“This show has certain elements that could work, but the premise is just too bizarre.”
“It’s too much like Weeds.”
“Why would anyone want to see their hero become a villain?”
“It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard. No one will watch this.”
This is the type of criticism that writer/director/producer Vince Gilligan endured in 2007 when he was pitching his pilot script for Breaking Bad, a show about a middle-aged high school chemistry teacher who resorts to cooking and distributing crystal meth after a life-changing cancer diagnosis. Fortunately, AMC – fresh off the mega-successful Mad Men – was, in fact, interested in Gilligan’s script and offered to produce the pilot.
Gilligan was no stranger to the TV business; he had been a staff writer and co-producer for The X-Files for several years, but since that show ended, he had struggled to find consistent work. He and fellow writer/producer Thomas Schnauz began brainstorming ideas back-and-forth. One day, Gilligan made a joke about the two of them road-tripping around the country in an meth lab converted from an RV. Shortly thereafter, the idea for Breaking Bad came to Gilligan. He had already been considering a show that would go against the grain of network TV.
“Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades,” Gilligan says. “When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?”
With that came Walter White, the hero-turned-villain of Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad has become such a huge cultural touchstone, based on its exceptional images, writing, and acting, so it’s increasingly difficult to look at with fresh eyes. The show won multiple Emmys every year it was on the air and helped establish Gilligan as a major player in the world of TV.
But it hasn’t seemed to get to his head – after all, Gilligan is a man with humble beginnings.
George Vincent Gilligan, Jr. was born in 1967 in Richmond, Virginia. His dad was an insurance adjuster and his mom was a grade school teacher. Gilligan’s parents divorced when he was seven and he lived with his mom and his younger brother Patrick in Farmville, Virginia.
Much of Vince’s interest in film stemmed from his friendship with Angus Wall, an aspiring editor. The two made short backyard films together – Vince directing, Patrick acting, and Angus editing – and one such film even won them a prize in their age group at a film competition at the University of Virginia. Their moms, Gail Gilligan and Jackie Wall, frequently took them to the theatre at Cloverleaf Mall.
Vince also remained close with his dad, George. George once described his son as “kind of a studious-type young man. He liked to read, and he had a vivid imagination.” He encouraged his son to study film, introducing him to film noir classics and John Wayne westerns.
A few years later, the teenaged Gilligan returned to the Richmond area, where he graduated from Lloyd C. Bird High School in 1985. After that, he attended the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, earning his undergrad degree four years later.
While at NYU, Gilligan wrote a screenplay called Home Fries, which received the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award in 1989 (eventually, it was turned into a film starring Luke Wilson and Drew Barrymore). One of the judges at the competition was Mark Johnson, a TV producer, and the two became friends. Johnson eventually played a pivotal role in introducing Gilligan to Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files. Johnson once called Gilligan “the most imaginative writer I’ve ever read.”
Since the staggering success of Breaking Bad – a show that may never have been picked up by a network – Gilligan has kept busy with the prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. The show focuses on the exploits of Walter White’s smarmy lawyer, Saul Goodman, and takes place 10 years before the events of Breaking Bad.
What sets Gilligan apart is not just that he makes stellar television, but that he’s a friendly and easy-going guy. He frequently goes out of his way to mention the cinematographers, actors, and writers who help make his shows a success. I can only imagine that Gilligan would be great fun to work with. Hopefully more acclaim comes his way in the near future – if that’s even possible.