"Breaking Bad" Creator Vince Gilligan Takes One Last Spin In Walter White's Head

No. 77 on our Most Creative People list talks about the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad and how it convinced him to sympathize again with America's favorite murderous meth chef.

Ben Blacker, No. 83 on our Most Creative People 2013 list and host of the Nerdist Writers Panel (and cocreator of The Thrilling Adventure Hour) sat down with Vince Gilligan, No. 77 on our Most Creative People 2013 list, just a week after he'd finished the last shot ever of Breaking Bad, the show he created more than six years ago. Gilligan was full of insight about his creative and collaborative processes. And we'll get to that stuff. But first, for fans of the show who've done enough waiting, here are Gilligan's best hints at what's in store for Walter White in the last ever episodes of the show. Gilligan didn't offer up spoilers. But there's plenty to speculate about:

  • "One day of [director Rian Johnson's] episode was put off to the very end of the schedule for logistical reasons that I can't get into because they may or may not involve spoilers, but that was the way it was always scheduled."
  • "We worked very hard on these final eight and I am very happy. I feel very satisfied with the way they all came out. I mean certainly the way the scripts came out and I've seen the director's cuts on every episode now, except for the last one cause I haven’t gotten to that one yet. I directed the very last one."
  • "I cautiously, hesitantly say that I think people are gonna like it. I know I'm very proud of it and I know I'm very proud of the work the writers did and the actors did and the directors and the entire crew. All the people on Breaking Bad in front of and behind the camera put their level best into these final eight."
  • "These final eight episodes were different yet again because, not to give away any plot details or anything, but maybe it was the knowledge that it really truly was finally coming to an end or maybe it was at that point the writers and I were into a slightly different part of Walt's journey, but I started to get wistful toward the end here and I started to feel more sympathy for the devil, as it were.
  • "Those days of, 'Oh I can't wait to shed this character, to get him out of my brain,' kinda got replaced in the last six or eight months with something else, a sort of a sympathy, either a renewed understanding of where Walt came from or a new understanding of who he truly was."
  • "To me the very fact that the character of Walter Jr. has CP was probably in some regard, either consciously or subconsciously, a decision made in an effort to insure that the audience was on Walt's side, that they empathized with him, that they thought well, this guy, he's had some problems thrown his way and he has dealt with them admirably."
  • "Darth Vader is never boring. For a while I sympathized with [Walter White] and then I personally lost sympathy, but he remained interesting… But now he becomes sympathizable again for me. It's an interesting evolution I didn't see coming."

Confused? Intrigued? Here's more of what Gilligan had to say, including some clarification on whether Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) will get his own spin-off show. Listen to Ben Blacker's whole podcast of the interview for free here.

BEN BLACKER: How are you feeling now that shooting has wrapped?
Vince Gilligan: April 3rd we had our very last day and that was the day Rian was directing. And that was a very interesting day for me because I got to basically be a fly on the wall.

It was a joy to be able to watch the crew work and to just soak in the atmosphere of the set and to not pay attention to the wherefores and the whys, the specifics of what was being shot because I knew it was in really good hands.

I kept thinking at a certain point I'm gonna star crying and whatnot.

That thought hit me even harder when Rian whispered to me about 10 minutes before he knew he was gonna wrap. He knew he was on his last shot, and he knew he probably was gonna do two or three takes. Round about the first take he said to me "Now you’re gonna call cut, you're gonna call final cut, right?" I said, "What?" He said, "You need to call the final cut on the final shot of the final scene of the final day." And I said, "No, you're the director." He says, "No you gotta do it." So I said, "Well, thank you. You tell me when and I'll say it."

And it was a wonderful take and he looked at me and said "Say it," and I said, "That's a cut!" And I thought at that point I'd start tearing up, and then at that point the champagne bottles came out and we gathered the crew together and we had a wonderful, heartfelt little moment with our crew--and still no tears. I'm thinking, what's wrong with me?

The show turned you cold.
But I have to say, now that I think of it, when I wrote the last sentence of the last script, which was weeks before that day, I actually teared up.

With me, I don't know when it's gonna come. I get very sentimental and very emotional about this stuff and yet I don't know when exactly it's gonna hit me. It hits me at the strangest moments.

So I think that's a very long-winded way of saying I think I'm still a little bit in shock that the whole production end of it is over.

We broke out the champagne that day too. We're big, big drinkers here. Usually it's mouthwash.

For the finale you get something special.
For the finale, yeah. Or Mad Dog 20/20 or something like that. But that was a big momentous occasion and then the end of production certainly was.

Are you happy with what you guys came up with?
We worked very hard on these final eight, and I am very happy. I mean certainly the way the scripts came out and I've seen the director's cuts on every episode now, except for the last one cause I haven’t gotten to that one yet, I directed the very last one.

I cautiously, hesitantly say that I think people are gonna like it. I know I'm very proud of it, and I know I'm very proud of the work the writers did and the actors did and the directors and the entire crew. All the people on Breaking Bad in front of and behind the camera put their level best into these final eight.

Everybody cares so much on this show, which is kind of unusual on a television show, especially when it's run this long where everyone is really trying to give 100 percent every time, to have that kind of commitment.

It is. I wonder sometimes if part of the reason for that is that it's helpful to have an end date.

Most shows are designed to go on into perpetuity by design because when you get a show up and running and have it be successful, it's a wonderful feeling akin to winning the lottery. It doesn't happen often. You can't expect in your career that it will ever happen again and so you don't want it to end.

But actually, going counterintuitive to that and desiring an end date from the fairly early going I think held us in good stead in a lot of ways. One of them being the folks all of us, myself included, who worked on this show knew it would not last forever so we wanted it to be as good as we could make it every step of the way and go out in proper fashion.

Coming into these final eight, were discussions in the room and decisions a little more heated because you knew time was so short and the story opportunity was so much smaller?
I could count on one hand the number of times things got heated in the room. I would say things have gotten snippy a couple of times. I would never say heated. We're a bunch of schmo writers. We get passive-aggressive, we don't get aggressive-aggressive for the most part. So things have gotten snippy once in a blue moon and I have been snippy myself so I have to include myself.

Sometimes, when the other writers gang up on you you're like, "Hey wait a minute, I get the final say here. But in a weird way, you don't. I mean you could, you could pull rank, but when six really smart people are telling you you're drunk, even if you don't feel like you are, you know you'd best sit down.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White

How much did you feel like the end was near?
I certainly knew intellectually things were ending but the other writers would say boy, this is the last time we're gonna do this or this is the last time we're gonna say that or this is the last time we're gonna be at this location or whatnot and I'd be missing some of those moments because I'd be, as we all were, focused hard on the story, but the other writers would also be attuned to the niceties of this is coming to an end and they were more in the moment than I was, which I think is to my regret now.

I should have enjoyed it more.

What do you think was holding you back?
It's just the way I'm wired. It's just nothing new. I'm someone who enjoys things in the past tense. I don’t know why. It's nothing I'm happy about, it's just the way my brain works.

What were some of the challenges as you get later into the series that you discovered that you maybe didn't anticipate early on?
I think the challenges that we faced in the later years of the series... Because the series did indeed get, our series has indeed run smoother and smoother as the years have progressed and I chalk that up completely to hiring excellent producers, chief amongst them Michelle MacLaren and Melissa Bernstein, who just run this production like a Swiss watch.

And the longer the series has gone on, the less I have had to do with the day in and day out running. It's been wonderful. It's been great to be able to simply focus on story, primarily. And then also the niceties of the details... getting to weigh in on costumes, locations, props, and whatnot.

Knowing how many episodes we had, my writers and I knowing how many hours we had left to fill exactly, to the minute in fact, was such a blessing. It really helped us figure out how to parcel things out and it was still an enormous headache, especially with these last eight, the last 16, really.

Even right up to the last few episodes we didn't know everything we wanted to do but it really was honing in. Once we know what we wanna do, endless hours of discussion were spent over how exactly do we parcel this out.

I remember as a kid--this is such a weird, neurotic free association here--getting taught how to eat with a knife and fork and now you've got a plate of food and you've got your glass of milk. And I remember as a kid I was so neurotic about not wanting to run out of milk before I finish my peas and my Salisbury steak or whatever.

The proper way to eat the meal is to eat the last bite of food and then you take the last sip of milk. I was such a neurotic little bastard. But I don't wanna run out of episodes before we run out of story we wanna tell.

But on the other hand, god forbid you run out of story before you run out of episode, then you're just treading water. So there was a lot of anxiety, primarily on my part but I think on the part of all of us writers there's a lot of anxiety about parceling things out to perfection.

You've had this journey in mind for your protagonist, to turn him into this antagonist. Did you ever think: "I don't want to do this to this guy?"
Living in this world of Walter White, it's been interesting. I've learned a lot about a lot of things. I've learned a lot about myself actually.

I've been thinking in Walter White terms for a long time now. But in the early going, thinking in Walter White terms was not so bad because he was basically me. I mean I'm not a scientist, I'm no schoolteacher or whatever, but on the Venn diagram of Walter White and Vince Gilligan there was a fair bit of overlap in the early days. Frustrations, hopes and dreams, anxieties, free-form fears, and middle aged crises. We shared a lot of that.

And then the darker he got, we still shared a lot. Cause we all have darknesses within us, we have darkness within us. But then at a certain point, he got really, really dark. And the darker he got the more I felt like he was taking me along with him.

I'd never hope to know what it's like to kill somebody, but the more people Walter White kills the more you kind of live it vicariously. Obviously it didn't really happen in real life but you go through those feelings.

As we all do when we write characters, we have to wear them like overcoats. We have to see through their eyes, we have to know what it feels like to be them if even for the few hours it takes to write a particular scene because we want the scene to live and breathe. We want to give something to the actors that they are able to really inhabit.

And so many, many months on end, years on end now, I've been living with this mendacious son of a bitch in my head. What’s the worst of it? Is it all the killing, is it all the disregard to other people's feelings, or is it all the lying, or is it some combination of all of it? It's been hard, year after year, to live with this guy.

There were times about a year ago or more where I was thinking I don't want this to end for many reasons, but it's gonna be a relief when it does because I can free myself of this guy.

But these final eight episodes were different yet again because, not to give away any plot details or anything, but maybe it was the knowledge that it really truly was finally coming to an end or maybe it was at that point the writers and I were into a slightly different part of Walt's journey, but I started to get wistful toward the end here and I started to feel more sympathy for the devil, as it were.

About a year or more ago when I was feeling very unsympathetic toward Walt, I actually learned to bite my tongue when I'd be talking to Bryan Cranston because, I could see a look of disappointment in his face when I would inadvertently let slip something about, "Oh, Walt is such a bastard."

It seems so obvious now but it took me the longest time to figure out that he can't be hearing that because nobody thinks of themselves as a bad guy. Hitler didn't see himself as a bad guy. Charlie Manson did not see himself as anything but a wonderful human being who was trying to bring about a cleansing race war, ya know?

We all feel like we're pretty much in the right most of the time. So Bryan had to see Walt that way. He had to look through the eyes of Walter White in that particular fashion to be able to get through his own day.

But those days of "Oh, I can't wait to shed this character, to get him out of my brain," kinda got replaced in the last six or eight months with something else, a sort of a sympathy, a renewed understanding of where Walt came from or a new understanding of who he truly was.

Creating Walter, who had such extremes, that can take a toll on you.
It does. I've had so many interviews and I realize now--It strikes me at this very moment--one of the pivotal questions in every interview is: Do you worry about the audience not liking Walter White?

And that was such a huge concern in the early going of the show, such a huge concern. To me the very fact that the character of Walter Jr. has CP was probably in some regard, either consciously or subconsciously, a decision made in an effort to ensure that the audience was on Walt's side, that they empathized with him, that they thought, well, this guy, he's had some problems thrown his way and he has dealt with them admirably.

For a while I sympathized with him and then I personally lost sympathy but he remained interesting, he remained relatable even if I was relating to things that we all see in ourselves that we don't particularly love or respect, he still remains recognizably human.

But, lo and behold, in these last 16 episodes, I've started to feel this new feeling. Now he becomes sympathizable again for me. It's an interesting evolution I didn't see coming.

Hopefully he is never boring, no matter what this guy does. Darth Vader is never boring.

He's not Darth Vader.
No, no, he's not. He's not Darth Vader.

And he's not Charles Manson either.
No, he's not, yeah.

The writers and I would always say we're the first audience for the show and if we don't understand where Walt is coming from what's the point? Or any of the characters, for that matter. That just seems like an important thing to understand on our part.

If a show like this is a small corporation, what are some key points you're going to take with you to run the next small corporation that you'll run?
Well, I guess the best first answer is confidence. And I say that because I have severely lacked it. I've been very confidence deficient my whole life. It's like some vitamin deficiency, except worse. It's like rickets or something.

But I didn't know going into this job, I'm going to state the screamingly obvious here, I didn't know going into this job if I could run a show.

I'm glad I didn't know in the early days of Breaking Bad how little I knew. I'm glad I didn't know how little I knew because I just sort of jumped into it. I was scared shitless from day one. But if I had known how little I knew back then I would have been even more scared to the point of petrifaction.

Do you need that confidence? Do people have to look to you and say okay, he gets it, he's in charge, or can you fake that?
It's the old thing about the lion tamer going into the cage in the middle of the Ringling Brothers Circus. He has to appear masterful and confident and in charge or else the lion is gonna bite his head off.

Well, the good news is, for folks who are worried about that, it's not really the case. Your writers in the writer's room and then the people on the set, your actors, the folks in front of the camera and behind it, they do want to know that you have a vision but you do not have to have all the answers all the time.

I can't tell you how many times in the last two weeks I said to Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul or whoever on the set, "I know where I want to get to but I don't know how to get there. Maybe can you help me? Here's what I wanna have happen. Bryan, I want you to be able to walk to this window and pick up this particular prop but I don't know why you'd go to that window. I can't tell you your motivation here. Can you help me out?" And he says, "Well, what if I had to go do this and blah, blah, blah." And you work it out together.

And so that's one of the things I've learned, I guess, is that I don't have to have all the answers all the time.

There is such a thing as being too decisive in that you jump to snap decisions that turn out later to be wrong. Sometimes decisions are worth mulling over.

Other times, and you hear this all the time, there's directors out there, there's writers out there who just are paralyzed into indecision because they mull everything too much. They think every decision is like playing chess with Bobby Fischer. Well, I better think this out 20 moves ahead or else this guy is gonna nail me. It's moderation in all things I guess.

Did it feel like a very democratic situation where you were willing to listen to everyone?
I think at the end of the day Breaking Bad was a benevolent dictatorship masked as a democratic process. But actually most days it was pretty democratic. It really was. And the show was much, much better for it.

It's one of the worst things that happens, you see it all the time, you see it with big superstar directors and actors. You see the point at which the entourage comes and the yes-men and the yes-women surround and the superstar actor or director or, I don't know if there's such a thing as a superstar writer, but there's superstar actors and directors and producers.

At a certain point nobody can say no to them, and then that's when their careers take a tumble. It's like I am so blessed with people being around me these last six years who weren't afraid to say no. I want people to be able to say no because god knows I'm not always right.

If you have a bunch of people who are like-minded, if they all agree in principle, you have a very limited world view.

Some of the finest moments we ever had on Breaking Bad were things that I never could have dreamed up on my own all by myself in a million years. They were the product of very different minds than mine coming up with things. Some of the best moments we have ever had on that show I had very little to do with.

What's next?
Even if I went on to do strictly movies, which I can't see that happening, television has been so good to me I can't imagine not doing it anymore.

Writing is obviously known as a solitary profession and some of the greatest writing in the history of humankind was done by a solitary writer alone in his or her chair.

But for me, I like having people around. And this sort of stone soup version of creativity where it's like everybody throws something into the pot and the broth that comes out afterward is so much more tasty than it would have been if any one person alone had come up with it.

Any truth to the reports of a spin-off for Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?
We are in very, very early stages. Nothing is concrete yet. But I can just speak for myself and say that I would love to see a Saul Goodman show. I would love to live a little longer with Saul Goodman.

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman

Bob Odenkirk is so damn funny and he's such a pleasant guy and he works so hard, he is so enthusiastic, there is no reason not to want to keep working with him. I want to keep working with any of these wonderful actors we've had in this ensemble.

But you kill them all off in the end, right?
Well, yeah, they're all dead except for him.

Sorry, Internet.
Yeah, I'd love to see it happen and so we're taking some steps toward seeing if we can do that. There are so many questions that arise about how would we approach, this but I'm hoping.

I want to keep as much of the old gang together as possible and starting with Peter Gould, who created the character of Saul Goodman. It was his episode, or an episode he wrote in which Saul first appeared and I'd love to work with Peter on this and have us come up with something fun and something very much in the Breaking Bad vein or spirit, but I would think just by its very nature quite a bit less dark.

Is there stuff that you're watching and getting inspired or excited by?
There's so much good stuff on. Homeland is a great show. I very much enjoyed the two-hour premiere of Mad Men. Justified, I like Justified a lot. That's a fun show.

But I have to admit I get home most nights, and when I turn the TV on there is this channel called Me TV. And I swear to god it's what I'm watching most of the time. It's some SD channel where they show these low-res episodes of Columbo and Emergency and Hogan’s Heroes and Perry Mason and Lost In Space and M*A*S*H.

I'm watching all these old shows. A lot of these were before my time, but I'd seen 'em before. But Columbo, god, I fucking love Columbo. Colombo was a great character and a very well-written, very well-devised show.

Every now and then we've had a moment--like with the cousins, for instance. We the audience knew about the cousins long before Walt did. There were people out to kill Walt and at first we thought, well, this should be exciting because the audience is like, oh no, Walt, don't go in your bathroom, the cousins are out there with an ax.

But then after a certain point, as that dragged on, we thought oh shit, the audience knows something, they're gonna feel like Walt's an idiot. It's just human nature. The audience is gonna feel like the main character is an idiot because he doesn't know what they know.

Somehow that bylaw or whatever never holds for Columbo. Colombo is just a great show. And Emergency. I watched a lot of Emergency.

It comes up on every writers' panel when I say "What are you watching," they all say "Well, obviously Breaking Bad" is always the first answer. Why do you think writers respond the way they do to this show?

I'm not going to be disingenuous and say I've never heard that before but it makes me feel so good every time I hear it. At the risk of sounding falsely modest or whatever, I truly don't have a great answer. We do the best work we can.

You know, honestly, a very good answer I can give you is things just came together well on this just like every now and then you buy the right scratch-off ticket or you pull the lever on the slot machine and it comes up cherries.

You know, we bust our asses writing these things, making them as good as we can, and I'm proud of the work we do, have done. But if we didn't have Bryan Cranston playing this part, making this oftentimes monster sympathizable the way he effortlessly seems to do it.

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

I mean if we didn't have him, if we didn't have Aaron Paul, if we had other actors playing these parts, I don't know that you'd be here interviewing me. Breaking Bad might have been an interesting, short-lived experiment that lasted seven episodes or 13 episodes and then was kind of forgotten. But I think we cast the right actors.

I think Albuquerque, New Mexico, which we wound up shooting in honestly for money reasons, for reasons of state rebates and whatnot, did become a character itself in the show and a wonderful one at that. If instead we shot it in Southern California, it wouldn't be the show it is.

It's hard to say what ingredients in what percentage make for the thing that people seem to respond favorably to. We work our asses off, but every other writer out there does the same thing. Sometimes you just win the lottery I guess.

[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje | Photos courtesy of AMC | Ursula Coyote | Doug Hyun | WireImage]

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