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Vince Gilligan on Bryan Cranston’s Chemistry and Breaking Bad‘s Science

Creator Vince Gilligan lectures on the science of Breaking Bad, and discusses sharing sets with an Oscar-winning picture in this special bonus segment of AMC’s exclusive interview.

Q: You’ve said before that you don’t see Breaking Bad as a morality tale. If that’s the case, then how do you portray the consequences of Walt’s and Jesse’s actions?

A: Well, yeah, it’s a tough balancing act. There’s a lot of balancing acts with this show, the balance between humor and drama, and also the balance between keeping the show entertaining and showing the reality of the horrors of crystal meth. It’s kind of a tightrope. And how we do it is, we just try to keep it as real as possible. Walt is really a babe in the woods when this series starts. He knows nothing about the drug. He could probably write out on a chalkboard its chemical composition, just off the top of his head, but he doesn’t have any relationship to it in any real human regard. He doesn’t understand just how terrible it is. And we’re not going to shy away from how horrible the drug is. But on the other hand I feel like this is a character study more than anything else. It’s not a morality tale. It’s a story about a character and ultimately things are probably not going to end so well for him because of this initial, really fundamentally terrible choice he made in the pilot. Our fundamental task at hand is to keep the audience watching, and to keep the audience learning about this character of Walt. But the thing that really helps us, that really saves our bacon at the end of the day is Bryan Cranston’s acting. If it were another actor other than Bryan Cranston, we’d be in big trouble. You just like the guy no matter what he does. He just kind of leads you by the hand as you watch the show, and you forgive him just about anything.

Q: You’re saying there’s more to Bryan’s performance than just good acting?

A: At a certain point acting only takes you so far. The best way I can put it is it seems to me Bryan was just raised right. He’s a guy who appreciates what he has — his family, his wife, and his daughter. And he appreciates his career and his talent, but he’s worked hard to maintain all those things and to better them. He’s a hard-working guy who doesn’t take anything for granted. And I think he just exudes that. We understand that about him. Like Walt, Bryan is fundamentally decent, and that is something that a less likable human being could portray, but I don’t think we’d believe it as well.

Q: Science and chemistry are obviously pivotal plot points in the show, but how do you see them fitting in thematically?

A: I love the idea of science, and I like the idea that meth itself is a concoction of science. It was invented, it was synthesized in the early part of the last century by a Japanese chemist. And it’s got a long history in warfare: Hitler himself was given meth injections every day for the last three years of his life, apparently to keep his senses sharp–yet another reason to hate the drug. Science does wonderful things for us, and yet it’s capable of creating some really bad things for our society as well. Science itself is not immoral or evil, it’s just a tool. It’s what we humans do with it. And in his microcosmic scale, it’s all what Walt does with it. We’ve learned that Walt could have been a very different person with a very different life. We’ve seen flashbacks of Walt as a younger man with a different woman. He’s very excited about science and chemistry, and we’re left to wonder what happened. How did he get from there to here?

Q: Speaking of how he got here, how did Jesse wind up in that crazy house?

A: I have a wonderful production designer who found that house for us. It wasn’t the house that I was imagining. I was picturing a place that was more down and dirty, but then the house itself looked so interesting that it helped create Jesse’s character, that he lived in his aunt’s house and his aunt had passed away a few years back. There’s this strange mix of old lady furniture and old lady porcelain and knick-knacks, and then skull bongs and a drum set and a BMX bike. It’s this weird, wonderful clash of civilizations.

Q: Were you always planning to shoot the show in New Mexico?

A: The pilot was originally written to take place in Riverside, California. And the main reason for that was there’s a friend of mine who is a DEA agent who was posted in Riverside. And I went and had lunch with him at one point, he gave me a tour of his office and he and his partner told me all kinds of war stories, and I had a lot of fun with him. They told me about the meth problem in Riverside, but they also made clear to me that meth is a problem all around the country. And when the show came closer to being a reality our studio mentioned the possibility of New Mexico, which has a wonderful film and television rebate program, whereby they put up as much as 25% of a production’s cost provided it’s 25% of money spent in the state and on New Mexico natives. And I’m so glad we did because I love New Mexico. I like the idea of showing someplace different that is not usually seen on television or in movies. Southern California has been shot to death. You can’t put a camera in any direction there and not see something that hasn’t been seen a dozen times before in some other movie or TV show. But Albuquerque has all these wonderful neighborhoods and vistas–I feel almost like we’re pioneers. I’m kinda sorry other people are there too, because I want to be the only one.

Q: Who else has shot there?

A: Actually, I was watching No Country for Old Men and there’s a pivotal scene towards the end of the movie at a hotel, and I practically jumped out of my seat when I saw where it took place: We would drive right past that motel every day, it’s right in the middle of downtown Albuquerque, and it is right behind Tuco’s headquarters in episode 5 (“Crazy Handful of Nothing'”), when Walt blows out the windows with a big shard of fulminated mercury. As he walks out of the building he’s sort of silhouetted against this white wall–that’s the back of the hotel where they had the big climactic scene in No Country for Old Men.

To learn more about Vince Gilligan, check out our interview on Future of Classic in which he talks about which film most needs a remake and which one could benefit from a sequel. Read more here.

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