Vince Gilligan's very good 'Breaking Bad' year
2013 was the breakout year for Breaking Bad. The critically adored meth drama, which had enthralled a fervent yet modest-sized fanbase, went next level with its final eight episodes, rocketing to record ratings while dominating talk on Twitter and around watercoolers. Before the New Mexico dust had settled, the show also scored its first Outstanding Drama Series Emmy. For those reasons and more, Breaking Bad was named as one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year and EW critic Melissa Maerz’s No. 1 TV show of 2013, while season 5’s “Ozymandias” topped our Best Episodes of 2013 list. Series creator Vince Gilligan talked with EW about his year to remember, Breaking Bad‘s finale, the plans for spin-off prequel Better Call Saul, his upcoming guest spot on Community and the person he’s dying to work with.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back at 2013, what sticks out as your most memorable day?
VINCE GILLIGAN: We were shooting on the To’hajiilee reservation, about 40 miles west of Albuquerque. I had finished directing the final episode the day before, so the very last day of shooting was a pick-up day, and [director] Rian Johnson was filming the [flashback] teaser for the third-to-last episode, “Ozymandias.” It would have been an amazing day regardless of the fact that it was the final day of 62 episodes, of six-plus years of shooting. Rian Johnson is an outstanding director, and he had a fantastic script written by Moira Walley Beckett, and the two of them knew exactly what they needed for the day’s work, and therefore I could relax. I could wander around with my camera taking pictures. As fans of Breaking Bad have seen, To’hajiilee looks a fair bit like a miniature Monument Valley. I spent a good chunk of the day climbing beautiful rock formations and shooting pictures of them. It was a very bittersweet day, because we all knew that was the end of an era for us. … It’s surprising how little I actually watched of the shooting that day, because I knew it was in good hands. But when I did watch Bryan [Cranston] and Aaron [Paul], it was a very strange experience, because we had been through more than six years with these characters, and the characters had evolved so much, and physically looked so different than they did in the beginning of it all. And we were shooting in a place we had shot in six years earlier on the pilot, and our characters were made up to look as they did way back when. It felt like we had stepped through a time warp. It really was an extraordinary experience for us, and I can think of no better day in any year that, without a doubt, has been my most special year of my life. I’ve never had a better year in my life than 2013. Thirteen is now my new lucky number.
What did the Emmy win mean to the show? Was that another point of validation?
It was a wonderful experience to win the Emmy. But this year has been so amazing and the validation the show has received, the attention, the love from fans and critics alike who have honestly always been good to us, but all that good feeling seemed to accelerate and increase in this final season — that experience has been so wonderful that the Emmy is a perfect cherry on top, but the Emmy in and of itself did not feel like validation. It felt like a seconding of validation, if that makes sense. It was a marvelous experience. We were overjoyed to win it, but the real validation had come earlier in the year and truly was parceled out over the six years by all the good folks who kept us on the air, all the critics and all the fans.
What surprised you about the reaction to the finale, which was positive, whether it was a favorite fan theory or the one that Walt had actually died at the beginning of the episode?
First of all, I can’t tell you what a big, deep sigh of relief I breathed when word came in that people liked the episode. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. However, having said that, when I heard anecdotally that a lot of people were of the belief that the whole thing had been a dream, then I was kind of scratching my head because that to me as a fan of storytelling, that to me, is the antithesis of a satisfying ending. The whole thing was a dream? [Laughs] The only time the “It was all a dream” bit worked out well was the first time it was used. The first time that I know of was in the old Ambrose Bierce short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It worked beautifully in that short story from  years ago. It does not work well to a modern audience. It certainly doesn’t work well for me that these people I’ve invested all my care and close attention to for years on end, that nothing they’ve accomplished happened to be real: It was all some bulls— dream. [Laughs] I was like, “Are you kidding me?” Who would find that… what’s the word?… fulfilling?
And you can blunt that argument with Jesse’s woodworking scene.
How would you sum up what you were trying to accomplish with the finale?
The challenge was to “be satisfying.” That was the two-word goal that the writers and I were basically consumed by for the better part of a year. In the early going of trying to break the finale [story], we were under the impression that to satisfy was to surprise the audience. And it finally dawned on us one wonderful day that the key to satisfying an audience doesn’t necessarily reside within surprising them, even though the show itself had thrived on the many twists and turns of plot that it had given the viewers over six years and the many surprises that it had held in store. Nonetheless, at a certain point, it feels like a moment where fate or destiny takes over in Walter White’s life — it feels like Walt is probably not gonna survive this show. And in fact, he shouldn’t, because the promise in the very first episode is that he is going to succumb. Having said that, the little surprises along the way in the last episode, like the fact that Walt does not succumb to the cancer — the thing that was promised all along — but rather he gets hoisted on his own petard. He’s the engine of his own destruction, but in a way that’s hopefully satisfying.
Is there one thing that still haunts you about the show? Something you wish you had or hadn’t done?
Thankfully, nothing too much. I wish Jesse’s teeth had been a little more realistic, a little more messed up. Aaron Paul has perfect teeth, and Jesse Pinkman, on the other hand smoked a lot of meth, and that smoke eats the enamel right off of teeth. And furthermore, this poor kid got beat up two or three times a season [laughs], and his teeth were still absolutely perfect. So if we could’ve done a little something to them… But on the other hand, Aaron is such a good-looking guy that maybe that counts as poetic license that we kept his teeth looking nice.
NEXT: The challenge for Better Call Saul
What has been the big challenge in formulating Better Call Saul? And can you clarify how much of the show will be a prequel and whether we might see scenes that take place after the events of Breaking Bad? Are we going to hop around in time a little?
Peter Gould is a wonderful writer and producer and director who worked on Breaking Bad with me from the first season, and he created the character of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). He and I have been turning that over in our heads quite a bit. We think, by and large, this show will be a prequel, but the wonderful thing about the fractured chronology we employed on Breaking Bad for many years is the audience will not be thrown by us jumping around in time. So it’s possible that we may indeed do that, and we’ll see the past and perhaps the future. Nothing is written in stone yet, we’re still figuring it out, but the thing we realize is tricky with the character is that Saul Goodman is very comfortable in his own skin. He seems to be a character who is pretty happy with himself, especially when we first meet him. He seems to be a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and that makes him everything that Walter White is not. And that also makes for tricky drama. When I say drama, even in a comedy, you want drama, you want tension and conflict, and a character that at heart seems at peace with himself is intrinsically undramatic. [Laughs] So we’ve been thinking about how to address that issue.
Could some of the action be set in the Breaking Bad era as well?
It could. That’s why I love the possibilities of the show so much. Anything is possible, and I can’t make any promises that we will indeed see that kind of stuff, but I can tell you from a writer’s point of view, it’s very freeing and emboldening to have those opportunities available to you.
How many characters from Breaking Bad might pop up or even have an extended role?
The character that springs to mind would be Mike (Jonathan Banks). That would be a great deal of fun. I would say the sky’s the limit, at least theoretically speaking. Realistically speaking, we’ve got a whole lot of actors, and the world is now well-aware of their wonderful talents and abilities, and therefore Breaking Bad has probably made it tougher for Peter and I to get some of these folks pinned down for another TV show. They’re off making big movies and doing Broadway plays and whatnot, and that’s exactly the way it should be. That is a high-class problem that we will have to contend with as we go forward with Better Call Saul, if we do indeed want to touch base with some of these characters… Better Call Saul could be The Love Boat of its generation, where instead of Milton Berle showing up in a sailor’s cap, hopefully it could be Aaron Paul, also in a sailor’s cap. [Laughs]
How much of this is a subconscious desire to extend the amazing experience that you all had on Breaking Bad?
Oh, I think you’re right, and I don’t think that desire is subconscious. I reluctantly came to the realization several years ago that we needed to end Breaking Bad before the audience lost interest. We needed to end it at the height of its interest in the audience, and I feel we accomplished that. I feel very lucky for having it work out that way. And it’s not even subconscious on my part — I want to keep the party going on some level. I’ve always loved the character Saul Goodman, I’ve always felt like there’s a whole world of story possibilities contained within him and the world that he inhabits, and I would just love to see some version of this world continue. By its very design, Better Call Saul has to be a different kind of show, and we’re not looking to simply keep Breaking Bad going by having a spin-off series. It has to stand on its own two legs as its own series, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. It will be Saul Goodman’s world, it won’t be Walter White’s, and it will have a different feel, even though there will be some overlap on the Venn Diagram that exists between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. But it will have to succeed on its own terms as its own show. If it doesn’t, it won’t be satisfying, and satisfaction is the key word. We want to satisfy.
2013 also saw the filming of your acting debut on Community. Was creating Breaking Bad just a way of getting you closer to your true desire, to be in front of the camera?
Well, my true desire was opera singing. But this is a stepping stone towards that, absolutely.
How did the role come about?
This was a wonderful bolt from the blue. I wasn’t even remotely thinking about acting in any capacity, and then my agent called me with a request that had been forwarded from Dan Harmon at Community. Dan wanted to see if I’d be interested in appearing in an episode. I was just charmed. There was no way I was going to say no to it. Even though, I have to say, I was nervous as hell. And this is payback on a lot of levels for me. As a director, you want to make your actors as comfortable as possible, you want to communicate with them as effectively as possible, but having said that, I remember back on all the times where I knew in my heart I wasn’t giving Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul or any of the actors exactly what they needed. I was just looking at my watch thinking, “God, we need to shoot this.” I was not as supportive sometimes as I could have or should have been. This was karmic payback for that. Having said that, though, everyone on Community was wonderful. The whole crew and the cast could not have been more enthusiastic or supportive, and I did not want to waste the crew’s time by not knowing my lines. That was one of my big phobias, as well as just basically sucking and embarrassing myself. That’s always a concern when I leave the house every day.
You play a gold-digger and you exacerbate a fight between Annie and Abed. What else can we expect from your character?
There’s a certain element to this that I don’t want to give away. But I will take a bit of a risk here and add: My character tends to employ the phrase “Yee-haw” a lot.
You’re developing the drama Battle Creek with David Shore. What has that experience been like, and where are you guys in the process?
I feel lucky to be working with him. Battle Creek is a pilot script I wrote for CBS 11 years ago, and for various reasons it didn’t go. But now it has been resurrected and I can’t wait to see what he does with it. Boy, if there’s anyone I would want running a show with my name on it, it would be David. This is a gentleman who took this great idea for House and made it a reality and ran that show beautifully for eight years. He really created something special with that. There’s no reason to think he can’t do that again here for CBS and take this little idea I had over a decade ago and really run with it and make it his own.
And the show is about two detectives with opposing philosophies and personalities who are paired together?
The small town of Battle Creek, Michigan, has a police department that tries very hard but is financially a bit stretched, and the local detective winds up working with an FBI agent out of the Detroit field office who is perfect. He is a handsome, wonderful guy who men all want to have a beer with and women all want to be with. This guy is just fantastic in every regard, and our local detective is insanely jealous of him, and nonetheless has to work with him. That’s sort of the engine of it all.
Is there a movie that you’re looking to direct?
I’m always looking for a movie. Some days I’m not even sure why, because TV has been so good to me that there’s no reason not to stick with TV 100 percent for the rest of my career. But I love movies, and I’ve never directed a movie before. I would love to direct a movie at least one time before I’m done.
As you look at 2014 and beyond, who is the one person that you’re dying to work with?
I’ve always wanted to work with Clint Eastwood. I’ve just been so impressed by him my whole life. I’m at a point where I can’t really drop everything, because I’ve got too many folks expecting things that I’ve promised, but if I was ever to drop everything to go work for someone, that would be the guy.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.