2 LIFTING THE PIANO
Californian sunshine is fine for outdoor Hollywood shooting locations but film scripts are created indoors. Sharp film scripts need not just attentive and corroborative writers but, because of Hollywood temperatures, modern air conditioning. The scripts of Breaking Bad were written in something they called the Writer’s Room. Photos are available of what happened inside. Located in a modern office building the room looks like a smaller version of where Hank lectured his DEA crew and in his quieter moments had troubling thoughts about his brother-in-law. In the photograph of the Writer’s Room there is a rectangular table. On the walls around the table are notice boards that contain maps and diagrams of important locations such as the meths laboratory. Other boards have the plot details and character development for individual episodes in that season. Each episode has its own board, and on average about 60-65 index cards are attached to each board.
In the 1960s Bill Shankly brought success to Liverpool Football Club and helped it to become world famous. Shankly was an admirer of tough guy actor James Cagney. Remembered for pithy quotes because of his pugilistic style Shankly once said that a football team required seven men to lift the piano and four to play it. A football team does not have a piano but we know what Shankly meant. Creative performances depend upon industry. Writing a TV series requires not just poets but also engineers. The writer working alone can persuade himself that his efforts are poetical rather than industrial. Sitting around a conference table and alongside eight others, a writer will understand what pays the rent and why he or she has abandoned the attic to sign up to a project and settle for engineering responsibilities.
In the overall credits for the series nine writers are identified as contributors. Only two of these have a job title defined with the one word ‘writers’. Neither of these writers made it past Season Two. They may have had more tempting offers from elsewhere, never have settled into the writing team or found better air conditioning. The remaining seven were there for the long haul and were rewarded with expanded responsibilities. In Breaking Bad The Official Book they are listed as Co-Executive Producer/ Writer/ Director. Vince Gilligan was the head man and creator of Breaking Bad. He is an enthusiast that likes people and, as a natural collaborator, he rejects the auteur theory in cinema criticism. In a Breaking Bad Insider Podcast there is an instance when Gilligan remembers the occasions when in frustration he would yell at the others, ‘Why is this so hard?’ Belonging to a writing team gives individual members the confidence to write themselves into a corner, to embrace those moments when an audience will wonder just how the hell is Walt going to survive Numbers are also important because the producers of Breaking Bad wanted enough material for 62 episodes, and that obliged writers to extend the lives and personalities of the strangers the writers unwittingly invented for a pilot. Although it was typical of TV script production there is an irony in how Breaking Bad was written. In the writing room there was the knowledge that the series would only succeed if individual writers accepted their dependency on others. Success can only be shared. This is what head man Gilligan preached to his team. In the TV series the opposite happens. Dependency is the double edged burden that causes dissatisfaction. Walt, like the gangsters he meets, wants the autonomy that is not possible in a family. His relatives also chafe against the restriction of dependency.
Not all the work on the scripts was done in the Writers’ Room. After the result or script left the room individual writers took turns to take a script home and add extra detail and flair. Gilligan refers to this element of the process as ‘jazzing it up’. If Shankly is right, the jazz was that added came from a piano and not a saxophone. Later, technicians were empowered to add effects that provided sometimes surprising emphasis. Actors would make lines sound different and on occasions make amendments. Bryan Cranston wrote a back story for his character Walt. And there is always the editor to give a shape to the story not previously imagined by the writers.
Vince Gilligan emphasises the importance of characterisation to the scripts. For each plot development the writing team would ask what was inside the head of the characters. Gilligan insists that the spine of Breaking Bad was rooted in the writers imagining how the characters would have responded to the unpredictable events in their lives. All TV film producers, though, claim that their series offers solid characters. Opportunities for characterisation exist within the plot. Walt murders competitors and reveals aspects of his nature. Not all scenes, though, are essential to a plot. Instead, they reveal something about relationships. Walt taking his son for a driving lesson is an obvious example.
Even for the gifted maintaining the interest of an audience and staying true to the characters is not always possible. Did Walt really have something below his quiet and anxious demeanour that enabled him to become a homicidal monster or was his behaviour shaped by the need for set piece drama necessary for a 62 episode TV series? We can also be forgiven for having doubts about the panic attacks that Hank experiences after he kills Tuco, especially as later he faces death with real courage. Sometimes the plot just cannot be ignored. Vince Gilligan has admitted that Walt is a complicated character and not everything that is inside the head of his unusual drug dealer is understood by the writers. This makes sense. Characters need substance and to be interesting. But they did not ask to be invented. They are entitled to some privacy and mystery. Not all the interesting ambiguity in a book or movie is created by the authors. Gilligan regards Breaking Bad as a warning against the existence of unforeseen consequences. If life is like that then so are movie scripts. They have consequences and implications not imagined by their creators.
The timetable for writing an episode was ten working days that began in the morning and ended in time for people to go home to eat dinner. The days began with the ritual of the order for lunch being settled. The number of words in a TV script varies and depends on the amount of dialogue and how much is prescribed for the director. It is rare, though, for a movie script to exceed 20,000 words, and writers reaching that limit is exceptional. Edgar Wallace would write a 40,000 plus word thriller in a weekend when he needed to pay off gambling debts. Nine people working on a 20,000 word script for a full fortnight should produce something decent. But if it was that simple, the success and invention of Breaking Bad would have been repeated by other writing teams. Who is sitting around the table is important. The writers would also have had to respond to what was happening outside their workplace. Season One was interrupted by a strike by Hollywood writers, and Season Two had to be reshaped when the actor who played hot headed Tuco had to leave the show prematurely.
Gilligan insists that all his writers are equal. He often claims ignorance when someone asks who had which idea. ‘It emerged from the discussion,’ he says. The notion of setting up a meths lab in a recreational vehicle began life as a joke when Gilligan asked what he would do if he failed at making movies. Someone thought the idea had potential, someone else suggested using a school teacher would be better, another twisted the knife by giving the teacher a cancer, and so it went. Breaking Bad ran for six years on American television. In five of those six years it won best drama series in the Writers Guild Awards. The show also earned three winners for the writers of individual episodes. Somehow the team were able to ascribe credit to someone on the team. For the sake of awards the principle of equality was abandoned. But, as any football manager knows, the team is all important. They all deserve to be mentioned. The following people wrote the scripts from inside the Writer’s Room. They are Sam Catlin, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Gennifer Hutchinson, Patty Lin, George Mastras, J Roberts, Thomas Schnauz and Moira Walley-Beckett. The alphabetical order is deliberate. And as work stopped on the show during the strike by Hollywood writers, and as Gilligan advocated equality on his team, I like to think that none of the writers crossed a picket line.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.