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Q&A: Mark Johnson (Executive Producer)

Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson talks about discovering Vince Gilligan and the future of Breaking Bad in AMC’s exclusive interview.

Q: How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?

A: I take full credit, with no humility at all, of discovering Vince Gilligan. I was at the University of Virginia years ago judging a screenwriting contest, and one of the scripts I read was a script called Home Fries, written by Vince Gilligan. He was probably 22 years old and had just graduated from NYU, and we just struck up a relationship and eventually we made a movie that he wrote called Wilder Napalm, and then we made Home Fries. Vince and I have just been friends and working together for such a long time. And we have a couple of movies that he’s also written — one called Two Face that we are inches away from putting together and making next year. It’s a comedy about racism, and we’ve tried to make it over the years, but it’s always scared people. I think now we’ve finally stumbled across a way to make it.

Q: How has Vince’s writing changed over the years in your mind?

A: First of all, I always thought that he should stay in Richmond and not move to Hollywood, because I thought he had one of the most original voices I’d ever come across. But when he was very young, we used to laugh that his plots were so original that we couldn’t end them — in large part because he would sort of write himself into a corner. And I think the discipline of The X Files, both in terms of the speed of when he had to finish things, but also in terms of the requirements of each week really made him the writer that he is today. So he still has these original ideas and original situations, but I think now he has both the maturity and the discipline to figure out how to end them.

Q: What originally drew you to this show?

A: As a producer I have always been drawn to characters. The movies and TV shows that I’ve done are very seldom defined by their plot. There are very few bank robberies and car chases in my films. I particularly love characters that are in distress…I like to explore how a decent person can get out of that. And that’s exactly what we do with Walt. Walt is a very decent person, and then all of a sudden he is in a situation where he wants desperately to do the right thing for his family. It reminds me a little bit of a film I produced called Donnie Brasco, where Johnny Depp’s character finds himself more drawn to the world he is meant to uncover than the world he actually belongs in. And so it’s a character compromise.

Q: How does it compare producing a television show as opposed to a movie?

A: Well you know in this particular case it was very similar because we made it like a movie. Not just because John Toll, the two-time Oscar winning cinematographer shot the pilot (that was such a favor he did to Vince and me, and I feel so obligated and thankful).

Q: Vince has said he sees Breaking Bad as a post-modern Western. Do you agree?

A: Oh interesting. I haven’t heard him say that. It makes total sense. There are the outlaws, and it’s post-modern in the sense that there’s no such thing as a “clean hero” any more. John Wayne today doesn’t exist, for good or for bad. And the whole idea that it takes place on that landscape and that there is villainy afoot. And then so much about the Western is basically establishing a primal family, it’s about settling and making a place for a family. It makes total sense to me. I’m not exactly sure we have the opening of The Searchers, but I think that’s a good description of the show.

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