Vince Gilligan is the creator and showrunner of BREAKING BAD, which AMC has just renewed for a fourth seasons. I attended his master class at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival. Here are my notes from the session.
Gilligan “hadn’t had a paying gig in a while" even though he'd worked on the hit long-running show THE X-FILES. He and a friend in a similar predicament were on the phone discussing what they could possibly do to feed their families, and (if my notes are right), his friend talked about "buying an old RV and building a crystal meth lab. So during this phone conversation this character named Walter White came into my head, which is very unusual for something to hit me like that.
[The question nobody asked in the session was: whatever happened to the friend? Normally if you're in a phone conversation with a fellow writer trying to figure out shows to write, and one of you gets an idea, both of you should work on the idea, since it came out of "the room." On the other hand if they were just shooting the breeze about being out of work, Gilligan was free and clear to write up his idea on his own.]
"The first question when you get an idea is of course: is it a movie or a tv show? Is it two hours or 100 hours of story? I don't know if we can get to a hundred, but…"
Gilligan had a "pre-existing relationship with Sony TV. I had a blind TV commitment -- I'd done an ill-fated CBS pilot for them. They read BREAKING BAD and kind of looked at me oddly, 'what the hell is this?' But they bought it"
(I thought it was interesting and rather inspiring that of five master-classes, two were from writers who were wondering where their next paycheck was coming from immediately prior to setting up their hit show.)
"Once the studio bought the idea, they were my partners. We went around town to different networks. I knew what AMC was, but AMC never entered the equation. We thought there were three possibilities: HBO, Showtime, and FX. We approached all three. FX was interested for a while and then passed. So I tried to turn this into a movie."
(Lisa and I have done this a number of times. I have a movie under option that I'm attached to direct that started out as a TV pitch I couldn't set up; and we just got a grant to write another movie that started out as a TV pitch. A TV series and a movie are very different animals, but when you have a great character and a compelling situation, why waste it?"
"My wonderful agent Mark Gordon was at the time assistant to my other agent, and unbeknownst to me, he sent the pilot script to AMC, which he knew at that point was interested in making the jump into scripted programming and was about to open MAD MEN. So I got a call: 'AMC is very interested in your pilot script, would you like to meet with them?'"
"I'm eternally grateful that nobody asked me to make the characters more likable. You go to a lot of these meetings where people have read the material and you get glad handed to death and then the death by 1000 cuts begins. 'Does he have to be a meth dealer? Does he have to be 50 years old? Our research shows that 50 year olds are not interesting to our audience.' You have to be willing to walk the heck out the door. But Sony and AMC were courageous. And AMC had the courage of their ignorance because they’d never done scripted TV before."
"They only called once, when we had Walter White give Jesse's girlfriend extra heroin so she'd OD. They called, “are you sure you want to go that dark? Let's talk about this.”
"Now, executive notes are not always wrong. And when people tell you you're drunk, maybe you'd better sit down. If something scares you and excites you at the same time you really want to examine it from all angles. You want to hear what people have to say. Not polling them. But it was such a scary thing we felt a need to do a gut check with a bunch of people and see if we’re going too far too fast. So we thought about it, and we decided to let Walter just watch Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit."