While Vince Gilligan was disarmingly modest, he was probably the most creatively and commercially successful guy in the room. A featured writer at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, he filled the Sydney Town Hall twice for consecutive, chat-style sessions. His fans turned up for a behind-the-scenes look at the critically acclaimed television series, Breaking Bad.
His gentlemanly, unassuming and even-tempered manner was at odds with the prima donna stereotype sometimes associated with highly creative people. With his squeaky Bill Gates voice, Gilligan’s first comments were in praise of Sydney ¬– during the previous four days, he had climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, toured the Opera House, met the Lord Mayor and seen Bondi Beach. It was clear he had the audience with his first “hello”.
In the following 70 minutes, Vince Gilligan discussed everything from why people are fascinated by evil to that controversial “fly” episode, revealing that it was made because the show was horribly over budget. “We needed to do an episode in one location. Every time we move the trucks, it costs another $25 to 30,000,” he said. Described as the show’s most polarising episode, it received a mix reception from the audience.
Gilligan mused on his new project, a spin-off series entitled Better Call Saul, and deftly navigated the topic of piracy. He was unfazed by reports that Australians illegally download Breaking Bad more than audiences in any other country, “You’re nice people, I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm,” he said.
He talked about how the writers resolved difficult plot points by “just going by the seat of our pants”, how, with a tear in his eye, he wrote the ending to the series and how, in his wildest dreams, he never anticipated the success of Breaking Bad, which he modestly attributed in no small part to luck.
In the past, the good guys wore the white hat and the bad guys wore the black hat, and there was not a lot of moral nuance. What we find in real life is most of us wear a grey hat.
“I don’t know how we did what we did. We worked very hard, hired the best people we could, and worked to the limits of our talents, but then luck took a hand.”
He said it was luck that the show was ever made. He said the first time he pitched Breaking Bad to two Sony executives, they were “like deer in the headlights” and that when they then pitched to their boss, the response was, “That’s the worst idea for a television show I’ve heard in my whole life.” Gilligan admitted, “It was a bat shit crazy pitch. You start with a 50- year-old guy – boom, that’s strike one. Strike two is that he’s dying of cancer. Strike three is meth: You’re out.”
Gilligan described Breaking Bad as 75 per cent drama mixed with 25 per cent comedy, but said, “There’s nothing funny about meth. The humour didn’t come from the pain of drug abuse. It would have been a terrible thing to be known as the Hogan’s Heroes of meth TV shows. In the past, the networks and the studios had a big say in the content of a show. The good guys wore the white hat and the bad guys wore the black hat, and there was not a lot of moral nuance. What we find in real life is most of us wear a grey hat.”
He said Brian Cranston, whose descent from decency to depravity drives the show, was, “The greatest actor who ever lived. Even in a moment when he’s being pretty nasty, there’s something that remains empathetic and relatable about him. We don’t necessarily agree with the things he’s doing, but we understand why he thinks they’re the right thing to do.”
Comparing himself to Walter White, the anti-hero of Breaking Bad, Gilligan said, “What intrigued me about him is that he started off very much like me, in the sense that he was a very plain vanilla, kind of middle-aged guy. I found a visceral fascination with what it would be like to take a walk on the wild side. I don’t want to do it in real life, but it’s a thrill to think it through, create it in my imagination, put it down on paper and then watch a wonderful actor like Brian embody it.”
Vince Gilligan offered the following advice to aspiring writers: “Write what you care about, write what keeps you awake at night. In Hollywood people say, what’s selling right now? This year vampire movies are big; write a vampire movie. With Breaking Bad I was lucky enough to have this idea and this character that keeps me awake at night.”