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US TV Interview

'Breaking Bad' creator: 'Streaming video-on-demand saved the show'

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The success of Breaking Bad has been a slow burn, both in the US and internationally, but thanks in large part to the show being made available on Netflix and other streaming video on demand sites, the recent mid-season premiere marked an all-time ratings high.

In a somewhat groundbreaking move, Netflix UK now has the new episodes available on Monday mornings just hours after their US debut, which long-suffering fans on this side of the pond can file in the 'better late than never' category.

In the second part of Digital Spy's interview with creator Vince Gilligan, he discusses the key role that online streaming video - of both the legal and illegal variety - had to play in the show's slow-burn success.

'Breaking Bad' cast

© AMC

The cast of 'Breaking Bad' season 4



Platforms away from television have been responsible for a lot of the show's growth. Did you expect that?

No, I'm very old fashioned in my understanding of the television business, and I'm not an early adopter in terms of technology and whatnot. I'm not much of a computer guy, I just feel like I'm too old! But I have to say, Netflix, god bless 'em because they really saved our bacon. It is very likely that Breaking Bad would have been cancelled after season two, maybe we might have made it to season three, if not for Netflix, if not for the advent of streaming video on demand.

Our first season in the States had very low viewership; the numbers were just pathetic. But the people who did watch it, thankfully they enjoyed it, and they would tell their friends 'Hey, you should check out this new show Breaking Bad'. But if Netflix wasn't around, if that technology was not around at that point, their friends would have been hard pressed to catch up on the show, and we would have been cancelled. We would never have reached the threshold of viewership that was needed to stay on the air.

Do you think the online pirates had a role to play too?

They probably did, if I'm being honest. The piracy is certainly a double-edged sword. It does dis-incentivise companies from making their products if they feel they can't earn an honest living off of them, but on the other hand there was an upside to the piracy, because it got the word out in regards to Breaking Bad. For a long time, before Netflix really had its advent, it was the only way folks around the world could catch up with the show at all. And being aware of that, there has to be a bit of gratitude on my part for that having happened.

A lot of today's successful series have a very big ensemble cast, whereas this is more of a two-hander. Did you always envision that being the case?

When I first started working on Breaking Bad, I assumed the pattern for the show would follow more of an ensemble cast. My first job on television was on The X-Files, and I think in hindsight I realised that that show really centred on the relationship between two people, Mulder and Scully, and that is what I was used to. That's the storytelling I was trained on, and worked at for seven years. And when X-Files ended, and I sold Breaking Bad, I thought 'Well now's my opportunity to do more of an ensemble storytelling process, and to tell A and B and C stories'.

But I realised I wasn't really equipped to do that, I didn't have a grounding in that sort of storytelling, and therefore, like it or not, Breaking Bad did not consist typically of that. Every now and again we'd have a B story and a C story, but more often than not, it was the A story alone that got us through the episode. It was Walter White's story, and it was a two-hander between Walt and Jesse, just as X-Files was a two-hander between Mulder and Scully. I guess you write what you know, and you write what you've been taught previously, and if I had worked on a different show, if I had worked on The Sopranos for instance, or if I had worked on some other series instead of The X Files, Breaking Bad likely would have taken a very different shape.

Walt and Jesse in 'Breaking Bad' season 3 episode 6 'Sunset'

© AMC

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in 'Breaking Bad'



You said you write about what you know - how did the character of Walt come to you?

Well, the years I spent cooking meth… Sometimes I'm being facetious when I say 'write what you know'. Obviously I've never sold meth, I've never actually tried it, although neither has Walt for that matter. At least as far as we've seen until now, and maybe that will remain the case, maybe it won't! But Walter White is very much a nerdy middle-aged guy, and I feel like I know that, I can speak to that, I can write about that.

The more Walt becomes a drug kingpin, the further removed he is from my reality. But at this point, sixty-some episodes in, I feel like I know him well enough that coming up with the drug deals, those kind of interactions that I've never actually lived in my own life, are not as hard, because I understand his character pretty innately. I'm not a scientist and I've never been a teacher, but in a lot of other ways Walt, being a middle-aged guy who's facing a rather serious midlife crisis, that was pretty relatable to me.

How much involvement do you have in the various international versions of the show that are developing, and do you have any news on the Saul Goodman spinoff?

I have a great hope that we will do a Saul Goodman spinoff, we're working on it with a writer named Peter Gould, we're waiting to see if it will happen. Hopefully AMC and Sony will come to an agreement and that will happen, and I would work on that personally.

There is a Colombian one, which is shooting episode six as we speak, and I hope there will be many others. I've heard talk in the past several years about a Danish version, a Turkish version - I would love to see as many versions as anyone would care to make! The Colombian one is based on the pre-existing American scripts. Typically, I probably would not have much to do with those. I'm so proud of that happening, but I will have no direct involvement.

Looking back on when you first pitched the show, how did the studios react?

There were a lot of blank stares. The very first time I pitched the show was to Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, they were the two heads of Sony Television, and I already knew those gentlemen, they had told me it was an open door policy after we had worked together on a previous project. They said 'Any time you want to come in and pitch something, we'd love to hear it.'

And as I was pitching this story, they both looked like deer in the headlights. As you pitch, you've got the whole thing memorised, but I had a little bit of an out-of-body experience where I was watching myself from above in a sense, thinking 'Oh, this is not going very well at all…'

So most people said no, but all it takes is that one yes, and luckily the one yes came, once Sony signed on, from AMC. I'm surprised we got this far, I'm surprised as many people watch the show as they do, but it's been a wonderful experience and I'm gonna miss it. I already do miss it, now that it's over.

Breaking Bad's final season airs on Sunday nights on AMC in the US. New episodes are available each Monday morning on Netflix UK.

Seasons 1-5 are available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix UK now.

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