Five and a half years after mild mannered chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) got a cancer diagnosis and began his descent from closeted badass to meth-cooking monster, the TV series everyone is talking about comes to its hotly anticipated conclusion on Sunday. How will Breaking Bad end? Show creator Vince Gilligan, in Vancouver for the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Film and Television Forum, won’t say, of course. But he tells The Globe’s Marsha Lederman he feels his writers and actors have cooked up a winner.
When you were here three years ago, the show was what I would describe as a critical or cult hit. Now it has absolutely exploded. What’s happened, do you think?
That’s a very good question that I still don’t have a great answer for. It has indeed blown up and it’s turned into something that I did not foresee it ever becoming and I’m as puzzled as everybody else. We worked our butts off to make the best show we could make. But most people who make TV shows can make the same statement accurately. We all work our butts off in TV. I think there’s a lot of luck involved here. But if I had to point to any one factor, it starts with the actors, beginning with Bryan Cranston, who was the perfect man for this part. I make my living with my imagination but I don’t have enough imagination to picture anyone else playing Walter White other than Bryan Cranston. I can’t imagine what that would look like.
Over the five seasons was there ever a storyline you wanted to pursue that you didn’t or weren’t able to?
We had little scenes here and there that we had to drop for time, but I can’t think of an entire storyline that we didn’t get to do. We were very blessed with this show in being able to do it in the first place, and then we were pretty much equally blessed in knowing exactly when it would end and having enough heads up time – 16 episodes in fact – before it would come to its conclusion. That knowledge was priceless. My writers and I said to ourselves, “We’ve got essentially 16 hours to wrap this up,” and we started drawing up these big plans on one wall of our writers’ room, trying to figure out how much story we have left and what highlights we wanted to hit, what moments we wanted to create and what questions we wanted to answer. And then we tried to figure out proportionately when those moments would occur. Very few shows have that luxury.
Most TV shows, by their design, are open ended and they perk along for seasons on end and then suddenly one day, in between seasons when they’re on hiatus, the powers-that-be crunch the numbers and say, well, this thing’s not making enough money for us anymore, so let’s just call everybody and tell them that they’re wrapped. And therefore so many TV shows don’t have a proper goodbye for their fans.
When you started writing Breaking Bad, how far into the plot did you have mapped out?
Not very far at all, to be honest. I knew what the structure, the spine of the series was, and we were going to stick to that. And the spine of the series was we were going to take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy and we never varied from that.
I’ve heard you talk about the Mr. Chips to Scarface trajectory of the character. What other pop culture influences were important to the show? I feel like I see The Godfather in there.
You definitely see The Godfather in there because all the writers love The Godfather. Godfather Parts I and II are pretty much two perfect movies. And very often when we were stuck, we would say “Gee, how would Coppola have done it with The Godfather?” or “How did The Godfather deal with a situation like this?” It’s sort of like going back to a sacred text. And then other times we would come up with a scene and we would be very proud of ourselves and then one of us would say, “Wait a minute, this is like Fredo or whatever in The Godfather.” So it’s definitely informed us to a great extent, story-wise and also visually. In purely visual terms, we were inspired by the Sergio Leone westerns quite a bit, particularly Once Upon a Time in the West. We had an office copy of the DVD of that movie that we would keep in Albuquerque, and when new directors would come in, we would sit them down in a spare office and put the disk in and say watch the first 15 minutes of this movie. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat, and if you have seen it, just refresh yourself here because this is the kind of filmmaking we like.
Did you have a formative incident with bells that messed you up? What’s with the bells?
There are a lot of bells?
Oh yeah. The wheelchair bell. And you’re always hearing the dinging of the car with the door being open, that sort of thing.
We just try to make the world of Breaking Bad as real as possible, and most cars ding when you leave the engine running. But yeah, maybe. Bells are interesting. They can mean a lot of things, good and bad. You have wedding bells, you have funeral bells. They can mean happiness or sadness. And I’m no musician, but I love music and I love rhythm and a lot of that we put into the show in terms of editing. We’re very precise with our editing and the rhythms of the storytelling and maybe bells are just a natural extension of that. It’s one of those things I probably have not given much if any thought to, but now that you mention it, I guess we have a lot of bells.
What can you tell us about the last episode?
That it airs on Sunday night and I hope everyone watches it and I hope you enjoy it very much. I obviously can give nothing away. Actually what’s been a wonderful new experience this season is people will come up to me and say, “Oh my God what can you tell me about how it ends?” And I’ll open my mouth to make a joke and in that fraction of a second they’ll throw their hands up and they’ll say, “I don’t want to know.” Unlike in past seasons, I think people don’t really want any spoilers this time around, which I am very gratified by.
What can I say about the last episode? I can say it was very hard fought by my writers and myself. It took us quite a while to come up with it. It caused a lot of sleepless nights. I was afraid we weren’t going to wrap things up in a proper or satisfying manner, but I wound up being kind of optimistic about the whole thing. I feel very good about it and I hope viewers will too. And it came awful quick. These eight weeks of airing just went by like a flash for me. I’m sad that it’s all coming to an end, because it’s been a wonderful ride.