On paper, Vince Gilligan sounds like one sick bastard. Even in an age of ultra-violent TV shows, the creator of Breaking Bad still stands out for his ability to conjure up some of the most gruesome scenes on screen: a bathtub full of corroded human guts; an ATM crushing a man’s skull; a throat slashed with a box-cutter; and a merry sequence where someone’s face is so thoroughly blown up we can see the charred remains of his brain.
Even more diabolical is how Gilligan managed to rope millions of people into watching the story of an ordinary man – Walter White, high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin – die a slow death, both physically and morally, over five seasons. It’d almost be sadistic if not for the fact that Breaking Bad is so goddamn good. This isn’t even personal opinion any more. Ten Emmys and a Guinness World Record – for the most positively-reviewed TV show in history – speak for themselves.
When I meet Vince Gilligan at Sydney Town Hall before interviewing him onstage, he comes across as a charming Southern gent: six feet tall, broad-shouldered, schmick in a grey suit and all charm and manners.
Gilligan is surprised by the mix. After all, he says, the concept of Breaking Bad isn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing sell. When Gilligan first started pitching the program, the CEO of Sony America told him it was the single worst idea for a television show he’d heard in his whole life. “To start with, [it’s a show about] a 50-year-old guy,” Gilligan says. “A 50-year-old anybody is strike one in a lot of TV executives’ minds. Strike two: dying of cancer! Strike three: meth! And you’re out.”
As the festival director introduces Gilligan on stage, she mentions Australia has a special relationship with Breaking Bad. Though the show’s finale attracted over 10 million viewers in the US alone, over 500,000 people illegally downloaded the episode soon after. Australia accounted for 18% of those downloads, officially making us the world’s worst pirates of Breaking Bad. Town Hall’s audience gasps, appalled, before laughing and breaking out into self-congratulatory applause. Backstage, I shoot Gilligan an apologetic, sheepish grin on behalf of my country. Gilligan smiles and shrugs, as if to say, “Eh, what are you going to do?”
On stage, we survey the audience, asking how many people watched Breaking Bad on pay TV. Several hands go up. “And how many of you streamed or downloaded it,” I ask, as hands shoot up, “by legal means?” Hands quickly go down. Gilligan chuckles. Is it flattering to have a show in such demand or are we just a nation of thieves? “Well … no, you’re nice people,” he says carefully. “What can be said? You hope to get paid for your work. On the other hand, I truly am flattered people want to watch it, no matter how they get it.” Part of the responsibility, he adds diplomatically, is also on distributors. Film studios have to counter illegal downloads with simultaneous releases across territories and platforms, so “it behooves the television industry how to figure out how to do that as well”.
BB writers' room (L to R from Vince): Vince, George Mastras, Sam Catlin, Moira-Walley Beckett, assistant Gordon forgot-his-last-name, (most likely) Peter Gould, Tom Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison (lol @ the post-it note crafts e v e r y w h e r e)
The US Writers Guild of America ranked Breaking Bad as the 13th best-written TV series of all time, but Gilligan admits some episodes drove the writers utterly insane. When trying to resolve some of the series’ trickier plot points, Gilligan would get up to literally bang his head against the wall. “It’s something I later discovered distressed one of my female co-writers,” he says. A problem that would take a Breaking Bad character minutes to unlock often took a team of writers the best part of a week to work out.
Being so occupied with creating the Gilligan was also oblivious to the how some viewers responded to Breaking Bad online. Widespread hatred of Skyler White – played by Anna Gunn – particularly caught cast and crew off guard. For Gilligan’s benefit, I bring up some of the tamer Skyler White internet memes circulating – the few that aren’t outright misogynistic – and read them out loud. Horrified, Gilligan blinks, then laughs. “Those are … really funny,” he says. “But in the writers room, we were always very sympathetic to Skyler. She made a lot of mistakes, but not one millionth the number Walt did.” Still, what was the reasoning behind making Skyler give what surely must be the worst hand-job ever portrayed on TV? Where did that come from? For a moment, Gilligan is flummoxed. “Well,” he says, blushing. “From being married for 22 years, I guess.” The crowd roars laughing.
Signing for fans in Sydney
After Gilligan gets a standing ovation, people rush to the stage, even though they’ve been told he won’t be autographing anything tonight. One woman pleads as Gilligan starts to head backstage: “Vince, pleeeaase.” Gilligan looks at her sympathetically. “Ah, I’m a softie,” he says, taking a step towards her. Dozens more people rush towards him. He signs every single thing handed to him.
“Part of what intrigued me about Walter White is he started off very much like me. He was very a plain, vanilla middle-aged guy, who was kind of boring. You’d walk past him in the street and not look twice. So I’m very much like Walter White,” he says, then pauses. “Prior to him cooking meth.” There’s also the shared moustache, of course. And let’s not forget that both men – the antihero for the 21st century, and the man who created him – make the purest and most addictive products around.
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