on dreaming up Walter White and "Breaking Bad", following a "no-fools" guideline when writing the show, advice from Stephen King, and successful series finales.
Published in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE SONNTAGSZEITUNG
Mr. Gilligan, you created a fascinating, multi-layered television character with Walter White from “Breaking Bad”. Where did this guy originate?
Unfortunately, I don't know where my ideas come from, even if that would be very helpful. But I can tell you how I got the idea for "Breaking Bad": In 2004 I called my friend Thomas Schnauz, with whom I went to film school in New York in 2004. We both wrote for "X-Files", and this show had ended in 2002. While we were wondering what to do next, he told me about a newspaper article about a meth lab, and we joked that maybe if we put such a lab in an RV we could drive around the country and stay afloat. Suddenly this flash of inspiration came to me - a law-abiding citizen who suddenly decides to become a criminal. This figure became Walter White.
A man who is facing a serious midlife crisis at fifty ...
... maybe more like an end-of-life crisis – he has been diagnosed with lung cancer. When this idea came to me I was about to turn forty and I was asking myself: "Was this it?" After all, I didn't know much else than writing stories for television. That's probably why I was interested in this guy.
Walter White morphs from a dutiful, if slightly frustrated chemistry teacher into a badass methamphetamine baron in order to be able to leave his pregnant wife and disabled son more than his meager teacher´s pension. Did you know from the start what dark worlds you would let this guy descend into?
I had a Jekyll-and-Hyde story in mind, but do I confess: In the beginning I was very worried that this character would get too dark for me, that the viewers would lose their sympathy for the man and turn away. But during the third season, I woke up one morning without this worry because I realized what actor Bryan Cranston was doing here - no matter how far we pushed Walt into the dark, Bryan plays him as a person you still want to sympathize with. That gave us the freedom to explore an ever darker character and make the story as abysmal as possible.
Your cameraman Michael Slovis contributed immensely to this series – thanks to his photography, the series looks like grand cinema.
I always wanted to do this series with a cinematic look. It shouldn't look like television, but like the best film noir, the best western that could be found. Slovis created a visual style here that is as important to the story as any dialogue I could have written. “Breaking Bad” draws a tremendous amount of drama from the light that Slovis uses. He took the baton from Academy Award winner John Toll, who shot our pilot episode, in a very unique way.
The elements that you borrow from film noir and the western underscore a story that is a redemption tale in reverse - not your standard television fare.
That's exactly how I introduced it to people at Studio Sony and AMC: Here we have Mr. Chips, and we are going to transform him into Scarface. I had no uplifting story of salvation in mind, but rather a character study. That was our guideline, and it allowed us some room to maneuver.
Stephen King mentions in his guide "On Writing" that his characters often develop their own lives. Did this happen with Walter White?
I have read King's book several times, it has helped me a lot in writing, and I consider it indispensable for authors or those who want to become one. And it is actually true that figures develop a life of their own. When that happens, it is one of the greatest joys and deepest fulfillment in writing - a job, by the way, that does not have many joys and fulfillment and, above all, is hard work. At least I feel most days as if might as well hammer nails into my skull. But Walter is a character whose complexity goes far beyond my own skills. In fairness, of course, I have to say that many aspects of this character come from our other authors, especially Bryan Cranston.
You sent Walter White on a hair-raising roller coaster ride, thanks in no small part to a cast that includes some of the most memorable villains on television. How did you design it?
We followed one rule with all our characters: No fools. This applied to both the heroes and the villains - even if most of our characters wear gray hats, not the traditional black and white hats of the Western.
Is it true that kingpin Gus Fring, embodied by Giancarlo Esposito, gave you a headache because he almost stole Walter White´s thunder?
The fourth season was actually a long showdown between Gus and Walt, and we struggled with the fact that Gus was suddenly the smartest man on the show - maybe even smarter than Walt. Now, the worst thing you can do as an author is to make an antagonist an idiot just so that the protagonist can assert himself. We didn't want to make Gus a fool. In the end, his Achilles heel is not an intellectual mistake, but an emotional - this is where the misstep he makes in the chess game with Walt is rooted.
Walt has other opponents as well - his wife Skyler for example, who hates him first, then makes herself his accomplice and finally freezes in fear of him. Skyler experienced a lot of backlash from the fans, and you described this reaction as misogynistic.
That may have taken things too far. But as viewers we invest a lot in Walter, after all he's our protagonist - he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard. And we tend to blame the characters that make life difficult for Walt. Except Gus makes his life much harder than Skyler - but you don't hate Gus, you find him fascinating. I found this to be a strange double standard for female and male characters. I like Skyler, she's doing the right thing when she tells him: Don't cook meth! Don't ruin our family! Don't put us in danger! Even when she becomes Walt's accomplice, she only does so because she's in an untenable situation.
In the end, there seems to be just one serious opponent left - Walt's brother-in-law, DEA-man Hank, who finally realizes that Walt is the mysterious "Heisenberg" whom Hank so grimly pursues. We won´t ask you how the series ends, but can we assume that writing the final stretch was no cakewalk?
For months, eight of us sat in a room and asked ourselves: where is Walter going, what does he want, what is he afraid of? How can we skilfully complete this chess game? I've lost a lot of sleep over these episodes, and my biggest nightmare was waking up a week after the finals aired - or a year, or ten years later - thinking: Oh God, that´s how it should have ended!
David Chase concluded his "Sopranos" in 2007 with a highly controversial blackout, the final meeting of the "Lost" characters in a mystical hereafter beyond 2010 also divided audiences. Is there a series finale that you personally think was particularly successful?
Getting the final of a series right is incredibly difficult. You want to give viewers the completion of a well-proportioned story. I found that "M.A.S.H." had an ideal ending. It was about family of service men and women in the Korean War who crave nothing more than to go home. It was no a surprise when the series ended with the armistice and the return of the characters. Sometimes the most obvious ending is the right one.
The American television broadcaster Fox recently announced that it would continue its 2010 series “24” as a mini series. Can you also imagine an afterlife for Walter White?
Without wanting to reveal too much: We are moving towards a definitive end. I see no reason to artificially bring this story back to life at any time. However, we have the character of lawyer Saul Goodman, and I hope that we will see him in a spinoff of this universe. It is not yet set in stone, but it would be great fun.