Showrunner Vince Gilligan discusses structuring an episode, pacing a season, character development, and Easter eggs for fans.
It’s not every day one has their work referred to as quite possibly the greatest television series of all time. And creator Vince Gilligan may humbly compare the success of Breaking Bad to “lightning in a bottle”. But those who avidly tuned in to the show week after week (or later binge-watched it on Netflix) know that it was much more than luck that grabbed people’s attention and wouldn’t let go.
Layered characters, shocking storylines, themes of actions and consequences, “good” versus “bad”…Gilligan and his team of writers created something so hypnotizing that his spinoff series Better Call Saul (co-created with Peter Gould) is now engaging audiences on a whole new level. And that’s without Bad’s iconic characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (portrayed so memorably by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) in its world.
Now in its second season, Better Call Saul is finding dedicated viewers who never even watched Breaking Bad, something that Gilligan is thrilled by. Initially daunted by the project and needled by concerns that the new series would somehow taint the memories his fans had of Breaking Bad, the success of the spinoff has alleviated that stress and allowed him to have a tremendous amount of fun.
We recently spoke about series openings, closings, pacing and character development – and about the lessons he learned when he first started in television on a different fan favorite, The X-Files.
Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and Bob Odenkirk on set of Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Your series openings are incredibly visual and often involve your audience having to put together a sort of puzzle to figure out how the characters came to be in the situations being depicted. Like Walter White standing in a desert in his underwear or Saul Goodman quietly working at Cinnabon. Do you start off with those ideas and go from there or do they come to you over the course of your storytelling?
We call the openings “teasers”. We do put a lot of thought into the teaser each week, and certainly into the initial teaser of each season. That’s something I learned to do on The X-Files. Chris Carter was –and is – a very visual storyteller. It was always important to him that each episode had a visual element that was very memorable and would stick in the heads of the viewers. So we were always looking for that opening teaser to really grab the viewers and make them want to keep watching.
I learned from the best on that show and I took all these great lessons about how to break episodes and what format in which to write them, and the act breaks…all of that stuff. I took lock, stock and barrel from The X-Files when I started Breaking Bad. And now we follow that same format on Better Call Saul. We have a teaser-plus-four-act structure; I guess you could technically call it five acts, but we call it a teaser and four acts. That’s exactly what we did on Breaking Bad and that’s exactly what we did on The X-Files.
As you said, we try to open each episode with a reason to keep watching. In other words, with a promise to the audience that their time will be well spent. We want to give the audience a lot of value for their time, because nowadays, more than ever, people’s attention and eyeballs are worth an awful lot! There’s so much else in the world – and on television – competing for people’s attention. So we do try to start each episode with a bang, so to speak.
Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan on set of Breaking Bad. Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/AMC
We also try to plot out the episodes in “show order”. I can’t say chronological order because sometimes we play with time – we jump back and forth in time in a given episode. But we do try to break the episodes in a linear fashion. In other words, we like to start at the beginning and work our way through to the end.
More and more in the last year or so, and in the final seasons of Breaking Bad, we would get a little stuck when we were breaking the teaser at the beginning. After a few days or a week or whatever (depending on how much time we had and how loud we were hearing the ticking of the clock!), often we would give up on the teaser and launch right into Act One.
Because as you can tell from watching Better Call Saul and from Breaking Bad before it, typically we had a place to pick up. There was a place we left off the previous week, and we more or less knew where we were going to pick up the story. So very often it was easier just to jump to the top of Act One and then when we got a little deeper into that new episode, sometimes it would become clear to us what was necessary for the teaser and we’d go back and do it then.
Sometimes the teaser was the very last thing we’d do; sometimes we’d figure it out somewhere in the middle of the episode. But by and large, our preference is to have it figured out before we go into Act One. You take what you can get as a writer, whenever the inspiration hits you – and you certainly hope that it does hit you, especially when you’re on a tight deadline, week in and week out. But as I say, it’s very important to us to give the audience a good reason to keep watching after the opening titles.
Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan on set of Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Jacob Lewis/AMC
Let’s talk about pacing. When you go into a project, do you know ahead of time what the ideal number of seasons or episodes will be for you to properly flesh out the plot and characters? If so, how do you adapt according to what the network orders?
You know, you really don’t. Or at least in my experience, I don’t know how many episodes a show should go. I have to stress, I haven’t had that much experience. I worked on The X-Files, which really is “classic” television, in the sense that classically, historically-speaking, television series go as long as they humanly can. There were years on that show where there was no end in sight – and we liked it that way.
But The X-Files was not really a serialized story; it was much more of an episodic show with a mythology/somewhat-serialized component to it. It was a bit of a hybrid in that sense. But when I started working on Breaking Bad, it quickly became apparent to me that the show could not go on forever. In fact, that was the initial pitch I had to the studio and the network – we were going to start with this character who was a good guy and turn him into the bad guy. Once we’d do that, well that was pretty much the show.
So I knew from the get-go that Breaking Bad was a very finite show. And you can imagine that Better Call Saul is in a similar boat. We know that Jimmy McGill is eventually going to become Saul Goodman. Then the question becomes, how many episodes does it take for that to happen? And I honestly did not know the answer to that in the early going of Breaking Bad, and I still don’t know for this new show.
Peter Gould, my partner on Better Call Saul, and I really don’t know how many seasons this should go. In the early days of Breaking Bad, I thought maybe it would go for two seasons. I’m glad it went a lot more than that – strictly speaking, it went six seasons. I’m very happy that it went that long. But it was very important to me that the show not overstay its welcome. And it’s just as important to me that Better Call Saul not overstay its welcome.
But as a writer, you’re finding your way through it, week in and week out. You’re trying to figure out “how long do we have here?” And you can’t answer that from the start. We don’t even know all the ins and outs of who Jimmy McGill really is. There’s a lot of discovery that happens – or should happen – in the course of creating a character and telling the story of a set of characters in a TV series. We love that about this job.
We love that we don’t know everything there is to know about Jimmy – not even us, the writers. If we did, it could be argued that we shouldn’t even bother making the TV show. So with that discovery comes a lack of precision in terms of how many episodes a show should go. You just have to be as honest with yourself as you can be and you have to feel your way through it. It’s sort of like feeling your way through a pitch-black cave using just your fingertips or lighting one match at a time. You can’t see very far into the darkness at all. But eventually, if you stick at it long enough, you grope your way to the other end!
Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk on set of Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
I was actually going to ask if you work backwards in terms of character development and know ahead of time the paths your characters will take – or if there are surprises along the way, even for you. It sounds like there certainly are!
There are a lot of surprises along the way! To use Breaking Bad as an example, I knew that I wanted to take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy. That’s a pretty good roadmap – but it’s also a very generic one. I always liken it to saying “I’m starting off on the east coast and I’m going to drive west and arrive on the west coast”. I want to start in Virginia and wind up in California. How do I do that? Well, I head west, that’s pretty apparent. But having said that, do I take the I-40? Do I go north and take a different Interstate? Or do I want to take some side excursions along back country roads?
I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there…but if I keep more or less heading west, with an occasional foray to the north or south, I should eventually reach my destination. But I don’t know quite how long it’s going to take me to get there, I don’t know the exact route I’m going to take…and I don’t have any real clue yet of all the specific adventures I’m going to have along the way. And that really is a good analogy for creating a TV series, especially a serialized one.
But with probably any TV series – episodic as well – it seems to me that it’s good to have a general idea as to what your characters are about. Who they are…what they want…what they fear. And have a general idea of where you want to take them. But you should always be open to taking these side detours, because the really interesting things happen on your road trip when you allow yourself to do that.
Aaron Paul, Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston on set of Breaking Bad. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Conversely, and not to extend the analogy too far, but if you say to yourself “I know exactly who my main character is, I know exactly what the end moment of the series should be and it’s going to be five seasons from now and I even know the song that’s going to be playing and there’s going to be a crane shot and it’s going to be dramatic and sweeping…” – it’s great to have those ideas in your head, but you’ve got to be ready to jettison them very quickly when a better idea comes along.
It’s a shame to get so rigid in your thinking that you dismiss and discard other ideas. And better ideas always come along. Because if you are lucky and have surrounded yourself with very smart, talented people – writers and actors and directors and producers and whatnot – invariably, someone’s going to come to you with a better idea than what you had in mind originally.
The only time I worked on Breaking Bad all by myself was when I was doing the pilot. And I’m proud of the pilot! But the best stuff that happened on that show came way after that first episode. And some of the very best moments, some of the moments I’m most proud of in that show, were born of ideas that I didn’t come up with. They were born of ideas that came from other people – writers or actors or people in general. That is the collaborative nature of TV and it’s something that I love.
Nowadays you hear more and more about folks who just want to write their own TV show and they don’t want anyone else involved. They just want to do it all themselves. And I get that feeling. I get where that comes from. I’ve had it myself over the years, particularly when I worked in movies. But it’s kind of a shame to shut yourself off too much from the wonderful collaborative nature of television.
Because you really can achieve a wonderful synergy from working with all these other great people if you keep your mind open to their ideas and not shut yourself off. And not really worry about where the best idea comes from. It’s an old expression and kind of a cliché, but it’s a good, true philosophy to live by: Great things happen when nobody worries about getting credit. When you just get into the hive mind, the group mentality. Some of the greatest things on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul came about when we gave ourselves over to that.
Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan on set of Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC
Better Call Saul has obviously given you the opportunity to revisit your characters. But it’s also opened the door for you to have a little bit of fun with your audience and plant “Easter eggs” – such as having the salon Jimmy works at be the same one he tries to sell Jesse Pinkman much later on. Tell me about going back to Breaking Bad to find the moments you could use in this new series.
It’s fun! We’ve got 62 episodes of Breaking Bad to play with and we do like finding both big and little Easter eggs. We’ve got some things coming up in Season Two of Better Call Saul that are going to be big moments indeed, where we hearken back to Breaking Bad – either through the arrival of a character or a situation or location.
Fans of Breaking Bad will instantly and universally know that this is indeed a hearkening back to the previous series. There are other smaller Easter eggs (some of which have already occurred and some of which are coming up in later episodes in the season) where you had to have been a really attentive viewer of Breaking Bad to know that it’s a shout-out to that show.
We love putting these Easter eggs, big and little, in the new series. The hardest thing is not coming up with them! And knowing when not to use them. It’s sort of like being a little kid and not having enough self-discipline at the dessert bar at Shoney’s…you’ve got the whipped cream dispenser and the hot fudge ladle and you’re just putting way too much on your sundae! It’s tough to have the self-discipline to use just the right amount of hot fudge. Don’t put six cherries on top if one will suffice.
But this is one of the many benefits of working with a group of smart people – somebody always tells you you’re drunk and that you need to sit down. “Let’s do this, let’s throw this in there, let’s have this character in this episode, let’s have this guy walk by in the background and see who notices”…eventually more sober minds will speak up and say “Let’s save that for later, shall we?” Self-restraint is actually a very good thing, especially when you’re in it for the long haul and you want to tell a story that lasts at least three or four or five seasons.
Vince Gilligan, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks on set of Better Call Saul. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
You were renewed for a second season of Better Call Saul months before the first season even aired. As a showrunner, was that flattering, intimidating, or a little bit of both?
That was a great thing and it’s flattering. The whole thought of doing Better Call Saul was intimidating from the get-go – that was just one little extra bit of intimidation. But most of the intimidation came from just the idea of taking a very beloved – and thank goodness for that – TV series and spinning it off, keeping that world alive. We thought, “Are we going to wind up harming people’s memories of the original series, of the ‘mothership’ so to speak?” That was the really intimidating part. There were a great many sleepless nights for us all as the premiere of Season One approached.
But we’re feeling pretty good now. We’re very heartened at the reception that the series has had thus far. And we’re really happy with Season Two – we can’t wait for people to see the rest of it. We’ve aired three episodes we’re really proud of and the subsequent seven episodes that have yet to air as we record this are even more exciting. We’ve got some fun stuff coming up.
And so we’re feeling like we’re in a good place and we’re very appreciative of the audience sticking with us and going with this new story and this new world, if you will. I’ve met more and more people in the last few months who have told me they never really got into Breaking Bad but they’re loving Better Call Saul. I find that astounding, but wonderfully so. I love hearing it when people say “I really miss Breaking Bad but I’m enjoying the new show” and I love hearing it when people say “I was never that much into Breaking Bad but I’m loving the new show”.
Breaking Bad meant the world to us – it was lightning in a bottle. So much of it came from the wonderful actors we had, starting with Bryan Cranston. We felt blessed to be a part of it and therefore didn’t want to mess up anyone’s memories of it. But we’re very happy with the way the new series is turning out so far.
Featured image photo credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC