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Vince Gilligan Visits University of Florida for 'Breaking Bad' Post-Mortem
November 14, 2013  | By Gabriela Tamariz  | 1 comment
Photo by Kan Li, 2013

In the spring of 2010, I started watching Breaking Bad on Netflix thanks to a recommendation from a friend. I’ll admit that I didn’t even finish the first season until I rediscovered the series a year and half later and proceeded to binge-consume during my LSAT “study breaks.” I’ve spent more time watching and re-watching this magnetic drama than I have watching any Scorcese, Coppola or Tarantino film. I even have pint glasses individually decorated with master symbols from the show: the Heisenberg sketch, the Pollos Hermanos logo and the Vamonos Pest Control logo. So needless to say, I’m a pretty big Bad fan.

I thought about all of this as I sat in the auditorium at the Curtis M. Philips Center for Performing Arts at the University of Florida and waited for Vince Gilligan to join my former reporting teacher on stage on Tuesday night. Accent Speaker’s Bureau invited Vince Gilligan to our campus and fans queued up an hour early to watch UF journalism professor Mike Foley interview one of the best storytellers of television.

Foley lived up to his title as Master Lecturer. He was charismatic and engaging, much like in his reporting lectures (every journalism student’s favorite course). He has a way of making a conversation casual, cool and clever. He asked all the right questions about Gilligan’s beginnings as writer, when he discovered the chameleon actor Bryan Cranston and the art of fractioning the chronology to tell a better story. He just couldn’t help himself when he questioned the writer if he had ever tried meth.

“No, I think I’d be a heroin guy, myself,” Gilligan replied. The audience loved Gilligan’s light sense of humor, relatable candor and down-to-earth personality.

Gilligan was paid $60,000 by the student-run Accent Speaker’s Bureau for his appearance. Or to put it one way, just about what Heisenberg persuaded Tuco Salamanca to pay up for the pound of meth he stole from Jesse when he beat him to a pulp, (see season 1, episode 6: Crazy Handful of Nothin’). Or to put it another way, not quite half as much as it cost an advertiser to buy a 30-second spot during the last season of the series, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

The interview was short, but it covered all the bases—who, what, where, when and how. I would have liked to have learned more about the writing process, specifically how much input the actors’ have on the writing, and if there’s a recipe for the Pollos Hermanos famous chicken.

I was surprised to hear him say he can be lazy when it comes to research and talking to people. In fact, he revealed to the audience that he was embarrassed to say he has never even taken a chemistry course. His work has such an impressive attention to detail that I can’t imagine anything about the writing process being lazy. Clearly, his writing team was working every angle to help Gilligan capture “lightning in a bottle.”

Overall, the interview was short, but the Q-and-A session that followed allowed students to praise the great storyteller, his accomplishments and ask all kinds of Bad fan questions. Fans lined up and down the aisles to ask such things as:

How did Walter manage to poison Brock? He told the student he imagined that Walt conned his way into Brock’s elementary school as a teacher and planted the poison in a juice box.

Was it really true he considered killing off Jesse or even Walt Jr. in season 1, and did he have other crazy ideas? He said he did, and there were crazy ideas throughout the years. “You have to give creative expression in the writer’s room. You want them to be able to say the stupidest, wildest things without worrying about the boss.”

How did he make the show feel so symmetric, while still feeling true? He said he created “echoes” rather than coincidences throughout the show, though coincidences played a critical role in the storytelling.

“It’s very coincidental that Walt sits down at a bar as he’s debating what he should do about Jesse, his partner, he happens to sit next to Jesse’s girlfriend’s father and the father gives advice that ultimately leads him to go to Jesse’s house and ultimately leads to the young girls’ demise. Some writers in the room said ‘doesn’t this feel coincidental?’ Yes it does, but I’m okay with coincidences just as long as it makes the protagonist’s life harder altogether. Coincidence in service of drama feels like fair game to me. If it was a coincidence that makes his life easier, then I call ‘bullsh*t.’”

The Q-and-A session ended before I could even get close enough to the microphone and start practicing my question over and over again in my head. I had thought about what I wanted to ask Mr. Gilligan ever since I first heard about the event on Facebook. I asked my friends what they wanted to know and we bounced ideas around about how I could make him laugh.

“Is there any hope for season 2 of The Lone Gunmen?”

“Walt Jr.’s love of breakfast warrants a cookbook more than a music career, don’t you think?”

There were a million things I wanted to ask Vince. Like, what was it like on the other side of the camera on NBC’s Community? Would you consider creating and writing a show exclusive for streaming services like Netflix’s House of Cards? Do you realize how many die-hard Wire fans’ lives you have changed with this masterpiece drama?

Breaking Bad left an unprecedented cultural imprint. It’s changed the way people watch television. We value the development of character, the importance of dialogue and we no longer need every detail spelled out to us.

HBO’s The Wire may have changed the way I understood television writing, but Breaking Bad changed the way I watch television. Whether we’re consuming on broadcast television, via streaming services on our smartphones, tablets or computers—we’re all looking for the next Breaking Bad. But we don’t necessarily need a replica, a sequel or a theatrical film version. It was perfect, Vince.

So thank you, Mr. Gilligan, and please come back again. Before I graduate.

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