WIRED Interviews HUMANITAS Trustee Vince Gilligan
“Why is this so hard?” Vince Gilligan mutters. No one offers an answer.
It’s February 2014. In a bland conference room on the top floor of an undistinguished office building near Burbank, Gilligan, five writers, and an assistant are “breaking” the first three episodes of Better Call Saul, a prequel-cum-sequel to Breaking Bad, one of the most beloved TV shows of the last 20 years. And right now, they’re stuck.
Gilligan stares at a piece of paper and strokes his goatee with his left hand. He shakes his head in frustration. Work can’t resume until he makes a decision. Finally, after a sigh, he speaks: he’ll have the bacon-potato soup for lunch.
There are seven central components to each workday in the writers’ room, in varying degrees: frustration, silence, proposals, excitement, agreement, levity, distractions, and food. The task is to break an episode into an opening teaser of three to five minutes, and four acts, with a beginning and end to each. When the writers agree on an idea, Gilligan carefully writes a brief description in black Sharpie on an index card, then pins the card to a corkboard. A teaser is seven cards. An act is fourteen cards. Some cards are incomprehensible to anyone new to the room: SAUL GIVES KAZOO WARNING. There’s also a corkboard with names of characters, and a few with pending ideas, currently in limbo.
Creating the universe of a TV series is difficult, but creating a show that’s constrained by the details of a previous series is even more difficult. “We were surprised by how little we knew about Saul,” says Tom Schnauz, who wrote the Emmy-nominated episode “Say My Name” from Breaking Bad‘s final season, and is a co-executive producer on Saul. “We hadn’t ever thought about his backstory.”
For instance, today the writers are trying to figure out how Saul meets Mike Ehrmantraut, the savvy, brusque ex-cop who did most of Saul’s dirty work in Breaking Bad. Every time a writer suggests an idea, the assistant types it into a laptop, so no idea ever goes missing. “At the end of the day, the show is about Saul,” announces Gilligan, a thoughtful, analytic Virginian who disproves the legend that creative people are impetuous and emotional. “If Saul has no part of making Mike who he is, it lessens Saul.” Silence returns to the room.
“What is this episode about?” asks Gordon Smith, who’s been creating long rows of pushpins, separated by color, on the conference table. There’s some talk about movies, TV shows, food, then an idea comes up: Saul and Mike met in a bar. Most of the conversation is between co-showrunners Gilligan and Peter Gould, who created the character of Saul. “That just seems like bullshit,” Gilligan says, shooting down the idea. After lunch, though, another solution appears; everyone likes it, discusses it, refines it.
The day’s yield is seven cards—a full teaser. “That’s probably a better than average day for us,” Gilligan tells me the next day, during an interview in his office. Throughout our conversation, he’s characteristically chatty, incisive, and candid about everything from the pitfalls of spinoffs to why running a show is like an episode of I Love Lucy.
Read the interview with Gilligan at WIRED: http://www.wired.com/2015/02/vince-gilligan-better-call-saul/