Felim McDermott in conversation with Vince Gilligan
Shane Perez reports on the Galway Film Centre’s 2012 interview with celebrated American TV-writer Vince Gilligan.
The Galway Film Centre recently hosted ‘Talking TV Drama: Breaking Bad in Galway’, a two-day event featuring a variety of industry professionals from Ireland, the US, the UK and Australia. The centrepiece was an interview with Vince Gilligan, the creator, head writer, and occasional director of Breaking Bad, the American series that has gained a rabid following worldwide.
Mr Gilligan proved remarkably self-effacing and down-to-earth, graciously deferring the success of Breaking Bad to his six-person writing team, the brilliant and unselfish cast, and the crew. His unassuming nature aside, Gilligan did provide great insight into the entire creative process, from the brainstorming of each new series to the filming in New Mexico.
The peek into the writers’ room was perhaps the most fascinating aspect. The attendees each received a shooting script as well as a reproduction of the ‘the board’, the large corkboard the writers use to tack up index cards comprising all the important moments of an episode. Gilligan detailed the process of ‘ breaking’ a story, a methodology learned during his seven years on The X Files, in which every detail is planned out. That said, Gilligan admitted that flexibility is also an integral element and has allowed some of the more inspired moments of Breaking Bad to materialize. The goal is to always create a safe environment to ‘allow the craziest, stupidest ideas to come forth.’
Being a member of the writers’ room can involve brainstorming sessions sometimes lasting twelve hours – ‘a sequestered jury that never ends.’ Getting the board developed to the show’s exacting standards can take as long as three weeks per episode. From there, a ten- to twelve-page outline is written, a step imposed by the AMC network (American Movie Classics) on which the show airs. Gilligan initially bristled at the outlines, but has since come to appreciate them as a valuable part of the process, allowing for the timely anticipation of production necessities as well as clearing any network hurdles ahead of time. Though the show has gone to some truly eyebrow-raising extremes, Gilligan praised AMC for trusting his instincts. To date, they have never forbid him from filming or airing a single scene.
The most important rule throughout the whole process is to always stay true to the characters. The writers might have several big moments of drama in mind over the course of a series, but it is essential to arrive at them organically and not to do anything to insult the intelligence of either the viewers or the characters they have worked so hard to create.
One audience question in particular, about the irrepressibly shady lawyer Saul Goodman, led to some comical revelations about the true mindset of the writers’ room. Being huge Godfather fans, they have all looked upon protagonist Walter White as a bargain basement Michael Corleone. Therefore, at some point it was determined he would require an appropriately low-rent consigliere, as well as an attorney. Both were folded into the one character of Saul, who also became a perfect vehicle for the pitch-black humour the show has become known for. As Gilligan put it, they knew they were turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, so Goodman’s clownish lawyer is the ideal counterpart.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 140 in 2012.