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.