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WRITING WELL AND BREAKING BAD

Part Two of a Conversation with Writer GEORGE MASTRAS

By Tyler Malone

July / August 2012

Last week, PMc Magazine published the first half of my interview with George Mastras, one of the writers of the hit TV show Breaking Bad, and also a novelist in his own right. The following is the second half of our conversation.

Tyler Malone: What do you see as the differences between writing a novel and writing for television?

George Mastras: Well, in writing a novel, the writing itself is the end product, so with that there’s a different sense of authorship. I love language and I love to try and write the perfect sentence, but in writing a screenplay or teleplay the exposition is not for final consumption. The lines of dialogue are the only things for final consumption. Writing a screenplay or teleplay is more like writing a blueprint. It’s not the final product. So with a novel, it’s nice to write something where the writing itself is meant to be enjoyed. In that sense, I feel like as a writer novel-writing is the Mecca. But screenwriting is a different thing, and it’s a pleasure in it’s own way. You’re writing that blueprint, and in collaboration, you’re inspiring a film or a show. As a screenwriter, you’re the beginning of that process of filmmaking. You start with a blank page, no one else does. The director doesn’t. So there’s satisfaction in that as well.

TM: Who are some of your favorite writers?

GM: As far as novelists…well, the thing that got me into novel-writing in the first place was through backpacking and travel–travel by train and by foot and so on. So writers who have done that, who have that travel influence in their writing, are usually writers I’m drawn to–writers like Graham Greene, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and of course Hemingway. I like writers from different cultures and backgrounds. I just read a book of short stories by Nam Le.

On the television side, I’d say David Simon. The Wire is fabulous. It’s writing that means something. It’s not just entertainment. And David Milch. I love Deadwood.

TM: A while ago you tweeted a link from Yahoo where they suggested various Breaking Bad spin-offs. They had The Boetticher Chronicles (about Gale), Better Call Saul (obviously about Saul), Whitewashed (about Skylar), Rolling Justice (about Hank), and Management Only (about Gus). Which of these, if any, would you be most interested in writing for if one were to go into production?

GM: I would have to go with Gus Fring in Management Only.

TM: Yeah, that’s where I’d go as well. Well, I don’t know, actually maybe I’d do The Boetticher Chronicles. Gale and his “Major Tom” karaoke skills are just too good to not get a spin-off. This is perhaps a lame question, but something I’ve been curious about, and wonder if you know. Did the writers or did Vince [Gilligan] have anything to do with the decision to split up the final season? Or do you know what the thought was behind that?

GM: I’m not sure what the decision process was behind that. It could have been a scheduling thing, or a production thing. Maybe AMC just wanted to make the most of it? I don’t know for sure.

TM: Are all the episodes for the entire season already written? Even the ones that won’t air til 2013? Or just the first eight for the first half of the season to air this Summer?

GM: No. We haven’t written them all. We’ve obviously written the first eight. We’ve started on the final eight. That’s where we are now.

TM: Do you know where it is ending? Or is that still up in the air?

GM: I think we have an idea. It’s still up in the air though. Part of what happens on this show is we may have an idea but it may also go in a completely different direction by the time we get there.

TM: I remember reading Vince [Gilligan] talk about his original plan to kill off Jesse in the first season, but things happened, and it was determined that Jesse was just too great a character to lose. Vince was talking about how you let the story kind of decide itself in a way.

GM: Exactly. So the important thing is to let things develop organically rather than trying to fit them in a specific box. We’ve always stayed true to that so I have no reason to think we won’t remain true to that spirit as we bring the series to a close.

TM: I think that’s one of the things that people love so much about Breaking Bad. In my opinion, it’s the only show I’ve ever watched that actually gets better each season, and I think a lot of that has to do with the writers letting the story organically escalate. So many TV shows fail because they try too hard to up the ante. Like in a show such as 24, when one season you assassinate the president, the next season you have to up the ante and nuke LA. It’s inorganic escalation. It feels contrived, because it is contrived. It’s the show’s writers trying to make each season bigger and better whether or not it rings true or fits the story arc or even makes sense. Breaking Bad, even though it has escalated quite dramatically each season, has never felt forced or contrived. It feels like the natural trajectory that this story with these characters would take.

GM: Right. I think that is one of the main things we’re keeping in mind: Is this how it would naturally progress? And also, I think it’s more important to be surprising rather than bigger. There’s always that conflict between giving the people what they want, and being surprising. You want to do both.

TM: Talking about pleasing fans, what do you do with the unending comments like “Why did you kill Gus? He was my favorite character”? Even though Gus was one of my favorite characters, I thought he was killed off perfectly, and he needed to die to make room for Walt’s ascent/descent. But how do you balance fan expectations with telling the story how it naturally should be told?

GM: I think you bring up a perfect example with Gus. Just like the fans, we, the writers, loved Gus, and loved writing Gus, but the way it turned out character-wise, Walt couldn’t keep working for Gus. He couldn’t keep working for “the man.” There had to be just one left standing. They both couldn’t survive. I suppose we could have constructed something where they both survived and lived in the same world and came to some mutual agreement, but that just didn’t feel organic. It felt like the entire season was a chess match and it had to end one way or another. Anything short of that would have felt like backing out of the premise of the season, which was really set up pretty early on.

Back in the episode I wrote, in “38 Snub,” Walt buys the gun on the black market from the Jim Beaver character. Walt tried to murder Gus on three separate occasions in that one episode, and he just couldn’t get to him. But that was the premise: in Walt’s mind, whether it’s true or not, it was kill or be killed. He wasn’t going to be dissuaded.

TM: Vince [Gilligan] has said that the show will show Walt’s descent from a lovable cancer-ridden chemistry teacher to a criminal kingpin, a villain. I know you can’t really talk much about season five, but even just up to what we have seen, up to season four, do you consider him a “bad guy”?

GM: Gosh, that’s a good question. I do. If I’m looking at him completely objectively, I do think of him as a pretty bad guy. If I’m looking at him subjectively, I still think he’s a bad guy, but I can put myself in his shoes.

TM: Sure, you can see his trajectory, and understand why he is where he is and why he is who he is.

GM: And not sympathize with him, per se, but certainly empathize with him.

TM: Right.

GM: Though now we’re getting to the point where I can’t even really empathize with him anymore. [Laughs.] So it’s hard. But you’re still so invested in his journey.

TM: And the turn towards this villainy, or whatever you want to call it, is so incremental that it’s hard to find a point where you can say it all changed and he’s no longer likable and he’s fully a “bad guy.”

GM: Yeah, he has this thing where he’s a rebel, and it’s easy to empathize with a rebel. Even if you lose track of the moral implications of the things he’s doing, he’s still fighting against “the man,” and there’s something admirable in that. But if you look back objectively, you can’t say anything but “Oh my god!”

That’s probably been the best part about writing this show is seeing how far you can take a character without alienating an audience. Of course, the jury’s still out on that. Maybe one of the reasons why I feel the show is so up my alley is that when I was a defense attorney, you have this situation where your client may be in the wrong but you’re trying to get a jury to put themselves in the defendant’s shoes. That’s why you get these outrageous jury verdicts because great defense attorneys are great artists. The best of them are able to take a situation that seems so black-and-white, and put a different spin on it, and then all the sudden everyone’s confused as to how they feel about the situation.

It’s one of the wicked aspects of language, storytelling. But that’s why Breaking Bad has been so fun.

TM: It is so fascinating to watch Walt in those shades of gray. I’ll watch with other people and, depending on their various philosophical, political and ethical stances, different people feel so differently about Walt. I know people who have considered him a villain for quite some time, and others who still aren’t sure he’s all that bad.

GM: It’s like Camus. The Stranger. The character is basically convicted for not crying at his mother’s funeral. The fact that he killed somebody is beside the fact. He probably would have gotten away with it had he just showed some emotion at his mother’s funeral.

TM: Exactly. Lastly, I know you can’t say much about the new season, but what if anything can you tell us about what’s to come?

GM: It’s going to be great. Unfortunately I can’t give you any specifics. All I can say is it is continuing along Walt’s journey, and it’s going to hopefully be both surprising and satisfying.

George Mastras is a writer. In addition to his debut novel Fidali’s Way, he has written for a number of television series, including the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad.

LINKS:

The Official Site of George Mastras

The Official Site of Breaking Bad

George Mastras interviewed by Tyler Malone

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of George Mastras & AMC

Design by Marie Havens

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