WRITING WELL AND BREAKING BAD
Part One of a Conversation with Writer GEORGE MASTRAS
By Tyler Malone
July / August 2012
Film critic A. O. Scott wrote a New York Times editorial a few years ago that asked, “Are films bad, or is TV just better?” I’m not willing to write off the cinema so easily. Sure, there’s plenty of rubbish regularly showing up in a theater near you, but for every That’s My Boy and Madea’s Witness Protection, there’s a Keeping Up with the Kardashians and a Two and a Half Men. Both mediums have their fair share of mind-numbing, soul-deadening drivel. A. O. Scott’s underlying point though is valid. Even if, as in the cinema, there’s a lot that is unwatchable on TV, any objective observer can see that there are many more great shows to watch on television than there were a decade or two ago. Yes, the last decade has seen television take its rightful spot amongst the major art and entertainment mediums. Television is no longer seen as cinema’s lesser sibling. Back then, actors and directors that worked in film wouldn’t touch a TV show, it was seen as beneath them. Likewise, it was seen as a move forward if a regular television actor finally started landing some substantial film roles. Now successful film actors are taking regular roles on TV (think Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire or Jeff Daniels and Jane Fonda in Aaron Sorkin’s newest show Newsroom). It’s no longer a step up or down, it’s a lateral move.
In this current era of excellent television, there is a profusion of critically-acclaimed shows. Though everyone has their own personal favorites–and taste is admittedly subjective–there is a fair amount of critical consensus. For example, nearly all the critics rave about the show that started it all: The Sopranos. The West Wing also often gets praise as part of that initial outburst as well (both shows began in 1999, usually seen as the year that kicked off this current TV boom). The Wire and Deadwood are often looked at as important early milestones (both of which were gone too soon, tragically cancelled). Recent highlights are Mad Men, of course, and Treme. But I would argue that the single greatest TV show in this era, and at the very least a definite candidate for the greatest show of all time, is Breaking Bad. Everything about the show is brilliant, but the writing is ultimately the key to its success (as is so often the case with the best movies and shows).
The premise, if you’ve been living under a rock for the last four years and don’t know, involves a high school chemistry teacher getting diagnosed with cancer and, for various reasons, deciding to fund his cancer treatment by cooking crystal meth. Show creator Vince Gilligan has stated unequivocally that he and his writers are “charting a guy’s descent from good guy to bad guy.” Put that way, the show’s moral atmosphere may seem fairly black-and-white, but the trick is that the writers walk a tightrope as they create the central character’s trajectory, for though the viewer cringes a bit at many of the choices Walter White makes, there’s always some leeway given to the character because we know where he came from and why he’s gone down this road. We sympathize with him, even as we dislike his actions. The show may be charting a character’s descent from hero to villain, but Walter White rarely feels like either–he seems more in the vein of a classic anti-hero. Amidst the world of Mexican drug cartels and against the backdrop of the desert skies of the American southwest, the writers have created for us a Dostoevskian decent into darkness colored with local flavor, presumably without Dostoevsky’s requisite Christian redemption at the end. Of course, we can’t be sure how it will end yet, but we can speculate from comments made by Vince Gilligan. He’s made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of redeeming Walt, but regardless we’ll know how the story ends soon enough since the show only has one 16-episode season left. The last season will be split into two 8-episode runs, the first of which will begin airing on Sunday, July 15th. If this date isn’t marked on your calendar, you’ve likely never seen the show. It’s the kind of show that makes fanatics out of even the most casual of TV viewers.
In the run-up to the season premiere, PMc Magazine had me sit down with one of the show’s lead writers, George Mastras, and talk about his work on Breaking Bad, his novel Fidali’s Way, and his own personal route to the world of writing.
Tyler Malone: I guess the best place to start is by asking how you got the gig as a writer on Breaking Bad?
George Mastras: It’s the one time where the agents actually did it right. Usually, there’s a saying in Hollywood that agents always take credit, but often it’s actually the person themselves through their connections that gets the next job. But in this instance, my agent gave me the pilot, and I read it over and thought it was amazing. So we sent them some of my writing. It sort of went up the channels. Vince really liked an excerpt he read of my novel and my previous television work, and then it just went from there.
Tyler Malone: And you’re one of the only writers who has been on the Breaking Bad staff since season one, correct?
GM: Yeah, it’s myself and Peter Gould. We added a few in season two. And what’s been great is that it’s pretty much stayed constant, there hasn’t been a lot of turnover, which is rare in television.
TM: I found it interesting that you wrote “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” the critically-acclaimed episode from the first season that introduced the character Tuco, and then later in one of your second season episodes, “Grilled,” you wrote Tuco’s death. Even though he was only on the show for a few episodes, he was certainly a fan favorite, and one of the more memorable characters from the early seasons. Did you feel any attachment to the Tuco character? Was that a nice symmetry for you being able to write both his entrance and his exit?
GM: Yeah, I definitely have an affinity for Tuco. We had to kill him off earlier than we would have wanted. We expected him to be in longer. We really loved him, and Raymond Cruz brought so much to that character. Raymond was a regular on The Closer, so he had other obligations, and we realized, “Oh shit, he’s not gonna be around for that long.” So we turned lemons into lemonade. The show took a different turn in season two, and we eventually got to introducing Gus. But I loved Tuco. Yeah, I feel like I gave birth, and it was a nice symmetry to be able to write “Grilled” where Hank kills him.
Season one was an unusual and somewhat crazy season because not only, like all new shows, were we trying to find our footing and establish the show’s voice, but also because the impending writers strike was expediting everything and pulling all the writers in different directions. As a result, because of this period of flux I feel got to put a lot of my own into Tuco, even though, just like all the others, his character was created by the writers collaboratively. Like even little details like his grill, and things like that. Before I was a writer, I worked in juvenile corrections for a while. So I was channeling a lot of things from the more violent kids I had to deal with at the juvenile prison. A few of the gang members I was supervising took a lot of pride in their gold and platinum tooth displays, and I channeled this little detail in describing Tuco. It turned out the grill took on a meaning of its own in subsequent episodes, as a kind of stand-in for Hank’s PTSD after killing Tuco.
And then Ray Cruz brought so much detail to that character, so Tuco took on a life of his own. One of the joys or writing in a collaborative medium, like television or movies, is to write and see an actor come in and add so much of their own. It’s great to have that feeling that you as a writer inspired that performance, but then to let it go and see where someone else takes it.
TM: You also wrote the episode “Mandala,” which introduced Gus, another great “villain.” So I’ve got to ask: Are you the show’s go-to “introduce the bad guys” guy?
GM: [Laughs] Um, no, I don’t think so. What it is is I got lucky to get those episodes. I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason to how the episodes are assigned out. It mostly depends on just who’s up. So I just got lucky that I got to write in those two characters.
It is so great to be able to introduce a character though because you get to color so much in. So Gus was actually named after my grandfather. Though my grandfather Gus was certainly not a drug dealer (nor was he Chilean), he shared certain general similarities with the Gus character in Breaking Bad. Particularly, he was a restaurant owner (who was reputed to at one time had a brief run-in with the law over illegal slot machines at his restaurant), a hard working immigrant, a patriot, and a veteran, and these characteristics meshed nicely with the backstory we writers all came up with in the room for Gus Fring.
We really talked in detail about Gus’s character. You know, he was an immigrant and a war veteran and all that. We knew he’d be Chilean, and there’s a lot of people in Chile with German backgrounds, so we had this backstory in our minds that we never really got around to telling. The thing with a backstory is you may have it in your mind, but often you don’t get the opportunity to really delve into it.
TM: Right. I think great writers in any medium sort of know the backstories of their characters and it informs how they’re written and the choices they make and what not, even though the specifics will often remain unknown to the readers or viewers.
TM: You’ve now written a number of episodes for Breaking Bad, do you have a favorite episode of the ones you’ve written?
GM: Okay. Boy, that’s hard because all the episode feels so different, and they all sort of have their own life. Especially with Breaking Bad, every episode is just so different. I mean “Crazy Handful…” and “Grilled” are certainly up there amongst the favorites I’ve written. I really love “I.F.T.”–especially the first act of it which is sort of like a one-act play, it’s this test of wills between Walt and Skylar. It’s like a game of chicken, building suspense without a life-or-death situation. That was great to write. I also have a favorite in the pipeline for the next season, which I actually directed as well, so I’m excited about that. By directing you get attached to it in a different way.
TM: Very cool. This will be your first time directing an episode, right?
GM: Yeah, this will be the first one.
TM: Another question, perhaps related to your favorite episodes you’ve written: Walt is obviously such an iconic character, but besides Walt, who is your favorite character to write about or to write for?
GM: God, I obviously love to write Walt. I really loved Tuco and Gus, I love the bad guys–though they’re not on the show anymore. I love to write Hank because he’s this combination of really bright and brilliant detective but he’s fun and has a great sense of humor. He also has levels, like with his PTSD. But I also enjoy writing Skylar. Mostly, I enjoy writing bad guys though.
TM: What’s your favorite episode that you didn’t write?
GM: I’d say “End Times,” the penultimate episode of last season, written by Moria Walley-Beckett and Tom Schnauz. It’s the one where Walt and Jesse have their big showdown over the poisoning of Brock. Jesse’s blaming Walt and Walt is denying it, and it’s really gripping stuff, really well-written by Moira and Tom. And so well-directed by Vince. And, of course, the pilot is another favorite.
TM: Can you tell us a little bit about the writing process that goes on while working on a show such a Breaking Bad? Can you give us a sense of what the writing room is like, and how much you do yourself and how much is collaborative, and all that?
GM: Sure, I think the writing room at any show is a unique place. Every show has their own characters. That’s especially true in a show like Breaking Bad. As I mentioned before, we have very little turnover so we spend a lot of time together in the writer’s room. I’ve been on shows before where you meet for like a couple hours, but we’re in there all day, five days a week, working on stories. It’s like six writers, and then writers’ assistants, and then Vince–and you end up spending more time with them than with your own family. In that kind of situation, you really have to get along well to make it work–and we do.
It’s very collaborative. No idea is a bad idea. There can’t be any fear, and there isn’t in our room–and that’s not always the case on other shows. So it functions really well. I think a show’s success or failure really starts in the writer’s room (with what that atmosphere is).
TM: So take us through the process, how it works…
GM: Basically what we do is, for a period of weeks before the season, before we’re in production, we’ll pitch ideas for general season arcs, and where we want to end up. After we sort of get a handle–or don’t get a handle on things–we start breaking individual episodes. Then, within each episode, it takes about two to three weeks on average to break an episode. So we’re pitching ideas for that episode, and then going through brick by brick, scene by scene, act by act. One thing about Breaking Bad that I love is that the writer’s get very involved in breaking things like the opening shots and transitional shots and such. We pitch a lot of imagery, which was really different for me. We really think about how each scene in each episode will be shot.
Then there’s this whole ritual where it’s reduced to notecards, and the notecards are then put on corkboard. At the end of the day, when an episode is broken, everyone has contributed so much that really any individual writer could go off and write any particular episode. I mean we usually know before it’s getting broken who is going to write it. Everyone is so involved, and we debate endlessly character’s choices–sometimes ad nauseum–but I think that’s really why the show is as good as it is. There’s debate, and sometimes it gets intense. Would Walt do this? Would Skylar do this? What is really at stake here? And all the alternatives are played out in our minds. We come to a consensus and move forward on that basis. So then you’re on your own writing it, in your office or wherever, by yourself, and then you come back a couple weeks later with the draft.
The writers are all producers too, so we’re involved in the rewriting process and the shooting process. So we go out there for production and preproduction and give notes, and work with the director. We look at the stuff while it’s being shot, producing the episodes as well. So we’re totally involved throughout the whole process. That’s not necessarily unusual in television because writers are kind of king in television. I think what is unusual is the sort of detail we get to get into. Vince is very detail-oriented, and that passes itself down.
There’s a thought in screenwriting that the exposition should be completely sparse, and that nothing more than necessary should be there, so details are usually left up to production. A lot of that stuff is important to us though, so we will be very specific about things, but not control-freakish, just giving suggestions. But there is a sense of authorship that is maintained throughout the whole process.
TM: Speaking of authorship–let’s get into some of the other writing you do, specifically your novel Fidali’s Way. You first went into law, and only after quitting law and going backpacking for years did you really enter the writing world by writing a novel, and then getting into writing for television. Did you always know you wanted to write or did your interest in writing come later?
GM: It’s interesting. It’s something I sort of dabbled in, and had a knack for, and I harbored thoughts of it in college. I went into law for a lot of reasons, and practiced law for like nine years. I did high profile defense stuff out here in LA. Our clients were basically celebrities that got into trouble. It was an interesting crazy part of the law to be practicing, but I burnt out on it. So I quit my job and went backpacking for what turned into a couple years. While I was trekking around, I had this sort of “come to Jesus moment” where I knew I wanted to write. I was enjoying seeing the world as an itinerant backpacker. I was enjoying the experience of it. I’ve always felt inspired by travel. My creativity has always been linked to travel. So while I was abroad I came up with this idea for a novel. While I was traveling I said to myself: “I’m gonna sit down and write this so that when I come back I’ll have something to show for it.”
TM: So you wrote it while you were on the trip?
GM: Yeah, I holed up on the island of Lombok, which is in Indonesia. This was after I spent like a year trekking around, and just had three months in Kashmir. I was on the border of Afghanistan in July of 2001. Then 9/11 broke out. I had been fresh through those areas when this huge cataclysmic event happened. I had already thought about writing about that part of the world because I had traveled there ten years prior, and then again. I had witnessed a lot of changes. I came up with the idea of a Westerner being immersed in the cultures of Northern Pakistan. The novel sort of flowed for me. I wrote the first draft of it in Indonesia, and some other places to.
TM: In your book, one of your characters says to the protagonist in regards to the submitting to one’s beliefs: “If you question always, you will always be blind. Only if you submit do you begin to see.” Where do you stand on issues of religion, spirituality, and faith? And would you say you submit to your beliefs or eternally question?
GM: I eternally question. Good question by the way. Yeah, it’s something I’ve always had, this sort of attraction to the East. It’s the world of the spiritual. I’ve traveled a lot in Islamic countries. People there live with their beliefs every day. We live with rationality every day. When you’re in one or the other, it is hard to understand the other. It’s hard to understand religion unless you submit to it. It’s hard unless you submit to the idea that there are things that cannot be explained. But it’s easy to say that, and you can say it in a rational mindset, or you can just submit that there will always be mysteries. Your beliefs are, perhaps, no less accurate than applying some scientific theory to something. It’s really a sort of philosophical difference.
I trekked all through the Himalayas, and I had these Kashmiri guides. They lived such a brutal, harsh existence, and yet they’re such self-sacrificing people. I never felt for a moment that if I were slipping off a cliff that they wouldn’t save my life at the expense of their own, because it was their duty, because I was their guest. To me that kind of submission, the way they live their lives, it’s grounded in that belief in this other world, and a higher being. Islam means to “submit.”
TM: Are you working on another novel? Or do you have plans to write another?
GM: Yes, I have plans, and I want to. I’ve put it aside because Breaking Bad is pretty much a full-time thing. Novel-writing is my first love, but Breaking Bad is a first love too. It’s been tremendous. I’m thrilled I’m able to spend time on it now. Cable television in general, but Breaking Bad in particular, I feel like it’s similar to writing a novel, because we get a highly serialized examination of character in depth. Creatively it’s very rewarding to me. I think it’d be different if I were on a network procedural show. There’s not anything wrong with those shows, but the depth is just different than it is on Breaking Bad.
Part Two of this interview can be read here.
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.
George Mastras interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written by Tyler Malone
Photograph (Cover) by Ursula Coyote; Additional Photography Courtesy of AMC
Design by Marie Havens
George Mastras, Photograph by Ursula Coyote / Courtesy of George Mastras
Page 2 & 3:
Breaking Bad, Photography Courtesy of AMC