Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan breaks down El Camino — and how he decided which characters to revive
You probably never thought you would get to see exactly what the hell happened to Jesse Pinkman after he busted through the fence of that neo-Nazi compound in Todd’s El Camino. (Was that freedom blinking in the distance or just a cavalcade of cop cars?) Breaking Bad overlord Vince Gilligan didn’t think you would, either.
But the crafty creator’s own curiosity about the high-school-nothing-meth maker-turned-prisoner-turned-fugitive — a punk kid whose command of science once compelled him to deduce, “You add a plus douche bag to a minus douche bag and you get, like, zero douche bags” — could not be contained. And so, six years after Breaking Bad ended its revered, five-season run, Gilligan gifted fans with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which he wrote and directed. The two-hour Netflix thriller chronicles what happened to Jesse (Aaron Paul) in the minutes and days after escape, and offers up intriguing peeks at Jesse’s time in meth-slave captivity with Todd (Jesse Plemons), as well as fan-friendly glimpses at a carefree road trip with Jane (Krysten Ritter), and a breakfast with mentor/future fly in his meth haul, Walt (Bryan Cranston).
El Camino also features an entertaining encounter between Jesse and vacuum-store-owner-moonlighting-as-one-man-disappearing-squad Ed, played by Robert Forster, who died on Friday at 78. Gilligan paid tribute to the actor in this EW interview, calling him “brilliant” and explaining his importance to the Breaking Bad franchise — and to the ending of El Camino.
Here, Gilligan — who has served as co-creator/executive producer of Bad prequel Better Call Saul in the intervening years — talks about how El Camino evolved from a 10-minute project into a two-hour movie, how a likable psycho was a big reason for his wanting to dive back into this universe, and what it was like to direct that super-secret Jesse-Walt scene. Oh, and you can thank Gilligan’s girlfriend for Jesse not winding up in prison.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: For years, you felt relieved and satisfied with the way things ended — and you said that this story had been told definitively. When did curiosity start to re-enter the picture for you? Why did you decide to re-open a story that so many people consider to be a masterpiece?
VINCE GILLIGAN: What can I say? I’m a bigger liar. [Laughs] You’re right. Really, in my heart I thought that the story was told with the final 62nd episode of Breaking Bad. I thought it was up to the audience to figure out how Jesse got away, but that it was enough to see him driving off into the night victorious. But then as the years started to pass, I found myself wondering at idle moments, “How exactly did he get away? Because that’s no easy feat! And what if he didn’t get away? What if he got busted right around the next corner?”
I even played with telling that story in a movie. Luckily, smarter brains prevailed, and the people that I love and trust, starting with my girlfriend Holly said, “You cannot have Jessie Pinkman get busted at the end of this thing. You cannot go that route.” And I said, “Okay. All right, honey.” [Laughs] And I’m glad I listened to her and I listened to [Breaking Bad executive producer/Better Call Saul co-creator] Peter Gould and the Better Call Saul writers. But basically, over the years it started to percolate in my brain. And when you couple that with the fact that Aaron Paul is one of the best actors in the world and one of the sweetest people to boot, and I knew I wanted to work with him again — those two things were powerful inducements indeed. And I figured, “Why not to do this as a movie?”
What exactly did you sketch out in the version in which he is captured?
I didn’t get super far down the road, but it was probably going to be a young woman who needed some help. He was hiding out by the Canadian border, and this woman was working at a motel as a housekeeper or something. [He] goes into the process of saving her, knowing full well that he’s going to suffer for it, he’s going to get caught for it, but he does it anyway. And the last scene would be maybe him in a jail cell but at peace for the first time since the movie began. I think there was going to be this component where he couldn’t sleep. He wouldn’t get a single night sleep for a week or so upon escaping. The police are looking for him and he’s too haunted and he’s too adrenaline-charged. And at the end of the thing, he’s in a jail cell, and ironically he can fall asleep like a baby. And I thought, “Ah, that’d be kind of cool.”
I pitched some version of that to my girlfriend Holly, and I also separately pitched that to Peter Gould and the writers and everybody looked at me like I was absolutely insane: ‘You can’t have Jesse back in a cell at the end of the movie! People will tar and feather you!’ I’m glad I listened to them. I think there is a version of that movie that if perfectly executed would work, but I don’t know that I was the guy to pull it off. I’m glad I wound up doing it the way I did it.
The flashbacks in El Camino allow us to spend time with key departed characters. Considering the amount of flashback time spent with Todd in this movie, did you find yourself over the years not just wondering what happened to Jesse after he escaped, but also about his horrific time in captivity, which we didn’t really see enough of? Were any of those Jesse-Todd flashback scenes outgrowths of discussions in the writers’ room from season 5 or ideas in your head that you weren’t able to fit into that season?
We did talk a lot about Todd in the writers’ room. We were fascinated by his character and for my taste, we did not get enough Todd in Breaking Bad. I have to add that as a reason why I really was interested in doing this movie. Todd kind of snuck up on all of us writers. He is a character quite unlike any I’ve ever seen in a movie. Usually when you have a sociopathic killer, there’s always some element, however subtle it may be, of mustache twirling. The way psychopaths or sociopaths are very often portrayed in movies is that they get pleasure from killing and from torturing and from inflicting pain. There’s always some element of pleasure, some sly smile. It’s become such a trope. And the thing about Todd is: he doesn’t get any pleasure from killing people, but man, he’ll do it in a heartbeat if it serves his purposes. And he’ll feel bad about it, kind of like the average person might feel a little bit bad about killing an ant or a mosquito or something. But then he’ll instantly forget about it. He’s just a fascinating character. He’s the most weirdly likable sociopath that I’ve ever seen. And the way Jesse Plemons plays him is so matter of fact and so perfect, that if I had any regrets at all at the end of Breaking Bad — and they were few and far between — but one I might’ve given voice to at the time was, “Man, I wish we’d seen a little more Todd, because this guy fascinates me.” And luckily, we were able to do that with this movie.
More on Todd in a bit. Looking at the genesis of El Camino, you initially imagined this as something smaller at first, right? How exactly did you arrive at this story and at this length?
The idea had been percolating for years, but I don’t know that I was going to jump on it anytime soon. As a matter of fact, I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll give it 10 or 15 or 20 years. And then if Aaron’s still interested and I’m still working and haven’t retired or whatever, maybe we can revisit it then.” But then, in late 2017, it dawned on all of us that the following year, 2018, was going to be the 10th anniversary of Breaking Bad going on the air. And I started to think, “We’ve got to do something special.” I was talking to Sony at that point: “What can we do? Let’s have a 10th-anniversary blowout and try to do stuff for the fans all year long, all around the world, if we can. The sky’s the limit. Let’s have fun with it.” And I thought that that could possibly culminate in a 63rd episode, so to speak. So the early code name for this project, at least in my mind, was 63. And [when] it started off, I thought, “63. It’s not a literal thing. Maybe it’s a five-minute or 10-minute little mini-sode of Jesse getting away. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s 48 minutes long or an hourlong.”
But then a couple things happened. We realized it wasn’t really cost effective to go to all the trouble of making something that’s only 10 minutes long. Why not just do it as a movie? And also one of my oldest friends in the world, Tom Schnauz, who’s one of our executive producers on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. He said to me, “I don’t think you should think of it as 63. You want to get that thought out of your head.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad are” — and this is him talking — “they were as perfect as we could make them. They were as complete as we could make them. Let’s not tempt fate. Let’s not tell the world that there was anything missing from that. Breaking Bad really was Walter White’s story. This is something else. This is Jesse Pinkman’s story and it didn’t really belong necessarily in Breaking Bad. So let’s not tell people that it did.” And I think he was exactly right. That’s when I started thinking of it as El Camino instead.
You give fans a big moment via a flashback to a more innocent time with Walt and Jesse in the era of “Four Days Out,” following a big cook. What intrigued you about revisiting this particular moment in time and in their relationship?
This moment was important to me because it was the zenith of Walt and Jesse’s relationship. There’s always an element of annoyance that these guys have for one another, and I love that about the show. I love that they’re sort of the 21st century version of Laurel and Hardy. There’s always some annoyance and some pestering and some smack talk. I always love writing that stuff, but couple that with this being the moment in their relationship that they probably had the most respect for one another. It’s arguable, but I think this might’ve been it. This was when their relationship was at its best, and from then on, they had highs and lows, but that their relationship really started to devolve as the seasons progressed. And by the end of it, they literally want each other’s dead. And when people watch this thing all the way through and they binge it, that’s what they’re left with — these guys hated each other. I wanted to go back to a time when they didn’t hate each other, when there was in fact a grudging respect for one another.
What kind of measures did you employ to ensure the secrecy of that scene? I heard the diner was populated with crew members instead of professional extras….
Oh my God. I tell ya, it was appropriate that this all took place in the state of New Mexico because I don’t think there was as much secrecy surrounding a project since the Manhattan Project. [Laughs] Good grief! We were in the right state for it, now that I think of it. And all credit to my producers and to our crew. Our producers Charles Newirth and Melissa Bernstein, and Jenn Carroll and Mark Johnson, they all sprung into action. They booked a private jet to fly Bryan Cranston in. Bryan Cranston only had 36 hours to do this thing right in the middle of his Broadway run of Network where he’s playing Howard Beale six nights a week. And he figured it out. He said, “I can do it.”
He was very gung-ho, and thank God for that, because he must have been exhausted. From door to door, he had 36 hours. So he got flown out on a private jet, arrived in Albuquerque at the airport. They probably put a bag over his head, rushed him into the car with tinted windows and drove him to a private house they had rented it. They had him surrounded with people with umbrellas. I mean, the amount of secrecy was astounding, but we shot the scene and we had to do it all in one day, so we had to knock it out quick. We shot at the Owl Cafe, which is this great restaurant, smack dab in the middle of Albuquerque.
When you see the scene and you look out the windows and there’s nothing but desert out the window, that is all digitally added in after the fact. Out the real windows of the Owl Café is a big parking lot, a strip mall and a big road, and the interstate. So we had to surround this thing with green screens, partly for privacy and partly to be able to burn in the desert locale out the window. But also people are driving by and they’re seeing the RV with the bullet holes in the door and they’re saying, “Oh, my God, what is that?” And so Nathan [Davis], one of our [assistant directors], came up with this idea to tell people that we were shooting a commercial for the Breaking Bad tour. And by the way, we were using the RV that you can tour Albuquerque in. And the gentleman who owns the tour company was game and helped us keep the secret and let us borrow his RV, and we were handing out brochures for his organization to any curious onlookers who happened by. “What are you doing?” “Aw, we’re just shooting a commercial for the tour. You should really take it. It’s a lot of fun!” It was amazing the amount of logistics, and blood, sweat, and tears that went into keeping this thing secret.
What was it like to direct Brian and Aaron as they slipped into those characters again — and from such an earlier, friendlier time in Walt and Jesse’s relationship?
It was awesome. We had to kind of buckle down and get the work done because we knew the clock was ticking, more so than usual. But even in the midst of that, it felt very wistful. It felt very bittersweet. It’s funny, the very last episode of Breaking Bad, we knew it was the last episode and it was a very emotional day. But this felt different somehow. Maybe in my heart of hearts somewhere, I thought to myself, “I’ll see Brian and Aaron play these characters again someday,” on the final day of the Breaking Bad TV show. But somehow watching them play it here, in the movie, felt more finite or definitive. It felt more like an ending. It felt in my heart of hearts, like, “This is probably the last time these guys were ever going to play a scene together as these characters.”
Aaron, at that point, had been playing Jesse for months on end in the movie. But Brian, that was his first time playing the character in six years or more, and it’s amazing how they fell right back into it. I barely gave them any direction at all that day. I just watched them and enjoyed watching them. I didn’t have to do much.
After they talk about Jesse’s future, Walt says, “You’re really lucky, you know that? That you didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” It’s not only one of the few compliments that Walt ever gave Jesse — he later told him in the series that his meth was as good as his own — but also it’s so sad and twisted that this family man considered this illicit cook to be something special. You’re starting to see his warped Heisenberg viewpoint really forming there. What did that line of dialogue mean to you?
I have Melissa Bernstein to thank for that. That was her idea to button the scene with a poignant moment like that. When I wrote the scene in the first draft of the script, it was just basically this lighthearted sitting in between these two characters. It was pretty much everything in that same now except without that ending. And when she read the script, she said, “Well, aren’t we missing something here? What’s the point of the scene, ultimately?” I said, “Well, to me the point of the scene is it’s a little thank-you to the fans. It’s allowing the fans to see Walt and Jesse together again.” She said, “That’s great, and they’re going to love that, but can’t there be something more still?” And I said, “Like what?” She said, “Well, how does it relate back to the larger movie? What does Jesse learn from it? Because in my mind, this movie is about Jesse transforming from a boy to a man. It’s about him growing up and becoming an adult. What does he learn here in this scene that helps him along on that journey?”
And we thought about it and finally, we came up with that line. And you’re right, it’s kind of a compliment, but it’s a twisted one at that. More than anything, it gives us this glimpse into Walter White’s mind. It’s a sad moment because if Walter White thinks this is the greatest thing he’s ever done, what kind of life has he led? And really, it allows for this wonderful reaction on Jesse’s part, and Aaron plays it beautifully. Aaron’s reaction to the line is really what buttons the scene and what makes it what it is. It gives it a point. It gives the whole thing shape. It’s his silent reaction of, “Oh my God, you think this is greatness?” And that leads us into the final scene of him becoming a different person. He’s no longer in the next scene Jesse Pinkman; he’s someone named Mr. Driscoll. He’s a grown man, and older and wiser, and he’s going to go off and hopefully finally have the life that he deserves.
Was there a Breaking Bad character that you had tried to include El Camino but he/she just didn’t make organic sense?
Not really. I was greedy. I’m always greedy when it comes to getting these characters in and getting them as much screen time as possible. I wanted to get Skyler [Anna Gunn] in the movie and I wanted to get Marie [Betsy Brandt] and Walter Jr. [RJ Mitte] and Hank [Dean Norris] because they’re the family. But then I realized that’s the problem: they’re Walter White’s family, and this is not Walter White’s story. This is Jesse Pinkman’s story. And you only have two hours or less. Netflix was wonderful to me. They probably would’ve given me three hours if I had asked for it. But you gotta know when to fold ‘em, and you’ve got to know when to end your movie, and you don’t want to overstay your welcome.
Walter White’s story ended with Breaking Bad. This is a new chapter — I shouldn’t say “chapter” because that implies that there’s going to be more, and I have no plans for that — but it’s something else entirely and it’s all Jesse’s.
There’s an exceptionally tense moment in the film when Todd asks Jesse to fetch the cigarettes in the glove compartment, where Jesse finds a gun. I found myself wondering if the gun was loaded, and, at first, if this was maybe even a test for Jesse. Jesse was so trained and broken and beaten down that he submitted to Todd’s will. Was there a part of him, too, that felt that he deserved this treatment for all the crimes that he committed?
That’s interesting. In my mind, Todd is just a happy-go-lucky individual who was having a good time being out there in the beautiful sunshine and the gorgeous painted desert of Arizona. And he wanted some more cigarettes. I don’t think he was testing Jesse at all. And I think that gun was loaded. Jesse could have emptied the entire magazine in Todd’s face if he had wanted to. And the tragedy of it is he desperately wanted to but he is indeed so broken, so beaten down at that point — as anyone would be. I wondered about that scene, how it’s going to play for people. I would hope people would have sympathy for Jesse and not say, “Ah, you should have killed him, ya coward!”
He’s not a coward. He’s a broken man. What happens if he kills Todd and he’s escaped, and Todd is buried next to the housekeeper in the painted desert? Then what does Jesse do? Because there’s that little boy Brock [Ian Posada] out there and this rabid, truly awful neo-Nazi gang that is Todd’s family. What’s going to happen to this little boy? Is Jesse going to be on the run for the rest of his life? I mean, if he suddenly turns into Rambo, I guess he can get home, so to speak, back to the compound before everyone shows up, and then machine guns and all. But he’s not Rambo.
Jesse did not shoot Walt at the end of “Felina” to deny Walt his last order, but also he didn’t want any more blood on his hands. As we talked about, he was always a reluctant killer. Yet he enters Kandy’s welding shop, probably knowing how this will play out, which allows you to give this neo-Western franchise an actual showdown. Jesse could have robbed someone else with no blood spill. Given that the neo-Nazis are dead and Kandy (Scott MacArthur) helped ensure his meth slavery, was this the closest thing he had to revenge, or did this PTSD-suffering man just give into his nihilistic side one last time before starting fresh?
He got some blood lust out on Todd when he throttled Todd to death with the handcuff chain. But yeah, he doesn’t shoot Walt, like you said, as much as anything because Walt wants him to. He’s gonna leave his time with Walt for once in his life not doing what Mr. White told him to do. But once he goes into that welding shop, I think it’s complicated. I think he’s out for revenge. Let me scratch that. I think he’s exorcising demons. I think there were demons that he will continue to have, even as he goes off and lives his life in Alaska. It’s not going to be a completely happy ending. I mean, how could it be? But I think there are demons that he exorcises when he goes and faces down with this guy who’s a bully and a sociopath himself. This guy who would gladly for money build some sort of horrible dog run for some guy on a chain and not even just barely idly wonder who this guy is that he’s helping enslave. He just didn’t give a s—; he doesn’t care. And a guy like that needs to get some comeuppance in a movie.
But also I think it needs to be noted that if the guy given him the $1,800 — even if he’d given it to him with an attitude, I think Jesse would have taken it and slipped off into the night. Those guys could have kept snorting rails of coke and having a fine time and they would have had a much better night for it. I think Jesse suspects that this guy is going to turn him down and then he’s ready for plan B, but I think he would’ve taken plan A.
You said in interviews after the show concluded that you like to believe that he got away, changed his name, and headed up to Alaska because he deserves that ending. Why did you decide to deliver so directly on that? You hid the ending to the movie in plain sight!
[Laughs] It’s about process. To me, the most interesting moments of Breaking Bad were about getting from point A to point B, or point Z ultimately, even if you knew what point Z was. You want to see how you’re going make that transit from A to B to C and so on. It’s what I love about the TV show Columbo — talk about two very different shows, Breaking Bad and Columbo — you know who the killer is at the beginning of the episode and you know why he or she did it. But then you spend the rest of the hour engrossed in seeing someone figure out all the steps and ponder it for themselves and solve the riddle. This show is not that, but really I did come to realize a long time ago that it’s the steps a character takes that are more important than the surprise of where they end up. And that’s really what this was about.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Jane pop up — and not convulsing in vomit. What did you like about ending the movie with a Jane scene and that message about taking agency in your own life, instead of being, well, to draw chemistry into this, a reactive element, as Jesse was often forced to be by Walt?
I love the way you put that. I gotta tell you, surround yourself with smart people and then listen to what they have to say, because it was Peter Gould you can thank for the Jane scene. I wrote a first draft of this movie that did not have Jane in it, and Peter read it. He said, “I think that I would love to see Jane in this movie.” I said, “Yeah, I love Jane too, but I mean, she doesn’t really fit.” And he says, “Well, I’d find a way. And maybe at the end of the movie, where it would mean the most of the audience.” And for a week or two, I kicked it around and I thought, “You know what? I’m probably not going to do that because he doesn’t understand what I’m up against.” [Laughs] And suddenly one day it dawned on me, “Oh my God, he’s exactly right. And I know exactly where to put her.” It wasn’t for me lacking interest or desire in seeing Kristen Ritter again working with her again. She’s one of the most charming and wonderful people in the world. But I just didn’t know how to do it. And then Peter helped me figure it out.
She had a much bigger scene, and Kristen saw [the movie] for the first time at the world premiere, and I’m hoping she was okay with the fact that we cut out a scene that was about two minutes long with the two of them sitting on the side of the road. It was a great scene and she was wonderful, as always in it. They were just as charming and as cute together as they ever were. But it felt at the end of the day, like we need to get to the end of the movie. And actually Mark Johnson, my sort of mentor in the business, he was the one who said, “We’ve got this wonderful Jane scene, I think you need to cut it down to its bare bones. Emotionally, the movie has ended and we need to cut to the end credits.” And damned if he wasn’t right, too.
Is El Camino the final, final chapter in the story or did it pique your interest to the point where we could see another movie in six years? I believe Huell is still in the hotel room and now the Pinkmans are waiting at the pond…
[Laughs] Ah, that’s a good question. I don’t have any plans right now to do anything more with the Breaking Bad universe except for helping Peter Gould and the writers finish up Better Call Saul. Having said that, I have surprised myself in the past, clearly. But I’m starting to think — I used this expression a lot in 2013 — I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I hope I haven’t at this point. It’s a tempting thing to overstay your welcome when you’re having a good time at the party. Suddenly you look around and you’re the last person there with the lampshade on your head and the hosts are waiting for you to get the hell out. I don’t want to be that guy. I’m really starting to think, “God, I better see if I got anything else in me here. I’d better see if I can come up with another story.” So no matter what, the next thing I intend to do is something completely different. But you never know, 20 years from now, if I’m still working, and everyone still wants it, it’d be interesting to see what Alaska still looks like 10 years later, 15 years later.