I may have arrived late to the Breaking Bad party, but I’m making up for lost time, and loving it! Excellent writing and amazing performances from the likes of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Dean Norris.
AND…I was lucky enough to attend a Galway Film Centre screenwriting event earlier this year, with the man himself, creator and screenwriter, Vince Gilligan, in attendance for the event, Deconstructing Breaking Bad. A very entertaining and informative session, and Vince himself, a down-to-earth, practical speaking gentleman, was inspirational in the telling of his own journey as a writer.
Vince won a screenplay competition in 1989 when just out of college. Mark Johnson (Rainman) was doing the organisers a favour by sitting on the judging panel. He liked Vince’s script and asked him to show him what else he had. That was his first break into the business…and though Vince is quick to point out that it was pure luck, I would throw in my tuppence worth here and say that yes, luck plays a part, but you have to put the work in and take the actions, (for example, submitting to competitions!) that lead to that “pure luck” moment ever happening! It is so important to build up a body of work, that, in the event of that lucky break coming your way, you have more to show than just one script!
Vince went on to sell his script, Home Fries: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119304/, and with the money he made from that, was able to support himself while writing scripts between 1990-1995, Wilder Napalm, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108569/ being his most successful.
Writing for the X Files…
Vince hadn’t written for TV when the first season of X Files came out, but as a viewer, the series hooked him in. Needing to find new work, he happened to be talking to his agent, and mentioned how much he liked the show. By chance, his agent told him that she was related to the creator, Chris Carter, by marriage, and that next time Vince was in LA, she would organise a meeting. (More Luck!) He met with Chris, essentially to gush about how much he loved the X Files. He says that he had no burning ambition to write for it, he was just a fan, and that when he was asked to pitch an idea, on the spot, Vince was taken by surprise. The night before, he had been looking at his own shadow on the hotel room wall, imagining what would happen if the shadow started moving independently. He pitched this as an idea, they liked it, and he was asked to write an episode – which he did, Soft Light, and they bought it.
Genesis of the Breaking Bad idea…
Vince worked on the X Files for seven years, but when it came to an end, he was out of a job, and turning 40…a mid-life crisis of sorts. He was joking on the phone with a writer friend of his that to make some money, maybe they should rent a Winnebago and set up a meth lab. From that the idea sprung – Breaking Bad – which is essentially about a man at an end-of-life-crisis.
With his pre-existing relationship with SONY, Vince pitched his idea for the show like this: 50 year old guy, dying of cancer, decides to make crystal meth to make money for his family…The boss at Sony told him that it was the worst idea he has ever heard, but he paid him to write the pilot episode anyway. It was decided though, that the show was too “edgy” to pitch to the big networks. FX Channel accepted it however. They were looking for a show to follow Mad Men. AMC, who up until that point were just showing old movies, were looking to make a show that could bring in revenue, so they and Sony became joint financiers. If he were to pitch the show now, it would be more like: Take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface! It’s about transformation and change. The good guy turns into the bad guy, but it will have a finite end with season five. Only 16 more episodes will be made…
The show is a character piece, about one man, and the story builds on the writer’s understanding of this character. Vince likes what feels like invention, the act of creating – a jigsaw analogy, and says he stole the methodology of his writing room from his X Files days. He sits with six other writers, five days a week. He tries to keep it to a 10-6pm day with a one hour lunch break, but sometimes writers have to come in on Saturdays and Sundays, and when the pressure is on, they could work until 10 at night. Basically, they sit around a table, debating, joking, firing stuff at each other, and it is mostly good-natured. He has a number of women writers on the team, and one assistant who records everything they say.
Everyone in the room is very honest. It is a SAFE room, were all ideas are heard, crazy and all. In the roll of helmsman, Vince is aware that there are smarter people than him in the room. They don’t have all the episodes written before the first one of the season is shot. The process is brick by brick, telling it organically. It generally takes two weeks to write an episode. The teaser is always 3-5 minutes before the episode and should be a little movie onto itself – hooking in the audience. Vince directs as many episodes as he can. He is often not fond of the writing process, but LOVES to have written!
And his advice on writing a TV series…
Think of the audience as being smarter than you are. Keep ahead of them!