In this week’s issue, New York magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, which will return for its fourth season this July. We spoke with Gilligan about what’s coming up on Breaking Bad, and his love of Cheers and SpongeBob SquarePants.
What was your first job?
I got very lucky right out of college. I wrote a movie script for my NYU thesis screenwriting class, Home Fries, in 1989 that got made into a feature about twelve, thirteen years ago starring Drew Barrymore. I won a screenwriting contest with it, and one of the judges was Mark Johnson, who sort of became my mentor in the movie business. He asked me if I had any other scripts, and I sent him Wilder Napalm, which got made into a movie in 1993 with Debra Winger and Dennis Quaid. Even to this day, Mark’s my fellow executive producer on Breaking Bad.
And you went to The X-Files after Wilder Napalm?
Yeah, my first TV job was The X-Files. I wrote a freelance episode for them in 1994, which was season two. It was called “Soft Light” and starred Tony Shalhoub. I was so naive about the business back then that when I’d watch the show and the legend at the beginning said, “Richmond, Virginia” or whatever, I actually thought they sent a film unit to those places. That’s how stupid I was.
What show made you want to work in TV?
Actually, The X-Files made me want to work in TV; I was a fan before I was a writer on the show. Watching that series made me realize how truly cinematic television could be.
Were there particular things that Carter taught you?
Well, I became a better writer, and things that he taught all of us that I still carry with me are: Show your story, don’t tell it. Try not to depend too much on dialogue. Try to remember that it’s very much a visual medium and that sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words. I also learned how to tell a story economically. If they’d shot the first draft of my first script for The X-Files, it would have cost 20 or 30 million dollars! So, all the tools that I have in my toolbox now, I got them on The X-Files.
I remember how so many episodes of The X-Files would feature the number “1013,” like on Mulder’s alarm clock …
“1013” stands for October 13, which is Chris’s birthday. Speaking of that, X-Files fans will notice a 1013 reference in the early minutes of the first episode of Breaking Bad’s fourth season.
Are there any other geeky bits of trivia like that about Breaking Bad?
We decided that Skyler’s sister Marie should love the color purple, and indeed everything she wears and everything she accents her home with is purple.
Well, Marie would say purple is the color of royalty. Color is important on Breaking Bad; we always try to think in terms of it. We always try to think of the color that a character is dressed in, in the sense that it represents on some level their state of mind.
And there’s Walter White …
Character names are a situation where you know it’s right when you hear it, and “Walter White” appealed to me because of the alliterative sound of it and because it’s strangely bland, yet sticks in your head nonetheless — you know, white is the color of vanilla, of blandness. Walter and Skyler’s daughter, Holly, is named after my girlfriend. Here’s some trivia: I try to put her name or an allusion to some element about her into all of the scripts. The name of the street she lived on back in Richmond, Virginia, stuff like that. We’ve been dating twenty years, and I started doing that back on The X-Files.
What will be going on with Walter White in season four?
Walter White continues in his personal transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface. His world gets even darker and more complicated, and there’s some very exciting twists and turns that I’m looking forward to people seeing.
Will he continue to work for the chicken man?
Well, definitely Gus the chicken man is a very central part of this season and a central quandary that Walt faces. Also, Walt’s relationship with Jesse gets tested to a degree it’s never been tested before. Their partnership gets very tricky. In a sense, the student becomes the master this season.
And Walt’s plans for the car wash?
We’re picking up pretty much where we left last season. Skyler, of course, was interested in … not in keeping Walt working in this criminal enterprise so much, but in her very pragmatic sense she was interested in making sure that, if he was going to be doing these illegal things, at least he wouldn’t get caught. So, to that end, she wants to help him launder his money to do it the right way. So, we’ll see a continuation of that.
She’s becoming a bit more of a willing enabler?
They have a very complicated relationship. They have something of a sinner-enabler relationship this season, that’s true, which we saw the seeds of last season. That trend continues.
I know that in past conversations of ours, the words Carmela Soprano have come up …
This is true. Carmela was interesting because she always turned a blind eye. She only used her husband’s standing in very rare circumstances. But because that was done so well, I don’t want to just do that again. So, Skyler really gets a little afield from Carmela Soprano.
Do you have a showrunner philosophy?
The devil is in the details. Either that or “no good deed goes unpunished” … which, now that I think about it, might be more a life philosophy.
Are you a control freak or a collaborator?
I’d like to think I’m a collaborator, but the people I work with probably think I’m a control freak. But the most honest answer is, I’m a bit of both and the ratio between the two changes at any given moment. I know in my heart that collaboration allows us to put the best possible work on TV, and that left to my own devices I couldn’t put on a show that’s a fraction as good as Breaking Bad is. But I don’t think you wind up in this job if you don’t have a bit of obsessive-compulsiveness in your nature.
What show do you wish you had created?
The Twilight Zone, and I wish Rod Serling hadn’t died so young. That’s a man I truly would love to have met. He was the first showrunner whose name the country at large actually knew. Or The Andy Griffith Show, which I think holds up to this day. A wonderful show, and it puts me in a good mood every time I watch it. Also SpongeBob SquarePants. I watch that any chance I get.
What’s your best show pitch that didn’t make it on the air?
I had something I pitched to CBS seven or eight years ago called Battle Creek that we came close to shooting as a pilot. That was a sort of mismatched buddy-cop show with an FBI agent paired with a local, hardscrabble Michigan homicide detective. And the FBI guy is one of life’s winners — amazingly handsome, happy-go-lucky — and the other guy is just intensely jealous of him. That would’ve been a fun show.
What’s a twist or character addition that you were really impressed by, that turned a show around or made it somehow better or more interesting?
When Kirstie Alley came on Cheers, that was a big one. That show looked like it was going to end once Shelley Long decided to leave, but that really reinvigorated that show. I thought the last episode of M*A*S*H — I remember the feeling around town in Chesterfield, Virginia, that everyone was going to be watching what they knew would be television history. Also, a lot of people were down on Cousin Oliver when he showed up on The Brady Bunch, but he kind of worked for me.
How much do you care about what fans think?
I care greatly. We wouldn’t have a show if not for the viewers. But having said that, I don’t think that equates with a need on my part to constantly check in with what the fans are saying. I hear about it anecdotally at best. Because on the Internet, you get what are often, I think, unrealistic responses — you get the highs and the lows; the people who love something enough to type something into their computer about it, and you get the people that hate it, but you don’t get the great vast middle. So, it’s an interesting gauge, but not necessarily an accurate one.
Can fans ruin shows?
I don’t think fans are capable of ruining anything. I think only the showrunner and their writers and actors are capable of that. If a showrunner logs on to the Internet and a fan’s telling them to add a lovable robot to his or her ensemble, they’ve only got themselves to blame if they take that kind of advice.
Do you tweet?
Absolutely not. I’m just not a computer guy, and it seems like the biggest waste of time to me. I don’t get it. I’m sorry. I’ve got enough aggravation turning on my TV.
Other Showrunner Interviews:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur