What did Vince Gilligan do that made Breaking Bad so good?

Creator Vince Gilligan's story of developing and writing Breaking Bad is a master class in story, character development, and the essence of drama. Oh, and the best writing room in television.
What did Vince Gilligan do that made Breaking Bad so good?

Image: inside the Breaking Bad Winnebago.


The armies of both Lee and Grant marched up the Appomattox River, which ran through Vince Gilligan’s childhood a century later, and his Virginian accent is still strong. He grew up a long way from Hollywood, but he learnt to use a Super 8 camera and fell among adults who understood his talent. 

He went to the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, was spotted as a screenwriter, had a feature film made, and settled back in Virginia. He is a wonderfully gentle, excitable man, with a soft face which seems untouched by the years.

Faced with a full house of Victorian screen people, guided by veteran television writer and producer Kelly Lefever, he was relaxed and open and personal.  He began with the Virginia years.

‘I had a house, a girlfriend and a family, and it was cheaper, so I stayed put. From 1990 to 1995 i was endeavouring to write movie scripts and it was just a lot of heartbreak and I came to loathe the movie business.’

Put the writer into the editing room

But he had a mentor producer who was related by marriage to The X-Files creator Chris Carter, who was desperate to find new writers because he was doing 26 episodes a year. And the rest is history.

Gilligan moved his family to Los Angeles, reluctantly because he knew The X-Files was burning through writers. ‘I was afraid I wouldn't work hard enough because I was such a lazy-assed writer. I could have done so much more if I hadn't sat around on my butt for the first five years of my career.’

There he collided with collaborative development, and fell in love with the process even though the writing was fairly solitary on such an episodic show. 

Carter also insisted that the writers went on set to advocate for the story, and were present in the editing room. Gilligan learnt about rhythm and economy. ‘We could cut whole swathes of dialogue we had laboured over. We are not real persnickety about this. Just as long as the characters are getting the story out the way it needs to be, and if they can do it with a look - even better.’

The essence of the Breaking Bad idea

Gilligan was joined on The X-Files by Thomas Schnauz, who he knew from the Tisch School of the Arts. After 12 years, the show and the story world was finally dying. Schnauz gave Gilligan what he called ‘the absolute germ of Breaking Bad in a casual phone conversation. He said, “Why don’t we put a meth lab in the back of a Winnebago?”

‘I had one of those rare Eureka moments - what character would do that?  A guy like us, meaning boring and law abiding who would absolutely become a criminal. Not just delving into criminality but embarking on the production of a drug which just destroys whole communities. It’s about the worst thing you could do. 

‘And that brought the idea of what actually would drive me to do such a thing. Obviously money and then very quickly I had the real germ of the show by the time we hung up. Those moments are few and far between, that’s for sure.’

Then he went into solitary mode to develop the pilot, just sitting and thinking and writing. From early on, they decided the show had to be finite. He had another moment of revelation. ‘TV can last forever and characters don’t change - they are in stasis by design. I thought to myself, “People do change in real life… life changes us. It can't help but do that," so I thought, “We’ve got a finite show where a guy becomes essentially somebody else."’

Pitching hell

It was baked into the script for the first episode and the outlines that he pitched. Five times he went out, talking through the pilot in a 20 minute slab of time, and everybody said no, starting with HBO. He doesn’t like pitching, is not a natural actor. ‘You have to lift yourself up’, he said. ‘You have to get very excited because if you are not excited, they are not going to be excited, but in order to get yourself excited and walk the highwire, you have to open up your heart. When they say no, it’s really going to hurt. It’s part of the job.’

He had exhausted all the possibilities, but his agent sent him to AMC - American Movie Classics - a cable channel which was moving from ancient reruns to contemporary drama. They were launching a small, strange show called Mad Men. ‘I went into that meeting less than excited because I thought they were going to say no and it turns out they were the one. 

They even allowed him to direct the pilot. They gave him the best note he has ever had - the pilot was wall to wall music, like other shows of the time, and they challenged him. Why should he just follow the trend? Did he trust his own work? He cut it to the bone. 

The relationship with AMC worked very well, and continues to this day with Better Call Saul. 

Building the writers' room

Unlike The X-Files, he wanted a small, committed team of writers from the beginning. They found a producer with excellent story skills to read a huge number of scripts from every agency in Los Angeles. She winnowed the heap down, Gilligan made another pass and met the most interesting writers.  

‘I have to like them. Reading the script I am looking for storytelling ability, I am looking for how clean the story is put down on the page. I want to see scene directions - we are looking for visual storytelling.

‘I am looking for authenticity and characters, for writers who don’t cheat.’ To reach the bravura scenes that everyone likes to write, many shows force the characters to do something completely implausible or seriously stupid. It is almost a convention. But this he won’t accept. ‘I like seeing that writers work that much harder to get there properly.

‘Characters all act in recognisable human ways. We are all experts - you don’t have to be a writer to be an expert in humanity. We all have  a good BS detector, so we can see when this person would not do that. I always say, “Work that much harder, even for popcorn movies, to make the characters behave as human beings would, and it pays such dividends.”’

They have round about eight people in the room, and Gilligan is enchanted by the process of working collectively with really clever people who contribute equally to the script. ‘It’s like a sequestered jury that never ends,’ he said. ‘ We are sitting around a table and talking ad nauseam right down to the most minute granular detail - what the characters are saying, what they want, what they are wearing, what the weather looks like. We are always seeing it in visual terms as well, we want the show to be visual storytelling. 

They are focused on a certain kind of detail, which will run through the entire production process. 

What does Walter want?

‘What does the character need? That is the yoga mantra. What does Walter want, right now? What is driving… - even that is too broad a question. The meat and potatoes, boiled down to the marrow, is what he wants right this minute. 

‘Over and over again until you are bored out of your skull. But it holds us in good stead. In that way you put one little baby step in front of the other. ‘

It is an organic process, which climbs a ladder of truth. ‘You get to those brilliant moments, you will get to them. And when we do its a wonderful truth for ourselves. We got here, we owned it - its like scaling a mountain climbing to enjoy the view. 

‘We want a sense of dialogue but the storytelling is done without the dialogue. We can add the dialogue after that if we get the structure and the basis bones of the plot, a proper strong foundation and the basic bones of the plot.’

They wrote everything on three by five cards with a magic marker, putting in each plot detail until each each episode occupies a three foot by five foot cork board. ‘When we are done, any one of us could write that episode.’

He describes this work as the elbow grease, the least fun part of the job when all hands are on deck. It takes about three weeks, though it can go to six, while the actual script can be written very quickly. 

‘The saving grace is that we all like each other very much. We don’t argue or yells or anything like that. There’s a little bit of argument but it’s always good natured. 

‘In the writing there’s still room for invention but we don’t find it on the page, we find it in the writers’ room, and we don’t send the writer off until we’ve found it in the writers’ room. It’s a waste of time otherwise.’

But Walter is too schematic....

Early in the evolution of Breaking Bad, they approached the story in a very schematic way. Walter was a good man motivated by a simple need to make money to take care of his family. 

‘By watching Bryan play the part and spending endless hours talking to the writers I learnt things about the character that I never initially perceived. Round about the fourth episode it dawned on us that this show could get really boring really quickly.

‘I thought, “Man, we are screwed. This show is going to last two seasons or maybe three, because it is just very schematic."'

The problem shows the power of that collective mind responsible for the story, extending across the show runner, the writers and the key actors. They gave Walter an out, in which his friends would solve his financial problem. But he kept sliding further and further into his criminal world driven by deeper, darker motivations. They gradually revealed themselves from series to series. 

Ultimately, ‘he had nothing to lose, and was experiencing this feeling of potency and power. He let all the bad things out that he had been repressing for the prior fifty years.’

But he kept claiming he was doing it for his family. ‘He’s an amazing liar and an amazing character and the person he lies to the most and the most successfully is himself.’

Plunging into the unknown

Listening to his unfolding story, I was amazed that they did not know where the story was going. It evolved in such fundamental ways as the characters evolved, they needed to advance the story into new spaces, and they picked everything over so completely. At times, with their rigorous rules of character and authenticity, it must have been unnerving. 

Around 15 episodes from the end, after they had already made 45 episodes, Vince Gilligan suggested that the arch liar Walter White would tell the truth to himself, and to his family. We would all realise the full horror of who he was, and finally see his character arc - which hadn’t existed so completely in their minds until that point. He would be transformed by self knowledge. 

That idea went down very badly in the writers’ room. From then on, they feared the series would be over. Eventually Gilligan realised that the revelation had to occur in the very last episode. 

‘It was just wonderful to have people backstopping me,’ he said. ‘We are all working together, creating something together - there’s no way you can do all that yourself.’

Calling Saul to save themselves

Towards the end of Breaking Bad, Peter Gould had emerged from the writers’ room to become Gilligan’s formal partner in developing Better Call Saul. Gilligan was concerned about the abyss which could follow the show, so they dug into Walter’s world to find Saul, a character they enjoyed writing into the stories. Could he lead them in a new direction, so they didn’t repeat themselves?

Unfortunately, Saul is a static character. ‘It dawned on us we had a character who is very comfortable in his own skin. He seems to be about an inch deep as a human being. He doesn't seem to be particularly complex. How are we going to build a show out of this guy?’

But they realised that he had already given them the essential piece of information in Breaking Bad. Saul admitted that he was not using his real name, so he had once been somebody else. And from there, they had the makings of a fundamental journey, to inch forwards, moment by moment, desire by desire, the meat and potatoes of a drama. 

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David Tiley

Monday 31 July, 2017

About the author

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy.  He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.

Twitter: @DavidTiley1