On Sunday “Breaking Bad” returned for the first of its final 8 episodes. Anticipation for the premiere was at an all-time high, reviews were ecstatic (read ours here) and ratings were 5 times higher than when the series first debuted back in 2008. To celebrate the final curtain closing on this highly acclaimed series, the cast and crew have been taking a well deserved victory lap — a 90 minute Times Talks event, LACMA Live Read and Q&As at FilmLinc are just the tip of the iceberg — but before Heisenberg cooks up his last batch we sat down with writer/producer George Mastras who was one of the first writers brought onboard by creator Vince Gilligan back in Season 1. In this age of showrunner-as-auteur, Gilligan is one of the few to loudly refute this view, crediting his team of writers (which includes Mastras, Peter Gould, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, Gennifer Hutchison and Tom Schnauz), as well as the cast and crew for making the show the success that it is.
A former criminal investigator and litigator, Mastras is responsible for some of the show’s most memorable episodes including: “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.” (short for “I fucked Ted”), “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Dead Freight” (which we recently selected as one of the 5 best episodes of the series) and the upcoming “To’hajiilee.” He’s also credited as co-writer for “Kafkaesque,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space” which contains arguably the best closing moments of any episode in the entire series’ run. Mastras graciously took time off from working on the screenplay for the recently announced “90 Church” to sit down with The Playlist for an extensive conversation about the “Breaking Bad” writers room. Below you can read Part One of our talk which focuses on his origins with the show, the importance of having the writer on set and his directorial debut on last season’s Emmy-nominated “Dead Freight.”
My agent sent me the pilot script which had been shot but hadn’t been shown to any writers yet. They were just starting to put together a writing staff and I read the pilot and was really blown away by it. I was flabbergasted that it was really going to be on the air. I was like, “Are you sure this has been shot? This is going to be on the air?” [laughs]. Then I went through a series of interviews over at AMC and with the producers and then I had a sitdown with Vince Gilligan. He had read some of my work and I think he responded to some of my television work and also my novel [“Fidali’s Way“] and lo and behold, I got hired for the first season. I’ve been on for all all 5 seasons from the writers-strike-shortened first season all the way up to the present.
How does the writers room work on “Breaking Bad”?
It works exceptionally well [laughs], which I think is a prerequisite for a good show. In general terms, we start each season talking about where the characters are going and pitch around big ideas for story arcs but the story builds organically from where the characters heads are at. The biggest question we ask is, “Where is Walt’s head at right now? How is he engaged and what’s engaging him? Is he in the business? Is he out of the business? Where is he at right now and where is he at on the continuum of his character?” So we talk in general about where things are going. Some seasons we have an idea of where we want to head and signposts [to plant on the way there] and other seasons we build brick-by-brick.
Then we go episode-by-episode, “Where are the characters at? Where’s Jesse at? Where’s Walt at? Where’s Skylar at? Where’s Hank at?” And we build the story, we build each episode out and we break each episode in the room. It’s a very collaborative, very vocal room and we debate what the characters would be doing and what their behaviors would be at that given point and come up with the story for that particular episode. Then we go through and break it scene-by-scene and figure out whatever the scene is about and the visuals that go with it. We like to pay off things visually, you know, you’ve watched the show, so you have things like the fly [in the episode “The Fly“] and then have the fly come back. And the teddy bear [as a recurring image from Season 2].
For the most part, it’s so thoroughly broken in the room that anybody could really write that script. But we generally know who’s episode it is while we’re breaking it and we run it through the filter of all seven brains in there. Then, the story is boarded and whoever’s writing that one outlines it and writes a draft. The writers on our show are also on set, which is not always the case. That’s something that has been profoundly helpful to have the writer there, the person who understands what the subtext is and where the characters are. In a highly serialized show, you don’t want to do something that messes something up down the road, so it’s good to have that person with a roadmap in their brain on the set.
This is such a tightly structured show, is there much rewriting on set or is it really just more to provide motivation and make sure things don’t veer too far off track?
More for the latter because the script is pretty locked. That said, there are moments. We’re not like old school playwrights that don’t allow an “ah” turn to an “a” or something like that [laughs]. Collaboration is in the air on “Breaking Bad,” so you want to allow the director and the actors to discover things. If it’s something that’s coming out inconsistent with where the story needs to go, then the writer can voice it at that time.
Another good reason to have the writer there is that you can allow for that kind of creativity. Whereas if the person wasn’t there that really knew the story and where the characters were going and understood the subtext, then the actors wouldn’t really want to diverge too much because they wouldn’t want to screw something up. The writer’s not just out there to police, he’s out there to allow for the creative process to work and function. We have fabulous actors and fabulous directors and you want to engage them and you want them to discover things and to add their incredible talents to the show. And they do.
You touched on this a minute ago but rewatching the show, you notice so many of the details. Like the foreshadowing for Jane, “I think I just threw up in my mouth,” or images that mirror each other like the cousins crawling on their hands and knees in the premiere and again at the hospital or the elevator bell dinging for Gus, etc. How much of the fun of the show is coming up with these kinds of things?
You hit it right on the head there. It’s so much fun to come up with those little pieces. I think in other shows that are more dialogue-driven, it’s not better or worse — and we take a lot of pride in our dialogue too — but a great joy is getting a scene with very little dialogue or no dialogue and it’s all told through the images. It’s all told on our actors face. For instance, very few shows on television have a scene where an actor sits in a car and we’re able to read what’s on the person’s mind without any dialogue. Those are the kinds of scenes that will get cut from other shows and it’s great to be able to write those, pure imagery, pure acting without dialogue. Hell, we had a whole character who didn’t speak, Tio [Salamanca], and that was a blast too! So that’s definitely been a very rewarding approach, writing in that way.
“Breaking Bad” is so economical there is nothing on screen that is just there, that won’t pay off down the line somewhere thematically, plot-wise or character-wise. The show is so rich that “Mad Men” is maybe the only other show on TV that I can think of where every single thing on screen matters.
Yeah, I mean “Mad Men” is a fantastically written show. And thanks for picking up on that!
Is it exhausting to work so economically where you feel like there is no waste, every scene can only exist if it is driving something forward or revealing something about a character. Or is that the only way you guys know how to do it?
I think it would be exhausting to write scenes that don’t have any kind of inner-significance. You know what’s more exhausting? If you’re writing a crime procedural — which I’ve done before — and there is information you have to get out just to explain the mystery and the red herrings, so you get into this mode that is truly informational. Obviously we have information that we have to impart but that’s never the point of the scene. The point of the scene is what’s going on in the characters heads and the subtext. The scene is never really about moving the story forward on “Breaking Bad.” That’s the functional veneer of the scene but it’s always about what’s going on with the characters.
What do you think it is that keeps the show so grounded? Despite so many elements that could seem far fetched or convenient, I’ve never called bullshit on a moment. Is there a litmus test in the writers room?
I don’t know if it’s a litmus test but we debate that. I think we try to ground stuff as much as possible and we do a lot of research. The grounding mostly comes from the characters. As long as the characters are doing things that make sense organically to their character and if the action of the story comes from the characters, I think everything else will flow from that and the scene will have an intensive reality to it. The pure, “How does Walt get out of this problem? How do Walt and Jesse get out of the RV with Hank right outside? How do they hoodwink him into leaving so they can escape?,” those are things that we try to study up on and do the research. Someone comes up with a pseudo-legal argument about a warrant or something and someone else makes a phone call. Those are problems in themselves that can be very difficult to get out of — and believe me, we may pound our heads a couple of days to get out of the logistical problems of things — but you can always bridge that gap if the character stuff makes sense.
One of the most frustrating things about some other shows is when you know the plot is forcing the characters to behave in a way they wouldn’t behave.
Right, right. A prime example is the episode that I wrote and directed “Dead Freight.” In the episode, we have a train heist and that completely makes sense because the big problem for Walt’s ascendancy [to power] is supply. So that makes sense story-wise and it also comes from Walt’s character. Where is his ego at? Season 5 is about Walt’s [hubris], “It works because I said it works.” A crazy magnet scheme [from “Live Free Or Die“] is probably more difficult to believe than siphoning methylamine out of a train but you believe it because Walt is just so confident. The cockiness makes you believe it. So that part makes sense and now we’re presented with a logistical problem, which is these guys who don’t want to kill anybody. “We’re not the type of people who will rob a train and kill people just to get what we want.” That was the big character debate going on this whole episode.
So then you come to the logistical problem of how to actually pull off this train heist. I won’t minimize the problem solving that went with that but it came from reaching out to experts and tons of research. We do take the time to research stuff where a lot of people might’ve had them just do the train heist and if you looked at it closely, it wouldn’t have been realistic. But we had to make it realistic. So we went out to experts in hazardous waste disposal and learned that methylamine is weighed when loaded and weighed at the end of the journey. And this stuff is every bit as illegal as methamphetamine itself, it’s a meth precursor. So how does someone like Lydia have access to it but no one else would? She would be able to download the website because she has a special license and she can see the location of the car on the train manifest. She would know that the train would be 10 cars back, it wouldn’t be in the engine because those are the things that are illegal under hazardous waste disposal laws. So all these little bits of detail, we spend the time to go through and get that stuff right. That’s the added reality that we bring to it and the chemistry of the things we do.
So how did you come to direct that episode? Just from a production standpoint, that seems like a huge episode considering it was your first-time directing for the show.
I was slated to write that one and I just feel lucky that I got to direct it. We knew the story needed to be about Walt resolving this methylamine problem which we had established early on in Season 5. So we pitched it around and we talked about trucks and at one point somebody suggested that we do a train heist. There’s been a lot of talk about “Breaking Bad” being a modern western which is always really exciting for us, so we pitched it. The writers all got excited about it but I think in the back of my mind thought that it probably wasn’t going to happen because it’s just this huge, huge thing to take on. But to our producers credit, they found this area outside of Santa Fe that had been used in “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid” that had this whole western mystique to it and then we got the greenlight.
Normally we shoot 7-8 days and this was 10 1/2 days so it was just really exciting for us all, the production and the crew. It’s always remembered as the train heist episode but I always looked at it as being about the dissolution of the partnership, this event that was going to break them up, which was the death of the kid. It had already been set up earlier in the episode that no one can die. I think if we were just doing a pure western, we would’ve just let the audience enjoy the heist [laughs] but this is “Breaking Bad.” And so I wanted to make this a “Breaking Bad” train heist and the important things to me were not to make it about the train heist but to make it about the consequences of the train heist and what these guys were doing.
We’re not a western, we’re a post-modern western so there are consequences and we have to challenge the audience. Why are you rooting for these people? Who are you rooting for? You’re rooting for criminals. And these guys are all responsible for the murder of this young, innocent kid that we had forgotten about. Just like in the show, we forget what these guys are doing, we’re so caught up in Walter White’s world that we at “Breaking Bad” like to remind people of that. The show, if it’s about anything it’s about morality and the consequences of decisions.
It’s great to go immediately from the moment of elation that they’ve pulled it off and you can’t believe it and then the consequences come through.
The train heist is great fun and everything but it’s there to pull the wool over the audiences eyes about what this episode is really about, which is the next step into the abyss. But then the logistics of the train heist have to be “Breaking Bad,” so it’s not guys running around with guns intimidating people. They essentially rob the train with science, which I hope it’s every bit as thrilling as a violent armed robbery would be.
It feels like if something like this had occurred earlier in the series when the characters were more innocent that they could’ve pulled it off but at this point in the series it’s almost a fake-out that delivers the audience what they’re looking for before you take that victory away and remind them that these are no longer small stakes that they’re dealing with.
I have to say that I don’t think of it as a fake out because a) the very first scene, we’re introducing this kid so you know he has something to do with it. And then b) the entire premise is about how can we rob this without anyone knowing it got robbed, where we can’t kill the witnesses. There’s a lot of talk in that interrogation scene with Lydia about children, like the one thing that keeps these people honest is that they have children and that’s important to them. That’s the whole reason that Walt went into this [meth business].
So it’s just that the audience forgets about the kid because they get caught up in the thrilling aspects of the train heist but it’s not a fake out at all. Which is what makes it beautiful. If we had never seen this kid and then he shows up and they shoot him, then I would have felt like this episode was about that. But this episode was really about calling the audience out to say, “You know that you’re rooting for criminals.” It’s really a fantasy fulfillment and then bringing that to light and saying, “Well, wait a minute,” and challenge the audience to think about what they’re rooting for here.
Between Vince, the script and DP Michael Slovis, it seems like there is a big support system in place but all the directors on the show all bring something different. How much freedom do directors on the show have?
You have quite a bit of freedom. There’s a look to the show so you can’t come in and shoot everything in extreme close-ups and everything but otherwise it’s your show. How the scenes are shot, how you stage those scenes, where you want the actors, that’s your prerogative. You’ll work with the actors through the rehearsals and then the shots, camera angles, all that stuff is the director’s prerogative. And you have that big support system so you can ask, “What about this? What about this?,” as any director on any set would. But people want you to get in there and do your thing. This is the kind of stuff I like to write so it was nice to be able to direct. As I write I can also visualize it and know that if I had this location, I could write for the location.
For instance, on “Dead Freight” when I got out to the location and I saw the trestle bridge, I knew that’s where we would do the heist. I conceived of the opening shot of the train coming right at the camera when I was out there. How are we going to reveal the guys? I wanted to have the train moving right at the camera and I wanted to have a crane and be able to move down the trestle bridge and see these guys down there hanging with their hoses like soldiers in World War I with their rifles. Things like Todd jumping off the roof is something that I came up with while I was out there. When the train starts to move but I wanted the whole thing to go over Jesse but Todd should be up there too. That’s really the fun of directing.
The episode also had a great act and a half in the basement. Picking out that location with the textures on that ceiling, talking with DP Michael Slovis and talking with the gaffers, how do we light this so that you almost feel like it’s a third world dungeon down in that basement. And little things like the metal working table that Lydia is handcuffed to, I wanted to be able to shoot up through this table if possible, so the art department proposed these tables. It’s really just working with people and them imparting you with options. That’s really what directing is all about.
Stay tuned later this week for Part Two where we discuss the devil in the details, writing themselves into a corner the and the pressure to deliver on the final episodes.