Posts Tagged ‘Vince Gilligan’

All stories are about transformation, and that change comes with a crushing truth about ourselves.”
Blake Snyder

Just gonna have to be a different man
Changes/David Bowie

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Are you ready for a chemistry lesson that will transform your screenwriting—maybe your life? I hope so because in less than 60 seconds Walter White not only gives us a glimpse into chemistry, but one that nails the overarching theme of the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, and at the same time gets to the heart of storytelling—and perhaps the history of the human race.

Can you really do that in just 60 seconds? Well, I don’t know if you can—but Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan did.

“Breaking Bad” pilot script
Written by Vince Gilligan

You can read the full Breaking Bad pilot script dated 5/27/05 online, but here’s how Bryan Cranston as Walter White spoke the words in the pilot directed by the writer Vince Gilligan.

“Chemistry is—well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this, electrons—they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle; solution, dissolution just over and over and over. It is growth and decay, and then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
High School chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad

“It is growth and decay, and then transformation”—that sentence packs a punch. And as we’ve learned in books, TV shows, and movies— as well as world history— that transformation is not always positive.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Breaking Bad Y’All
‘The Farmer and the Tweaker’
TV Vs. Feature Films (Vince Gilligan)
Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cool Moments’
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
‘Groundhog Day’ and Cheap Therapy

Scott W. Smith

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“At the core of Breaking Bad is family. It is what impels the show’s lead character, the cancer-stricken Walter White, to parlay his knowledge of chemistry into meth production. He wants to ensure the well-being of his wife and children after his death. No sin too great, no hell too deep. This faithfulness to family is the lifeblood of Albuquerque. Everything that lives in the desert has had to fight to stay alive, and survival requires banding together.”
Madeleine Carey
Albuquerque Really Is Like Breaking Bad

“I don’t know where the idea [for Breaking Bad] came from specifically, but I remember the moment it hit me. I was talking to my buddy Tom Schnauz, a guy I went to NYU film school with—who is now a producer on Breaking Bad and written some our best episodes—we’d both been on The X-Files together which ended about three years prior to this conversation. We were kind of bemoaning our situation of being working writers who at that moment were not working. And I said maybe we should get into another line of work while the gettin’s good, and I think I’d be a good greeter at Walmart. I think I’d be good at that—say hi to people, you know, wave. Talked about working at H&R Block and then he said, ‘What if we just pool our resources and buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back?’ And I laughed—obviously he was not serious. But the idea—as we were talking on the phone just BOOM! into my head was the inspiration. I don’t know what it was, but suddenly I was intensely intrigued by the idea of a guy who’d do such a thing. Suddenly it struck me that what would be interesting to me as a viewer and a writer, would what if it was essentially me? In other words what if it’s a guy who’s never broken the law, or littered or jaywalked,  suddenly finding himself being a meth cook. Doing something reprehensible and illegal. That idea, just BOOM! is the middle of this phone conversation, kinda hit me full-blown. Which is rare because ideas are usually much slower in coming, they don’t usually come in eureka moments, at least for me.”
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Interview with Jenni Matz on August 9, 2011

Part of the fruit of Gilligan’s idea during a slow time in his writing career is the 2014 edition of Guinness World Records listed Breaking Bad as the Highest-Rated TV Series. 

Now that the show has concluded its five year run it’s worth glancing back and asking if even though Breaking Bad was a gritty look at the meth industry,  did it some way glamorize the drug and even increase usage. According to the article Was Breaking Bad Good for the Meth Business by Brian Braiker the numbers actually indicate that there were far less meth users at the end of the shows run than before it started:

“According to the most recent data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 440,00 people age 12 and older were users of methamphetamine in 2012. That represents just 0.2 percent of the population and a significant drop from 2006, two years before ‘Breaking Bad’ premiered, when the number of users was 731,000. ‘The numbers go up and down and up and down over the years, but generally speaking, it’s never reached the 2006 levels,’ said SAMHSA spokesman Brad Stone.”

P.S. It’s a good thing Gilligan created Breaking Bad, because that Walmart greeter position he was thinking about became a casualty in 2012 when they first eliminated the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m third shift greeters and I’m not sure they have any greeters now. Or if they do their role has been diminished. Experts said it had to do with a mix of the down economy and competition from Dollar General stores and Internet shopping. If your options are to work at Walmart or create an Emmy-winning TV, go with the latter.

But if you do work at Walmart (or H&R Block) I’m sure there is plenty of inspiration surrounding you for at least enough material for one screenplay. Maybe you saw the photos that went viral this year that were supposedly signs from Walmart management to an employee named Shane.


Related post:
Where Do Ideas Come From?
Don’t Quit Your Day Job (2.0).

Scott W. Smith

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“I went to Gooding [Idaho] in the fall of 1999 to do a magazine story on that town’s principle industry, ranching. At the time, I didn’t know what meth was; it was completely by accident that I found myself in a place overrun with the drug, though the obviousness of meth’s effects was immediate.”
Nick Reding

If you’ve seen even one episode of Breaking Bad you know that the AMC TV show is set in New Mexico, but the story has west coast roots—and actually touches on a deeper problem throughout the United States.

“When I originally conceived of Breaking Bad, I intended to set it in Riverside, California. And of course southern California is not too far from the Mexican border either, but when I originally conceived of the show I wasn’t thinking as much in terms of the Mexican drug cartel component. I was thinking more in terms of a homegrown meth business that Walter White was going to establish. But early on, Sony, the studio that produces our show—this was after the script was written, and they knew I was thinking of southern California—they came to me and said, ‘What do you think about us placing the series in New Mexico instead?’ And I said, ‘Well, why are you thinking that?’ And they said New Mexico has a tax rebate for film and television production, and it’s a pretty substantial one.”
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Slant Magazine interview with J.C. Frenan 

So off to New Mexico they went on the way to producing what would be a five year run resulting in two Emmy Awards for Best Drama. And embracing the new environment, Gilligan and his team of writers found new creative opportunities for conflict that were regionally centered in a way it wouldn’t be if they shot the series in say Vancouver or Atlanta.

‘The meth component of it, story-wise, really could have been any state in the Union, unfortunately, because there are meth labs probably in every state in the United States, and it is kind of a nationwide problem. However, once we got the ball rolling on our series, in the last four or five years the news of drug violence in a lot of the cities and towns along the Southwest border became more front and center in the national news, so we wound up incorporating more and more into our storyline. It certainly helped at that point that our story happened to be set in Albuquerque, which is only about 220 miles from the border. So we kind of ‘lucked’ into that element of storytelling.”
Vince Gilligan
Slant Magazine

It may have been a happy accident that Breaking Bad landed in New Mexico, but I do believe they would have found fresh story elements no matter where they went. Ever heard of Oelwein, Iowa? Back in 2009 Nick Reding published a book called Methland; The Death and Life of an American Small Town, based on two years of life in Oelwein.

“It wasn’t until 2005—when news of methamphetamine epidemic began flooding the national media—that people began taking notice. Overnight, the American small town and methamphetamine became synonymous. Main Street was no longer divided between Leo’s and the Do Drop Inn, or between the Perk and the Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker. How this came  to be—and what it tells us about who we are—is the story of this book. And this book is the story of Oelwein.”
Nick Reding

I lived in Iowa from 2003-2013 and was warned in my first year to be careful when I wandered off the beaten path with my camera. I lived in Miami when it was the cocaine capital, I lived in Orlando when it led the country in heroine overdoses, and I lived in L.A. when the crack epidemic hit town, but nothing shocked me more than learning about meth and its destruction in small town America.

Methland begins quietly and solemnly, with a ballad of cultural invisibility. Reding, a loyal native of the Midwest who’s frankly sentimental about its past and starkly lucid about its likely future, invites his rushing readers to gaze down at the ‘flyover country’ of America and see not a grid of farms and county roads but a patchwork of failed institutions and aspirations”
Walter Kirn’s review of Methland
New York Times 

Around the time Breaking Bad first hit the air in 2008 I did an interview in Chicago with a former drug dealer from Atlanta who just when I think I’d heard it all said in the interview that when he was doing meth he could stay awake for days and sometimes had double digital sexual partner days. (Even if you somehow didn’t consider that bad behavior, you’d have to at least say that’s not a healthy lifestyle. Yes, he was HIV-positive.)

So the timing was right for Vince Gilligan to unleash Breaking Bad into the world. The story of a high school chemistry teacher at the end of his rope will never be confused with a Disney fairytale, but it hit home for millions of viewers living through  the fallout of a major financial crisis.

“The writers and I really do try to incorporate what’s going on in reality into the series. As we are set in Albuquerque and as Albuquerque is about 200 miles from Juarez, and currently in the news there’s so much unpleasant and unfortunate drug violence along the border, a lot of which is due to the meth trade, we do find ourselves incorporating those elements into the story. We want to portray reality as well as we can portray it, and the reality of any ongoing meth concern in Albuquerque would involve some dealing with the border trade and the competition from drugs coming from Mexico. Anyone who is trying to make a go of a drug business would have to see that as competition and would have to deal with the cartel members who were dealing in central New Mexico.”
Vince Gilligan
Slant Magazine

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cooler Moments’
TV vs. Feature Films (Vince Gilligan)

Scott W. Smith


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Back in 2010, J.C. Frenan of Slant Magazine asked Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan this question, ‘You’ve worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?’

Vince Gilligan: I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you’re writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can’t be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I’ve experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.

In the next day or two we’ll take a road trip of sorts and see how Gilligan went from Richmond, Virginia to New York City to Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico on his way to becoming a two-time Emmy winner.

Related posts:

Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cooler Moments’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure   “Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”—Vince Gilligan

Scott W. Smith


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Just a few days ago Breaking Bad in its final season won its second Emmy for best drama. The AMC show averaged over nine Emmy nominations per year in its five-year run. And who knows how many ‘water cooler moments’? Here’s one from the season four episode Problem Dog written and directed by Peter Gould.

“One thing I like about our series [Breaking Bad], one thing we strive for is to create ‘water cooler moments.’ That’s certainly not an expression we created, but the way we define a water cooler moment is: Is it a plot development or is it a scene in which people can gather around the water cooler at the office and discuss what the scene meant? Not simply get them talking about it, but have them discuss it and argue over what the scene meant, what it forebodes, perhaps, for the future. And all of this to say that I personally have no particular political or social axe to grind, because I think that stories that set out to do that become kind of didactic or polemic. Stories about characters are always more interesting to me, personally. There is no deeper social indictment at work here, at least not consciously. However, when I speak of water cooler moments, I like for the audience to have the ability to perhaps argue that there are [social or political prerogatives]. I like for people watching our show to have different viewpoints on what exactly the show means. And Walt’s behavior—I like folks being able to argue over his behavior. Is he completely wrong, or is there some rightness to his cause?”
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
2010 Slant interview by J.C. Frenan

P.S. The last part of that reminds me of the quote by the playwright Ibsen who said it was enough to ask questions. The wrestling with those questions is what people think about after watching a movie, play or Tv show. And if you’re fortunate to strike a nerve it leads to people standing around the water cooler talking it. I don’t know if they had water coolers back Shakespeare day, but I’m pretty sure they had some kind of version of water cooler moments even back in ancient Greece.

Scott W. Smith

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“I am not in danger, Skyler—I am the danger.”
Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad

“In the early days, especially writing the [Breaking Bad] pilot, I worried so much that Walt wouldn’t be likeable. It’s funny, I bent over backwards to give the audience reasons to sympathize with him. I was nervous – anxiety-ridden, as I typically am – that what I was saying in that script was interesting enough for the audience. Watching that first episode, I probably overdid that a bit. In hindsight, I’ve learned the audience will go along with a character like Walt so long as he remains interesting and active, and is capable about his business. People like competency. What is it people like about Darth Vader?  Is it that he’s so evil, or that he’s so good at his job? I think it might be the latter. All the fears I had – ‘Boy, no one’s gonna sympathize with this guy’– turned out to be unfounded, which was a very interesting revelation.”
Two-time Emmy winning producer/writer and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan
Rolling Stone article by Rob Tannenbaum

Related bonus quote: “Television is really good at protecting the franchise. It’s good at keeping the Korean War going for 11 seasons, like M*A*S*H. It’s good at keeping Marshal Dillon policing his little town for 20 years. By their very nature TV shows are open-ended. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?”
Vince Gilligan on creating Breaking Bad
The Dark Art of Breaking Bad by David Segal
2011 New York Times 

Related posts:
Simple Stories/Complex Characters (Tip #95)
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Protagonist= Struggle
Movie Flaws, Personality & DNA “Scorsese is often called ‘America’s greatest director’ on the strength of a body of work in which all the characters in his movies are various degrees of wicked and miserable people.”—William Froug
Martin Luther King & Screenwriting (Tip #7) “Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.” —Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

Scott W. Smith


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A nice segue from my recent Rod Serling posts (and even my golf/movie related posts from a couple of weeks ago) is the following quote by Oscar-winner screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and Sorkin went to Syracuse University.

“I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.”
Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator)
Emmys Roundtable—The Hollywood Reporter 

Bonus failure quote from the same article:

“When I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”
Vince Gilligan

Related posts:

J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Spectacular Failures
Rod Serling on Rejection
Winning. Losing and Little Miss Sunshine “From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin…”—Oscar-winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (Part 3) “Anybody who goes into film has to be a little crazy. And has to be ready for every kind of disappointment and defeat.”—Welles

Scott W. Smith

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” A solid principle is to employ expository dialogue as the reaction to the events that take place before the lens (remember: show and then tell). Invent action or incidents as the provocation for dialogue, because exposition in film is much more interesting after the dramatic event as a comment (or perhaps an explanation) on it.”
Alexander Macindrick

“The senior writers at the film studios in London where I worked for many years used to delight in collecting examples of bad dialogue in screenplays. One of their favorites was ‘Look, Highland cattle!’ This was a quote from a particularly amateurish travelogue in which a character pointed off-screen, said this line, and the film cut to guess what? Those three words became shorthand for a piece of wholly unnecessary and redundant exposition used when the story was being told perfectly well solely through visual means. A good director will go out of his way, often in the editing process when he has both words and images in front of him, to gradually eliminate all lines that are absolutely not necessary.”
Alexander Mackindrick
On Film-making
Page 7

Here’s the opening scene (Spanish translation version) from the Breaking Bad pilot written by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan, and it’s a great example of visual and compleing storytelling with limited dialogue. You may not know what’s going on but it makes you want to know what happend and what will happen next. Much better than, “Look, Highland cattle!”—or even “Look, a meth lab!”

P.S. An interesting editing concept I picked up from Sam Mendes on the DVD commentary of American Beauty is looking at cutting the first line or two of the opening of the scene and doing the same at the end of the scene. American Beautywas Mendes’ first film and he discovered in editing that often times those lines weren’t needed. It’s an interesting exercise to read your script again from page one asking yourself— “If the opening and closing lines were edited out, would it make any difference?”

I’ve found that in reading many unpublished screenplays it’s not just cutting the opening or closing line or two in a scene that works, but often a line or two of dialogue within regular ongoing conversation in scene after scene.

Related post:

Is 110 the New 120?
The Four Functions of Dialogue (Tip #45)

Scott W. Smith

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