What distinguishes successful TV showrunners from unsuccessful ones? While it's not just control, it is the series that have carefully planned arcs, methodically constructed characters and painstakingly executed payoffs that are the ones that, ratings or not, are the most well-regarded. And yet, even as "Breaking Bad" enjoys its biggest ratings to date, creator Vince Gilligan made an unexpected confession when talking about the show's slow crawl towards its finale.
"I sound disingenuous when I say that, but I don’t know that I know what’s best for the show,” Vince Gilligan told Indiewire when we caught up with him at San Diego Comic-Con. “Because when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see the forest for the trees. That’s why your best bet, and I think this would apply to any TV show or any movie, is to get as solid an understanding of the character you’re writing about as possible, and then be as honest, even to the point of doing damage to certain hopes and dreams you had, to be as honest as you can be about that character."
Gilligan’s candor speaks to his flexibility and his persistence in maintaining and developing his vision for "Breaking Bad." Now in its fifth season, the AMC drama finds Walter White (Bryan Cranston) unexpectedly on top of the world and, possibly, the Albuquerque drug scene after triumphing over a major foe at the end of the last season. Gilligan gives the character credit for his victory, but hinted that he may be undone by success as surely as he might have been by failure.
"Walt is a man who has very grandiose visions for himself and his future," Gilligan said. "He is a bit drunk on power, and I don’t think he loves the meth business so much, but I think he definitely loves the feeling of power that it provides him that he has never felt in five decades on this planet. So I think he’s addicted to the process — the world that he’s living in.”
Chalk it up to Gilligan’s own attentiveness that White so brilliantly has been able to make that transformation “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Gilligan once described it. “You can say that I’m a control freak, but that’s the reason we’re breaking these final 16 episodes up into eight episodes this summer and eight the following summer,” he explains.
“It is very understanding of Sony and AMC to allow me this particular hybrid sort of schedule, because I want to work with the scripts in the writer’s room, to get the scripts to where they need to be. I want to spend as much time in the editing room to get the edits exactly right to the frame, the way I want them. I have to be at every mix – I don’t think I’ve ever missed a mix; maybe one time I did, and I felt terrible for it. I want to weigh in on every prop, every piece of wardrobe, every location, every bit of music we use, I want to do the color timing for each of these episodes where you sit with the colorist and make sure that the color of each individual scene is just the way you want it.
“I’m not saying I’m particularly good at each of these individual things,” he admits. “But I want to have my chance to weigh in.”
Despite Gilligan's intense level of involvement with every aspect of the series, some of his greatest successes with the show have come via collaborations with filmmakers and creatives from outside the world of "Breaking Bad." But the showrunner suggests that his own determination to have his finger in every pot often works in the show’s favor, if only because it creates a fulcrum against which his collaborates can push back.
“As a showrunner, you sometimes want two opposing things,” he says. “It’s a tricky thing — you want the best people you can find, you want the most creative and the most interesting shot composition, the most original people. And yet you want them to abide by certain basic, I don’t want to say… rules. We try not to have rules on the show. But there are certain consistencies that you want a new director to abide by. You want the show at least more or less to look like a typical episode of 'Breaking Bad' — there’s a certain continuity of imagery, of look that you want to maintain, so it does get tricky at times.”
That said, Gilligan insists that that battle between opposing forces does not extend to the show’s relationship with its fans. “You have to have tunnel vision, you really do,” he says. “My writers and I, as we say, are the first fans of the show, and our best bet, and what we’ve done all along what we intended on doing, is to sit in a room together and say to ourselves, what should happen next? What would we like to see next?”
Gilligan acknowledges that it’s a process, and that’s the ultimate key to the show’s continued success: to approach it consistently from start to finish, without demanding fealty to any concrete ideas except, of course, for staying true to who his characters and what they want. “You need to say to yourself 'what do I want to see next as the writer,' but you also can’t shoehorn what you like into a character’s behavior,” he observes.
“If you’re being really honest, you want to create the show as organically as possible, and you want to continue to ask first the most primary question, which is, where’s Walt’s head at right now? What does he want right this minute? What is he scared of right this minute? What’s his next move? That’s the best way to tell the story.”
But this approach doesn’t always work. “Sometimes we have a great idea for something, but then if we’re being honest with ourselves, we say, can we get Walt get to that point? If we have to put a square peg in a round hole, if we have to bang on a character, then we’re doing something wrong and we need to kill our darlings, as Faulkner used to say, and forget that so-called great scene and find something else.”
With only 16 episodes left to go, "Breaking Bad" continues to evolve, but it also races towards a conclusion that Gilligan wants to find satisfying — for the fans as much as for himself. Unsurprisingly, he’s got a lot of it already mapped out, even if he allows himself the flexibility of changing directions if he thinks the place where he might end up is more compelling than what he’d initially planned.
“My writers and I are sitting down to break the final eight episodes now,” he reveals. “We have quite a bit figured out, but you would be surprised perhaps how little we do have figured out. Because you want to dot all of the i’s and cross all of the t’s and make sure you’re not forgetting anything major, but also because you want to stay as flexible as you can for as long as you can when coming up with these stories. You want to stay open to better ideas as they come down the pike.
"To that end, I think things about the ending of 'Breaking Bad' are going to hew pretty close to ideas I had from day one,” he says. “But I most certainly did not have the whole thing figured out from Day One. And there’s quite a bit left to figure out, so there’s a lot of invention left to us to come up with before it’s all done.”
With the end of "Breaking Bad" looming, Gilligan admits that he has thought about what he’ll do next, and has considered the possibility of spinning off a new series from one of the supporting characters: Saul Goodman, a dubiously scrupulous lawyer whose charming bluster has won the affection of the show’s fans.
“I would love to see a Saul Goodman spinoff,” he says. “I can’t say that it is genuinely in the works at this moment, but certainly Bob Odenkirk and I have talked about it a little bit. I can’t promise that it will ever happen, but I think I personally, as fan number one of this world, meaning the first one to partake of these plot moments and whatnot, I personally would love to tune in and see a good Saul Goodman show.”
“I like the idea of a lawyer show in which the main lawyer will do anything it takes to stay out of a court of law,” he continues, pitching its possible concept. “He’ll settle on the courthouse steps, whatever it takes to stay out of the courtroom. That would be fun — I would like that.”
Otherwise, Gilligan says that his plans include finally looking at all of the reactions from fans of "Breaking Bad," whose reviews and analysis he’s studiously avoided until now. “I never get online about this show, I never do,” he reveals. “It’s not that I’m not interested; I’m very interested. And in fact my assistant pulls all of the stuff off of the internet, prints it up and the puts it in these Rubbermaid boxes and I take them home and put them in my garage.
“Some day I’ll go through it all,” he says. “But only years from now, when I’m not as emotionally invested.”