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Vince Gilligan and the strange world of 'Breaking Bad'

The creator and driving force behind AMC's hit series is quick to credit his writers and actors.

July 10, 2011|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Vince Gilligan is photographed in Albuquerque on location for AMC's "Breaking Bad."
Director Vince Gilligan is photographed in Albuquerque on location for… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Albuquerque —

Under the glaring sun of the Land of Enchantment, Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, the most unlikely and ill-suited duo operating in the deadly New Mexican drug underground, are in over their heads — again.

The emotionally edgy Pinkman is shattering a fresh batch of crystal meth inside an immaculately clean lab deep within the bowels of a uniform laundry service. His troubled expression and some caked blood on his face indicate his awareness of nearby danger.

Several miles away outside an abandoned juvenile detention in the middle of dusty, barren terrain, White, Pinkman's mentor and accomplice in charge of making the illegal drug, is consulting with his attorney, hopefully out of view of his enemies. The topic is treachery and murder.

Coordinating both distinctly separate but connected scenarios is a scholarly looking man with glasses and a green safari hat who at this moment is positioned a few feet from White and his attorney, eyeing them purposefully as a crew of cameramen and technicians captures their quiet dialogue, and the second unit wraps up the other scene.

"Cut! That's very nice," Vince Gilligan, the creator and executive producer of AMC's sly and wicked "Breaking Bad," finally proclaims with a slight Southern drawl. "Print that," he orders with cheer and satisfaction as he moves in to praise Bryan Cranston, who plays White, and Bob Odenkirk, who portrays unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman.

With an unassuming air that makes him appear more like a member of the company than a man in charge of one of the hottest dramas on TV, Gilligan was directing one of the final episodes of the fourth season of "Breaking Bad," which returns July 17 as one of the crown jewels at AMC, home to the Emmy Award-winning, culturally influential "Mad Men" and the gloomy, audience-rattling "The Killing." The show — which promises to grow even darker this season with its tagline "Warning: Extremely Volatile" — is another example of cable drama's increased dabbling into difficult, rich subject matter (sometimes, to a fault).

Gilligan's brainchild has attracted almost universal acclaim from critics (Time dubbed it "TV's best thriller" while The Times' Robert Lloyd said the show was "smartly written and produced and brilliantly played") with its multilayered twist on the antihero narrative: the study of Walter White, a desperate, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug manufacturer, slowly evolving from Mr. Chips into Scarface to provide his family with financial security before he dies. "He's running out of good reasons to do bad things," Gilligan explains.

The growing popularity of "Breaking Bad" has propelled the low-key Gilligan into the top ranks of TV's elite producers, particularly since the escalating darkness and bloody brutality appear the polar opposite of his personality. His demeanor is flavored by good humor and modesty — he gives endless credit to his writing staff, crew and performers for the show's success.

Says Charlie Collier, president of AMC: "Vince is one of the most disarming people you'd ever run into in this business. When we talk, he enters the conversation with an appreciation for what we're building. That sets the tone for our relationship and everyone who works on the projects. He's always the first to compliment the writers and the crew."

Still, there is a glaring disconnect between the outward persona of Gilligan and his bleak creation: How does a former film student at New York University and the Tisch School of the Arts who grew up in the small town of Farmville, Va., and likes to play with magnets and jigsaw puzzles as he works out storylines create a fictional world filled with mayhem, flawed humanity and horrific upheaval — where a man can indirectly cause a plane collision that kills hundreds of people; where the severed head of a bad guy winds up on top of a tortoise that explodes; where a ordinary box cutter become a lethal weapon?

"There's really more to Vince than meets the eye," says Chris Carter, creator and executive producer of "The X-Files" who hired Gilligan as a writer and producer after the show's first season in 1994. "There's some darkness in him, and it comes out in 'Breaking Bad.' Vince has got a very acerbic sense of humor. You meet him and there's the nice guy and the Southern accent, but when you read what he writes, it's clear there's much more there."

Gilligan does admit to having a more complex personality than is immediately apparent. Evidence came during a recent day on location when he was detached from the controlled chaos of filming and gazed at the ground, lost in solitary contemplation.

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