Few shows have attained the combination of mainstream popularity and unanimous critical adoration that Breaking Bad enjoyed during its five-season run; Vince Gilligan’s often nervewracking account of mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White’s metamorphosis into a meth kingpin more than earned its way into our “Greatest TV Shows” list. And though he keeps busy these days as the showrunner for AMC’s Preacher, writer Sam Catlin still remembers the thrill — and occasional terror — of being at the epicenter of a phenomenon. In a new video interview exclusive to Rolling Stone, Catlin recalls his days in the dog-eat-dog writers’ room and sings the praises of Bryan Cranston, the man who famously turned Mr. Chips into Scarface.
“Breaking Bad, for the first three or four seasons, was just a show that was on the network with Mad Men that we were all really proud of and really liked,” Catlin says, “but we didn’t have a sense of a big audience or anything like that. My sense was from my own peer group that had finally gotten around to watching the show, and were like, ‘Holy crap.'”
Once Breaking Bad became the viewing public’s It Show, however, tensions started to rise. “There was a book that came out that said the happiest room in Hollywood was the Breaking Bad writers’ room, and it wasn’t,” Catlin recalls. “It had nothing to do with anything personal, I’m friends with all of those people and I’m friends with Vince Gilligan, but it was hard. It was really hard. Like, we were doing something important in a way that was exhausting.”
The high-pressure environment in the writers room could be draining, but that’s just the toll Gilligan exacted for excellence. “One of the things I’m most proud of about Breaking Bad was that it was very consistent,” Catlin says, “and that’s all because of Vince. What made him so hard to work with sometimes, that’s what you got out of it.”
As much as Catlin credits Gilligan for Breaking Bad‘s continued success, he acknowledges that there was another man instrumental to creating a canon-worthy: “We wanted to impress Vince and we wanted to earn our role on the show, that was becoming increasingly special. And we were blessed to have Bryan Cranston. We would watch him read a phone book, and there were probably scenes where we did watch him read a phone book. He’s that compelling of an actor.”