So on Friday I got to interview the man who created the man who knocks. The interview with Vince Gilligan, creator and show runner of Breaking Bad, ended at about 2:40 pm. I raced out of Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel to find a place to transcribe it and write my story for The Vancouver Sun. Then I raced to Vancouver’s Centre for the Performing Arts to cover an event where Gilligan was quizzed about the show in front of approximately 1700 people.
That event launched the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Film and TV Forum, but the event that was really on everyone’s mind was the final episode of Breaking Bad, which airs tonight, and which has become one of those drop-everything-and-watch moments that makes anything else seem off-topic.
The biggest thing that hit me interviewing Gilligan was . . . Damn, is this man sweet. And it’s not just his Virginia accent that makes him come across like a country gentleman. Show runners aren’t traditionally known for either their easygoing or generous natures, but during our one-on-one interview and his conversation later at the Centre, Gilligan was both quick to laugh and quick to credit the other writers on his show.
Brett Martin, author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, had the same take I did. Gilligan, he writes, is the one show runner he spent time with who didn’t come across as difficult. I mentioned this to Gilligan, and he just laughed again and shrugged it off.
“That was very nice,” he said. “I can be pretty difficult. I can be a pain in the ass just like anybody else. And I can be short-tempered and impatient. But at the end of the day I know that we’re just creating TV — and I’m proud of that — but we’re not curing cancer, we’re not winning World War Two for freedom and justice, we’re not sending people to the moon. We’re not doing anything so grand and important. We’re just making a TV show and it’s not going to cure polio. It’s a popular entertainment. So if you realize that, it kind of helps keep it all in perspective. There’s no reason to be a monster about it because it’s just a TV show. But having said that I’m very proud of our particular TV show and it’s meant the world to me to get to work on it and I feel very blessed and honoured to have been a part of it.”
Here’s some more of my interview with Gilligan, in which he talks about his favourite line in the show, the accidents that fueled some of Breaking Bad’s most iconic moments, and making lemons into organic lemonade.
Leiren-Young: I’ve heard a lot of interviews with you and it seems like you’ve really been open to grace in terms of the show, like changing your mind about killing Jesse because the actor (Aaron Paul) was working out so well.
Gilligan: Yeah yeah yeah yeah, you kind of have to. It’s a collaborative medium and if you don’t embrace that I think you do yourself a disservice as a show runner. I’ve heard instances of show runners saying, “You know I knew from the moment I wrote the pilot exactly what the final image was going to be and I knew where this was all headed.” And some series creators probably do work that way. And if that works for them, godspeed — but for me I did have a few ideas, vague images of how things should play out, where certain plot points should go and where certain characters should wind up and pretty much all of them went by the wayside over the years because I hired six really excellent writers and the seven of us together, collaboratively working as one group mind, came up with stuff that I could never have come up with on my own.
And furthermore life takes you in some interesting directions. In our own lives we find that to be true and in the life of a TV series as well. Very often suddenly you lose a location. We had the house, for instance, that Jesse Pinkman lives in sold right out from under us so we could no longer go there. We had the actor who plays Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) who was very scary and very charismatic become unavailable to us in season two because he was a regular character on the TV show The Closer, so when life deals you lemons you’ve got to learn how to make lemonade and that’s part of this collaborative organic, living, breathing medium. And you’ve just gotta roll with it. And sometimes when you roll with it, it’s very painful in the moment but then you realize later, man, maybe this was grace or this was fate or this was somehow the universe allowing us to come up with something better than we would have come up with without this sort of intervention.
Leiren-Young: What’s your favourite aspect of making TV? What do you love most about it?
Gilligan: I love the satisfaction of working hard and then seeing all of our hard work as a group come together into something we can be proud of. It’s very different than writing movies nowadays. I spent the first five years of my career writing movie scripts. And I got paid very well for it and I got to live wherever I wanted. I got to live in my hometown back in Virginia and I got to set my own schedule and there was a lot good about writing movies, but the big downside that outweighed all the good was that you’d work your heart out on a movie script and then very likely it would never get made. And in television you work your butt off and you have to live where you have to live, you have to live where the writers are and where the producers are and the production is and you don’t get much time to yourself, but when you conceive of an idea and write it up, very often a week, two weeks later it’s being shot, it’s being made real and that is what writers get into this business for. It’s not for the money, it’s not for the fame. People like me get into this job to see our work come to life and get produced and get enacted by wonderful actors and get shot and wind up on the air. So the thing I like best about TV is that your hard work bears tangible and quick results.
Leiren-Young: Do you have a favourite line in the show?
Gilligan: The one that seems to have taken on a life of its own truly is “I am the danger. I am the one who knocks.” It’s hard to pin down a favourite, but I’m glad that that one really made it into the zeitgeist. That episode was written by Genni Hutchison. It was an episode called “Cornered” and she just did a great job. That was a helluva scene.
Leiren-Young: Can you talk about what you learned from your time on The X-Files?
Gilligan: Everything I know about TV production and writing for TV I learned from The X-Files. It was the second greatest job I had after Breaking Bad. And I could not have done Breaking Bad if not for all the things I learned writing and producing X-Files. It was the greatest film school in the world and I got paid to attend.
Gilligan was interviewed at the Centre by Damon Lindelof, who created the TV series Lost and so he knows a bit about TV land. He declared Breaking Bad the greatest series in the history of television. Maybe Gilligan will shrug that off too. But a lot of the 7 million-plus people expected to tune in tonight will likely agree.
Update: Make that 10.3 million people who watched.