“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan would like you to know that writing for TV, especially when you have a group of writers working with you, is awesome.
“Man, it is the way to go,” Gilligan says over the phone, his accent betraying a tiny hint of the 46-year-old’s Richmond, Va., roots.
Given that Gilligan might be the hottest screenwriter in America right now, it’s not too surprising that the Austin Film Festival is giving him its 2013 Outstanding Television Writer award.
Indeed, it feels like the Year of Vince at AFF.
Barry Josephson will moderate a “Conversation with Vince Gilligan” at 9 a.m. Saturday, and Gilligan himself will present and discuss “The French Connection” that night at the Paramount Theatre.
On Sunday, Gilligan will present a staged reading of his unproduced screenplay “2 Face” with Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini and Thomas Haden Church.
“I’ve spent years on end writing on movie scripts,” Gilligan says. “Mostly it’s a very solitary effort. And after years of hard work, commitment and emotional investment, the folks who you have been writing the script for can say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ and you’re left kind of bereft.”
But television is a very different animal. Once that episode is ordered, something has to go on the air.
“Very often you’re writing stuff that is actually being made real a week or two later or even for the very day it’s being shot,” Gilligan says. “It’s the difference between praying that your hard work is going to amount to something and knowing that your hard work is going to amount to something.”
His hard work certainly amounted to something. When it drew to a close Sept. 29, “Breaking Bad” — depicting the rise and fall of a mild-mannered Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher who, over two eventful years, evolves into an increasingly ruthless drug lord — had become one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows ever aired. “Breaking Bad” won an Emmy this year for Outstanding Drama Series, which is essentially a producer’s award; it is Gilligan’s first. (Lead actor Bryan Cranston has taken home three Emmys for best actor in a drama series.)
Words and images
Gilligan’s even more willing to put the lie to the idea that having a bunch of people working on a piece of writing makes it taste like chicken.
“Having a writers’ room full of people you trust and you respect and who work with you to come up with the best possible TV show is a great way to create scripts,” Gilligan says. “I started my career writing movies, and the idea of writing as a group endeavor did not seem that palatable to me when I first started off. I didn’t know that I would like it so much.”
Gilligan thinks the key to a good writers’ room is trust. “A good writers’ room is a safe writers’ room,” Gilligan says. “When you hire these really smart, creative, talented people who sit around with you for 10 hours a day or more, they need to feel safe when they promote their ideas to you, to the boss. They need to not get embarrassed or worry any idea that they offer will be met with annoyance.”
For Gilligan, the worst thing you can say in a writers’ room is that an idea is stupid.
“Sure, there are technically such things as stupid ideas,” Gilligan says. “But some of the stupidest ideas on ‘Breaking Bad’ were offered to the room by me personally with full knowledge that they were stupid. Because most of the time it’s better to be talking than sitting there in silence. Very often the stupid idea winds up leading to the brilliant idea.”
And you better know how to tell a story visually and not just write snappy chatter.
“Dialogue is important, but it is not the most important thing,” Gilligan says. “Structure and the ability to put a visual image on paper, to really paint the picture in the readers’ mind, is the stuff that’s really important to me.
Gilligan says that there were always strings of “Breaking Bad” script pages that had no dialogue in them, that were just scene description.
“I wanted to tell the story visually as much as possible,” Gilligan says. “The better the structure and visual storytelling are in a script, the better the actors and directors and crew could translate it into an actual episode. Good, pithy dialogue is secondary to that.”
Then again, it helped that “Breaking Bad” was blessed top to bottom with a bulletproof cast. From Cranston and Anna Gunn as his wife Skyler to Bob Odenkirk as the smiley lawyer Saul Goodman to Giancarlo Esposito as drug lord Gus Fring and Jonathan Banks as fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, the show was a master class in ensemble acting.
Speaking of writing-as-collaboration, Gilligan notes that there were two actors whose own personalities changed the way their characters were written. The lesser known is Dean Norris, who played Walter White’s brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank Schrader.
“Dean Norris is a very interesting guy,” Gilligan says. “Very well read, very well educated, went to Harvard, loves poetry. He’s a great deal deeper than the way I wrote Hank in the ‘Breaking Bad’ pilot. No question that Dean’s complexity as a person wound up coloring Hank.” (Indeed, many fans think Hank is the show’s hero.)
The other, more well-known example is the fantastic Aaron Paul as White’s assistant, Jesse Pinkman, perhaps the program’s most tragic character.
“Aaron is just a wonderful person, aside from being a brilliant actor, and that sweetness of character wound up rubbing off on me in thinking about Jesse,” Gilligan says. “When you first meet Jesse, he’s kind of a jerk, he’s kind of wise-ass and, for lack of a better way to put it, needs a smack in the mouth at a certain point.
“But as the show progresses, you realized that he has a morality that Walter lacks,” Gilligan says. “Jesse really should not be a meth dealer. All of that grew out of the fact that Aaron Paul is so not the criminal type that it made us think, ‘Well, maybe Jesse’s not a criminal, either.’”
And then there is Cranston, whose Emmy win after the first season constituted a turning point for Gilligan.
“I was so unaware of what constituted success; it’s a good thing I was sort of oblivious to the realities of viewership,” Gilligan says. (Up against a crucial NFL game, the show premiered to fewer than 1 million viewers; the finale was watched by more than 10 million.)
“I was amazed that the show got ordered in the first place,” Gilligan says. “But I don’t think I really knew it was resonating until Bryan Cranston got nominated for that first Emmy.
“Even then, I thought, ‘Man, most of this is probably coming from general goodwill toward Bryan, whom everyone in the industry loves,’ and rightly so,” Gilligan says, “but I didn’t think after a mere seven episodes, the business would agree. But after he won, I thought, ‘Huh, maybe we have something here.’”
KICKING OFF THE AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL
For a list of our top 10 Austin Film Festival panels and movies, see page 27.
For an interview with longtime AFF friend Barry Josephson, see page 31.