In Part Two of the podcast we talk about the actors and zero in on two of the show’s episodes to discuss how the details of their creation offer us broader insights into the unique creative process behind this television masterpiece.

Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is Part Two of a two part conversation with Vince Gilligan, the creator and showrunner of one of the great series in television history, Breaking Bad and one of his key collaborators on that series, director/executive producer Michelle MacLaren.

In Part One of the conversation we heard about Vince and Michelle’s respective paths into storytelling, as well as covering how Vince conceived the show, and how he, Michelle and their colleagues built the system that allowed them to sustain such a high level of quality for each and every episode.  In Part Two of the podcast we talk about the actors and zero in on two of the show’s episodes to discuss how the details of their creation offer us broader insights into the unique creative process behind this television masterpiece.

And with that set up, here is Part Two of our conversation about Breaking Bad.

Kary:

I just want to talk about the characters and the actors, and what the actors brought to each of those characters. And let’s start with Brian and with what Brian brought to Walter White. I’ve read that you had Brian in mind from the very beginning. Can you talk a little bit about what you had in mind of Brian and what, perhaps, he brought to it that surprised you, that was unexpected?

Vince:

Yeah. I had been very fortunate to work with Brian on the X-Files. It was about 1999 or so. We’d been doing the X-Files five years in Vancouver. The show moved to Los Angeles in about 1999, and we had an episode, this two hander episode where Agent Mulder’s stuck in a car with this crazy hillbilly creep who’s head’s going to explode, ripping off Speed, the movie Speed, head’s going to explode if the car drops below a certain speed. Then he has to head west and eventually, you’re going to run out of west because they started in Nevada. You’re going to run into the ocean at a certain point.

We needed a really good actor who could be very scary, very repellent at the moments he needed to be nasty, and repellent, and scary, and dramatic, and all that. But at the end of it all, when he perished, you needed to feel sorry for him nonetheless. And we had all these actors coming in. It was ’99, like I said, a little while ago. And all these really scary actors coming in and just scaring the hell out of everybody in the room, but none of them, you wanted to squash them like a bug. You didn’t want to see them, you didn’t want to feel sorry them when, you know. And we were really in trouble. And then this guy came in on the last day. I think we were going to be shooting, this was like a Friday, and we were going to be shooting on Monday, and we were so… I was so freaked out that we weren’t going to have the right actor for this role.

And this guy comes in, and he has this crazy long hair and beard, and he looks a little like Chris Christopherson, or Gordon Lightfoot or something. Comes in, eh, eh, and he just frigging nails it, the audition. He is so, he was just leaning, this is back in the days when we would do auditions in person. Now we watch, it’s kind of a shame, I’m kind of sorry it’s gone away, but we watch everything on iPads and computer screens, laptop screens now. But in person, we would do these auditions. And just you’re leaning forward in your seat just electrified watching this guy audition. And he just crushes it. And he says, “All right, thanks.” And he leaves. And I say to the producers sitting in the room with me, “OTW.” You know, off to wardrobe. That guy’s got the role.

And it was Brian Cranston. And I didn’t know who the hell he was. I didn’t realize, he’s such a chameleon, I didn’t realize I had seen him on Seinfeld as the dentist. I didn’t realize I’d seen him as Buzz Aldrin in From The Earth To The Moon. I didn’t realize I’d seen him as the one armed officer who sends Tom Hanks on his suicide mission in Saving Private Ryan. I just knew this guy’s great. And then he plays the role, I watch him play this role back in ’99, X-Files. The whole time he’s doing it, I think, “This guy’s special. He’s got some light around him. There’s something about this guy. I want to work with him again in the future.”

About two, a year and a half after the X-File episode airs, I’m watching a commercial, and there’s a commercial with this goofy show, really fun goofy show, wonderful new show coming on Fox called Malcolm In The Middle. And there’s a guy in his underpants, and he’s rolling around on rollerblades, and he’s clean shaven. I’m like, “God, that guy looks familiar.” Then, “Oh my God! That’s the guy in my episode. I didn’t know he could be funny.” So this guy, then for sure I knew, this is the guy I want to work with. So yes, long winded cut to the chase here, to answer your question succinctly, when I thought of Walter White, Breaking Bad, very quickly, within a day or two, I thought to myself, “The guy to play this is that guy, Brian Cranston.”

And what did he bring to it? I mean, again, I don’t think we’d be sitting here talking about this show with you tonight if it weren’t for Brian. It’s inestimable what he, in particular, and what the other actors, in general, brought to the show. I can tell you again, it’s that organic process. I had certain ideas in my head about what Walter White should be, as did Brian, when we embarked upon the pilot. He came, this guy’s such a professional. He came to the pilot, to the pre-production of the pilot, and he’s hanging around. We had our production offices in Albuquerque. And he says, “I think the character should have this mustache, except kind of droopy and sort of impotent looking mustache. And my mustache naturally,” this is him talking, “My mustache, naturally, comes in kind of dark. I think I want to get the hair folks to take all the color out of it so it looks like a dead caterpillar on my upper lip.” And I said, “Okay, sounds good.”

And he says, “I think I should be 168 pounds because for me, that’s a little bit of a spare tire.” Or maybe it was 178. I can’t remember, but it was an exact number. So a little bit of a spare tire, because this guy’s sort of gone to seed, and he’s kind of… I mean, he’s like a professional prize fighter at the weigh in. And he hit it within a quarter pound or something like that. You know, his instrument, just knowing himself and his instrument, knowing what he’s, how to do the job. Just working with pros is such, oh God, it’s so wonderful. It’s such a blessing. He made …

And what did he bring to it? What did the other actors bring to it? They brought themselves, oddly enough. And for instance Aaron Paul, best example, Aaron Paul, Jesse Pinkman-

Michelle:

Who also did X-Files.

Vince:

Yeah, he was in an episode of X-Files that my friend, Tom Schnauz, wrote. Although I didn’t even realize that when he came in to audition. I didn’t even know that until later. He’s a very sweet, wonderful, warm, lovely, emotive human being in real life. He is… And that, first of all, the character wasn’t even mean to survive the first season. But the actor was so wonderful, there was no way. It’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face to get rid of this character.

So he stays on the show, but then the character becomes, in a sense, the moral center if not for the whole show, the moral center for that part of Walter White’s life, that criminal enterprise portion of Walter White’s life. Jesse Pinkman, lo and behold, becomes the moral center, the moral tug of gravity that, the character who is always asking either verbally or non-verbally, “Are we doing the right thing? Is this the right way to go?” And that was never, again, this is the organic collaborative process that I was speaking of earlier that I love so much. It was never my intention to do any of that. I think I was going to kill the character off. The actor comes in, he’s so wonderful, he brings, there’s so much soul to him, for lack of a better word, that it can’t help but rub off on the character.

And you can fight it. If you’re a showrunner, you can say, “That’s not what I had in mind. We’re not doing that. I don’t care if he’s that way in real life,” or, “He’s going to play it hard edged,” and whatever. You can do that. Again, if it works for you, more power to you. But to me, it was like why not take these wonderful attributes these characters have, like in that case, that soul, and incorporate them into the character.

Kary:

Here is a bit of context for the next set of questions. Before the interview the class watched two episodes from breaking bad entitled end times (which was the penultimate show of the fourth season) and gliding over all (which was the eighth show of the fifth season). At the heart of these episodes is the beginning and end of a plot line in which: Walter White’s meth producing partner Jesse Pinkman discovers that his friend Andrea’s son has been poisoned by ricin. Jesse suspects that Walt may have done it, but Walt disingenuously convinces him that Walt’s nemesis Gus Fring was responsible. Walt has done this for the sole purpose of turning Jesse against Gus. 

Kary:

We saw two episodes tonight. We saw End Times, and we saw Gliding Over All. Interestingly, you didn’t write either of those episodes, or you didn’t get writing credit for either of those episodes, but you each directed one of them. And I thought, reflecting on the theory behind this class, and your discussion of these two characters, Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, and their moral journeys, those are two really pivotal, these are two really pivotal episodes in those moral journeys. But I’m curious why you chose them. I know why I found them particularly resonant and interesting for purposes of this class, but you guys chose them, and I’m curious what led you to pick them.

Vince:

I was told I needed one for me. I wanted two of them. I’m not even kidding, because I wanted, Michelle was our best director, there was two of them I wanted. But you wouldn’t let me put up two of yours.

Michelle:

Yeah, he wanted to do of mine. I said, “No, you have to do one of yours, and we’ll do one of each.”

Vince:

I can’t remember why we picked that one of mine. It’s funny, though, now that you’ve mentioned the thing about I didn’t write it, it was… And I didn’t write it. It was written, whoever’s name was on it, was the one, I think in that case, it was Tom Schnauz and Ginny Hutchison, I think, that one.

Vince:

But I didn’t write, but we all worked together in the writers’ room, so we all had a share, all of us writers had a share in the story of every episode, whether our name was on it or not. But no, they definitely wrote that episode. That was the first episode I ever did, I think, in t.v. where I wasn’t the actual writer of record which was an interesting experience for me. And I wound up enjoying it very much. And then yours, I mean yours are always great. There’s so many of yours that just are stellar.

Kary:

The one thing that, the reason that they work just for narrative purposes is the End Times episode sets up the mystery around the ricin and the Gliding Over All episode resolves that mystery in a very heavy way. Talk a little bit about how you approached directing the End Times episode.

Vince:

I approached it with fear and trepidation. Like I always do, and an overwhelming desire to not fail. And that gets me through somehow.

Kary

As we are watching it, we think that Gus may well have, you know, we’re buying Walter White’s story. And I just wonder. You’re approaching it knowing that Walt actually did poison the kid.

Vince:

Oh yeah. Oh absolutely.

Kary:

But your intention is to seed doubt or even misdirect the audience with it? Or do-

Vince:

Oh absolutely. No, you’re not… And all that starts with the writing. All that starts with the plotting in the writers’ room. And in terms of the directing and the actors, I mean, a lot of the decisions are sort of first principle decisions. I mean, how Walter White is, in the case of this episode we’re discussing, Walter White is up against the smartest character in the entire Breaking Bad universe, the entire Breaking Bad, Walter White is not the smartest guy. This was something we enjoyed talking about in the writers’ room. Walter White, as brilliant as he is, is no match for Gustavo Fring, the Chicken Man. He’s no match for him. This guy is his superior in every way. But he has an Achilles heel, which is his hatred for Hector Salamanca, the older gentleman in the wheelchair.

Walter White, one thing I knew as a director, and we knew before that more importantly, in the writers’ room, is for any of this to work, Walter White has to be as good an actor as Brian Cranston is. So to answer your question specific to this, Walter White has to play his role so well that we, the audience, and Jesse Pinkman are not dumb for not realizing, indeed, that he’s the guy that poisoned the kid and not Gustavo Fring. So you start with that first principle of okay, what is required here? How is this gambit possibly going to get pulled off? How is it going to get fulfilled. Well, the only way is if this guy is really great actor. And I think, I really am of the opinion that if your life depends on it, you really are going to be Meryl Streep. I mean, we use that line in another episode. If you have a gun to your head, you’re going to be Meryl Streep, you’re going to be Lawrence Olivier just because you have no alternative. And I think that was good motivation.

But as far as in terms of the actors, I don’t believe in, and again, whatever works for you, so be it. But I don’t really believe in some of these directory kind of tricks of, “Well, let’s not tell Aaron Paul that Brian Cranston’s character is really that guy that poisoned the little boy.” He knows. He’s read the script just like all the other actors have. But I’m depending on him, we’re depending on all these actors to know their, to be so skilled that they can think globally, but also think on a micro level as well. So you know, Aaron Paul, for instance, knows. He’s playing a scene with Brian Cranston. He knows, globally speaking, that Walter White poisoned this little boy, but in that moment, his character doesn’t know that. I feel like I’m getting off on a tangent again. Am I coming close to answering your question?

Kary:

Yeah. No, I mean, you’ve set it up. With this episode, you’ve set up the Gliding Over All episode. So Michelle, when you come in to… The fifth season was broken into two parts. And this was the kind of mid season finale, correct?

Michelle:

Yeah, we actually shot it as two different seasons. So we shot eight episodes, and then we went on hiatus. The next, the last eight were written, and then we came back.

Kary:

So it was essentially a season finale.

Michelle:

Yes.

Kary:

And in it, we see the profound moral decline of Walter White. Is that accurate?

Michelle:

Well, we cover a large period of time in that. So yes, for sure. And we jumped a big time frame-

Vince:

It’s an amazing montage you did. You did so many amazing montages. That one that starts with that great cut where he goes out of frame, then he comes back in.

Michelle: 

Right, right, right. Yeah.

Vince:

He’s in his tyvek suit.

Michelle:

Right.

Vince:

Yeah, that’s awesome.

Michelle: 

Thanks. But yeah, I think that we start the episode and where we end up in the episode is interesting, because he thinks at the end of the episode he’s gotten away with it and that he’s out. And he’s just been caught. So it’s interesting to see Walt… We always used to say that Walt could justify his way out of anything. And that scene at the end of the episode when the family’s just sitting around hanging out, and he’s so relaxed and so calm, which speaks to his incredible arrogance really. I mean, that he could sit there and just act like nothing has happened. And then that moment, of course, with Hank realizing the truth at the end of the episode, and Walt has no idea that his world’s about to come tumbling down.

Kary:

I just want to read the excerpt from the Walt Whitman Leaves Of Grass poem that gives that episode it’s title. Because I think it’s a fitting way to bring this conversation about the moral universe of Breaking Bad to a kind of conclusion.

Gliding o’er all, through all, through nature, time, and space, as a ship on waters advancing, the voyage of the soul, not life alone, death, many deaths. I’ll sing.

Did you, when you named him Walter White, did you have Walt Whitman in your head?

Vince:

Not at all. Not at all. I mean, it was just a lucky coincidence. It was a lucky happenstance. We had a… He’s Walter White, I just like the name because it’s blandly alliterative. It’s kind of a bland name, but it kind of sticks in your head nonetheless, and I like the alliteration. And then many, not many, many, but several seasons later, we introduced a character named Gale Boetticher, who is the anti Jesse Pinkman. He’s a brilliant chemist. He’s almost Walt’s equal, and he shows great respect and deference toward Walt, and he’s helping Walt cook meth in the super lab. And we liked that he was everything Jesse Pinkman was not. Jesse Pinkman is not going to be quoting poetry. So we thought, “Oh, this guy should quote poetry.”

And I remembered a poem I loved in high school, When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer. And I like that poem because it’s very about, this is a scientist quoting it to another scientist, it’s Gale Boetticher quoting it to Walter White, but it’s basically a very short, I used to have the whole thing memorized, but it’s a wonderful short little poem about how science is great and explains things, and it’s important, but sometimes it’s just good to go out in the cold night air and look up at the stars. It’s basically, essentially the gist of it. And Walt Whitman happened to write that poem. And then, Walt Whitman, Walter White, hey that’s fun.

And it all… The thing I’m most, there’s so many things I’m proud of. I’m proud in the sense of the collaborative, I’m proud of all of us who worked on this. I’m not going to lie, I’m very proud of it. But one of the things I’m most proud of is that we made it look like we knew what we were doing. And I’m not even being facetious or falsely modest-

Kary: 

When did Hank’s discovery of the poem, and that being the revelatory moment for him, did that come later as well?

Vince:

Oh, it came later, oh very much so. No, it was an open question for a year. There was even a question for a while, will Hank ever know that his brother in law is, indeed, Heisenberg. He might get killed one day prior to that revelation. Nothing’s stopping us from doing that.

Kary:

So you happened to have that scene where he picks up the poem, Walt Whitman, Walter White, so it was all kind of synchronicity.

Vince:

Well, you know what it was. I don’t even know if it’s synchronicity or just a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But I have this theory, we see a lot of coincidences in our average lives. And is it really that there is a weird synchronicity, or is it just the human brain’s amazing ability to find, to create coincidences where they don’t, perhaps, literally exist? Instead, we manufacture them. You know, how many times have we had it where you hear some weird turn of phrase, and then you hear it, “I haven’t heard that,” or the name of a song, or whatever. Shrimp salad, or whatever, you know. That was a line in Repo Man, I think. You know, shrimp salad, and then you hear shrimp salad again two hours later. “What are the odds? The universe is trying to tell me something.” I think we manufacture a lot of that.

So my point being, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into us making it look like we knew what we were doing. And I’m not, again, not being facetious. We backed in to, we back filled a lot. We reverse engineered a lot. Walt Whitman, Walter White, things like that. We mined our history very studiously, very vigorously. We would constantly look backward and say, “Did we ever, is there something we can use here?” And we made, we went to great effort, made great effort to look backward and mine what pre-existed so that we could make it look like it was all part of some master plan that in fact, never existed. We were tap dancing as fast as we could right up to the very last episode. But one of the things I’m most proud of is we made folks think, it was like a magic trick, we made folks think that it was all part of some brilliantly, some Faberge egg, or Swiss watch of design, when in fact, it really was not haphazard, but on the other hand, it was much closer to being haphazard than most folks think it was.

Commercial Break for Crime Story dot com.

Kary:

And now we have a number of questions from our students. The first one is:

I was wondering what advice you had for sustaining narrative and making sure your story doesn’t kind of fall into that rabbit hole of losing it’s magic.

Vince:

That’s a really good question. I want to give you a good answer. Well, I mean, I would approach it different ways if I were writing movie script all by myself versus I was working with a bunch of… It helps to have a great team of writers, it really does. And it helps to be a very conscientious steward of your story, of your own story. It helps to love your story and to continue finding reasons to love it.

I want to give you a great answer for this. There are days, there are episodes, there are days when you’re working away, and I can’t tell you how often I said in the writers’ room, “This does not work. We have gone down a rabbit hole, here. We’ve gone down the wrong path, and now it’s too late to turn back.” Honestly, if I had a dollar for every time I probably said that to my writers, I’d have a lot of dollars. And they would laugh at me hearing this because this was not a great act of confidence, making this show, on my part. Every day I would say, “I think we screwed up. I think this is boring. I think we’ve made a wrong turn.” You just, when you’re writing, working on your own pilot, or your own movie script, or whatnot, you have to, you just, it’s part of the job to… And I say this, you heard my story about earlier in my career. I was not able to do this, so I’m going to give you advice I was not good at taking, at heeding. But you got to put your butt in the seat and just do it. You just got to, whether you’re getting paid for it or not, that’s what being a writer is. Because it’s weirdly unpleasant.

Now everyone says to me, “You like being a writer?” And I always say, “I like having written.” I like, in hindsight, in terms of past tense, I want the pain behind me. I just want to bask in the glow of, “Oh man, I’m so proud of this.” Well, it was hard fought getting there, and it always will be. I don’t know why it is, but writing, it should be such a pleasant act. You’re sitting in a, you know, you can sit in the most comfortable room, in the most comfortable chair, you can get the temperature 72.3 degrees, you can have a beautiful picture window and watch sailboats out on the bay. Why is it so hard? It’s not like digging ditches. It’s not like sucking out a septic tank or something. There’s people who work, have real jobs that are unpleasant. But I find myself daydreaming about doing something like that when I’m actually writing because it’s weirdly painful.

So I guess it’s not, it’s probably not as boring as you think it is. A lot of it’s perception, a lot of it’s self loathing. In my case, I speak for that. And you just got to get through those, you just got to push through those moments and keep writing. Because I guarantee you it’s not as boring as you think it is in your darkest moments, and you just got to keep plugging.

And the other thing about, I’m glad you asked this. The other thing about the idea of boring, period, is there’s this a lot of times now, and I say this because, you know, not the good folks at HBO, who are a different breed, but a lot of executives, there’s an expression, “I got to keep turning over cards. You got to keep the story moving.” And what that comes from, it’s a general fear that writers feel too, not just executives, of we’re living in an increasingly fast paced world where everybody has a shorter attention span. We got to have things happen quicker. We got to keep the story moving fast, fast, fast, faster still. There’s a weird monotony about fast. You can’t have agitation, agitas, and excitement and all that in the construction of a story without some calm and quiet. You got to have the dark to represent the light. You got to have the light to represent the dark. It’s that yin and yang thing. You can’t just have, I’m not dinging on Michael Bay, but if for instance, if you have that Michael Bay boom, boom, cut, cut, cut, camera going like this, you know, three frames of this shot, two frames of that shot, that stuff’s great but in small bursts. You try to tell a whole story that way, I’m just like screw this. I’m weirdly bored by it.

So don’t get too hung up on boredom in terms of, you know the main question to ask yourself over and over as a writer is, I think, and again, do it however you want, but for me, it’s is this character I’m writing about an authentic human being, or as close as a writer can get it? Does this character represent humanity to the best of our knowledge to apprehend it, to understand it. That, to me, is the most important thing you can do is be authentic. Come up with that character, come up with that story, stick to it, hue to it and be authentic in its execution. And if it’s a story and a character you like, there might be moments where they lag a little bit. You can refine them later with the help of other people. But don’t get too hung up on boredom because it’s kind of a trap. And it’s kind of a false… I’m not saying there’s no such thing as boring stories, of course there are. But if that’s the only lens you’re looking at it through, you might be missing a more important fundamental truth, or bigger picture, or whatever.

Kary:

Ok the next question is:

How would you have pitched Breaking Bad differently if you were a younger writer without writing credits?

Vince:

That’s a good question too. I don’t know that I would have pitched it any differently. I was excited about the story. I was excited by the story. I was so excited that I didn’t… It was unusual. It was an unusual situation for me because it was an Archimedean eureka moment when I came up with the idea, or when that moment of inspiration hit. You know, take this idea my crazy friend said, but I’m going to actually build it into something. Actually, the way I tell that story, he came up with the idea, not me, kind of, when you think about it. I was very lucky to be excited because I’ve been into pitch meetings before where I was second guessing myself. I’m always second guessing myself but this was a rare moment where I believed in the story more than usual. And I pitched it with enthusiasm, and that’s all you can do.

The main this is to be enthus… whatever age, whatever point in your career you are, I guarantee you there’s not that much difference between being at the start of your career and having done it for decades. If the people you’re pitching to are doing their jobs right, they’re going to judge you on the merits of your story. They’re not going to say, “Ah, well, this is this guy,” or “this woman, or whatever directed an Oscar winning movie and this and that.” That’s all great. I’m not going to lie. That’s going to add, that’s going to tip the balance a little bit. But if folks are thinking about anything other than the merits of the story in hand, they’re probably not doing their job right. So if you have an idea that you think is great, and you are enthusiastic about it, and you impart that enthusiasm, you communicate that enthusiasm in the room, you still might fail because it might not be what they’re looking for that day, but…

Kary:

Yeah, I listen to pitches for a living and the thing that I say when I’m asked, “What are you looking for?” I’m looking for somebody to tell me a story that’s going to just have me riveted in my seat. That’s it. Lay out a world, and it’s exactly… I mean, when you said it, that’s what we’re seeking.

Vince:

You guys do it right. I mean sometimes, I’m not going to lie to you, sometimes, I mean we see it all the time. We see movies where it’s some big director and like, “Why the hell did that get made? What a piece of crap that was.” But when you’re doing it right, it’s all about the story. So I wouldn’t get hung up on, “Gee, I’m at the start of my career, I’m nobody yet. I’m blah, blah.” Because it’s not always a meritocracy, that’d be a lie to say it is. But it quite often is, more often than I would have guessed at the start of my career.

Kary:

I’ll just tell this one anecdote because I think it’s, a lot of you as young writers will have the same question about what is it that… How do I go in and pitch something. And there’s a project that we’re about to start shooting as a mini series at HBO about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. We, the pitch came in via Carolyn Strauss, who used to be an executive at HBO, and went on to become a producer on a little show called Game Of Thrones. She had this idea that, or she had a writer whose credits included the two bad Hangover movies, and Scary Movie 4. And he wanted to pitch a mini series about Chernobyl. And I said, “Okay.” And he came in and blew our socks off with a pitch. And then he came in, and then he delivered the first two episodes that were stunning. And we sent them around the world. We got unprecedented amount of co-production money because of these scripts. And it’s all because he came in, defied expectations, and told us a story that had us riveted. So it speaks to your point.

Commercial Break for Crime Story dot com.

Kary:

Next question.

What was your greatest failure as both a writer and a show runner on Breaking Bad?

Vince:

You know, I don’t have a great answer to that. It’s funny, and the lack of a good answer here is going to make it sound like I’m a very confident person, or a very happy, or non self-reflective. I’m very self, I think I sort of second guess an awful lot in my life. I feel very lucky about how Breaking Bad came out. It’s just little things, little details. There’s nothing big I could actually point to. Help me out here, I’m missing something here.

Kary:

Missed opportunity? Any missed opportunities?

Vince:

Missed opportunity…

Michelle:

You didn’t write the funniest line in season two?

Vince:

That’s true. Funniest line in season two was written by one of our second AC, their camera assistant, yeah. That’s true.

Kary:

What was the line?

Vince:

It was a line in Michelle’s first episode. It’s a not funny line on it’s own. The funniest lines were all context based lines. They’re not, in and of themselves, funny lines. But it was, Jesse is, they’re dehydrating to death, and their RV won’t start. It won’t turn over, and they’re in the middle of bum fuck nowhere, and they’re going to die. They have no water. And Jesse’s saying, “Mr. White, you got to get us out of here. Can we take the parts of the RV and build a go cart? Or how about a robot?” And Jesse says… And then Walt says, “Shut up, shut up. Let me think.” He says, “Well, what about a battery, or what about,” and then Walt says later, he says, “You gave me the idea yourself.” And then you shot the whole scene and-

Michelle:

So he says, Walt says to him, “You gave me the idea. Go outside and get these things from the engine,” or something. And Jesse comes back and he goes, “What are we going to build?” And Walt just, in the script, just goes, “Go, go.” And by the way, I just want to preface by saying that the reason I mentioned that is because really Vince is only, this is not a failure story. Vince hit Breaking Bad out of the park and we all know that.

But anyway, it was a Friday night, we had put in a long day. And we finished the scene and our last shot, our set up was on Jesse, and we were shooting on 35 mil film, so we always have to check the gate, make sure there’s no dirt in the gate. And we wrapped Friday night, everybody’s going to go home, and I’m walking off the set, and all of the sudden I hear there’s dirt in the gate. And I’m like, “You’re kidding.” I mean, that rarely happens, especially when you’re on stage. So we go back in and I go back onto the set and I said, “You guys, what camera had dirt?” And they looked at me and they winked, and they said, “Just watch.” And when we had wrapped and were walking off the set, one of the camera assistants said to Aaron Paul, “You know when Walter White says, when Jesse says, ‘What are we going to build?’ and Walter goes, “Just go, just go.” And Walter White says, “Well, you said it. You said it.” The camera assistant said, “You know, Jesse should have said, ‘A robot?'”

So they didn’t tell me any of this. They just told me there was dirt in the gate and they were going to do the take again. And I actually almost ruined the take because I burst out laughing. Because we did one take and absolutely nailed it. And Vince, we showed Vince, and Vince is like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe the funniest line in this season.”

Vince:

The funniest line in the entire season. By the way, it’s such a funny line, and then when you try to explain it, it just fucking deadly.

Michelle:

It’s… yeah.

Vince:

It takes 20 frigging minutes to explain why this is a funny line and everybody’s like, “Yeah? Okay.”

Michelle:

But yeah, in the moment-

Vince:

But when you see it, it kills. It kills when you see it.

Michelle:

In the moment, it kills. But I will say it also spoke to our experience on Breaking Bad that that crew chose to come back and shoot a take that was going to be better even after we wrapped on a Friday night. And that very much spoke to everybody’s enthusiasm about the show.

Vince:

I feel like I’ve dodged this question completely. I don’t have a good answer for you. I really don’t. I could be somewhat facetious and say I wish I’d figured out how to lag the story out so we could have got another good two years out of it. Would have made a lot more money and kept everybody working even longer and together. But that’s kind of a b.s. answer.

Michelle:

Yeah, but you know what Vince? That was really smart of you. Because what a lot of people don’t know is that we negotiated the end of Breaking Bad two seasons before the end of Breaking Bad. Because Vince always said, “I want to leave the party while we’re having a good time.” And you said to us arbitrarily, “I think we’ve got 16 more stories,” which was such an unusual number considering, not 20, not 26, which would have been two full seasons. So we went to AMC and Sony and said, “Okay, we want to end the show in 16 episodes.” And right up to the end, they were like, “You sure you don’t want some more? You sure?” But Vince nailed the number. I mean, right up to the end you had the option to go do another one, but you guys wrapped the story up so well.

Vince:

We did. But that just sounds like all we’re doing is, I feel like I’m just, that’s an excellent… You know what? Okay, I’ll give you one. I wish, it took my utterly by surprise how much people hate the character of Skyler, Walt’s wife. That was nothing we set out to, it just happened that way. We never set out to make her unlikeable. If I had it to do over, I don’t know what I would do differently to make it a different case, but I regret very much that people hate her character as much as they do. That’s something I wish I could take a magic wand and change. But I’d be afraid to use the magic wand because it might mess up a lot of other things that people love. So that’s probably as close as I can get to a halfway non b.s. answer to that question, which was a very good question indeed.

Kary:

Next we have a two part question. 

First, Michelle referenced that she came up with the montage beginning with the shot through the table inspired by Vince’s shot through the dryer window in the pilot. How much of the montages are written or suggested in the writers’ room, and where does the director’s vision come in? 

Second, Vince, how and why did you go about planning the conceit of using episode titles to foreshadow major events in the series. For example the titles “737” “Down”  “Over” and “ABQ”?

Vince:

Those are fun to do. Those are fun. For folks that don’t know, back in season two of Breaking Bad, we put little, it’s too long to explain here. But suffice it to say, if you read the titles a certain way based on certain visual clues that we give, you realize, you single out certain titles, of the thirteen episodes of the season, you single out the titles, 7, 3, 7, down over ABQ, and it tells you the big secret at the end in the final episode of the season. It tells you in advance if you can have the answer to what in the hell happened. It’s a long story. Anyhow, bogging down again. But those were fun to come up with. They were always, I use the whipped cream analogy, or cherry on top, or whatever. They were fun bits of squirts of whipped cream that we enjoyed coming up with. They were not a judicious use of our bandwidth, quite often. And that’s why we didn’t do them every year. Partly, we didn’t do them every year, because once people were on to them, we figured, I don’t know. I don’t want to make this thing just some clever, finger quotes, series of puzzles. That’s not really the meat of the show. That’s not the heart of the show. That’s the sizzle and not the steak. So every now and then we’d get an idea for something like, and they were fun to do.

But again, it was more important to tell the story of Walter White, so very often, we didn’t do them. Once in a blue moon we’d do them. But they were fun. And they were all hands on deck, and a lot of our assistants on the show helped come up with these things. The young folks in the office, my assistant Jan, and Ariel Levine, all these folks on Better Call Saul helped come up with these. At a certain point, we would sort of delegate all these things and have the young folks in the office kind of figure out the puzzles. But we don’t do them that often. But the better, not better, that was a good question. But the more important question about the, I want to hear your answer to…

Michelle: 

So it really depended on the montages, but the directors had a lot of creative input on the montages, I mean, on everything, but the montages especially. And it really depended where in the season we were. There were some times… We were always very clear on what the story of the montage was, what they were supposed to portray with the characters and what the arc of it is, but just for example, in Gliding Over All, it wasn’t spelled out, but we knew that it was such a detailed montage, and everybody had to prep it, that I shot listed it out, and then Moira actually wrote it into the script so everybody could prep it. But the first time I shot it out, it was over 100 shots. But we got it down to 73, I believe.

Vince:

Is that the… Wow, that’s a lot of shots.

Michelle: 

Yeah, there’s a lot of shots in that. So Moira, because we did have to prep it, and it was so specific, in that case, and this is not usually how it happens. You’re not sharing your shot list with the entire crew and in the body of the script. But that one was so detailed that Moira and I figured we should do that for prep reasons. But it really depends on, I did a lot of montages, and I think going back to the first one I did on Four Days Out, I can’t remember what was in the script, but I just know that we talked a lot ahead of time about this being a real montage showing the relationship between Walt and Jesse and they’re working better together, and that we really wanted to, we didn’t want to teach the audience how to make meth, crystal meth, but we wanted to be accurate in how we were doing it. We always did everything authentically, because when you approach things by doing it honestly and authentically, then there’s, then it gets portrayed that way on screen. Not for the odd meth maker to go, “Oh, that’s really real.” But I just think for everybody if you’re bracing that, it comes across naturally.

Vince:

I agree completely. That’s an old Michael Mann thing. I remember him talking about it. And he’s a million percent right. If you get the details right, if it’s some arcane thing that no one in the audience knows whether you got it right or wrong, it’s not like they’re going to say, “Oh, you didn’t get that certain aspect of a robbery wrong, or cooking meth. You didn’t get that detail right.” It’s not that. It’s just somehow accuracy, authenticity, we all have an amazingly attuned sensor for b.s. and somehow you know it, even if it’s a subject, you know, if it’s a bunch of equations on a blackboard about quantum physics, it somehow, you’re not going to know where it’s wrong, but you’re going to kind of sense b.s. when you stumble upon it in a movie or a t.v. show.

And yeah, as far as the montages, we try to put as much detail into the script, but some of the favorite moments in any of these montages were not scripted. One of my favorite shots is that beautiful shot in that episode against the sunset where Walt and Jesse are standing out in the field of wheat, or whatever it is, and peeing. That was not in the script. That was my favorite shot of that whole thing.

Michelle:

Yeah, that was really fun. That was, again, in Four Days Out. And it was my first time to New Mexico, and I saw the sun rising, and it was so stunningly beautiful. And these guys were out there for four days. And I said, you know what would be really great in this montage if we have a shot of them silhouetted peeing against the sun rising or the sun setting. But it was actually-

Vince:

You shot it as a sunrise, but it was played it as a sunset.

Michelle:

Shot as, yeah, the sunset. But it wasn’t in the script, and this is very early days of the show. So the studio said, “No. It’s not in the script. You can’t put it on the schedule.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is such a great shot.” And thankfully, again, everybody was so enthusiastic about it, the first AD had the actors ready before the sun came up, and camera and everybody was there, and we’re all standing there waiting for the sun to come up. So as the sun came over the hill, I said to Aaron and Brian, I said, “You guys run over there and pretend to take a pee.” And we turned the camera, which just happened to be sitting there all set up, and rolled film on it. And it’s a great shot.

Vince:

Yeah, it’s a great shot.

Kary:

I’m going to end with the question that I ask all of our guests, which for each of you, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Michelle: 

There’s lots of great advice I could give you, but as a director, I’ll give you the best piece of advice that’s ever been given to me, which is always make sure the camera’s telling the story. And when somebody first told me that, it was on the X-Files when I was going to direct the first time. And I had no clue what they were talking about. And I went away thinking, “Okay, all right, what does that mean, exactly?” And I’m still learning that, and I work really hard at trying to always keep that in mind when I’m directing. So I won’t bother explaining it to you because you guys have to figure it out yourself. And I’m sure you probably, most of you already have. But it’s just a really great piece of advice that somebody gave me once that I always try to remember when I’m directing, especially when you get in those situations when you run out of time, you don’t have the money to do it right, and just think what’s the story I want to tell here in this moment. And if you’re true to that, I think you’ll be able to tell your story.

Vince:

I think that’s great advice. Yeah, I love that bit of advice. Try not to worry so much about impressing people with a cool shot or whatever. What’s the story that most accurately tells that moment? What’s the shot that most accurately tells the story? That’s a great bit of advice for the directors in the room. For the writers, I guess, I don’t know who first told it to me, but my best bit of advice for writers is don’t chase the hot or cool new thing too hard. Tell a story that you care about it. And perversely, if you’re writing a script, if you’re telling a story you really care about versus, you know, 20 years ago, everyone was making vampire movies. I was like oh you know, what you really ought to write, you ought to write a vampire movie. That’s the big thing, vampire movies. Go write a vampire movie. Well, you know, are you the least bit interested in vamp? If you are, more power to you, have fun. But that was literally advice going around. This is the hot thing. Write one of these. And I chased that at the beginning of my career. I’m not going to sit here and say I never fell for that. I chased that kind of stuff early on. And every time I did, I felt like I wasn’t being true to myself, and I felt like I was being a bit of a hack.

And it’s better to be interesting, even if it’s some crazy story about a guy who’s 50 years old and dying of cancer, and cooking meth, or whatever. Which is on the face was this is not going to sell. Whatever your story is, if it excites you, and you’re enthusiastic, and it’s keeping you awake, don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t sell. By the way, it may never sell. And it’s going to hurt even worse because you are so enthusiastic. But that’s the only way to do this job. Let it hurt worse. I mean, there’s no point in spending the time and effort and blood, sweat, and tears, mental energy on a story that is not keeping you awake at night. There really is, there’s no point at all. And it will hurt worse when everyone says no. But what’s the alternative? Being a hack? Don’t do that. So that’s my best advice on that.

Kary:

Please join me in thanking Michelle MacLaren and Vince Gilligan.

Kary:

This has been Part Two of our special two part conversation with Breaking Bad collaborators, Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren. To find more stories, conversations and analysis from the world of crime and justice, head over to Crime Story dot com. And to receive immediate notification when the next podcast becomes available, please subscribe to The Crime Story Podcast. 

Today’s episode was produced by Tristan Friedberg Rodman.

Thanks for listening and we hope you will join us for the next Crime Story Podcast.