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Vince Gilligan, the Skipper: A Breaking Bad Q&A

Jim Poniewozik chats with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan on set

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In addition to visiting the set of Breaking Bad in March—getting some iPhone photos of a Los Pollos Hermanos truck that I will always treasure—I spoke to creator Vince Gilligan for my feature on the show, after having seen some of season 4. Rather than reprint a full transcript here, I’ve gone into the interview and taken out some material that would have been spoilery to readers who have not seen those episodes; I may post some of that here later, or in my episode reviews. In the meantime, here are some excerpts:

[By the way, I try not to do an inordinate amount of shilling for the print TIME here, but the above picture is one of a couple of exclusive location photos we have that look great full-size, if I do say so myself—as is only fitting for a show that is so visually stunning.]:

On whether Jesse and Walt have crossed a moral line and become different people over three seasons:

I think yes, I think the answer for my money is yes. I think Walt crossed that line many episodes ago and I think that was a line that I enjoyed seeing in [“Half Measures”], where Walt says “We’re not murderers.” Because the truth is, of course he’s a murderer. And yet it seems perfectly in keeping with his character to deny that fact. I don’t even think he’s lying when he says we’re not murderers. I think when he speaks for himself there and he says “I’m not a murderer” he’s not even lying. It’s just his view of himself is a bit slow in catching up to the reality, shall we say. He has a very specific view of himself and his place in the world, and in his mind he’s not a murderer. And yet when you look at the cold hard facts of the matter he very much is. … So it’s definitely—to me it’s an interesting bit of human behavior that we don’t recognize ourselves for who we truly are. We often have a better view of who we are. And then most of us are obviously not living in dire circumstances like Walter White is. Most of us have a bit of a rose-colored view of who we are and our place in the world I think.

On the difference between Walt and Jesse’s moral compasses:

I think the character of Jesse is a more, I suppose you could call him naïve or perhaps you could call him—oh gosh, there’s so many ways to look at Jesse. He in my mind does things for pure reasons than Walt does. He is not calculated in his behavior. He makes decisions based on heart and he’s sort of the heart and Walter is the mind of the two, I suppose. And there is an element of Jesse that sort of, you know, is ready to kill at whim given the opportunity. You know, there’s sort of a, dare I say, sort of a heroic element to him, and they do what they do for very different reasons. For Walt it seems like self-preservation and sort of a desire to feel good about himself in general, and for Jesse if he’s wrong that he feels he needs to right.

On whether Walt has become a bad man or whether he’s always had that characteristic in him:

My personal opinion I suppose is that Walt always had these things within him. There’s an old saying about Hollywood, that it doesn’t change you—success in Hollywood doesn’t change you, it just magnifies those flaws that you already possess and may have kept hidden. And maybe this is, whatever the analogy is, maybe perhaps this is an analogy of that—that success in any field perhaps, even in the field of criminality of, you know, being the drug king, that can bring out the changes in a person and perhaps bring out the darker element that they always possessed. I think that is the case with Walt.

I think, you know, he treads a very dark path; it’s a path he’s put himself onto by choice. And he went into it very naively thinking that he could control it and he could dictate terms to such a world and get his toe in it and make some quick money, and not fundamentally change who he is and who he has worked to be for 50 years. But that’s just not the case. … I think he definitely has a dark element inside him from the day we met him. And then this lifestyle and this world he’s put himself into has put some of those personal traits and has started growing in him so that we now see them.

On the show’s evolution in tone from the pilot to the present:

I think it was an organic evolution. The tone of the show has always been something of a work in progress and some of the earlier episodes of the show have scenes in them that are, hopefully, laugh-out-loud funny that were intended to be that way. There are scenes in the early going of the series that are just humorous and meant to be so because, you know, back in the early days before things get too serious on Walt’s past to becoming a hard-core criminal, the story itself allows for the audience to understand the absurdity of this whole situation—this middle-aged man willing himself to become a drug king. There’s something completely absurd about that prospect and he milks some of that absurdity and that humor for all it’s worth in the early going. But at a certain point the character either succeeds or he fails in what is the goal that he sets for himself, which is becoming a drug king. And as he succeeds in little baby steps as the star, organically the story must become darker unless you want to, you know, sort of do the “Hogan’s Heroes” version of what it is being a meth cook, which I personally don’t.

On the show’s opening “teaser” scenes and how they’re written:

We have wonderful directors. We have the best in television. But we do try to give them those visual queues from the script stage on. The way I work best as a writer is I have to sort of watch the show in my head before I can write it. And the hardest part of the writing process on Breaking Bad is the actual breaking of the stories. And that’s a situation in which all seven of us—I have six really good writers and then there’s me—but all seven of us sit in a room, sort of like being on a heavily sequestered jury. We sit in this writer’s room, all sitting around this big table, and we stare at a three foot by five foot cork board on which we plot out that week’s episode. And we write the individual story beats out on index cards with a magic marker and we break this story in this way, you know, plot beat by plot beat, and it takes about two weeks per episode to break one story.

And in that process we are thinking as visually as we’re able to, and we do try to start with an image. A question we ask ourselves over and over again—what’s the first thing we see; okay, that scene is over, we’re on to the next scene. What’s the first thing we see in the next scene? So we are very much incorporating those visual moments into the script. Not to say that the directors don’t come up with wonderful stuff that we didn’t foresee, and they do, in every scene of every episode.

Chris Carter, who created The X-Files [on which Gilligan was a producer], was a very visual storyteller, and he would always say to us, what am I looking at; what’s the visual element of this episode; what’s the thing people are going to take away? Because the things we remember most when we watch movies or television are things we see, not the dialogue we hear. I learned a great deal from working for him and the way we break our stories on Breaking Bad. There was a great attention to the teasers on The X-Files, that first three to five minutes that either hooks you into the episode or it doesn’t, that was a great source of time and effort spent on that show.

On whether Breaking Bad would be best served by setting an end date:

Yes, in a perfect world, absolutely. I remember when the creators of Lost went public, along with ABC, and told the viewers, told the fans, we will end on X date one or two years from now. I thought that was brilliant and I think more shows should do that , and I’d love for this show to follow in the footsteps of Lost and set an end date. It’s tricky because there’s so many moving parts. There’s two very big companies who have a lot of, you know, we’re all spinning a lot of plates here as it were.

But in a perfect world, a show like this in particular—there’s no reason you have to set an end date to a wonderful show like ER or Law and Order, or something like that. There’s no reason a show like that theoretically can’t go on forever. It’s somewhat designed to. But a show like this is designed to end. … It’s one guy’s story, and therefore to do right by the audience, the people who got us here, you really do need to set an end date, and I’ve sort of been pushing for that. I think it’s time to push a little harder.