On Sept. 10, 1993, a show called "The X-Files" premiered on Fox, and just over 20 years later "Breaking Bad" will air its series finale on AMC. Those events have a lot more in common than you might think.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad," got his start in television by writing for "The X-Files." He was toiling away as a film writer and living in Virginia when a meeting with "X-Files" creator Chris Carter changed his life.
"I learned everything I pretty much know about TV from 'The X-Files' and from working for Chris, and from working with ['X-Files writer/producers] Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban," Gilligan said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "It was a great learning experience, and one that I always liken to film school, except it was a film school that paid me to attend."
As part of our commemoration of the 20th anniversary of "The X-Files," we've interviewed the show's alumni: Check out our interview with Gillian Anderson here, and we've got interviews with Frank Spotnitz and "Homeland's" Howard Gordon, two key "X-Files" alumni.
Below, Gilligan talks about how he fell "ass backward" into an "X-Files" writing gig and explains how the show's rigorous visual approach influenced the acclaimed "Breaking Bad."
How did you end up working on "The X-Files"?
I was home alone one September or October night. I can’t remember the exact month, but I know it was 1993 and I was home in Virginia. At the time, I was making my living writing screenplays, and keeping my fingers crossed that they would get made. At that point, I had one movie made -- a little movie called “Wilder Napalm” that didn’t do much. But I saw myself pretty much as a screenwriter of movies.
I didn’t have cable TV, and home alone one night, I happened to watch the first episode of this new show called “The X-Files." I didn’t have particularly high hopes for it, but within the first act, by the end of the teaser, in fact, I was hooked. And I said, “This is a great show. Wow. I wonder if it’ll be this good next week?” And indeed it was. And I became an absolute hardcore fan of “The X-Files." I watched it week in and week out, and I turned my girlfriend on to it.
I happened to be talking to my agent in Los Angeles, and I said, “By the way, have you seen this new show called 'The X-Files'? It’s really good. You got to watch it." And she said, “You know, it’s funny that you mention it, because I happen to be related, by marriage, to the man who created it, a guy named Chris Carter. I am a cousin of his wife.” And I said, “Wow, that’s interesting. Small world.” And she said, “Next time you’re out here on movie business, would you like to meet him? Because I think I can arrange it.” I said, “Well, what would I meet him for? I’m a movie guy.” And she said, “Well, just to say hi and tell him how much you love his show.” And I said, “Yeah, that would be good. I’d love to just gush over how good it is.” Little thinking that I would wind up working on it.
It was a very interesting meeting, because I did not have any snobbery at all about TV, but the reason I didn’t even think of working in television is because [I thought] you needed to live in Los Angeles to work in television. You needed to be in the writer’s room. I knew that I had just bought a house in Virginia, and I had a girlfriend in Virginia, and I had my family there. I wasn’t even thinking about moving 3,000 miles to the other coast.
So I went into this meeting very relaxed with Chris Carter, because I was not trying to impress him. I just wanted to shake his hand and say, “Man, what a great show you have.” And he said, “Yeah, well, thanks. Do you have any ideas for it?” And I said, “Well, gosh no. I mean, I just wanted to say hi. But I was in the hotel last night, and I was looking at my shadow cast against the wall, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be weird if it suddenly started moving independently of me?” And he said, “Yeah, that would be creepy.”
One thing led to another, and I liken it to being like Kramer on “Seinfeld" -- I just fell ass backward into the greatest job ever by not being nervous in this meeting, by not being "on" or trying to get a job. Lo and behold, he was throwing out ideas, and then we very quickly had a very rough idea for what became, late in Season 2, an episode called "Soft Light," and that was the first episode that I had my name on. I wrote it as a freelancer.
I saw how great TV could be, because I had been working on writing movie scripts for years before that. And there was no light at the end of the tunnel on most of these movie scripts. It’s sort of like the punishment of Tantalus in the old Greek mythology -- the grapes are right within reach, but as soon as you reach for them, they pull up out of your reach. That’s what the movie business is like. It’s so close, the movie is about to get made, and you reach for it, but no, not quite -- maybe next year. But the TV business -- I come up with this crazy, half-assed idea for an episode about a guy’s shadow coming to life, and it turns into something else, but it gets made within weeks or months of that initial conversation. I thought, “This is the greatest thing ever. This is what I got in the business for -- to actually see the stuff that I write get made.”
From then on, I was hooked, and luckily Chris asked me to join the staff. I thought, “Well, screw it. I’ll just leave my house empty for a while, and I’ll move out to California and see how it goes. I’ll probably get fired real quick anyway, because I hear it’s a tough gig." Cut to seven years later, and we’re there 'til the bitter end.
And you still had the house to go back to if things got really bad?
I had it for a while. I wound up buying a house out here, and I had to sell that house for the down payment.
Can you talk about the kinds of nuts and bolts things you learned to build suspense and keep the audience's interest? I'm thinking about how you deal with the audience’s expectations and maybe subvert them within the confines of an episode of TV.
I learned so much from “The X-Files." It was the perfect job for me. I can’t give it enough credit for the success of “Breaking Bad” and everything else I’ve done since it ended. First of all, behind the scenes, it taught me how to be a producer, and it taught me how to be a showrunner. It taught me how to be a boss.
One thing I learned from Chris was to give the people around me as much investment in the show as possible. When I was a writer on “The X-Files," even before I had a producer title, Chris expected me and the other writers to take responsibility in producing our own episodes. He expected us to go up to Vancouver, in the early days when we still shot up there. He expected us to be available to help the director, to answer any questions, to advocate for the script, to help do all the jobs that a producer does. [The idea was that we would be an] aide to the director, to the actors, and to the crew in getting the episode produced.
He would expect us, even before that, to take part in casting sessions. He’d expect us to go to music playback and listen to the music that the wonderful Mark Snow wrote for us. He expected us to be in the editing room with the editors. And he expected us to shepherd our episodes all the way through pre-production and post-production.
I learned to expect the same of my writers, and it’s held me in very good stead. If you expect your crew people, the folks around you, to have the same investment in the show as you do, if they feel the same ownership as you do, that can lead to great things. On the other hand, if you feel just like some kind of clock-punching wage slave who doesn’t really feel ownership of what he or she is working on, then you kind of punch the clock and that’s all you do.
But as far as writing goes, from Chris I learned the idea of point of view. And this took me the longest time to figure out, and I still have hard time explaining it, except to say, especially with a show about suspense, you want to put the audience into the viewpoint of the character whose scene it is.
There’s a way to tell a story that’s more proscenium, where you’re just sort of watching characters from outside, almost like a stage play kind of thing. The "proscenium" storytelling process does not invest the audience. You’re not seeing through any particular character’s eyes. And if you’re not seeing a story through any particular character’s eyes, you’re not really going to be frightened when the scary moments come.
If you’re inside the mind of that woman going down the stairs with a candle in her hand, you’ve really suddenly increased how gripping that particular moment can be. [The idea is to] find a way, writing-wise and directing-wise, to put yourself into her head, and there’s a lot of tricks to that particular process. I learned the idea, or it was reinforced to me, the idea of visual storytelling -- the idea that images trump dialogue. That was something I learned and something we pay close heed to on “Breaking Bad."
This is a visual storytelling medium. If it weren’t, we’d just be writing stage plays. And there’s nothing wrong with stage plays, but that’s not writing to the strengths of a visual storytelling medium, be it television or movies. It’s an old saw now. You hear every showrunner out there say, “We’re putting on a little movie, a little one-hour movie, once a week.” It’s become a bit of a cliché. Well, to my knowledge, it was first truly applied to “The X-Files." “The X-Files” truly was an intensely cinematic show on television.
Now, I’m not the finest student of the history of TV, so there may be examples that predate “The X-Files," but to the best of my knowledge, that was the first show that truly approached the look of the TV show itself in terms of cinema, in terms of, "How much of the story can we tell visually?" "How much can we make this look like not just a movie but a really wonderfully shot movie?" Chris paid close attention to that from the get-go. He hired the best directors of photography that he could find, starting with John Bartley who wound up doing “Lost” and big shows like that -- he was a wonderful DP. And we ended with Bill Roe, who is just brilliant.
The look of the show was so very important to Chris. He was always looking for a visual element with every script. He would say, “OK, what’s the visual element with this particular episode?” I sort of liken it to the wonderful Kubrick ethos. Kubrick would say that a movie is made up of about six to eight, or maybe four to six, "non-submergible moments."
Chris thought the same way. He used different terminology, but he would basically say, “What’s the visual element with these episodes?” [He wanted to know what the] non-submergible moments or visual elements were -- in other words, what is the thing from that particular story that the audience is going to take away with them? What is going to be etched into the viewer's brain so that they always remember it? He always knew that it wasn’t words so much that people remember, it’s images.
One of the most notable things about "The X-Files" is how it had a variety of kinds of episodes -- funny ones, very dark ones, mythology episodes and standalone episodes.
Yeah, [it showcased] the hybridization of storytelling, a sort of cross between standalone episodes and ongoing serialized episodes. There were certainly TV shows before “X-Files” in which the episodes were standalone. And there were certainly very serialized shows -- “Wiseguy” is a great example. I loved that show. It was very serialized, and “X-Files” was interesting, in that it found a way to mix the two processes. Every third, or fourth, or fifth episode you’d see a run of one or two mythology episodes that would connect to the ongoing larger story.
I was a bit of a specialist on that show -- I was very much a standalone guy, as were a couple other writers. The mythology episodes, I kind of admired from afar, but could never figure out how those guys came up with that stuff. I was like, “Good God, this show is hard enough already. How do you keep that stuff going over many years? How do you keep building that mythology?” I knew my limits and I stayed away from that end of it, because I knew I didn’t have the brain for that part of it.
And then you went on to build this hugely mythology-oriented show in "Breaking Bad."
Well, I never thought I’d be good at serialized storytelling. It was one thing that I thankfully picked up out of the ether or wherever, post “X-Files,” because I did not learn serialized storytelling on “The X-Files," that’s for sure.
Do you see the influence of "The X-Files" in the ways that television has evolved?
Oh, I think so. I [see it] in the best possible way, in the best sense of homage and inspiration. You could see it in “Lost,” which was an excellent show, and I think you see it in a lot of J.J. Abrams' work for television. These are people who I think, if you asked them, they’d say they were inspired by “The X-Files." And certainly you see it in “Breaking Bad." I was inspired by “The X-Files”.
I took a lot of those lessons in visual storytelling and adapted them from a show of suspense and the supernatural. I adapted them for use in a show about the gritty and the mundane, a show about the down-and-dirty world of meth dealing. But definitely “Breaking Bad” is a show that’s inspired in its look and in its storytelling by “The X-Files."
There’s still plenty of good TV shows on the air [that are] just about the words, and the show itself plays more like a stage play. But I think any show in which the series feels less like a stage play and more like a visually interesting movie, owes a debt to “The X-Files,” it seems to me. Although I’m biased -- maybe I’m too close to it.
Do you have a favorite episode in particular, or a high point of the show that really stands out?
Boy, I always have a hard time picking favorites because I had so many favorite episodes of “The X-Files," and so many of them were ones that I did not write -- so many good writers went through that show, and so many wonderful directors. I loved Darin Morgan's episodes. He wrote wonderful episodes of “X-Files" and then wrote and directed two excellent episodes of “Millennium," “The X-Files'” sister show. One of my all-time favorites was "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me," an episode of "Millennium." Darin was so very talented.
My favorite episode is not necessarily the best. The episode that means the most to me personally is one of my own, and I don’t at all say it’s the best episode, but I have the most fondness for it because it was the first time I got to direct. It was an episode called "Je Souhaite." I wrote it, and it was about a genie who a couple of guys find rolled up in a rug in a storage place. She gives them wishes, and their lives turn out horrible because of it. It had the most meaning to me, because I got to direct professionally for the first time on it. That’s why it’ll always be dear to my heart.
It was one of the funnier ones. That was another thing “The X-Files” did very well -- mix nail-biting suspense with oddball humor. That’s another thing I learned from “The X-Files” that we continue to this day on “Breaking Bad” -- we mix up the tone of the show.
I’ve heard the stories many times that [Fox] was afraid the tone wouldn’t be that flexible on the show [and executives worried that funny episodes] would break it and that people would be like, “What the hell kind of show am I watching? One minute it’s funny, the next minute, it’s suspenseful and scary.” But it was a credit to the writers and Chris that they went for it, and they made it work.