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With anxiety at an all-time high awaiting last night’s finale of Breaking Bad, series creator Vince Gilligan appeared Friday in Vancouver to provide an intimate look behind the scenes of one of television’s most perfectly executed dramas.
Presented by the Vancouver International Film Festival, the sold-out event “One Last Cook” began with a screening of the Season 4 finale “Face Off,” which was written and directed by Gilligan. With the audience of nearly 2,000 still buzzing from witnessing Gus Fring’s explosive death on the big screen, Damon Lindelof — Lost co-creator, confessed Breaking Bad geek and forum moderator — introduced Gilligan to a standing ovation.
The 90-minute conversation shined a light on Breaking Bad’s creative process and gave unique insights into Walter White’s painful five-season descent into darkness, including behind-the-scenes stories of the most difficult deaths to write, and which character escaped the grave all together. Gilligan was humble throughout, attributing credit to cast and crew wherever possible for helping to shape the six-year journey.
Lindelof began by reciting Walt’s lecture to his class from the series pilot, about chemistry as the study of change, and noted it seemed to be the premise on which Breaking Bad is built.
“That was indeed the mission statement,” Gilligan said. “That was the one constant of this series, and it’s what got me interested in telling the story in the first place. … This is going to be a show about transformation, a show about a character who transforms himself through sheer force of will from a good guy to a bad guy.”
“Let’s get the elephant out of the room,” he said. Likening the anticipation for last night’s episode to Christmas Eve, he asked, “Can we open just one present?”
“Walt has an M-60 in his possession,” Lindelof continued, “and you’ve always said that Walt’s trajectory is Mr. Chips to Scarface. So my question is, in the finale, are we going to hear Walt say, ‘Say hello to my little friend”?
“No,” Gilligan replied. “You will not hear that.”
On the subject of iconic lines, he revealed “I am the one who knocks” is the one most often repeated to him the street. “I was actually at a store on Granville Island [a shopping district in Vancouver] yesterday … and there was a T-shirt that said ‘I Am the One Who Knocks,’ and that was awesome. And completely unlicensed,” Gilligan said, triggering laughter from the crowd. “It’s fun seeing that. I actually love seeing that kind of stuff.”
He then dug into the genesis of the series, recalling a conversation with Tom Schnauz, with whom he attended film school at New York University and worked on The X-Files. They were talking on the phone about their post-X-Files careers, and Schnauz joked the two could make money by getting an RV and cooking meth across America. That conversation inspired Gilligan’s “eureka” moment, when the character of Walter White first popped into his head. He then related the story of unsuccessfully shopping the show to HBO, FX and Showtime, before landing at AMC.
The first scene Gilligan shot for Breaking Bad was Walt’s ride-along with Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez, leading up to the sequence where he witnesses his former student Jesse Pinkman escape through a second-story window.
“I was scared out of my mind,” Gilligan recalled. “I had directed before, but only twice, only two episodes of X-Files, and I was just thinking, man, I cannot fail. It would have been embarrassing. It would have been humiliating.”
Lindelof asked Gilligan about his initial Season 1 plans to kill off Jesse, asking how far they went in executing them.
“We didn’t nail it down completely,” he said, “but it probably would’ve played out something along the lines of [it being] Tuco Salamanca.” He added that his notes were only that Jesse would “die in a horrifically cinematic manner. I never figured out exactly how, but it would’ve been unpleasant.”
“For those of you in the audience that are writers, you can probably tell where we’re coming from when we talk about this kind of stuff,” he said, talking about the schematics of plotting the show. They needed Pinkman around just long enough to give Walt his proper entrance into the meth business.
“And you realize that once you start casting these parts and working with these actors, you tend to become less schematic and more organic,” Gilligan continued, noting they had seen the potential for actor Aaron Paul early. “That’s what I love about TV, is the ability to explore these things as a group of collaborators, both behind the camera and in front of it.”
A sent in by a fan asked whether Cranston’s performance had changed the story arc as Gilligan had originally envisioned it.
“Our finest moments in the writers’ room were where we said to ourselves, ‘What does Walt want right now? What’s his greatest hope, what’s his deepest fear, what’s driving him — and therefore, what does he want to do next?’” he explained. “And the greatest moments in a writers’ room — I found this in The X-Files, writing for Mulder and Scully – the greatest moments were, and this sounds kind of weird if you haven’t experienced it, but [it’s when] you don’t feel like you’re a writer, but you feel like you’re a court stenographer. Like I’d hear sometimes Mulder and Scully arguing in my head and just start typing it down.”
He added, “Not to say that we didn’t cheat now and then – [like] say, it’d be cool to have a guy’s head on a turtle.”
Asked which of Breaking Bad’s many deaths were hardest, he responded that the one the audience had just witnessed in “Face Off” – Gus Fring’s explosive end – was the most difficult to orchestrate. The series has no shortage of smart characters, but Gilligan said “arguably the smartest cat who ever came down the pike on this show was Gustavo Fring.”
“What you don’t want, from a writer’s point of view … is [to have] your really brilliant, charismatic bad guy suddenly get stupid, just so the good guy can win,” he continued. “Of course, I use the terms ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ here pretty relatively.” But Walt’s defeat of Gus had to be emotional, not intellectual, which is why they introduced more backstory with the bell-ringing Tio Salamanca. “We had to play a deeper game than we were accustomed to.”
The death of Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut hit the crew especially hard. Gilligan wasn’t on set for Banks’ final scene, but he heard it was an emotional day, with everyone sporting black armbands.
He shifted gears with the next question, revealing how Season 2 – and ultimately the series – changed when Raymond Cruz, who played Tuco Salamanca, was contractually obligated to appear on The Closer, and they barely had time to shoot his death. However, the demise of that character opened the door to creating Gus Fring. “He was everything Tuco was not,” Gilligan said.
When asked about his favorite scene, Gilligan he doesn’t like picking favorites – but said the one with the actor Danny Trejo’s head on the turtle immediately jumped out. He admitted he still has the fake head somewhere at home, and has even lent it out to another movie where Trejo is decapitated.
Gilligan told of a time in the writers’ room, after coming up with the image of the disembodied head on the turtle: “OK, human head on a big desert tortoise. This is great, people are going to remember this, let’s all go to lunch,” he recalled. But writer/producer George Mastras wasn’t satisfied, suggesting, “And then the head should blow up.”
Two contest winners in hazmat suits asked Gilligan questions: The first wondered who had forgotten Walt, making him so determined that people “remember his name,” and the second asked if real people from Gilligan’s life had appeared on the show.
Gilligan said he only realized in hindsight that Walter was very much a reflection of him wrestling with an oncoming midlife crisis. ”Walter,” he clarified, “not Heisenberg, before he became interesting.”
Lindelof integrated both audience questions, and asked if Gilligan had a personal Grey Matter. “I didn’t blame anyone else for my problems,” the creator replied. “The difference between me and Walter White is that he goes out of his way to blame other people. … My failings are my own.”
Lindelof asked about the show’s writers, and if each had a specialty, “like a weapons expert,” or someone who really “got” Gomie. Gilligan went through the list, starting with Peter Gould, who created Saul Goodman and will be helping with the Better Call Saul spinoff, saying he’s always structurally sound and always pays attention in the room – which can be hard at times. He also said Gould was a cheerleader for the room, with his own catchphrase (“Great things are happening!”), which led to some mockery from the other writers. He then gave a shout-out to Mastras, ex-lawyer, world-traveler and novelist, who helped navigate the show’s legalese, and what the DEA could and couldn’t do. He also created Tuco, and one of Gilligan’s favorite lines: “kicks like a mule with his balls wrapped in duct tape.” He also singled out Sam Catlin, whom he called one of the funniest people he’d ever met. He credited Moira Walley-Beckett and Gennifer Hutchison for some of the series’ best tough-guy dialogue.
Gilligan pointed out that one of the more grisly, cold-blooded scenes — the killing of 10 prison inmates in two minutes, set to Nat King Cole and George Shearing’s “Pick Yourself Up” — was written and directed by two women, Walley-Beckett and Michelle MacLaren. Hutchison, Gilligan’s one-time assistant on The X-Files, also gets Hank’s voice like no other writer. He said his old friend Tom Schnauz was great with structure and great in the writers’ room.
Lindelof recited a quote from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium about how the death of King Lear is simply written, “He Dies.” The mention of the movie received some laughs – two copies of the 2007 fantasy-comedy were the only DVDs in Walt’s secluded New Hampshire cabin — but Lindelof asked how conscious the writers are of Shakespearean references in the increasingly tragic show. Gilligan admitted The Godfather was actually the constant touchstone that the writers’ room gravitated to, always asking how Francis Ford Coppola did it.
Gilligan also took a moment to revisit the Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium reference in the penultimate episode, “Granit State.” “By the way, I have to give a shout-out to Zach Helm. He’s like the coolest guy ever,” he said, adding that they meant no offence by using that film. “Just the name itself is so much fun to say. We just wanted to have Walt say, ‘Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.’”
Gilligan and Lindelof talked about how he and his writers approached the end of the series. Gilligan mentioned M*A*S*H as a conclusion that worked because it had always been about people who wanted to go home, and so it makes sense for the finale to deal with that, without any surprises (other than, as Lindelof noted, Klinger wanting to stay).
“It’s not such a good episode because there are twists and surprises,” Gilligan said.” Rather, it is satisfying, at least to me it was, because it’s the thing I wanted to see all along on some level. So we asked ourselves a lot, What constitutes a proper ending for this particular TV show? Is the best ending for Breaking Bad one of unadulterated surprise, or is it giving the audience something they kind of expected? By the way, I’m not telling you what we arrived at.”