By Joan Tupponce
Director and writer Vince Gilligan walked away from the 2014 Emmy Awards with his second award for “Breaking Bad,” the critically acclaimed series he created about a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who starts making and selling methamphetamine.
This year’s Emmy wasn’t the first major award Gilligan, who started his television career as a writer for the TV series “The X-Files,” has taken home for “Breaking Bad.” His work has netted him more than 10 awards that include top honors from the Writers, Directors and Producers guilds. His goal now is to recreate that success with his newest series, “Better Call Saul!,” a “Breaking Bad” spinoff making its television debut on AMC in February.
When “Breaking Bad” wrapped, Gilligan and his creative partner, Peter Gould, began brainstorming ideas for a new series. They considered every possibility. Should it take place after “Breaking Bad” ends or before it began? Should it bend more toward comedy or drama? “What we have come up with is a show that is surprisingly dramatic,” Gilligan says.
There were quite a few “Breaking Bad” characters that could have carried the new show but the first name to pop up was criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, portrayed in “Breaking Bad” by actor Bob Odenkirk. “He is an actor we love working with,” Gilligan says. “We wanted to keep that relationship.” Saul is not representative of the legal profession “in any way,” Gilligan adds. “He is his own man. He’s a guy we wanted to spend more time figuring out.”
An opportunist and a bit of a rascal, Saul is a “likable ambulance chaser,” Gilligan says. “He’s kind of heroic in that cockeyed sense. He makes his own way.”
Gilligan knows all about making your own way. He has always been one to challenge conventional thinking. He grew up in the small, rural town of Farmville, Virginia. His mother, Gail, a former art teacher, recognized both his curiosity and creativity when he was young. “He would create spaceships and robots. He’d dig down in the Dumpster and pull out components from computers,” she says. “He was always an artist in that respect.”
She also noticed his penchant for storytelling and writing out his thoughts – a trait he got from his mom. In school he studied both creative writing and visual arts. His interest in film production was the byproduct of late nights in front of the television watching old movies with his dad. One of his teachers, Jackie Wall, would lend him her Super 8 camera during summer breaks so he could hone his technical skills. “That is what got me my start and stoked my interest in moviemaking,” Gilligan says. “I feel like I was always interested in creating, drawing, sculpting and making movies. I loved that feeling of creating something out of nothing.”
His talent was obvious even when he was in his early teens. “All of us in the family thought he was going to be a visual artist of some kind,” his mom says. “Later we thought he would be connected to animation because of his interest in film and pixilation.”
After Gilligan went to New York University’s film school, his mom realized that it would probably be his writing skills that would get him into Hollywood, not his filmmaking. “One of his English teachers at NYU said that Vince knew more about writing than he did,” she recalls.
“Better Call Saul” writer Tom Schnauz, whose credits include “Breaking Bad,” met Gilligan at NYU in 1986. The two would trade scripts they were writing so they could critique each other’s work. One of the first things Schnauz noticed about Gilligan was his offbeat sense of humor. “He does things a little differently,” Schnauz says. “He liked to take chances. For example, in one of his early films he hooked himself to a car and let the car drive off.”
Soon after Gilligan graduated from NYU, he heard about the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition. He entered his script “Home Fries” and won. One of the pivotal moments for Gilligan in that competition was meeting one of the judges, producer Mark Johnson, known best for “Rain Man” and “The Notebook.”
“He read the script [for “Home Fries”] and liked it and wound up producing it eight or nine years later [in 1998 with Drew Barrymore],” Gilligan says. “We’ve had a lifelong friendship and working relationship.” Johnson recently produced “Breaking Bad” and is now executive producer of “Better Call Saul!”
Schnauz isn’t surprised at Gilligan’s success in Hollywood. “I think I knew pretty early on he was going to be successful in some way, writing or cinematography,” he says. “I knew we would make it some way in the world of film but we weren’t thinking about television. We thought we would be filmmakers.”
He enjoys working with Gilligan because of his inclusive style of management in the writers room. “He wants all the writers to participate in his story. He’s very democratic,” Schnauz says, adding, “He has incredible taste and knows what makes a great story. His mother raised him well. He wants to be fair and just. He has a real sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. ”
Schnauz was first introduced to Gilligan’s sense of right and wrong when the two were in college and wanted to go see “The Late Show with David Letterman.” In order to snag tickets, they had to get to the show very early and stand in line. “Vince got there 10 minutes before I did and in those 10 minutes people lined up behind him,” Schnauz says, adding that he stood by Gilligan to talk to him. About a minute later, Gilligan told him he didn’t believe it was fair to get in front of the people in line that had gotten there before him. “Vince got tickets and when it got to me, they ran out of tickets,” Schnauz says. “I thought Vince got two tickets but he only thought to get one. It was kind of maddening but he has his sense of right and wrong.”
Gilligan has a sincere, compassionate bent and that side is often reflected in the characters he creates, such as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.” “He had heart,” Gilligan says. “He’s a good person plus he’s a meth cook. I always felt like he shouldn’t have been living that life. His life was ruined.”
At the heart of Gilligan’s writing is his desire to understand what makes each of his characters tick – why they do the things they do. “The interesting thing about writing is when you truly feel like you are doing it right the characters take on a life of their own,” he says, adding that he obsesses over the details of each character’s life. “You have to imagine everything about the character down to the colors they wear and the car they drive; their goals, their hopes, their fears. You have to see every detail, large and small. And I love that there is God in the details and also the devil in the details.”
Gilligan’s offbeat style is often the focal point of the writers room. Schnauz recalls a day when Gilligan was using his BB gun to shoot at a target. “He practices that to open up his mind,” Schnauz says. Gilligan put a pushpin in the air gun and asked the writers what they would give him if he shot himself in the leg with the gun. “One of the writers said ‘my undying respect.’ He had to do it after that.”
Schnauz likes the fact that Gilligan’s point of view is always original. “He thinks outside the box. He likes to do the unexpected and surprise the audience,” he says. “That seems simple but it’s hard to pull off.” Gilligan believes in giving the writers on the show the time to ponder each idea and improve it. “What’s different in a Vince Gilligan show is that he will negotiate with the network to get enough time for writers to do this right … have these stories come out entertaining and make sense,” Schnauz says. “That’s really beneficial.”
Because of his background, Gilligan is as comfortable in the director’s chair as he is in the writers room. “He is a fantastic director,” Schnauz says. “The best directors don’t tell actors what to do. They help them find their way; give them enough to find their way. We are blessed to work with amazing actors. Vince picks very good people to work with when he casts an actor. They come in and do the job and do the work.” Gilligan’s success is evident, but anyone talking to him would never know the status he has achieved. He has never been one to relish the spotlight. He is as humble and shy as he was growing up. “He still remains Vince Gilligan, the little boy that likes creating things,” his mom says.
He will be the first to admit that he never thought “Breaking Bad” would make it after the first season. “It was a nail-biter at the end of season as to whether we would get picked up,” he says. “The viewer numbers were not that high. If I had known back then how much of a phenomenon it would be, I wouldn’t have believed it. I am in awe of the fact it worked as well as it did. I feel like I won the lottery.”
He’s learned over the years not to take anything for granted. “I worry that everything going forward will be a disappointment, but you can’t let fear stop you,” he says.