What keeps Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan awake at night? Do the show’s writers ever lose track of all those nitty-gritty plot details? And why won’t they tell us point-blank if Walter White’s cancer is back?
Slate put these questions to Gilligan, who is currently at work on Breaking Bad’s final episodes, set to air in 2013.
Slate: What stage are you at with the final eight episodes?
Vince Gilligan: The brief answer is that we’re working on the second episode of the final eight. But we’ve been stalled out for a few days. We’re actually at the dreaded point of thinking we have to go back and change a few things in the first episode.
Slate: In a conference call earlier this week, you mentioned that there was a debate going on among the writers about how to handle Hank’s discovery. Is that kind of debate always part of the show’s creative process?
Gilligan: Very much so. That’s all we do in the room together. And when I say debate, I mean it in the best, most positive sense. Things have only gotten heated maybe once or twice in four and a half years. It’s like a sequestered jury. We’re sitting around a similar table to what a jury finds itself around, a boardroom-type table, and we sit there day in and day out and discuss where the story is at that particular moment. At this point in particular, when we have our final episodes, we work hard to ensure we’re not forgetting anything. We don’t want to leave any loose ends. My great fear is waking up two years from now, in the middle of the night, bolting up out of my bed and saying, “Oh my God, we missed X. We should’ve done this. This would’ve been the right ending.”
Slate: I wonder if that could really happen though. The minute the final episode aired, there’d be a list of those things out there.
Gilligan: You’re probably right. Thirty seconds after the show ends, someone will post something saying, “The show should’ve ended like this.” And I’ll go “Oh, crap, she’s right, it should’ve ended like that.” That is the thing that keeps us awake at night.
Slate: The show is one of the most detail-oriented I can think of. The first four seasons covered a little less than one year in the characters’ lives. You spend a lot of time on processes, how-tos, watching people work. How do you avoid getting lost in the weeds with all that detail?
Gilligan: We get more and more lost in the weeds as the series progresses. I can tell you one particular physical manifestation of that: The hardest part of the job of writing this show is when the six writers and myself sit around the room and break the story. We figure out the story, moment by moment, plot beat by plot beat, and it is such a detailed process that it takes quite a bit of time. It takes longer, man-hour-wise, to do that than to actually write the script once the plot is broken. When we first started, that process of breaking the story took maybe a week, a week and a half, per episode. Then it wound up being about two weeks. Now we are floating around three weeks per episode, and sometimes they go substantially longer than that. We are very lucky that Sony and AMC, the companies we work for, are very understanding about schedule. Having said that, we’re only human. Every now and then, we do catch ourselves in a mistake or someone else catches us in a mistake. We hate when that happens, but it does happen.
Slate: Can you think of an example?
Gilligan: I was talking a few minutes ago to a writer who was asking me about inconsistencies of when the show is set in time. When I was shooting the pilot episode, we had a scene where Walt puts his son’s handicap placard on his car, and it said 2007. The writer said to me: “I thought this show took place in 2007, and it’s only been a year since then, but last week you had someone mention the Osama Bin Laden assassination. How do you reconcile that?” I had to say, “Well, honestly, I don’t.” In a perfect world, this show is somewhat timeless, and people will watch it and think of it as the present.
Slate: The cold opens on Breaking Bad are amazing. Every week you almost get the equivalent of a short film. Do you feel pressure about being creative with those?
Gilligan: Oh, God, yes. But not just the cold open, or the teaser as we call it. We call it a teaser and we use the structure we use, just because that was exactly the way Chris Carter taught me to do in on The X Files. We use the exact same structure The X Files used, which is a teaser followed by four acts of show.
The teaser—or cold opening, as you say—is a source of great exhaustive discussion, and very often we skip it. We did that with our first episode of our final eight. We like to start with the cold open and then work from that point on, but sometimes we know we’re going to bog down for too long. Right now, for instance, we’ve had the first episode figured out literally for weeks, and we have a blank spot where the teaser is supposed to go, because we want the best possible teaser we can think of, and we haven’t thought of it yet.
Slate: On Breaking Bad, you often leave things open to interpretation. So, for instance on Sunday’s episode, we see Walt having a scan, then he sees the dispenser that he punched on an earlier visit. Some commenters on our “TV Club” said that means the cancer is definitely back. To me, it means, it might be back. But there is often an element of uncertainty. Why do you choose to keep things a bit vague and open rather than being clear about what’s going on?
Gilligan: It’s funny, in the original execution of that episode, it was more clear what was going on—I won’t say in which way, and it might be in a way that surprises you. We got all the way to the ending of the episode, and we thought, “No, let’s change this. Let’s make it less clear.” The longer we’ve been doing this, the more I realize that I want the viewers to take as active a hand as possible in the show. I like moments of vagueness. I like moments of mystery. We always make a differentiation in the writers room between mystery and confusion. Mystery is almost always good. Confusion is always bad. You want to be mysterious but not confusing.
I want the viewers doing as much work as possible. I think they want to do as much work as possible, too, when they’re watching Breaking Bad, or when they’re watching a show like Breaking Bad. They want to be doing the math. There’s a wonderful old Billy Wilder quote: “Let the audience put 2 and 2 together so that it comes up with 4. Let them do that themselves, and they’ll love you forever.” Whether that’s true or not, I love the audience doing the math.
Slate: Can you describe your characters in two or three words?
Gilligan: For Walt, “ego and lies.” Actually, I want to amend that. Make it, “untrue to himself.” Jesse: “Wants better.” Hank: “Truth at all costs.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.