Over the twelve days from Monday, December 23 and concluding on Friday, January 3, we will present special Re-Podcasts of my Crime Story Podcast interviews with storytellers in the world of crime and justice. Each interview will be presented in its entirety, and so interviews that were previously offered in multiple parts can now be accessed in one download or streaming session.

This is Day 2. Our 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.


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 one 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.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In addition to discussing the works and artists who shaped their creative thinking, we zeroed in on one particular piece of their work. 

With today’s guests, we, of course chose, Breaking Bad.  In Part One of the conversation we will hear 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 will talk about the actors and will 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 so, here is part one of this very special Crime Story Podcast.

Kary:

All right, without further ado, Breaking Bad. Please join me in welcoming Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren.

We have a really full house this evening, which is, I know we’re all really excited about having you guys here. One of the central aims of the class is to assess our filmmakers values in crafting crime dramas. And I say that with a small v, what their intentions are, how they approach the stories they’re telling, and what inspired them, and what their intentions are in communicating with the show. And Breaking Bad is perhaps the most distinctive and most aesthetically sophisticated moral character journey, perhaps in the history of television. I think there’s a wide consensus about that. And I think that’s a key part of why it’s reason in the pantheon of this golden age of television. So I’d like to start with asking both of you to tell us where you’re from, and what were the forces, both positive and negative, that shaped your value system, or sense of ethics or morality, and your sense of aesthetics. Growing up, through school, and as you entered into the business.

Vince: 

I grew up in a small town, Farmville, Virginia. Actually, it was Farmville and then a suburb of Richmond a little after that. And I just, I was always interested in movies. It’s become a very boring, often told story from a lot of men and women my age who got in the business, that they were inspired by Star Wars, because folks my age, I was 10 years old when that movie came out in 1977. So I’m yet another one of those folks who was inspired by Star Wars, and a big fan. But then just the idea of telling stories cinematically, movies, television, I lumped them all together as a kid. They were all the same thing to me and in a lot of ways still are. I still think of movies and television as being somewhat interchangeable. And as we move forth into this brave new world we’re into now, embarking upon in terms of the business, it does seem increasingly the case that the two are somewhat interchangeable. But I just grew up knowing what I wanted to do from about the age of 8 or 9, and that was to make movies, and to make t.v. shows. And that was just the only thing that ever really interested me.

                                                                                      That was a good question you asked. And as far as, in terms of my aesthetic I think, as with most folks probably, with yourselves you find as you age, as you progress through life, your aesthetic perhaps changes somewhat. I was a big fan of Star Wars, and then I became a bigger fan of movies like 2001, A Space Odyssey, and the Godfather, and the movies of Kurosawa and John Ford. And then your aesthetic kind of changes over the years, but I was inspired by a great many wonderful movies. And when it came time to do Breaking Bad, I was drawing upon a lot of these inspirations.

                                                                                      And I think when we started with Breaking Bad, when I was contemplating directing the pilot, I was really thinking a lot in terms of The French Connection, the work of William Friedkin and The French Connection. Specifically, when you watch the show, there’s that steady handheld, basically kind of news gathering or combat photography, handheld where you’re holding it as steadily as you humanly can because you can’t carry a tripod into a war zone or whatnot. So it’s the kind of footage you’d see shot with a Filmo or whatnot back in the, during World War II or whatnot, the combat footage. So not the caffeinated shaking the camera around thing, but basically that news gathering kind of footage that Friedkin used so well in The French Connection. So I was thinking of that, and you know, just ripping off everybody I could think of, all the stuff that I liked.

                                                                                      And then when we got into… I’m kind of jumping around here in answer to your question, but when we got into making the show, we realized how much Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we happened to be shooting initially for financial reasons, to save money ultimately, was very much the Southwestern feel made it feel like, it dawned on us, “Heck, we’re making a Western here.” So suddenly then, all the influences of Sergio Leone, and John Ford, and all that kind of stuff came in.

I feel like I’m missing part of your question. Was that?

Kary:

Moral value system, relationship with the community, and man’s kind of, human beings’ struggle to make sense of the moral universe, I guess.

Vince:

That’s a great question. I don’t know that I’m going to do it justice, except to say that I, like most people, I feel like we want to believe we live in a moral world. We want to live in a world that is a meritocracy. We want to live in a world where right and wrong are not only easily differentiated, but that good is rewarded, for lack of, simplistic way of looking at it, but good is rewarded and bad is punished. And the world of course, as we know, does not always work that way.

But in creating Breaking Bad, and I want to stress I was not actively thinking these things I’m saying to you now, I just wanted to tell an entertaining story when we started out. But as the show progressed, I realized, you’re right. There is a moral component to it. There’s an ethical… Best way I can put it is there is a desire to see that happen, to see that we do indeed, you know, the world we live in, the clockwork of the universe is so exceedingly large, maybe there is ultimately karma or maybe there is, to put it again simply, good is rewarded, bad is punished. But from our tiny little vantage point, our ant like vantage point, if that is indeed happening, we can’t tell for sure. We have to be a bit agnostic on that. The assumptions we make are only assumptions. So whether or not the universe itself is a moral place, where it does indeed work like that, I can’t tell. I don’t know. I wish it were. But I knew this little universe of Breaking Bad could be.

                                                                                      But even then, a lot of times it feels like no good deed goes unpunished on Breaking Bad. And sometimes it feels like well, the bad guys seem to do quite well, thank you very much. But I guess, again, to say it again, I was thinking mainly in terms of just want to be entertaining. Want to tell an interesting story about a character that I personally find riveting, and hopefully, the viewers will too. But I guess as it progressed, there was that desire for this universe to make sense on some moral level, this fictional universe of Breaking Bad.

Kary:

Michelle, just give us a sense of your aesthetic journey into the business.

Michelle:

I’m from Vancouver, Canada and I wanted to direct from a very young age. I went about it a different way. I worked my way up through P.A.ing, and locations, and A.D.ing, and production managing, and line producing, I went around really the long way. But I always wanted to become a director because very much like Vince was saying, I always wanted to tell stories. And when I was younger, we had a summer cottage that had no electricity. And we’d go up there for a couple of months in the summer. So we had to make our own entertainment. And we would play charades a lot, and make up plays, and take scary walks and try to scare each other. So that’s probably why I do lot of really scary stuff.

But when I was producing, on the back of my mind, I always wanted to direct, and I finally got the opportunity on the X-Files. And the first time I was directed, it was written by Vince Gilligan, so I got very, very lucky. And I think that we really, we share some certain sensibilities. And one of the things that Vince and I, Vince has taught me, and I’ve learned a lot from Vince, is whatever you’re directing, is to always think about how people would really react in that situation, and are you being honest with what is happening in that situation.

And I think that my influences are very much, especially for Breaking Bad because we shot it like a modern day Western, are Sergio Leone. I love Sergio Leone movies. I think every frame is a piece of art. And I learned on the X-Files, and I learned from a number of different directors that I was fortunate enough to be producing, about always making sure that the camera tells the story. So aesthetically, I would say that it really depends on the story that you’re telling. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a number of different types, of different genres of shows. So the aesthetic choice is what is best for the story. But like Vince is saying, I’m highly influenced by the people that have come before us. And when I was researching for The Deuce, for example, I watched French Connection. I watched all these Needle, and Panic Park, wait…

Vince:

Panic and Needle Park.

Michelle:

Panic and Needle Park.

Vince:

That’s right.

Michelle:

Saturday Night Fever. I mean, there’s so many… Taxi Driver. There’s all these amazing movies that you get to reference. So I guess my aesthetic really depends on the story. But on Breaking Bad, I had pictures from Sergio Leone movies, Once Upon A Time In The West, which was my favorite, all over my office wall. And it was really fun to work on a show that welcomed the twelve [inaudible 00:13:59], which was exciting. But Vince did a really cool thing for any of you guys who are going to become show runners. Vince would hire directors and then say to them, “Look, you’re here because I really like your work. I don’t care what style you tell the story in as long as you’re telling the story that we’ve written.” So actually, if you look closely at Breaking Bad, there’s a lot of different styles in the show, but it’s very consistent because the scripts were so tight.

Kary:

Can you tell us some of the stepping stones from when you decided you wanted to make a go of being a television writer, or a film or television writer to becoming a show runner?

Vince:

It’s interesting, because I always think if you want to be a lawyer, or you want to be a doctor, there’s only, which I kind of would find refreshing, there’s only one way to do it. You’ve got to go law school, you’ve got to go to medical school. As you guys all know, there’s a lot of different ways to get this job. Well, I mean, as you will continue to find out once you graduated, we’re all like snowflakes in the movie and t.v. business. There’s no one path. In my case, and it is only one person’s case, I went to NYU Film School which was a great experience. Although it probably should not leave this room, I don’t know how much I owe of my success to, not just NYU, but film school in general. I don’t know how much… It was a good experience, but I can’t point to any point where I say to myself, “God if only for, if it hadn’t been for film school, I wouldn’t have been anywhere.” I don’t know if it works that way to be brutally honest. But-

Kary:

There was no crime drama class, I’m betting.

Vince:

There wasn’t, yeah. But it’s, being surrounded by like minded people who are interested in the same thing as you are, was back then, harder to find like minded communities, especially in Virginia because this was pre-internet. I mean, I guess it existed in some defense contractor lab somewhere back in the early, mid 80’s, but it definitely didn’t exist in my house. So going to a film school was helpful to be surrounded, for the first time in my life, by like minded, folks of the same interests because they didn’t have that in Virginia.

I was much more prolific back than than I am now because I was doing it for love. Somehow when you start getting paid for it, it’s not as much fun as it used to be. I don’t know why that is. But I would write like crazy. Got very lucky right out of film school. My first feature length script that I wrote for an NYU class, but I would have written it anyway, I was lucky enough to win a contest in my home state of Virginia. Probably had only 20, 30 entrants in it at all, this contest. Because you had to be a Virginia, born and raised in Virginia screenwriter, and there just weren’t that many in 1989 when I won, was one of the winners of this contest. And one of the judges was a gentleman named Mark Johnson, who was an executive producer on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. We both know and love him. He contacted me after the contest and he said, “Do you have any more scripts? I really like that one.” And he became sort of my mentor in the business in the very early ’90s. And I considered myself a movie writer for the first five years of my career, 1990-95.

And I was living in my home state of Virginia and I had bought a house, and I had a girlfriend back there, and my mom, and my dad, and my uncle, and my brother were back there. So that’s all I knew. And I thought it is a lot cheaper to live in Virginia than here by a damn sight. So I figured I’m going to keep living in Virginia and write movies and FedEx them out to the West coast there. And it was kind of fun for a while, but I am not much of a self starter. That’s why one of the many, many reasons t.v. has been so good for me, is that there are other people holding a gun to my head every minute of the day. Because I just, being a self starter, and being that Stephen King, Isaac Asimov type writer that just can’t wait to jump up in the morning and start pounding away on the typewriter, man I was never that.    

Anyway, the first five years I thought, “Man, I’m a movie writer. This is great.” Got one thing made, a movie called Wilder Napalm with Debra Winger and Dennis Quaid, which was a fun experience. But it was just like a turd on a pond when that thing hit. Nobody saw that thing. And then I lost my li… not my license, Jesus. I lost my insurance, my writer’s guild insurance because I wasn’t getting much work done in the latter half of that five years. And then thought, “God, I’m done for. I had all this great good luck at the beginning of my career, and I’ve kind of pissed it away. I’m not working like I should. I’m not pounding the keyboard there like I should everyday.” And t.v. came along and saved me.

My agent, a woman named Rhonda Gomez, it was an agency called Triad Artists, she had an assistant, a young guy named Chris Silverman, who was sitting on her desk, was her assistant for a couple of years there. And he and I would talk. I had never even met him, but he and I would talk, he in California, and I’m in Virginia and he would say, “You ought to write for t.v.” And I said, “Oh I wouldn’t, all I know about…” And I was not a snob at all about it. But I said, “The only thing I know about t.v. is I’d have to move to California because there’s like a writer’s room, right?” And he said, “Yeah, but that would be good for you. Because all you tell me is you’re just eating Cheetos and masturbating all day. You’re not doing anything. You’re just a bum.” He was very much a straight shooter. So I said, “Well yeah, but I’ve got a house here.” And he said, “Well think about it.”

And then the X-Files came along, and I was just a fan of that show. I just loved it. It started in 1993, and I was watching from the first episode on. I was hooked. And I happened to tell his boss, Chris’s boss Rhonda, my agent, about this show and she said, “As luck would have it, I’m related to the guy who created that show by marriage. Would you like to meet him sometime when you’re out trying to hustle movie scripts, movie jobs?” I said, “Yeah.” One thing led to another and I wound up getting asked to join… I’m giving my frigging life story here. I’m going to give Michelle a chance to talk here. Anyway, what was the question? Am I on the right track here?

Kary:

From there to taking over from Chris Carter, right? In running the-

Vince:

Oh, I never took, to be fair, I never took over for Chris, but I moved up through the ranks, as did a lot of the folks. I was very well trusted, thankfully. And it was a wonderful, X-Files was such a wonderful job. I wouldn’t be here tonight if not for the X-Files. I would never have met Michelle. She was our producer. Before she was directing, she was producing that show, and was a wonderful producer, and made the impossible happen week in and week out, with a judicious application of Twenty Century Fox’s money. Would just make the impossible happen every week.

It was a great job. Chris wound up trusting me a fair bit, and I learned how to write for t.v., learned how to write on a deadline. It was the best thing that ever could have happened to me is having a deadline, having a gun to my head figuratively speaking. It was wonderful. Wound up learning how to produce television, wound up, ultimately, even learning how to direct television because I got to direct two episodes toward the end of the run of the show. And God, it was a great job. And t.v., I mean I could talk all night about how great t.v. is. I mean, as far as working in it.

Kary: 

And there was a spin off that you were involved in, correct?

Vince:

We did a spinoff. Did you work on The Lone Gunmen? That’s right, you were doing Harsh Realm, there was another spinoff. That’s how I met you. That’s how you came into the fold, doing Harsh Realm. Yeah, we did a spinoff series, The Lone Gunmen, the three computer geek, hacker, truth seeker guys. And that was a very fun show to do. It was great, a great experience.

Kary:

Was that your first show running experience? Or was Breaking Bad your first?

Vince:

I would say Breaking Bad. Lone Gunmen, I guess technically I was one of the show runners, but I didn’t see it that way. I was locked in my… We had a real division of labor. It was me and Frank Spotnitz, and John Shiban, and we had a very strict division of labor. I was writing and re-writing everything. I was in my little office pounding away on the laptop. And excuse me, I’m sorry. John was pretty much always in the editing room, and Frank was always in what we had, what approximated a writers’ room on that show. And he was also producing and administrating and stuff like that. So the division of labor was so cut and dry that I never really felt like the show runner. To me, Breaking Bad really was a step up into a new job that I really did not know I’d be able to accomplish.

Commercial break for CrimeStory.com.

Kary:

Give us the overview, I’ll let you take a sip, and then give us the overview of the origin story of Breaking Bad. Specifically, what it was about that story, and I’ve read you quoted as seeing it as Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. If you would elaborate on that and the inspiration of that. And then, Michelle, if you would chime in on when you became aware of it, and how the dialog between the two evolved about it.

Vince:

I mean basically, and I’ll make it quicker than some of the stuff I’ve been doing. X-Files ended in 2002, greatest job, now in hindsight, second greatest job I’ve ever had. And it was a damn close second. It was a great job. X-Files ended in 2002. Around about 2004, two years roll past, I’m doing jack shit. I was doing endless re-writes on this piece of shit superhero movie I was working on. And then I would get fired off a job writing some crappy horror movie for Dimension. I was basically just going nowhere fast. Yet again, after this great job for seven years on the X-Files. And 2004 rolls along, and I’m talking to my buddy Tom Schnauz, who I went to NYU Film School with.

And Tom was a writer and a producer on X-Files and on Lone Gunmen, and I said, “How’s things by you? What’s going with you?” “Nothing much.” “Can you find any good writing jobs?” “Nah. How about you?” “Nah. Nothing much going on. At two years now, living off of savings and whatnot.” God, some of you have probably heard this story a million times. But basically, we were talking, “What are we going to do? We’ve got to get something going here.” And he said, “I read something about… In the New York times, there was some article about a meth lab in a Brooklyn brownstone that made everybody sick, and that’s what we ought to do.” I said, “What? Get a brownstone?” He said, “No.” He said, “We should put meth lab in the back of an RV, travel around America, and cook meth and make money.”

And when he said that I thought, “God damn, that would be… ” You know what it was? It was the character that intrigued me. You have to understand, warped sense of humor aside, Tom, he and I both share that, we are the most boring, bland people you have ever met, most law abiding. Wouldn’t rip the tag off a mattress. And the fact that we were joking about doing such a thing, as he’s talking away I thought, “God you know, what would it take for me to really do this in real life? I’d have to have a damn good reason. Or at least in my own mind, rationalization wise I would have to have a really good reason.” And as he continued goofing around on the phone talking, I started thinking about, I didn’t have a name for him yet, he wasn’t Walter White yet, but I thought, “God, what would it take? Well, probably a death sentence to start with. And you got to make money. What’s a good reason to make money?”

And that’s where this idea came, that’s the genesis moment of the idea. And I think in hindsight, hindsight being 20/20 as they say, I think it was because I was about to turn, this was 2004, I was a few years away from turning 40, and I was already thinking hard about that. About God, I’m middle aged, I’m very soon to be middle aged officially. I don’t know where it officially starts, but I was feeling that way. And so I thought… I was thinking very much in terms of a guy having a mid life crisis except that it’s very much an end of life crisis, in fact. That’s where the idea came from.

And the thing about it, the meth didn’t interest me. I’m not even sure the crime part of it interested… Well, maybe I’m lying if I say that. The crime part of it interested me, but I wasn’t excited about telling a crime story. It was this character. I really wanted to explore this character. And the thing that really excited me, in hindsight I came to understand it better, most of all I loved the idea of doing something a little different in t.v.

There’s nothing different about telling a crime story or anything like that. What was different at the time, it seemed to me, was that being very much a student of television and a lover of television, I realized that t.v. was all about maintaining the franchise. I probably said, folks have heard me say this too, in some version or another, but Bart Simpson is never going to be any more than 10 years old. Marshall Dillon or Hawkeye Pierce, you know on Gunsmoke, or Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, the actors are physically aging, especially on a show that goes 10, 12, 13, 20 years. You’re seeing that, and there’s that weird disconnect when a show has that kind of success because the characters, historically, the way television’s been created, they don’t change. Especially in the case of M*A*S*H, is an 18 month long police action in Korea that goes on for, I believe it was 11 years. Which is great, but it’s like the Family Circus, you know Jeffy and whatever. The kids never… I don’t know if anybody, there’s a thing in the newspaper called the comics page. And there’s Dennis the Menace, and there’s a day and the kids never get any older.

And t.v. is like that, because if the show is working and you’re making that kind of money, you’re not going to screw it up by having the characters change. And what really excited me was starting off with a guy, he’s going to start as one thing, the good guy, and he’s going to turn into the bad guy. That was what really got me excited about the whole story, the idea of change, and the idea of evolution or devolution in terms of a t.v. character. But the trouble with that idea is it puts an instant clock on things. And instantly, you said to yourself, “If this thing’s a success, we’ve already said from the get-go, success or failure, we’re going to end this thing… In terms of success, we’re going to end this thing way before we should, way before we stop making money on it.” Which is kind of a crazy idea. I’m still to this day, amazed AMC and Sony let us do, indeed, do that, to end it before it was no longer financially… while it was still making money.

Kary:

Tell us about the journey from when you conceived the idea and cracked it, to getting it on the air.

Vince:

I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, it was oh so hard.” It’s going to be hard. Everything you pitch is always going to be. In hindsight, it was far easier than I would have thought it would be. I pitched a great many things in my career. Most of them have gone nowhere. And that will be the case for you guys too, because it’s just the way it is. In baseball, what is it? If you bat 300 in baseball, you can make 20 million bucks a year or whatever. I don’t, I’m not a sports guy. But that means you strike out 7 times out of 10 at bats. That’s a pretty good record. I always think of movies and t.v. business when you’re pitching ideas as being very similar, although it might be batting a 100 might be more like it, or batting whatever is less than that, .05, whatever. I don’t know. Anyway.

So Breaking Bad wasn’t any harder to pitch than anything else in hindsight and in fact, it was better, easier because ultimately, folks said yes to it. And all it takes is one. You go around town and you’re pitching your idea, the weird thing is it could be a slam dunk idea in terms of, in your mind, in terms of, “Oh God, they’re going to be lined up. They’ll be salivating for this,” and then everybody says, “No. No. No.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that pitching a movie around town, or a t.v. show, or whatever. This one was so cockeyed and crazy from the get-go that I knew as I went around town everyone’s going to say no to this thing. But luckily, one place, AMC, said yes. And that’s just part of the job. You’re always going to get kicked in the teeth, 9 times out of 10.

Kary:

Take us on the journey from your directing the pilot to the series pick up and then bringing Michelle in to kind of support the directorial vision of the project.

Vince:

Well, I am still to this day amazed they let me direct the pilot. I really think, God bless them, and I mean this with the highest degree of affection, AMC they were so new to scripted programming, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they liked the script so they figured well, the person who wrote the script should be able to direct it. I mean, he has directed two episodes of television. No one else would do that. No one else would… I’m, to this day, amazed they let me direct it. Astounded is probably a more appropriate word because it’s just a whole lot of money on the line and you want someone who has proven, someone like Michelle, who has proven that they know what they’re doing. But of course, you’re not instantly Michelle. Everyone has to work their way up through the ranks and get those chances. I’m amazed they gave me my chance as early in my directing career as they did. But they did, God bless them. And I was desperately afraid of wasting their money and make them feel like God, we trusted, bet on the wrong horse here. So I gave it my all. But I guess we always do that.

Directed the pilot. Luckily, it came out as well as it did, mainly because we hired the right actors. Good actors, and a good editor, and a good director of photography will make anyone look like, make anyone look like Kubrick or whatever. So then we got on the air, and I wanted Michelle to direct, you were going to direct the second to last, or the final episode of Season One, right?

Michelle: 

Yeah, somewhere in there. But actually, I’ll just back up for a second, because when Vince first called me about Breaking Bad, he actually asked if I was available to produce the pilot and I wasn’t. And that was actually a good thing for my directing career in hindsight. Because… So I couldn’t do it, which I was very disappointed about at the time. And so he said, “Will you direct in the first season?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” And AMC said, “Michelle who? No way.” I mean, I had six credits to my name, which were four more than you had doing the pilot, but-

Vince:

Is that true? That’s right. I forgot. Why where they? Yeah.

Michelle:

Well just because they wanted to surround you with super experienced people. And Vince, very kindly said, “Well, I want her to direct. She’s directing an episode.” And then, two days before I was to direct my first episode, the writer’s strike happened, and they shut down. And Vince called me from set and said, “Michelle, I’m so sorry.” I mean, my bags were packed, they were at the back door, I was so excited. And he said, “We’re shutting down because of the writer’s strike.” Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for you guys, which you can…

Vince:

Huge blessing.

Michelle:

Right.

Vince:

We were out of scripts.

Michelle:

So I got to direct in the second season which they were, thankfully, really happy with. And then, Vince asked me if I would come back and produce the show with them, and they gave me three episodes a season. Which, had I started out as a producer on the show, they would never have done that. They, being Sony, wouldn’t have allowed that, but Vince very much supported it. Thank you so much. So it was a really, it was an incredible opportunity for me to come in and produce the show with them and to be able to direct three episodes a season.

Vince:

And you wound up directing more episodes of Breaking Bad than any other director.

Michelle: 

I did. I was very lucky with that.

Kary:

How many total? 

Michelle:

11.

Kary:

I want to come back to a few things that you raised, Vince. But how did the show evolve aesthetically, particularly directorially, over the course of Walter White’s and Jesse Pinkman, they kind of have crossing journeys, right? How did the aesthetic of the show evolve over the years, over the five seasons?

Vince:

I think it… That’s a great question. Honestly, the simple answer is I think it evolved like most things evolve in terms of… I’d love to sit here and say it was all part of the master plan that I had where it’d start off like French Connection, then it evolve a little bit into the John Ford season. It evolved like most things evolve. It evolved organically, and it evolved from… The best single thing about t.v. is that when you surround yourself with wonderful, talented people, and you let them do, you let them give you their best, and you do that by being open to their best and by being enthusiastic and supportive of their best, and when you get your best out of people, it organically, everyone’s work kind of intertwines in a magical way that… I mean, the way it aesthetically grew is that we had a lot of great directors, like Michelle, and they all gave me their eye, gave us all their eye, so to speak, and their interesting, their personal sort of… they all each had kind of their personal take on the world, and their personal take on the sort of visual aesthetic. And they would come up with shots that became sort of known as Breaking Bad shots. Quite often, I don’t even know who started it, but putting the camera in a weird, oddball place like looking up out of-

Michelle:

You did. Didn’t you start that?

Vince:

I don’t know that I did.

Michelle:

There’s the dryer shot.

Vince:

Well okay, that was in the pilot. But I mean, I’m not thinking of the great examples-

Michelle:

You inspired me for that because when I came on to the show, and Vince is being very modest here, because I will say that at the beginning of each season, Vince would come in with a color palette for that season which we’d all discuss. And the production designer and the costume designer, and everything would put together samples. And then, we’d also talk about the tone of the season. And each season, the cinematography got darker, and darker, and darker. And that’s something that we really pushed the envelope on. And Vince, in the pilot, started, I would say with that dryer shot, which is we broke, Vince broke the fourth wall and put the camera inside the dryer looking out past the money blowing around to Walter White. And that become a visual language for the show. So when I did, my first episode was Four Days Out. And Vince and I were talking ahead of time about, we have a meth making montage in that episode, which became the first of many meth making montages. And we talked about that Jesse and Walt need to… We need to show that they’ve evolved their relationship and they’re working really well together. So I thought, “Oh, at the end of the montage, it’d be great to,” being inspired from the pilot, “to do an upshot through the table,” which is actually… What do you call it? When you can’t see through something? What word?

Vince:

Well, solid.

Michelle:

It’s opaque. Thank you.

Vince:

Opaque. Thank you.

Michelle:

Yes. It’s opaque. And so it was a big cheat because we brought in, we took out the table and brought in a piece of plastic, and we put their glass dish which they’re pouring the blue meth into, and we’re looking up through that at Jesse and Walt looking down, and they’re working together. So that shot, that breaking the fourth wall, became very much a language of Breaking Bad. And we, a lot of the time, we would come up with cool shots, but Michael Slovis and I, and whoever was directing at the time, we’d really check ourselves and we’d go, “Okay, is this a cool shot that drives the story forward, or is this just a cool shot?” And if it was just a cool shot, we wouldn’t do it. But if it served the story, then we could do the cool shot.

Vince:

That’s well put. And I’m not trying to “aw shucks” it here. The short answer really is, I mean, it’s very much a group effort. And not just on this show, I think any show. I mean, you can be a show runner with an iron will and you can say, “I want it this way, and there’s a rule here.” We’ve all heard of those shows where they had some sort of manifesto about this is what you must do, this is what you can’t do, don’t ever do this except on Tuesday, don’t do that. And that’s fine. By the way, we’re all snowflakes again. You can do it any damn way you want, and if it works, it’s a very results oriented business. If it works, more power to you. I don’t see it that way personally. That doesn’t work for me. I like it when people, selfishly speaking, I like it when people give me their best and then whatever it grows into, just as long as we’re all, it’s very important, what Michelle just said, just as long as the story is being served first and foremost, then wherever the chips fall, it’s kind of a wonderful thing.

And you can’t quite predict… I could not have told you at the beginning of Breaking Bad, in that pilot episode, if it had only been my aesthetic, this is the best way to put it. If it had only been my aesthetic and nobody else’s, you see what that aesthetic was of 10, 12 years ago in that pilot episode. That was the best I could do at the time. And I’m proud of it. I’m still proud of it. But if the show were only that, what you see in that pilot, if I didn’t have all these other wonderful people adding to the stone soup, so to speak, the show would not have… I wouldn’t be here now. It wouldn’t have become the thing it became. It became so much more with the addition of all these other people.

Michelle:

That’s a really… That’s one of the many great things about Vince and a really important thing to know as future show runners. I’ll just tell you very quickly about my first day directing Breaking Bad. We were at the Albuquerque airport and we were running out of time. And we had to leave the airport to go somewhere else, and we were on the move and I needed… Jesse drove the RV to the airport, and I needed to get a shot of Walt getting in, and then we were going to drive away.

Vince:

And that’s a real airport you’re shooting at too.

Michelle:

Yeah, we’re shooting at a real airport. And we put a camera inside the RV looking out. So we look out the window, and we get the expression of Walt looking at Jesse like he’s insane because he pulled up to the airport in a meth making machine. And he gets on the RV, and we pan over, same shot. And these two guys are silhouetted at the driver’s seat. And they have a conversation, and they drive off. And looked at it and I thought, “Well, tells a story, really beautiful shot. Looks great. Can’t see their faces. They’re completely dark. But I know what’s happening.” So cut, print, let’s move on. And I thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to get in trouble after my first day of shooting.” And Vince saw the shot, and he called me and he said, “Oh my God, I love it. It’s fantastic.”

And I will tell you that at time, what 90% of the people would have said is, “We can’t see their eyes.” And Vince didn’t care about that, because in that moment, we were telling the story, and we did it in a way that worked, and it was unique. And it was just by luck because we were running out of time. But that gave myself, the DP, the actors, everybody the confidence to go, “Oh okay, great. We get to think out of the box here and we’re not going to get in trouble for it. We get to be creatively free.” And Vince is really great bout inspiring people creatively. And it also starts with amazing scripts.

Commercial break for CrimeStory.com.

Kary:

Can you talk a little bit about putting together the core writing team of the show?

Vince:

Again, a lot of luck. We have a producer, she’d be great on a panel, Melissa Bernstein. She is a non-writing producer who has excellent, excellent taste, as everyone who worked on the show whether they’re writers or not, in front of and behind the camera. Everyone had excellent taste, thank God. When you put together a great team, that’s one of the things you get. She winnowed down a pile of scripts seven feet tall into a pile about this tall. She winnowed down hundreds of them. This was 10, 11 years ago, 10 years ago when we were starting. Winnowed down a pile of scripts into about 8 to 12 of them that were the best of the best. And then I read those and of those, I picked three or four writers who we… Or maybe a half dozen who came in and met with us and of which we hired two or three. One of them was Peter Gould, who is now running, currently back over in Burbank, running our spinoff series, Better Call Saul. It was just a matter… I guess the better answer to your question, the more helpful answer in the room here, what were we looking for? I think that’s what you’re really asking, and I went off on yet another tangent.

What I was looking for is the ability to tell a story, to paint a picture in my head, the reader’s head with words. The dialog was… When I read a script, what I’m looking for, dialogue’s great. Dialogue’s fine. It’s kind of the cherry on top of kind of stuff. And I love a good turn of phrase. I love very quotable dialog just like everybody else does. But to me, that’s not what, that’s the whipped cream on top. That’s not the structure, that’s not the important part. I don’t want just a big plateful of whipped cream. That’s not going to satisfy me. That’s just the sizzle, not the steak. What I’m looking for is structural stoutness. I want to see a plot or structure that’s well conceived. I want to see human beings, characters behaving like real, recognizable human beings. That’s the old thing where I joke about, “Oh, my flashlight doesn’t work, and there’s a monster in the house. I think I’ll go down to the basement.” It’s in other words, have people, have human beings in your, have them resemble actual human beings. Have them behave as human beings would. That goes a long way with me when I’m reading a script or seeing a movie. I’m probably preaching to the choir here. And don’t make it about just a lot of b.s. dialog.

The most meaningful moments I think we can all point to in our favorite movies, our favorite t.v. shows are the moments of silence, the moments where two characters, one character looks at another, and you see everything you need to see in their eyes. That’s what I’m looking for. And there’s a big thing, not to ding on playwrights, but last few years lot of agents, they’re sending you scripts and oh, I hear you’re staffing this season, hot new playwright out of New York. So what? And no offense to playwrights. How about send the hot new haiku writer. What the fuck? It’s like, what is a play going to tell me? A stage play is a whole different art form. What the hell am I going to learn from that as a show runner reading… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t curse. And again, nothing against, because there are wonderful theatrical playwrights who also are wonderful screen writers. The one does not preclude the other. But again, I might as well be reading a sonnet. What is it going to tell me about how this person’s going to… Because every play I’ve ever read has been exit, enter stage left and then 178 pages of dialog, and then exit stage right. I was like that’s not…

This is really what my point is. If you read a Breaking Bad script, or a Better Call Saul script, it is endless scene direction. And we try to make the scene direction as entertaining as possible. But we’ll tell you the color of the tie the guy’s wearing. We’ll tell you the, we’ll try to describe in infinite detail the look the woman gives the man, whatever. It’s so much scene direction that it looks insane to a lot of screen writers, because they’re like what the hell is all this? When’s the dialog going to start? Well, we’ve been trying very studiously to cut as much of that crap out as possible because the important stuff is when they’re not talking. So that’s what I’m looking for, telling a story.

Kary:

And how did you delegate. You mentioned Peter. How would you delegate responsibilities in terms of breaking the season, and then including directors in the conversation, when would those voices come in? How did you structure your season and the delegation of the responsibilities over the course of the series.

Vince:

I’ll start by talking about a little bit of the writers’ room, and they you can talk about the interaction of us with the directors. You’d be wonderful to answer that question.

I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal of delegation in terms of the writers’ room. And by that, I mean it was all hands on deck all the time. The most important part of the show runner’s job it seems to me, a writing versus a non-writing show runner, and I don’t really know much about non-writing show runners, but the most important job for the head writer is to be writing. Or rather, not to be writing, necessarily sitting with his or her laptop, but actually presiding over the writers’ room. And that was the most important part of my job period. Everything else paled in comparison. Everything else was disposable. Going to the set 800 miles away in Albuquerque, I loved doing it. I’d rather be on the set, but it was utterly disposable compared to being in the writers’ room and presiding verbally. It was just a verbal, endless pitch situation.

Someone else joked about this, but I really think it holds true. The writers’ room is kind of a sequestered jury that never ends. It’s just a bunch of people sitting around this table endlessly arguing the merits, talking through the story at hand and what does this particular character want at this moment? What does this character need at this moment? And basically just doing that all day, day in, day out.

So when I say there’s no delegation, I mean in the sense that we were all, all of us writers as much as possible in that room together, breaking each story in nauseating detail, carding it on index cards, putting it up on cork boards, such that at the end of two or three weeks, typically it took two and a half, three weeks to break a single episode, the end of that time, any of those writers, if the writer of that episode died in their traces so to speak, any of us could have pushed their body aside and sat down and done the episode ourselves because we all knew the story in absurd detail.

That’s the way we… We didn’t ever have that thing, and again, there’s a lot of ways you can do it. A lot of shows will do it this way. We never did that thing where, “Okay, and now in Act Two, you know what we need? We need about four and half to six pages of, we need something funny, a funny scene in a malt shop. All right, funny scene in malt shop. Okay, all right. Then after that what we need,” we never did. We would just excruciating detail. What’s the very first image you see of the scene in the malt shop? Who’s in the malt shop? Is it raining outside, is it sunny? Is it day, is it night? I mean, just insane.

Kary: 

Interesting. So a lot of these episodes are literally written in the writers’ room.

Vince:

Yeah. And I don’t want to take away from, there was still room for invention, plenty of… but not as much in most shows. There was not as much room for invention once you sat down to write the script. It really wasn’t. And it was the same whether I was writing an episode, or whether the most junior writer was writing the episode. I wanted it, if I was writing it, I wanted it nailed down.

The first few movie scripts I wrote in my career, I would have fun coming up, oh great opening scene. And I’d sketch it out in my notebook, verbally sketch it out in great detail. I’d get the whole thing figured out in pretty good detail up through the end of Act Two, up to about page 75 or so. And then I’d get bored with that. I’d say, “I just want to start writing. It’s going to be fun. The ending will create itself.” And every single movie script I wrote at the beginning of my career, the endings all were terrible.

And again, a million ways to do it. If you want to just sit down and let the process inspire you, more power to you. That does not work for me. I want belt and suspenders. I want my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed, and I want every damn thing possible figured out. Because then, it’s like having a really good, detailed road map for your road trip from the East Coast to the West Coast. Then when you’ve got that, it’s safety, it’s security. You can take a side road here or there as you’re writing, figuratively speaking. Great, but you need a good, solid, well limbed out plan A.

And that’s the way we did it in the writers’ room. So there was no delegation in terms of Peter’s the Saul Goodman guy. We’ll give him the Saul Goodman scene. We’ll gang bang it out. And Jenny, she’s great with Hank. She was, by the way. But we wouldn’t, it was catch and catch can. You would get whatever episode you would get in the batting order we put together at the beginning of the season. So we didn’t pitch episodes to certain writers’ strengths. Everyone had to be able to do it all, so to speak.

Kary:

So you get one of these kind of, you used the word gang bang scripts.

Vince:

Which was something we would do. Yeah, it’s kind of a crude term. It’s something we would do all the time on the X-Files and in network t.v. just because you had to because you had these looming deadlines.

Kary:

So it’s very well worked out in the writers’ room hive mind. And when does it fall in your lap?

Michelle:

Well, as a producer on the show, it would come to my attention actually, in a outline form. So these guys would break the stories, and then I was, while these guys were all in L.A., I was in Albuquerque 24/7. So Vince and the writers would break the scripts. And sometimes I’d go into the writers’ room just to hang out before I went, had to go to Albuquerque, which was amazing. Because it’s spending time in Vince’s writers’ room is really exciting and educational, and fascinating because the writers will start breaking out and talking like the characters. And as Vince was saying, they go over every detail, and they also think about every possibility, every story direction they could go in. And then that’s how they come about to where they end up.

So then we would, as producers in Albuquerque, we’d get the outline ahead of time. So we could start prepping on certain things because their outlines were so detail oriented. And then the scripts would come for the directors at the beginning of a seven day prep. Sometimes we’d get them earlier. And in the history of Breaking Bad, we did not have one late script. In the history of most television shows, in the first season I don’t know what the percentage is. Probably 70% are late, in the second season maybe it’s 65%. We didn’t have one late script on Breaking Bad. From the production’s point of view and the director’s point of view, that’s awesome. That’s really amazing.

So the director would get the script and we would start prepping the episode, and be location scouting, and casting, and doing all that stuff that you do. And then, there was always a writer from Los Angeles, the writer of that episode, who’d come out and be with us for part of the prep. And then at the end of prep, we have a tone meeting which are these invaluable meetings where you get to sit down with the writer of the episode and Vince, or Vince if he wrote the episode. And you go through the entire script. And you talk about, as a director, how you see each scene, making sure that we’re all on the same page, and making sure that we understand what the intention, what the arc of the characters are, what the arc of the scene is, making sure that when we go to camera, because we have so little time to shoot it, all the discussions and everything that sometimes happen on set which you don’t have time to have, happen ahead of time. So you go into it incredibly well prepped. In television, in anything, prep is essential, and a lot of people don’t put enough importance on it. But we did.

Vince:

Preparation time, it just so, I couldn’t agree more. It’s so important and it’s so valuable. It could not be… it’s priceless having that time to think and plan ahead as much as possible.

Michelle:

And it’s still incredibly fast. I mean, as a director, you come in and you get given this script. And the next day, you have a concept meeting with all the heads of department, and you’re talking about the script. And everybody, because you’re working at such a fast pace, they want answers to questions right away, and you’ve just maybe read the script once. So I learned really early on, ask for everything you could possibly imagine, because they’re going to take stuff away, but if you don’t ask on that first day, they’re not going to add stuff afterwards. So every time I thought, “Okay, I might want a crane here, I might want something special here,” I learned to ask for it really quickly. I knew I wasn’t going to get it all, but then it, you know.

And then the other thing I just wanted to mention is that we would do the writers’ schedule and the directors’ schedule at the beginning of every season. Melissa and I would do it, and we’d go over it with Vince. And that was setting up who was writing which episode and who was directing which episode. And for most of the seasons, as we got near the end, it became a little bit more designed, but it wasn’t trying to put any… As Vince was saying, we weren’t cherry picking oh, this person’s this strength, we’ll do this on this episode. It was luck of the draw. And I’ve been asked a lot, “Did you cherry pick your episodes?” And I said, “No, I never felt that way on this show because I knew every script was going to be amazing and you were just lucky to get to direct one.”

Kary:

This has been Part One 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 Part two of this conversation 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.

END OF PART ONE

Kary:

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.