“Are we just supposed to pretend we’re in a smoky café in Budapest and just talking about making TV?” asked Beau Willimon, at the start of his conversation with “Breaking Bad’s” Vince Gilligan for Variety. If only! In reality, both showrunners were hard at work on set: Willimon on the next season of “House of Cards,” Gilligan on “Better Call Saul,” the highly anticipated prequel to “Breaking Bad.” Between praise for each other’s shows, they talked about the struggles to maintain their vision and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Variety: Who’s more evil, Frank Underwood or Walter White?
Gilligan: (Laughs.) That’s a tough one! I think Frank Underwood is smoother about it. They’re both pretty ruthless, but you would have to say Frank’s been much more effective using his evil. Because he’s gone all the way to the top. At the end of the day Walter White only made it to be a pretty effective regional meth king.
Willimon: What’s interesting is Walter White started out doing what he was doing for all the right reasons. If there were a more compelling reason to start cooking meth, I don’t know what it is other than you’re facing your own demise and you want to make sure your family is well-looked after. The incredible journey that he takes by the very end — he said he did it for himself because he liked it and because he was good at it. I think that Frank was kind of starting there. And his journey might be in another direction or it might not be, but we enter his life where he makes no bones about being completely self-serving — serving no master other than himself and seeking power for power’s sake. When you put yourself in these people’s shoes they don’t necessarily see themselves as evil. They see themselves as doing what they have to do.
Gilligan: That’s very well put. And you’re right. Hitler didn’t think of himself as a bad guy. Pol Pot didn’t think of himself as a bad guy. Human beings just don’t tend to. We think of ourselves as doing the right things for the right reasons. And Frank, when we first meet him, he has been somewhat betrayed. He had a promise made to him that was broken, so who’s to say that he didn’t get into politics, at least at the beginning, to truly serve the public.
Willimon: The fun thing with drama, too, is that you get to amplify the sort of predicaments we all find ourselves in on a daily basis. You don’t want to go to the Joneses’ house for dinner because you don’t like them very much? You tell a white lie to get yourself out of it. No one would think of that as a particularly bad thing. But when the stakes are high enough and it’s truly life and death or political survival or real survival, those decisions become much bigger. So the question I found myself asking all the time, and I’m sure Vince did too, was what motivates us to do the things we do and what are the circumstances that get us to cross that invisible line, instead of telling us a white lie to get us out of dinner? And then ask yourself, what does it take to get me to commit murder? How do I rationalize that? How do I convince myself that that’s the necessary or right thing to do? And that’s drama.
Variety: In this age of antiheroes, you both have to strike that balance of keeping the audience on your main character’s side.
Gilligan: Speaking for me, it was all due to Bryan Cranston. In the beginning, out of my foolishness, as an experiment I wanted to see how many viewers we could shake loose and honest to God, I said that to the writers. Now looking back I feel like a lunatic for having said that. Now we live in this world where viewership of shows is so low compared to what it was 10 or 15 years ago that we need every viewer we can get. And there I was saying to the writers, let’s see how bad we can make this guy and see who breaks loose. That was absolutely crazy in terms of a philosophy. But Bryan Cranston remains so likeable, so relatable, so sympathizable as a human being and as an actor playing a fictional human being. He kept people watching. I really give all credit to him.
Willimon: I think Vince hit the nail on the head. For me there’s no greater joy than creating a world a lot of people are invested in. But ultimately it comes down to the actors. That’s the reason why people tune in. My goal as a writer is to give the actors the tools to do interesting things. You have to be pretty rigorous about scripts and story and the world you’re building around the actors. But ultimately they’re the ones that bring the magic to the screen. When you’re lucky enough to have an extraordinary actor like Bryan Cranston or Kevin Spacey or Robin Wright, they do more than half the work for you and you take as much credit as you possibly can (laughs). But at the end of the day, they’re the sorcerers.
Variety: How much attention do you pay to people’s viewing habits? Both of your shows live on Netflix, where viewers tend to binge-watch.
Gilligan: I have a hard enough time just getting the scripts written and shows produced that I don’t think as hard about that. The truth is I always try to just place what the viewer is feeling and thinking as they’re watching these episodes. I tend to never think about what platform they’re watching the show on. But this binge-viewing thing, which is a phrase I had never heard when we first started, has really saved us. It really saved our bacon on “Breaking Bad.” I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it helped put us where we are in terms of the zeitgeist. But I don’t really think on those terms when I’m breaking a story because there’s just too many different ways to watch things now. I just keep my nose to the grindstone and just think about making the story as entertaining as possible.
Willimon: I take pretty much the same approach. When we first started working on “House of Cards,” we worked for a year before we even went to go find a home and we were thinking of the usual suspects, places like AMC, HBO, Showtime … and Netflix came out of nowhere and surprised us with this incredible offer. But even then we didn’t know if we were going to release all the episodes in one day or whether we were going to release them in a traditional fashion from week to week. So we got to work assuming that it could be either of those or somewhere in between. I think the best analogy is a novel. There are huge differences between TV shows and novels obviously, but when someone sits down to write a novel, they don’t know how someone’s going to read it. They could read it in one sitting or they could read it one page per day for hundreds of days. So ultimately what do you have in your control? Just to tell the best story possible and hopefully they’ll want to keep returning to it.
Variety: Can either of you see yourselves doing a broadcast series of 22 episodes?
Gilligan: Hell, no! And not for any other reason but snobbery. My hat is off to the David Shores and Michelle and Robert Kings of the world who create such wonderful shows and produce so many of them. I’m just way too old to work at a network anymore. I worked on “The X Files” when I was in my 30s and I wasn’t even the boss. I was just the employee and that damn near killed me trying to keep up with that pace. I don’t know how shows like “The Good Wife” or “House” or hopefully, and the creek don’t rise, “Battle Creek” remain as consistently excellent. I do know myself pretty well at this point pushing 50. I can’t work at that network pace anymore. It’s just too many episodes.
Willimon: Well, I’m ignorant and inexperienced enough not to rule anything out quite yet, but I do have to say I definitely understand Vince’s point of view because it takes us seven months to write 13 hours of “House of Cards” and another seven months to film it. The pace at which we work might seem luxurious to a lot of folks at the big broadcast network world, but it feels pretty fast to me. To go much faster than that for me, it would be difficult to create the sort of layered and interwoven narratives that we’re after. The more time I put into something the better it is, because for me writing is a trial and error game. It’s banging my head against the wall, either until you break through or the wall breaks your head. And you need the time to make those mistakes so that you can maybe reach the good thing on the other side. And going much faster than we do, I don’t know if I would get enough bangs against the wall.
Variety: What’s the secret of being a good showrunner?
Gilligan: You’re not always a good showrunner. Some days you’re not. Half the time I’m in the room and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m feeling petty. I think of someone who is out there being shot and is the first one closest to the enemy lines, the bullets are whistling past while he or she is waving over their shoulder, “Come on let’s go over that next hill!” Half the time I’m feeling like I’m cowering at the back of the line while everyone else is cheering me on. Consistency of vision is important. Communicating what a show is or should be and getting everyone on the same page, or pulling the rope in the same direction. Getting everyone working together to create that one vision, communicating that vision and understanding what it is first of all, which is not necessarily a given. Sometimes you yourself don’t even understand your own show. I didn’t completely know what “Breaking Bad” was for at least the first few episodes.
Willimon: I think the strangest thing about being a showrunner is on the one hand you have to have the artistic side of your brain, that is sitting down in front of a computer and trying to do something honest and good. On the other hand you have to contend with all the practical matters that are required in order to take whatever words are on the page and put them on film. To go from that solitary thing to a thing which requires hundreds of people is a pretty vast chasm and you find yourself leaping across it many, many times a day. I agree with Vince that all good shows have one vision, but what I’ve found in my very limited experience that that one vision is greater than any one person. Certainly there was a moment where a writer sat down and started to write something. Then a handful of people started working on a story and already it started to become bigger than that first person. Then you start having actors and directors and designers and crew come into the mix, all lending in their talent. I think what you find is the vision starts to evolve and starts to become bigger and someone needs to be able to harness that vision and needs to be able to articulate it. But I think if I were to write a job description for a showrunner, and the one I try to be but often fail to be, is the person that brings the best out of everyone. If you’re getting the best out of your actors, the directors, the writers you’re collaborating with and everyone down to a set PA who takes pride in the show … that will show up on the screen. It’s not an easy thing to do.
Gilligan: Great answer! I wish that I had included that in my answer. It’s a wonderful collaborative medium. It’s the most collaborative medium. You take any one member, one department head, one crew person out of that equation and the show is lesser for it. It’s a feeling that if you’re the person who designed the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge and you’re standing in front of it and you look up at it, you feel such a sense of pride but it’s a feeling of being a part of something and not being the sole author of something. You didn’t build that Empire State Building all by yourself. You had a hand in it. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of it.
Willimon: I’ve been very inspired in reading Vince say how much horseshit he thinks the whole auteur theory is at least when it comes to TV. Because the word showrunner is a big five-dollar word. Everyone has notions of what it might mean. No one can make a TV show alone. A big part of it being a writer in general, particularly a showrunner, is letting go and taking joy in what others bring to the table and recognizing that multiple heads actually are better than one. I’m so excited when one of the writers in my room comes up with an idea that I never possibly could have in a million years. That’s letting go of your own ego and letting go of your own preconceived notions about what the thing that you’ve been working on can be or should be and being open to that sort of input. If you can manage to do that, then I think the show and everyone who works on it stands to benefit.
Variety: Anything you wished you’d done differently?
Gilligan: I’ve learned all kinds of lessons. I could write a book about all the lessons I’ve learned from all the mistakes I’ve made. And that’s not just false modesty, I took a long time to figure this out, but I’ve realized finally that everything you learn in life is from the mistakes you made. That’s my new philosophy. The best thing you can do is learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s the really slick way to do it, if you can look around and see all the mistakes – identify all the mistakes that other people are making and then learn not to do them. But I tend to learn mostly from my own mistakes.
Willimon: If I even go back and watch a season after we’ve released it, all I see is the mistakes. I do revel in and enjoy great moments that directors and actors put on screen, but I see tons of missed opportunities or storylines that ended up being dead ends. A million little things that I guess I would have done differently. But I try to walk away with the knowledge of what those mistakes are, and promising to myself that I won’t make those mistakes again, that I’ll make brand new mistakes and learn from those. I have to remind myself constantly that aside from the love that you give to your friends and your family, there’s nothing more valuable that you can give than your labor. And if you’re going to give your labor to something, you sure as hell better make it count.
Variety: Are you looking forward to Emmy night?
Gilligan: I was talking to my mom the other day, and she said, “You should be so excited,” and I said, “I am,” but extreme anxiety goes hand in hand with excitement, they’re two sides of the same coin. I’m going to be medicated.
Willimon: I wish I had that option available to me. I’ve been sober for a few years now, so I can’t dip into the well. I’m jealous, Vince.
Gilligan: I’m not proud of the fact that I will likely have a Valium.
Willimon: That sounds heavenly. I’m going to try to imagine that experience while I’m sitting there chomping on my fingernails.
Gilligan: Breathe deep and picture yourself on a beach somewhere with the water crashing against your toes. Of course I’m excited, but it’s also a work night, especially this year — a Monday night! That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Thinking of my tuxedo, I’m already uncomfortable, and the collar’s too tight. And I know it’s too tight, and I’m a month out and I still won’t fix the goddamn thing even though I know it’s too tight. But I am nonetheless ecstatic at the thought of being invited. And I will miss it next year when I’m not invited. You know, this is our last go around for “Breaking Bad.” So, you know, next year when I’m sitting at home in front of the TV in my boxer shorts watching it instead of actually being there, all the bitching I did about having to wear a tuxedo, I’ll have forgotten all about that and I’ll just complain that I wasn’t invited. There’s no making me happy!