When AMC's Breaking Bad was being developed, it had all the cards stacked against it. As one executive put it in a preproduction phone call, "We're making a series about a guy who sells crystal meth. We'll all be lucky to still have our jobs when this is over."
"It was just fortuitous happenstance a lot of the time that got us through," creator Vince Gilligan insists of his multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winning show. "I just feel like there was an awful lot of luck involved, a lot of good timing."
Still, that might be selling it short just a tad. It's true that the launch of Breaking Bad was plagued by mishaps that turned into blessings, and in a lot of instances, those "Plan B"s allowed the show to morph into the iconic series it became. But there was more than a fair amount of talent and creative vision at play as well. The story of Breaking Bad is a story about a group of people having faith in a project they believed in on an artistic level, while realizing they were trying to do something that had never been done on television before.
Ten years later, these are recollections from the cast, crew and producers, in their own words, of what it was like to make the pilot from start to finish, and all the many bumps along the way.
At the end of 2006, with the Mad Men pilot in hand and set to premiere the following summer, AMC executives were looking for their next scripted series.
Christina Wayne (former SVP of scripted programming, AMC): We didn't want to do a period drama like Mad Men. We wanted something completely different.
Vlad Wolynetz, (former VP of production, series and movies, AMC): We had a thing about making the shows that no one else would dare make at that point. [Rob Sorcher, AMC's then-EVP of programming and production] had a very specific thing about what we should and shouldn't be doing. His point of view was, we had to run as far away from a period show, or a Western, or anything like that, and do the most intrinsically unexpected thing that we could find. [The Breaking Bad] script hit everybody the same way. ... It's so brilliant, and completely the opposite of what anybody could see coming.
Jeremy Elice, a former FX employee who was now working under Wayne at AMC, drew his boss' attention to a script by a former X-Files writer named Vince Gilligan that several networks, including FX, had passed on. Most of the nos were due to the project's overall plot: After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, a high school chemistry teacher turns to cooking crystal meth in order to leave some money behind for his family.
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.
Wayne: It was a page-turner. It was one of those scripts that you're like, "Oh my god, this is great writing, this is entertaining." This is exactly the type of thing we were looking for.
Gilligan: A lot of places, we never even bothered pitching to because we figured the big three networks were never going to buy a show about a guy cooking crystal meth. Certainly not circa 2004, 2005. 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."
Wayne: We recommended it to Rob Sorcher, who was running the channel, and Rob let it sit on his desk for weeks. Honestly, we bugged him to the point where he was yelling at us to stop bugging him about it. And it was infuriating, because we were like, "We have our next show!" ... Finally, we have our weekly meeting with him weeks later and he said, "Oh, I read that script last night. It's so great!"
Charlie Collier (president, AMC): Rob Sorcher handed it to me and said, "Read this. It's like nothing else we've read." And it really turned out to be very much the kind of bet we were looking to make next.
I had adjusted to the reality that this was never going to see the light of day.
AMC executives met with Gilligan — who had basically given up hope on the pilot actually being made, but had also mapped out a rough arc for the entire series — at the bar of the L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Gilligan: This thing had been passed on by pretty much everybody in town when AMC came calling. I had had my heart broken and had adjusted already to the reality that this thing was never going to see the light of day. ... But I thought, at the very least, I'm going to get a $14 scotch out of this.
Wayne: Vince wasn't taking us very seriously. ... I think he was just kind of pitching it and not really caring what happened. I remember that he had pitched us in that meeting, "This is a man who goes from milquetoast to Scarface."
Gilligan: I thought, oh, that was a perfectly pleasant meeting and they say they liked the script. That's great. Bully for me. Whatever. But the damn thing's never going to happen. ... But lo and behold, they were serious about making it.
AMC greenlit the pilot and partnered with Sony to produce it. Gilligan would direct and Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll was hired as DP.
Gilligan: I'd love to say I was proactive enough to ask [to direct the pilot], but I really didn't think it was a possibility. ... It's kind of unheard of for a writer — for anyone, really — who's not had plenty of television directing experience to get to direct a pilot.
Wolynetz: At one point, Christina suggested that Vince direct it.
Wayne: I blindsided everybody in a meeting and said that. Vlad and I went back to Rob and... he probably thought I was nuts, but went along with it.
Gilligan: I feel like I robbed a bank or something. To this day, I can't imagine why AMC and Sony let me direct this thing, but god bless 'em for it.
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.
Wolynetz: Only a group as naïve and nuts as we were would have let that happen. [Laughs]
Wayne: Vince just had a very strong sense of how he wanted this show, and that came through when he was talking to us about it. ... Why stop a person with a real vision from doing that?
Wolynetz: He directed the sh-- out of it.
The casting process began in December 2006 and carried into the new year. For the main character, Walter White, Gilligan had in mind Bryan Cranston, an actor he had previously worked with on The X-Files who had gone on to star on the Fox comedy Malcolm in the Middle. Unfortunately, while Gilligan was clear on his top choice, AMC and the studio executives were more skeptical. And Cranston took some convincing as well.
Sharon Bialy (casting director): About two weeks before we went in to meet with Vince, Bryan had come in to audition for Aaron Sorkin's new play, The Farnsworth Invention. So we got to see a completely other side of Bryan Cranston... and we were sort of blown away by the depth of his talent. When we went to meet with Vince we said, "You're going to think we're crazy, but you should consider Bryan Cranston." Vince was already considering Bryan Cranston.
Gilligan: I wanted Bryan Cranston pretty much from the time I started actually typing the script. ... I just knew, this guy is the guy.
Bryan Cranston (Walter White): I got a call from my agent, and she said, "Do you remember Vince Gilligan?" And I said, "No."
Gilligan: When it came time to start kicking ideas around for casting and I mentioned [Bryan] to the AMC folks, they were a bit confused, and I don't blame them in hindsight. Because 99 percent of people who knew of Bryan Cranston the actor in 2006 knew him from Malcolm in the Middle as Hal, the lovable, goofy dad on that show.
Wayne: I was like, are you kidding? There are great actors out there.
Gilligan: It's sort of been blown up over the years to have been a big fight where I stood my ground and I just was valiant in my effort to make sure it was Bryan, that nobody else got cast. The truth is, I didn't really have to fight that hard. ... It was more just having to educate folks on what Bryan was capable of.
Cranston: I don't blame Sony TV or AMC... That's a huge leap, to go from Hal to Walt.
Wolynetz: There was a bit of a back and forth with the three of us about it, but in the end, Rob [Sorcher] loved the idea of taking somebody who was the dad on Malcolm in the Middle and turning them into Walter White.
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.
Rounding out the other principal players were Aaron Paul as Walter's former student turned meth-cooking partner, Jesse Pinkman; Anna Gunn as Walter's wife, Skyler; Betsy Brandt as Skyler's sister, Marie Schrader; and Dean Norris as Marie's husband, DEA agent Hank Schrader. Read more of the cast's audition stories here.
Dean Norris (Hank Schrader): It was truly the best script I'd ever read.
Betsy Brandt (Marie Schrader): It was the character, but also aside from that, it was the project. I just really wanted to be a part of that project. ... Not even knowing what it was going to be, but just meeting Vince and reading the script I was like, "This is something [I've got] to do. Even if it doesn't go anywhere."
Gilligan: Every single one of them, when they came in to audition for us, just basically had me at hello. To this day, I can't imagine a better group of actors to work with. I can't imagine a group of actors more suited to the roles that they played.
Moore: All of these actors who came in to read for us totally got that they had just read a remarkable script, and it was not your usual run-of-the-mill pilot script.
Gilligan: [Christina Wayne] thought that Aaron Paul was too handsome to play this skeevy young drug dealer... I said to her, "But he's really, really good, isn't he?" And she said, "Oh yeah, he's a great actor." I said, "Well, then what's the harm in there being a little eye candy on this thing?" [Laughs]
Wayne: Anna Gunn, she was an immediate yes.
Bialy: I had a broken foot, and I remember I had all the actors who were testing at the pilot sign my cast. I wish I would have kept it, but I was so happy to get that cast off that I threw it out... and everybody's autograph.
Breaking Bad: How the Cast Came Together
The last role to be cast was that of Walter's son Walter, Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. It went to 13-year-old RJ Mitte and was the role Gilligan knew he needed to get right not just for the show, but for the CP community.
Gilligan: It was important to me to, if at all possible, hire someone who actually did have CP to play the part of someone with CP.
RJ Mitte (Walter White Jr.): It's so important to have accurate representation of people with disabilities on television. ... With Breaking Bad, it was organic, and it was something that was just part of the family and natural, not contrived or exploitative, not, the disabled character's just there to get the ratings. That was something that [was rare] in the industry at that time, because... disability was just part of the story.
Bialy: One of the things Vince was looking for is someone perhaps with a little more severe cerebral palsy than RJ has. But, RJ had spent 10 years, 12 years of his life in therapy, working so hard to overcome or compensate for the disability. So, you don't want to penalize someone who's worked so hard to be able to speak more clearly or walk without crutches.
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.
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.
Moore: It was really the only place we could afford to make the pilot. I'm like ... Albuquerque? Seriously?
Lyons: We got amazing cooperation from Albuquerque. The film commissioner here, Ann Lerner, was really important [in] that [process]. The mayor embraced it at the time.
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.
Gilligan: When I was plotting out that first episode, I set it in Inland Empire, in the Riverside area of Southern California... because I had visited the real guys doing the job out there. ... Also, I liked the idea of being able to sleep in my own bed at night.
Moore: I agreed that I would fly in to Albuquerque to take a look. So, I flew in. It was bitterly cold ... A location scout that I had contacted took me out to this red rock area in this little [Native American] town called To'hajiilee. And I was like, "Oh my god. This is incredible." So, I go back to the hotel, I call Vince and I said, "This place is fantastic."
Gilligan: The production guys at Sony came to me and said, "What do you think about shooting the show in New Mexico?" I said, "Why would you do that? It's set for Riverside."
Moore: I had a long talk with Vince. I said, "Look, let's get you on a plane. We'll go back out together and you'll meet some of the people who are there, in terms of crew, etc. You'll get a lay of the land." ... Vince didn't make a fuss. He got on the plane. And he quickly realized that one scotch is the equivalent of two at this altitude, the first night here.
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.
Moore: I said to him, "You know, if we're going to do this, you need to think about embracing Albuquerque like Albuquerque." In other words, not making Albuquerque look like L.A. Because that's never going to really happen.
Gilligan: The look of Albuquerque, with the amazing endless skies with the big, puffy cumulus clouds and the Sandia Mountains to the east, just the geography of the area, the landscape was so cinematic that it actually changed my thinking and changed the way we shot the show.
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 palette, but a shooting style that is cinematic in every way... that has nothing to do with happy accidents. That is talent.
By the end of February 2007, the cast and locations were finalized, but there was still one major hurdle to clear: Albuquerque wasn't built to handle any kind of major TV production.
Lyons: We were doing a show about methamphetamine, as far as anybody could see. The idea of the personal journey that Bryan's character was taking, that's not something that jumps out at somebody when you're knocking on the door asking to use their house. ... We were doing a show about drugs, and sometimes institutions didn't even want us to use their parking lots. [Even when we weren't shooting on location], there were no soundstages here at the time, there were no offices, and nobody had hired any crew.
Moore: We operated out of an abandoned, like, thousand-square-foot office complex that we chopped into little tiny rooms in not a great neighborhood of Albuquerque. It was so hideous. We all just piled in there.
Lyons: It was a microscopic production. We were on top of each other.
Moore: We found a warehouse that had no electricity, no hot and cold running water, down the road, and that's where we built Walt's house.
Lyons: There was a dog that attacks a mannequin in the show. Well, there are no Hollywood attack dogs in New Mexico. There are real attack dogs, but you don't want to put actors around dogs that are trained to actually kill you. So we had to bring in the dog. And bringing in the dog from Los Angeles involved two people driving the dog, four days training. It was an extreme expense for a pilot that was really quite limited. We did not have an open checkbook.
We were doing a show about drugs, and sometimes institutions didn't even want us to use their parking lots.
Moore: We had no money.
Wolynetz: The dinner we had the night before filming started, we were all sitting at this long table in this strange little Mexican restaurant. And Vince's whole speech just ended with, "Well, you know, even if we never see each other again, I'm just so grateful for you people having the balls to let me make this thing." [Laughs] ... That was literally the last meal before we started filming at 5 a.m. So, I'm not sure any of us were convinced [it would be a success].
Gilligan: I truly wasn't being negative, I don't think. I was just being... realistic. I just wanted to make a really good pilot, to prove that I could direct pilots and movies ... I thought, if I do a good job on this, I'll have a really good calling card. I'll be able to show this to people and say, "I know you've never heard of this because it never actually went on the air, but I wrote this and directed it."
When we get our first glimpse of Walter White in the opening scene, which was filmed in To'hajiilee, he's maniacally driving an RV which he later crashes, stumbling out clad only in his underwear and a gas mask.
Lyons: It is bitterly cold here at times in the winter. I was very concerned for Bryan, who was going to have to run around in his underwear out in the cold desert