USC calls on the creator of Saul, Breaking Bad

Vince Gilligan, who began his career on The X-Files, reveals how he found his way in TV.

February 24, 2016 Allison Engel

A shy, mild-mannered boy growing up in the Mayberry-like town of Farmville, Va., doesn’t sound like the background of the creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, two television shows that explore the dark recesses of human behavior, but that indeed describes the early life of their creator Vince Gilligan.

When he was 10, Star Wars entered the film universe and from that point on, he knew he wanted to make movies.

“I was a kid who didn’t go to prom,” he said. “I was home making monster masks and writing scripts.”

Gilligan recently shared his creative history with USC School of Dramatic Arts students and others during an evening at Bing Theatre. Co-sponsored by the USC Program Board, it was one in a series of Spotlight@SDA programs organized and moderated by Dramatic Arts Interim Dean David Bridel.

Good fortune

Gilligan told the packed house that he spent six years writing film scripts, and when he finally one got produced, Wilder Napalm, it bombed.

“It felt like a crushing defeat, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened,” Gilligan said.

After he lost his Writers Guild insurance and things were looking bleak, his agent mentioned he was related to Chris Carter, the creator of the hit series The X-Files. Gilligan, a fan of the show, asked to meet him.

“It was falling ass backward into good luck,” he recounted. “I was not nervous, not full of anxiety, because I really just wanted to shake his hand,” Gilligan said.

Gilligan did bring a story idea to pitch, and the regulars in The X-Files writers’ room fleshed it out, turning it into something usable. He left the room with a freelance episode to write, which morphed into a long-term job as a writer for the series, which had a notorious reputation for being sink or swim for writers.

X marks the spot

The deadlines were tight and many writers didn’t make it past the 13-week probationary period. Gilligan was so convinced that he wouldn’t stay on the show that he left food in his house when he left Virginia to join the production.

Although Gilligan had gone to New York University’s film school, “truly the best film school I went to was working seven years on The X-Files,” he said. “A love of cinema was exhibited by all the people on the show. It felt like making one movie a week.”

On The X-Files, “I would live and breathe those characters. I could hear them talking in my head like I was a court stenographer and just typing down what they’re saying.”

When the show had been off the air for two years, Gilligan was casting about for another writing idea when he read a newspaper article about a man who built a meth lab in an RV and drove around.

Gilligan immediately thought, “What would it take for me to do that in my life? The most boring, plain vanilla guy doing the most reprehensible thing.”

Thus the character of Walter White was born.

“I was gonna take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”

Gilligan treated Breaking Bad as a short-term experiment, thinking that the series lasting two years would be good, but that it couldn’t possibly extend for more than three.

“I had no idea how big this would get,” he admitted. “It was courage born of naiveté. I’ll never again have that.”

Dealing with grim topics such as cancer, meth and death in Breaking Bad, “I put in as much humor as we could legitimately do.” Similarly, he gravitated toward casting actors, such as Bryan Cranston and Bob Odenkirk, who were known for comedy.

“If you can be funny, you can be dramatic,” Gilligan said. “I have a little bias toward comic actors.”

Cranston, he said, “is a hilarious guy.” (Told that Cranston had occupied the same seat a week earlier in Bing Theatre for another Spotlight@SDA event, Gilligan worried aloud whether he could be as witty.)

Cranston is a practical joker and when he learned that Aaron Paul’s Breaking Bad character, Jesse Pinkman, had originally been scheduled to be killed off at the end of season one, he tormented Paul weekly by implying that Jesse’s demise was at hand. Cranston would arrange to always get the script first and then he’d hold it up and tell Paul, ‘Oh, buddy, I’m sorry. But it’s a great way to go out.’

“Aaron always fell for it,” Gilligan recalled.