” One thing led to another and I wound up getting asked to join… I’m giving my frigging life story here. I’m going to give Michelle a chance to talk here. Anyway, what was the question? Am I on the right track here?

Kary:

From there to taking over from Chris Carter, right? In running the-

Vince:

Oh, I never took, to be fair, I never took over for Chris, but I moved up through the ranks, as did a lot of the folks. I was very well trusted, thankfully. And it was a wonderful, X-Files was such a wonderful job. I wouldn’t be here tonight if not for the X-Files. I would never have met Michelle. She was our producer. Before she was directing, she was producing that show, and was a wonderful producer, and made the impossible happen week in and week out, with a judicious application of Twenty Century Fox’s money. Would just make the impossible happen every week.

It was a great job. Chris wound up trusting me a fair bit, and I learned how to write for t.v., learned how to write on a deadline. It was the best thing that ever could have happened to me is having a deadline, having a gun to my head figuratively speaking. It was wonderful. Wound up learning how to produce television, wound up, ultimately, even learning how to direct television because I got to direct two episodes toward the end of the run of the show. And God, it was a great job. And t.v., I mean I could talk all night about how great t.v. is. I mean, as far as working in it.

Kary: 

And there was a spin off that you were involved in, correct?

Vince:

We did a spinoff. Did you work on The Lone Gunmen? That’s right, you were doing Harsh Realm, there was another spinoff. That’s how I met you. That’s how you came into the fold, doing Harsh Realm. Yeah, we did a spinoff series, The Lone Gunmen, the three computer geek, hacker, truth seeker guys. And that was a very fun show to do. It was great, a great experience.

Kary:

Was that your first show running experience? Or was Breaking Bad your first?

Vince:

I would say Breaking Bad. Lone Gunmen, I guess technically I was one of the show runners, but I didn’t see it that way. I was locked in my… We had a real division of labor. It was me and Frank Spotnitz, and John Shiban, and we had a very strict division of labor. I was writing and re-writing everything. I was in my little office pounding away on the laptop. And excuse me, I’m sorry. John was pretty much always in the editing room, and Frank was always in what we had, what approximated a writers’ room on that show. And he was also producing and administrating and stuff like that. So the division of labor was so cut and dry that I never really felt like the show runner. To me, Breaking Bad really was a step up into a new job that I really did not know I’d be able to accomplish.

Commercial break for CrimeStory.com.

Kary:

Give us the overview, I’ll let you take a sip, and then give us the overview of the origin story of Breaking Bad. Specifically, what it was about that story, and I’ve read you quoted as seeing it as Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. If you would elaborate on that and the inspiration of that. And then, Michelle, if you would chime in on when you became aware of it, and how the dialog between the two evolved about it.

Vince:

I mean basically, and I’ll make it quicker than some of the stuff I’ve been doing. X-Files ended in 2002, greatest job, now in hindsight, second greatest job I’ve ever had. And it was a damn close second. It was a great job. X-Files ended in 2002. Around about 2004, two years roll past, I’m doing jack shit. I was doing endless re-writes on this piece of shit superhero movie I was working on. And then I would get fired off a job writing some crappy horror movie for Dimension. I was basically just going nowhere fast. Yet again, after this great job for seven years on the X-Files. And 2004 rolls along, and I’m talking to my buddy Tom Schnauz, who I went to NYU Film School with.

And Tom was a writer and a producer on X-Files and on Lone Gunmen, and I said, “How’s things by you? What’s going with you?” “Nothing much.” “Can you find any good writing jobs?” “Nah. How about you?” “Nah. Nothing much going on. At two years now, living off of savings and whatnot.” God, some of you have probably heard this story a million times. But basically, we were talking, “What are we going to do? We’ve got to get something going here.” And he said, “I read something about… In the New York times, there was some article about a meth lab in a Brooklyn brownstone that made everybody sick, and that’s what we ought to do.” I said, “What? Get a brownstone?” He said, “No.” He said, “We should put meth lab in the back of an RV, travel around America, and cook meth and make money.”

And when he said that I thought, “God damn, that would be… ” You know what it was? It was the character that intrigued me. You have to understand, warped sense of humor aside, Tom, he and I both share that, we are the most boring, bland people you have ever met, most law abiding. Wouldn’t rip the tag off a mattress. And the fact that we were joking about doing such a thing, as he’s talking away I thought, “God you know, what would it take for me to really do this in real life? I’d have to have a damn good reason. Or at least in my own mind, rationalization wise I would have to have a really good reason.” And as he continued goofing around on the phone talking, I started thinking about, I didn’t have a name for him yet, he wasn’t Walter White yet, but I thought, “God, what would it take? Well, probably a death sentence to start with. And you got to make money. What’s a good reason to make money?”

And that’s where this idea came, that’s the genesis moment of the idea. And I think in hindsight, hindsight being 20/20 as they say, I think it was because I was about to turn, this was 2004, I was a few years away from turning 40, and I was already thinking hard about that. About God, I’m middle aged, I’m very soon to be middle aged officially. I don’t know where it officially starts, but I was feeling that way. And so I thought… I was thinking very much in terms of a guy having a mid life crisis except that it’s very much an end of life crisis, in fact. That’s where the idea came from.

And the thing about it, the meth didn’t interest me. I’m not even sure the crime part of it interested… Well, maybe I’m lying if I say that. The crime part of it interested me, but I wasn’t excited about telling a crime story. It was this character. I really wanted to explore this character. And the thing that really excited me, in hindsight I came to understand it better, most of all I loved the idea of doing something a little different in t.v.

There’s nothing different about telling a crime story or anything like that. What was different at the time, it seemed to me, was that being very much a student of television and a lover of television, I realized that t.v. was all about maintaining the franchise. I probably said, folks have heard me say this too, in some version or another, but Bart Simpson is never going to be any more than 10 years old. Marshall Dillon or Hawkeye Pierce, you know on Gunsmoke, or Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, the actors are physically aging, especially on a show that goes 10, 12, 13, 20 years. You’re seeing that, and there’s that weird disconnect when a show has that kind of success because the characters, historically, the way television’s been created, they don’t change. Especially in the case of M*A*S*H, is an 18 month long police action in Korea that goes on for, I believe it was 11 years. Which is great, but it’s like the Family Circus, you know Jeffy and whatever. The kids never… I don’t know if anybody, there’s a thing in the newspaper called the comics page. And there’s Dennis the Menace, and there’s a day and the kids never get any older.

And t.v. is like that, because if the show is working and you’re making that kind of money, you’re not going to screw it up by having the characters change. And what really excited me was starting off with a guy, he’s going to start as one thing, the good guy, and he’s going to turn into the bad guy. That was what really got me excited about the whole story, the idea of change, and the idea of evolution or devolution in terms of a t.v. character. But the trouble with that idea is it puts an instant clock on things. And instantly, you said to yourself, “If this thing’s a success, we’ve already said from the get-go, success or failure, we’re going to end this thing… In terms of success, we’re going to end this thing way before we should, way before we stop making money on it.” Which is kind of a crazy idea. I’m still to this day, amazed AMC and Sony let us do, indeed, do that, to end it before it was no longer financially… while it was still making money.

Kary:

Tell us about the journey from when you conceived the idea and cracked it, to getting it on the air.

Vince:

I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, it was oh so hard.” It’s going to be hard. Everything you pitch is always going to be. In hindsight, it was far easier than I would have thought it would be. I pitched a great many things in my career. Most of them have gone nowhere. And that will be the case for you guys too, because it’s just the way it is. In baseball, what is it? If you bat 300 in baseball, you can make 20 million bucks a year or whatever. I don’t, I’m not a sports guy. But that means you strike out 7 times out of 10 at bats. That’s a pretty good record. I always think of movies and t.v. business when you’re pitching ideas as being very similar, although it might be batting a 100 might be more like it, or batting whatever is less than that, .05, whatever. I don’t know. Anyway.

So Breaking Bad wasn’t any harder to pitch than anything else in hindsight and in fact, it was better, easier because ultimately, folks said yes to it. And all it takes is one. You go around town and you’re pitching your idea, the weird thing is it could be a slam dunk idea in terms of, in your mind, in terms of, “Oh God, they’re going to be lined up. They’ll be salivating for this,” and then everybody says, “No. No. No.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that pitching a movie around town, or a t.v. show, or whatever. This one was so cockeyed and crazy from the get-go that I knew as I went around town everyone’s going to say no to this thing. But luckily, one place, AMC, said yes. And that’s just part of the job. You’re always going to get kicked in the teeth, 9 times out of 10.

Kary:

Take us on the journey from your directing the pilot to the series pick up and then bringing Michelle in to kind of support the directorial vision of the project.

Vince:

Well, I am still to this day amazed they let me direct the pilot. I really think, God bless them, and I mean this with the highest degree of affection, AMC they were so new to scripted programming, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they liked the script so they figured well, the person who wrote the script should be able to direct it. I mean, he has directed two episodes of television. No one else would do that. No one else would… I’m, to this day, amazed they let me direct it. Astounded is probably a more appropriate word because it’s just a whole lot of money on the line and you want someone who has proven, someone like Michelle, who has proven that they know what they’re doing. But of course, you’re not instantly Michelle. Everyone has to work their way up through the ranks and get those chances. I’m amazed they gave me my chance as early in my directing career as they did. But they did, God bless them. And I was desperately afraid of wasting their money and make them feel like God, we trusted, bet on the wrong horse here. So I gave it my all. But I guess we always do that.

Directed the pilot. Luckily, it came out as well as it did, mainly because we hired the right actors. Good actors, and a good editor, and a good director of photography will make anyone look like, make anyone look like Kubrick or whatever. So then we got on the air, and I wanted Michelle to direct, you were going to direct the second to last, or the final episode of Season One, right?

Michelle: 

Yeah, somewhere in there. But actually, I’ll just back up for a second, because when Vince first called me about Breaking Bad, he actually asked if I was available to produce the pilot and I wasn’t. And that was actually a good thing for my directing career in hindsight. Because… So I couldn’t do it, which I was very disappointed about at the time. And so he said, “Will you direct in the first season?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” And AMC said, “Michelle who? No way.” I mean, I had six credits to my name, which were four more than you had doing the pilot, but-

Vince:

Is that true? That’s right. I forgot. Why where they? Yeah.

Michelle:

Well just because they wanted to surround you with super experienced people. And Vince, very kindly said, “Well, I want her to direct. She’s directing an episode.” And then, two days before I was to direct my first episode, the writer’s strike happened, and they shut down. And Vince called me from set and said, “Michelle, I’m so sorry.” I mean, my bags were packed, they were at the back door, I was so excited. And he said, “We’re shutting down because of the writer’s strike.” Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for you guys, which you can…

Vince:

Huge blessing.

Michelle:

Right.

Vince:

We were out of scripts.

Michelle:

So I got to direct in the second season which they were, thankfully, really happy with. And then, Vince asked me if I would come back and produce the show with them, and they gave me three episodes a season. Which, had I started out as a producer on the show, they would never have done that. They, being Sony, wouldn’t have allowed that, but Vince very much supported it. Thank you so much. So it was a really, it was an incredible opportunity for me to come in and produce the show with them and to be able to direct three episodes a season.

Vince:

And you wound up directing more episodes of Breaking Bad than any other director.

Michelle: 

I did. I was very lucky with that.

Kary:

How many total? 

Michelle:

11.

Kary:

I want to come back to a few things that you raised, Vince. But how did the show evolve aesthetically, particularly directorially, over the course of Walter White’s and Jesse Pinkman, they kind of have crossing journeys, right? How did the aesthetic of the show evolve over the years, over the five seasons?

Vince:

I think it… That’s a great question. Honestly, the simple answer is I think it evolved like most things evolve in terms of… I’d love to sit here and say it was all part of the master plan that I had where it’d start off like French Connection, then it evolve a little bit into the John Ford season. It evolved like most things evolve. It evolved organically, and it evolved from… The best single thing about t.v. is that when you surround yourself with wonderful, talented people, and you let them do, you let them give you their best, and you do that by being open to their best and by being enthusiastic and supportive of their best, and when you get your best out of people, it organically, everyone’s work kind of intertwines in a magical way that… I mean, the way it aesthetically grew is that we had a lot of great directors, like Michelle, and they all gave me their eye, gave us all their eye, so to speak, and their interesting, their personal sort of… they all each had kind of their personal take on the world, and their personal take on the sort of visual aesthetic. And they would come up with shots that became sort of known as Breaking Bad shots. Quite often, I don’t even know who started it, but putting the camera in a weird, oddball place like looking up out of-

Michelle:

You did. Didn’t you start that?

Vince:

I don’t know that I did.

Michelle:

There’s the dryer shot.

Vince:

Well okay, that was in the pilot. But I mean, I’m not thinking of the great examples-

Michelle:

You inspired me for that because when I came on to the show, and Vince is being very modest here, because I will say that at the beginning of each season, Vince would come in with a color palette for that season which we’d all discuss. And the production designer and the costume designer, and everything would put together samples. And then, we’d also talk about the tone of the season. And each season, the cinematography got darker, and darker, and darker. And that’s something that we really pushed the envelope on. And Vince, in the pilot, started, I would say with that dryer shot, which is we broke, Vince broke the fourth wall and put the camera inside the dryer looking out past the money blowing around to Walter White. And that become a visual language for the show. So when I did, my first episode was Four Days Out. And Vince and I were talking ahead of time about, we have a meth making montage in that episode, which became the first of many meth making montages. And we talked about that Jesse and Walt need to… We need to show that they’ve evolved their relationship and they’re working really well together. So I thought, “Oh, at the end of the montage, it’d be great to,” being inspired from the pilot, “to do an upshot through the table,” which is actually… What do you call it? When you can’t see through something? What word?

Vince:

Well, solid.

Michelle:

It’s opaque. Thank you.

Vince:

Opaque. Thank you.

Michelle:

Yes. It’s opaque. And so it was a big cheat because we brought in, we took out the table and brought in a piece of plastic, and we put their glass dish which they’re pouring the blue meth into, and we’re looking up through that at Jesse and Walt looking down, and they’re working together. So that shot, that breaking the fourth wall, became very much a language of Breaking Bad. And we, a lot of the time, we would come up with cool shots, but Michael Slovis and I, and whoever was directing at the time, we’d really check ourselves and we’d go, “Okay, is this a cool shot that drives the story forward, or is this just a cool shot?” And if it was just a cool shot, we wouldn’t do it. But if it served the story, then we could do the cool shot.

Vince:

That’s well put. And I’m not trying to “aw shucks” it here. The short answer really is, I mean, it’s very much a group effort. And not just on this show, I think any show. I mean, you can be a show runner with an iron will and you can say, “I want it this way, and there’s a rule here.” We’ve all heard of those shows where they had some sort of manifesto about this is what you must do, this is what you can’t do, don’t ever do this except on Tuesday, don’t do that. And that’s fine. By the way, we’re all snowflakes again. You can do it any damn way you want, and if it works, it’s a very results oriented business. If it works, more power to you. I don’t see it that way personally. That doesn’t work for me. I like it when people, selfishly speaking, I like it when people give me their best and then whatever it grows into, just as long as we’re all, it’s very important, what Michelle just said, just as long as the story is being served first and foremost, then wherever the chips fall, it’s kind of a wonderful thing.

And you can’t quite predict… I could not have told you at the beginning of Breaking Bad, in that pilot episode, if it had only been my aesthetic, this is the best way to put it. If it had only been my aesthetic and nobody else’s, you see what that aesthetic was of 10, 12 years ago in that pilot episode. That was the best I could do at the time. And I’m proud of it. I’m still proud of it. But if the show were only that, what you see in that pilot, if I didn’t have all these other wonderful people adding to the stone soup, so to speak, the show would not have… I wouldn’t be here now. It wouldn’t have become the thing it became. It became so much more with the addition of all these other people.

Michelle:

That’s a really… That’s one of the many great things about Vince and a really important thing to know as future show runners. I’ll just tell you very quickly about my first day directing Breaking Bad. We were at the Albuquerque airport and we were running out of time. And we had to leave the airport to go somewhere else, and we were on the move and I needed… Jesse drove the RV to the airport, and I needed to get a shot of Walt getting in, and then we were going to drive away.

Vince:

And that’s a real airport you’re shooting at too.

Michelle:

Yeah, we’re shooting at a real airport. And we put a camera inside the RV looking out. So we look out the window, and we get the expression of Walt looking at Jesse like he’s insane because he pulled up to the airport in a meth making machine. And he gets on the RV, and we pan over, same shot. And these two guys are silhouetted at the driver’s seat. And they have a conversation, and they drive off. And looked at it and I thought, “Well, tells a story, really beautiful shot. Looks great. Can’t see their faces. They’re completely dark. But I know what’s happening.” So cut, print, let’s move on. And I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to get in trouble after my first day of shooting.” And Vince saw the shot, and he called me and he said, “Oh my God, I love it. It’s fantastic.”

And I will tell you that at time, what 90% of the people would have said is, “We can’t see their eyes.” And Vince didn’t care about that, because in that moment, we were telling the story, and we did it in a way that worked, and it was unique. And it was just by luck because we were running out of time. But that gave myself, the DP, the actors, everybody the confidence to go, “Oh okay, great. We get to think out of the box here and we’re not going to get in trouble for it. We get to be creatively free.” And Vince is really great bout inspiring people creatively. And it also starts with amazing scripts.

Commercial break for CrimeStory.com.

Kary:

Can you talk a little bit about putting together the core writing team of the show?

Vince:

Again, a lot of luck. We have a producer, she’d be great on a panel, Melissa Bernstein. She is a non-writing producer who has excellent, excellent taste, as everyone who worked on the show whether they’re writers or not, in front of and behind the camera. Everyone had excellent taste, thank God. When you put together a great team, that’s one of the things you get. She winnowed down a pile of scripts seven feet tall into a pile about this tall. She winnowed down hundreds of them. This was 10, 11 years ago, 10 years ago when we were starting. Winnowed down a pile of scripts into about 8 to 12 of them that were the best of the best. And then I read those and of those, I picked three or four writers who we… Or maybe a half dozen who came in and met with us and of which we hired two or three. One of them was Peter Gould, who is now running, currently back over in Burbank, running our spinoff series, Better Call Saul. It was just a matter… I guess the better answer to your question, the more helpful answer in the room here, what were we looking for? I think that’s what you’re really asking, and I went off on yet another tangent.

What I was looking for is the ability to tell a story, to paint a picture in my head, the reader’s head with words. The dialog was… When I read a script, what I’m looking for, dialogue’s great. Dialogue’s fine. It’s kind of the cherry on top of kind of stuff. And I love a good turn of phrase. I love very quotable dialog just like everybody else does. But to me, that’s not what, that’s the whipped cream on top. That’s not the structure, that’s not the important part. I don’t want just a big plateful of whipped cream. That’s not going to satisfy me. That’s just the sizzle, not the steak. What I’m looking for is structural stoutness. I want to see a plot or structure that’s well conceived. I want to see human beings, characters behaving like real, recognizable human beings. That’s the old thing where I joke about, “Oh, my flashlight doesn’t work, and there’s a monster in the house. I think I’ll go down to the basement.” It’s in other words, have people, have human beings in your, have them resemble actual human beings. Have them behave as human beings would. That goes a long way with me when I’m reading a script or seeing a movie. I’m probably preaching to the choir here. And don’t make it about just a lot of b.s. dialog.

The most meaningful moments I think we can all point to in our favorite movies, our favorite t.v. shows are the moments of silence, the moments where two characters, one character looks at another, and you see everything you need to see in their eyes. That’s what I’m looking for. And there’s a big thing, not to ding on playwrights, but last few years lot of agents, they’re sending you scripts and oh, I hear you’re staffing this season, hot new playwright out of New York. So what? And no offense to playwrights. How about send the hot new haiku writer. What the fuck? It’s like, what is a play going to tell me? A stage play is a whole different art form. What the hell am I going to learn from that as a show runner reading… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t curse. And again, nothing against, because there are wonderful theatrical playwrights who also are wonderful screen writers. The one does not preclude the other. But again, I might as well be reading a sonnet. What is it going to tell me about how this person’s going to… Because every play I’ve ever read has been exit, enter stage left and then 178 pages of dialog, and then exit stage right. I was like that’s not…

This is really what my point is. If you read a Breaking Bad script, or a Better Call Saul script, it is endless scene direction. And we try to make the scene direction as entertaining as possible. But we’ll tell you the color of the tie the guy’s wearing. We’ll tell you the, we’ll try to describe in infinite detail the look the woman gives the man, whatever. It’s so much scene direction that it looks insane to a lot of screen writers, because they’re like what the hell is all this? When’s the dialog going to start? Well, we’ve been trying very studiously to cut as much of that crap out as possible because the important stuff is when they’re not talking. So that’s what I’m looking for, telling a story.

Kary:

And how did you delegate. You mentioned Peter. How would you delegate responsibilities in terms of breaking the season, and then including directors in the conversation, when would those voices come in? How did you structure your season and the delegation of the responsibilities over the course of the series.

Vince:

I’ll start by talking about a little bit of the writers’ room, and they you can talk about the interaction of us with the directors. You’d be wonderful to answer that question.

I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal of delegation in terms of the writers’ room. And by that, I mean it was all hands on deck all the time. The most important part of the show runner’s job it seems to me, a writing versus a non-writing show runner, and I don’t really know much about non-writing show runners, but the most important job for the head writer is to be writing. Or rather, not to be writing, necessarily sitting with his or her laptop, but actually presiding over the writers’ room. And that was the most important part of my job period. Everything else paled in comparison. Everything else was disposable. Going to the set 800 miles away in Albuquerque, I loved doing it. I’d rather be on the set, but it was utterly disposable compared to being in the writers’ room and presiding verbally. It was just a verbal, endless pitch situation.

Someone else joked about this, but I really think it holds true. The writers’ room is kind of a sequestered jury that never ends. It’s just a bunch of people sitting around this table endlessly arguing the merits, talking through the story at hand and what does this particular character want at this moment? What does this character need at this moment? And basically just doing that all day, day in, day out.

So when I say there’s no delegation, I mean in the sense that we were all, all of us writers as much as possible in that room together, breaking each story in nauseating detail, carding it on index cards, putting it up on cork boards, such that at the end of two or three weeks, typically it took two and a half, three weeks to break a single episode, the end of that time, any of those writers, if the writer of that episode died in their traces so to speak, any of us could have pushed their body aside and sat down and done the episode ourselves because we all knew the story in absurd detail.

That’s the way we… We didn’t ever have that thing, and again, there’s a lot of ways you can do it. A lot of shows will do it this way. We never did that thing where, “Okay, and now in Act Two, you know what we need? We need about four and half to six pages of, we need something funny, a funny scene in a malt shop. All right, funny scene in malt shop. Okay, all right. Then after that what we need,” we never did. We would just excruciating detail. What’s the very first image you see of the scene in the malt shop? Who’s in the malt shop? Is it raining outside, is it sunny? Is it day, is it night? I mean, just insane.

Kary: 

Interesting. So a lot of these episodes are literally written in the writers’ room.

Vince:

Yeah. And I don’t want to take away from, there was still room for invention, plenty of… but not as much in most shows. There was not as much room for invention once you sat down to write the script. It really wasn’t. And it was the same whether I was writing an episode, or whether the most junior writer was writing the episode. I wanted it, if I was writing it, I wanted it nailed down.

The first few movie scripts I wrote in my career, I would have fun coming up, oh great opening scene. And I’d sketch it out in my notebook, verbally sketch it out in great detail. I’d get the whole thing figured out in pretty good detail up through the end of Act Two, up to about page 75 or so. And then I’d get bored with that. I’d say, “I just want to start writing. It’s going to be fun. The ending will create itself.” And every single movie script I wrote at the beginning of my career, the endings all were terrible.

And again, a million ways to do it. If you want to just sit down and let the process inspire you, more power to you. That does not work for me. I want belt and suspenders. I want my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed, and I want every damn thing possible figured out. Because then, it’s like having a really good, detailed road map for your road trip from the East Coast to the West Coast. Then when you’ve got that, it’s safety, it’s security. You can take a side road here or there as you’re writing, figuratively speaking. Great, but you need a good, solid, well limbed out plan A.

And that’s the way we did it in the writers’ room. So there was no delegation in terms of Peter’s the Saul Goodman guy. We’ll give him the Saul Goodman scene. We’ll gang bang it out. And Jenny, she’s great with Hank. She was, by the way. But we wouldn’t, it was catch and catch can. You would get whatever episode you would get in the batting order we put together at the beginning of the season. So we didn’t pitch episodes to certain writers’ strengths. Everyone had to be able to do it all, so to speak.

Kary:

So you get one of these kind of, you used the word gang bang scripts.

Vince:

Which was something we would do. Yeah, it’s kind of a crude term. It’s something we would do all the time on the X-Files and in network t.v. just because you had to because you had these looming deadlines.

Kary:

So it’s very well worked out in the writers’ room hive mind. And when does it fall in your lap?

Michelle:

Well, as a producer on the show, it would come to my attention actually, in a outline form. So these guys would break the stories, and then I was, while these guys were all in L.A., I was in Albuquerque 24/7. So Vince and the writers would break the scripts. And sometimes I’d go into the writers’ room just to hang out before I went, had to go to Albuquerque, which was amazing. Because it’s spending time in Vince’s writers’ room is really exciting and educational, and fascinating because the writers will start breaking out and talking like the characters. And as Vince was saying, they go over every detail, and they also think about every possibility, every story direction they could go in. And then that’s how they come about to where they end up.

So then we would, as producers in Albuquerque, we’d get the outline ahead of time. So we could start prepping on certain things because their outlines were so detail oriented. And then the scripts would come for the directors at the beginning of a seven day prep. Sometimes we’d get them earlier. And in the history of Breaking Bad, we did not have one late script. In the history of most television shows, in the first season I don’t know what the percentage is. Probably 70% are late, in the second season maybe it’s 65%. We didn’t have one late script on Breaking Bad. From the production’s point of view and the director’s point of view, that’s awesome. That’s really amazing.

So the director would get the script and we would start prepping the episode, and be location scouting, and casting, and doing all that stuff that you do. And then, there was always a writer from Los Angeles, the writer of that episode, who’d come out and be with us for part of the prep. And then at the end of prep, we have a tone meeting which are these invaluable meetings where you get to sit down with the writer of the episode and Vince, or Vince if he wrote the episode. And you go through the entire script. And you talk about, as a director, how you see each scene, making sure that we’re all on the same page, and making sure that we understand what the intention, what the arc of the characters are, what the arc of the scene is, making sure that when we go to camera, because we have so little time to shoot it, all the discussions and everything that sometimes happen on set which you don’t have time to have, happen ahead of time. So you go into it incredibly well prepped. In television, in anything, prep is essential, and a lot of people don’t put enough importance on it. But we did.

Vince:

Preparation time, it just so, I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important and it’s so valuable. It could not be… it’s priceless having that time to think and plan ahead as much as possible.

Michelle:

And it’s still incredibly fast. I mean, as a director, you come in and you get given this script. And the next day, you have a concept meeting with all the heads of department, and you’re talking about the script. And everybody, because you’re working at such a fast pace, they want answers to questions right away, and you’ve just maybe read the script once. So I learned really early on, ask for everything you could possibly imagine, because they’re going to take stuff away, but if you don’t ask on that first day, they’re not going to add stuff afterwards. So every time I thought, “Okay, I might want a crane here, I might want something special here,” I learned to ask for it really quickly. I knew I wasn’t going to get it all, but then it, you know.

And then the other thing I just wanted to mention is that we would do the writers’ schedule and the directors’ schedule at the beginning of every season. Melissa and I would do it, and we’d go over it with Vince. And that was setting up who was writing which episode and who was directing which episode. And for most of the seasons, as we got near the end, it became a little bit more designed, but it wasn’t trying to put any… As Vince was saying, we weren’t cherry picking oh, this person’s this strength, we’ll do this on this episode. It was luck of the draw. And I’ve been asked a lot, “Did you cherry pick your episodes?” And I said, “No, I never felt that way on this show because I knew every script was going to be amazing and you were just lucky to get to direct one.”

Kary:

This has been Part One of our special two part conversation with Breaking Bad collaborators, Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren. To find more stories, conversations and analysis from the world of crime and justice, head over to Crime Story dot com. And to receive immediate notification when Part two of this conversation becomes available, please subscribe to The Crime Story Podcast. 

Today’s episode was produced by Tristan Friedberg Rodman.

Thanks for listening and we hope you will join us for the next Crime Story Podcast.

END OF PART ONE