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'Breaking Bad': Vince Gilligan On Meth And Morals

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan received a B.F.A. in film production from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. To make his meth-making drama realistic, Gilligan seeks guidance from chemists and former drug dealers. (AMC)

The AMC drama Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who has fallen into some financial trouble. When White learns he has terminal lung cancer, something inside him snaps, and he decides to use his familiarity with lab equipment to provide for his medical expenses as well as his family's future: He teams up with a former student, played by Aaron Paul, and starts dealing crystal meth.

Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, who previously worked as a producer and writer on The X-Files. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he isn't quite sure where the idea for his critically acclaimed show came from.

"I suspect it had something to do with the fact that when I came up with the idea for Breaking Bad, I was about to turn 40 years old, and perhaps I was thinking in terms of an impending midlife crisis," he says. "To that end, I think Walter White, in the early seasons, is a man who is suffering from perhaps the world's worst midlife crisis."

Because Walter's midlife crisis involves cooking and distributing meth, Gilligan had to learn a lot about chemistry — and the drug trade — to convincingly write the show's dialogue.

"[Because] Walter White was talking to his students, I was able to dumb down certain moments of description and dialogue in the early episodes which held me until we had some help from some honest-to-god chemists," says Gilligan. "We have a [chemist] named Dr. Donna Nelson at the University of Oklahoma who is very helpful to us and vets our scripts to make sure our chemistry dialogue is accurate and up to date. We also have a chemist with the Drug Enforcement Association based out of Dallas who has just been hugely helpful to us."

But there's no firsthand knowledge of meth addictions on set, says Gilligan. For that, he turned to books written by recovering addicts and lunch meetings with former drug dealers.

"My writers and I took a former drug dealer to lunch and picked his brain for a couple of hours," says Gilligan. "I think he was moving large quantities of marijuana — not methamphetamine — but a lot of the same general philosophies apply to both in the sense of: How do you stay one step ahead of the police? How do you launder large quantities of cash? So things such as that, we seek professional help — just as we do with the chemistry."

The larger story in Breaking Bad is about more than just drugs, says Gilligan. It's about a man who finds himself entering a life of crime without any idea of how that life works. Or, as Gilligan wrote in his pitch to AMC: "You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface."

Now that Walt's been turned from a mild-manned high school teacher into a hardened criminal, Gilligan says some surprises are in store for the series' final season as the writers come up with even darker scenarios for Walt.

"There will be 16 more episodes in Season 5. How much darker can Walt get? Is his journey complete — his journey along that arc from good guy to bad guy? At this point, it's a tricky thing to answer," he says. "Probably a casual viewer to the show might think [the show is] about morality or amorality. I suppose that there are things that Walt does probably need to atone for — and perhaps he will, when it's all said and done."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: We've been talking about the AMC series "Breaking Bad." My guest, Vince Gilligan, is the creator and executive producer of the series. He formerly worked on The "X-Files" as a writer and co-executive producer. In "Breaking Bad," Bryan Cranston stars as Walter White, a chemistry teacher who uses his expertise to cook crystal meth because he needs the money after he's diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman, Walt's former failing student who becomes Walt's assistant cook. Jesse had already been a small-time meth cook and dealer.

Now in Season Four, they're both working for a drug lord. Here's another scene from Season One, shortly after Walt and Jesse have started working together. Jesse doesn't yet know why his former teacher is cooking meth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "BREAKING BAD")

AARON PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Tell me why you're doing this, seriously.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walt White) Why do you do it?

PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Money, mainly.

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) There you go.

PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Nah. Come on. Man, some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, all of a sudden at age what, 60, he's going to break bad?

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) I'm 50.

PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) It's weird is all, OK? It doesn't compute. Listen, if you've gone crazy or something. I mean if you've gone crazy or depressed, I'm just saying, that's something I need to know about, OK? I mean that affects me.

GROSS: Well, Vince Gilligan, welcome to FRESH AIR. In this scene we just heard, Jesse asks the question that you, the creator of the show, had to answer, which is: Why would a straight-laced chemistry teacher start cooking meth? How did you come up with the storyline of a chemistry teacher who faced with probably terminal cancer starts cooking meth to support his family, to have money for them when he dies and to cover his own medical expenses?

VINCE GILLIGAN: Well, thank you for having me. I'm not sure where the idea for the show came from. I remember the exact moment in which the idea hit me, but as to where the idea came from, I'm not quite sure. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I was - when I came up with the idea for "Breaking Bad," I was about to turn 40 years old, and perhaps I was thinking in terms of, you know, an impending midlife crisis. And to that end, I think Walter White, at least in the early seasons of "Breaking Bad," is a man who is suffering from perhaps the world's worst midlife crisis.

And although I try to be accurate, I suppose of the first episode, he finds out it's more of an end-of-life crisis than a midlife crisis. But maybe that's what was inspiring me.

GROSS: Well, you know, the implication in "Breaking Bad" is that if you got a medical death sentence that you would have the potential of totally changing your life and your personality and doing things you never would have dreamed of doing before. Have you asked yourself that question, whether if you got a diagnosis like Walt gets at the beginning of lung cancer, if you would become a different person?

GILLIGAN: I have asked myself that question a lot. And I certainly would hope, and I assume I would not do anything illegal like Walt does. But...

GROSS: Heck no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLIGAN: Heck no. But, you know, there is a time honored it's a time honored story. In fact, in some sense the Kurosawa movie "Ikiru," if I'm pronouncing that right, and my apologies to Japanese-speaking listeners if I'm butchering it. But there's a wonderful Kurosawa movie from the 50s in which a man, a mid-level, very much a Walter White type or rather Walter White, I suppose, inspired by this man. This man is very much a mid-level corporate guy who finds out he's dying of cancer. And in the last months of his life what he chooses to do is a very good thing, it's to build is playground, a small playground in Tokyo for the children in his neighborhood.

VINCE GILLIAN: And this haunting ending of this movie is this man swinging on a swing set in this playground that he's managed to build after a surprisingly hard go of it. And the snow is coming down and he singing a Japanese children's song, and it's just haunting and beautiful. And, of course, "Breaking Bad" is anything but that. It's the flip side of that. It's a man doing terrible things once he is freed by this knowledge that he does not have long for this world.

But I think what the two stories to share in a sense is the idea that if we found out the exact expiration date on our lives if we found out when we were going to be checking out, would that free us up to do bold and courageous things, either good or bad things, hopefully good things, then I think there's a lot of that involved in "Breaking Bad."

GROSS: Early in the series Walter, the chemistry teacher, and Jesse, the meth head, have to kill a couple of meth distributors who have been trying to kill them. And one of these guys is still alive after the attacks. So they take into Jesse's basement, chain him up, and then have to figure out what to do with him. And Walt is torn between his instincts of wanting to help this, like, suffering man who was like wounded and maybe dying and hungry and thirsty - he's torn between wanting to help and wanting to kill him. Killing is not in Walt's nature - at least not yet - and he makes a list of reasons why he should let this man live and reasons why he should kill him. And I want to read that list.

Under let him live, he writes: It's the moral thing to do. Won't be able to live with yourself. He may listen to reason. Murder is wrong! Explanation point. Judeo-Christian principles. You're not a murderer.

And then under reasons to kill him, there's only one reason: He'll kill your entire family if he let him go. And so, Walt kills him. But I love the idea of Walt being such like a reasonable man, such a, kind of, studious man, that he'd make a list. Were you in on writing that scene?

GILLIAN: Oh yeah, no I wrote the episode. Yeah. I was...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLIAN: That was a fun list to make up. And that was the one I particularly liked was Judeo-Christian principles, (unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So why - did you see Walt is like here's the kind of man who even faced with like this man who he has to kill in the basement, he's going to make a list?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLIAN: He is the, to me that is the heart of the show. This is a man, this is - it's very much a fish out of water story. And unlike say, a Tony Soprano, was a character, a man who was born into a life of crime. "The Sopranos" is by the way, a great inspiration and a wonderful - goes without saying, a wonderful television show. But where we obviously steer a different path is that for a TV show like "The Sopranos," those are people born into a life of crime and then Walter White is a man, on the other hand, who makes this active decision. He makes the decision to become a criminal - to become a villain.

And as one might expect, when someone embarks upon a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of behaving, there are stutter steps and there are mistakes made. And a lot of those early episodes, in particular, involve Walt bringing his old world and the way he would make decisions and the way he would come to conclusions in a scientific fashion, you know, from his old life, bringing those ways of thinking in those ways of behaving into this new life. And, of course, that leads to moments of awkwardness and comedy.

GROSS: So in the first season, Walt is really not a killer but he's kind of forced to kill or else be killed. But as time goes on, he, kind of, becomes a killer. He kills again. He orders killings. I mean he becomes a really bad man.

GILLIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I want to play another clip. In this scene his wife, Skyler, who is played by Anna Gunn, she knows that he's cooking meth and that he makes a lot of money, although she has no idea yet quite how much money. And she knows he's in danger and she's thinks - she's trying to convince him he should go to the police and explain that he's a good man. He got into the meth business because he was dying, the money for his family, he meant well, he's not really a bad guy. And this is the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TV SERIES, "BREAKING BAD")

ANNA GUNN: (as Skyler White) I said it before, if you are in danger, we go to the police.

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) No. No. I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (as Skyler White) I do not say that lightly. I know what it can do to this family. But if it's the only real choice we have, if it's either that or you getting shot when you open your front door...

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (as Skyler White) You're not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head. That's what we tell them. That's the truth.

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) No it's not the truth.

GUNN: (as Skyler White) Of course, it is. A schoolteacher, cancer, desperate for money...

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) OK. We are done here.

GUNN: (as Skyler White) Roped into working for - unable to even quit. You've told me that yourself, Walt. Jesus, what was I thinking? Walt, please, let's both of us stop, trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger.

CRANSTON: (as Walt White) Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the Nasdaq goes belly up, disappears, it ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.

GROSS: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: A very, very chilling scene. And the best example of how Walt's changed. Although, Walt is a little bit delusional because he's in great danger. He's not only the one who knocks, he's the one who is in danger of getting knocked off.

GILLIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: But you've said in the past that you see "Breaking Bad" as an experiment to see if you can take a Mr. Chips teacher kind of character and turn him into Scarface. Done. I mean, you know, Walt has really become a bad man. He's a killer. Once you accomplish that feat of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, did you have to figure out what next? Now what do I do?

GILLIAN: That's a very good question and we have 16 more episodes in season five in which to discover that. But the show very much was something of an experiment, and I thought it might be fun or interesting to try to play with the idea of a character who, you know, a more dynamic interpretation of that, in which a character not only changes throughout the lifetime of the series, but that is sort of the desired point of the series that the character starts off as a protagonist and gradually becomes the antagonist.

I guess, part of the answer to your question is how much darker can Walt get? Is his journey complete as of this point - his journey on that arc of from good guy too bad guy? It's a tricky thing to answer.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vince Gilligan. He is the creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad," and he's also written and directed episodes. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vince Gilligan, the creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad." In a New York Times article about you, you were quoted as saying that you found atheism just as hard to get your head around as fundamental Christianity. And you said, because there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That's the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn't I go rob a bank, especially if I'm smart enough to get away with it? What's stopping me? That could be Walt talking, and nothing is stopping Walt right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILLIAN: Yeah.

GROSS: He's doing all kinds of bad things. But if you think that you need God to stop you from doing something like robbing a bank, and if God is no longer in your life, what's stopping you?

GILLIAN: Yeah. I mean I'm pretty much, I suppose, I was raised Catholic, I'm pretty much at this point, agnostic. I have no lock on the truth. I have, I don't feel like any of us do and I - when it comes to, you know, questions of spirituality I just, I'd like to believe that there is there's more than just us in this universe. I can't prove it to be true. I don't know that it's true, but I'd like to believe it because the alternative is that all we're left with, alternatively, is that each man and woman, to they're all philosophies and their own code of ethics, and I don't see that there would be, in that kind of the universe, any kind of unifying reason to be good.

I'm not saying that, if suddenly it was proven, to everyone's satisfaction, that there was no God, there was no ultimate point to it all. I don't think suddenly everyone would start robbing banks, nor should they, God knows. But just one of those things you find yourself wondering at three in the morning when you're lying awake and unable to sleep, you know, what's the point to it all? And it's funny. My girlfriend of 20 years has a great line that I always quote. She says I can stand the thought that there's no heaven. But I don't know that I can't stand the thought that there's no hell, because, you know, where is Hitler then? You know, where is Pol Pot? There's got to be some kind of a payback.

I'm not saying there is. I don't think she is either, but we tend to want to believe that there is. I've got to believe that there's some kind of karma, there's some kind of payback, there's some kind of - I've got to believe the wheel turns for everybody who does, you know, truly horrible deeds. I've got to believe some cosmic wheel of justice on some huge and subtle and intricate level, turns and... It's complicated.

GROSS: Well, let me just stop you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: There's this sense of like this karmic wheel turning. Is that a clue, do you think, about how "Breaking Bad" is going to end? Because if people need to be punished, there's a lot of people in the series who need punishment.

GILLIAN: And yes, Walter White, probably first amongst them. It's interesting. A probably a casual viewer to the show might think that it's a show about immorality or amorality, and I suppose in a sense it's not. The things that Walt does probably, he does need to atone for, and then perhaps he will when it's all said and done.

GROSS: Okay. I'll accept that as maybe a clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, I realize you have no idea where it's going yet, so I won't accept it is too much of a clue.

GILLIAN: Well, it's just sort of like with life. I have my desires for, yet it doesn't mean that we'll necessarily be able to get there.

GROSS: Well, Vince Gilligan, thank you so much for talking with us.

GILLIAN: Thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Vince Gilligan is the creator and executive producer of "Breaking Bad." You can hear an interview that the series' star Bryan Cranston recorded with our TV critic David Bianculli, on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

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