Entertainment TV Guts and glory: Breaking Bad creator talks shop
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Guts and glory: Breaking Bad creator talks shop

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“This was pretty nasty…”

As introductions for a story go, these four words tend to bode poorly. When the speaker is Vince Gilligan, creator of the hit series Breaking Bad, it might just be time to hide under your chair and stick your fingers in your ears.

For the citizens who went to see the writer and director speak for the Sydney Writers Festival premiere on Thursday night, it was, however, a guaranteed highlight.

The “pretty nasty” story came in answer to host Adam Spencer’s query as to what ideas Gilligan’s writers room had rejected, the ideas “that would have made me vomit.”

It was a conversation that ranged from Walt’s “chunky Y-fronts” to Sir Anthony Hopkins, through to his dreams of a Grand Theft Auto cross-over game and the “one time I pulled rank” when Gilligan insisted on the use of the song Baby Blue in the final scene.

Gilligan admitted that for some time, the writers contemplated a story line in which Aaron Paul’s character Jesse, hell-bent on revenge against Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, was going to seek out Walt Jr, the teenage son with cerebral palsy and “get him hooked on meth.”

Photo: AAP
The Breaking Bad cast at the 2014 Golden Globes. From left, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, Vince Gilligan, RJ Mitte, and Aaron Paul. Photo: AAP

Noting the shocked response from the die-hard Breaking Bad fans who made up the audience, Gilligan noted that after six years of working on Breaking Bad when he thinks on any individual plot point, “it all seems pretty mild.”

Gilligan, the creator, show-runner and executive producer of the award winning series, gave two consecutive talks, both of which promised a behind-the-scenes look at the incredible Breaking Bad journey from writing the pilot through the awards and the shows finale and reception.

The result was two surprisingly different conversations. Spencer followed the series’ chronology; launching from Gilligan’s “eureka moment” when on the phone with a fellow X-Files writer, contemplating the concept of “a character like us: dopey, dorky, middle-aged guys who went through a very terrible mid-life crisis,” and his writers room rules, which Gilligan explained in detail, including the degree of squishing required of marker pens before dismissing the whole thing as “asinine bullshit.” Spencer, rightly disagreed, pointing out that “for the writers in the room, this is pornography.”

Vince Gilligan at a Sydney Writers Festival event this week. Photo: AAP
Vince Gilligan at a Sydney Writers Festival event this week. Photo: AAP

It was a conversation that ranged from Walt’s “chunky Y-fronts” to Sir Anthony Hopkins, through to his dreams of a Grand Theft Auto cross-over game and the “one time I pulled rank” when Gilligan insisted on the use of the song Baby Blue in the final scene.

A few key moments from the series were analysed in both sessions. The first. The last. The M60 in the boot. And the fly episode. The latter, a favourite episode of the writer and both hosts, riffing as Gilligan explained on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, saw the writer nonetheless faced with the quintessentially Australian question from an audience member in the later session:

“What the Hell was that all about?”

Saving money was Gilligan’s unnecessarily polite reply, as he explained television’s budget-saving “bottle episode” tradition.

The evening’s second inquisitor, Benjamin Law, started at the end. Asking how Gilligan felt about the finale – “I feel very much at peace that it’s over” – and the status of the spin-off series Better Call Saul. Gilligan let slip that half way through writing the prequel’s first season, his team have broken their promise of reversing the drama to comedy ratio from Breaking Bad’s 75:25. “It’s going to be a bit more dramatic [than estimated]. It won’t just be a straight comedy.”

The show’s star Bryan Cranston was of course the source of much analysis as well. Gilligan felt that the popular investment in Cranston’s Walt was in part due to the “continuum of pop culture is on a pendulum” where the “handcuffs” of television’s ethical demands from the ’50s to the ’70s in which heroes lacked moral nuance had led to the present explosion of anti-heroes and his expectation that the time will come when drama will swing back.

The Breaking Bad creator later summed up his feelings to Law simply as “I’m biased, but he’s the greatest actor that ever lived.”

As for why his portrayal of Walt worked so well, he told Spencer that Cranston was someone who in the midst of being scary retained his humanity and that “he never worried about looking bad.”

Gilligan admitted he would have understood an actors inclination to be concerned, that it “would only be human [for any other actor playing Walt] to ask ‘what if we gave him a puppy?’”

Cranston never did, and given the ideas rejected by Gilligan’s writers room – let alone those that were used – thank goodness for that.

The Sydney Writers Festival runs from 19-25 May.