FOR someone with absolutely no knowledge of chemistry or the trade of methamphetamine, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was blown away that his series about a mild-mannered science teacher’s transformation into a drug kingpin became one of the biggest shows on TV.
As the main event of The Sydney Writers’ Festival, Gilligan spoke in front of a packed audience at the Sydney Town Hall on Thursday night.
The grey-haired, 47 year-old gave fans of the show that became the highest-rated television series in history, according to Guinness World Records (that’s rating as in quality, not number of viewers).
With fans around the globe, this cult hit is a piracy darling, with Australia leading the field in illegal downloads — a fact that garnered proud applause from the audience.
In case you weren’t one of the lucky 4000 people who attended Thursday’s two sold-out sessions, here are things the audience learnt:
— Even though the plot appears to be intricately planned and thoughtful, Gilligan admitted to being more of gardener instead of an architect in his story-writing approach. The script and characters grew organically.
— Famous scenes such as the one where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) does the machine gun exchange in the carpark at Denny’s, and the one where Walter and Jesse were trapped in the caravan, were not resolved at the time of writing. In fact it took seven writers a week to come up with Walter’s exit strategy from that van.
— Breaking Bad was inspired by a real event. Gilligan says he first got the idea after reading a newspaper article about a meth lab in Brooklyn that had made a group of children sick. He mentioned it to a screenwriter friend who joked, “That’s what we should do for money — make a meth lab in a Winnebago”.
— Gilligan then had the idea of “a character who was like us — a couple of dorky, dopey middle-aged guys” experiencing a midlife crisis. “It was like a eureka moment,” he said.
— The scene in which Walter was trying to kill the fly in the meth lab was written because the series was running over budget and they needed to rein in costs by filming on the sound stage instead of on location. They call it a “bottle” in the industry.
— CEO of Sony America called the pitch “the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life”.
- The writer says he was caught out by the depth of animosity viewers felt towards Walt’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). “I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “To us, she was a really good character … I think she really and truly did what she did for her family … I never saw her character as a b—h … I saw her as someone who was kind of a tragic figure.”
— Gus Fring’s origin and identity was kept vague on purpose, Gilligan says. But writers did know he was from Chile. “We figured his background had something to do with the Pinochet government … he may have helped Pinochet as a state torturer.”
- The idea to bring Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley) back into the plot came from a 16 year-old fan and cancer sufferer. He got to meet the cast of the show, as a gift from the Make a Wish Foundation. When Gilligan asked the boy whether he wanted to know what happens in the end, the boy politely declined, preferring to see what happened when it aired on TV — unfortunately the boy died before he saw it.
— The scene in which Gus emerges from the nursing home explosion with half a face took 19 takes to film. And “we used the 19th take”, Gilligan said. “We wouldn’t make him fall down 19 times only to use the first one.”
— Walter first sold his soul when he refused an offer of help from the Schwartzes. Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley) offer to pay for Walt’s treatment and give him a job when they learn he has lung cancer at a party. But instead of doing the best thing for his family, which would have been to accept the offer, “because of injured pride Walter chooses instead to go back and cook meth with Jesse. That is kind of unforgivable.”
- Gilligan considered killing off Jesse (Aaron Paul) but changed his mind as the character developed and became less one dimensional as the show progressed.
— Jesse almost took revenge on Walter by getting Walter Junior (RJ Mitte) hooked on meth. One idea that never made it into the series was for Jesse to get back at Walt through his son, Walt Junior. “When Jesse was very much on the out with Walt, we wanted him to get revenge by seeking Walter Junior and getting him hooked on meth,” Gilligan said.
— Gilligan would like to see a Breaking Bad video game. He discussed the idea of turning Breaking Bad into a video game in which players drive around in a Winnebago. “I pitched that,” he said. “That would be fun. I would love to see that happen.”
- A spin-off series, Better Call Saul, based on Breaking Bad lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), begins shooting in the US on June 2. It will be directed by Gilligan.
— When Gilligan talked about how he teared up when he penned the words “the end” on the final episode, the whole room at the Sydney Town Hall could feel his pain as he mourned the loss of one of the greatest shows on TV.