Vince Gilligan will gladly concede that El Camino was a pursuit born of "greed." Since Breaking Bad ended, Gilligan had been looking for a way to work again with Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Bryan Cranston, and the now-late, great Robert Forster, to name a few. Sometime around the AMC drama's 10th anniversary, he realized he might as well go for it. And he already had the perfect vehicle; he'd been pondering an epilogue about what happened to Breaking Bad's beloved, conflicted drug dealer Jesse Pinkman (Paul) ever since completing the script for the series finale.
Breaking Bad's ending certainly left the door open for more of Jesse's story. Though it offered a satisfying conclusion to Walter White's (Cranston) narrative, with Walt dying on the floor of the white supremacists' meth lab after storming the compound and vanquishing his enemies, Jesse's fate was still largely uncertain. Walt had freed his former protégé from one prison, but would Jesse escape captivity only to be apprehended by police? Even if he did make a clean getaway, would he be forever traumatized by his time in Todd's (Plemons) torture chamber and the blood on his own hands?
Six years after the series ended, Breaking Bad fans finally got answers thanks to El Camino, which picked up directly after the events of the Breaking Bad finale. The Netflix film showed audiences exactly how Jesse managed to dodge the police, say his goodbyes to the few people left in his life, and pursue a new life in Alaska.
The conclusion of El Camino resembles Breaking Bad's final moments in that Jesse once again drives off into an unknown future. But the critical difference with, and significance of, El Camino is that it offers fans confirmation that this emotionally, mentally, and physically battered character can still have hope -- that his bold optimism, which was relentlessly tested throughout Breaking Bad, is still somehow intact. Breaking Bad may have centered on Walter White's fateful embrace of his Heisenberg alter ego, but the bleeding heart of the series was always Jesse, and El Camino offered fans the comforting proof that the character never gave up on his inner light, his love of boxes and beetles, or his chance at the last frontier.
Gilligan, who wrote and directed the movie, might call El Camino a selfish pursuit. But while he's willing to entertain criticism that it wasn't a strictly necessary addition to the story of Breaking Bad, the movie brought him peace -- and it did the same for Jesse Pinkman fans. TV Guide spoke to Gilligan about what went into making El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, including finding its purpose, how the cast's talents influenced his writing, why it was so important to bring back Walter White, and more.
Can you describe the moment when you decided that you actually wanted to make this movie?
Vince Gilligan: I wish I could tell you an exact moment where the lightbulb went off ... As I was putting the finishing touches on the final script for Breaking Bad, [I remember thinking,] "Oh, so where did Jesse Pinkman get off to exactly? Driving away, screaming, letting out this sort of primal scream of pain and triumph. Where does he go next? Does he get caught around the corner? I hope not. How do you get away?" But I figured, well, that's all I have time for in my episode, but I wanted more of that.
Add to that the fact that I love working with Aaron Paul. I love working with all the actors, but Aaron is a great example of who these folks are: They're brilliant, and they know their craft … and Aaron is just one of the sweetest, most lovely people I've ever met. I knew in these intervening years that I wanted to work with him again... It just was an idea I had in my head that built and built over the years until I thought to myself, "Why not? Why not do this now? I'm not getting any younger. So let's see if we can make a movie out of this."
Did the fact that Better Call Saul was starting to catch up with the original timeline put any pressure on you? That they might introduce Walt and Jesse again?
Gilligan: Not really. I talked to Peter Gould, who runs Better Call Saul. I talked to him and the writers before I got too far down the road on the script for El Camino... I kept them involved every step of the way. Because the last thing I'd want to do is mess up that show. That show is just -- I finally get to say this now because I'm not really that involved with it anymore -- it's just brilliant. And I would never want to mess it up.
We see many emotional elements of Jesse in this movie. Why was it important to you to feature so many facets of him here?
Gilligan: [Paul] can do anything. He can be screamingly funny. He can make you cry. He can be dramatic as all get-out. I just figured that would just be good storytelling to let the actor I knew was going to star in this have all the opportunities for drama and comedy that I could possibly, believably fit into this script. You know, the same with [the other actors]. Getting to work with Jesse Plemons again, that was just an absolute treat because man, is that guy good. And he can do it all, too. Todd can scare the living hell out of you... or he can make you laugh… Working with these actors at the top of their game, that's as good an answer as any I could give as to why I wanted to do it in the first place. And then as to why I had to fill the script as much as I could with moments like that, I just want to see these guys run. I want to see what they can do.
Todd's flashbacks were so exquisite and very fun. How much did Jesse Plemons' particular talents influence your scripting for those scenes?
Gilligan: Oh, immensely... When we hired Jesse way back when for Breaking Bad, I was just dimly aware of him as an actor. I heard how great a show Friday Night Lights was... And I've since discovered it, and everyone who said that was absolutely right... When we hired him, I thought, "Oh, this guy is really great." Just like everybody said. And then the more he was in the show, the more I realized, "Wow, this guy. What a find this guy is. Fantastic." Going into this, I knew just what this actor could do, and really it did influence the writing of the character.
There's something about Todd. If he has no reason to kill you, he's actually very pleasant to be around... [laughs]. It's so odd. I think we've got enough monsters in real life right now, sometimes it makes you want to ask the question, "Why do you want to write about them?" But mainly it's an exorcism somehow. Maybe it's a cathartic thing, but writing about this guy is so much fun. Putting words in his mouth is so much fun because he's really not a sadist. He's just got an absolute screw loose. He's a sociopath. He's not sadistic. He doesn't enjoy people's pain, he just doesn't feel it. It doesn't dawn on him that he's hurting people so badly. It's just a byproduct of certain things that need to happen to keep his uncle happy, to keep the flow of methamphetamine, you know? Usually a character like him, there's some element of mustache twirling. There's some element of a character like him enjoying his evildom, evilness, whatever the proper terminology is. This guy, he's just sort of a likable schmo who happens to have no compunction about killing people when the time comes. That made it interesting and fresh for me, in terms of writing it. God forbid we ever run into any real Todds in real life, though.
In El Camino, Jesse had this kind of skittishness anytime the subject of the cage came up, almost like a wounded animal. What kind of discussions did you have with Aaron Paul about that?
Gilligan: You know, I'm not that great a director -- and I'm not being falsely modest -- so I don't know, I never had that myself, and people have always told me, "Oh, you should take some acting classes," and I know they're right … I'm just too self-conscious to do it. So what I do in place of that is I hire the best actors in existence and then I write it out in the script, as plainly as I can, what the character is thinking in this moment or that moment. If you were ever to read the script for El Camino -- or in fact any of the scripts that any of us have written for Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad -- you'd see that it's probably only one-third dialogue, and two-thirds scene direction... I'll answer questions to the best of my ability that the actors pose to me, as long as they need me to, but I just like to put it on the page. So honestly that's the long-winded way of saying I don't remember talking a whole lot about moments like that. Just, Aaron would show up, and he would do them. And the same goes for Jesse Plemons, and the same goes for -- god bless him -- for Robert Forster, and indeed all of these actors. With the help of Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas, our wonderful casting directors, I was fortunate enough to have outstanding actors who just showed up, and they just did it.
Speaking of Robert Forster, it was fun to see Ed Galbraith come together with Jesse for the first time. What is like you for you now to know that this was the last chance to revisit that character? It almost seems like there could be more to learn about him. He was even more enigmatic this time.
Gilligan: Yeah, you're so right.. Every time I think of Robert, I just, I don't even know what to [say]... I feel so fortunate to have gotten to work with him one more time. He was only in one episode of Breaking Bad, and everyone who's a Breaking Bad fan has to be reminded of that. People think, "Wait a minute, he was only in one episode?" Because he left such a large impression on the fans of that show. You know, "The Disappearer." This mythical character that happens to be played by this amazing actor. If you think back on the show, you think, "He must have been in like a half-dozen episodes, right?" But no. He was in... half of one episode he was in. So yes, getting to work with him again was another reason I wanted to do this project.
I found out later that only months after the movie was finished, he's not going to be with us anymore... I didn't know he'd been ill until probably less than a week before he passed because, understandably, he and his family wanted their privacy. I didn't know any of that, and then when I found out, it just floored me. What a loss. What a tremendous actor, and even more importantly, what a tremendous human being. He was just the salt of the earth. He reminded me a lot of my dad, and I just -- I get emotional just thinking about him. I mainly just think about how lucky we all were to get to work with him one last time.
There were a lot of fan theories about how Jesse's story ended -- though the chatter had probably died down before you got to this point of writing this. How did the fan community factor into your choices?
Gilligan: You know, I did this one, more than any of these projects, I did this one kind of strictly for me. I was being very greedy. I wanted to have this experience one more time. And god knows I wanted to work with Bryan Cranston as Walter White again one more time. This movie really was a very selfish experience on my part, very much born of greed... I don't mean greed for money, but greed for experience, to get to work with all of these folks. Maybe at the end of the day that wasn't a good enough reason... To the fanbase, I don't know that it's viewed as essential or as necessary as Better Call Saul. One could argue, you know, basically at the end of Breaking Bad, Jesse gets away, then for two hours of El Camino, we see him get away... maybe we want the details, maybe we don't. But that's the beauty of having all of these things available to future fans... But it was a lot of fun. I had such a good time making it, working with all of these folks. It was definitely worth it for me.
Was it hard to leave certain characters untouched, like Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) and maybe even Saul (Bob Odenkirk)?
Gilligan: Very hard. As much as I love Bob Odenkirk, it wasn't as hard to leave Saul Goodman untouched because I knew the whole time I was writing it that he had his own ongoing story, and man I did not want to mess with anything Peter and the writers were about to do with that character. So leaving Saul out of it was not as big a concern for me because he's being treated very well indeed.
But when it comes to Skyler, when it comes to Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), when it comes to Hank (Dean Norris) and to Marie, and honestly Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) -- that would've been a great one too to fit into the movie. Those all made me sad that I couldn't find a way, [but] it's called a movie for a reason. You want to keep it moving, and when you over-pack it with flashbacks and whatnot, it's such a fine calculus. Which is not to say I pulled it off…
The closest we came to not moving the plot forward in the movie is the scene in fact with Walt and Jesse together. But I just thought, "Gah, you gotta get Walt in this thing." But then my producers are reading it, and Melissa Bernstein, one of my right-hand people, read it, and she said, "I love seeing these characters together, but what's the point of the scene? It's not really moving the plot forward, is it?" ... I hemmed and I hawed, and then I went back, and thought, "She's right." So I guess the button on the scene is: The final word from Walter White that we may ever see in this universe of storytelling is that crazy line he says. He says, "You're lucky. You didn't have to wait your whole life to do something special." And so that became the final point of the scene. It's not just nostalgia.
One of the lingering questions from El Camino was what was in Jesse's letter to Brock. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Gilligan: That's the first thing I wrote was the actual letter; I wrote that before I even wrote the script, and it was in the first draft. Everybody who read it said, "Well, it's a nice letter, but maybe it's better left unspoken." In the original draft, you were going to hear Jesse read it in voiceover, [but] my producers -- and also I ran it past my fellow writers on Better Call Saul, [including] Peter Gould... and they all said, "Don't you think that's the kind of thing the audience ought to create for themselves, in their mind's eye, in their imagination?" So that was left out... I may share it at some point. I might share it with folks, with fans, because it does exist. It literally exists. But I worry that reading it aloud, people might say, "Eh, you know, I liked my own imagination's version of it better." But it was basically a letter to Brock, the young man whose mother was killed by Todd, saying how important how important this young person's mother was to Jesse, the person writing the letter, and how sorry he was about it.
When you were writing this story and conceptualizing it, did you learn anything new about Jesse the character?
Gilligan: I fear the answer is no. Maybe that constitutes a failure somewhere because it seems like you learn things about yourself, and you learn things about the world when you write. That's one of the things I love about writing. But in hindsight, I'm not sure... I've been thinking about this for a while, actually... deep in my brain, I've been thinking, "You know, what do you know different about this character now that you didn't before?" I don't know… I think a lot of what is in the movie are things that the audience may or may not have learned about Jesse, but they were already sort of bouncing around in my head, so getting to put words to them is nice.
In the end, does it give you peace to know that Jesse found hope?
Gilligan: Yes. It makes me happy. I've been accused, and rightly so, for years, of really torturing these characters, specifically Jesse Pinkman. The writers and I on Breaking Bad never set out to torture Jesse, but, boy, we sure wound up doing that nonetheless. This poor guy just got the living hell walloped out of him just about every other episode, it feels like in hindsight. And then he gets put into this hole in the ground, all of these terrible things happen to him, and then it almost, at times, it almost felt like The Perils of Pauline or something. It was not intentional. It was not any sadistic streak on our part. We didn't enjoy beating up on him. But it's just where the drama of the story took us.
So yes, maybe the scales of justice, morally or psychically or something, were balanced a little with this movie. He does undergo a lot more pain still, during the run of this movie, but I hope that it's a happy ending in the end. I want it to be for him. He deserves it. This guy has more than suffered. He's suffered. For all of his sins, he's suffered. And then some… Practically speaking, for all of the terrible things that have happened to him, I don't know how he doesn't suffer from PTSD for the rest of his life, but I'd like to think there was some peace for the character at the end of this movie. And that made it worthwhile.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is available on Netflix.