Vince Gilligan prepares to unleash the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.”
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“Breaking Bad” creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan.
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Gilligan with “Breaking Bad” stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.
For four and a half seasons, the slow transformation of Albuquerque chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) from mild-mannered family man to ruthless drug kingpin has unfolded on AMC’s TV show “Breaking Bad,” a journey which began when White started cooking crystal meth in a camper van to pay for his chemotherapy. Who dreams up such a concept? Richmond-born Vince Gilligan, 46, is the creator and showrunner behind the Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning drama, and he has just finished filming the final eight episodes, which will air this summer and bring Walter White’s story to a close.
Gilligan, who was raised in Farmville and Chesterfield County, got his big break after his screenplay “Home Fries” was one of the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition winners in 1989. Gilligan landed a job as a regular writer on popular ’90s sci-fi show “The X-Files,” and was executive producer of its short-lived spin-off, “The Lone Gunmen,” before successfully pitching “Breaking Bad” to AMC; the first episode was broadcast in 2008. I spoke to Gilligan via phone from New Mexico shortly after filming of the show’s finale had wrapped.
On the last day of production, we broke out the champagne, hugged, and took photographs. Bryan Cranston got a tiny “Breaking Bad” tattoo on the inside of his finger on his right hand. So the show has marked us, literally and figuratively. He said, “Now you gotta get one,” and I said, “To hell with that!”
I have mixed feelings. I’m very sad that it’s ending, but it’s the right time. Our story has run its course. If we went on past this mark, we would be treading water, creatively. So it’s bittersweet.
Once I realized, in the early days, that [the show] did indeed have fans, I started to feel a great deal of pressure! But the writers and I are the first fans of the show, so we are the folks we are trying to please.
It’s best not to get too much information about what people want. Satisfaction does not mean a happy ending or a sad ending. What’s important is a satisfying ending, and many thousands of man hours have gone into figuring out what that is.
We work hard on making Walt understandable, even if not likeable. So you understand his decissions, even if you don’t agree with them.
The secret to the show is Bryan Cranston. We are blessed with a star who remains relatable and sympathetic, even after doing the most horrendous things. [Walter] is a regular guy who becomes a monster and Bryan, being the actor who plays that part, is our secret weapon, because his humanity leaps out through his eyes and his expressions. He’s just plain likeable, and that manages to keep Walt relatable. We could do the exact same script with a different actor and it might not work.
I try to put little references [to Virginia] in there wherever I can. We had a good one at the end of the third season: Jesse [played by Aaron Paul], gave some bad guys the slip when he let it be known that he had moved to Dillwyn in Buckingham County.
The high school Walt taught at on the show was J.P. Wynne, which was the name of the elementary school I went to in Farmville. It was an excellent school. Unfortunately it’s long gone, but the name lives on in “Breaking Bad.”
I still remember the day I found out I was one of the Governor’s Screenwriting Competition winners like it was yesterday. It launched me on my career path, because one of the University of Virginia judges, [Academy Award-winner] Mark Johnson, became my mentor in the movie business. ... I’ve been very lucky to know him for 24 years. He’s an executive producer on “Breaking Bad” and remains an important person in my life and my career.
I've been thinking a lot about what’s next. I would love to see a “Breaking Bad” spinoff show with Saul Goodman, the lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk. Other than that, I want to direct a movie. That’s an experience I would hate not to have. But mostly I want to get this “Breaking Bad” family back together to do something.
I find myself thinking about Virginia at odd times. I will be out in the desert in New Mexico, which is beautiful, but I’ll think, “I miss how green it is.”