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Vince Gilligan was 28 when he got a job on The X-Files. The NYU film graduate had written an episode which made its way to show creator Chris Carter and eventually got made. Vince then became a writer and producer on the show, and such an integral part of the team that he once joked he'd have to sell meth out of a van if he couldn't get another gig post X-Files.
That premise—a good guy driven to meth and darkness out of desperation—inspired Gilligan to write the pilot for what would become one of TV's all-time greatest shows, Breaking Bad. The cancer-ridden chemistry teacher's venture into the meth trade was a slow burn hit, becoming the show du jour in its third season and turning its anti-heroes Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) into international icons by its fifth.
Vince is now in Australia for The Australian Centre for the Moving Image's Series Mania festival. We caught up with him to hear about lessons in creativity, and how he's now working on a new show about former cult leader Jim Jones for HBO.
VICE: Vince, I wanted to say happy anniversary for 10 years of Breaking Bad. You began shooting in 2007 right?
Vince Gilligan: You know you're right, it's a decade thank you! We started shooting just after my 40th birthday in February 2007 we had a massive party and then I was shooting the pilot just after that. Damn it all went so fast.
For something related, check out our doco on a real-life meth cook named Walter White:
I know you're out here to talk about the show but at this point, are you ever sick of talking about Breaking Bad ?
(Laughing) Never. I'm just lucky that it ever happened. When Sony and AMC first gave me the greenlight I honestly felt like I was robbing a bank and I'd be stopped in my tracks any minute. I wanted everyone to have a fun time making the show because I thought no one is ever going to watch this, we'll get cancelled and so I'm still surprised that this many people, after a decade, watched Breaking Bad. I won the lottery!
And I guess with streaming you're constantly finding a brand new audience globally?
I love that there are people who aren't even born yet who are going to watch the show and mathematical statistics say a lot of them are going to love it. That idea that I have a little piece of immortality means that the rest is just gravy.
You've said you didn't learn from making Breaking Bad because it was a success and that you greet failure like an old friend because it's an education. What has been your greatest lesson in failing?
Oh so many lessons from failing. I truly do believe that we only learn from failure. One thing it's taught me is to go with my gut, it's not always right, but to anyone reading this if you are on some sort of creative endeavour and you have an idea that keeps you up at night with excitement, go with it. People will tell you it will never work but they don't know any more than you. Over the years I was constantly told my ideas wouldn't work and I would bend over backwards adapting scripts to the conventional wisdom of agents and producers and then lo and behold, they never got made. There's a fine line, take on constructive criticism but ultimately, follow your gut.
There are numerous articles in everything from Forbes to GQ wherein fellow showrunners like Matt Weiner from Mad Men and Aaron Sorkin from The West Wing have such vocal fandom for you and your show. Does praise from your peers offer a different kind of validation?
I didn't know that. Wow it's wonderful! The folks who best know what this job entails, who do what I do, it does have an extra special meaning. Matt Weiner is such a good guy, he's kind of like my big brother.
You guys came up at the same time right?
Yeah Mad Men was about a year ahead of us, so while making Breaking Bad it was fun to watch Matt and his show just take off from a very close vantage point.
When Breaking Bad ended and the hype from the final episode had subsided, did you suffer from depression?
Not as much as I thought I would and that's because I went straight into working on Better Call Saul. It's a funny old expression but you got to get back up on the horse that throws you and Breaking Bad threw me. Success, when you're not used to it, can feel like being thrown off a horse, so what we did was finish up the last mix of Breaking Bad on a Friday and started day one of Saul on the Monday. My friends asked if I was going to take some kind of a vacation, because I'm actually not a workaholic, I'm kind of lazy, but I knew I better get onto this new thing or I'm going to be petrified artistically speaking.
What did Chris Carter teach you about being a good showrunner?
The man who created The X Files taught me so many things but if I had to boil it down to one lesson he taught me, it'd be to expect greatness from all my writers. When I got there in 1995 I was a lowly staff writer but Chris expected me to be a producer even though I didn't have those credits. He expected me to fly to the set in Vancouver and oversee that the episode was true to the script. He expected me to be there for the music supervision meeting. He was teaching me to be a producer and now I do the same thing with my writers. A lot of showrunners only want the writers in the writing room, they're not allowed to be on set or in the editing room, which if you can only be in one other room as a writer, you want to be in the editing room. I was so spoiled on The X Files, Chris imparted to me that it was important to engage everyone on every episode and aspect of the show.
Can you tell me anything about the new Jim Jones project you're developing at HBO? I'm obsessed with anything People's Temple related.
Yeah I can tell you I was just in San Francisco with Michelle McLaren, who is directing, and to meet with Tim Reiterman who wrote Raven, the book we're adapting. Tim is a fascinating guy. He was there with congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana and was the last person to interview Jim Jones. He told us about being on the airstrip being shot at when all these wonderful people including congressman Ryan were murdered. In his book he describes in great detail his wristwatch being shot off and it finally being returned to him. When I asked him what happened to that watch he pulled up his cuff and showed it to me like a battle wound.
You don't have a whole room of writers on this Jim Jones project though. It's just you writing it?
That's the plan. The last thing I wrote on my own was the Breaking Bad pilot and everything since has been with fellow writers. I've got to do six episodes on my own, I hope I remember how to write.
Before I go, I want to point out that Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman) would make a really perfect Jim Jones…
You're right, that's actually not a bad idea. I'm going to note that down, Bob can do and play absolutely anything.
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Join Vince Gilligan live in conversation Monday 24th July, 2 PM at Melbourne's ACMI