Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad," has consistently said that Walter White's journey is the story of Mr. Chips turning into Scarface, and tonight's episode of "Breaking Bad" (Sun., July 29, 10 p.m. ET) actually featured a scene from the the classic Al Pacino movie.
After his wife, Skyler, had an emotional meltdown in front of her sister-in-law about the many secrets in the White household, Walt and Walter Jr. settled in to watch a DVD of "Scarface." Skyler emerged from her bedroom into the living room and saw what they were watching just as the climactic "Say hello to my little friend!" scene aired. Walt, of whom she's grown increasingly terrified, murmured "Everyone dies in this movie."
It turns out that "Breaking Bad" not only had to get permission from the studio in order to use a clip from the classic gangster film, they also had to get permission from Al Pacino to use his likeness. According to Gilligan, the actor graciously acquiesced and did not charge the show much for the use of his image.
I interviewed Gilligan on Friday for over an hour, and I'll be posting more from that conversation soon, but I've excerpted here the part of the conversation that pertains to Sunday's episode, "Hazard Pay." And you might be interested to learn that star Bryan Cranston improvised the key line from that "Scarface" scene.
(Just to summarize what Gilligan and I were talking about when the "Scarface" scene came up in our conversation, we were discussing the opening scene of the fifth season, in which an apparently on-the-run Walt buys a very serious weapon from a gun dealer. My review of this week's episode, by the way, is here.)
Here's the "Scarface" section of the Vince Gilligan interview:
Walt's not having the best week when we first meet him in Season 5.
Any guy who needs to buy an M-60 machine gun in a Denny's parking lot is probably up to no good. Some grand gesture is just around the corner and we're probably not too far from the end at that point.
"Say hello to my little friend!"
My big friend. [Laughs.]
My very big friend. Well, just to segue into "Hazard Pay" -- the actual reference to "Scarface" in the episode.
You've used that analogy, "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface" for years and years …
I've probably said it one million [times] -- I'm waiting for balloons to drop next time, I've said it so many times.
But it was wonderful, it was so fun to get to use the clip from "Scarface." It almost didn't happen, because using a clip from a famous movie with famous, Oscar-winning actors like that can be a very expensive proposition. But ["Scarface" studio] Universal was very cool about it, and I hear through the grapevine that Al Pacino was extraordinarily cool about it. He could have charged us out the wazoo to use his likeness, and I think he was just very cool about it. We paid some amount that was in no way, shape or form confiscatory, and we appreciate him being cool like that.
I didn't realize that you have to have not only the studio but the actor's approval as well.
Yes indeed. That's the way it ought to be. An actor should have control over his or her likeness and have veto power: "I don't want to be in this crazy show." I never met the man, but God knows I love his work. He was very cool, and we so appreciate getting to use a clip from the wonderful ending to "Scarface." I love "Scarface," it's one of my favorites. And it's just cool to have it on the show, finally.
And maybe it's a little bit of foreshadowing: "Walt, really pay attention to what goes down here!"
There's that great line that Bryan Cranston ad-libbed that is not in the script for the episode: "Everybody dies in this movie." Who knows if that's foreshadowing or not.
I read that scene a different way, actually. To me, if Bryan ad-libbed that line, that's brilliant, because so much of that episode and the season as a whole is about control. And so much of that episode is about him manipulating people and controlling them and showing them his power. He resists Mike's attempt to connect him back to Gus' empire and take care of that business. He manipulates Jesse into breaking up with his girlfriend and cutting off his only ties to anyone but Walt. We see Skyler have this very understandable emotional breakdown, and after that moment, for him to say, "Everybody in this movie dies" ... I feel like he's issuing warnings left and right to people. Like, "Don't cross me."
That's a good way to look at it. I see where you're going with that. I like that. That's interesting. I didn't even see it that way. You know what I love about this show … one of the many things I love is that, all the time, I hear interpretations of character behavior and plot moments and story and morals that we may or may not be actively trying to communicate.
I hear interpretations of the show … that are marvelous. Just way better than anything I could come up with. And I'm not being falsely modest, but I am in the middle of the forest and I can't see it for the trees. I hear stuff all the time where people honestly come up with better interpretations of this show than I ever could. And on the one hand, I have to admit, if you held my feet to the fire, half of them I didn't intend. But I like them better than anything I came up with, so maybe, in some "Inception"-like way, on some level beneath levels, maybe we had some of these ideas in mind from the get-go. Or maybe that's just patting ourselves on the back in a way that is not earned, I'm not sure which.
We do strive very hard to not answer every question in every episode, so that people can indeed argue over certain moments. We try to come up with as many watercooler moments as we can per episode, and I don't mean just big dramatic moments, but moments in which people can honestly argue about [what a character does]. I love giving the audience stuff that they can argue over in a fun way and not in an angry way. I love fomenting arguments.
Note: My review of this week's "Breaking Bad" episode is here.
Expect more from the Gilligan interview soon: I'll provide an overview of our talk in a post that also contains the entire interview as a Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast in a week or two, and the podcast discussion of the begining of Season 5 of "Breaking Bad" is below.