The best person to tell this story may be the man to Vince Gilligan's right. His name is Tom Schnauz, but on this day he's known as "New Guy." That is, the new guy in the writers' room of "Breaking Bad," the Emmy-nominated AMC drama about a terminally ill schoolteacher who raises money for his family's future by cooking and selling crystal methamphetamine.
Gilligan created "Breaking Bad," the drama series nominee and critical darling that pulled in an average 1.3 million viewers this season. He also worked on the script of last summer's "Hancock," a film that grossed more than $600 million worldwide.
But Schnauz knew Gilligan when the two worked in the basement of the NYU film school in the late '80s, renting out cameras to fellow students. "Occasionally, he'd do some things that were strange, would do things just to try it out," Schnauz says. "I remember him bringing golf balls into the work-study place, and he wanted to know what was inside, so he started cutting them open. Once, this white powder shot up into his eyes."
That "inquisitive but semi-warped" mind, Schnauz says, is what made Gilligan successful. "I mean, what kind of mind would come up with a show about cooking crystal meth?"
Answer: the mind of a man who grew up in Virginia but had his eyes trained on Hollywood ever since he saw "Star Wars." Many years later -- after NYU, and after Gilligan and Schnauz both wrote for "The X-Files" -- the two spoke by phone. Schnauz had just read an article about mobile meth labs. Gilligan joked that when their respective writing careers dried up, perhaps they could do the same, drive around the Southwest in an RV with a meth lab in the back.
"He called me back a week later and said, 'Remember that idea? Mind if I use that?' " Schnauz recalls. "I said, 'Of course.' I mean, I'd never think to write a story, let alone a whole TV series around the idea of a mobile meth lab. But lo and behold. . . ."
Gilligan created Walter White, an ordinary man thrust into an end-life crisis, and now here we are: in Burbank on a Tuesday, having a hamburger with the bespectacled Gilligan just down the street from his writers' room. "Frankly, I don't know why we're here," he says. "I don't even know why I bothered to pitch this show, except that I was really inspired by the idea."
After lunch, he returns to his "dream," the nondescript writers' room where the key phrase is "What if . . . ," the key ingredient is caffeine and the key goal is to surprise. The talk always revolves around how a character might be expected to react and then, how that expectation might be turned on its head.
Several hours and maybe a hundred ideas later, Gilligan is ready to adjourn. "I feel like we're close to something, something that's right in front of us," he says to the room. "There's something we still haven't thought of that would change everything. Let's open up our minds."
And so will begin another round of what-ifs.