Vince Gilligan, creator and showrunner of Breaking Bad got his big break by winning a local screenwriting contest in his home state of Virginia. It sounds like something out of a fairytale, doesn't it? A simple entry-- a script he wrote while in film school at NYU-- got his "voice" in front of the right people, and they just happened to connect with it and help kickstart his career.
"I always say I fell ass-backward into this the way Kramer on Seinfeld used to fall ass-backward into success," Gilligan laughs.
Even today, Gilligan feels that young writers who are just starting out can do nothing better (including going to film school) than entering those screenwriting contests, of which there are now hundreds. After all, as he shared at IBG Inc's Conversation Series on September 18th in Beverly Hills, "It's hard to get your stuff read, and it's tough because people, when they go home at the end of the night, the last thing they want to do is read another script. So screenwriting contests are very helpful in that regard because somebody in the industry-- some producer or actor or some director has said to the powers that be within that given contest [that they would read the submissions]. And you really have a captive reader for that moment in time."
Gilligan also advised that in order to get ready to submit to these contests-- or even to pitch in general-- you must "write as much as possible; generate as many scripts as possible; [don't] worry about what you think is selling at any given moment."
Instead, Gilligan pointed out that just because vampires or zombie movies are selling at any given time, you never know what's going to be just around the corner as a trend, so you shouldn't waste time or energy worrying about it. "Write what's in your heart because more often than not...you're going to lose more often than you win. And that's the story for me; it's the story for you; it's the story for all of us; that's the way it works. So you might as well take that risk and lose on something you care about."
And Gilligan said that he never believed for a minute that Breaking Bad would make it to television, but he believed in the story and the characters more than anything, so he really went for it. And it wasn't a smooth or direct ride to AMC. Another network-- FX-- had actually purchased the project but then sat on it for ten months while they were making a decision on how they wanted to present it. Ultimately they passed because they wanted to go for the female demographic (they picked up Dirt instead). It was a decision Gilligan understood, and in the end, it worked out for the best for him. Patience and a little bit of blind optimism really are virtues in this business.
Gilligan credits his co-producer Melissa Bernstein for helping him staff the Breaking Bad writer's room with the strongest, smartest writers in television today. "We have the ability on television and in film to show things rather than tell them, and I wanted to see writers who maybe did that-- who grasped that," Gilligan explained. So Bernstein set out to whittle down a pile of scripts almost as tall as she is down to just the few that would round out the team.
"It certainly helps [to know a little bit of a writer's background] to make you want to have the meeting in the first place...but then you have the meeting to see if they're pleasant to be around for as long days as you will be," Gilligan admitted.
And when this particular group comes up with episodes, Gilligan shared that he breaks them the same way Chris Carter (of The X Files fame, and who gave Gilligan his big break in many ways) taught him: "We're all sitting around a table, and we have a corkboard-- three by five corkboard on the wall...and we just go in a circle, clockwise around the room, episode one; episode two; episode three; episode four. We do that three and a quarter times and it gives us thirteen. And we break each episode in about two weeks, which is a pretty good average because it averages out about ten working days. And we write it out on an index card in Sharpie, and then each writer takes one and goes to work on it. Breaking them on index cards and thumbtacking them up there is exactly what Chris Carter taught me."
Being a showrunner obviously comes with much more freedom than being a staff writer, but Gilligan added that being a showrunner on AMC has an additional freedom because they don't have any "standard" for act breaks in a series. So Gilligan really got to build his show-- his baby, so to speak-- to be exactly what he wanted. That may be a rare gift in Hollywood, but he is proof that it really can exist.
Breaking Bad's Michelle MacLaren and Vince Gilligan talk about their experience
taking part in IBG Inc's first Conversation Series event.