Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan.
On Thursday night, Breaking Bad creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan appeared at Sydney Town Hall to kick off the Sydney Writer's Festival. Addressing breathless fans and men dressed up as Heisenberg, the acclaimed writer answered some of the most pressing questions about what Stephen King called, "the best show of the 21st century". Apart from the fact that Gilligan appears to be the best and most unassuming human, here are five new things we learnt:
The idea of Breaking Bad came from his friend suggesting that they should quit writing and run a meth lab together. “I was on the phone with my friend [and fellow X-Files writer] Thomas Schnauz bemoaning that good writing jobs were few and far between, and he started talking about a story he had read on New York Times about some meth lab in Brooklyn that was making the children sick because of the fumes...And because he is a crazy bastard, he said, ‘That’s what we should do! We should build a meth lab at the back of an RV. And I said, ‘YEAH!’”
But as he said that, the idea of a character formed in Gilligan’s head. “A character like us, who was a couple of dopey dorky middle aged guys doing such a thing – it was instantly a Eureka moment.”
Vince Gilligan with actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.
“In hindsight, I think it was the idea of a terrible midlife crisis that appealed to me. Because I was about to turn 40 in a couple of years and I thought I was probably going to have a bad one.”
After the initial spark, Gilligan said luck was “the greatest factor in Breaking Bad’s success”. "I make my living from my imagination - but I never imagined this success would come... We were proud of what we were doing from day one. But I didn't know we had a show that had legs until season three or four.”
Writers aren’t afraid to paint themselves into story corners. “When Walt was in the junkyard and Hank is knocking on the door of the RV and we were like, ‘how are we gonna get out of that one?’” Dealing with these risky plotlines wasn’t easy, but it was exactly the kind of unpredictability that fans loved.
Gilligan and his team ended up spending the better a week trying to work out how Walt would get out of the situation. In the end, it was a simple but inspired solution. “And the genius of Walter White is that he could come up with a strategy what would take seven reasonably bright writers to figure out.”
There were other left field ideas they didn’t pursue though. Like the time the writers toyed with the idea of turning Walter Junior into a meth addict as a revenge ploy.”At a certain point when Jessie was out with Walt we thought he'd seek out Walter junior and hook him on meth.”
Aaron Paul messed up a line in his audition but Gilligan was so blown away by his performance that he didn’t actually remember any of the botches.
“He walked in and I didn’t realise I’d seen him before in an X-file episode written by my friend Tom Schnauz...He was fantastic right from the get go. But he kept telling me how he had screwed up the audition, how he had gotten all the words wrong and I said, ‘Look, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. It was magic. You were great from the moment you walked in.”
“But then we dug up the audition tape and sure enough – he was right – but I didn’t remember any of that. Because the moment he walked in, I was like, ‘This is the guy!’”
He didn’t expect the hostility towards Skyler White. As Anna Gunn bemoans in a widely shared 2013 New York Times op-ed, entire websites have been devoted to hating her character – turning Skyler into “a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women”.
But the public’s negative reaction to Gunn’s character came as a total surprise to the writers.
“We did not foresee the [animosity] that a lot of folks felt towards Skyler. I didn’t see that coming. To us, she was a good character. She was a person who was affected terribly by the actions of her husband. [Unlike Walter], she really did what she had to do to protect her family.”
“We never saw her character as a bitch. I didn’t see her that way myself. I saw her as someone who was a kind of tragic figure who was working very hard to keep things together. She didn’t always make good, sound decisions – and they became less sound as the series progressed. But she was not being self-aggrandising in a way that [Walter] was.”
On the conspiracy theories about the ending, Gilligan is happy for fans to believe whatever they choose to. But he had his own opinion on the infamous ‘dream sequence’ theory. (New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum suggested that Walter White might have actually frozen to death in his car and everything that followed was merely a ‘dying fantasy’ on Walter’s part).
“My personal interpretation is that he died on the floor of the meth lab.” He added that while a ‘fantasy sequence’ may work well in short stories like Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, “those kinds of endings feel like a bit of a cheat to me.”
For Gilligan and his writers, it wasn’t about coming up with a ‘happy ending’ or a ‘sad ending’ but a satisfying one. He revealed that the final scene – which has since been described as ‘like a Satan’s windshield wiper’ – was written just weeks before the prep work begun for the shooting. “I didn't have the ending planned out weeks or months ahead... 16 episode prior we had planted the M60 [in the storyline] and we didn't know what we were going to do with it.”
On the other hand, the song from the last scene in the finale, Baby Blue by Badfinger, was chosen a year and a half before the ending was written. He had heard it driving to work one day and decided that was it. Not everyone agreed with his choice (some claimed it was ‘too obvious’) but he’d fought hard for it – and won. Being the boss of the show helped.
And while he is happy with the way it all turned out, Gilligan acknowledged that it really doesn’t matter what he thinks. 'This thing belongs to you guys as much as it belongs to me.”