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Vince Gilligan: The Man Behind 'Breaking Bad'

The AMC drama Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as a high-school chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer. To secure his family's financial future, Cranston looks up a former student turned drug dealer — played by Aaron Paul — and starts producing crystal meth. The show follows Cranston as he navigates dealers, DEA agents and his terminal illness.

Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, who previously worked as a producer on The X-Files. Gilligan tells David Bianculli that one of the themes of Breaking Bad is that "actions have consequences."

"We never really let things drop on our show," he says. "When Walt kills someone, it sticks with him. And when Walt lies to someone, that lie continues to exist and becomes kind of a little landmine that will blow up under his feet perhaps five, six, eight, 12 episodes later."

What makes Breaking Bad different from other TV shows, Gilligan says, is that the characters radically change, to the point where they may be unrecognizable at a season's end.

"A typical TV show is always about protecting the franchise — it's all about stretching it out as long as you can take it," he says. "And it's about taking the characters in any given hour as far as you can take them, but then resetting them more or less back to zero so at the beginning of the next week, so they're still the character you know and love. I wanted to do something different with Breaking Bad and make it a story of a character going from A to Z."

The third season of Breaking Bad begins March 21 on AMC.

Interview Highlights

On changing his writing style after realizing what the actors in Breaking Bad were capable of:

"That does happen. I can only speak for myself, but that definitely happens for 'Breaking Bad.' ... A good example for us would be that my original intention for the character of Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, was that Jesse was going to die at the end of Season 1. And his death would just be in very mechanical plot terms — it was going to be an engine for generating great guilt and greatly motivating the character of Walter White — in a very dark fashion. Halfway through the first episode, it was so clear to me that this young actor was a wonderful addition, a great asset to the show and was going to be a big star — and was just a great guy to boot — that I quickly changed my mind about killing off this character."

On casting Bryan Cranston as Walter White after seeing him guest star in The X-Files:

"I was fortunate enough to not know who Bryan Cranston was when he came in and read for us — and I say that ironically, somewhat. This was about 18 months before 'Malcolm in the Middle' came on the air, and we were having a hard time casting the part. What we knew we needed was a great actor who could be scary and very intense and deliver a lot of really horrible, nasty lines. ... And yet, as nasty as he is, you want to feel bad for him when he expires at the end of the episode [of 'The X-Files']. And we knew we needed an actor who could pull all of that off. ... And Bryan walked in and nailed it."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

"Breaking Bad," the AMC cable drama series, has been dormant for a while, but it's about to resurface in a big way. Season two of the series comes out next week on DVD, and on March 21st, "Breaking Bad" begins season three on AMC.

Our guest is the creator of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan. The premise of "Breaking Bad" is about as dark as TV gets. The show's star, Bryan Cranston, has won back-to-back Emmys for his performance. He plays Walter White, a high school science teacher who at the start of the series was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Worried about his family's future - his wife was pregnant and their teenage son has cerebral palsy - Walter was determined to leave his family with a nest egg, so he decided to use his knowledge of chemistry to manufacture crystal meth and to team up with a former student to sell it.

Season two of "Breaking Bad" ended with a midair plane collision above Albuquerque, a crash caused indirectly by some of Walter's actions. Season three begins one week later with the crash still very much on everyone's minds. Walter's school stages a grief counseling session for the entire student body in the school auditorium, but when Walter takes the microphone, his attempts to soothe the students collides with his personal reliance on cold facts and figures.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Breaking Bad")

Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON (Actor): (as Walter White) I guess what I would want to say is to look on the bright side. First of all, nobody on the ground was killed, and that - I mean, an incident like this over a populated urban center, that right there, that's just got to be some minor miracle. So, plus, neither plane was full. You know, the 737 was what? Maybe two-thirds full, I believe? Right? Yes? Or, maybe even three quarters full? Well, in any rate, what youre left with, casualty-wise, is just the 50th worse air disaster.

The creator of "Breaking Bad", Vince Gilligan also worked as a writer and producer on "The X-Files." Our TV critic, David Bianculli recorded this interview with Gilligan last month, just as production was ending on the show's third season.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Vince Gilligan, welcome to Fresh Air.

Mr. VINCE GILLIGAN (Writer, director and producer): Thank you very much, David.

BIANCULLI: Let's listen to a scene from the pilot, for people who have not seen any of this show before. And this scene, I think, shows the playfulness of the characters and the whole idea of the show, as well as the darkness. This early on in the pilot after getting diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Walter White, who is the character played by Bryan Cranston, decides to use his knowledge of chemistry to cook up some of the purest crystal meth that Albuquerque has ever seen. He steals some equipment from his high school science lab, loads it up in the family hatchback, and takes it over to his new partner, a former slacker student named Jesse, played by Aaron Paul.

What I love about this scene we're about to hear is that Walter is fine with breaking the rules to make and sell illegal drugs; he's justified that, but he's not going to bend the rules when it comes to his lab equipment.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Breaking Bad")

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Look at this. Look at this, hell doll style recovery flask, 800 milliliters. Very rare. Youve got your usual paraphernalia and Griffin beakers, your Erlenmeyer flask, but the piece de resistance, your round-bottom boiling flask, 5,000 milliliters.

Mr. AARON PAUL (Actor): (as Jesse Pinkman) I want to cook in one of those - the big one. What are these?

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) No, this is a volumetric flask. You wouldnt cook in one of these.

Mr. PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Yeah. I do.

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) No you dont. A volumetric flask is for general mixing and titration. You wouldnt apply heat to a volumetric flask. That's what a boiling flask is for. Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?

Mr. PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) No. You flunked me.

BIANCULLI: Now, with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, that's a scene from the pilot of "Breaking Bad." One of the things I love, as a TV critic and as a viewer, when I'm watching television shows that are written well and acted well - is that after a couple of episodes, you begin to see that the writer's having seen what the actors are capable of doing start writing different things for those actors and there's this synergy that goes on. Am I imagining that as I'm watching it, or can you give us an example of that actually happening?

Mr. GILLIGAN: Now David, that's very astute. And that's actually very true and that does happen. I can only speak for myself, but that definitely happens with "Breaking Bad." I'm sure that does indeed happen with most television shows, and a good example for us would be that my original intention for the character of Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, was that Jesse was going to die at the end of season one. And he was - his death would be sort of a just in a very mechanical plot terms, was going to be an engine for generating great guilt and great - greatly motivating the character of Walter White in a very dark fashion.

And about halfway through the first episode, Aaron Paul - it was so clear to me that this young actor was just a wonderful addition, a wonderful asset to the show and was going to be a big star, I thought. And was just a great guy, to boot, was a wonderful guy to have around -that I quickly changed my mind about killing off this character and I told the story. I took him aside one day and I said, hey guess what Aaron? I was going to kill you off at the end of the season but now I'm not because youre so good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIGAN: But he - kind of throw him for a loop a little.

BIANCULLI: The most surprising thing of season two to me was a moment where we watch Walter White, the Bryan Cranston character, actually allow the girlfriend of Jesse to die, basically by choking on her own vomit. And they're - Jesse and his girlfriend - are both taking heroin at the time and Walter White stumbles in on them. And he could, as I interpret it, have saved her merely by turning her over on her side. But instead, because it was convenient to him and she was about to out him as a drug dealer, let her expire. And that was shocking - it was shocking because as a viewer, I was rooting for him to get away with it once I realized that was his intention. It was very much like watching "The Sopranos" and rooting for Tony, and then realizing, oh, wait a minute. He's doing something really despicable here.

Mr. GILLIGAN: Yeah. That was the one moment last season where AMC called me up when they got the - actually, there's a step before the script stage where we outline each episode. In our case, we outline it very -in great detail. We write about a 14, 15-page outline sometimes and we do it primarily to give it to the crew in advance so they have enough prep time. But at that stage, Sony and AMC, you know, read what we have thus far and they know our intentions at that point in pretty great detail. And at that point, they did indeed get me on the phone and they just said, are you sure you want to go here? You realize when you open this door, when you have Walt step through this door he's never going to be the same after this and people are going to remember this moment?

And I said, yeah, yeah, we want to remember the moment. They said, no, but what if it - you take the character some place bad in relationship to the viewers and you can't return? You know, once you do this you can't ever return from it. And we talked about it for a long time. And to be honest, the original version - the original version I had in my head was that he actually shoots her up with a little extra dose of heroin, so he's a little more active in his, you know, culpability concerning her death. But...

BIANCULLI: That's where I draw the line. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIGAN: Yeah, it was - I am glad I got talked out of that because, you know, in the heat of the moment you probably have a tendency to want to take things a little too far. I know I did and I'm glad I got talked out of that.

BIANCULLI: Vince Gilligan, creator of "Breaking Bad," the AMC drama series about to begin its third season. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with TV writer-producer Vince Gilligan, creator of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," which is just about to begin its third season.

I understand that you came to cast Bryan Cranston as the lead in your show because of a performance that he gave on one of your previous shows when you were a producer on "The X-Files."

Mr. GILLIGAN: Yes, that is correct.

BIANCULLI: And so, what I'd like to do is play a fast clip from that and have you sort of deconstruct it and tell me what was impressive about his performance to you. Is that fair?

Mr. GILLIGAN: Absolutely. Sounds good.

BIANCULLI: Okay. Bryan Cranston plays a man named Crump, a paranoid farmer but an understandably paranoid one with a killer headache whose wife, who also had the same sort of headache, recently died when her head suddenly exploded. In this scene, Crump has forced Fox Mulder, played by David Duchovny, to drive him and drive fast while Crump sits in the back seat with a gun pointed at Mulder's head. Crump is fighting the pain and telling the story of trying to rush his wife to the hospital. If you think about it, it's sort of like the movie "Speed" except it's the head that's going to explode, not the bus.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The X-Files")

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) She starts screaming. I didnt know what the hell to do. I just - I got her in the truck and took her to the hospital. But then it seemed like the faster we went, the better she'd do. But, just as soon as Id try to slow down or stop...

Mr. DAVID DUCHOVNY (Actor): (as Fox Mulder) I'm sorry about your wife.

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) Sure you are. You and the rest of your Jew FBI.

Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) Crump, I...

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) You think I dont know, huh? You think I'm just some ignorant puddknocker(ph) dont you? I get it, man. I see what this is. I am not sick and I do not have the flu. Thinking we were just some kind of dumb guinea pigs.

Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) You think the government did this to you?

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) Oh, hell yeah. Who else? You see it all the time on the TV. Theyre dropping Agent Orange. Theyre putting radiation in little retarded kid's gonads. Yeah, sons of bitches, sneaking around my woods at night. I seen you. You think I dont know?

Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) Well, on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy, I just need to inform you that we're almost out of gas.

BIANCULLI: Now, what was it about Bryan Cranston, who most viewers will know as the dad in "Malcolm in the Middle," so, you know, he's a sitcom actor in one sense, and yet, he is so much more. What was it about him that stood out to you?

Mr. GILLIGAN: Well, I was fortunate enough to not know who Bryan Cranston was when he came in and read for us back for that episode of "The X-Files." And I say that ironically somewhat. But this was about 18 months before "Malcolm in the Middle" went on the air. And we were having a hard time casting that part for that role of Mr. Crump there because what we needed - what we knew we needed was a great actor who could be scary and very intense and deliver a lot of really horrible, nasty, hateful lines like the ones you just heard.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILLIGAN: And yet, as nasty as he is, nonetheless, you want to feel bad for him when he expires at the end of the episode. And we knew we needed an actor who could pull all of that off. It wasnt just a matter of wonderful acting, it was a little more to it as well. And our casting director on "The X-Files" brought in Bryan Cranston to read at the end of a long several days worth of auditions. Wed read a lot of very wonderful actors who had the acting chops but who somehow there they were missing that extra little something that made them very, you know, that made them - that made you want to root for them, I guess is the best way to put it.

And Bryan walked in on the last day of our auditions and just nailed it, just crushed it and was just so wonderful, just was the guy right from the moment he sat down and started reading the lines. And I looked at the other producers with this sort of gleeful look and whispered OTW to them, which is our slang for off to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIGAN: Which is what you say or what you whisper to each other when you know that, you know, the guy is being hired right in the room, whether at that moment he knows it or not. About 18 months later, when "Malcolm in the Middle" came on, I remember watching the pilot and realizing it was the same guy. And Bryan, by the way, is a true chameleon of an actor in my opinion.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILLIGAN: This is a guy, he played Buzz Aldrin in "From the Earth to the Moon." He played the one-armed officer in "Saving Private Ryan" who sends Tom Hanks and his men on their mission. He was the dentist on "Seinfeld."

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILLIGAN: That converts to Judaism for the jokes. You know, he's a guy in everything that he does, he looks like a different person. You often - it takes you a while to realize from one project to another that youre looking at the same guy. I mean, he really immerses himself in a role.

BIANCULLI: We're speaking with TV writer-producer Vince Gilligan, creator of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," which is just starting its third season. Among the themes of "Breaking Bad," I would guess, among the major themes are that families are very complicated and actions having consequences is my favorite thing about "Breaking Bad" because at the end of each hour I expect, okay, youve gone there, he's done that, he's killed a person or he's done this other thing and then we'll forget about it next week. We never forget about it next week. And even this new third season begins only one week after the shocking end to last season. It's so novelistic and so linear. Is that easy to write? Is that harder to write?

Mr. GILLIGAN: It is very hard to write but very challenging and very satisfying. And I'm so glad that you like the - that is one of my favorite things about the show as well, and is something we work very hard toward, the idea that actions have consequences. We never really let things drop on our show.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILLIGAN: And yes, indeed, when Walt kills someone, it sticks with him. And when Walt lies to someone, that lie continues to exist and becomes kind of a little landmine that will eventually blow up under his feet perhaps, you know, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 episodes later. As a television viewer my whole life, that was something that always struck me as a little false about a lot of television shows, that actions sort of exist in a vacuum and, of course, you know, we know in real life that we carry around our actions, our actions in our life sort of like luggage. You know, they stick with us forever, good and bad. And, you know, back to the television not typically being like that, that's another issue about what "Breaking Bad" is trying to be versus other shows.

Television, as a medium, is all about protecting the franchise. In other words, when youre watching "MASH," which is a show I've seen every episode of. You know, I loved "MASH" but "MASH" is a show in which, you know, a two-and-a-half-year police action in Korea gets stretched into 12 years - 11 years long - 11 seasons.

A show - a typical TV show is all about protecting the franchise. It's all about stretching it out for as long as you could stretch it out and its all about taking the characters in any given hour as far as you can take them but then resetting them more or less back to zero, so that at the beginning of the next week they're still the character you know and love. The character Mulder or Archie Bunker or whoever that you tune in, you saw go through some changes last week, he's still - he or she is still that person fundamentally without much change involved that youve been tuning into for years on end.

Because it exists so much in that state, currently television does, I wanted to do something different with "Breaking Bad" and make it indeed a story of a character going from A to Z. But this really wants to be -this show "Breaking Bad" - wants to be a show truly about transformation, where the character you tuned into to watch in the first episode is a guy you would not even recognize come the end of the entire season. You wouldnt even realize youre looking at the same guy.

BIANCULLI: Well, Vince Gilligan, thanks for making a great TV series. It's an awful lot of fun to watch. And also, thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. GILLIGAN: Thank you so much, David. Appreciate it.

GROSS: Vince Gilligan is the creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad," which begins its third season March 21st. Season two comes out on DVD next week. Gilligan spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli, who writes tvworthwatching.com and is the author of the book "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Comedy Hour."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can find us on Twitter and Facebook @nprfreshair.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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