Friday, April 4, 2014

Vince Gilligan at Harvard

This past week, Breaking Bad creator (and The X-Files writer) Vince Gilligan visited Harvard University as part of the Learning from Performers Speaker Series. As someone who's currently making his way through Breaking Bad, this struck me as a terrific opportunity to learn more about the craft from one of its modern masters.

University President Drew Faust queried him on the show for the first 45 minutes of the program, and the latter 45 was opened up to the packed crowd for a Q&A.

Of particular note was Gilligan's emphasis on collaboration between the writers themselves as well as the cast when it came to developing and exploring character. He discussed a particular example of a scene in which characters (and meth cooks) Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are pursued to a dead end situation in which a police officer has them cornered in a junkyard, seconds away from forcing open the door to their RV/rolling meth lab. How could they possibly escape from such a situation? Gilligan himself admits, "At first we said that there was no way out of this."

Gilligan noted that it took his team a week to figure it out. Collaborating with other writers is a useful tool not only to help you explore the potential within your own script, but also to give you the freedom to paint your characters into such a corner that you yourself don't know how they'll ever make it out. If you write the scene and you don't know, your audience won't either. This makes it all the more entertaining (for your audience) and rewarding (for you) when ultimately, you (and/or those with whom you consult on story) do come up with the answer. Gilligan said, "What makes Walter White so brilliant is that he can come up in minutes with an answer that it took us probably hundreds of man-hours to figure out."

Gilligan also stressed the importance of visual storytelling. This is a lesson I drill into my own students. Something needs to happen in a scene. What is an action or series of actions that can take the place of dialogue? Is dialogue even necessary for the scene? Dialogue might be a few to a few dozen words, but an image is truly worth a thousand. Keep dialogue sparse, and use it only when necessary. How is showing a far more effective storytelling tool than telling?

As a further example from Breaking Bad, Gilligan noted the characters of the Cousins (Leonel and Marco), cartel hitmen. Between the two of them, over the course of several episodes, they speak barely a dozen lines. However, they cut a bloody swath of rampaging death from Mexico to Albuquerque. There's no doubt that these characters are serious and deadly. But they never issue a verbal threat. Not once. And they're terrifying. Moral of the story? Dialogue should be in your bag of tricks, but shouldn't always be a first line of attack. It's a film/TV show, after all. Not a radio play.

Perhaps most importantly, Gilligan stressed the significance of character transition. He alluded to shows that had no set end date and how charting a character's emotional arc would be considerably complicated if there was no ending point for their internal journey. On the character of Walter White, the question was raised as to whether Walter underwent a metamorphosis from good to bad, or if he was always bad and his actions simply unveiled who he really was. Gilligan seemed to like keeping that question open-ended, as in life, it can also be. 

By the same token, "you don't want to change your characters too fast," Gilligan warned, "but your only job is to get people excited about the story you're telling. But there's no one right way to do it. Grab the reader." 

I had the great luck to be able to ask him, "How do you construct a character who an actor will want to play?"

He replied, "Actors are looking for the same thing that the reader of the script is looking for. Think of all the ways you've seen that particular archetype, and then go the opposite way or change things up as much as possible. If you can make something feel fresh, that's a good starting point. Actors respond to that like viewers do. What haven't they seen before? You have to really grab them quick and know the story you're telling. Be really interested in the character, yourself."

A great talk from a true class act. Now back to my Breaking Bad binge-watching.

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