“This is probably not something I should be saying to you, but this movie, strictly speaking, does not need to exist.”
This was Vince Gilligan, late in a long phone conversation about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Despite having created one of the greatest TV series ever, and its shockingly wonderful prequel, Better Call Saul, Gilligan can be self-effacing to a fault. But that comment was less about diminishing the quality of El Camino — a genuinely thrilling sequel film that tracks Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman in the immediate aftermath of the Breaking Bad series finale — than about acknowledging the completeness of the original show itself. El Camino goes into more detail about what Jesse does after escaping the Nazi compound with Walt’s help — and gives him the same level of closure that the series finale provided Walt(*) — but the fundamentals of his story, and the larger Walt-and-Jesse partnership, were already resolved at the end of those 62 hours of television.
(*) Though, as Gilligan notes below, one of the story choices he made in El Camino was to address the many Breaking Bad fans who didn’t take the show’s final shot of Walt as closure after all.
Here, Gilligan talks about how what “started off as a bit of a trifle” became a feature-length film, why certain characters came back and others didn’t, how Jesse’s outlaw style differs from Mr. White’s, and a lot more (with full spoilers for the film).
When did you first get the idea for El Camino?
I’d had the idea for a while. As I was writing the final episode of Breaking Bad, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where was Jesse driving to? At the time, I thought, “It really doesn’t matter. I want to believe he’s going to get to a better place. He’s gonna get away.” But as the months and the years progressed, I found myself daydreaming about, “Well, how exactly would he have gotten away?” He’s a pretty street-savvy guy, but he’s no Walter White. He’s no Gustavo Fring; he’s not a criminal genius. How’s he going to pull this off? I would wrestle with it and say that it’s up to the individual viewer what the best ending for Jesse Pinkman is: Did he get away? Did he not? But as time went by, I thought, first of all, “I would like to play with that some.” And secondly, I’m always looking for an excuse to work with Aaron. I’ve been feeling that way for six years now. He’s such a pleasure to work with, such a wonderful actor. When the 10th anniversary of the show came along last year, I started to think, “Maybe we get a little money from Sony and we do a mini-episode. We’ll call it ’63,’ like the 63rd episode. And it’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes long.” That quickly morphed into an hour-long episode. And then that morphed into a two-hour movie. It’s not really cost-effective to put a crew together to do one hour’s worth of story. It grew into this movie quickly. Also, I was bouncing ideas off the Better Call Saul writers, many of whom had worked on Breaking Bad, and they were saying, “I don’t know if you should call it ’63.’ It implies that Breaking Bad, we left something on the table, that it was not complete.” They said this should feel like a new chapter. So it was taking all this excellent input from Peter Gould and our writers. That’s all how it came to be.
So on the one hand, you feel the story of Breaking Bad is complete. On the other, you’ve made this movie. How do you feel the movie exists relative to Breaking Bad, then? In the same way that Better Call Saul relates to the original show?
How it exists within the greater universe of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is that it all fits together very well. But it’s not necessary, just as Better Call Saul is not necessary to Breaking Bad, Breaking Bad is not necessary to Better Call Saul, and this movie is not necessary to either of them. They all exist together in a bigger framework. They can be enjoyed separately, and you can watch one of them without seeing the other two, but you probably would not be getting the full experience. They have a cumulative effect when taken all together. This [movie] maybe to a lesser degree than the other two works by itself. But I think you can watch this if you’ve never seen either TV show. At the end of the day, it’s not that much to comprehend: It’s a guy on the run and haunted by his past. How does he get away? Will he get away? Having said that, there’s all these details: Why’s he in this pit? Who’s this crazy blonde guy who seems to treat him very politely and yet is keeping him captive? It’s certainly a deeper and richer experience if you have seen Breaking Bad.
After having been the co-lead of the show for a while in the middle of the series, Jesse takes a step back in those final eight episodes, and it’s much more Walt’s story again. Was that something you were aware of as you were making those episodes?
Very much so. I remember being pained in those later seasons at the thought that not only was Jesse not as front-and-center as he used to be, but even more fundamentally, we had broken up Laurel and Hardy. My favorite moments on Breaking Bad were when those two guys were working together, when they had that chemistry, no pun intended, where Jesse was always annoying the hell out of Walt. So in later seasons, when these two grew apart, I remember there was a lot of nail-biting: “Are we messing up what brought us here, what got us all these fans?” But the thing that always allowed me to sleep at night was the realization that the story took us where it took us, and we were as honest about that as we could possibly be. If the story takes you to a point where the characters split up, you gotta go with the story. You can’t force them together, because that’s really where you endanger the quality and integrity of the storytelling. So yeah, in the last season, it really was more about Walt than anything. If any story was absolutely, 100 percent completed in Breaking Bad, it seems to me it was Walter White’s story. Jesse Pinkman, when he goes driving off into the night in the El Camino screaming and crying and laughing and victorious and traumatized all at the same moment, you can’t help but wonder, “Then what?”
We’ve talked a lot over the years about how much you like to go step by step through all these aspects of being a criminal, like getting rid of a body. There is a lot of that in this movie. How much of that is just your writing process, where you’re asking, “What’s he going to do now?”
That’s it in a nutshell. I love process. I think I learned that from Stephen King. I never met him, but I’m a fan of his work, and he wrote a great book about writing [On Writing], and I think he said somewhere in it about how people love reading about people doing their jobs. It always stuck with me: Process is interesting. If you work at the Pizza Hut, and you’re reading a book for pleasure about a forensic scientist, you want to see them on the job, doing what they do, and you have a built-in bullshit detector. If you’re reading about an airline pilot or a Navy SEAL or the President of the United States, you can kinda tell if it’s made up or glossed over. But if the person writing about that character has done their homework and they get down to a granular enough level, it’s gonna be interesting. Maybe I’m reading more into Mr. King’s quote than he put into it, but it really did stick with me — the idea that you can show somebody in the midst of process, of getting from A to B to Z, you can get down to that micro level. I think we tend to forget that as storytellers. “Oh, we’ve got to get to the next explosion.” Or, “we’ve got to turn over cards,” as network executives are fond of saying. “You gotta cut past all the little boring stuff and go from peak to peak to peak.” You get climax overload. The little stuff is what keeps the big stuff interesting to me. If you’re Jesse Pinkman in this instance, how are you gonna get the hell out of Dodge with cops and everyone and their sister looking for you? You’re gonna need money to do it, and how are you gonna get that money? To me, that puzzle that he needs to solve in very short order became very interesting.
How do you feel Jesse operates differently in the movie than Walt did?
He’s got more street smarts than Walt ever did. And he’s got a lot of common sense. And the thing about Jesse in this movie — that makes me very happy about it — is he’s not the Jesse who we met in 2008. He has grown up a lot. On a plot level, this movie’s about him escaping, but on some other level, it’s about him growing up. At least, that’s the intention. He’s definitely not Walt, but if the point of this movie was that he had turned into Walter White version 2.0, that would be a tragedy. He was always, it snuck up on us, in a very stealthy fashion, the moral center of Breaking Bad. Once we realized that in the writers room, that became very important to us. If the moral center of Breaking Bad by the end of this movie was just another Walter White, I would’ve hated to see that. I think on some fundamental level, you just want to see this poor kid get away.
Speaking of that, I went through a lot of permutations on this script. It was the first time in a long time I wrote something by myself, though I got a lot of good notes from Peter Gould and the other writers after. During the process, I really was in the weeds, alone with barely a flashlight. And I had all these different versions. One of them was he goes to jail, and it’s partly his idea. He turns himself in. I pitched this to Peter and the writers, and they were aghast. My girlfriend Holly said, “You cannot do that.” I said, “No, don’t you see? The shape of it is pleasing from a storytelling point of view! The last thing he wants is to be in prison yet again, and I’m going to construct it so he does it to help someone else out.” And they convinced me I was completely wrong about that.
The climax of the movie finds Jesse at the welding shop facing off with Neil and his buddies. How would you compare his approach there to what Walt would have done in a similar situation?
It’s the simplest magic trick in the world: Wave the one hand around so the bad guy doesn’t see what the other hand is doing. That’s good old street smarts. Walter White would’ve used thermite to get the lock open or something like that, and then he’d have gone into the welding shop and mixed up the gases so all five of the guys would have died of asphyxiation. He’d do it the scientific way. Jesse walks in there in large part just to exorcise these demons. He wants to look this son of a bitch in the face who heartlessly built this dog run that Jesse was chained to for so many months. Walt also wouldn’t have given these guys an out. He probably would have killed all five of them. But Jesse stands toe-to-toe with the guy and asks for $1,800. I believe in my heart of hearts, if the guy had given him the money, he’d have been out of there. But Jesse read the room right, so he was going for Plan B. It was a very dangerous gambit, because he nearly was shot in the process. And by the way, for what it’s worth, in the original script, and the version we filmed, he actually gets shot through the side, and then goes off and recuperates with help from Ed. When the Blu-ray comes out, we’ll have that as a deleted scene.
You worked a lot of Western motifs into the show, and that standoff between Jesse and Neil felt really Spaghetti Western, maybe more than anything else you’ve done.
Couldn’t help myself. Man, do I love Westerns. I figured, why not? Let’s do an old-fashioned quick draw. It felt like the time was right. The character of Neil the bad guy, his pride or manhood has been impugned by his buddy Casey. He’s got a noseful of coke, and he’s pissed off. So he’s gotta be the man. And it’s the last mistake he’ll ever make. It all felt right. Any guy who’s carrying a .45 in a belt holster, when he’s getting lap dances from strippers, is a guy who’s seriously into guns and his own manhood.
The radio report about Lydia is the one update we get about a character in the immediate aftermath of the final Breaking Bad episode, “Felina.” Were there versions of the film where we found out more about Skyler or other characters?
There’s a thing that people may miss, because the obvious thing to me is that Walt did expire at the end of Breaking Bad. To me, that scene is about hearing explicitly the news that Walt is dead. On purpose, you don’t hear that anyplace else in the movie. That is the one time we explicitly state that Walter White is not in a hospital room somewhere recuperating from his gunshot wound. I did that because if I had a dollar for every time I hear from someone, “What happened to Walter White at the end of Breaking Bad?” I always have a smile on my face, I’m not going to insult our bread and butter, the fans, but secretly, I’m like, “Did you not watch the thing? He’s lying there dead with his eyes glassy and opened, and the cops are prodding him with their guns. How did you miss that?” I get it, people are not stupid. It’s high praise, in a weird way: They want more. They want Walt to survive so he can go onto chapter two. So I figured it was probably the right opportunity to spell out that Walt was indeed dead there; it wasn’t all a dream, he’s not lying there wounded and gonna take a Dixie cup and a paper clip in his room and escape to a helicopter or something. That’s it! His story is over. And then Lydia, I figured, was a nice way into it. We did leave her alive, so might as well nail that down.
As to Skyler and Marie and Walter Jr., I tried very hard to find ways to get them into the movie, just because I love those three actors so much. And at a certain point, it didn’t feel like Jesse’s story. It’s Bill Faulkner thing: You have to ultimately kill your darlings.
When you hired Jesse Plemons to play Todd, could you have imagined the character becoming as important to the end of the show?
No! That’s one example of the many amazing, lucky happenstances that occurred throughout six seasons of Breaking Bad, and continued into this movie. We cast really good actors, and all credit to Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas for finding them. I was living under a rock for most of the years I was doing Breaking Bad. So I didn’t know most of these wonderful actors, with the exception, really, of Bryan Cranston. As the show progressed, and all these actors got presented to me and the writers, I’m just thinking, “My god, these people are so good!” And then you put them on the set, and they’re great people to work with. And that describes Jesse Plemons to a T. He is such a professional. He is so relaxed and laid-back. Like Bryan Cranston, you don’t see the work. You don’t see him sweating it. There’s nothing wrong with sweating; everybody has their own way of doing the job. But folks who do their job and they’re tremendously good and you don’t even see the work, I’m in awe of. He just shows up and says, “Hey, how ya doing?” And then we’re rolling, and he’s this character, and you don’t see the muscle strain. No homework. It’s just there, and it’s perfect.
So no, I never thought the character of Todd would be that important. But also, I didn’t think he’d be this much fun! He’s a fascinating character. We didn’t realize how interesting he was until we saw Jesse Plemons playing it. But you start off with first principals. You say, “A guy who keeps another guy in a pit, he’s probably some evil, sadistic, mustache-twirling guy who likes seeing people suffer.” And then you go, “Jesus Christ, I’ve seen that a hundred million times. How can we do it different?” That was our ethos on Breaking Bad: How can we do it different than everyone else is doing? So it morphed into, Todd is an OK guy, except for the fact that he’s got a fucking screw loose! [Laughs.] He’s a complete sociopath, he has no comprehension for the suffering of others. But he’s not actually sadistic. If he has no reason to kill you, you’ll probably find him a bit bland and cornball, but you’ll find him likable enough. And suddenly, you’re in a pit! And he’s lowering cigarettes to you on a line of dental floss. Who is this guy?!? He is so freaking crazy! The two reasons I wanted to do this movie were, first and foremost, working with Aaron again, but, after that, when I realized that Todd could be an integral part of it. It was only after Aaron was throttling him to death in the final episode of the show that we comprehended just how interesting that character was. I remember thinking at the time, “God, if we’d only had more Todd.”
You killed off all the Nazis in the series finale, but then you establish that Neil was friends with those guys—
Did you feel like you needed a stand-in for Todd and Uncle Jack and Kenny for Jesse to face down in this?
It’s a couple of things. I’m not gonna lie, it’s Drama 101: You want Jesse to prevail over some bad guys. If Jesse literally just found the money, went through trials and tribulations, almost got caught by the cops, and almost got caught by this person or that, it would have been somewhat interesting, but there wouldn’t have been some visceral oomph to it. You want a bad guy for your good guy to prevail against. We couldn’t do it all in flashback, because flashback is the past; we need someone in the present. We never met [Neil], which maybe is a detriment, story-wise. But I always did wonder who built the dog run Jesse was chained to. I thought, “Maybe it was one of those Nazi guys, but they’re all dead now. I guess you’d need some welding skills. What if they hired a welder who was a no-questions-asked guy, who was such a sociopath in his own right that he would see a guy chained like a dog, and he just could not care less!” He’s more sociopathic than Todd is. Of the two sociopaths, you’d probably want to hang out with Todd, I guess. That’d be a tough call. I’d rather avoid them both like the plague. But anyway, it was about having someone in the present for Jesse to prevail against. At the end of the movie, it’s as happy an ending as Jesse can believably get, that close to the traumatic events of Breaking Bad.
Ed helps Jesse disappear, Old Joe turns up briefly to try to get rid of the El Camino. Were there other characters outside the core group you thought of working in, but it didn’t pan out?
Primarily, I do want to see what happened to Skyler and Walt Jr. and Marie. I just couldn’t figure out how to work them in. If they laid eyes on Jesse, they’d immediately call the cops on him. And I wouldn’t blame them. But you don’t want to see that. I couldn’t think of a reason they’d believably wind up interacting. It’s not like they’d be trying to help him out. There’s shadows of other characters. We have a quick time-lapse shot of the Pollos Hermanos, which is now a Twisters — it’s been rebranded, it says under new ownership on the sign. We’ve got shout-outs to things like that. Also, I remember thinking during the plotting process, “It’d be cool too if we could see Giancarlo Esposito. Could we see Gus in a flashback?” But I couldn’t figure that out either. You just go where the story takes you.
Was Ed always going to be Jesse’s way out of town, or did you have other thoughts about how he might pull it off?
I did have other thoughts. Like always, I go through a lot of permutations. It’s the Edison thing: one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. For a long time I was thinking of bringing back Uncle Jack. I had the thought that Jesse was going to be riding along with the ghost of Uncle Jack riding shotgun with him, this figment of Jesse’s imagination. Jesse doesn’t believe he’s there, but it’s Uncle Jack going, “You’re gonna get caught, you’re stupid, you’re not smart enough to get away with this.” I thought for the longest time, “I’ll make it a really interior story, this demon haunting him through the persona of Uncle Jack.” At a certain point, I finally thought, “Ah, that sounds kinda ponderous. Kinda dreary. I don’t want to see this poor kid suffer anymore.” So that was a thought early on, and then I wondered if it was believable that Ed the disappearer would actually help him. Well, if he does, Jesse’s gonna really have to convince the guy. Probably at a certain point, Jesse was going to make it on his own with whatever money he could abscond with, but it felt like he would need some professional help.
[Editor’s note: This interview took place before the October 11th death of Robert Forster, the actor who played Ed, due to brain cancer.]
How did it come about that Marla Gibbs was cast as the customer at the vacuum shop?
She actually, God bless her, read for the part. One of the few actors I was very familiar with ahead of time in the Breaking Bad days was Jonathan Banks, who I loved in Wiseguy. Sharon and Sherry brought his name to me, and I go, “Oh my god, it’s Jonathan Banks! He wanted this role enough to read for it? Really?” It was the same thing with Marla Gibbs. We’re watching the videos come in from the casting office, and I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s Marla Gibbs from The Jeffersons! And she’s great.” Actually, she made up half of her own lines in the scene. The line where she says, “I ain’t paying for no paint job” is something she just threw into the mix, and Robert went with it. She’s a pistol. She’s about 90 years old now. She was an absolute pro, just a pleasure, and everyone loved her.
I laughed when I saw Mountain Man from Better Call Saul as the driver for the strippers. Did you think of working anyone else from that show into the movie?
We were open to that. And Julie Pearl, who plays an assistant district attorney on Better Call Saul and is really good, came in for the press conference scene. She’s standing next to Todd Terry as he takes questions from reporters. I figured there would be a joint task force to look into the massacre and hunt for Jesse, so you’d have him from the DEA and her from the local DA’s office, among others. I talked to Peter Gould about it, and he liked the idea, and then I had to tell her, “Look, it’s not much of a part. You basically stand there next to Todd.” And she said the old line about no small parts, only small actors. It probably was not the most gratifying thing [for her]. But those are little Easter eggs for the audience, and that’s where this all crosses over in the Venn diagram. There’s the Better Call Saul audience, the Breaking Bad audience, the folks who have watched both. And yet it came from a place that made sense, that there would be this multijurisdictional task force. It made it feel more real.
Exactly when in the Breaking Bad timeline does the Walt and Jesse flashback take place? Ditto Jesse and Jane?
The Walt and Jesse flashback takes place in “4 Days Out,” which is the episode where the RV breaks down in the desert. It’s a scene that takes place between Walt and Jesse starting the RV, and then the next scene in that episode is them cleaned up and Jesse’s car pulling up to the ABQ airport.
Jane, that’s around the very same time, maybe the next episode(*), when Jane and Jesse go up to Santa Fe to go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. That was a longer scene in the movie, and you’ll be able to see that in the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray.
(*) Though the George O’Keeffe road trip takes place in the vicinity of “4 Days Out,” the audience doesn’t actually see it until the start of “Abiquiu,” the following season. As Gilligan will be the first to tell you, his memory for Breaking Bad minutiae is not great.
Since Breaking Bad ended, you’ve been able to keep a part of the experience going by making Better Call Saul. But all of a sudden, there are Bryan and Aaron in these roles again, and you’re directing them together for the first time in years. What did that feel like?
It was very melancholy. It was wonderful, it was happy, but there was also this element of bittersweetness. That scene with them at the Owl Cafe, it felt more like a valedictory this time than I remember it feeling at the end of Breaking Bad. We knew then that something very special and dear to us was coming to an end. But I was also utterly wrung out at the end of Breaking Bad, and part of it was just wanting to make it to the finish line of the marathon. You’re sad when the marathon’s over, but also feel lucky you survived. I had more energy and more time to contemplate here. That scene at the Owl Cafe had more of a feeling of finality to it. I just had this knowledge that this was very likely the last time we would ever see those actors playing those two characters together.
But it was a really interesting day. We shot that scene in one day, and it was really fun, because pretty much every extra in the scene is either crew people or moms or dads or brothers and sisters of crew people. It was done from necessity, because we were trying very hard to keep it secret a) that we were doing a Breaking Bad movie, and b) that we had Walter White and Jesse Pinkman back. So we tented the whole place, we snuck Bryan into town. We had to fly him on in a private jet, not because he demanded it, but if he had flown in commercially, everyone and their grandmother would have known about it. He only had 36 hours because he was doing his Broadway play, Network. It was an amazing logistical feat put together by my wonderful producers. We brought him into town, put a bag over his head practically. Put him in a tinted car going to the set. Even his face was covered going in and out of the set. We had this fiction going on that we were shooting some commercial. It was amazing how well the secret was kept. Therefore, we couldn’t hire regular extras, and had to have everyone sign these bulletproof NDAs. I have to say our crew and their families were magnificent about keeping the secret. It really was like World War II, keeping the Manhattan Project secret or something. Everyone felt a moral obligation to keep this thing to themselves. The only people who leaked the fact that we were even making the movie early on was the damn New Mexico Film Commission! Someone in that office leaked it. So, hooray for them! Our crew was like James Bond or the CIA. They were solid.
Other people who worked with you on Breaking Bad described you as a bit distant when the final scene of that show was filmed, the Walt and Jesse flashback from the start of “Ozymandias.” You kept to yourself and even climbed up into the rocks to take photos as a way of coping. It sounds like this felt different to you. Did it feel better?
In a weird way, I was more at peace with it this time. That might have been a result of being physically exhausted back then. And realizing — this is probably not something I should be saying to you, but to say it again, this movie, strictly speaking, does not need to exist. I stand by the fact that Breaking Bad stands on its own. And I’m proud as hell of that. This started off as a bit of a trifle. Having said that, it morphed into this somewhat big-budget, event-type movie that I couldn’t be more proud of. Netflix was wonderful, Sony was wonderful in allowing us to make this thing. But ultimately, are you required to watch this as a fan of Breaking Bad to have a complete experience? No, you’re really not. But I’m hoping people will take it for what it is: something that’s meant to be a gift to the fans, and a gift to Aaron Paul, who I truly believe deserves many more movies where he’s the star. It was something done for the love of it, something that I hope people will enjoy and get some sort of deeper satisfaction from.