Lexicon Exclusive

"Another Protégé"

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

Vince Gilligan: Hey, Matt, call me Vince. How are you doing?

Matt Allair: It’s an honor to speak with you. I’ve been an admirer since The X-Files episode “Pusher” way back when.

Vince Gilligan: Oh, thank you, that was a fun one to work on. I enjoyed that one.

Matt: You initially started out writing features like Wilder Napalm: how did you migrate to writing for television?

Vince: Writing for television was the best break I ever got. I saw myself as a movie writer, when I first began my career. I got very lucky right out of college. I won a screenwriting contest in my home state of Virginia. It got my career going, it got the ball rolling, so to speak, and I thought of myself for about the first five years of my career as a movie writer, and I was not snobby about writing for TV, quite the opposite. I loved Television, I always had as a viewer, but I lived in Virginia, and the one thing I knew about writing for television was that you needed to be in a writers’ room with a bunch of other writers, and nine hundred and ninety nine out of a thousand of those kind of writers rooms existed in Los Angeles, California, and I lived three thousand miles away from there, and had no intention of moving, but in 1995 when I was asked to join the staff of The X-Files. Luckily for me in hindsight, but it didn’t seem like good luck for me at the time, my early writing career was drying up. I had not sold a movie script for awhile, and I had lost my Writers Guild insurance for lack of earnings, and what seemed like very bad luck at the time, turned out to be, in hindsight, the greatest moment of good luck I’ve probably ever had, because it forced me to move from one coast to the other, and to begin with residence out here in California, and it began my career as a television writer, and I haven’t looked back.

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: I would say I enjoy having written (laughs). I’m not much of an outdoorsman, I’m not very athletic but I think of writing as climbing a series of Mount Everests. I’ve never climbed Mount Everest, but I got to think it’s torturously hard to do and you’re out of breath, and you’re staring up at this mountain looming over you, and you’re just like, every step is agony, and then when you are standing up at the peak of it, looking out, you’re thinking: ‘Man, I’m glad I did this.’ That’s a little over dramatic, writing isn’t that torturous, but it’s not necessarily a fun thing to be in the middle of – not for me anyway. Directing on the other hand is physically hard work, whereas writing is not physically hard at all, but it feels like good honest work, you put in a good honest day’s work, and you are surrounded by people you (hopefully) like, and you enjoy spending time with. You are surrounded by an amazing amount of talent, both the folks who appear in front of the camera, and the folks who stand behind it. It’s just good clean, hard work. There’s camaraderie. If you had a gun to my head, I think I’d have to say directing is more fun than writing, but I consider myself, first and foremost, a writer who directs. Not a director who writes. I think I always will. I always self-identify as a writer. The deepest satisfaction I get is from writing, not necessarily from directing.

Matt: I recall you always had a great fondness for The Lone Gunmen spinoff. Will Better Call Saul have a similar comedic tone to The Lone Gunmen? Will it greatly differ? Are there lessons from The Lone Gunmen show that you learned that will be applied to Better Call Saul?

Vince: You know, I have such fondness for The Lone Gunmen. I think it ended way too soon. I was crushed when The Lone Gunmen got canceled after its first season. What did I learn from doing that program? I get a fair number of people asking ‘what are you going to do differently’ and the answer is I wouldn’t do anything differently. The Lone Gunmen to this day is a show I’m still proud of, and I will always be proud of. It sort of points to an interesting phenomenon about television – you can’t really tell in advance whether a show is going to work for an audience. I would hold The Lone Gunmen up against anything that I have done before or since. For some reason, timing I guess, being the best thing to point to, it just didn’t click with an audience. If The Lone Gunmen had come on maybe a couple of years earlier, or a couple of years later, maybe it would have clicked. So, having said that, I definitely think there will be plenty of humor in Better Call Saul, because I love writing humor, I love comedy and I think that even the most dramatic stories can benefit from a little bit of an element of comedy, but it was a wonderful show to work on. (Laughs) There weren’t a lot of lessons to be gleaned from it, other than do the best work you can, and let the chips fall where they may.

Matt: On The X-Files, of all of the original characters you wrote, which one in hindsight remains your favorite?

Vince: I came into The X-Files purely as a fan. My first meeting with Chris Carter was simply to gush to him about how much I loved the show, and lo and behold he offered me a job. Honest to goodness, I was not looking for that; I just wanted to tell him how big of a fan of The X-Files I was. So, I think my first two favorite characters were Mulder and Scully, and I didn’t really have a favorite of the two. I think they will always remain such a perfect partnership because I never rooted for one over the other, I love them both equally, they were both two sides – the ying and yang equation I guess. So, I guess coming into it, which is a boring answer, none-the-less is here it is, I think my favorite characters are simply Mulder and Scully. But as far as characters that I got to create, or had a hand in creating, Eddie Van Blundht, he was a fun one, from “Small Potatoes,” and getting to cast the great Darin Morgan as an actor (laugh), that was a whole lot of fun. I got to be on the set for pretty much every minute of that episode, and watching Darin work as an actor was just a delight. Then I’d have to say, I can’t leave out The Lone Gunmen, I love those three guys. I love the actors who played The Lone Gunmen, and I loved the characters of The Lone Gunmen. They are Quixotic, they are like Don Quixote, the three Don Quixotes. They are heroic. You suspect they are never going to win the war, but they do occasionally win an odd battle here and there. They believe in what’s right and what’s just, and they believe in America and freedom, and they are just great heroes. Of course they were created by Glen Morgan and Jim Wong, but I was so lucky I got to help develop their characters further after their creation, and I loved Jimmy Bond and I loved Yves Harlow. I loved the actors who played them as well, both Steve Snedden, and Zuleikha Robinson. They were wonderful to write for as well, just super human beings. I got to tell you, every minute of working on The X-Files was a pleasure for me. I feel so lucky to have had that job. I wouldn’t have anything that I have now if not for The X-Files. I wouldn’t have known how to create Breaking Bad, I wouldn’t have known how to run a show. I wouldn’t have known how to do what I do now, if not for the schooling I got on The X-Files, and it was such a wonderful school to attend.

Matt: Indeed, well I heard that you were a show runner for one of the later seasons of The X-Files.

Vince: I had helped run the show, but I was never the show runner of The X-Files. Chris Carter was always the show runner, and Frank Spotnitz was his very trusted number two. Frank and Chris really ran The X-Files, it was always Chris, but Frank was always very integral and necessary to the process, especially in the last four or five years of the show. I was there to help, and I’ve been treated very, very nicely in the day, and paid which I appreciate, but I was never the show runner on The X-Files. I was a co-show runner on The Lone Gunmen.

Matt: You have commented before that the structure of Breaking Bad is similar to The X-Files. They are both different genres, but in what ways are there similarities between the themes of Breaking Bad and The X-Files?

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?

Vince: I would love to be involved. I don’t know with my current schedule, if I necessarily could be involved, but I got to tell you. I hope that is the case, and it works out that there more X-Files in the offing because even if I weren’t involved, I can tell you as a fan, I’d be right there with my Dr. Pepper and my big bowl of popcorn, and the lights dimmed down low. I think The X-Files is going to live forever. I think it’s a wonderful show, I am more proud that I can even express that I was a part of it, that I was a fan before I was ever a part of it, and I knew it was something special before I was ever involved in it. The thought that there could be more episodes of The X-Files is very exciting to me indeed. Absolutely if I knew I could do it, I would love to be a part of it, but even if I am not, you can know for a fact that I’ll be watching every episode and rooting them on, and being very much the fan boy that I started, in regards to The X-Files.

Matt: Indeed, thank you for your time, do you want to say anything about Battle Creek if it’s brief?

Vince: You know, I’m looking forward to seeing Battle Creek. It really is a show run by a gentleman named David Shore, who created House, and he’s a wonderful writer and producer. I wrote the pilot for Battle Creek twelve years ago, but David has taken that original script and run with it, and done great things with it, and I am very much going to be a fan of Battle Creek as well, but I’m not going to do the day in – day out operation of the show. I’m going to be approaching that more as a fan, as well.

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.

Matt: You too, thanks.

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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