Behind the scenes of ‘Breaking Bad’: Secrets of the writers room

The Vancouver International Film Festival does not feature lavish premieres with big stars like Toronto or New York. As one of the five largest film festivals in North America, it differentiates itself with the Film and Television Forum, a four-day conference with storied industry professionals.  

“From Freelancing to EP: The Power of the Writer in Series Television” featured a discussion with Peter Gould, part of the Emmy-winning team behind “Breaking Bad.” Gould also shared in two Writers Guild of America prizes for the show and picked up one of his own for adapting “Too Big to Fail” for HBO. 

Among the juicy tidbits that Gould revealed about his five years working on the show:

  • In the first season, creator Vince Gilligan attempted to lead both the writers’ room and physical production, videoconferencing into the writers’ room from the set in Albuquerque, an arrangement that he would not repeat in later seasons.
  • The writers began work as early as 14 weeks prior to the start of production each year and spent at least two weeks figuring out the story for each episode. By the final season, they were creating a 16-page outline prior to actual scripting.  (Outlines in the first season were only one page.)
  • While much was written on the fly, Gilligan was highly meticulous and tried to simulate a circularity in the series’ storytelling. “Vince really wanted to use the elements that already existed.” For example, the character of Saul Goodman was introduced after Combo was killed off. Gould had wanted a new character to be introduced and then die as he considered Combo as barely more than an extra and was apprehensive about such an important plot point hinging on him. However, Gilligan felt that using an existing character would lend to a fuller world within the show and one in which viewers would pay close attention.
  • Tuco Salamanca was to be the primary antagonist for the second season but this did not come to fruition as Raymond Cruz was contractually obligated to appear regularly only on TNT’s “The Closer.”  As such, “Breaking Bad” could only bring Cruz back in the first two episodes of the second season to close out the arc that began in the last two episodes of the first season.  However, Gould thinks that the show was better for it, as it left Walt and Jesse alone without a super-villain to battle and led more organically to Saul and the planned antagonist for the third season: Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring.

  • While the characters of Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz had not appeared since the first and second seasons of the show respectively, each played a pivotal part in the series’ final two episodes. This was not part of some grand plan; rather, their return was only conceived of when the writers were planning the final eight episodes of the show and almost did not even happen, as there were scheduling issues with one of the actors.
  • Gilligan once shot Gould in the face with a BB gun because Gilligan had set up a target on a doorframe to the writers room.
  • That “Breaking Bad” took so long to become a hit was not lost on its writers. “We were always ‘Mad Men’s’ ugly sibling,” Gould explained, referring to AMC’s other Emmy magnet.  “‘Mad Men’ got all the attention and we’d be off in the corner cooking our meth.”  

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