The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Heads up that today’s episode has just a little bit of swearing in it.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 598 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now Craig, off and on this program, we make fun of screenwriting competitions, but I’m wondering if maybe we’re wrong, because today on the show, we welcome the winner of the 1989 Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award.
This is a writer who’s gone on to a prolific career in film and in television, including his work on The X-Files and creating the legendary series Breaking Bad and co-creating its sister series, Better Call Saul. I think we were wrong about screenwriting competitions, because welcome Vince Gilligan.
Vince Gilligan: I love that. Thank you, John. Thank you, Craig. Yes, you were completely wrong about that.
Craig: I don’t know, I guess we have to look back at the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award and really run through the other winners. Something’s telling me that maybe they just got lucky, blind squirrel and all that.
John: Correlation but not causation.
Craig: I will say that in 1989 they nailed it, because as I have often said on this podcast and in other places, Vince Gilligan is pretty much the best that’s ever been, the best that’s ever done this job of writing television. It’s great to know you, but it’s also great to have you on our show to talk, because people need to know what’s going on inside your noggin. It’s a pretty special place.
Vince: Oh, man. Jesus, I’m glad this is not on video, because I’m just glowing bright red now. That was very, very kind. I will say, I’m sure you guys have said you shouldn’t pay to enter screenwriting contests, and I agree with that wholeheartedly.
Vince: The Virginia screenwriting competition was free to enter.
John: That’s what we like.
Craig: Music to my ears.
John: Vince, I think I’ve shaken your hand once at the Austin Film Festival. I don’t know if you remember the only time I think we’ve ever had a long conversation was back in spring of 2007, because I was coming on to work on a project, a feature that you were leaving. You very graciously talked me through what you’d done on the script and where the bodies were buried. It was incredibly helpful for me as I was coming onto that project.
You said you couldn’t do any more work on the project, because you were going to go off and direct this pilot you’d written about this chemistry teacher who starts making drugs. I just wanted to know, whatever happened to that?
Vince: I’m so glad you brought that up, John, because I have to tell you, you were such a stand-up guy. I’m embarrassed to tell this story, but I’m going to tell it anyway, even though it does not make me look great.
You came in after me. I had just taken that script as far as I knew how to do, so many, many drafts. What was so wonderful about the way you handled that is that you called me out of the blue. This was probably before we shook hands in Austin.
Vince: You called me up, and you introduced yourself. You were very kind and very professional and just wanted to say, “I’m coming in behind you here on this thing.” This is the part I’m embarrassed about. I didn’t do that for the originating writer of that project.
When you called me, I thought, “This is such a cool thing this guy’s doing, this guy I don’t know.” Then I thought, “I never did that for the last guy.” It’s not like I thought about it and said no. It’s just I never even thought about it. It was very thoughtless of me. Then you came in behind me, and you were a real class act the way you handled that.
John: Thank you. We were moving into an Airbnb in Hawaii. I was there for a wedding. It was great to actually hear all the work that you had done. There were so many incredibly talented, powerful people on the project. It was so helpful for you to be there talking me through where the landmines were. Thank you again for that.
Vince: You’re very welcome. The pleasure is mine.
John: Craig, you are making TV shows, and so I thought maybe you could lead our discussion into the television of this all. I’m really curious to know from Vince about working your way up in TV staff and writing a TV show. What are you going to ask him about?
Craig: Everything, but I think mostly I really want to dig into what makes him special. He’s going to get all glowy and blushy, and that’s fine. I want to get into some of the things that make him who he is, because there aren’t a lot of writers who are consistently excellent, and Vince is. That’s where I’m going to dig in.
John: Great. I was thinking for our bonus segment for premium members, Vince, you had done a remake of Kolchak, The Night Stalker, and I was thinking, what other shows would the three of us want to remake or reboot, because it feels like there’s so many great old shows. Are there any things out there that we’d love to see brought up to a 2023-2024 season? Maybe in our bonus segment for premium members, we can talk about that at the end of the show.
Cool. Craig, we have a bit of follow-up. In our last episode, we were talking about the old prospector archetype.
Craig: Just so you catch up on this, Vince, if we say the old gold prospector, what do you imagine in your mind?
Vince: If people didn’t come up to me about once every two weeks or so and say, “I saw you on that episode of Community,” I wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about just now.
John: Wait, did you play a gold prospector on Community?
Craig: I haven’t seen this.
Vince: There was an episode of Community where they had a VHS. You remember these things? They found an old VHS game.
John: I remember this.
Vince: I was the guy on the VHS prospector.
Craig: I love this.
Vince: I think I was a gold prospector. I was a Wild West guy.
Vince: I meant what I said a minute ago. I got all these kids coming up to me lately saying, “Oh man, I loved you in Community.” I’m like, “Okay, great.”
Craig: What a strange confluence of things, because weirdly, last week, we were just talking about just the concept of the old gold prospector. I had remarked that there’s this consistent thing where if you think about the old gold prospector, you think about this kooky guy with a white beard doing a weird jig and dancing around about his gold.
Vince: That’s me.
Craig: You’ve already done this. You’ve actually been this guy.
John: This feels like a glitch in the matrix that you just happen to be the person who played that.
Craig: This is so weird. We were just trying to figure out, as we often do, why, where does this come from. There has to be some kind of origination of this, like the Wilhelm scream of gold prospectors. It looks like-
John: We got an answer here.
Craig: Our listeners have given us an answer.
John: Drew, do you want to read us… Apparently, a bunch of people wrote in, but this guy was first?
Drew: Yeah, we had a lot of people write in. Duncan Brantley was the first one, who said, “In Episode 597 you were wondering about the origin of the old-timey gold miner’s happy dance when he strikes the mother lode. One source is definitely Walter Huston’s amazing boot-stomping jig in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
John: We’ll put a link to this YouTube video. Vince, were you aware of that? Did you know that that was where this all started?
Vince: I certainly have seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and love it. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say with authority that that’s where it came from. The fellow who wrote in might well be right, yeah.
John: It’s a film directed by John Huston, but that’s Walter Huston, his father, playing the old prospector. It looks like the original thing. You can imagine that performance, and you get the animated version of it, and it gets more and more cartoony in our memory. That was probably where it all started.
Craig: He slaps his knee as he does the dance. Everything seems to have flown from there. It seems like my old buddy Ash Brannon has written in.
John: Drew, tell us what Ash Brannon said.
Drew: Ash says, “I can fill you in on the prospector character in Toy Story 2, as I was on the film as the co-director, story co-creator, and character designer. When Pete Docter, Jeff Pidgeon, and I started breaking the story in a big empty room, we were given a premise, Woody is stolen by a toy collector, but not much beyond that. My first question was, what would make Woody valuable to a toy collector? That led us to concocting the Howdy Doody style series circa 1950s.
“Running with the Western theme, we built a tropey cast around Sheriff Woody, and a prospector sidekick just felt right. Jessie started as a talking cactus, by the way, more proof that bad ideas can lead to good ones. Character-wise, Jessie and Bullseye are very much like their TV counterparts, but with the prospector we deliberately went 180 degrees from the TV series bumbling idiot. Being the lead antagonist, he needed to be smart and manipulative, so we found this perfect opportunity to create a sophisticated intellectual who’s forever trapped in the body of a bumbling idiot.”
John: Aha. Once again, we have the greatest listeners on earth, because not only did they give us the oor [ph] text for the prospector, we actually have a writer-director from Toy Story 2 there to answer our questions.
Craig: That makes total sense that Kelsey Grammer would be forced to act like this goofy idiot. Then it’s a little bit like Alan Rickman in-
Vince: Galaxy Quest.
Craig: Yeah, exactly, in Galaxy Quest, this guy that’s used to performing Shakespeare on stage in England being forced to wear this crap and say these dumb lines like, “By Grabthar’s hammer.” Yet as I’ve often pointed out, I don’t think anything has made me cry harder in a science-fiction movie than Alan Rickman saying to a dying alien, “By Grabthar’s hammer, I will avenge thee.”
Vince: Great moment.
John: So good. Vince Gilligan, how can we best fast-forward from you winning the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition to being the television titan that you are today? What are some of those early steps? This is Virginia. Obviously, you’re there for school. When did you come to Los Angeles? When did you start coming to your work in film and television? What was that transition for you?
Vince: It was basically win the contest and then have an interstitial title that says, “And then a bunch of lucky stuff happened.” There was an awful lot of good luck involved. Before that, there was five years or thereabouts of me living in my home state of Virginia.
This was after winning that contest, 1989. Winning that contest put me in touch with Mark Johnson, who I’ve been working with really ever since, for the last, gosh, what is it now, 35 years, 36 years, whatever it is. Mark Johnson, he was a producer on the movie Rain Man, which had won the Oscar just months before I met him, when he shook my hand as one of the judges of the screenwriting contest in 1989. He contacted me after the contest and said, “Do you have any other scripts?” I sent him what I had. I had a couple other movie scripts I had written in the meantime.
Always good advice, which I’m sure you guys have given many times before, is don’t just write that one script and then rest on your laurels. Write that one and put it aside and then start writing a second one. Back then I had that kind of self-starting self-discipline. I don’t really possess that anymore, but I had it then, and so I had a couple of other scripts to show Mark Johnson after he had expressed interest in my first one.
Then basically five years of living in Virginia, trying to be a movie writer and trying to do it from a distance. John, my hat is off to you, because I was not cut out for the movie business. It’s a tough business. The emotional rollercoaster you’re on as a movie writer, at least in my experience.
If TV hadn’t come along to save me in about 1994, I know you guys wouldn’t be interviewing me now. I’m not sure where I’d be. I’d be writing for the PennySaver or something. Nothing wrong with that, by the way, for folks who do that. I don’t know what I’d be doing, but I wouldn’t be-
Craig: I don’t think there’s a lot of editorial work at the PennySaver.
Vince: I would’ve changed that.
John: [Crosstalk 00:12:24].
Craig: This one PennySaver is full of fantastic writing. Maybe it is that your mind is more creatively speaking, that you feel like you’re more suited for television, or is it just that the business of features was enough to grind you down, whereas the business of television fits your speed a little bit better?
Vince: I think writing is writing. I think there’s wonderful movie scripts being written, wonderful TV scripts being written, and then everything along the spectrum all the way to bad. I think writing is writing. In TV, the writer is the boss. In movies, they are the polar opposite of the boss. That’s the problem. Unless you get to a point you’re like a John August where people pay attention to you as a movie writer in the various meetings that you go to around Los Angeles, New York, and whatnot.
The experience I had, if someone had designed some sort of fiendish mental torture, they couldn’t have done a better job than the process of you write a script, whoever you’re in that particular meeting says, “Oh my god. We love it. We love it. Oh, we love it. Sit and wait by your phone. Be around tomorrow. Do not leave the house.” This is back in the day before cellphones. I can’t tell you how many times I was told by various producers, by various studio executives, “Wait by your phone, because we’re going to be calling you tomorrow with further instructions. This is a go project.” Then you literally cut to the phone has cobwebs on it. It hasn’t rang. It was torture.
The movie business was torture. The TV business can absolutely… Every business has its torturous moments. In the TV business, until somebody fucks it up… Can I curse on this, by the way?
Craig: You can.
John: You absolutely can. You’re required to.
Craig: You fucking can.
Vince: Until we take what works about the TV business and take all the wrong lessons from the movie business… I say this as a member of the Directors Guild as well, but there is a push currently to make… I don’t even know if this comes from the DGA as much as it’s coming from executives at various streamers and various studios and whatnot, networks. “The writers are okay, but directors, now that’s who you want running a TV show.” Then you cut to some superstar director directing the first 48 minutes of a TV show and then shuffling off to Buffalo. Then who’s running it after that? It’s the writer. It’s the showrunner, who is another way of saying the head writer, and his or her staff of wonderful other writers. There seems to be a push now to change that. If that happens, then you’re going to have a TV business that’s more like what’s happening in the movie business.
Craig: I won’t stick around for that business if that happens, as a refugee from features to television. You mentioned directors. I don’t know how many episodes of television you’ve made. You probably have lost count yourself. Across all those, but particularly across the ones where you’ve been the showrunner, you’ve worked with a lot of directors. I’m curious, from your point of view, what do you think makes a good episodic TV director versus a not so good one. Maybe think about that from the point of view of both the quality of the work they do but also the experience of working with them.
Vince: Great question. I think there’s a lot of overlap about what makes a great TV director versus what makes a great movie director. I think like writing is writing, directing is directing. I hope everything I just said a minute ago does not denigrate the process of directing for TV. It’s a crucial job. Directors, especially the great ones, and I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of great ones, the value they add to the process is immeasurable.
I think a great director, and I’ll say this movie or TV, a great director looks at the script, looks at the story, and says, “This is the story we’re telling.” Then they look to do everything in their power, with every decision they make, with the wardrobe, the props, the locations, certainly the casting. They’re looking at telling one story that everyone agrees is the story. It’s really the same skill set in either version. Television directors typically have to listen to the input of the writer, of the showrunner, more than they do in movies. I can’t tell you how many times I was not even allowed to be on the set.
Craig: I was going to say, that’s quite an understatement.
Vince: I think a smart director, whether they have to, quote unquote, have to listen or not, I think a smart director, just like a smart anybody in these mediums, listens to these people around them. By the way, this absolutely goes for showrunners too, writer-showrunners in TV. If you stop listening to your directors, conversely, if you stop listening to the people around you, you’re just bound to fail. Both these mediums are the ultimate in collaborative mediums, movies and TV.
You get this vibe that movies are not so collaborative, that it’s all about the directors and their vision. Anyone who forgets that either one of these lines of endeavor is a collaborative medium forgets it at their own peril. You have to surround yourself with smart people. You don’t have to do anything, but I think you’re foolish to not surround yourself with smart people and then not listen to them. That’s just the height of arrogance and egotism and ultimately self-destructiveness.
John: Craig, you’ve had your own experiences with The Last of Us, the first time you were working with a series of different directors. Did you learn a lot?
Craig: I did. It’s interesting. For Chernobyl we had one director, a director that worked on Breaking Bad, in fact, Johan Renck, who directed a couple great episodes of Breaking Bad. I had a fantastic relationship with Johan. It was easy to learn one person’s rhythm and language and their quirks, because it’s an interesting relationship.
I try to be the kind of person that I always wished the feature directors I worked with had been, which is to say yes, I do get the final vote, yes, I am in charge, however let’s work to agree, and let’s treat each other with as much respect as possible and let’s let everybody else know around us that we are both integral and just as important as each other, which really doesn’t happen much in features.
Vince: It does not.
Craig: Working with multiple directors, it’s a little bit like new actors coming in. You just have to get very flexible very quickly, because everyone’s different. You have to learn their rhythms and their quirks afresh. Hopefully, they understand that they are stepping into rushing water, because there’s been a lot of stuff that’s happened before they showed up, and there’s going to be a lot of stuff that happens after they leave.
The other thing that I think is important hopefully to find with directors is directors that understand that ultimately you as the showrunner are going to be responsible for the edit. I don’t know about how you go about these things, Vince, but there are times where you just feel like you need something. You have to almost negotiate a little bit with your own directors to make sure you get the things that you think you’ll need, even if ultimately it turns out you didn’t need it.
Vince: You described it very well just now, Craig. The buck stops with you as a showrunner just like the buck stops with the director on a movie set. Wherever the buck stops, it is good advice to that person, to that decider, listen to people around you. Ultimately, yeah, you gotta make a decision, but be as collaborative as you can be.
Communication is nine tenths of it, I feel like. If you need certain things in the finished footage, you need to communicate that. The time to do that is in pre-production. Pre-production is ultimately probably more important than production. You would have these epic tone meetings. I guess you do them in movies too.
Craig: Not really. I wish we would.
John: We really don’t. It’d be better if we did.
Vince: You’re right. You’re right.
Craig: It’s a shame.
Vince: I was trying to be magnanimous toward the movie business.
Craig: Don’t be.
Vince: I think directors certainly could do them in movies. In just focusing on television, the tone meeting is where the writer of the episode, and usually the showrunner as well, and sometimes that’s the same person, very often the producers will sit with the director for hours. We’ve had tone meetings that have gone 9, 10 hours. We’ll break them up. Sometimes we’ll break them up over two days or whatever. We’re not trying to numb everybody’s butts into submission by sitting there talking for nine hours or whatnot.
We’re basically going through the script from Page 1 to where it says the end. We’re going through and talking through. This is after the bulk of the pre-production is figured out, after the locations have been picked, the guest actors have been cast, all that kind of thing. It’s the final opportunity for the director and the writer/showrunner to get on the same page.
It works best when it flows both ways. If it’s just the showrunner dictating to the director, “This is what I want. I don’t want any Dutch angles. I want this. I want that. I want a 70-foot Technocrane,” you can do it that way if you want, but it works best when it goes both ways, when the director asks the showrunner just as many questions.
You want someone who’s a collaborative artist, just as you and your best version of yourself want to be a collaborative artist, but you also want someone who has a point of view. The best directors are not the ones who just roll over and say, “Tell me how to do it, boss.” The best directors are going to give you things you’ve never even conceived of. The best directors I’ve worked with and the ones I work with over and over again don’t just roll over and say, “Tell me what to do.” They say, “Here’s what I’m thinking here.”
We had a wonderful director on Better Call Saul, Larysa Kondracki. We always have these big teasers. There was a teaser in an episode she directed. We had a scene at the US-Mexican border. At this moment I’m drawing a blank what happens in the damn scene, but I know it was epic. We had it in our heads, it’s going to be dozens of shots and dozens of setups. She said, “I want to do this whole thing as a oner.”
Craig: I remember this. I remember this one.
Vince: She explained it to us way in advance. She said, “When I read this, I pictured it as one shot.” I remember hearing this and thinking, “That’s nuts. You can’t do this as one shot.” Damned if she didn’t. She talked us into it. It wasn’t that hard for her to talk us into it, because she basically pitched it to us. “Picture this. You’re here, and you’re on this thing. You go up the row of vehicles,” and blah blah blah.
It was just brilliant the way she did it. That was not the intention of the folks in the writers’ room when we came up with it. We just figured standard. It was great. It was much more memorable than it would’ve been the way we had in mind. That’s what you’re looking for.
She communicated that to us as soon as she had the idea, basically. She talked us into it, which as I say, was not hard, because it was so cool. Then every department worked with that image, with that idea in mind, worked through the process of making it, because we had to build a US-Mexican border at Double Eagle Airport just to the west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Everything then going forward in the pre-production was designed to make it work as well as possible for that oner. That to me is when it’s working best. It starts with communication, clearly.
Craig: One of the things that you’re digging into here is how much planning is involved in things. Just taking a step back from production and just going back to the act of creation and planning out the stories that you want to tell, one of the hallmarks I think of what you do is this constant balance between surprise and planning.
The example that I want to use is the floating teddy bear in the pool, the opening episode in Season 2 of Breaking Bad. There is something that is so weird about it and surprising and confusing, and yet when all is said and done and you arrive at the end of that season, you understand exactly what’s going on. It all has led to this inevitable concept that is harrowing and way more upsetting than you ever thought it was going to be.
I’m just curious, as you go about thinking about story and how to divide story up across episodes and fill out a season, how do you find the weirdness and then balance it across the structure of things? That was so weird, and yet also so structured.
Vince: I wish I had an answer that always applied, but it really is a case-by-case thing. The storytelling I think is best is organic storytelling, which is where you start with a character. The character revealing themself to you, the writer, precipitates the plot. That’s to me organic, starting with character, working out from that.
Sometimes you’re just restless in the writers’ room, and you get real inorganic from time to time. That is probably a good example of inorganic storytelling where, to the best of my recollection… I’m not being coy or vague as to who said what. Honestly, I forget who said what, which I think the writers’ room is chugging along best when you forget who gets credit for what idea. I think in that case, my vague memory of it now all these years later is I was just thinking, “This is a visual medium,” and I’m always saying that, “I want something really cool to look at here, opening up this season.” Season 2 I think is what it was.
I don’t know who came up with it. It’s a group effort as always, but just, “I want something weird and random.” That was as inorganic as it gets, because it was the idea of the pool in Walter White’s backyard, which by the way, this is, again, such a collaborative medium.
The only time I ever worked on that show by myself was coming up with the pilot. When I was coming up with the pilot, and that’s for my money the least successful episode, my least favorite episode, the one I basically came up with on my own.
Craig: We might have to quibble a little bit there with you on that one. Possibly the greatest pilot of all time, but okay, go ahead.
Vince: I love all the subsequent episodes so much more, and I think in part because I wasn’t alone in the wilderness anymore. I’m getting in the weeds here. Let me try to keep on subject.
The pool in the backyard of Walter White’s house, I don’t think it was important to me. I don’t even think I thought he would necessarily have a pool. I probably thought he wouldn’t have a pool, because the guy’s hurting for money. It seems like a status symbol to have a pool.
This house that we picked, you wind up driving around in a van with all these folks, and you see this house, and you say, “I think this is the house. Something about this feels right. Oh, it’s got a pool in the backyard. For a guy who’s hurting for money, that seems… What the hell? Let’s go with the pool.” Then the pool became a touchstone for this guy. Now we have Season 1, and he’s sitting by the pool from the pilot on. The pool feels important on some weird, symbolic level, although I can’t explain what this symbolism adds up to.
Then we’re sitting around in the writers’ room in the early days of Season 2, and it’s, “What if something’s floating in the pool? What would it be? I don’t know, what if it’s a teddy bear? How did that teddy bear get there? Who the fuck knows?”
Craig: That’s interesting, because I was going to ask what comes first. Spoiler alert, by the time you get to the end of the season, someone has died from drugs. That person’s father works as an air traffic controller. The air traffic controller is distracted and distraught and makes an error that leads to a plane crash.
Craig: The plane crash results in debris being scattered over Albuquerque, including this scorched teddy bear that belonged obviously to some now-dead child, that lands in Walter White’s pool. The question was, what comes first, the bear or the crash? It sounds like the bear comes first. Then you go, “How did that get there?” That leads you to the airplane. Wow.
Vince: I think so, to the best of my memory. I do not recommend. Listen, by the way. If it takes standing on your head until the blood rushes to your head and you pass out, if that’s what it takes to get to where you ultimately want to be, so be it. Short of doing yourself physical harm or certainly anyone else, whatever it takes is whatever it takes.
The best kind of storytelling, to repeat the thought, is from character outward. Every now and then you cheat. Every now and then you get bored. You try to jumpstart the process. I think in that case, it was from some crazy image outward.
It’s a little bit of schmuck bait I guess you could say. We’re trying to mystify the audience at the beginning of Season 2. There’s a burnt teddy bear floating in this pool. Its plastic eyeballs come out in a skimmer. There must’ve been violence done at the Walter White house. There must’ve been a shoot-out. Except we’re looking at the house, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any signs of an explosion or a fire at the house.
Craig: People gather some of it with an evidence bag, which makes you-
Craig: … think even further there was some sort of crime.
Vince: Exactly. Exactly. Even in that, we were careful not to schmuck bait it too much. We showed the house right from the opening images. You see the house. The windows are still intact. The house is not burned down, that kind of thing. You see a body bag. It’s a partially full body bag, which I guess is the way it would be after a plane blew up mid-air. It’s just little pieces of people. Then you work outward. We thought, “We’re going to make the audience think there was some terrible violence here,” but then the idea of a plane crash came fairly quickly.
The one thing that was crucial was, it can’t be just some random happenstance thing. It has to be because Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, put the wheels into motion that led to debris raining down on his house. The one thing we knew for sure we were dead set on is it can’t just be a random thing. It has to relate back to Walter White’s actions. His actions have to have these terrible karmic effects upon the world. He has that kind of power over this particular fictional universe, whether he knows it or not. It’s not even a sure thing that he understood that he was responsible. He wouldn’t take responsibility in any way. He’s not that kind of guy.
Craig: He would figure out how to avoid moral responsibility.
John: Vince, I hear you talking about the origin of this idea, this image. You’re using we the whole time through. This is all a thing that’s coming out of the writers’ room as you’re trying to put together Season 2. You don’t even quite know whose idea it was to come up with the teddy bear, but it was not just one brain. It’s a bunch of brains working together and working in sync.
How did you assemble your writers’ room? How did you pick the writers you wanted to be in that room with you? How did you manage that? That’s such a different skill than being a writer working alone is figuring out how to harness the power of a bunch of writers. You obviously had staffed on X-Files coming up, but what was it like to be the showrunner with a bunch of writers working for you?
Vince: I didn’t think I’d like it. I could spend a whole podcast talking about how lucky I was to be on The X-Files, what it taught me, what working for Chris Carter and those other writers taught me, because I had never been in a room before with other writers. Having said that, X-Files was so episodic that we writers worked in a collaborative way, helping each other out, but it was an informal way. We didn’t really have a writers’ room per se on The X-Files.
John: Because it doesn’t build from episode to episode.
Vince: Exactly. Exactly.
Craig: It’s not serialized.
Vince: Exactly. When it’s a serialized show and you have a writers’ room, at least the way we’ve been doing it for 15 years, it has to be all hands on deck, plugging away. On The X-Files, I’d be in my office working on an episode about thus and so, and Frank Spotnitz would be in his office and doing another episode. John Shiban would be in another office banging away on yet again another episode. We were helpful to each other as far as banging ideas off each other, but it was a different kind of beast.
Before that even, before I had that experience, I was just working by myself. I didn’t know I’d like it working in a writers’ room. I didn’t know that I’d fit in well. I thought there’s a real chance I might be a real square peg in a round hole there. I might not fit in. I might hate it. Secretly, I want to do it all myself, because I’ve got that vanity of wanting to write it all myself. I thought I would feel that way. A writers’ room is a great adventure.
How did I get the writers for Breaking Bad? Ironically, I had the priceless help of a non-writer, my producer, Melissa Bernstein, who is a genius producer and a really excellent director as well at this point. When Breaking Bad was starting off, she and I both were starting off. She was the assistant to Mark Johnson. She was basically sitting on his desk, as we say in Hollywood. She was the one sitting on the desk outside his office and answering his phones.
When Breaking Bad started, Mark said, “You’re going to need a day-to-day producer. How about Melissa?” Just smart as a whip, but had never done that job before. Grew into it beautifully. Now she’s off running I think House of the Dragon in London as we record this. They’re lucky to have her.
John: Melissa’s fantastic. She was involved with Arlo Finch. She’s great.
Vince: She is fantastic. How I found the writers, she found them for me. This was back in the days before everything was set digitally and read on an iPad. I saw it in her office. She had a seven-foot-tall pile of printed paper scripts. She read through them all and winnowed them down to a pile that was, I don’t know, maybe less than a foot tall. Then I read those. Every writer I hired for that first season was in that pile, including Peter Gould, who wound up running-
Craig: Better Call Saul.
Vince: Yeah, co-creating Better Call Saul with me and then running it, running it brilliantly. I didn’t know him from Adam before I read his script in that short pile of scripts that Melissa had winnowed down. That’s how I came to find these folks. They just turned out to be a murderous row of writers in that first season and beyond.
Listen, again, to reiterate, once you get this job, do it any damn way you please. Just try to be kind to people. You’re not curing cancer. It’s just a TV show. There’s no excuse to be nasty to people.
If you get this job and you can write every episode by yourself, more power to you, but the way it works best for me is being in a room, getting everyone emotionally invested in the story at hand and the characters at hand and the story you’re telling, and then not keeping score as to who said what, really.
There’s that old expression, I didn’t make it up, but to paraphrase it, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re not keeping score, when you’re not accounting for who said what. I really hew to that. Every now and then I remember who said what in the room, when it was some highlight moment that made us all erupt into laughter or whatever.
As an example, we had an episode where we’ve got the actor Danny Trejo plays a character who gets his head chopped off with a machete. We came up with this moment where, “What happened to this guy?”
Craig: So great.
Vince: This guy’s severed head is on a giant desert tortoise. They painted on the tortoise “Hola DEA.” We came up with that. That was a group effort. We came up with that. I was so tickled by that image and so excited about putting it into an episode of Breaking Bad that I basically said, “We should just call it a day right there. We should take an early lunch, because I think we’ve done all the work we need to do for the day.”
George Mastras, one of our wonderful writers, the show, he had been quiet. He had been pitching in on this thing, but he was quiet for a minute. He said, “Yeah, but then what happens?” I said, “What do you mean? You got a head on a tortoise. What else do you need?” He says, “I think the head should blow up.” Everyone said, “What?” I said, “George, man, let’s take the win here. That’s like gilding the lily.”
John: Hat on a hat.
Vince: A hat on a hat. God, we love that expression. We use that one all the time.
Craig: It wasn’t.
Vince: It wasn’t. Literally, I kind of scoffed and said, “George, we don’t need to do that. We don’t need that.” He shrugged and said, “Seems like it’s… ” I thought about it, and I said, “Oh shit, you’re right.” That’s how the scene ends. It would’ve been an okay scene, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as, I love the expression Kubrick used, non-submergible. It would not have been a true non-submergible scene if the head hadn’t blown up. That was George.
You’re working together in this room. What I’m trying to achieve is have one brain almost instead of six or seven or eight brains. It’s worked well for us. Again, like I say, do it any way you want when it’s your show.
John: I don’t have a good sense of both of these shows. Are the writers figuring out the season. How many scripts are you ahead before we start production. Are those writers still around as you’re in production?
Vince: You were as ahead as many as you could possibly be. We had all kinds of different experiences. We had experiences where we were only maybe four or five ahead. Was it the final season of Better Call Saul or the one before it? It’s amazing what I can’t remember. We’ve had experiences toward the end of the run of Better Call Saul where we had every episode broken. Oh, man, is that the dream. That is the dream.
People say, “That’s not every episode written.” The writing is the easy part. The breaking is the hard part. You put that many people in a room together for 9, 10 hours a day for 5 days a week, months on end, and having the whole thing figured out with index cards on a corkboard. That’s the hard part.
The theory that we apply to it is, once that episode is broken, in other words, once every story is hammered out and put on these index cards, then any one of us, whoever’s responsible for that episode, or if they drop dead that week, anyone else could just jump write in and write it themselves. Everybody knows that everybody had an equal hand in coming up with it. One writer writes the draft and gets credit for it, and that’s not nothing. That’s important. There’s invention to be had writing the draft.
You have as many ahead as you can possibly have, because then selfishly, as the showrunner, or as the co-showrunner in the case of Better Call Saul, then I get a chance to actually be on the set. Maybe I get a chance to direct more.
If you’re working one episode ahead, which is basically what we did on the first season of Breaking Bad, then you just feel like you just barely got your nose in the water, feel like you’re about to drown any second. You can’t really do all the other parts of the job that are the more fun things, the location scouting, picking props, picking costumes, blah blah blah. You just don’t have time for it all in that version.
Craig: One thing that occurs to me as I hear you talk about your room and the way, it makes sense, you’re trying to create this joint brain that all thinks aligned, the joint brain is, however, aligning itself ultimately to your brain if you are running the show. If I were in a room for one of your shows, I would certainly be desperate to make you happy.
I guess my question is, and this is going to be a hard one for you, because you are, and I’m sure people are picking up on this, just inherently decent and humble person, but what do you think is different about the way you think and work compared maybe to other people that work in television? Because you do seem to have this ability to come up with work that just people are obsessed with and I think is obviously quality work. What’s going on? Have you thought about what separates you or what makes you different? Because I think a lot of people listening would be inspired to perhaps be more like you if they knew exactly what it meant to be like you.
Vince: That’s very flattering. It probably tends to come across as somewhat falsely modest at some of these kind of situations, but it really is the truth. Also, you’re only a genius for as long as you’re a genius. Breaking Bad was lightning in a bottle. Better Call Saul, lightning strike twice for us. Then we were so lucky that it’s hit twice. This next thing I’m working on, it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that everyone will say, “Ugh.”
Craig: Listen. God knows I can identify with that. It does seem like lightning doesn’t really strike twice just randomly. There are things that you stress or that you emphasize, things that you go for, things that you try and do that set your shows apart. By the way, your shows are also traditional in that they are commercially interrupted, whereas all the highfalutin streaming shows aren’t. You’re still writing in this, what I would call the commercially interrupted format.
Vince: You’re right.
Craig: You are doing it at a level that I think puts so much of the so-called PTV streaming to shame. I guess I’ll rephrase to let you off the self-praise hook. What advice would you give to a creator who’s about to run a show? This is purely creative advice, not functional, not procedural, just creatively, advice on how to make something great as opposed to just good.
Vince: Starting with what you just said about commercially interrupted, it’s interesting. Before the strike started and we were in a writers’ room, we’re working on a new project for Apple. The sky’s the limit basically. This is the first time I’ve non-commercially-supported project.
When we created Breaking Bad, we created squarely for AFC. Then luckily, Netflix came along and was a wonderful second broadcaster or medium or whatever the proper terminology is. X-Files before that, these are created for ad-supported television, so we did what we had to do. Now I’ve really fallen in love with that art form.
Even now in this Apple show where we could do it however we choose to do it, we are still queueing to this teaser and four-act structure. We’re still using the same structure on this new show as we were using 30 years ago on The X-Files. What was created years before I ever got in the business, what was created out of necessity for an ad-supported business, I think actually has benefits, even now that we don’t have to hew to it.
I think there’s benefits. They are storytelling and structural benefits when you’re thinking in terms of, “We got a teaser, and then we’re going to do some sort of title sequence. Then we have Act 1. By the dramatic necessities of storytelling, this act has to end with some reason to keep watching.” I think that works whether you have commercials or not.
If you’re building toward these mini climaxes, and I like that, four mini climaxes, well, three and then one big climax at the end of the hour that makes you want to tune in next week, or in the case of streaming, not interrupt the thing when it immediately starts playing the next episode, I think there’s real benefit to that. I certainly didn’t invent that. It was thrust upon us on X-Files. I love it. I continue with it. I think that helps focus my thinking as a storyteller. There’s that.
These are just thoughts. Again, the beauty of this job is you can do it any damn way you want. I would say to folks getting that wonderful opportunity to do this, don’t necessarily throw away all the old ways of doing things, because there was good reasons for them sometimes. Hire the smartest people, both in front of and behind the camera, and then listen to them. Try to set your ego aside. It’s not false modesty or real modesty or whatever. It’s just plain old meat and potatoes kind of common sense.
We get so much credit for this job. Showrunners get so much credit. It’s turned into this sexy job. God knows how that happened. You’re never going to starve for credit. You’re going to get plenty if your show is doing well. When you don’t try to hog it all, the people who work with you are happier, and they give you even more of what you want from them, which is to say their best work. There are so many benefits.
My business manager always says he’s talking about money, not about credit. He always says the expression, “Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.” Try not to hog the spotlight too much, because you’re going to get pats on the head and pats on the back you don’t even deserve in the first place.
What happened with Breaking Bad and what I’m trying to do with this new thing is look around and see what everyone else is doing and try to zig a little bit if everyone else is zagging.
Craig: There you go. There you go. I’ve been waiting.
Vince: That’s to me, using Breaking Bad as an example. I looked around. I love television. I watch a lot of old TV and new stuff. I love the medium, period. I was looking around in the early 2000s, the mid-2000s, and I said, “What is everyone doing now?”
All the shows had a somewhat similar look to them in that everyone was framing for head and shoulders mostly. Every now and then you’d see a cowboy or from the waist up or from the thighs up, or every now and then you’d show somewhat full body, but the framing was tight in the early and mid-2000s.
Just looking around and observing what was going on, what everyone else was doing, what didn’t make sense to me then was that the framing wasn’t changing, even though we had the advent of big-screen TVs. We were going for more squarish, 3-by-4 tube TVs that were maybe maxed out at 34, 36, 32 inches probably. Suddenly there’s these plasma TVs and then later LCD and LED flat screens that were 16 by 9. If you had the money back then, you could have a giant screen that’s taking up most of your living room, and yet still people are framing super tight on people’s faces. What’s the point? You got this new tool now.
That was part of what I was looking for. That’s not story so much. That’s more from a directorial point of view. You look around at stuff like that, what are people doing. If you start with that, that can hold you instead.
Craig: That’s excellent advice. You’ve just put something in my brain that I had never considered, which is that the rise of so-called peak TV or the golden age of television that we’re living in corresponds very closely to the introduction of the 16-by-9 television format, that the format itself had led to a certain kind of constriction of TV, both visual and storytelling-wise. That’s fascinating. It never occurred to me. I’m sure a thousand people are going to write in now saying, “Hey, idiot, there have already been a hundred articles about that.”
John: Or if they’re not, they’re writing an article right now.
Craig: They’re writing right now. Some listicle is being generated as we speak. That’s a great observation. I think going the other way, as you said, zigging when people are zagging, it doesn’t necessarily lead you to an original idea or thought. What it does is set you up to look for one that you are not copying, you’re not sitting in the same groove as everyone else.
It’s hard sometimes because the television movie business is designed to urge you to copy, because that’s what makes people who don’t write things safe. It makes them feel safe, at least. Probably actually puts them in great danger. For us, I think making a virtue of doing something different, that’s excellent advice.
Vince: Thank you. I hope it is, but I don’t know how practical it is, ultimately, because the two scariest letters in the world right now, in this business at least, are AI, but a close second is IP.
Craig: I hear you.
Vince: The folks listening, I think it’s good advice. I don’t know if it’s good advice. I think it’s just good practice to try to do something original, try to come up with your best version of something that no one’s ever done before. Good luck with that.
I do believe there’s only so many stories in the world. That doesn’t keep me up at night, because I think there’s only a finite number of human emotions, so therefore there’s only a finite number of stories.
If you can do everything you can to make your work as original as possible, good on you, more power to you. Just know that you’re going to be swimming against the current when it comes to most of the decision makers in this business, both in TV and movies. They want IP. They want intellectual property. They want existing stories.
Craig: Even inside those, Vince, I think that there’s an opportunity. We’ve been talking about the Dungeons and Dragons movie, which is a delight. That’s the most IP IP-ish-ness that you can get, or the Lego movies.
Craig: Best example that there are ways inside of IP to do the different thing, to do something that people aren’t expecting even inside of that.
Craig: You are right, there are only so many stories. There are only so many human emotions. There’s only 12 keys on the piano keyboard really. There’s only six strings on a guitar, and people keep coming up with new songs. I don’t know how.
Vince: If we lived in a world that’s completely flipped on its head and no one wanted something from some other existing property turned into a TV show, for instance, we wouldn’t have The Last of Us. Thank god we have The Last of Us.
Craig: Thank god.
Vince: No, seriously. What a brilliant show.
Craig: Thank you.
Vince: You know what it is? It’s just about absolutism. It’s just as bad, like I say, if we lived in bizarro Hollywood where they said, “No. If it’s been done before, you can’t. God knows you can’t have another Star Wars. God forbid, because it’s already been done. We need nothing but originality,” that really would be bizarro Hollywood.
Craig: That would be a very strange Hollywood. You’re right. I think going too far in either direction is a mess. Hollywood’s always looked to books before there were… We’ll be discussing this on our bonus segment. Movies look to television. Television looks to movies. Everybody’s looking at each other. Now they’re looking at toys and video game narratives.
Ultimately, I think if you come at these things creatively, as if it’s original, you come at it with all the care that you would for something that is your own, which basically means instead of somebody calling you up and saying, “Hey, we got this thing. You want to do it?” and then you’re already probably in a rough spot, if you can find something and then take it somewhere and go, “I love this thing. I want to make a thing into a thing,” probably you’re off on a better foot there.
Vince: Absolutely. God, if you don’t have enthusiasm for… It’s so easy to fall prey to this. I wanted to have this job back before I even knew what the name of this job was. I wanted to have it so badly, I would’ve probably chopped off a pinky finger or something to get it.
At a certain point, it’s like, what are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to be a showrunner, or do you have a story to tell? It’s so seductive to do this. “Here, do this show. Go off and run this show.” When it’s that kind of scenario, when someone suggests, “Hey, why don’t you do this,” there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s perfectly a moral, valid thing to do.
If you have to manufacture, if you have to find the enthusiasm for something because you want the job, versus just coming off the street if you can manage to get through the door and say, “I don’t even know what you call that job, but I got this story I want to tell,” that’s a naïve way of looking at it, because it doesn’t really work like that, but I wish it did.
Vince: That’s the way I wish it worked always.
Craig: Fantastic. I wish I could talk to Vince all day. I really do.
Vince: Great for my ego.
Craig: Is no one else telling you this stuff? Is it just us?
Vince: My wife, Holly, is very careful to not let me-
Vince: … get too big for my britches as we say.
Craig: Our spouses do the same for us, no question.
Vince: They’re doing us all a great favor.
John: Our spouses too, for sure.
Craig: Indeed, indeed.
John: We wrap up every episode with our One Cool Things. I think we warned you about this. Something you would like to recommend to the audience. Do you have something you want to pass along?
Vince: I got a twofer. I’ll make it quick.
Vince: A TV show-
Vince: … that I’d be amazed if anyone listening to this has heard of. I may be wrong. I have a TV show I love so much right now. It’s called Dracula’s Kung-Fu Theatre. This is on a channel called Retro.
Craig: There’s a channel called Retro?
Vince: There’s a channel called Retro TV. It’s out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. I think you can find their live feed on the internet. Other than that, it’s over the air or nothing.
Vince: I use an over-the-air antenna I bought at Walmart. I watch a lot of over-the-air television.
Craig: God. Wow.
Vince: Retro TV is one thing I get if I adjust the antenna just right and the wind’s not blowing too hard.
Vince: It’s a show these three or four guys do I think out of Chattanooga. Basically it’s Dracula, the vampire king. You turn on the episode every week, and he is in his castle in Transylvania, and he is sharing his bitching collection of VHS kung-fu movies with you, one movie a week.
Craig: Oh my god.
Vince: He’s got a werewolf in a cage. The werewolf hands him the tape of the week, and he puts the tape into a VHS tape player that’s sat on a cart with a tube TV. He does the intro every week. He tells you about that week’s kung-fu movie, some movie from the ’70s.
Craig: Oh my gosh.
Vince: Then literally, they cut to the tube TV, which plays the movie for two hours.
Craig: Oh, that’s awesome.
Vince: I love the show so damn much.
Vince: I can’t even tell you. I would recommend. I bought a T-shirt from them and everything. I’ve got a Dracula’s Kung-Fu Theatre T-shirt. I love these guys. They make this show for 29 cents.
Vince: It doesn’t matter they have no money to spend. It is so fun, and it is so charming, and it is so witty, a lot of the banter. He’s just this really funny version of Dracula, and he loves kung-fu movies. That’s my first recommendation.
Craig: That’s awesome.
Vince: Then Alien Tape. Alien Tape. Probably no one listening to this watches over-the-air commercials anymore. Everyone is too smart. Everyone’s way smarter than me. They’re not sitting through the commercials. I watch a lot of over-the-air TV, and therefore I have to sit through the commercials, just like we did 40 years ago.
There’s this commercial for something called Alien Tape. I’m thinking this is bullshit. It’s this clear tape that’s made out of silicone. You can stick a brick to a wall with it. I buy some of this stuff, because I’m in CVS in LA, and they’ve got an aisle of as seen on TV. I see this stuff. I’m thinking, “Oh, brother.” I wind up buying it, because what the hell? This shit is for real. This stuff, I stuck up my over-the-air antenna on the wall with it, but at a certain point I had to move it. I could not get this thing loose. It is so strong.
Vince: I finally pried it loose, and I thought, “Oh, man, I’ve messed up the paint on my bedroom wall here.” It came off completely clean. You can run it under running water and clean it up and reuse that same piece of tape. I love this stuff.
Vince: It is awesome.
Craig: I’m going to get some of this.
Vince: I’m big into adhesives. I love adhesives of all kinds. They’re really cool.
Craig: I would have never predicted.
John: This is content you can’t get on any other podcast. How many interviews have you done? No one’s ever gotten your love of adhesives out of you.
Craig: He doesn’t love them. He’s big into them.
Vince: I’m big into them.
Craig: He’s big into the entire adhesives product category.
John: Yeah, big into it.
John: I love it.
Craig: My One Cool Thing today is… Oh, jeez, I hate to recommend anything on Twitter, because Elon just keeps getting dumber and dumber. There is an account, @todayyearsold, which comes from the old memey comment, “I was today years old when I found out.” Today Years Old is dedicated to doing nothing but just running videos of things that you should’ve known that you don’t know.
For instance, yesterday some guy’s like, “Did you know that you can use the back of a claw hammer to set a nail, and that’s your first stroke in is backwards with the nail? You don’t have to hold the nail and hit it and avoid hitting your thumbs. You just wedge it in there and go whack and then you turn your hammer around and finish the job.” I was like, “Oh my god.”
There are so many little things like that, all these little life hacks. Inevitably, they always come along with somebody who’s just utterly shocked and indeed was today years old when they found so, so @todayyearsold.
Vince: That’s a good one.
John: I love that. My One Cool Thing is a video I watched this past week. It is a robot puppet who’s singing A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton. You may remember back, Vanessa Carlton’s song A Thousand Miles. You may also remember the video, because in the video for it, she’s at a piano, but the piano’s being driven all over the city. She’s basically, a hidden seat belt, she’s on this piano just being moved all over the city.
This guy created a robot puppet to do the exact same video, basically. You’d think it would just be a parody of it, but it’s actually brilliant and charming. It’s a puppet version of Vanessa Carlton singing A Thousand Miles. It’s on one of those little robot drone cars. It’s just incredibly charming. If you’re having any darkness in your day, watch this video, and it will brighten it up.
Craig: What are the odds that any of us are having darkness in our days? No dark days. What for?
John: No, there’s no dark days.
Craig: How? Why?
John: Never. Never. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matt Davis. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing.
We have T-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. It’s been so nice to see them out on the picket line. Craig, I don’t know if you’ve seen them out on the picket line, but it’s nice. The blue WGA T-shirts, they’re fine, but you can’t wear them five days in a row. Wear your Scriptnotes shirt.
Craig: I’m wearing mine right now, actually, my blue strike shirt. Strike shirt!
John: Strike shirt. It’s not as comfortable as the Cotton Bureau shirts. I think we [crosstalk 01:05:18].
Craig: Nothing is as comfortable. I gotta tell you, I don’t know, Vince, if you like an undershirt or just a nice T-shirt.
John: We have good ones.
Craig: You gotta go to this place, Cotton Bureau.
Vince: I don’t like wearing clothes in general, but if I have to, I will, yeah.
Craig: I’m with you, man. I’m with you.
John: He’s a nudist who’s into adhesives.
Craig: Oh, man. That’s such a painful combination. I don’t like wearing clothes either, but I have to. Mostly, I go by how annoying they are to wear. Cotton Bureau, you can get yourself… Just go for the, what is it, the tri-blend I think they call it.
John: Yeah, it’s the Stuart special.
Craig: They blended together cotton with two other things that probably cause cancer, but you know what? It’s soft.
John: So soft.
Craig: It’s so soft. They don’t cause cancer. It’s very, very soft. I only wear those. That is now all I wear. Just got a whole bunch of gray Cotton Bureau undershirts, and that’s all I wear.
Vince: I am writing this down, Cotton Bureau.
Craig: Cotton Bureau and tri-blend or something like that.
John: That’s what you want.
Craig: So soft.
John: You can sign up to become a premium member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record with Vince Gilligan, talking about TV shows we’d like to remake. Vince Gilligan, an absolute pleasure talking with you. I can’t believe it took 597 episodes for us to do this. Let’s do it again.
Vince: I would love doing it. You guys are really smart and a lot of fun to talk to. I had a great time. Thank you.
John: Bonus segment. Looking through your credits, I noticed Kolchak, the Night Stalker, which is a remake of an earlier TV series. It got me thinking, what other old series would we like to remake if the opportunity came about? I’ll start. I’ve always had a soft spot for Hart to Hart. Do you guys remember Hart to Hart?
Craig: Of course. Of course I do.
John: Oh my god, I loved it. Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. When they met it was murder. It’s this millionaire, they’d probably be billionaires, married couple, who their friends just keep getting murdered, and they just solve the murders, just because they’re bored. It’s not even their job to solve the murders. They just happen to be around, and they solve the murders. I loved it. I feel like it could be a fun show to do.
Vince: That’s a great show. That in and of itself I’m assuming was a riff on the Thin Man series of movies. Have you guys ever seen Jon Hamm and Adam Scott do the reboot of the Hart to Hart title sequence and Simon and Simon?
Craig: No, I haven’t seen that.
Vince: It’s great.
John: It’s really worth seeing.
Vince: It is.
John: Adam Scott has a series with John Hamm where it’s like the greatest remake ever made or the greatest film ever made. They basically will painstakingly recreate moments. One of the things is the Hart to Hart opening sequence.
Craig: That’s hysterical. Do you think these days it’s a little strange to think of Robert Wagner as a character who is constantly around people being murdered, because he was famously around when his wife, Natalie Wood, died.
John: Died in an accident.
John: I don’t know. I do wonder how you’d do it now. I guess inspired by, we haven’t talked about Rian Johnson at all this episode, which is strange, but Rian Johnson’s-
Craig: That’s right.
John: His series with Natasha Lyonne, Poker Face, takes what we love so much about Columbo and finds a way to do it in modern times. I wonder what the 2023 update of Hart to Hart would be. I feel like it could be done. We still got rich people. We still have rich beautiful people.
Vince: That’s true.
Vince: We absolutely do.
John: Craig, any thoughts for a show you’d like to do if you reached back into the vault?
Craig: Sure. It’s famously impossible to do. I know this because I know the gentleman who made it. It was essentially impossible for them to keep up. The television show Police Squad, which was done by Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker. It was the forerunner of the Naked Gun movies.
It is incredible. It is one of my favorite childhood memories, because my father and I both were just howling at this thing, watching the television set, our square, tiny tube television set and just the two of us just absolutely rolling on the floor. It really defines so much of what I think of as funny.
Even though a lot of the references inside of it are rather old-fashioned, those guys have always loved to make fun of the old, old fashion, and really it was keying off of Dragnet, I suppose, in its style, more than anything else, which was before my time, I absolutely adored it.
It to this day features the single best joke I have ever heard in my life. This guy finds a man in his study who’s not supposed to be there. He says, “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” The man says, “I’m a locksmith, and I’m a locksmith.” That is the single greatest joke ever on television.
Vince: That is so smart.
Craig: It’s just so perfect. It’s full of stuff like that, absolutely full of things like that, visual jokes, weird verbal jokes. I don’t even know where you… They must be available somewhere to stream. Ultimately, David Zucker told me it was important to keep it up. You couldn’t write a show where there was a joke every 10 seconds and do it every week, week after week after week. It’s just not possible, but man, I wish it were.
Vince: Oh, man.
John: Craig, did we ever talk about Angie Tribeca? Because that’s probably the closest there’s been to a remake of it.
Craig: Yes, and that is in the style. Listen. It’s hard to hit. I should know because I’ve tried it. It’s hard to hit the heights of what those guys were able to do. It has been tried before. Maybe it was just a product of its time. Since then we’re so soaked in parody and satire everywhere we look that it’s just hard to make it seem fresh week after week. It’s really an alternate universe where it just never stopped. It just was never canceled-
John: Was always there.
Craig: … immediately, the way Police Squad was.
Vince: God, it was such a good show, Police Squad. I guess it started, as you said, with Airplane. It was so smart of those guys to hire Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges. Those guys, kudos to them for getting it back when they were making Airplane, because none of those three guys were known for comedy at all.
Craig: No. In fact, I remember David telling me that when they said, “We want Leslie Nielsen to play the doctor,” they were like, “Leslie Nielsen? Leslie Nielsen’s the guy you go to when everyone else has said no. He’s not funny.” They were like, “No no no, you don’t understand. That’s the point.” In a weird way, it’s the opposite of what you do, because you take guys like Bryan Cranston and Bob Odenkirk and Lavell Crawford and you put them into dramatic roles. The ZAZ guys were like, “Let’s go find guys that are known for being stiffs and make a virtue out of it.” It was so much fun.
Vince: They were so much ballsier than we are. It’s easy to say, “Gee, if someone could be funny, they could play it straight.”
Craig: I’m with you on that one.
Vince: The way they did it, those guys were brilliant, Peter Graves. Oh, and Robert Stack is in there.
Craig: Robert Stack.
Vince: It’s one thing for the ZAZ guys to come up with that. My hat will eternally be off to them. Those old-school guys like Leslie Nielsen, who had a certain image that they might feel like they needed to protect, that was really ballsy of them-
Craig: It was.
Vince: … and just really great.
Craig: It was. They just went with it.
Vince: It was great. Remember the side gag in… The one I always remember in Police Squad, there was one guy in the squad, in the bull pen, who was so tall, you never saw his face. I guess they literally got a guy who was over seven feet tall. You only saw him from the shoulders down.
Craig: So great.
Vince: He’s always got a file folder in his hand. He comes up, walks past Leslie Nielsen. Leslie Nielsen says, “Hey, Bill,” or whatever his name was, “You got something on the side of your mouth.” The guy reaches up, and he says, “No, other side.” Half a banana falls down.
Craig: Yeah, just drops down. It’s so great. Oh, god. Anything in that room where they’re like, “Let me show you the… “ The guy who would show them the lab stuff, because it was always like the tall guy would go by, and then the scientist would be like, “Here, let me show you something in my microscope.” Leslie Nielsen would bend down and say, “I don’t see anything.” “Use your open eye, Frank.”
Vince: I love that stuff.
Craig: It’s just so great.
Vince: I love it. It’s so good. Oh, man.
John: Vince, how about you? Any shows you’d want to get a shot at remaking?
Vince: Oh, man, it’s a toughie, because I love old TV. I was just thinking of how much I just was such a fan of WKRP in Cincinnati growing up. Then the trouble is so much of a show like that is chemistry of those original actors, so seeing it rebooted with different actors, I don’t know, that would be tricky.
A show that pops in mind… I only recently became aware of this, and thanks to my friend Gordon Smith. This is a guy who started off as my assistant on Breaking Bad, and he is now an executive producer. He was an executive producer of Better Call Saul. He’s an executive producer on this new thing I’m working on. He’s an Emmy-nominated writer. He’s this really smart, really tuned-in guy.
I thought I was the Western guy in our writers’ room. He told me about a show called The Westerner, which probably some people listening in have heard of it. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t heard of it. It was a one-season show. It lasted 13 episodes, half a season back in the old days. It was a show created by Sam Peckinpah.
John: Oh, wow.
Vince: It aired in 1961. It starred Brian Keith, who was a really underrated actor, really wonderful actor. He was the dad on Family Affair. After that, he was on Hardcastle and McCormick and stuff like that. Really, really talented, talented actor.
He stars in this show called The Westerner. He is a cowboy who roams around the West, basically looking to support himself. He’s a saddle tramp. He wanders around with his dog. His dog’s name is Brown. It was the same dog who played Old Yeller in that famous movie. He basically wanders around the West looking for a job. He is really not that heroic. He’ll run from a fight sometimes. He can be greedy. He can be kind of venal.
It really was ahead of its time. It was really smart. It was the same time that Gunsmoke and The Rifleman and Bonanza were on the air. Actually, I love those shows, but the morality of those shows felt dictated by Colgate-Palmolive or whoever or Philip Morris or whoever the sponsors were. This thing was so far ahead of its time, it got canceled after half a season. It wouldn’t shock now like it did then. A show like that, that’d be interesting to see that rebooted.
Craig: I’m just looking at this. It says one of the issues was that it was programed against ratings powerhouse The Flintstones.
John: Oh my god.
Vince: The Flintstones killed it. I think it would’ve been canceled no matter what, because he is shockingly unheroic at times, and in a way that it’s like a breath of fresh air. I could watch The Rifleman all day. I love The Rifleman. It was a great show. You watch three or four episodes of The Rifleman, and Lucas McCain is always doing the right thing, and then you see an episode of this and it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s like, this is more like a real human being and not a superhero.
John: Great. Some good ideas for shows that we will never realistically remake. I’d be remiss if I didn’t end the segment by getting back to, Aline Brosh McKenna and I have always promised that we were going to someday remake… It’s Episode 100 I think, we decided we were going to do a remake of The Winds of War, the Herman Wouk mini series. At some point, that time will come. It’s going to happen.
Craig: One day. One day.
Vince: You know he only died a year or two ago, Herman Wouk?
Craig: What? Really?
Vince: Am I right about this? Herman Wouk also wrote The Caine Mutiny, right?
John: He did, yeah.
Craig: I believe so. Yeah, you’re right, he died four years ago.
Vince: Four years ago.
John: Four years ago. He was 103 years old. Wow. That’s a long life.
Craig: He was 103. You know what? I got no chance. I got no chance. I’m not getting there. No way.
John: I could live a good, long time.
Craig: You think so?
John: I think I’ll keep going. I’ll keep going. My family lives a good long time.
Vince: Good for you.
Craig: I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to play what you just said at your funeral.
John: Oh my god, that’s really cruel. You’re assuming I’m going to die before you?
Craig: That’s what I’m saying. I’m just saying, you’ve opened up the universe to strike you down.
John: That’s true, I did.
Craig: To strike you down.
John: I walked into that. It’s true.
Craig: By the way, how weird would that be if I did play that at your funeral? People are like, “Why would you play that?” I’m like, “I’m just saying he was wrong.”
John: “Because I promised I would. I’m a man of my word.”
Craig: Listen, I promised I would. You know what? You know who would’ve loved it? Not John.
John: Vince Gilligan would’ve, because Vince Gilligan was on the episode.
Craig: That’s right.
John: That notable episode where John foretold his death.
Craig: Vince Gilligan, also alive.
Vince: For the time being anyway.
Craig: Oh, man.
John: It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks, Vince.
Vince: Pleasure talking to you guys. Thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you.
- Vince Gilligan on IMDb
- Vince Gilligan plays a prospector on Community (S5 E9)
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