The X-Files Lexicon's exclusive interview with Vince Gilligan
Conducted by Matt Allair, 2/20/2015
Page Editor: XScribe
Most Philes understand the importance of the following person in the history of The X-Files; they also understand that he was one of the biggest proponents of the show as a fan himself before coming on board the series. Vince Gilligan is one of the most beloved writers by fans of The X-Files, and so most fans were never shocked when Vince pulled off the stunning feat that became the award-winning Breaking Bad. It’s a feat that was a pleasure to witness, to have a series that progressed with each season in a way that was nearly flawless, and to have it end with one of the most satisfying finales I have ever seen. The word that often came to mind when watching Breaking Bad was ‘audacious,’ not only in the ‘audaciousness’ of Walter White, but the entire series. But Vince’s soft spoken southern accent, his mild manner, his relatability and infectious humor, belies the intellectual heft that exists.
Vince began his career in a fashion that most writers could envy, and it has dealt with an incredible degree of good fortune. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as a Cinderella story, but his journey illustrates why an artist should never assume where they began is where they will end up. Chris Carter’s instinct for talent has almost become as legendary as any other aspect of the series. Glen Morgan and James Wong were the first to reach great success after moving on from the series. At current writing, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are on par with Vince due to the success of Homeland, Mr. Frank Spotnitz is poised for great success with his Amazon series The Man In The High Castle, then there’s John Shiban’s success with Hell On Wheels, all of which demonstrates over a decade later that Chris’s faith in such talents paid off in spades in terms of their potential. But Vince is poised to repeat that success with his Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. Set in 2002, years before Breaking Bad, we meet Saul under his given name of Jimmy McGill, and a brother, Chuck, that Jimmy has to live up to. As of this writing, the first three episodes show great promise.
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Vince attended New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. He had won a screenwriting contest that helped open up that first wave of doors. Vince’s script for Home Fries (filmed in and released in 1998 with Drew Barrymore) caught the attention of Oscar-winning Producer Mark Johnson, which led to that fateful meeting that eventuated Vince’s hire to The X-Files. Prior to Breaking Bad, Vince wrote the screenplay for Hancock. But Vince has been candid in the past of his doubts that he’d ever be known as anything other than ‘The X-Files writer’, so it was to the great credit of executives at AMC when they gave Vince the chance to film such a great pilot as Breaking Bad, and he was allowed to push the envelope from the outset.
The effort that lead to this interview began late last year, and a great deal of credit must go to Vince’s assistant, Jenn Carroll, whose own good nature and graciousness has been a real pleasure. The following interview was one of the more relaxed experiences I can recall in a while. Vince set one at ease; he was gracious, friendly, and candid, and proceeded as follows…Matt Allair: Hello, Mr. Gilligan
TV writing is so much more satisfying for me anyway, than writing for movies ever was, because movies…(laughs), at least in my experience, are nothing but heartbreak. You work your butt off writing the best script you can, and you work usually by yourself, and I’ve had wonderful moments writing movies, but, inevitably, invariably, your heart gets broken because this movie script that I’ve slaved over, and labored over, and poured everything I had into, has led to a bunch of studio executives who said, ‘nah’ (laughs) ‘why don’t you change everything about it? Here, rewrite.’ On the other hand with television you’re surrounded by excellent fellow writers, you are surrounded by people who know how to do your job, and you are surrounded by people who care about writing, who understand writing, and you aren’t given notes from some of the perspective that mainly comes from how much money can we make, or how can we snag this big actor, or whatever. You are coming at it surrounded by people who have similar interests and good story-telling, and not much more than that. I’d say that the great thing about TV is once you are on a show that is up and running, there’s not much time for executives of any stripe to mess with your writing. There’s not that much time for notes, because the machine that is television needs such constant feeding. The deadlines are so tight and continuous that there’s no time for everybody to pee on the hybrid, so to speak, there’s no time for endless notes. You don’t really get inundated with them, especially after a certain point. With TV I could go on and on, but TV has been such a wonderful blessing for me, people ask me ‘are you ever going to write a movie again, or direct a movie?’ and I always say, ‘yes, I’d like to do that at some point’, but if you told me right now that you are going to keep working in TV, but you’re never going to do another movie, I’d say, ‘well, I’m okay with that.’Matt: What do you enjoy more? Writing or directing?
Vince: The best way to answer that is that the plotting. The story-telling of both shows are similar, and there’s a very good reason for that. As I said a minute ago, everything I know about story-telling - specifically story-telling for television – I learned from The X-Files. Here[are] a bunch of similarities I can rattle off of the top of my head. We card episodes of Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul exactly as we carded episodes of The X-Files. Chris Carter taught us all this method of using index cards on a corkboard, on a three-foot by five corkboard, and figuring out every plot beat of every episode, and putting it on these cards, and he even had this Japanese tea ceremony-type tradition for the actual carding, where he would use a Sharpie pen with the tip washed down just so, and we would write in the most careful hand possible so that the lettering was as neat as possible, and we put so much thought into the individual cards. The reason for doing that was to blow about these cards, these thoughts, into the most pristine headline that we could, so that we truly understood the dramatic intent of each and every scene, each and every plot beat, or each episode. That was a wonderful thing to learn from The X-Files that I do exactly the same way, to the point of using the same kind of index cards, the same Sharpie pens, and the same kind of corkboards as we used in The X-Files.
Vince: Another way that Breaking Bad is similar to The X-Files is that Chris always went into each episode by saying, “What’s the visual element of this episode?” Chris is a very visual thinker, and a very cinematic thinker. Cinema is important to him; that’s why The X-Files was the first show I can think of, that really felt like a little miniature movie every week. It was very important to Chris that The X-Files look like a movie and feel like a movie, and tell the story cinematically. In other words, not rely strictly on dialog. There was a lot of good television, but a lot of it felt like a stage play, like a lot of talking heads, they would tell their story through their words, through their dialog, and Chris really wanted a different kind of show than that. He wanted a dark, a moody, a cinematic show in which a lot of the story came across through images rather than simply words. I have taken that idea and run with it, because I, too, love cinematic story-telling, and so much of that was inspired by Chris. On Breaking Bad and now on Better Call Saul, we always think in terms of the image – what are we seeing, what we looking at?
Vince: At the beginning of every scene what is the first image that we see, and on Breaking Bad, for instance that design led to a certain signature shot where you’d be looking up at something, looking up from the bottom of a toilet, or up from the bottom of a frying pan, or down at a bird’s-eye view onto Walter White, or whatever. You had this thing that started out inadvertently but became something of a signature shot, and it really derived from a desire to be visually interesting, which I learned from Chris Carter and The X-Files.Matt: Now there’s a lot of media attention about Fox television in discussions to do an X-Files revival / mini-series with David, Gillian, and Mr. Carter; if asked, would you want to be involved?
Matt: Thank you for your time. It’s been an honor to speak with you, and hopefully we can do it again sometime in the future.Vince: Absolutely. I enjoyed talking with you, Matt. We’ll do it again sometime. Have a good one, Matt.
I wish Mr. Gilligan nothing but the best with his new series Better Call Saul and Battle Creek on CBS. You can learn more about Better Call Saul from the AMC site, or it’s web page. Vince is a great inspiration for any writer or artist to climb their own Everest, as long as the focus is to get there.
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