Breaking Bad will go down as one of the finest television shows ever. Ever. That makes its creator, head writer and executive producer Vince Gilligan an industry legend. His work on Breaking Bad, The X-Files and his latest, Breaking Bad’s prequel Better Call Saul, has garnered two Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films. He’s also got the reputation as one of Hollywood’s nicest showrunners—and judging by SN&R’s quick chat with him, we’re inclined to think it’s true. He’s speaking at the Mondavi Center in Davis on Thursday, December 10 and tickets are still available. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation about Better Call Saul, writing and his love for Northern California.
You’re hard at work on season two of Better Call Saul. How’s that coming along?
Things are going really well. We finished shooting our second season back in November and now Peter Gould and I are in the editing room, and we’re editing away furiously. … We’re really excited about season two. It does not go where I think people assume it goes. Folks who watched season one and the last episode are probably thinking, “It’s pretty obvious where things are going next!” And as is often the case with Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad, things don’t necessarily head in the directions we assume they will.
Intrigue! Obviously it’s really risky to do a spin-off. Did you have any strategy in making sure Better Call Saul didn’t solely exist in the shadow of Breaking Bad?
We were really nervous going into it. We feared the chance for failure was much greater than the chance for success. Peter and I talked at great length about what the show should be: should we even attempt to do a spin-off after Breaking Bad and should we attempt it so soon after the end of Breaking Bad? We had hours and hours and hours of conversation. The conclusion we came to is there’s more potential for downsides than good sides. But we just really loved the character of Saul Goodman. … Our best strategy going forward with Better Call Saul was just to do the best job that we could and come up with as interesting a plot as possible.
You got your start writing movies. How does writing for television compare?
Well I gotta tell ya, it seems like it’d be pretty similar: making up stories, making up characters, figuring out the plot. But I’ll tell ya, it’s like night and day. And I love one versus the other very much. [Laughs.] I have a lot of great memories writing for the movies. But mostly when you’re writing for the movies you’re writing by yourself. And you really are alone, and often times lonely. You don’t have anybody to bounce things off of. Typically the way TV is written is you have a bunch of people working there with you. Everyone is rolling up their shirt sleeves and pitching in together in a room all day. … And if you’re a showrunner and you’re in charge of hiring people, if you’re smart, you’ll hire writers who are smarter than you and better writers than you. [Laughs.]
The other trouble with movies is that they’re kind of open-ended schedule-wise. Typically you’re writing the movie, especially if it’s an idea you came up with, spec script. You write it, you hope someone likes it, then they give their notes on it and kick it up to the next chain of command, and then they give their notes on it and then the next person and then the next person and then finally the actors get involved and give their notes and then their agents give their notes. By the time it’s finished you don’t even recognize the script. With TV, it’s different, because by the time you’re working on the series there’s not as much time for all the different folks up and down the chain of command to give their notes because the thing needs to be in front of the camera too soon.
So, probably no more movies in your future?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. But I will say this: I love movies in general. and I especially love watching old movies. I’ve always got the Turner Classic Movies channel tuned in. Some of my best experiences in life have been going to the theater and watching great movies. But now, at this age and with this wonderful experience writing for television, I’m much less interested in writing for movies now than I ever have been in my life. I’m lucky TV has become a home for the kind of stories I used to love from movies: stories for grown-ups. They’re still making good movies for grown-ups but by and large, most movies are superhero movies and stuff like that, which is fine. They should always make those movies, but it’s a shame they don’t make as many movies for adults anymore, movies like The Godfather. And some of that storytelling, quite a bit of that, has migrated to the so-called small screen, and I’m lucky to be working for television right now, when the stories I’d like to tell wouldn’t find as inviting a home as on the big screen.
Everyone is calling it the golden age of television. And now so many new shows are migrating directly to Netflix. Is that style of interest to you?
Netflix has been really good to us—it’s a financial partner in Better Call Saul. … It’s an interesting business model when you make all the shows and you can watch them all in one day. I’m a bit more old school, I guess. I don’t mind waiting a week for the next episode. The idea of burning through six or eight or ten or twelve episodes in an evening sounds like running a marathon to me, no matter how good the show is. Although, being able to skip the commercials is great—I enjoy that as much as anyone. Although [laughs], it probably doesn’t need saying, the whole idea of skipping the commercials is gonna bring the whole system crashing down at a certain point. They’re gonna have to figure out a new economic paradigm to make the whole thing work once everyone is always skipping the commercials.
Do you see that happening soon?
We’re in the midst of it now. I think broadcast television, which is still ad-supported, is putting more and more crap in the corner of the screen: those little bugs pop up or you have the little car driving by the bottom when you’re trying to watch your TV show. They’re advertisements that they used to put during the commercial breaks but they figure no one’s watching the commercials anymore. Now that junk wanders up the screen. It just makes the whole thing more unwatchable. We’re in the midst of some sort of shift. Unfortunately, I’m sure it won’t all be good. You’ll have to pay for every single thing you want to watch if you don’t want to sit through the commercials. Whether it’s better or worse, we’ll just have to see.
Are you already plotting your next gig?
I’m really just thinking about Better Call Saul right now. It really occupies all of my time, as it does for Peter Gould. If we’re not in pre-production or writing, we’re in production, if we’re not in production, we’re in post-production: editing and doing the sound mixes and the color timing for each episode. For a mere 10 episodes, it really is a full-time job and it takes a full year. [Laughs.] And I’m not quite sure why that is, because plenty of great TV shows put on 24 shows a season within a year and even have a little time off. We must be doing something wrong.
Do you know what you’ll be talking about at the Mondavi Center?
I don’t. I have a moderator who will be asking me questions. I have a lot of fun at these. I do a certain number every year. Folks in general seem to want to know about Breaking Bad, how Breaking Bad came about, some stories behind the scenes. And I’m always happy to talk about that, talk about Better Call Saul, my career in general—and if people find that interesting, more power to them. [Laughs.] Really, God bless them. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a beautiful part of the state. I love the Sacramento area, the Napa area, all that. I try to get there as often as I can.
In my best years, probably a couple times a year. But I hate to admit, it’s probably been a year and a half or so since I’ve been up there because things have gotten busy here. I do love the area—there are some fantastic restaurants in the Napa area for sure.
Got a favorite spot?
It’s not a choice no one has heard before, but the French Laundry. [Laughs.] It’s just stellar. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there maybe five or six times in my life, and it’s just an experience every time. … It’s a wonderland of eating up there. If I actually lived in Napa, I don’t think I’d last long. It’d be like the movie Supersize Me but with all these wonderful restaurants. I probably wouldn’t be long for this world, but it’d be a good way to go.