“It’s Better to Be Somebody Negative than Nobody”: Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan on Walter White
The following interview of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap: 21 Navigational Tips for Screenwriters to Create and Sustain a Hit TV Series by Neil Landau. It is exclusively excerpted here thanks to Focal Press.
Neil Landau: The toughest thing for most screenwriters is creating original characters. People come up with ideas for what might be an interesting show, but creating complex characters is extremely difficult to do. What’s your process when you’re starting with the pilot? Walt [Bryan Cranston] is all about the choices that he makes in life. How do you make your creative choices?
Vince Gilligan: It’s interesting because each new project is a bit like a snowflake. It has its own shape. The best way to explain it is to talk specifically about Breaking Bad. When the idea first struck, it intrigued me. I think in hindsight what struck me in one of those rare Eureka moments of inspiration was not a plot or a big idea; it was a character who I found very intriguing — the character I didn’t even have a name for, who became Walter White. The idea of a previously good man, an inherently good man, a guy who is a loving husband and father who works hard for his family, who strives to do the right thing and does not break the law. Who suddenly, for external reasons, decides to very much veer off course off the path of goodness and become a bad guy. That intrigued me. It wasn’t the idea of cooking meth or putting a lab in the back of an RV; it was the interesting trappings that came with it. What intrigued me was the possibility of telling a story where the protagonist, by force of will, decided to become bad and would eventually become the antagonist, that idea of sand shifting beneath the character’s feet via a process that he put in motion. I’d love to say that it always works out that way. You start with a blank pad of paper and a pencil, your chin in your hand, saying, “OK, what interesting character can I write about today?” The trouble is they don’t appear to you that often, unfortunately. But when they do, it’s a wonderful thing.
Landau: Some writers construct these lengthy backstory biographies for their nascent characters before they even know how they’re going to fit into a show, which can feel arbitrary and yet also necessary. I’ve read in other interviews that you started with the idea of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. When you were trying to develop his character and put him into a world, [and make the] choices of making him a chemistry teacher, when did you hit upon the idea that he was going to cook meth? And, setting it in Albuquerque and choices about his family and son?
Gilligan: I was on the phone with a buddy of mine that I’ve known since NYU Film School back in the mid-1980s who is actually one of my writers on Breaking Bad now. He was a writer on The X-Files with me. This was a year or two after The X-Files had ended, and we were talking about what we were going to do next because good writing jobs were hard to find at that point. He told me a story that he had read in The New York Times, I think, about a guy who had been caught with a meth lab in the back of a Winnebago going around cooking crystal meth. My friend Tom [Schnauz] said, “Hey, maybe we should try that and make a little dough.” At the moment he made that joke, a character who would do such a thing flashed in my mind and became very interesting — the idea of a good man willfully going bad. This was a man who was doing bad things for ostensibly good reasons. It’s interesting if you had told me in that first week or so to sit down and write a biography of this man, I would have written something very different from who Walt ended up being. Not to say that that’s a bad exercise. Anything that you can put on paper that can help focus your thinking and gets you closer to the goal of creating something is to the good. If it’s looking through a phone book until you come up with the right combination of first and last names that helps you picture the character, so be it. But, you have to stay flexible. The really interesting things about Walter White only came to me a season or two later once the show had progressed and once I had the benefit of working with Bryan Cranston who truly helped create the character and embodies it. And once I started working with my excellent writers who helped me see the potential in what it was that I had come up with and helped me make it so much better than what it would have been if it was just me alone working on it.
In those early days for instance, I realized what Walt’s superpower is. I didn’t realize what a world-class liar he would be. That’s really his superpower. He lies most ably to himself. He is able to convince himself of anything. First and foremost, that he is a good man, that he does what he does for his family — the huge, awful lie that’s at the center of Breaking Bad long past all reason and any evidence to the contrary.
Landau: Like any superhero, they have a superpower, but then they also have an accompanying weakness or Achilles’ heel. In his case, it appears that they are one and the same.
Gilligan: Indeed. His Achilles’ heel is his pride. His ability to lie is his power. He has made so many bad choices out of a sense of pride, when his ego is wounded, and it’s a very fragile ego. There’s a great expression I heard years ago when someone was described to me as being “the piece of shit at the center of the universe.” When I heard that, it stuck with me. I think it describes Walt. He does not see himself as the piece of shit. He sees himself as the center of the universe, but it’s a very fragile universe that can crack very easily when he is presented with evidence that he is not the be all and end all.
Landau: I was thinking about the film The Social Network and how Mark Zuckerberg gets that rejection from that girl early on in college, which shapes all of his grandiosity and ambition. In your pilot, Walt hits that rock bottom moment with, besides his illness, when he’s at the car wash and the student from school shows up with the girl and Walt’s scrubbing a tire rim. He feels so completely humiliated, and it’s like his Scarlett O’Hara, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again” moment. No matter how much he has, Walter seems to have this insecurity when it’s ill-gotten and you’re fearful that it could all be taken away. The last episode that aired, your mid-season cliffhanger, when Skyler (Anna Gunn) says, “How much is enough?” It’s not about the money. What would you say he’s afraid of?
Gilligan: That’s a good question. The obvious answer would be death. The motivation that got him off his keister in the first place to becoming a criminal was the fear of imminent death. He was facing an end-of-life crisis. It’s a very existential show. Walt faces many existential moments that he so far has managed to surmount. And, yet, he doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time pondering death — maybe in the early going in the first season he did. He’s gotten past that. We even had an episode a few seasons back where he said to his brother-in-law, “You know, I used to worry about everything, it used to keep me awake at night. But, since I got my cancer diagnosis, I sleep like a baby.” I think Walt’s big fear is insignificance. Whether he’s here or not, that’s not the issue, but once he’s gone, he fears he’ll be instantly forgotten, that he won’t have mattered or counted for anything. This is a man who in a later episode lets Jesse [Aaron Paul] and the audience know that he could have been somebody. He could have been a billionaire or at least a millionaire many times over as a founding partner of Gray Matter. This company that his girlfriend and his best buddy from college founded with him. He stepped away from that and he has intense regret about it. The stock price every week shows him how much money he could have had if he had stuck with the program. This is a very damaged man who fears that he is irrelevant and insignificant. And decides ultimately, I think it’s from Paradise Lost that Satan says, “It’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” It’s the realization that Walt can stand being a criminal. It wouldn’t have been his first choice, but it gives him something that he needs. It gives him power and potency and relevance. It’s better to be somebody negative than nobody.
Landau: There’s a great line at the end of season 4 where he says to his wife, “I’m not in danger, I am the danger.” He never thought he could become this guy. He’s cooking meth, but he has his own addiction to this power.
Gilligan: His addiction to power and the money, I think, becomes a yardstick of sorts. That huge pile of cash that we see in that eighth episode of season 5 is a yardstick, nothing more. Walt and Skyler could never spend it all without garnering the unwanted attention of the IRS and the Feds. It’s just an enormous pile of paper in a U-Store-It facility. That scene you mentioned earlier shows Walt’s ability to lie to himself. When he says, “I’m not in danger, I am the danger,” he could not be more wrong.
Landau: How much research did you do going into the pilot? Do you have meth consultants? How do you come up with some of this stuff?
Gilligan: The thing I loved about this show when it first started was that Walter White was essentially me. In other words, the thing that held me in good stead when I wrote the pilot before I had a staff, including folks with the DEA and oncologists and professors of chemistry. All these folks that help us out with the various facts and information. Before we had any of that, Walter White was just a guy who one day woke up and decided I’m going to start cooking crystal meth. He was very much me at that point in the sense that he didn’t know any more about a life of crime than I did. So, as a writer, it worked out very well for me. I do not have any of the chemistry knowledge Walt possesses. He is a brilliant chemist, and I barely know how soda pop is made. Having said that, the thing that held me in good stead in those scenes where he was teaching chemistry is that he’s talking to a bunch of knuckleheads and they’re barely listening. He has to dumb it down and speak in laymen’s terms. That got me through — the ability of Walt to pick his audience. And then, Walt bumbling his way into a life of crime is pretty much the way I would have done it, if I had the desire and I wasn’t too scared of the police which is what made it so fun to write. I’m better with writing characters who are a little closer to me because I’m not very good at research.
Landau: As you started to get into cooking meth, he’s kind of a neophyte in that world. How did Jesse enter onto the canvas for you?
Gilligan: I got so very lucky that we cast Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in these two lead parts, and of course, all of our other wonderful actors as well. These actors have truly inhabited these roles, and more than that, they’ve shown us just how deep and rich and complex these characters could truly be. It’s a large part of what makes them iconic. They have shown both me and my writers the way to make them iconic. A good example is Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman who, I hate to admit, in the early going was just a plot mechanism. There was a lot about that pilot that was somewhat mechanistic. Hank Schrader’s [Dean Norris] character was a logistical element who existed to prod Walt in a certain direction. Hank was this bold, brassy, “hail fellow, well met” frat boy of a character who was everything Walter White was not. You could tell that Walter was secretly jealous of this guy and had this contained animus toward him. Jesse Pinkman existed to show Walt the way into this criminal underworld at which point in the beginning, and then I was just going to kill off his character.
So, I’d love to tell you that I had the whole thing figured out from day one, but that would be a lie. I, for instance, was ready to kick Jesse to the curb as soon as he had downloaded his somewhat limited knowledge of criminality to Walt. And, then I was going to create someone more interesting for season 2. Or, beyond that, I’m not even sure that I saw the necessity of Walt having a partner to begin with. I thought he would have various underlings. This is where luck takes a hand because we cast this outstanding actor, Aaron Paul, who in the early going added so much value to the show that there was no way I could kill off this character. Conversely, if we had cast somebody who was a bit of a dud, I wouldn’t even have questioned it. I would have just edited around him and then killed him off in some spectacular fashion. It’s a good lesson to writers that if you really want the writing itself to be the be all and end all, you should be writing novels — which someday I would like to try myself — but when you’re working in TV and movies, it is very much a collaborative effort. Your writing will live or die — no matter how good it is — based on the quality, talent, and enthusiasm of the actors who inhabit the role and on the quality of the director directing them. It works both ways. The actors and directors can fill in some gaps in your writing and make it better. Or they take some of your good stuff and make it worse, unfortunately. There’s a certain amount of luck or fate that takes a hand when the casting happens or the director is hired. You always keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best. You never know how it’s going to turn out. That’s what makes it terrifying and exciting.
Landau: It’s also ironic that Walter starts out as a teacher, but then he’s such a great student. He learns from everybody and takes a little bit from each of them.
Gilligan: That’s a good way to put it. I never really thought about it that way. Walt is an excellent student. He drinks in this criminal world around him very quickly. Yet, he is arrogant enough that he has trouble thinking of himself as a student. He prefers to think of himself as the master. That is what chafed so much in the season where Walt was under Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) thumb. I think what chafed him the most was not that Gus wanted him dead but that Gus was the master and Walt was the indentured servant.
Landau: When you’re breaking stories in your writers’ room, are you doing traditional A, B, and C stories? Are you structuring a half a season at a time according to any specific theme? Or is it episode by episode?
Gilligan: It is very much episode by episode. I had never done a series before this that had involved A, B, and C stories. I had certainly seen my share of TV which contained them. I should preface this by saying there’s no right way to do television. All that matters is that you find a way that works for you. The way we do it on Breaking Bad is that we make it an “all hands on deck” affair. I have six writers and I want them all in the room with me every minute of the day. I hate it when they get up and go to the bathroom, for instance, because I want everyone there to listen and to contribute. I want everyone there helping to move the ball down the field. This show is so serialized that you really need that.
On The X-Files, you did spend a lot of time by yourself. You’d go off and ponder or go to your office or walk around the FOX lot trying to come up with a stand-alone episode. But with Breaking Bad, you have to be in that room. You almost have to have a mantra where you ask over and over again, “Where is Walt’s head at? What does he want right now? What is he afraid of? What is his goal right now? What does Skyler want? What does Jesse want?” That is what we do. We build these episodes brick by brick. We don’t think in terms of A, B, and C stories. We think of Breaking Bad as Walter White’s story. A character study of one man. This is a world where Walter White’s choices and actions lead to difficulties and problems for all the other characters within that universe of the show. He is the A story. He is the main taproot from which branches out all other limbs and leaves of the story. He’s the acorn that’s set it all in motion.
Even though it’s a show ostensibly about a man dying of cancer, metaphorically speaking, Walter himself is cancer. Walt is the malignancy at the center of the show that affects others to their detriment — his family first and foremost.
Landau: When you’re doing a serialized show, one of the challenges is that you don’t want to burn through story too fast. If you’re doing them episode by episode, what are your instincts for revealing story?
Gilligan: My instinct is that there’s a very interesting dynamic that occurs when you’re creating a serialized TV show, although this could occur in more episodic shows as well. You want to swing for the fences. You want to give the audience a reason to stay tuned in. It’s hard keeping folks’ attention. In other words, sometimes the faster you tell the story, it becomes problematic in and of itself and you risk losing viewers by the very fact that you are working too hard and the sweat is showing. The best philosophy I have on that subject, and one that, admittedly, I have at times not heeded myself is to give the audience the bare minimum. Give them just enough that the show is interesting. Don’t give them any more than they need to keep watching. Try to keep the show moving as slowly as possible, so that it is still interesting and moving in a forward direction. This is a terrible phrase, but it fits. You’ve got to be careful not to shoot your wad. It’s a real crude way of putting it, but I can’t think of a more apt expression. You’ve got to keep people right on the edge. Keep telling your audience new things about your character. You’ve got to keep them invested and learning. On the other hand, if you’re moving like a rocket, eventually you’re going to tire them out. It’s a very tricky thing, pacing. I’ll be honest with you — I’ve fallen prey to this myself—during the first season of Breaking Bad, I was ready to throw the kitchen sink at the audience. I was ready to give them everything I had and then some. By the end of that first season, because I was desperate for the show to be loved and to stay on the air, I was all set to do crippling damage inadvertently. But the luckiest thing that had ever happened to me on Breaking Bad was that it coincided with the Writer’s Guild strike and we were unable to do our last two episodes of that season. If we had done them, we would have absolutely swung for the fences, we would have killed off a couple of major characters that I realized, in hindsight, that we could not do without. And we would have crippled the show. So I understand that feeling of wanting to keep the audience satisfied. Sometime, though, the best way to do that is not to be frantic in your storytelling, but in fact to slow it down a bit. It was a hard lesson to learn and really one I learned from sheer luck.
It helps to know how many episodes you’ll have. However, the TV business is not geared that way, you don’t know for sure unless you’re doing a miniseries. I think that’s an underrated form. I wish that the miniseries would make a comeback. It seems to me that it could be poised to. We have so many things vying for our attention and a miniseries allows us to say to ourselves, “I’m going to watch six hours of this and then it will be done.” I would be first in line to work on something like that because it’s an investment that people can more readily make nowadays.
Landau: When I interviewed Damon Lindelof, he said that they knew how Lost was going to end. Do you know how Breaking Bad will end?
Gilligan: I’d be lying if I said I knew from the get-go how it would all end. There’s so much about the character that I didn’t know going into it or things that I thought I knew, but better things came along. For me, I find that what works best is not to be too rigid in your thinking. Very often, I have what I thought was an excellent idea and then someone else comes along and says, “Why don’t we do it this way?” and I think, “Damn, I wish I had thought of that.” So it seems to me that TV at its best is a living, breathing thing. It’s organic. And if you’re organic in your storytelling which means letting your characters tell you where they need to go, instead of trying to force them into directions that they don’t want to take; if you can maintain that organic form of plot evolution, then that will always hold you in good stead. If you’re honest with your characters, if you let them behave as human beings would, then you’ll never stray too far from the right path.
One last thought, your original question was, “Who do you root for?” It’s very hard to root for Walter White the deeper you get into the series and that was a big concern for me early on. I thought I’ve got to hire a very likable actor. I’ve got to stack the deck in his favor. He’s got a wife with a surprise pregnancy. He’s got a son with cerebral palsy. He’s treated miserably in his second job and is laughed at by his rich students. I was very worried. But I’m happy to say that as the series progressed I’ve relaxed in my thinking. I don’t worry as much about Walt being likable. It surprises me actually that people still root for him at all. I kind of stopped rooting for him as his creator quite a while back. He’s a guy I wouldn’t want to know if he was a real person. There are people in the audience who have said, “You know, I can’t take this guy anymore. I have to stop watching.” Hopefully, the show remains interesting even though I don’t sympathize with Walt anymore. But then there are good, smart, law-abiding people who still root for the guy, and I find that a very interesting sociological study, because the process for my writers and me is almost to shake off the viewers’ sympathy to this main character, to help them see that he really is on a journey from being a good guy to a bad guy. At some step along that journey, you say to yourself, “He really is the bad guy.” The show from the beginning was a bit of experimental television, I wanted to tell a story in which the main character was undergoing constant change. But as far as rooting for the character, there are many who do not, but hopefully there are other things that make them tune in.
Landau: I think it’s a vicarious thrill. You kind of root for him because it’s one guy railing against the system. And he’s always vulnerable. No matter how strong he seems to get. Plus you always have somebody worse than Walt.
Gilligan: Interesting. That’s well put. I like that take on it.