Vince Gilligan and the strange world of ‘Breaking Bad’
Reporting from Albuquerque —
Under the glaring sun of the Land of Enchantment, Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, the most unlikely and ill-suited duo operating in the deadly New Mexican drug underground, are in over their heads — again.
The emotionally edgy Pinkman is shattering a fresh batch of crystal meth inside an immaculately clean lab deep within the bowels of a uniform laundry service. His troubled expression and some caked blood on his face indicate his awareness of nearby danger.
Several miles away outside an abandoned juvenile detention in the middle of dusty, barren terrain, White, Pinkman’s mentor and accomplice in charge of making the illegal drug, is consulting with his attorney, hopefully out of view of his enemies. The topic is treachery and murder.
Coordinating both distinctly separate but connected scenarios is a scholarly looking man with glasses and a green safari hat who at this moment is positioned a few feet from White and his attorney, eyeing them purposefully as a crew of cameramen and technicians captures their quiet dialogue, and the second unit wraps up the other scene.
“Cut! That’s very nice,” Vince Gilligan, the creator and executive producer of AMC’s sly and wicked “Breaking Bad,” finally proclaims with a slight Southern drawl. “Print that,” he orders with cheer and satisfaction as he moves in to praise Bryan Cranston, who plays White, and Bob Odenkirk, who portrays unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman.
With an unassuming air that makes him appear more like a member of the company than a man in charge of one of the hottest dramas on TV, Gilligan was directing one of the final episodes of the fourth season of “Breaking Bad,” which returns July 17 as one of the crown jewels at AMC, home to the Emmy Award-winning, culturally influential “Mad Men” and the gloomy, audience-rattling “The Killing.” The show — which promises to grow even darker this season with its tagline “Warning: Extremely Volatile” — is another example of cable drama’s increased dabbling into difficult, rich subject matter (sometimes, to a fault).
Gilligan’s brainchild has attracted almost universal acclaim from critics (Time dubbed it “TV’s best thriller” while The Times’ Robert Lloyd said the show was “smartly written and produced and brilliantly played”) with its multilayered twist on the antihero narrative: the study of Walter White, a desperate, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug manufacturer, slowly evolving from Mr. Chips into Scarface to provide his family with financial security before he dies. “He’s running out of good reasons to do bad things,” Gilligan explains.
The growing popularity of “Breaking Bad” has propelled the low-key Gilligan into the top ranks of TV’s elite producers, particularly since the escalating darkness and bloody brutality appear the polar opposite of his personality. His demeanor is flavored by good humor and modesty — he gives endless credit to his writing staff, crew and performers for the show’s success.
Says Charlie Collier, president of AMC: “Vince is one of the most disarming people you’d ever run into in this business. When we talk, he enters the conversation with an appreciation for what we’re building. That sets the tone for our relationship and everyone who works on the projects. He’s always the first to compliment the writers and the crew.”
Still, there is a glaring disconnect between the outward persona of Gilligan and his bleak creation: How does a former film student at New York University and the Tisch School of the Arts who grew up in the small town of Farmville, Va., and likes to play with magnets and jigsaw puzzles as he works out storylines create a fictional world filled with mayhem, flawed humanity and horrific upheaval — where a man can indirectly cause a plane collision that kills hundreds of people; where the severed head of a bad guy winds up on top of a tortoise that explodes; where a ordinary box cutter become a lethal weapon?
“There’s really more to Vince than meets the eye,” says Chris Carter, creator and executive producer of “The X-Files” who hired Gilligan as a writer and producer after the show’s first season in 1994. “There’s some darkness in him, and it comes out in ‘Breaking Bad.’ Vince has got a very acerbic sense of humor. You meet him and there’s the nice guy and the Southern accent, but when you read what he writes, it’s clear there’s much more there.”
Gilligan does admit to having a more complex personality than is immediately apparent. Evidence came during a recent day on location when he was detached from the controlled chaos of filming and gazed at the ground, lost in solitary contemplation.
“You know, I probably sound as upbeat as I do because people really seem to like the work and the show,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m a generally happy person. I’m generally sort of moody. I think of myself as somewhat pessimistic, somewhat dour. I think I put on a good face — it’s like Walt. I don’t have a dark alter ego, but I believe we all present one face to the world and live more comfortably with another.”
Accustomed to being under the radar, he admitted to being more than a little overwhelmed at how the series has resonated: It has earned two consecutive Emmy nominations for outstanding drama series. The most notable previous achievements on his résumé were writing several key episodes during his producing and writing stint on the landmark “The X-Files” and co-writing “Hancock,” starring Will Smith as a disgruntled superhero.
Gilligan feels the audience is partly responding to the tone of the series, which is flavored by classic western movies and spaghetti westerns. Weekly ratings in the third season averaged over 2 million viewers (“Mad Men” in its third season averaged about 2.5 million viewers).
“It’s a bit hard for me to believe,” says Gilligan, 44, while sitting in an office of the no-frills “Breaking Bad” writing headquarters in Burbank. “I never thought I’d be here, that we’d get this far. When I analyze it, I like to think that the audience is responding to our lead character and wondering what he will do next. He’s an intriguing guy who has been less sympathetic the deeper we get into the show.”
The series was inspired by concerns Gilligan and writer friend Tom Schnauz had after “The X-Files” ended about the scarcity of screenwriting jobs. A casual conversation about what to do next prompted a joke about putting a meth lab in the back of a recreational vehicle and driving around the Southwest. That humorous and innocuous remark stuck with Gilligan and eventually grew into the premise for “Breaking Bad” (or, as it suggests, “raising hell”). Schnauz is now one of the writers of the show.
Like the mixture of its chemicals, the series adroitly combines its disparate elements with neck-tightening tension: dysfunctional family dilemmas, a reluctant love story, black humor and explosively violent crime drama. The relationships, as Carter puts it, are wickedly funny at their core: For instance, White’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who used to be in the dark about her husband’s illegal activities, is devising ways to launder the drug money. “Breaking Bad” also puts a unique spin on the struggles of suburbanites driven to abandon their middle-class values to keep their heads above treacherous economic waters.
Anchoring the series is the examination of the continually blurred nature of morality: What line will decent people cross to protect their loved ones? Can anyone dip their toe into being an outlaw without being totally consumed and jeopardizing not only those close to them but also innocents?
Before this season, the lion’s share of attention surrounding “Breaking Bad” had centered on Cranston, the former costar of the wacky “Malcolm in the Middle,” who has scored three consecutive Emmys for lead actor in a drama for his portrayal of White. Sharing the spotlight this season is Aaron Paul, who won an Emmy last year for supporting actor in a drama for his portrayal of troubled junkie Pinkman.
Paul says he marveled at how Gilligan keeps coming up with situations putting his character and White in continual deep peril. “It’s crazy how these intense stories can come from this soft-spoken man, and the season is even darker than past seasons.”
Is this mild-mannered writer projecting his private world view of despair? Is Gilligan really the one who is “breaking bad?”
Those looking for clues on Gilligan’s point of view on life may come up short: “Whatever humble philosophy I may posses may find its way into the show but never on a conscious level. I don’t think my philosophy is astute, but I try to keep it out of the way,” he said in his easygoing way.
The series is so consuming for him that he has little time to think about future projects. He also doesn’t have a clear idea on the ultimate fate of his characters, “although I have hopes and dreams of how it will all end.”
Though he relishes his work and colleagues, living in the “Breaking Bad” world can take its toll. “It gets kind of depressing to be in Walt’s head 12 or 13 hours a day,” says Gilligan, who spends much of his down time with his girlfriend of 20 years. “That’s why when I go home, I channel surf, have a drink. It’s good to shed his skin or climb out of his brain. But writing this is also oddly cathartic.”
Ultimately, there is light in the darkness. “The writers and I use ourselves as guinea pigs, and we come up with plot developments that shock and delight us,” Gilligan says, the uplift in his voice returning. “When I can come up with something that makes someone say, ‘God, you are one sick son of a bitch,’ or I can say that to someone else, then I know we’re on to something.”
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