Vince Gilligan Talks Breaking Bad and His Literary Roots, at the Central Library
Edelman PR Vince Gilligan, left, with moderator Karen Herman
The line to get in to the Central Library on a Friday night wrapped around the courtyard and down 5th Street. Some had gotten there an hour early to secure their spots at the front of the line to see Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in a Q&A hosted by the Library Foundation. Books might not have have drawn this kind of excitable crowd. Yet in the substance of the Q&A, surprisingly, books and libraries took a front seat.
The first question posed by moderator Karen Herman, vice president of the Television Academy Foundation's Archive of American Television, was about Gilligan's lifelong relationship to books. His mother had taught reading in Farmville, Virginia and, as young children, he and his brother spent their evenings in the library waiting for her to finish work. He remembered fondly the librarian that watched them, and even remembered her name: Cecil Kid, "a wonderful woman." If they weren't running up and down the aisles of the library, they were sitting amongst stacks of books in their grandfather's used bookstore in Richmond, Virginia.
Literary fans of Breaking Bad have geeked out on the internet about the show's many literary references, including Franz Kafka, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walt Whitman (the main character's name is Walter White, and "Leaves of Grass" features prominently in the series). The audience -- comprised entirely of members of the Library Foundation and Television Academy Foundation as well as some donors -- seemed to enjoy hearing Gilligan speak of his closeness to books.
What really got them excited, though, was hearing Gilligan explain the writing process, and reveal that he initially hadn't outlined the series, beyond the first few episodes. In the writer's room, he seldom knew where the story was going, and the only hard-lined rule to which the writers kept referring back was "We're going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface."
Remembering this line allowed them to stay true to Walt's character, as they continually examined his wants, his hopes, his needs and his fears. For the character of Walt to be believable, the writers had to be as honest as they could about who he was. "Which is funny," Gilligan said, "because Walt is the least honest person on the show. He lies to everyone, all the time, and maybe most to himself."
Aside from Walt's character, though, he knew very little about the show's outline at the start and, along with the other writers in the room, was discovering it along the way. Questions would arise, and sometimes he'd look back to the first three minutes of a previous episode (called the teaser) to find the answer there. (Note: Some spoilers follow.) For example, in the beginning of the first episode of season 5, titled Live Free or Die, Walt is given the keys to a car that has an M60 machine gun and ammunition in the trunk. Gilligan knew this M60 would have to come back -- due to that old rule where if you show a gun in the first act, it has to go off later -- but he had no idea how it would be used, or when. As they approached the final episodes, they looked back at the teaser for Live Free or Die, and realized that Walt would have to use this gun in a final show-down. Should he walk in and mow down the gang of white supremacists, Scarface style?
The writers considered every possible iteration of Walt's employment of the M60, but none involving him shooting it himself seemed authentic to his character. Finally, they determined that he would mount it to a remotely-operated rig in the trunk of his car, paying homage to Walt's outsmarting, gear-head ways. This crucial, bloody deus ex machina moment that references the first scene of the season, 15 episodes prior, was not pre-planned; the writers figured it out as wrote the finale. When the mostly older, reserved foundation member audience heard this bit of trivia, they gasped and giggled with delight, like utter fanboys.
At the reception in the courtyard afterward, the words inscribed into the iron fence -- philosophy, sciences, languages, literatures -- hovered overhead as everyone posed for smartphone pictures with their "Walteritas" -- margaritas garnished with crushed blue rock candy. Under the canopy of the historic library, two cultures had successfully merged: book nerds had become television geeks.
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