Philipp Fussenegger, FILMFORUM NRW
Interview with Vince Gilligan
Interview with Vince Gilligan
“I don’t mind if the audience doesn’t like the character as long as they find them interesting.” – Statement from former program director of HBO when he gave Tom Fontana creative freedom for the TV series OZ.
I am sitting here on this table with my 6 writers, where we come up with stories. Basically this is how it works. We are at the beginning of season 5. And this is probably the end of the 3rd or 4th week of sitting around in this room coming up with ideas. For the first 4 weeks we were basically talking and brainstorming around the structure of the entire season. We are trying to have a good sense of where we are going. And we have a pretty good idea where we are heading to.
Yesterday we were starting working on the very first episode of the season and we were breaking it down like we do with every episode one by one.
We are most of the time sitting in front of a cupboard as you can see behind me, where we write stuff on index cards and figure out the scenes one by one. This is how we build the episode brick by brick. It takes all 7 of us on a average: 2 weeks of verbalizing, thinking and asking each other questions for one particular episode. We put up everything on that cupboard. After that, one of us writes down everything that takes that person up to 3 weeks of writing.
The system in Germany is different to yours. The departures are more separated than in America. For instance you are a writer, producer and director on the show. How does this work?
All of my writers have a producer title. I expect all my writers who have the title of a producer to act as producers. With the best ability when they visit the set. Every television show is different. In a lot of TV shows the writers are not allowed to visit the set for instance. But I’ve learned a lot from Chris Carter (creator of the x-Files) who was a writer and producer. He expected us not only to write our scripts. Of course that is our formal job, but to take an active hand in choosing the actors. We were expected to go on the set and to answer all the questions the director would have. We are expected from our physical producers when we are over budget to find creative ways to help the budget to be mend and not exceeded. We were expected to take an active hand with the composer to get moods of music. Also in the editing room this is somehow unusual in American TV, but it is the way we work on Breaking Bad, and I do like this because I learned that way to do business from Chris Carter on the X-files and it is a way where the writer not only comes up with the story. He does his best to aim the physical production. I expect my writers to think as producers and to stop themselves before they get to crazy with their writings. I say it would be great, if Hannibal crosses the alps with 100 elephants, but there is no way we can afford that and shoot it. So we have to find other creative ways, so that the producer on the set doesn’t get a heart attack.
There is an Episode in Season 3 called “Fly” which is artistically very different to the rest of Breaking Bad. I think it is called a think-episode with minimum budget and minimum cast. But at the same time artistically I thought it was sublime!
We refer to those episodes to be bubble episodes as they exist within a bubble, or in within one set. And yes indeed the episode you refer to called “Fly” was a reaction of the fact that in season two we were hopelessly over budget, about over half a million. So we had to do everything to get back on track so my writers and I knew we had to do a bubble episode. We had to do an episode which plays essentially on one set. I have to say that we were a bit nervous, because we like to have action and keep the scenery changing on the TV show. We were nervous while we were staging that episode which is a bit like a stage play. But two of my writers were former actors and play writers and they did a fabulous job on writing that one. Excellent directed by Rian Johnson. It is one of my favorites episodes.
Better than Movies? We could even argue that the audience is watching Breaking Bad even closer than your average movie audience,
Television allows you a long storytelling process and that is a wonderful thing. When I come up with an idea like Breking Bad in my mind I say to my self: “does this constitute 2h or does this constitute 100h of story “. In case of the idea of Breaking Bad, which was in the early stages to become a movie, not that I ever wanted make that, but the answer is that TV can never be a process of small seduction. In other words when you go and see a movie you have an hour and a half and everything has to be compressed into this short time. But in television series you have the great extravagance to end an episode on a cliff hanger. Ending the episode with a feeling that the audience hopelessly wants more.
You are very seldom allowed to do that on movies.
The second Star Wars movie ends essentially on a cliff hanger. I remember when I saw it as an 12 year old kid, I was very upset. How can I wait another 3 years to find out how it continues?
Ending an episode with a cliff hanger is both a frustrating and wonderful and tantalizing thing. Only a structure that is more than 2h allows you that. It is a very fine thing not to answer every question in a block of 2h time.
How do you sell a pitch like Breaking Bad to a TV network?
I pitched Breaking Bad like I pitched everything I ever pitched. Pretty much everything I ever pitched has been turned down. Why Breaking Bad got accepted? Honestly, I don’t know. I remember a saying from school on paper: “There is no reason why a bumblebee should fly, because of the mass compared to its wing area it is all screwed up”. There was no reason on paper why Breaking Bad should have ever become a TV show. It is about a 50 year old man who is dying on cancer who cooks crystal meth. There is no reason why American television should say yes to it. I am amazed to this day, how it actually passed.
I came up with the idea in the usual way. I talked with a writer friend what we gonna do now after the x-files were over. We were discussing among ourselves, we had this great job and now it is over. We are out of money and we have a hard time to find a writing job and my buddy said: “Why don’t we buy a camper and put a meth lab in the back”. I said “Oh this is a brilliant idea for a TV show!”. I pitched to Sony television production company and they were interested in it, I don’t know why but they were. Once we had production company Sony, we began pitching it to various TV networks. They all said no but than AMC network showed up like a white bride on a horse. To this day it feels like winning a lottery.
Do you have some plans figured out for the series final of breaking bad?
That must be a lot of pressure?
It is a lot of pressure. It is a wonderful problem. It is a high-class problem, as we say! That people have responded so favorably on the show. We are very lucky for that. But of course the reactions rise up the pressure every year. We don’t wanna disappoint our audience. We are heading to the final and we have some rough ideas. But the devil is in the details as we say.
Do you have a plan for a new series when you finish Breaking Bad?
I wish I had, but no I haven’t one.