While at first it seemed harmless enough, the next thing I knew I was binging on episodes. I became obsessed with it. As soon as it was finished, I needed another fix. I scoured articles on the web looking for anything I might have missed, any clues on what to expect next and reliving the episodes through complete strangers’ analysis. Just like the blue substance at the core of the show, I was hooked on something that was as close to perfection as I had ever seen. I was an addict. My drug of choice was Breaking Bad.
When I recently had the honor of speaking at length with Breaking Bad co-executive producer, writer and director Peter Gould, to say I was thrilled would be an understatement. The conversation that ensued was fascinating on so many different levels. Peter was gracious with his time and spoke frankly about the struggles he went through before he became a success, what it was like in the Breaking Bad writers room, the real meaning of visual filmmaking as he sees it, some alternate endings for the Breaking Bad series finale that never came to fruition, some clues on what to expect from the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, and even blessed me with an Easter egg exclusive from one of the final episodes. All that and more below.
Your credits range from Double Dragon to Breaking Bad and Too Big to Fail. How did you make that jump?
I wouldn’t say it was a jump so much as a slippery mountain climb — with a lot of backsliding. The big transition for me was from teaching film production at USC to becoming a full-time writer.
Did you ever get to the point where you thought “I’m never going to make it as a writer?” If so, how were you able to continue pushing forward towards your goal and become the success you are today?
Absolutely. You know how they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results? That’s how I was about writing feature spec scripts. I wrote literally dozens of them. Over and over again, I would almost make that big spec sale. Looking back, some were good, a couple were excellent. But the more commercial I tried to be, the more I tried to write for the marketplace, the less pleased I was with the results.
There were some real dark nights of the soul.
My career didn’t really take off until my wife got pregnant (just after losing her job). Wham! The crushing pressure of impending fatherhood. Don’t get me wrong, there was joy also — being a father is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But supporting a family? That seemed impossible. It was put up or shut up time.
I came up with a three-pronged plan to either start making a serious living in the business or to make teaching my full-time career. I would make spec TV commercials, I would pitch TV projects… and I would write one last spec script.
For this spec feature script I chose the least “commercial” idea I’d ever had. It was based on a true story that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I stopped worrying about whether it would sell (I was sure it wouldn’t) and followed my instincts. I wrote a screenplay that just felt right, and that’s when things started to click.
Soon after, HBO hired me to write a movie. I’ve been working ever since.
It still hasn’t been produced, but that one “uncommercial” script drove the rest of my career.
What was your life like before you became a writer?
I always wanted to be involved in film as far as I can remember. I’m sure when I was six or seven I may have wanted to be an airline pilot or an astronaut but after that it was all about movies and theater to me. I worked as a production assistant on a bunch of movies in New York. I worked in editorial on TV commercials and features and then I went to USC film school where I had an incredibly transformative time and I met so many of the people who are still really important in my life. When I graduated from USC I was lucky enough to get to direct one of the graduate projects and so I was briefly “Flavor of the Month” as a director and that amounted to pretty much nothing. If you watch the Christopher Guest movie The Big Picture I think that’ll give you a pretty good idea what my experience was like.
I ended up going back to USC when a friend of mine who was teaching a class that he wasn’t able to finish turned it over to me. I was very fortunate I taught film production at USC for quite awhile. That was also just a fantastic experience. I think one of the great things about teaching is that it just helps you understand your own creative point of view about how things go together.
I hate to say it but I don’t think I ever really had a job that didn’t involve show business or filmmaking in some way. I always wanted to be involved in filmmaking but getting in wasn’t so easy and making a living at it took forever. It was basically a ten year struggle to get a foothold in the business. I think everybody pays their dues but not everyone pays them at the same point in their career.
SPOILER ALERT: From this point on various plot points are discussed across all seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t finished the show yet consider yourself warned.
Can you tell me what it was like in the Breaking Bad writer’s room?
The writer’s room is where the major creative work from the writers point of view took place. There was 6 people plus Vince. We’d usually all be there as much as we could. We’d be there from roughly 10 in the morning until 7 at night, 5 days a week or longer if we got behind. I’d have to say it was really a pleasure working with the funniest people I’ve ever met. The darker the show got, the funnier the room got.
Vince Gilligan runs his show in a very unique way. He empowers his writers an awful lot. I almost said it’s “his show” but if you said to him, “It’s your show.” He’d always say, “It’s not my show. It’s our show.” That’s something that he would say not just to us but to Michael Slovis, the crew and the actors. He was very focused on everyone being empowered and as he would put it, “being fully invested” in the show.
One of the things that was great about that particular writers room is it wasn’t about whose idea was going to get used. It was about building on ideas. The analogy I would make would be to improvisational comedy where they always talk about instead of saying “No” you say, “Yes and…” That’s how we got some of my favorite moments. The one that I remember the best was in Season 3. It was the scene with Tortuga’s head on the tortoise. I remember that one person had the image of the head moving through the tall grass, then another person said, “Well the heads moving through the tall grass because it’s on a tortoise.” Then another person said,”And then the head explodes!” It really was an additive process. That’s what you hope for.
If you weren’t directing the episode how involved were you once the production process began?
The way Breaking Bad ran we produced our own episodes. Which means, we traveled to Albuquerque and the writer would normally be with the director through a nice chunk of prep. You would be sitting with the director in casting sessions, you’d be sitting in on prop sessions. One of the most important creative moments on the show is what we called a tone meeting. Which is where the director would sit down with the writer, a couple of producers and Vince. We’d go over the script and talk about it scene by scene and what we would hope to get out of each piece. The point of it was not to stomp on the director, the point of it was just to be very clear on what was intended by each scene. Most of us were very fortunate with the relationships we had with the directors we worked with. I worked with directors Terry McDonough and Adam Bernstein quite a bit and I learned so much from those guys about directing. We ended up having a great creative relationship. On one of the last episodes, I got to work with Bryan when he was directing an episode. I think Bryan really enjoyed having a writer there because of all the people on the set usually the writer and the director were the two who were the most focused on what story was coming through at each moment. Although we would have another producer there, Melissa Bernstein who was very much aware of what was going on. One of the things that would happen is if the actors would change the dialogue our script supervisor Helen would turn to the writer on the set and say, “ What do you think? He said ‘the’ instead of ‘and’…” We’d have to make a split-second decision about whether we were going to correct that or whether it was fine the way it was. That was often a tricky executive decision at that point.
When you started with Breaking Bad you were a story editor, correct?
Those are really titles that have to do with the Writers Guild and other things. At Breaking Bad it was pretty much the same. It was writing episodes, breaking them, working on the production and also working on the post production. Just like we would sit in on the production, we were also empowered to sit in on the editing of the episodes and also on the sound work. So, that work was pretty similar for all those years. Although the first year of the show for me, Season One was truncated because we had the writer’s strike. I finished writing my episode and then I had to leave Albuquerque during prep. I was on the picket line and I knew in Albuquerque they were shooting my scenes and I just had no idea what was going on. My experience of getting on set and working with the actors, the director and the DP didn’t come until Season 2.
By the end of the run of the show you were co-executive producer, writer and director. So like Walter White in Breaking Bad you went from humble beginnings to kingpin status. Can you talk about your evolution throughout the run of the show and how it may have coincided with Walter White’s perhaps?
I’m in the empire building business! (Laughing) Well that’s very interesting. I’m not sure how far I could parallel Walt’s evolution. Walt started out as an expert chemist and turned his chemistry knowledge to meth. I started out as a writer who knew how to write. I had written pilots and movies but in my career I had never written someone else’s characters. I had never tried to write on a TV show. So a lot of my evolution on the show was learning about the show and how Breaking Bad told stories. Also hopefully getting to contribute to how Breaking Bad told stories and contributing to how the story of Breaking Bad evolved. In the first season, Vince wrote the first three scripts and we would all read them and it was incredibly intimidating because he’s an unbelievable writer. When you look at someone else’s completed work and then you look at your own work in progress it can be kind of debilitating. I saw Vince’s scripts, and I think we all felt this way, I thought, “Wow these are just fantastic.” He’s such a good writer. Then the other writers came in. Patty Lynn wrote the first one that Vince didn’t write and she did a great job. Then George Mastras wrote a script that I thought was a game changer in Season One. It was sort of like being on the railroad tracks and watching the train coming towards you. When it was my turn there was a lot of anxiety about trying to write a script that could stand beside the other ones that I was reading.
With the last season, I knew that my episode was going to follow one written by Moira Walley-Beckett, who is an unbelievable writer and directed by Rian Johnson, who is to my mind one of the best visual directors working right now. One of the great things about working with people that are excellent is that it forces you to raise your own game. I don’t know if that necessarily parallels Walt’s experience but that was my experience on the show.
It may oddly enough parallel it pretty well. Walt took chemistry, which he was familiar with and then he had to apply it to cooking meth. Then he had to step his game up because of the competition.
I’ll buy that. If I’m Walt then Vince would be Gus in my story. (Laughing)
So you’re going to take Vince out and then takeover?
I’m going to have to raise my game to match his because he’s the ultimate chess player. So, hopefully I’ll get lucky like Walt and take him out.
Clearly, I’m joking. It all comes from a place of deep respect and love.
Where did the character Saul Goodman come from? Did you invent him?
I originated Saul Goodman. He originally appeared in an episode I wrote named Better Call Saul in Season 2. Which for me personally was probably the hardest episode of any of them in the series. I’m really happy it turned out so well. It was a very tough episode to write because I was very concerned about how Saul was going to fit into the Breaking Bad universe. I was still trying to figure out how funny and broad the character could be and still fit into the same world as Walter White and Skyler White. I think it was a real challenge for everyone working on the show to get it just right. Once Bob Odenkirk came in and embodied the character so fantastically, he did fit right in. I’m really proud that I originated him. However, having said that, the other writers also wrote some of my favorite Saul Goodman scenes. Some of the dialogue of his that I think is spectacular is in an episode that I had nothing to do with other than producing and being one of the writers.
Two of my favorite characters not only in the show but probably in the history of television would have to be Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut.
Have you heard the story of how the two characters are interrelated?
No. I don’t think so.
In Season Two, Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died. As it plays out, Mike comes and helps to clean up the evidence of heroin that they were both taking. The way that it was originally written was that Saul Goodman was the one who came and helped clean everything up but as it worked out Bob Odenkirk was not available for that episode. He was actually doing, I think, an episode of How I Met Your Mother. So Vince, very much at the last minute, came up with this character of Mike. My god we got so lucky that we were able to get Jonathan Banks and at that point I don’t think we realized how key that character was going to be to the show going forward. He really only showed up sort of as a fluke. Which is one of the things I love about television.
The fact that his character was a fluke on the TV show. My brain just practically exploded.
Because he became I think probably one of my favorite characters on television, ever. Which one of my favorite episodes was Half Measures which you had a hand in right?
Sam Caitlin and I wrote Half Measures together and Sam wrote that incredible monologue that Jonathan Banks has. I was lucky enough to be on the set when Jonathan gives the “No half measures” speech. The stage was silent and take after take he just brought the goods. That was really just a wonderful day on the set. It was over too fast.
I can’t even imagine being a part of that. Just as a viewer watching it all unfold was amazing. I think I started a few seasons behind and started binge watching it. I think it’s interesting that even now if I start talking about Breaking Bad someone will throw their hands over their ears and say, “No, No, No. I’m only on Season 3!” Do you think there is something in particular with the show where people are just now catching on to it? I’ve never experienced this with any other show.
I think we are very, very fortunate. I think in a lot of ways Breaking Bad is an accident of history that it arrived when it did. Not all of it but a big chunk of the success is because there are so many ways for people to watch the show now and to catch up. If a serialized show like Breaking Bad had arrived 10 years earlier, there would have been almost no way for people to catch up to it. You would have had to wait for a rerun and programmed your VHS deck to record at just the right time and it was just something that people couldn’t or wouldn’t do. I think AMC and Sony were very forward looking in putting the show onto iTunes and onto Netflix. AMC also made a lot of the shows, especially the first episode of the season, streamable on their website. I think that really helped people to catch up with the show. When I started pitching television shows, probably 7 years ago, nobody wanted to hear that a show was serialized. It used to be considered a weakness on television. Nobody wanted to hear that each episode would build on the previous one because it creates what we call “a barrier to entry.” It means that people will feel like they are missing out if they aren’t caught up. So people won’t watch it. When we started working on Breaking Bad people said the audience is never going to grow because it’s a serialized show. They said we hit our ceiling in Season 2 and that people wouldn’t catch up. We found out that logic, that truism, that rule just doesn’t hold anymore. I think ironically, what used to be considered a weakness sometimes can be a strength now. Having a show where it does really feel like one long story from beginning to end can be a strength. I don’t think that was something that Vince or we had in mind as we worked on the show. I think that’s just the way that Vince’s mind works. I think he is extremely detail oriented and he likes to mine the elements that have already been established and go deeper into them rather than constantly introducing new things. So I think it’s kind of an accident of history and part of the reason why people really like it. To be honest with you, I think it’s pretty much the most serialized show that I can think of. We really took it to an extreme, where we would set something up and not even pay it off for sometimes 16 episodes. We took it to almost a crazy length and I’m just so happy that the audience followed us all that way. It’s really gratifying. I think if the show had arrived a few years earlier I don’t know if that would have happened.
It has to be tough and rewarding because of the way you guys wrote Breaking Bad the fan base became obsessed with every minute detail. I would imagine that must make the entire process a lot more difficult because the fans aren’t going to let you get away with something you might be able to get away with on another TV show where the audience isn’t as heavily invested.
I think that’s absolutely right. During Season 2, the actor who played Tuco, Raymond Cruz, wasn’t available to us when we expected him to be so we had to shoot the episodes out of order. I remember getting a very concerned call early in the morning from George Mastras, who was on the set of his episode which was Episode 2 calling me about Episode 3 which had already shot. He was asking me if the director of that episode wanted to have a box knocked over in that scene and we had already established in that scene that the box was not knocked over. So George had to think that through very, very quickly and he called me at 6:30 in the morning asking me about this box and I said, “Absolutely not. The box is not knocked over in Episode 3.”
I think that Vince was so detail oriented that we all got trained to be very concerned about issues of continuity. That went through the entire crew. Everyone was always being as detail oriented as they possibly could be which sometimes lead to amazing creative ideas and creative breakthroughs. One idea that I thought was incredible and I haven’t heard anybody mention is that Jennifer Bryant, our costume designer, had the idea that in my episode Granite State that when we see Jesse he’s been imprisoned by Todd and the gang for so very long that he’s had to have a change of clothes. What he is wearing is actually the outfit that Todd wore when he shot Drew Sharpe earlier in Season 5. That was an incredible sort of Easter egg that Jennifer came up with and I think that’s the product of the fact that everyone was thinking so deeply about what we had done and trying to be so detail oriented.
Was there any particular character that you really enjoyed writing for?
I enjoyed writing for all the characters but I’d have to say I loved writing Walt. He was such a pleasure to write because he was someone who would always argue so well but he was never willing to acknowledge what was really going on inside him. That made him fascinating to write. As the show went on we found ourselves writing less and less dialogue for some of the actors because Bryan, Aaron, Dean, Betsy and Anna could communicate so much with just a few words.
Also in the writer’s room we would all do our Jonathan Banks imitation. There’s something so rewarding about writing a laconic tough guy. There’s something very, very pleasing about writing fewer words and having them mean more.
I loved writing for Aaron, too. Where Walt was all brain, Jesse was all heart and it was fun to write that. Probably my favorite piece that I wrote for Aaron was in Problem Dog when he has his group meeting and he talks about shooting Gail but he hides it under the guise of talking about killing the stray dog. I loved writing that but even more I loved watching what Aaron did with it.
Trying to figure out where you were going to take Breaking Bad and how you were going to wrap it up must have been insane. I thought for sure when I found out that the original Heisenberg died of cancer that’s how Walt would go out. How many different scenarios did you guys come up with? Can you talk about the thought process there?
We spent basically two years talking about the end. I know Vince especially felt a lot of pressure about how it was going to end because we knew at that point that people were watching and people cared. There were times when Vince would literally bang his head into a wall and say, ” What would we be doing if we didn’t have to deal with the M60 in the trunk?” I think he regretted at certain points having established that and what we would do with it. I think the conclusion that we came to was that rather than try to come up with an epic twist at the end what we really wanted to do was to be true to the characters and continue to play the game the way we started. Which was really to be honest with ourselves about where the characters were and what was going on with them. Especially with Walt because so much of the show is about his evolution. Right up until the end we were constantly talking about where Walt’s head was at. When we started Granite State we had a lot of ideas that we really liked about what was going on with him emotionally but it took a long time to realize that, at that point, he had really lost his nerve. That became the guiding principle of that particular episode.
In terms of different ideas, we came up with so many. There were just piles and piles of them. We talked about having Walt get caught. What would happen if he were in prison for part of the show? We talked about Skyler and the kids going into witness protection. Probably almost any idea you can find on Reddit, we at least pitched it. Whether or not we pitched it seriously or in fun, I think we at least pitched it.
In the end, once we introduced Uncle Jack and Todd it became much clearer where it would go. For a little while early on, we thought Jesse would become the head of his own drug gang and it would be some kind of a giant pitched battle with Jesse turning into a drug kingpin in his own right. Ultimately though it didn’t feel right for Jesse’s character. You can get all these cool big ideas but if the characters don’t want to go there and you try to force them then what happens is it just feels false. We really wanted to do our best to keep some integrity.
I think going into those last few episodes with a fan base that had so much time invested into Breaking Bad, it’s a precarious situation. One false step and it could have felt like a huge let down. So for you guys to have nailed the landing at the end of the show is a real testament to everyone involved. So hats off to all of you.
Let’s not forget. This is a very writer/director centric show for better or worse. Vince directed the pilot and he directed the last episode. He brought Walter White into the world and he took him out. I think that’s one of the things that gives it a feeling of continuity. It was also a very special circumstance where he not only happens to be an excellent writer but also an excellent director. Not every show runner can be like that but, in this particular case, I think it’s a big part of it. Another thing that gave it that feeling of continuity is that the writers were so involved through the whole process and not in the sense that they were dictating what was happening but just making sure the reason for each scene and each element was clear to everyone. It may sound really straightforward but in the end I think it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
Better Call Saul has apparently been green lit by AMC. Can you tell me anything about it?
There’s not much that I can say but this is a project that Vince and I are working on together. If it happens we’re going to write the pilot together and he would eventually step aside and I would be the sole show runner if it all goes through. I’m obviously hoping it comes together because I love the character and we want to bring back as many of the elements of the Breaking Bad group as we can. Having said that, I think it’s going to be a very different tone from Breaking Bad, obviously. I think it’s going to be much funnier. I think in it’s own way we’re trying to do something as experimental as Breaking Bad was. We really want to follow up with something that we feel strongly about.
I know you say it will be funnier but I couldn’t picture Saul Goodman sliding in the door like Kramer and canned laughter…
That’s probably what a lot of folks might be expecting. Let me put it this way, I don’t think that’d be the right thing for me. I have a humorous bent but ultimately it’s a dramatic bent too. I’m hoping we are going to achieve a tone that is kind of uncommon. At one point, we thought about doing a 30 minute version and then we came up with a different approach that I think is really the right one, in my mind. Part of it is we wanted to do something that’s visual. That’s one of the things that I love about Breaking Bad is that it’s a highly visual TV show. I think the fact that it works is the product of a lot of things including amazing work by the crew. Also the fact that people are watching it on bigger screens really empowers us to do something with visuals. It isn’t strictly driven by dialogue.
I think the writing and the visuals on Breaking Bad paired together really well. Sometimes a show will be aesthetically pleasing but the writing sucks and vice versa.
You know this is an interesting area. I think there is a misunderstanding, at least in my mind, when people talk about something being visual. Because a lot of the time I think people think strictly in terms of production value. That if something is visual it’s going to be big and have lots and lots of extras, fighting, action sequences and explosions. That certainly can be part of being visual but the other part is telling the story through visual moments. One of the moments I love on Breaking Bad is when Walt sees Skyler and she’s drinking out of a Beneke mug and that just brings back everything about her affair with Ted Beneke.
One of my favorite sequences is when the cousins come to the White’s house and they’re almost about to kill Walt and then they get the text from Gus. That’s an example of a sequence that doesn’t have huge scope but if you were making a sandwich and not watching the television you would have no idea what was happening. In my book, that’s the kind of visual filmmaking that I’m very excited about.
Any final words of wisdom?
It’s so important for people to know that it is the most difficult to find your own voice, find out what you are good at and then find a place for it. You shouldn’t always be chasing after what you think is going to be popular. You want to skate to where the puck is going to be as opposed to where it was.