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Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Television/Ursula Coyote
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Jonathan Banks (who plays Mike “The Cleaner”), Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan (from left) preparing to shoot the season-three finale of Breaking Bad
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Before working with Gilligan (right) on Breaking Bad, Cranston appeared in an X-Files episode penned by him.
It may not be "Who Shot J.R.?," but millions of viewers will be tuning in to the season-four premiere of AMC's Breaking Bad on July 17 to find out if wannabe gangsta Jesse Pinkman will murder an innocent man to save the life of Walter White, his fellow meth cook and former high-school chemistry teacher.
The only problem? Last season's closing episode of the multiple-Emmy-winning show wasn't intended to be a cliffhanger. Blame Breaking Bad 's creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan.
"It was kind of cut-and-dry to my mind what the end of that episode meant, but then everybody, my mom included, was suddenly asking afterward, ‘Did he really shoot that guy?' " says Gilligan, speaking by phone from his office in Burbank, Calif.
The native Richmonder and 1985 graduate of Chesterfield County's L.C. Bird High School directed Breaking Bad 's season-three finale, which closes with a tearful Jesse preparing to shoot the hapless, naive meth cook Gale Boetticher, whom the local drug lord has groomed as a replacement for the about-to-be-liquidated White. The show ends with Jesse aiming the gun at the screen, as seen from Gale's perspective. At the last second, just before the screen goes black with the sound of gunfire, Jesse appears to shift his aim.
Or at least that's the way a lot of viewers perceived it.
The error happened, Gilligan explains, when he panned the camera to meet the barrel of Jesse's gun: "Most viewers … read the image the other way, as if Jesse was changing his point of aim."
And now Gilligan finds himself with an opportunity to play with fan expectations even more than usual.
Appearing in November at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, where he screened the episode, "Full Measure," to a packed theater, Gilligan said, "I never intended for there to be any ambiguity there … but that doesn't mean we won't change it. … It doesn't mean we did change it either," he quickly added with a laugh. "I don't want to give it away."
Gilligan, 44, has written for television and movies for two decades. In 1989, shortly after graduating from New York University's film school, he won the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Competition for his script Home Fries , which became a 1998 film starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. Another script, Wilder Napalm , about brothers with pyrokinetic powers, hit the big screen starring Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger in 1993. In 1994, Gilligan penned a freelance script for Fox's iconic science-fiction TV series The X-Files . Six months later he was hired as a regular series writer, eventually working his way up to executive producer of that show and its spinoff The Lone Gunmen . He also spent several years writing drafts of the screenplay for Will Smith's 2008 superhero film Hancock .
Breaking Bad, which first aired in 2008, is uniquely Gilligan's vision, and it's unlike anything else on television. Shot on film in Albuquerque, N.M., it's cinematic, with widescreen desert vistas out of a spaghetti Western. Some would call it a black comedy, while others might consider it a crime drama. One could even call it a cautionary tale.
"I see him all over the show," says Gilligan's longtime friend Dan Neman, former movie critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and now food editor at The Toledo Blade. "He's very funny, but it's sort of a slightly dark humor. That's exactly what the show is about. It's human and hilarious, and it has excellent acting."
Breaking Bad' s premise is deceptively simple: Facing a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, high-school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) turns to manufacturing methamphetamine to provide money for his family after his death. He partners with a former problem pupil, 20-something meth cook Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul). However, each lie and bad decision White makes digs him in more and more, moving him further and further from the man he was, and also from the show's original concept.
Over three seasons, Gilligan has taken White "from being the protagonist of the show to being the antagonist of the show. The way I pitched it to AMC was I said, ‘We're going to take Mr. Chips, and we're going to turn him into Scarface.' "
Cranston has won three consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad , one for each season the show has been on the air. It's a coup not just for a cable drama competing against networks, but for Cranston, who, prior to Breaking Bad , was best known as either goofy dad Hal on Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle or as the nutty dentist on Seinfeld who converted to Judaism so he could tell Jewish jokes.
Gilligan, however, knew Cranston's range: In 1998, Cranston made a memorable guest appearance as a racist, redneck psycho in the X-Files episode "Drive," written by Gilligan, and he knocked the part out of the park.
"A big part of the reason [ Breaking Bad ] works is Bryan Cranston," Gilligan says. "He's a wonderful actor. … There are a lot of great actors out there, but he also has a sympathetic ability and basic humanity that's innate within him. It comes out of his eyes and his expressions. You like the guy and root for him, even when he's doing reprehensible things."
It makes sense then that "the character Walter White is a pretty good actor, too. He's one of the world's greatest liars, this guy. He comes up with these astounding, complex lies effortlessly," Gilligan says. "You could say that's maybe his greatest skill, his ability to lie, and it's the thing that takes him further and further down that road to hell, as it were, quickly."
The trick for Gilligan is finding the balance between White's dwindling likeability and viewers' desire to keep watching.
"Walt's a bastard," Gilligan says flatly. "We're not trying to shake anybody loose as viewers, [but] it could be argued that we're trying to see how bad Walt can get and people will still sympathize, or at least stay interested. … This is a nasty business he's in. There's not much admirable about being a meth cook. It's not particularly a good drug. It doesn't do good things for the world, and this guy at every turn could have made a different choice."
In the writers' room, Gilligan says, "we have the argument day in and day out — is this guy worth following anymore? I think he is.
"At a certain point, I think you stop sympathizing with him, and you're watching to see what this guy will do next. … You're not necessarily in sympathy with his choices because you realize if you watch the totality of the show, there are moments when he's been thrown a lifeline — he's been offered a job or this or that, he's been offered a way out of this life, and for various reasons having to do with pride, mostly, he refuses to take these opportunities, and he continues on this path of criminality because he's getting a kick out of it. It makes him feel alive. It makes him feel like a man. It's very much a character study."
Vince Gilligan's career as a filmmaker actually began much earlier than that 1989 screenwriting competition. He says it all started when he was in elementary and middle school in Farmville.
"One of the people who got me my start as much as anyone else … was a wonderful woman named Jackie Wall," Gilligan says. "Mrs. Wall was one of my inspirations and influences that got me interested in film."
An art teacher, Wall, a British Colonial native who passed away in 2008, taught alongside Gilligan's mother, Gail, at Longwood University's J.P. Winn Campus School, an elementary and middle school used for training teachers. Growing up, Gilligan was best friends with her son Angus, who won the Oscar for film editing for The Social Network at this year's Academy Awards.
Jackie Wall had a Super 8 camera that she'd lend to Gilligan and her son, encouraging both of them to express themselves through film.
"I used to keep it the entire summer, and I'd make little science-fiction movies with my brother, Patrick," Gilligan recalls. (His father, George, remembers young Vince screening one homemade action film for his nonplussed parents — it showed Patrick being dragged behind a moving car. "It was actually kind of dangerous," the elder Gilligan says, "but Patrick went along with it and everything.")
"She was crucial in a lot of people's lives," Angus Wall says of his mother's mentoring of Gilligan. "She saw a spark in certain students, and she really would encourage them to pursue a career in the arts. She would give the camera to Vince and send him on his merry way to make little films on his own. She was really an amazing person. It just goes to show how critical teachers can be."
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for his mom," affirms Gilligan. "She was a wonderful lady and a real inspiration."
Wall is amused that he and Gilligan have become so successful in the film industry. The two recently reunited for lunch after decades, but he's kept track of Gilligan's career. He's a fan of The X-Files and Breaking Bad, calling the latter "probably the best show on TV."
Wall's mother loved film, especially the epic works of director David Lean. He remembers her taking him and Gilligan to Richmond sometimes and dropping them off at Cloverleaf Mall to see movies. "I remember there was a time in 1979 … Vince and I had a big debate whether to see Alien or not, and we didn't end up going to see it. … I think we saw some completely forgettable film instead."
Gilligan, who was born in Richmond, spent his early years in Farmville before his family moved back to Chesterfield County during his high-school years. His parents, who are divorced, still live in the area. His mother, Gail, is a retired reading specialist with Chesterfield County Public Schools; his father, George, is a retired insurance adjuster who worked for Virginia Mutual and other firms.
As a boy, Gilligan "was kind of a studious-type young man, and he liked to read, and he had a vivid imagination," recalls his father, a film buff who introduced his son to film-noir classics and John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns on late-night TV.
Vince Gilligan loved visiting his paternal grandparents' bookstore, the Richmond Book Shop at 808 W. Broad St., a mom-and-pop literary mainstay for Fan residents and VCU students. His grandparents doted on their grandsons and would send them home with bulging bags of books. Gilligan fondly remembers walking with his brother, Patrick, from their grandparents' Monument Avenue home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "We'd walk over to the museum and see the mummy," he recalls. "I really miss that mummy."
These days, Gilligan and his longtime girlfriend, Holly Rice, visit Richmond at least three or four weeks a year. She still owns a house in the Fan District, even though the couple lives most of the time in Los Angeles. "My girlfriend and I, we love coming back," he says.
They frequent a lot of Richmond restaurants, such as Brock's Bar-B-Que in Chesterfield, which is owned by family friends. "I tell you," Gilligan says, "that's something I really miss that they do not have out here: They have a lot of great restaurants out here in Los Angeles, but they do not have any place I've found that has Carolina-style barbecue. If someone was to open a good Carolina-style barbecue out here, I think it would go through the roof."
Gilligan is in Richmond so often, in fact, that he still sees his same local dentist of more than 20 years, Dr. Mike Kilbourne, whose name he used in the movie Hancock and in an X-Files episode for a creepy dentist who puts surveillance devices in his patients' teeth during root canals.
"I just found out that I will be [mentioned] in Breaking Bad this season," Kilbourne says. "I'm excited about that. … I never know it's going to happen. He just does it out of surprise. … It's been fun."
Kilbourne still gets patients who are X-Files fans asking "if I'm doing any sneaky implants on them. So who knows what's going to come out [of] Breaking Bad … I just hope it's not my head coming out on a turtle's back!" he says, referencing the fate of one poor DEA informant on Breaking Bad.
"I have to get Dr. Kilbourne in there. He always gets a kick out of it. … He's a great guy. He's an excellent dentist and always fun to talk to," says Gilligan, who enjoys planting homages to his friends, family and Virginia upbringing in his film and television work.
A couple Christmases ago, Gilligan sent his father, who is a big Breaking Bad fan, a DVD with filmed personal Christmas greetings from the entire cast and crew. "Bryan Cranston says, ‘George, Merry Christmas!' and then he gets in close to the camera and he says, ‘Stay out of my territory!' " George Gilligan says, laughing. "That was incredible. … That was a big kick. I treasure that."
Says Vince Gilligan: "I'm sure there's not an episode that goes by that there's not some inspiration that came to me in my days growing up in Farmville and Chesterfield County and in Richmond that winds up finding its way into Breaking Bad. "
For instance, Gilligan's high school, L.C. Bird, gets referenced as L.C. Byrd Elementary in one Breaking Bad episode. His childhood elementary school, J.P. Winn, is the name of the high school where Walter White worked.
He's also known for including references to his girlfriend, Holly, in his work. "He puts her in every script," Neman says. "The name of the daughter in Breaking Bad ? Holly. … Whenever there's an address mentioned on one of his shows, it's some old address of hers, it's part of her phone number, part of her Social Security number. There are always references to her. She is very sweet." So sweet, in fact, that Gilligan used her name for a bag of Holly-brand sugar in an X-Files episode.
Wordplay like that isn't uncommon in Gilligan's scripts: In season two of Breaking Bad, for instance, the titles of four separate episodes made up a chill-inducing hidden message that spelled out the season finale's tragic plane crash: 737 Down Over ABQ. Each episode title had a double meaning in the context of the show: For example, "737" referred to the amount — $737,000 — that Walter White calculated he needed to earn from his drug dealing in order to adequately provide for his family after his demise.
"Vince doesn't just concern himself with every detail, he obsesses over it," says Cranston, the show's star. "That kind of ‘leave no stone unturned' ideology is what makes his writing so nuanced and special ... and will undoubtedly lead him to prematurely gray hair."
"I always thought Vince should stay in Virginia because I thought he had the most unique voice," Breaking Bad co-executive producer Mark Johnson said during his appearance at the Virginia Film Festival. Johnson, a University of Virginia graduate and veteran producer of films such as the Chronicles of Narnia series and the Oscar-winning Rain Man , discovered Gilligan as a judge of the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Competition. Gilligan "was the most imaginative writer I'd ever read, and I thought he had such great compassion for his characters, no matter how fallen they were," Johnson says. "He wrote some pretty strange characters, but he always wrote them with affection. … I thought if he came out to Hollywood that he'd become another Hollywood screenwriter and try to write what everybody else was writing."
Instead, Gilligan has remained "a very, very nice guy" who's been with the same woman since the 1990s, a pretty unusual thing in show business, Neman says. Appearing at the Virginia Film Festival, Gilligan was down to earth, sporting jeans and a pair of New Balance sneakers. He still speaks with a Southern accent and seems more like a family member or a coworker than a successful Hollywood television producer and screenwriter.
As creator and executive producer of Breaking Bad, he's taken on more of a public role, hosting the show's popular video podcast on iTunes and appearing in numerous media interviews, a new phenomenon for him.
"I'm still pretty much behind the scenes," Gilligan says, "but I certainly do more press for this show than I ever did before, including The X-Files. … Like it or not, I'm a little more front and center, and it is fun, I have to admit. It's fun talking to people. It's always a wonderful thing to hear from fans who love the show. That's always flattering and buoying to my spirit, as it were. … The short answer is, it's wonderful, but the more I do it, I realize I really was meant to be a behind-the-scenes guy," he says, laughing.
But even praise has its limits — while Gilligan's aware of the hullabaloo among fans over last season's ending, he tries to avoid reading fan comments. "I love enthusiasm wherever I hear it … [but] with the instantaneous feedback one gets from the Internet, there is a danger in following too closely and thereby letting it skew the way your story is headed, and to that end I probably err too far in the other direction. I don't really go online. I've never really Googled myself. It's not because I'm not vain. It's because I'm a little nervous about peering down that rabbit hole. I don't think I'm emotionally healthy enough to spend a lot of time looking up my show and myself on the Internet."
For fans waiting on Breaking Bad' s return in July, the other cliffhanger may be how much longer Gilligan plans to keep the show on the air. In past interviews, he's said he might want to call it quits after another season.
"TV suffers by not having an end date," Gilligan says. "To put it succinctly, some shows get cut off too soon, and other shows go on too long. I can tell you that I want very much to know the end date for Breaking Bad, but the business is not geared toward giving endings."
So far, Gilligan has filmed 33 Breaking Bad episodes. To be eligible for syndication (and thus to become a real money maker), he needs to produce more than twice that many episodes. Therefore, Sony Pictures Television, which produces Breaking Bad , would like to see it run at least six seasons, but that's also dependent on ratings, ad revenues and media buzz. While the show remains an Emmy magnet and a critical darling, it attracts only about 2 million U.S. viewers per episode, less than half the audience of AMC's zombie drama The Walking Dead and not even close to the numbers for hit network shows. (Comparatively, ABC's Dancing with the Stars season premiere this March collected a cool 22.6 million viewers.)
"Much like Walt does, we live not day to day but season to season. We don't know how long we'll have, so it's hard to plot it out," Gilligan says. "Part of me wants to end the show at the end of season five, which would be two more seasons. I don't want to jump the shark. I don't want to have a show that is still on the air and people say, ‘Is that thing still on? That used to be a good show.' I would rather end too soon than too late, but I want to have a proper ending."
Unlike many television show creators, Gilligan has mapped out Breaking Bad' s endgame. "He knows exactly where it's going — but he hasn't told me!" Neman says, laughing.
For now, Gilligan is focused on putting the finishing touches on season four. Although he won't divulge any spoilers, Gilligan does offer fans a couple of teasers: Heading into season four, Walt's cancer is still in remission, he says, but "I wouldn't be surprised if it reared its ugly head again in the future." As for Walt's wife, Skyler (played by Anna Gunn), she "has made baby steps toward being [Walt's] money laundress. She knows how to keep the books, and we've also shown she knows how to fudge the books, so I wouldn't be surprised if we see a little more of that in season four."
As for whether Walter White can ever be led back from the dark side, Gilligan's not sure. He's a fan of redemption stories such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but he also says that Walt's not the only character in need of a karmic do-over on Breaking Bad .
"Jesse at this point personally means more to me than Walter does," Gilligan reveals. "I would have to hope to see some kind of redemption for him. … I don't want this to be a dark and hopeless show, although it kind of feels that way sometimes. I want to be honest, but we're not trying to be dark for dark's sake."
However, he adds, summing up the entire show in a single sentence, "If you decide to be a meth cook, it's probably not going to end well."