The view from inside the writer's room
Breaking Bad. THAT SHOW.
It was truly some next-level shit. My writer friend Marianne once said, "Writing is about making choices," and the choices the writers made on this show were amazing.
I remember thinking, Who ARE those guys?
This was one of the guys, by the way. One of the guys was a lady.
Her name is Moira Walley-Beckett and I am of the opinion that she is a card-carrying, certifiable Badass. There she is, winning an Emmy for writing "Ozymandias," an episode that Vanity Fair described as "the best chapter of the series, and one of the finest episodes of television ever."
I once wrote an article about what it would take to turn Breaking Bad into a video game, and my conclusion was "please, please don't do it." Why wreck perfection? The show is a masterpiece example of what television can do.
What a life those writers must have had, writing that show, creating brilliant work, week after week. Sitting in the lap of luxury, lounging on golden thrones, feasting on platters of grapes hand-peeled by the executives at AMC.
Well, not exactly.
In his excellent book Difficult Men - Behind The Scenes of A Creative Revolution, Brett Martin describes what he calls "The Happiest Room In Hollywood":
"It was an all-time record hot day in the San Fernando Valley. On West Burbank Boulevard, lined with offices and strip malls, the air shimmered; people took pictures of their cars' temperature displays: 110, 112, 116. In an anonymous building across from an AutoZone, the lobby directory showed the offices of a private eye, a dental supply company, a handful of financial companies, and, in suite 206, something blandly mysterious and vaguely sinister called Delphi Information Sciences Corporation. The plastic nameplate on the suite's door did little to illuminate the nature of what such a corporation might do. Certainly, it offered no clue that behind the door, under the dropped ceilings, the fluorescent light, and the hum of air-conditioning of the onetime data services office, was the most coveted workplace in Hollywood: the Breaking Bad writers' room."
See if you can find the AutoZone.
This paradise-on-earth was the culmination of a long and sometimes difficult career in Hollywood. Before Vince Gilligan became Breaking Bad's creator and showrunner, he slogged it out in the trenches, working on one frustrating project after another.
"[Gilligan] then spent four years becoming reacquainted with the frustrations and snail's pace of feature-film making, working on Hancock, a movie about a surly, alcoholic superhero. 'There's a weird kind of hang-fire misery involved in living a life in which you get paid a lot of money, you can go write in the south of France if you want, instead of a crappy little stiflingly hot office in Burbank, but there's a very good chance that what you're working on may never get made," he said. "In television, at least, you write something, and a week or two later it's being produced."
Think about that for a minute. If you are an aspiring writer, is your fantasy career waiting for you in Burbank? Or here, in the south of France?
You could argue, "I would write in a Dumpster if I were writing for Breaking Bad." OK, fair enough. But what if it wasn't BB? What if it was just one of TV's many forgettable shows? Or worse, a show that was genuinely awful? Nobody knew at the beginning what a cultural powerhouse BB was going to become.
All you had to go on, in the beginning, was the team's track record.
Gilligan's previous show was an X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen, which Martin describes as "a project so patently doomed that Gilligan said the fellow Fox show King Of The Hill featured a character wearing a "Bring Back The Lone Gunmen" T-shirt that was scripted before the spin-off ever aired." Ouch.
And Bryan Cranston was probably best known, at that point, for Malcolm In The Middle. Watching that show now, you would never guess Walter White was lurking inside of that man.
So for all you knew, you were going to be working on a garbage project. Would you still choose Burbank over the south of France?
That is a tricky question. A lot is riding on your answer. Because the truth is, as a creative, you can't be hung up on the trappings, on what is happening outside of you -- whether or not the critics love your show, whether or not the view outside the room is postcard-worthy. It's not about the view. It's about the page in front of you, and the characters that live inside your mind. It's about your craft, about learning how to string words together in a way that makes the audience feel something real. All you're doing is sitting there trying to solve one storytelling problem after another. If that doesn't sound fun under the worst of circumstances (and a data-services office in Burbank does sound like the worst), then hey, listen: there are easier ways to make a living.
The work is what matters. That's what you can engage with 100%, no matter where you are. You don't need permission from anybody in order to completely Show Up. Gilligan could have looked at his Lone Gunmen experience and concluded, "Damn, I'm just not cut out for this writing thing." But he didn't do that. He took what he had learned from the experience, and he moved forward, with fucking gusto. And thank God he did.
Nobody exemplifies a great work ethic better than Bryan Cranston. Here he is, reflecting on a difficult scene from the show.
"Watching Cranston open up in such a way proves a poignant insight into the actor's process; the emotional vulnerability, specifically, demanded by such truly great performances such as this. 'What civilians don't understand, that we do, is that actors need to be willing to pay a price for it,' Cranston, who won multiple Emmys for the role, explains."
"It's an emotional price that you need to be willing to pay." - Bryan Cranston
Why did so much good work come out of that room?
"[This workplace was coveted] not only because Breaking Bad was arguably the best show on TV....but because its creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan, was known as a good man to work for -- someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic showrunner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed. He was a firm believer in collaboration.
"'The worst thing the French ever gave us was the auteur theory,'" he said flatly. "'It's a load of horseshit. You don't make a movie by yourself, you certainly don't make a TV show by yourself. You invest people in their work. You make people feel comfortable in their jobs; you keep people talking.'"
"In his room, he said, all writers are equal, an approach that he insisted had less to do with being a Pollyanna than with pure, selfish practicality. 'There's nothing more powerful to a showrunner than a truly invested writer,' he said. 'That writer will fight the good fight.'
(If you want to see this dynamic in action, watch this Writer's Room episode.)
The best writer's room is one in which you know you are safe -- where you can take chances, and your colleagues will back you up (and/or save you from your own worst instincts). The forces of evil are all around - the Internet will rip your work to shreds; your dickish colleagues will mock you on their shows. None of that will help you become a better writer. You have to find a way hit the Mute button on all that, and focus on your work.
Make a safe space for yourself, starting with the inside of your skull. THAT place has to be safe as kittens. You have to believe in yourself. That doesn't mean you have to be silently chanting "I am the greatest." It means that when things get tough, you remind yourself, "I love this work enough to hang in there, and I'm just going to do my best."
Once the inside of your head is a good place to be, do your best to make the writer's room a good place to be, too. Your fellow writers are as sensitive as you are. With any luck, the other people will be just as generous in spirit. It happens (see: Vince Gilligan). If the room is a good one, then you can risk swinging for the fences.
When people ask me "What was your favorite project?" I always think to myself, "The one where I had the most fun." Where I had the most fun, I did the best work. My favorite colleagues inspired me to be better at my job, and for that I will always be grateful.
Breaking Bad almost didn't happen. But then it did. And TV will never be the same. Martin writes:
"In the midst of endless rewrites [on a film project], in 2005, Gilligan was on the phone with an old friend and fellow writer Thomas Schnauz. The two were complaining about the state of the movie business and wondering what they might be qualified to do instead.
"'Maybe we can be greeters at Walmart,' Gilligan said.
"'Maybe we can buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back,' said Schnauz.
Yeah. Maybe you can.
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