INTERVIEW: Breaking Bad Creator/Executive Producer Vince Gilligan

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Last year around this time, posted Breaking Bad, Chemistry Good, an in-depth article about AMC’s breakout hit Breaking Bad, and its stunningly accurate science content. Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, is a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking and dealing methamphetamine for financial security. In our article, we highlighted several clever uses of chemistry throughout the show’s run that not only integrated brilliantly into the plot but had realistic real-world applications as well. What a difference a year makes! Last week, Editor Jovana Grbić sat down with Breaking Bad‘s delightful Creator and Executive Producer Vince Gilligan to talk about the show’s origins, the science, and some behind-the-scenes secrets that will surprise even dedicated fans. We hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as we enjoyed chatting with him. The secrets of Breaking Bad, under the “continued reading” cut. As a scientist (and PhD chemist in particular), Breaking Bad’s premise was very intriguing to me from the start. Can you share a bit about the inspiration for its origins?

Vince Gilligan: You know, Jovana, I wish I always had a better answer for where it all comes from. But I only can put a date to things—I only seem to remember when ideas came to me. In this case, Breaking Bad was an idea that came to me when I was speaking to an old college friend on the phone. He and I are both writers, and were both bemoaning the fact that—this was was about 2005—we were having trouble getting work and we were wondering where our next writing gig was going to come from. We thought instead, maybe we should switch occupations. Maybe we should buy an old RV and put a meth lab in the back and ride around in the Southwest. And we were joking around, but this character that became Walter White jumped into my head very quickly, right in the midst of this phone conversation. That’s when the idea came to me!

Creator Vince Gilligan discusses explosive chemistry with star Bryan Cranston, who plays chemistry teacher/meth dealer Walter White.

I have to say, as far as the science angle goes, I’ve always loved science, and yet I never had any real facility for it. I’ve always been a terrible student of mathematics in high school and in college. I’ve never even taken chemistry, I hate to admit it. But I’ve always loved science. And for most of my life, I’ve been a subscriber of Popular Science magazine and Popular Mechanics. But I’ve never made the jump from Popular Science to Scientific American! I don’t have a deeper understanding, but I love the idea that there are real concrete black-and-white answers in science and math, that we don’t unfortunately get in the rest of our life. The world, and our lives, is full of gray areas and uncertainties and opinion versus fact. And yet in mathematics, 2+2=4 and always has and always will. In science, certain chemicals put together in a certain way always create the same compound. I love that idea about science and I always have. I just wished in my heart of hearts that I had a deeper facility and understanding for it, but I have to say it is fun to live it by proxy and to write about a man who has a very profound understanding of chemistry and of science.

SPhD: I find it ironic hearing you say that, because a lot of people who are far less humble about their scientific capacity, their shows are far less accurate to incorporate it. Breaking Bad is one of the few shows or films that we have given a top-notch grade to for scientific accuracy and plausibility, allowing for some Hollywood liberties, of course. Who are some of the people that you consult with to write the chemistry experiments and tidbits, and what has been the general reaction within the science community?

VG: We have a lot of really good help. We have a woman named Dr. Donna Nelson, and she is the Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oklahoma. When Breaking Bad first went on the air, she contacted our office pretty early on (a few episodes in) and she said she liked what we were doing and if she could ever be of any help to us, she’d be happy to be a resource. And we have taken her up on that offer, and she has been a resource to us over the seasons. We run certain moments that happen in the story by her is as accurate as possible, and she’s been a great help. I know Bryan Cranston [Walter White], our star, shadowed a UCLA chemistry professor for a week or two before he shot the pilot, to immerse himself in the world of chemistry, not just to learn a bit about chemistry, but to see what a prototypical chemistry professor looks and sounds and acts like. Also, a part of my original inspiration, to be fair, was my long-time girlfriend Holly, her brother Hank, who I borrowed the name for Walt’s brother-in-law from, got a PhD in chemistry while he was in the Navy and is a chemist for a government organization out East and is studying red tides off the Atlantic coast. I also cannot leave out a man named Dr. Victor Bravenec, and he’s a DEA chemist based out of Dallas. I have to give great credit to the DEA, because they have been helpful since Day 1 on our Pilot, and Dr. Bravenec in particular has been helpful with the chemistry of methamphetamine and the particulars of how it is created in a laboratory. I’m so proud of the fact that you’re reacting to how realistic the chemistry is on our show, and so much of that is due to our wonderful advisors.

SPhD: One of the things I love most about Breaking Bad is that chemistry acts like an integral character, one that plays a very important role in Walt’s identity, the cooking and production of the meth, and in some cases, their very survival in some pretty hairy situations (as in the case of the fulminated mercury and homemade battery). Was it always the plan to have it be such a big part of the show or is that something that evolved?

Walt and his student Jesse, cooking up a batch of Albuequerque's finest.

VG: I did always like the idea that this would be a cable TV version of MacGyver. That was not first and foremost when I was coming up with the idea. First and foremost to me, the show is a character study about a man who is undergoing a radical transformation. He’s transforming himself from a protagonist to an antagonist. The whole show, in that sense, is an experiment to continue chemistry analogy. But there was always an element that I thought we could have fun with is the MacGyver aspect, as it were and the idea of using [Walt’s] knowledge to get him out of a jam every now and then. And I have to confess, as much fun as we have with that stuff, the show has taken so many dark character turns as he progresses from a good guy into a bad guy that of it goes by the wayside, although not intentionally. But those moments you speak of were a lot of fun to come up with and a lot of fun to write, and I’m hoping we’ll find a way to insert more of those moments as the season progresses.

SPhD: You’ve brought it up, so let’s just talk about where Breaking Bad goes from here. To me, Season 1 was very much about the construction of these characters, their situation, the “building up” of their individual new worlds. In many ways, Season 2 was the de-construction, where each character felt something fall apart in some way; Walt’s lies and second life, Jesse’s addiction and girlfriend’s death, Skyler’s trust in Walt, and possibly Hank’s DEA career. What do we look forward to in Season 3?

VG: Good question. And I hate to admit it, but I’m not the best at looking forward. You know the old expression “You can’t see the forest from the trees?” We are so deep into these characters’ lives that sometimes, I myself and my writers are not the best people to ask for a complete bigger picture explanation of what in fact is going on. All I know for sure is that Walt is in the process of change and transformation, and it’s an interesting experiment, one that we’re doing for the first time, as opposed to a repeated experiment. We can’t even predict the outcome!

SPhD: What’s funny is seeing the first few episodes of Season 3, I get the feeling Walt misses the badness and the danger of it all. He wants so badly to be good and to repudiate this person he’s become, and yet, I get the feeling he misses some of the perks and the thrills that it brought. Am I completely off-base here?

VG: No you are not off-base at all. That’s very astute. He’s an interesting character, because a lot of what this show is about to me is the human capacity for rationalization. We all rationalize our behavior to ourselves, our ideas, our actions. It’s just something that human beings do, it’s part of us. We usually do it in small, minor, insignificant ways. But Walt takes that to the nth degree. He stretches that to the breaking point. He’ll go around saying to himself, and when pressed by others to them, that this criminal behavior he finds himself engaged in is done purely to aid his family. He does it for their financial benefit. And yet we put the light on that pretty early in Season 1. If you’ll remember, he gets this offer from his rich former lab partner for a great job that sounds like it’s no strings attached and with all the money that he’ll need to treat his cancer and for his family to be financially solvent. And lo and behold, he doesn’t take it. That’s one of the moments I’m most proud of on our show, because prior to that moment, the show could have gone in a very different direction—we could have had the show become a weekly procedural. This week the meth lab burns down, and next week his money gets eaten by rats, and the next week after that the police arrest him, but he has to weasel out of that.

But early on we all recognized that a show like this can’t reach its full potential if we don’t really examine this guy at a deeper level. A lot of people, millions of people, especially with the economy being in the toilet, face similar situations, unfortunately. People face the issues that Walt faces, where money is a real problem. And most people don’t decide to cook crystal meth! So we realized early on that Walt has to have some kind of darker component to him that he’s perhaps always had. This is a man who is, above all else, prideful. And he bursts with pride at this avocation that he’s taken up, and he’s prideful about his product, about its quality. In so many ways, he’s just a sad little man who has felt passed over his whole life. He feels like he hasn’t really existed until he’s become a criminal, until he’s broken bad.

SPhD: My favorite episode to date has been the Season 2’s Peek-a-Boo, and its exploration of the beautifully complex character of Jesse Pinkman. His filial relationship with Walt is a cornerstone of this show, and has rather ironically blossomed amid the self-destruction of Walt’s relationship with his family and Jesse’s estrangement from his own parents. Can you talk about their relationship and your take on how these two individuals fit in each other’s worlds?

VG: Absolutely! It is a very interesting relationship, and it’s one that I didn’t realize what it would become. I’d love to say I knew from Day 1 when I was writing the pilot what this show would be, exactly, and all its dynamics, but the truth is that they’ve been a work in progress. A lot of this grows and creates itself, and the actors and writers bring so much to it, and it’s amazing to stand back years later and realize what you’ve had a hand in creating. But yes, it’s very much a father-son relationship between Walt and Jesse. And I have to say, as further evidence that this wasn’t the original intention of the show, my intention was to kill Jesse off at the end of Season 1. He was going to be kind of a character who helped Walt get into the business, and then got violently killed in a drug deal gone wrong. And the whole point of his existence would have been to get Walt into the business and then give Walt a reason to feel very, very guilty, further fueling bad behavior on his part. Luckily, we hired Aaron Paul to play Jesse, and he is such a fine young actor and so talented and charismatic that very quickly on, like in Episode 1 or 2, I realized that there was no way I was killing him off.

SPhD: And where do they go from here? They’re in a tenuous place right now. Together but apart, not really sure where things are going.

VG: It’s interesting, you put your finger on quite a lot of it. And it’s very much a love-hate relationship between these two guys, but it’s mostly love-hate on the part of Jesse. There are times when I’m not sure Walt has any regard for Jesse at all. Very often, there’s a coldness to Walt, and a desire just to get the job done and he sees Jesse as a useful tool but not much else. He doesn’t seem to have much regard or respect for Jesse, so every now and then, when he throws Jesse a scrap of respect, you feel how thirsty Jesse is for that. It’s funny, Jesse is sort of the moral center of our show. Even though he started off in the business before Walt, and Walt was a straight-arrow character before we meet Jesse, somehow Jesse seems to have a more refined and defined moral center. Very often, Jesse is the one who says “Should we really be doing this? Aren’t we being greedy? Haven’t we made enough money already?” He really is the moral center of the meth trade that we portray on the show, and Walt, who should be a father figure to him, who should be ushering Jesse out of the business, and a large part of us as the audience wishes that he would do the right thing. We know in our hearts that he most likely never will.

SPhD: They’re all beautiful relationships and I can’t wait to see where they all go. I love that you’ve even made me hate Skylar [Walt’s long-suffering wife], which I never thought I would do. I’m so sorry for that!

VG: It’s so funny, and I’m glad you brought that up, because you are definitely not even close to being the first person to say that. It’s just a funny thing about storytelling. Even when your hero is not a nice person, and he’s doing bad things, because he’s your protagonist, if you’re along for the ride, then you start to see the world through his eyes. It’s the nature of storytelling. It’s the same thing when you’re watching The Sopranos or some other show where there’s someone who is pretty much a reprehensible character is nonetheless your protagonist. You’ll root for that person to succeed. And right now, Skylar gets in the way, on a purely mechanical level, of Walt’s success and happiness and therefore we see her as an obstacle and we don’t like her for what she’s doing. So you’re not alone in feeling that way. But the funny thing is, I see Skylar as the good guy and Walt as the bad guy. I love Walt! He’s a great guy to write for, but he’s kind of a monster when you think about it. He shouldn’t be breaking back into the house, trying to get back into her good graces when the things he’s done and the lies he’s told really make him not the good guy. She’s being heroic when she doesn’t tell the police on him.

SPhD: Thanks, Vince, and we really appreciate you joining us!

VG: Thanks, and it really makes me feel good to hear that you think the science is authentic, because we do our best, and we will continue to.

Interested in watching the show? Start with this brilliant six-minute catch-up video:

Season 3 episodes of Breaking Bad air Sundays at 10 PM on AMC.

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4 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Breaking Bad Creator/Executive Producer Vince Gilligan”

  1. I love how everyone knows Walt is a drug-maker but Walt. He had that moment in season two where he made the conscious choice to run the competitor out of town, and now with last weeks episode in which he blew up at Jesse for using his meth recipe. He wants it but is fighting against it, and I think that storyline along with the Flight 815 storyline will come together at the same time.

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