The Vancouver International Film Festival was so kind to grant me an interview with Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, which has become one of my favourite shows. Very kind man, very open, although I didn’t get a specific answer about why we have to wait so long to see his show again. It returns in July of 2011.
Vince Gilligan tells how he created a monster
Vancouver International Film Festival — Film and TV forum
– Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan talks at the VIFF Film and TV Forum today. Go to http://www.viff.org/forum for details.
Walter White stands half-naked in the middle of the desert in New Mexico.
Dressed only in an apron and his skivvies, the recently-diagnosed cancer sufferer and high school science teacher has driven here in an Winnebago that he and his partner, a slacker former student named Jesse Pinkman, have turned into a meth lab.
Mere days into the job, he’s run afoul of a ruthless drug distributor and an accomplice who’ve followed him into the desert. They try to kill him before Walter asphyxiates them both inside the trailer using red phosphorous.
Walter and his partner try to drive away, only to crash their trailer and hear sirens in the distance. Walter puts a gun to his neck when the sirens come around a crag and reveal themselves as fire trucks, here to put out a fire caused by a discarded cigarette.
Walt has won temporary respite from the law, but he’s also cleared the first hurdle on his journey to the heart of darkness.
Where he goes from here is as much a mystery to him as to Vince Gilligan, creator of the television series Breaking Bad, where Walter White figures as one of television’s most popular antiheroes. Gilligan will be delivering a talk on how he developed the character on Oct. 1 as part of the Film and Television Forum at the 2010 Vancouver International Film Festival.
For Gilligan, the most important element in character development is “relatability” — people have to recognize and identify with the people they’re watching.
“We have to be able to relate to them on some level, understand their hopes and dreams and recognize them as, if not our hopes and dreams, then something that’s not too foreign to us,” he says via phone from New York.
“The first rule of drama is to be interesting. That starts with the characters. They need to intrigue us and I think they have to be active. They have to have a goal and work toward achieving that goal.”
The development of Walter White and Breaking Bad began five or six years ago, when Gilligan was on the phone to a screenwriter friend. They were talking about the movie business and the difficulty they were having selling scripts.
“We thought about other jobs,” Gilligan says. “He said, why don’t we get an RV and we can put a meth lab in the back and drive around the southwest?
“It was such a funny image, but beyond that, as he was joking about it, it really stuck with me, this image that he pitched. Told as a joke, and lo and behold, and this seldom happens, this character popped into my head quickly. I probably got a little distracted talking on the phone.”
From there, Gilligan got to writing. He started with a name: Walter White. A bland one, and an alliterative name that could easily be remembered. With a name in place it became easier for Gilligan to imagine his hopes and dreams, where he went to school and other biographical details that helped round him out as a central character.
He drew on several influences to create Walter White. Chief among them was the lead character in Ikiru, a 1952 film by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa. The film tells of a career bureaucrat who learns he is dying of cancer and wants to make something of his life before he croaks.
“A very memorable image and character like that kind of puts me in mind of the flip side of such a character,” Gilligan says. “What if a character similar to that found out he was dying and needed to do something big, in this case in order to make money for his family, leave so his family could be financially solvent?”
At the start of the series he felt he controlled Walter White. He put words into his mouth and the character spoke them. But as the show carried on and Walter gravitated deeper into his dark side, Gilligan found his lead dictating back to him. He was writing the script, but Walter White was taking on a life of his own.
“The guy I conceived is not the character that I know now,” he says. “Sort of like when you meet someone at a party, over the days and weeks becomes a friend, you think back and you can recall how they seemed to be a different person than they do now.
“If you do your job right and you write a character, at a certain point the character, if everything works as you hope it does, the character, it kind of feels true, at a certain point the character kind of comes alive and takes over.”
Gilligan doesn’t counter when asked whether Walter White has become a kind of Frankenstein’s monster for his creator. Breaking Bad was initially pitched as a show that saw Mr. Chips transformed gradually into Scarface.
The results have been very fruitful. Breaking Bad has become a darling of the Emmy Awards, bringing trophies for lead actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who play Walt and Jesse, respectively. The show now ranks among the pantheon of elite, addictive TV drama, alongside shows such as Mad Men, The Wire and Dexter.
The show is currently on hiatus, expected to return in July 2011 — a network decision, according to Gilligan. In the meantime he’s hard at work developing scripts for its fourth season.
For viewers who can’t wait, and want to get some idea of how he’s turned a high school science teacher into a drug lord, they can go to VIFF’s Film and Television Forum, where he’ll be speaking on “TV Day” alongside Treme creator Eric Overmyer from 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.
Anyone wishing to learn more at the forum must register at http://www.viff.org or by calling (604) 685-3547.