By Bill Nevins
Photo illustration by Kevin Hopper
The creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, is a talented writer and a
fortunate man. He sold his first screenplay (for the feature movie Home
Fries) while still an NYU Film School student, and then sold a script to
Fox for the second season of his then-favorite TV show The X-Files. Fox
liked the Virginia-born Gilligan’s writing so much that he became a
staff writer and then the producer of that series, and of its spin-off
series The Lone Gunmen. Gilligan is best known these days as the creator
of AMC’s Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad, for which he serves as
producer, director and frequent writer — the man who sketched out the
fascinating arc of this ground-breaking drama, and, incidentally, one of
the few people on earth who may know how the series will end.
Gilligan, 46, spoke by phone with Local iQ from his Burbank, Calif., office.
Local iQ: Breaking Bad was originally planned to be set in California, but was moved to Albuquerque. What has Albuquerque been for the show?
Albuquerque has meant the world for Breaking Bad.
I can’t imagine Breaking Bad
being anywhere else. I can’t imagine the show would be nearly as interesting as it is if it were set anywhere else. Just the cinematography and the look of the show. When I think of Albuquerque, I think of clouds, just those beautiful floating cumulus clouds. The skies. These are skies you just don’t see in Southern California. You really get the depth and the sense of scale in the desert in Albuquerque. On days when I’m out there on the set, the first thing I do is look out the window. If it’s a day with no clouds, I get really upset! I think about the Sandias and about this great city that I’ve grown to love.
iQ: How did you decide to come to Albuquerque?
Well, Sony, our studio, suggested it because of the film tax incentives available here. But the money became the least reason for making the show there. I had only been to Albuquerque a couple of times before we started shooting, but when I got out there, suddenly it dawned on me what the show could be. I began thinking about all those great John Ford movies, and all those Sergio Leone westerns.
iQ: Do you see a transformation in Albuquerque and New Mexico because of Breaking Bad?
I’d like to take credit but I can’t imagine we’ve made that much of a dent in things. I do feel that every time we come to New Mexico, it seems like it’s on an upswing, and things are feeling hopeful.
iQ: That’s great to hear. People here seem to feel Breaking Bad is a positive thing for New Mexico.
Well, I’ve heard it said there are more PhDs per capita in New Mexico than any state. And there’s a richness of natural beauty. I bought a home in New Mexico, and my girlfriend and I plan to keep it after the show wraps.
iQ: Any plans for more programs here?
I would love to do more programs in New Mexico. In my mind’s eye, I would love to see a spinoff series with Saul Goodman, but that’s just a twinkle in my eye now. But if I had a wish, that’s what I would wish for. I try to think of movies I might write that could be set there. I love westerns.
Gradually, after the first Breaking Bad episode, it started to dawn on me that we could be making a contemporary western. So you see scenes that are like gunfighters squaring off, like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef — we have Walt and others like that. Westerns are hard to get off the ground, but we would love to shoot them in New Mexico.
iQ: Do you feel that you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go with Breaking Bad?
VG: Oh, I’ve gone way beyond that, it’s far outstripped my wildest expectations. I thought the show would never make it, or would end in seven or eight episodes. So I feel like I’ve won the lottery.
iQ: Would you have any suggestions for aspiring screenwriters?
VG: The best I can suggest is learn the rules and then throw them away. For instance, I read the Syd Field book on screenwriting structure when I started out. I learned a lot, but since then I realized that you can’t be too orthodox in what you do. These courses and books are valuable, but at a certain point you say, “This particular idea I have kind of breaks a rule, and I’m gonna go for it anyway.”
What differentiates a writer from a non-writer is that you sit your butt down and you write. Writing is hard work.
I also would say don’t worry too much about what Hollywood seems to want. Hollywood was never in the market for shows about middle-aged men dying of cancer who make meth!
Really, Hollywood doesn’t know what it wants, and you can’t time the market.
What people really want is passion. They want the love that a writer puts in. They love originality. That will definitely get your foot in the door in Hollywood. The smart people who read scripts for a living really truly want to read something new. You might as well go down swinging on something you believe in, even if it doesn’t sell, but you can get them with something real and original that you believe in.
iQ: Steven Michael Quezada, the Albuquerque actor who plays Gomez on your show, has said that Breaking Bad brought the rich cultural traditions here to the rest of America.
VG: Yes, he’s right. With more and more cable channels now, there’s more of a chance for stories to get out there, different kinds of stories. We live in a very diverse country, with lots of different stories.
The other good news is that really wonderful video cameras are on the market now, and making movies is now available to so many people. You can get great cameras at Best Buy, and tell stories, make your own movies, for a fraction of what the price used to be. There is a little sadness on my part that film is going away. I love film, and we shoot Breaking Bad on 35 mm film, but it’s likely to be one of the last TV shows shot on film.
That said, it is great the folks can now shoot their own movies and put them up on YouTube, and it’s a great democratizing factor, and the people in Hollywood are looking at those movies, and some of them are getting picked up.
iQ: Are you going to miss this show? We will here.
VG: I am going to miss it very much. When the bulk of the work is done, I will get all sentimental and sad. I don’t want this show to end. But it has to end. You want to go out on top, to leave people saying, “Wow, I want more!”