'Breaking Bad' Creator Vince Gilligan Reflects On Meth And Morals

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 1:29 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

Now let's hear from Vince Gilligan, the writer and director of "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," and its star, Aaron Paul. First, Vince Gilligan He's the creator and executive producer of "Breaking Bad," the series on which "El Camino" is based. Gilligan formerly worked on "The X-Files" as a writer and co-executive producer and went on to create, with Peter Gould, a kind of "Breaking Bad" prequel series called "Better Call Saul," which currently is between seasons on AMC. Terry Gross spoke to Vince Gilligan in 2011 during Season 4 of "Breaking Bad." In that series, Bryan Cranston starred 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 co-stars as Jesse Pinkman, Walt's former failing student who becomes Walt's assistant cook. Jesse already had been a small-time meth cook and dealer.

Here's a scene from Season 1, shortly after Walt and Jesse have started working together. Jesse doesn't yet know why his former teacher is cooking meth.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Tell me why you're doing this. Seriously.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Why do you do it?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Money, mainly.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) There you go.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) No, come on. Man, some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, all of a sudden at age, what - 60? - he's just going to break bad.

CRANSTON: (As Walter 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Well, Vince Gilligan, welcome to FRESH AIR. In the scene we just heard, Jesse asked the question that you, the creator the show, had to answer, which is, why would a straight-laced chemistry teacher start cooking meth? How did you come up with a storyline of the 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's suffering from, perhaps, the world's worst midlife crisis. And although - actually, to be accurate, I suppose, in 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. I certainly would hope - and I assume I would not do anything illegal like Walt does. But...

GROSS: Heck, no (laughter).

GILLIGAN: ...It's, you know - heck, no (laughter). There's a - but, you know, there's a time-honored - it's a time-honored story, in fact. And 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 - 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 a playground, a small playground in Tokyo for the children in his neighborhood. 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's 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 share, in a sense, is the idea that, if we find 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. And I think there's a lot of that involved in "Breaking Bad."

GROSS: Early in the series, Walt, 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 attack. So they take him to 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's, like, wounded and maybe dying and hungry and thirsty. He's torn between wanting to help him 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 - exclamation point - Judeo-Christian principles. You are not a murderer. Then under reasons to kill him, there's only one reason. He'll kill your entire family if you 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?

GILLIGAN: Oh, yeah. No, I wrote that episode. Yeah. I was (laughter) - that was a fun list to make up. That was - the one I particularly liked was Judeo-Christian principles.

(LAUGHTER)

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

GILLIGAN: (Laughter) He is that - 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, Tony Soprano, who was a character - a man who was born into a life of crime - "The Sopranos," 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 Walter White is a man, on the other hand, who makes this active decision, who 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 and those ways of behaving into this new life. And, of course, that leads to moments of awkwardness and comedy.

GROSS: Vince Gilligan speaking to Terry Gross in 2011 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM WHITE'S "STATIC ON THE RADIO")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Vince Gilligan, creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad." He's the writer and director of "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie," which premieres today on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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. And I want to play another clip.

In this scene, his wife Skyler, who's 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 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. He needed money for his family. He meant well. He's not really a bad guy. And this is the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) I've said it before. If you are in danger, we go to the police.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Oh, no. I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) I do not say that lightly. I know what it could 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 Walter 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, and that's the truth.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) It's not the truth.

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

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) OK. We're done here.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) ...Roped into working for - unable to even quit. You 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 Walter 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. 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: Very, very chilling scene, and the best example of how Walt's changed. Although Walt is a little delusional because he is in great danger. He's not only the one who knocks. He's the one who's in danger of getting knocked off.

GILLIGAN: Yes.

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?

GILLIGAN: That's a very good question. And we have 16 more episodes in Season 5 in which to discover that. But this 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. 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 to bad guy? So it's a tricky thing to answer.

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

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

BIANCULLI: Vince Gilligan, creator of "Breaking Bad," speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. His movie sequel to "Breaking Bad" called "El Camino" premieres today on Netflix. After a break, we'll hear from Aaron Paul, the star of "El Camino." He'll talk about his work on "Breaking Bad." Terry Gross spoke to him in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Can I just say something about the voice that you do as Jesse?

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: There's something about the voice that Jesse always seems to be on the verge of, like, complaining or whining or feeling put upon. It's like he's still a teenager. You know what I mean? It's like still his parents are nagging him or his teacher's nagging him. That's his kind of, like, posture in the world a lot of the time.

PAUL: Right, yeah. It's true.

GROSS: Is that what you've been trying for vocally?

PAUL: Yeah. No, I mean, I just - I see Jesse as this kid that still hasn't found his footing, you know. And I love that he, you know, he's - he still calls Walter White Mr. White.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's a great - yeah.

PAUL: He's just lost in his own world.

BIANCULLI: That's coming up after a short break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS CUATES DE SINALOA'S "NEGRO Y AZUL: THE BALLAD OF HEISENBERG (EN VIVO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.