10 creative lessons from the making of Breaking Bad

by Greg Roth

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the debut of Breaking Bad, the AMC series about a chemistry teacher with a terminal cancer diagnosis who turns himself into a crystal meth kingpin. The series is widely thought of as one of — of not the best — TV series of all time.

In an oral history published this week by TV Guide, the shows creators reflect on numerous ideas, choices, and stories that shaped the show into a classic. One can extract plenty of creative lessons from the behind-the-scenes account and apply them to any endeavor that is seeking to create something fresh or innovate/redefine the existing norms.

Here are 10 lessons:

#1. Even if the original idea is good, it won’t catch fire right away.

Vince Gilligan (creator/writer/director): What inspired the pilot was a certain amount of desperation on my part. I had been without work for a couple of years when the idea for the pilot hit me. I was about to turn 40 years old, and I was thinking a lot about midlife crises, and was about to embark upon one myself. … Of course, Walter White is having the world’s worst midlife crisis, which in fact turns out to be an end-of-life crisis.

Stew Lyons (unit production manager): It didn’t sound very likely to be a success. It had no eye candy. It was kind of a depressing story about a drug that has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And it was a dark tale. That’s what I thought when it was first pitched to me. And then of course you read the pilot and you begin to see that this is something very, very special.

Gilliagan continues by recounting “One great meeting — which was almost as good as the AMC meeting, even though it was a no — was with TNT. … They said, “We really love this, but at this point in time, if we buy this, we’ll be fired.””

#2. Vince Gilligan had no real directing (ie management?) experience, so he got the best people around him.

Karen Moore (line producer): [My agent] said, “Oh, the script is written by our client Vince Gilligan, and he’s also going to direct it.” I said, “Great. What else has he directed?” And there was this long pause and they went, “Ummm, an episode, maybe two episodes of X-Files.”

Wayne: We were like, if John Toll’s going to be the DP, who cares who the director is? Not literally, but… we knew it was going to look fabulous, and that it was going to be a very high-level production.

#3. AMC used another series (work) to sell Bryan Cranston on taking a part (buy-in) on a network not known for this type of programming.

Cranston: Before I accepted the part, I got Rob’s phone number and called him in New York. I said, “Look, I’m really excited about this but AMC… are you seriously getting behind this?”… And he said, “No, we’re all in on this. … Let me send you something, and then watch it and call me back afterward.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s the first series that we’re doing in this new version of what AMC is now.” He sent me a disc, and it was the pilot and the second episode of Mad Men. … I saw that and I went, oh my god. This is incredible storytelling. So, then from that point on, I was very excited that they knew exactly what they were doing, and they were doing it at a level of quality that was just unmatched from what I was seeing on television. I was all in.

#4. Ideas often come from people in our lives and their struggles and journeys. All it takes to bring these ideas alive is observation.

Mitte: [Walter Jr.] is actually based on a real person, a friend of Vince’s… My character’s actually in remembrance of him.

Gilligan: There was a young man I went to NYU with… and he presented as having really profound CP. He was the greatest guy… just this really courageous guy who became everybody’s friend. We all loved him. And he passed away in his 20s, not too many years after college. Passed away in his sleep. I was thinking of him and his family and all the things they must have gone through and that he went through.

#5. Embracing constraints is a common theme in creative work and in solving problems. You never have all the resources you’d like to have. In this case, AMC and breaking Bad had little in the way of budget. 

Gilligan had originally intended the story to take place in Riverside, California, where a DEA agent he was friends with in real life was based. But the setting of the show was changed to Albuquerque for budgetary reasons, thanks in part to a tax credit that was offered in New Mexico.

Brandt: It would have been a different show [in California]. That was the first of many moves where budget constraints really ended up working out for us.

#6. Still in regard to the budget and new mexico, Gilligan embraced the idea. That is, he spent less time on what he was losing and more time on what he was getting and how it could influence the direction of his vision.

Gilligan: I’m very proud of the fact that I very quickly said yes. I wasn’t overly rigid in my thinking in terms of, it’s got to be this or nothing for artistic reasons. Because it dawned on me that, unfortunately, there’s a meth problem in every state of the union, and I figured, yeah, why not? We’ll set it here. One state’s as good as the other. Of course, the truth is, [New Mexico] is far better than any other state could have been for Breaking Bad, because it allowed our show to become… a contemporary Western, which is not what I was thinking at the time.

Lyons: He completely embraced Albuquerque and New Mexico. It certainly wasn’t the most important decision, but it was a key, critical creative decision that just really made the show stand out as something that people had not seen before. Because we weren’t shooting in the usual places. And the visuals in New Mexico — the light, the way the soil looked, everything just made it something different.

Collier: The color palette of Albuquerque was what [Vince] will call a happy accident, but the exploitation of it… and the way he created not just a color palate, but a shooting style that is cinematic in every way… that has nothing to do with happy accidents. That is talent.

#7. Not everything you’ll need to do will be planned. Sometimes, it’s the result of having unexpected free time. What can you do with that time?

Another, more serious, mishap that occurred in the desert was Vince Gilligan falling ill towards the end of the shoot. But that also ended up being a blessing in disguise of sorts — one that resulted in one of the most classic shots of the whole series and the one that opens the episode: a pair of pants floating through the air against a backdrop of blue desert sky.

Wolynetz: While Vince was sick, John Toll just went out with a crew and just started shooting landscapes, shooting everything all over Albuquerque. And a lot of that footage continued to be used for years. … That was all just John Toll kind of on his own, making beautiful pictures.

#8. “That’s what we do” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it” are never good reasons for creating something fresh, new, and interesting.

Wayne: The [first] cut was amazing. We didn’t change much in the cut at all. But [Vince] had put wall to wall music. And it was terrible.

Gilligan: Christina said, “What is with all the music?” And I said, “Well, that’s what we do in television, Christina!”

Wayne: We were like, “Turn that f—ing music off!” … And he was not happy about that.

Gilligan: I got a little on my high horse. I got a little offended… but then we stripped out the music, and lo and behold, she was right. … [That was] the single best note any executive ever gave me on Breaking Bad.

Wayne: I think the fact that people can realize when they make a mistake is always great. And Vince and I from that moment on were super close and worked great together.

#9. Anyone you deliver creative work to may not understand it. Which means, they won’t appreciate it. Which means they might just say “no thanks”. AMC’s parent company, Cablevision, was not initially excited about airing the show.

Wolynetz: Remember, they’re a cable operator from Long Island. … [They] were very nervous about that kind of expenditure and those kind of risks.

Collier: You’re asking really smart people to part with tens of millions of dollars, prior to spending many millions more in marketing it… [And] you had to explain that you wanted to bet on a series where a chemistry teacher who almost won the Nobel Prize cooks meth with a former student … It was very much placing bets that all look easy in the rearview, but were really big at the time, and not obvious.

Tom Rutledge (former COO, Cablevision): A terminally ill school teacher selling drugs isn’t a typical all-American success story.

#10. The creators never apologized for what the show was, but they found a way to talk about it so anyone who listened to them would understand.

Wayne: The main question at AMC was around marketing and PR because of the drug-selling aspect of it.

Collier: I remember countless conversations about how we would create the elevator pitch… trying to explain what the title meant, explain that this was actually a story about evolution and change and a person who, as Vince so famously said, is going to transform from Mr. Chips into Scarface, and say it in a way that your bosses, or an advertiser, or your partners would relish. … It didn’t seem possible in a story about a chemistry teacher who makes meth with his former student, all with a backdrop of a pilot episode cancer diagnosis.

Rutledge: We all had high hopes for our original content strategy and confidence in our company. I really liked Breaking Bad personally… We had to swing for the fences.

This all adds up to one pretty simple bit of advice, from Gilligan: “You don’t set out to make a classic of anything…We can only try to do our best to tell the story and let it go.”


Greg Roth
About Greg Roth
Founder, The Idea Enthusiast. Speaker, Trainer, Facilitator, and writer about all things creative consulting. DC-based consultant to individuals who want to be more creative, teams who want to collaborate without fear, and anyone who wants to deliver the best pitches and presentations.

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10 creative lessons from the making of Breaking Bad