Spoilers below for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
After a most distressing turn of events in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie — which include a touching and suspenseful reunion with his buddies, flashbacks of his torturous time in captivity, and having to commit two more murders — Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is safe and free in the Last Frontier. Yeah, Alaska! Or, yeah, writer-director Vince Gilligan, creator of the Emmy-winning series that introduced the world to the immature, sweet, broken Jesse Pinkman, lover of pizza and connoisseur of magnets!
The film, which just premiered on AMC following its Netflix debut last October, picks up after Jesse, driving his captor’s El Camino, smashes through the gates of the white-supremacist compound where he was enslaved in the last season of Breaking Bad. What follows in El Camino is the story of how Jesse finally manages to pull himself out of the tragic chaos that became his life, after agreeing to a meth-cooking partnership with his former high-school teacher Walter White. Of course, his escape isn’t easy.
But Gilligan told Vulture he almost wrote a different ending for Jesse’s story, one that would have made the show’s fans very, very sad (or very, very mad). Why did he change his mind? Because, he says, “sometimes you just got to give folks what they want.” Gilligan also discussed bringing back Walt (Bryan Cranston) for a flashback from the duo’s good old RV days, and why he chose Dr. Hook’s 1978 “Sharing the Night Together” to soundtrack the sociopathic adventures of Jesse Plemons’s Todd.
After Breaking Bad ended, you said that Jesse Pinkman was free, that he successfully got away. All these years, you maintained that. But I wondered if you had second thoughts as you started to write the movie. Were there other possibilities you considered?
Yes, I did. I like irony in storytelling. I love ironic twists. Once I had set about coming up with this movie, for the longest time I had it in my mind that the thing we wanted most to see was for Jesse to escape. And the thing he wanted most to do was escape. So I was trying to concoct a plot in which, hero that he is, he saves somebody else — somebody I would have introduced as a new character into the movie. Because he’s such an innately heroic character in my mind, he saves someone at the end of the movie and he willfully gets himself caught knowing that it’ll save this other person. At the end of the movie, he’d be locked in a jail cell somewhere in Montana or someplace. And he would be at peace with it. It was all this very interior, emo-type, very dramatic stuff.
I pitched it to my girlfriend, Holly, and she said, “Are you out of your mind? You can’t have him in a jail cell at the end. You got to let him get away. People will riot.” I said, “No, don’t you get it? It’s art. It’s artistic.” And then I said, “No offense, you’re not a writer. I respect you, of course, and I love you. But you’re not a writer.” And then I went the next day and pitched it to Peter [Gould] and the writers of Better Call Saul, and they all looked at me in silence. They said, “Are you crazy? He’s got to get away at the end.” [Laughs.] As the saying goes, if enough people tell you you’re drunk, you need to sit down. So I dispensed with that idea.
Had you worked out who this new character was going to be?
I hadn’t quite worked it out. To my credit, I was kicking this idea around, but I didn’t get too far down the road with it. I didn’t actually start writing it, but I had some pretty definitive ideas. I spent a couple of weeks on that. But I’m glad I discarded it. Sometimes you succeed by giving people the opposite of what they want, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes you just got to give folks what they want.
Well, it was your gut instinct that Jesse gets away in the end.
But sometimes when you have enough time, you start to second-guess yourself. You think to yourself, “Well, that’s too simple. Getting away is what everybody expects, so maybe I got to go the opposite way.” But then I thought if the road is difficult and complicated enough, and has twists and turns, hopefully it will be satisfying.
Jesse has just suffered so much. In the movie, we see even more of his suffering. So I, for one, am so glad he’s in Alaska.
Good! I’m glad you’re glad. Holly and Peter and the writers saved me. They saved me from somebody at the premiere chasing me up the aisle at the end of the movie trying to kill me. [Laughs.]
I found Todd’s role in the movie so interesting. We know him as this villain who shows up in the last season of the show, but he’s crucial in Jesse getting away because Jesse needs his money. Can you talk about how you landed on making Todd such a key figure?
That didn’t come immediately either. It’s that old Edison quote about inventing, which holds for writing: “It’s one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” You just figuratively beat your head against the laptop until you get it.
The original idea was Uncle Jack riding shotgun, so to speak, with Jesse. Not literally a ghost, but a figment of Jesse’s post-traumatic stress showing up and saying, “You’re not going to get away, you’re just stupid, you’re too much of a rat.” Or things like, “This 7-Eleven clerk just saw you, you better shoot him while you have the chance, you better kill him. It’s kill or be killed.” I love the actor Michael Bowen, who played Uncle Jack, and it’d be great to have him back. But I kept thinking about it, and I thought, “God, what a bummer that would be. We’re going to need every ounce of humor we can get because this is going to be a depressing, dramatic story.” And then I thought: Todd. Except for being a crazy sociopathic murderer, he’s a likable young man who’s just got a screw loose. He can fake it, but he doesn’t innately feel empathy for other people. You could be his housekeeper and he honestly likes you and he’s nice to you, and yet God forbid you find his money hidden in his World Book encyclopedias, he’s going to go, “Well, that’s it for you” and he’ll strangle you to death with his belt. And then he’ll say, “Gee, I feel bad about that.” Then in the next instant, he’ll be thinking about something else. It’s like killing a mosquito to him. But in the end, he’s weirdly likable and it’s the damnedest thing. And Jesse Plemons played the hell out of that part, so we went in that direction.
Todd drives to the burial site singing “Sharing the Night Together.” Please tell me how a song from the ’70s even entered your mind and how the scene developed for you.
I wanted a scene where you slowly reveal that the seat next to him is empty. And then you reveal poor Jesse in this swelteringly hot, tiny, cramped little truck bed in the back of this El Camino with this corpse wrapped up in a rug. That was the point of the whole scene. Todd was just driving down the highway staring into space, but then I thought, “God, wouldn’t it be more disturbing if he’s having just a great time?” What do you do when you’re driving by yourself and you’re happy? You sing along to the radio. And then it was a matter of finding the right song. For a while, it was going to be a Donovan song that I like a lot. But “Sharing the Night Together” by Dr. Hook came on the radio one day when I was writing and I said to myself, “ “Oh my God, that’s it, that’s perfect.”
What really makes the scene for me, that makes me laugh every single time, is when the truck passes and Todd makes the universal “honk the horn” sign and the guy doesn’t honk the horn and he goes, “Oh well, whatever.” That was completely Jesse Plemons. That was not scripted. When he did it, I was riding in this big giant truck that tows the car that Jesse is pretending to be driving. I’m watching on a monitor, it’s cold outside so you’re bundled up, and I’m huddled next to my director of photography and script supervisor. I say “Action!” and we start rolling and he starts singing. We were all laughing so hard. It’s amazing it didn’t get picked up on the audio track, even at 50 miles an hour with all the wind noise. When he does the horn honk, I almost fell out of the truck I was laughing so hard. He nailed it in one take. It was such a thing of beauty. And our camera operator, thank God, he can contain his laughter, because he operated it perfectly.
Where exactly was that scene filmed?
A stunning, stunning place that every American should try to visit if they can — the Painted Desert of Arizona. Thankfully, the Navajo Nation let us shoot there. It’s this absolutely gorgeous place. I’m lucky enough to have gotten my helicopter-pilot’s license and I’d been flying with my friend and instructor back and forth between California and Albuquerque a lot over the last few years. We would always follow the 40 freeway, but then we take a little detour north to fly over the Painted Desert because it is that gorgeous. Over the years [I thought], “God, this gets prettier every time I fly over it. I got to put this in a movie someday.” And so luckily we were able to.
That drive leads to one of Aaron Paul’s best moments in the movie, when he finds the gun in the car but he’s unable to shoot Todd. What direction did you give him and Jesse Plemons in that scene?
Isn’t he amazing? This is why I love working with actors like Aaron and Jesse. It’s not like I gave them any kind of brilliant direction. I try to put it all in the script in terms of, “This is what this character’s feeling. This is what this other character, who is tormenting him, is not feeling.” But then you just get out of their way. Take after take, when Todd says to Jesse, “What kind of pizza do you like?,” and Jesse says, “Pepperoni,” the tear comes out of his left eye at the same moment. I am not kidding you. The damnedest thing I’d ever seen. I asked him how he did it and he just shrugged, “I don’t know. It’s the job, I guess.” God, is he good. Aaron is so good.
The pizza conversation is so uncomfortable. I wanted to yell, “Stop!”
[Laughs.] That was my favorite day. I’ve been blessed in my career, but that was my favorite day being on a film set directing. Or maybe it’s a close second. The final day of Breaking Bad, which was shooting a scene from the episode “Ozymandias,” or this day in the Painted Desert were hands down my two favorite days.
Some fans speculated that Walt was still be alive. Of course he wasn’t! But the flashback with Walt and Jesse together made me wonder if you were deliberately trying to make him more sympathetic. Did you want to remind us who he was in the beginning?
Honestly, I don’t know that I was worried about how people perceive Walt. I just wanted people to see Walt again because there is no Breaking Bad without Walter White. I wanted to give a little gift to the fans. After all the big drama of the movie is over and Jesse prevails, I wanted to give the audience a little gift of seeing their two favorite characters together again. Really, that’s what it all came down to.
What were the different considerations for that reunion?
I thought that I could show them in some moment from the past that was very dramatic and exciting. But then I thought, “Hell, that’s what the whole rest of this movie was about! How about we show a little quiet moment way back in the day when they weren’t at each other’s throats on such an existential level? Go back to when they annoyed each other, but basically they had respect for one another.” And that moment came in “4 Days Out” [from season two]. This is a little scene that we never intended back when we made the show, but I’m sure someone out there will cut this scene into that episode on their home computers. It’ll fit in quite nicely because we got the costumes right and everything.
Walt’s last words in the movie are interesting: He tells Jesse that he’s lucky because he didn’t have to wait his whole life to do something special. He was such a clear monster by the time the show ended, but I did feel for him when he said that in El Camino.
He has such grandiose ideas about himself as a human being, but at the end of the day, he’s such a pathetic character. In a way, that makes me sad for him too. This guy is so brilliant. He came close to winning a Nobel Prize. By this point in his life, he is more proud of cooking crystal meth than anything else because he’s the best in the world at it. It doesn’t matter that it’s something as terrible as crystal meth. He knows, in his heart, he’s the best in the world at it. And it’s good to be the best in the world at something. Anything. It is a moment where I feel for him, too.
Were there any characters you wanted to bring back, but the actors weren’t available?
It was never a question of actor availability, but I would have loved to figure out how to bring Skyler White back. And Marie and Hank and Walt Jr. and Gus Fring would have been great. Saul Goodman would have been great. But honestly, the movie would have felt overstuffed if we had put all those folks in. At the end of the day, it’s very much Jesse Pinkman’s story. We see it through Jesse Pinkman’s eyes. The characters who were most important to Jesse are all in the movie — the only exception being Saul Goodman. But, having said that, I wouldn’t have put him in the movie because I don’t know where Peter Gould, who’s now running Better Call Saul, wants to take that character. I would have been nervous about doing anything that would potentially mess up what Peter and the writers are planning for Better Call Saul.
Can you tell us where Walt’s family is now?
I think they are living their lives as best they can. Their lives have definitely taken a turn for the worse. But hopefully, at least financially, the way we left it with Breaking Bad is that Gretchen and Elliot are going to give that money to Skyler and Walter Jr. Money-wise, they’ll be in better shape. A big part of the show was that money is important in people’s lives, there’s no denying that, but God forbid it becomes the most important thing because then you miss out on what’s really important. Which is family, love, self-respect, and all these other things that Walter White loses. That goes by the wayside in his myopic pursuit of not just enough money, but all the money. I think Skyler is a survivor and Walter Jr. is a survivor and Marie is too. And I think that little family unit prevails. It just may not be as dramatic as Jesse running around shooting evil welders. I think they’re out there persevering.
The Wild West shootout was very Heisenberg of Jesse.
I think Walter White would have been proud.
This interview has been edited and condensed.