Jesse Pinkman, Jonathan Banks and Bryan Cranston in BREAKING BAD - Season 4 - "Box Cutter" | ©2011 AMC/Ursula Coyote

Jesse Pinkman, Jonathan Banks and Bryan Cranston in BREAKING BAD - Season 4 - "Box Cutter" | ©2011 AMC/Ursula Coyote

AMC’s series BREAKING BAD begins its fourth season tonight, Sunday, at 10 PM. Since the show debuted in 2008, Bryan Cranston’s Walt White has gone from a cancer-stricken mild-mannered high school science teacher who starts manufacturing crystal meth to provide for his family to an in-remission criminal drug dealer who is willing to use violence to further his ends.

Cranston has won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for all three previous seasons; Aaron Paul took the Supporting Actor in a Drama Emmy in 2010 for his work as Walt’s former student/current drug partner Jesse Pinkman. BREAKING BAD also garnered Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy nominations in 2009 2010. All of this makes the show’s creator/executive producer/show runner Vince Gilligan – who received an Emmy nomination for his direction of the BREAKING BAD pilot – understandably pleased and proud.

ASSIGNMENT X: At what point did you realize BREAKING BAD was having a bigger impact on viewers than just, okay, somebody’s watching?

VINCE GILLIGAN: It took me the longest time to believe the show was even on the air, because it’s so out there and so dark and edgy and different, and purposely so. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment when Bryan Cranston got his first [Emmy] nomination for Best Actor. He’s so obviously such a great actor and he’s such a known quantity, and so beloved professionally and personally by so many people in the industry that that was not that surprising to me. It was deserved. But when we got our first nomination for Best Drama, I knew we had arrived, and I was so grateful and surprised and so very happy. [When] we got another one for Season Three, I [was] just over the moon. The old saw really rings true – that being nominated for this award is an award unto itself. It’s an honor just to be nominated.. I used to think, “It’s what people say to be good sports,” but it really is true, because I still can’t believe we were nominated, I can’t believe people are paying this much attention to us – it’s wonderful.

AX: When the series started, Walt was dying of cancer. Do you and the other writers spend a lot of time thinking about how healthy Walt can or should be at any given point, depending on how many seasons you think BREAKING BAD will run?

GILLIGAN: We want to keep the show going in a believable fashion, but when you have a main character of the show who is dying of cancer, the question quickly, arises, how long will the show go? And the wonderful success we’ve had creatively and the fans’ [response] is so heartening that I’m only human – it makes me want the show to go on as long as we can keep it interesting and fun for us and for the fans. So, with that in mind, you have to think to yourself as a writer, how long can one suffer from terminal cancer? And I want to start by saying Walt still has cancer – that has not changed.

Ironically, because of these very illegal and immoral activities, cooking meth and making a living off of it, he has had the wherewithal to go to the very best oncologists there are and I think he’s bought himself some real time, time that he otherwise would not have, perhaps. So there was a logistical point to that. We want to keep the show going for a decent length of time and yet in a believable fashion. You want him to get the best medical treatment he can get and see how long he can last with that under his belt. But also, the more interesting point to me is, what happens when you are a good guy who has broken every moral code you perhaps used to live by in order to have a lot of money to leave to your family? What happens if suddenly you get some good news that maybe you’ve got longer on the planet than you thought you did? That to me was one of the more interesting questions that the writers ask themselves.

In Season Two, one of my writers, Moira Walley, wrote a very interesting episode [“Over”], in which Walt White got good news about his cancer. And then of course the question is, what does Walt do now? Does he stop cooking meth? The obvious answer is, “Yes, stop cooking meth.” And yet he doesn’t. And then you realize that this guy’s stated intention of doing what he does for his family is maybe not the truth, maybe it’s an example of him lying to himself. Maybe all along he thought he was doing this for his family and maybe it’s not so. So that’s where things started to really get more interesting for me personally.

AX: Had he thought, if only subconsciously, “If I get enough money, maybe I can get some medical help?”

GILLIGAN: I think Walt is a guy who lies a lot. He lies to his wife, he lies to his children, he lies to everybody around him shamelessly, endlessly, but I think, more than anything, the person he lies to the most is himself. I think even in later episodes when Walt says, “I love my family, I do everything for my family,” I think he does love his family, but I think also maybe part of that’s true, maybe it’s not. Maybe the more he gets into this life, the more he realizes that he likes the power. He feels the power that comes from breaking the law and walking the dark path of being a criminal.

Giancarlo Esposito in BREAKING BAD - Season 4 - "Box Cutter" | ©2011 AMC/Ursula Coyote

Giancarlo Esposito in BREAKING BAD - Season 4 - "Box Cutter" | ©2011 AMC/Ursula Coyote

AX: If Walt enjoys being a criminal, is he going to continue to get inexorably darker and darker?

GILLIGAN: I can tell you that my writers and I, all the time, talk for hours about if or when the moment comes when Walt sees himself with perfect clarity.. We’ll say to ourselves, “Walt is not clear on who he is, but will he ever get to that point??” I can’t tell you what our current answer is, because that would be giving away too much, but I can tell you we’ve discussed that in great detail.

AX: Do you think anybody sees Walt clearly?

GILLIGAN: I think that [Walt’s wife] Skyler [played by Anna Gunn] may well see Walt more clearly – she’s closer to him than anybody else on the planet, being his wife. I think for the longest time during the run of the show, she has not seen him completely for who he truly is, because he’s lied to her so much. And there are still so many things she doesn’t know about him at the end of Season Three. She doesn’t know about all the bodies that he’s left behind, all the violence. But it seems to me, without giving anything away, as the show progresses that the more she knows about this guy she’s married to and is currently separated from, the more she’s going to understand who he really is. And then what will that entail? What will that change about her? Is there a way to be attracted to someone and simultaneously repelled by them?

AX: Will Giancarlo Esposito be coming back as Gus for Season Four?

GILLIGAN: Oh, I don’t see us going on without him. First of all, he’s a wonderful human being. He is so unlike Gus in real life. He’s such a sweet, wonderful man. We love him. But he plays this evil, cold, calculating person to a T. He is such a wonderful addition to our show, I would hate to see him go away, that’s for sure. The show would definitely suffer by his absence. So, yeah.

AX: You got an Emmy nomination for directing the BREAKING BAD pilot, and you also directed the Season Three finale …

GILLIGAN: I had a good time directing the last episode of Season Three. It was the first time I’d directed in two-and-a-half years. It was a big learning process. I’d never done an episode of TV in eight days before. When I did the pilot, I had sixteen days, so there’s a bit of a learning curve, but I had a great experience.

AX: When you’re doing eight days instead of sixteen days, how do you get everything done?

GILLIGAN: You don’t have that much prep time, unfortunately. When you’re doing an eight-day [shooting] schedule, that also means you have eight days of prep, so you’ve got to get a lot of work concentrated into a small amount of time. The main thing is, you’ve got to make decisions pretty darn quickly. And you’ve also got to be very tough on yourself about, “Do I really need this shot? Can I live without it?” And I still have to learn a lot about that. We shot some stuff that it turns out in the editing room that I didn’t need for the last episode of last season. And I want to get better about saying to myself, “I don’t need this.” Because you don’t want to waste the crew’s time or effort, and also, if you don’t need something, you might as well not shoot it, because later on, it might take time away from something you really do need. It’s real skill, directing television. There’s a learning curve. It doesn’t come overnight.

AX: Previous seasons of BREAKING BAD have aired earlier in the year. Do you know why AMC chose to start Season Four in July?

GILLIGAN: My understanding is that AMC wants to push things a little deeper into the year, because they think they’ll have better luck increasing viewership in the summer.

AX: You’re reportedly working on a pilot for a new version of THE VIRGINIAN, but up until now, you haven’t had any other projects going on, at least that have been announced.. Why is that?

GILLIGAN: BREAKING BAD is like two full-time jobs wrapped up in one. I would love to be more of a multi-tasker. I look at folks like J.J. Abrams with great respect and not a small amount of jealousy, because a guy like that, being able to do many projects at once, I don’t know how he does it, but then again, I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. I’m trying to learn that skill [of delegating work]. I’m not so good at it. I try to do that, but not as much as I’d like. I’m getting a little better.

AX: When you say BREAKING BAD is like two jobs, is one job the writing and the other job making sure that production runs smoothly?

GILLIGAN: Yeah, and of course I have wonderful help in both those regards. When I say I’m not good at delegating, it’s not for lack of wonderful help. I have the best team of writers I’ve ever worked with – all of them are smart as whips, they’re excellent writers, they do great work, they can go on fine without me. I prefer to be there, because I’m kind of a control freak, but they do fine without me. And then we have the best producers, the best directors and, God knows, the best cast in TV. I’m biased, but I think we’ve got the greatest cast and crew on TV, and they don’t need a lot of help from me, but still, I like to weigh in on decisions.

AX: Do you know how BREAKING BAD will end, whenever it ends, or is that going to be a product of evolution as the series continues?

GILLIGAN: I’ve got strong ideas about how things should end. I have hopes and dreams for the characters. I have respect and affection for all of them – even Walt, as bad as he is. Don’t read into that that I think he should live and/or die. I want to see certain outcomes for them all. Having said that, I don’t know that’ll necessarily happen. We try to keep things fresh and loose in the writers’ room. We try to stay open to new possibilities as they present themselves and I don’t know for sure how it’s all going to end.

AX: Anything else you’d like to say about BREAKING BAD?

GILLIGAN: We’re working hard to keep things interesting and keep the story moving forward, and I look forward to the beginning of Season Four airing. I’m excited about people seeing it.

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: Exclusive Interview – BREAKING BAD creator Vince Gilligan on Season 4

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