Vince Gilligan clearly enjoys the decompression process. A few days after Season 5.1 of “Breaking Bad” ended, I had a chance to briefly catch up with him, as he was deep into a round of exit interviews.
One thing that strikes me is how much Gilligan is the anti-Walter White. Unlike his fictional creation, Gilligan is generous in recognizing the contributions of his fellow workers, and has a very accurate perception of where he is, why he is there, and where he is going. But as you will see, this sets up a problem that is mirrored in the drama of “Breaking Bad.” Gilligan and his team are stuck with their characters, their actions and the consequences of those actions. In some profound way, Walter White and his extended family have achieved a life of their own, and in the case of Season 5.1, as you will see, this led to some dilemmas that were not totally solved.
Part of the reason why so many people obsess over “Breaking Bad” is that a fictional world has been constructed that transcends most of the conventions of narrative storytelling. But unlike the auteur-driven competition, where Matt Weiner, David Simon and David Chase are given, or give themselves, credit for masterminding every frame, Gilligan seems equally at home being both a dictator and a genial traffic cop. As you will see, he gives credit where it is due, and seems as much in awe of his team's accomplishments as his viewers. It’s a hard act to pull off, but as a student of the collaborative creative process, Gilligan provides a one-man advanced seminar in how great collaborative art gets that way.
This season the cinematography, direction, music choices -- every aspect of the filmmaking -- took an evolutionary leap from previous seasons. This helped carry these last eight episodes across a finish line that still seems a little hard to discern. And just as we are confused and filled with trepidation on where “Breaking Bad” is heading, Vince Gilligan shares some of our confusion and anxiety.
If past seasons of “Breaking Bad” are any indication, this is a very good thing.
I saw in your New York Times interview the other day that most questions revolved around, “What’s gonna happen next?” I want to make this clear to you that I don’t want to know. I want to be surprised at the end of next season! And I know you were about to tell me, so, I just want to say on the record, I’d like you to keep it to yourself.
Fair enough. I’m glad you warned me.
But I do have some questions about what we’ve just seen. You have a very special relationship with your pal Walter White. And the question I have is this: What was he thinking leaving the book there? Does he want to be caught? Did he just happen to bring it in from the bedroom, and was reading it on the can?
I think it’s the latter. I don’t really believe Walter wants to be caught. I don’t think it’s one of those. And we do all hear about those kind of moments in real life, don’t we? Where people seem to want to be caught. It seems to be a huge relief once they are, and they seem to be making mistakes toward the end. It was obviously ill-advised on Walt’s part to leave that around. But I think it speaks more to his comfort level at being a criminal now. I think I’ve always been fascinated by human beings’ capacity to adapt. To anything, really. I mean, humans can adapt to any kind of circumstance, provided their heart’s still beating. I think Walt has gotten his mind pretty completely around the idea of being a criminal. Of course, at the moment that this happens, he’s “out of the business” -- but he’s got pretty comfortable as we saw. For many episodes, where he would argue with Skyler and say “everything’s fine. Nobody’s going to come busting in that door. I’m the boss. I’m the danger. I’m the power.” And I think Walt’s mistake was one born of arrogance, and one born of comfort. He was overly certain of himself, and his abilities, and he probably does not think of Hank as much of a reader.
It was an absolute oversight. And very unfortunate for him, to be sure.
Last time we spoke, we swapped Stanley Kubrick quotes ...
This season I really had Kubrick on the brain. And what I thought of was the Kubrickian fallibility of man. For instance, I was reminded in “Dead Freight” of “The Killing.”
Everything’s working perfectly, and then, the suitcase falls off the luggage cart and the money goes on the runway. Or in “2001,” how HAL 9000 can lip-read? Those great moments. And, I’m curious about the staging of Hank sitting on the toilet. The last shot before credits roll. Hank gives that great Kubrick stare. Like Vincent D’Onofrio just before he blew his brains out in “Full Metal Jacket.”
It was, wasn’t it?
There just seems to be that element of black, anthracite-hearted comedy in “Breaking Bad” that I often see in the films of Kubrick.
Well, we do steal from the best. To be fair, I wasn’t there on the day that Michelle MacLaren did such a wonderful job of directing that episode, and obviously, that scene within that episode. And Moira Walley-Beckett, one of our excellent writers, did such a great job writing it. I’d love to take credit for everything, but so much of the show is such a group effort and so many moments in this show I wasn’t there for, or didn’t have much to do with. Having said that, I love that comparison. It does feel a bit like that. I love the angle she chose. Ah, I had nothing to do with it, but I love that low angle Michelle chose, looking up into Hank’s face, and I love the way that Dean Norris played it.
You know, these kind of comparisons are interesting. Perhaps on some level, we do drink in all of these wonderful influences, like Kubrick movies and Kurosawa movies, and Sergio Leone movies. I could name three dozen others. They just kind of percolate in our heads for decades on end, and then we find ourselves responding to certain bits of lighting, certain camera angles, and certain focal lengths on lenses. We respond to them positively, perhaps because they inadvertently remind us of certain wonderful moments in the great movies we’ve seen in the past. I do wonder that myself. I’m having a hard time putting this in words but, yeah, you steep in wonderful moviemaking like Stanley Kubrick’s moviemaking, and then you find yourself giving inadvertent tips of the hat to it in your work as it progresses.
Speaking of hat tips, one very perceptive writer picked up that in the Season 3 episode “Sunset,” the call letters “KDK-12” was used in a radio dispatch, the same radio high sign used in “The Shining.”
Yes, that is absolutely an overt homage. You are exactly right. John Shiban, who wrote that episode, was giving a shout-out to “The Shining.” Good catch.
Well, it wasn’t my catch, but you’re in good homage company, here. In “Raising Arizona,” there’s a scene with graffiti “P.O.E” — the “launch codes” from “Dr. Strangelove.”
Peace on earth, yeah!
Right, “Purity of Essence,” so there you go ...
That’s right! I was a little kid, I was Mordecai, the little kid, who’s writing graffiti on the bedroom wall there. Yeah, that’s right! (laughs)
Well, clearly, you watched way too much television and movies as a kid! What is wonderful about “Breaking Bad” is how you have marinated your work in the culture, but still have put out a profoundly original work. It’s moving the ball way forward. I want to talk briefly about Michelle MacLaren, because she really hit it out of the park this season as a director.
I think she’s now directing a couple of “Game of Thrones.”
“Breaking Bad” is an auteur-, producer-driven series, with yourself as that auteur, but it also seems that you leave a fair amount of latitude with auteur directors to pursue their vision. There is a house style, yet it’s all so distinct, which is unusual in television.
You know, my philosophy is hire the best, and then let let them do what they do so well. The auteur theory is always a very flattering one. People say, “It’s an auteur show!” And I love it! (laughs) On some egotistical, vain level, I love hearing it. But having said that, I’m going to be honest. This has always been very much a group effort. And as much as it personally serves me, and as much as I love hearing the auteur theory bandied about, I’ve never really bought into it. I’ve always thought that no one talks about the auteur theory of the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance. It’s like one guy designed it -- except that he had a team of people helping him with the math, and then hundreds or thousands of people who built it.
My point is this show’s very much a collaboration, and always has been. And, back to your question about Michelle, she is such a wonderful director. It does seem to me wisest to not be too much of a quote unquote “auteur,” but to let these wonderful directors, these actors, these writers and our wonderful director of photography and our production designer, all have their enthusiasm for the show to give their all to it. The only way to do that is to take their advice, to listen to their expertise and to not ever say, this is how I want it. This has got to be just like this! But instead, you always have an opinion, but you want them giving you their honest to god best stuff. You can’t do that if you’re too much of quote unquote “auteur.” That’s sort of trying to keep people under your thumb. Ultimately, it seems to me that’s going to wind up being unsuccessful. You've got to have everybody feel equally like the auteur of the show in his, or her, department.
Your attitude seems to extend in front of the camera as well. You’ve created an ecosystem of characters whom viewers believe, and even maybe you believe, almost have a life of their own. They’re sort of operating under everyone’s communal, and your ultimate, control, yet they also seem to have a life of their own. They live and breathe. Do those characters ever surprise you? Have they ever done things that you, Vince Gilligan, were surprised that they did, yet seemed inevitable later? If we think about it in the context of the season we’ve just seen, were you surprised by what Walter did or what Jesse did? Not that you didn’t know what they were going to do, but that somehow, their behavior kind of emerged. I hope you know what I am trying to say, here, because I’m not sure I do!
I do, exactly. It’s an excellent question and I actually have a good answer for you, for once. (laughs) It’s an excellent question. (pause) We do our best to tell the story as organically as possible. We cheat a little bit sometimes, because we have desires of places to get to, story-wise. We have big plot moments. For instance, when you start a season with Walter White buying a machine gun, you have to be thinking ahead on some level. But even though we cheat sometimes, I always maintain that this show works best when we are strictly organic. When we say to ourselves, we’re going to build this brick by brick. And the first and foremost question is always, where’s Walt? Where is Walt’s head at right now? Where is each individual characters head right at this moment? What do they want? What do they fear? What are they driving toward? What are they fleeing from? You know, you let them tell the story.
Having said that, a great example from this season was that moment of Todd’s character shooting the little boy off the motorcycle in Episode 5. After that moment, we had this great ending for an episode, great and terrible. It was an awful thing to witness, but it’s very dramatic. This poor little kid gets murdered because he is at the wrong place at the wrong time. And we thought, wow, great ending! OK, now, what happens next week?
And we had a devil of a time moving forward, because of not thinking far enough ahead. I was thinking, wow, this is going to cause all kinds of ripples. Obviously, there’s going to be resonances from this action and consequences. But I didn’t quite realize, and I don’t think the rest of the writers realized quite how big those consequences were going to turn out to be. Because, indeed, what surprised us was the thought that Jesse Pinkman is just not going to go forward from here. He’s just not going to stay in the business. And that was not our intention to kick him out of the business, as it were.
When we came up with the thought of the boy being shot, we honestly did not realize that this was going to be the outcome. But it truly was. And as we moved forward, we had the damnedest time breaking the following episode. And then, the episode after that. Speaking for myself, here, I kept trying to push it back into a place of, “OK, Jesse’s really going to be upset about this. And there’s going to be hell to pay, but ultimately, he’s going to knuckle under and he’s going to keep working with Walt.” And we’ll get back to more or less the way it was. But it just wouldn’t go. You just couldn’t put that square peg in that round hole. And adding to that, by the time Aaron Paul came to me, we had sort of come to this realization amongst ourselves. When I saw Aaron, he said, “You know, with this ending, I don’t know how I can ever keep cooking. I don’t know how I can do that, how my character can do that.”
Which is very interesting because Aaron Paul is not a pushy actor in any way, shape or form. He’s wonderful, sweet and collaborative. This is the only time he was adamant, because he felt so strongly about it. And he was absolutely 100 percent right. And that helped inform our decision. So these characters, and sometimes the actors themselves, tell us where they will go and where they won’t. And you really cannot lead them around by the nose. You have to let them tell you where they’re going. Otherwise, everyone’s miserable.
I could sense that everyone was stunned and a little unsure how to proceed in the follow-up episode.
I won’t say the seams showed, but, OK, I will say the seams showed. But so many people wouldn’t be talking with you if you weren’t creating this amazing world. On the other hand, I’ve sensed that this world is closing in on you, your writers and your actors now. You’ve got a hard out, and the inevitability that’s sort of driving your characters' fate is, in a strange way, also driving your artistic fate. In a way, you’re doomed, just like your cast.
Yeah, you’re right. That’s very astute of you. That’s very well put. I got to say, it is tricky. Moving forward through these final eight feels perilous. It feels like we’re in a minefield sometimes, and we don’t want to make one false step. It is sad, saddening, sad-making, whatever the word is. We’re sad because we don’t want this to end. But we know it must. We know we don’t want to ever get to a point where we’re just treading water, creatively. That would be the worst kind of fate. But, now that we know for sure that we’re ending, we are very sad about it. We are pressing on, trying to make it as satisfying as possible.
One last question, as I know we’re out of time. How long did you have “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in your back pocket? Either you had it from the pilot, and decided to wait on it, or you, or some other genius, came up with it for the most inspired montage sequence in a series full of them. How did you play that card?
That montage is so great. The song is a fun song, and an apt choice. But, I think what people are responding to in that montage is the bravura filmmaking of Michelle MacLaren and Moira-Walley Beckett who wrote it and Michael Slovis who shot it. It is just perfectly executed. And, I really believe there were many songs that this amazing execution could be married to. Kelley Dixon, who edited it, also has to get great credit for how wonderful that montage is. She just did a stellar job of putting it together.
But who came up with the song?
I came up with it about six months ago. I hate to say that. (laughs) I’ve known that song for most of my life, since I was a kid, since I heard Tommy James and the Shondells on the radio; I’ve heard that song three decades at least. I hate to admit that even though I knew that song, I was really late to the party on realizing that we should use it on the show. It was only about six months ago that I was driving to work, and I heard it come on the oldies station. Suddenly, I thought, “Jesus! This is so obvious, we’ve got to use 'Crystal Blue Persuasion'!” How did I not think of this before? It was one of those moments. That’s why I hesitate to say how late in the show it was.
That’s brilliant. I could see you driving, then that song comes on the air, and you in the process of slapping your forehead, forcing you to drive right into a light pole. A great “Breaking Bad” moment.
(laughs) That would be the kind of thing I would do, yeah.
That would have been a fitting ending for the wonderful dilemma that you and your team have put yourselves in.
(laughs) The pain would be over, at least, at that point.
Well, on that, I’ll let you go and get on with it. Again, I know you wanted to share your secrets with me, but I’m glad I insisted that you keep them to yourself.
Very good. I appreciate you being strong for both of us.