Figuring Out the Rules: A Conversation With Breaking Bad's Peter Gould

Peter Gould is the most important man in television who many people have still never heard of. As executive producer of Breaking Bad, he wrote and directed some of that series' best known episodes. Now Gould is moving to showrunner status as a co-creator—with Breaking Bad lead Vince Gilligan—of the spinoff Better Call Saul, to be centered on Bob Odenkirk's shady attorney character, Saul Goodman.

I met Gould 10 years ago when he was hired to adapt a book I co-wrote about the Iraq war. We lost touch a couple years later, until I heard he was working on a new show called Breaking Bad, which at that time I'd never seen. I've since watched the show and, like millions of other people, fallen in love with it.

I caught up with Gould on the eve of the Golden Globes, where Breaking Bad will vie for the title of best drama series. Any further accolades for Breaking Bad will be nice, of course, but Gould has already begun preparations for his first shot as a showrunner. I spoke with him about his ascent to Breaking Bad, what to expect from Better Call Saul, and the future of television in general.

Ray Lemoine: When we met, you were the go-to political writer for HBO. How did you go from there to Breaking Bad?

Peter Gould: Well, back then I felt very lucky to be working. When we met I had been an instructor at USC for a while. You know, kind of barely making ends meet. Having a great time teaching but not really making enough money to support a family. I was so excited when I started getting the jobs to write.

They were putting you on all the George Bush projects and post-Clinton stuff. You were the guy that everyone said was capable of writing politics.

Well, I wrote a spec script that people really liked, a political serial based on Jeffrey's Toobin's A Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. It was the first thing I had ever written with any political subject matter in it. They had me research, and it just kind of clicked. It helped me find my voice. I was lucky enough that HBO kept hiring me. Doing a nonfiction book about the Clinton impeachment was—I still think—such a great project. It's one of those things that's perennially run up the flagpole. And it was done, I think, in a really unusual way.

A lot of the things that we're seeing in the media—some of them are great, some of the movies that we're seeing are great—but they rely a lot on impersonations of familiar media figures. The approach we had to that was about the people who were behind the scenes who were really making things happen, as opposed to the people you would see on C-Span or on CNN. It was much more of a backstage kind of story than I think that most of the ones we're seeing.

I was really excited to work on those projects, but one of the problems was they weren't getting made, frankly. I was working with great people. It was very creatively fulfilling, but things weren't actually going into production. I think of myself more as a filmmaker or as a film person than as strictly just a writer. I don't come out of playwriting or anything like that. It was very important for me to get things made. I had the opportunity when I read Vince 's pilot for Breaking Bad.

What year was that?

This would have been 2007, I believe.

So right after our project died.

That's right. And I also wrote, around the same time, a pilot that I'm really so proud of. It's never been made. I wrote it for HBO. It's called Everybody's Guilty and, it's a story, kind of a twisted procedural, about the Internal Revenue Service.

Oh, awesome! The IRS rules.

I still think that's one of the best things I've ever written.

David Foster Wallace would be happy.

That's one that Vince read, and I think that's what got me the job of working on Breaking Bad the first season.

How excited are you to be moving into the role of a showrunner from executive producer?

It's crazy. I have to say I try as much as I can to focus just on the work.. I say to myself, "What's the great story that we want to tell. Who are the characters that I want to see?" And I try to really focus on what we're actually trying to accomplish rather than what my position is or anything like that. Having said that, obviously it's a huge step for me, and is very exciting.

How old are you right now? Early 40s, right?

Lets say that, yeah. [Laughs] If you want to say early 40s, that'd be good for me.

People say Breaking Bad is one of the more complex pieces of not just television, but media ever created. What's the psychology of the writers, who are writing about murder, death, and evil.

I think a lot of it has to do with Vince's leadership. Just the way he approaches the work. Also, he has a bullshit filter that works really, really well. And most of it ends up being a group of people—sometimes as few as three, sometimes as many as seven—around a table, literally saying, you know, what happens next. Where's Walt's head at?

Describe that room.

For Breaking Bad our offices were in the ugliest building in Burbank, California. Which, if you know Burbank, is really saying something. We were in this little—people would walk into the office and think that it was a telephone sex office. It was not really impressive at all. We were in this terrible office, but when you sat down around the table, it didn't feel like you were in this lousy office around a table. It felt like you were watching the show. And that's the essence of it. You're telling the story to each other.

So there are laptops out, or are you guys just working off the paper?

Oh no. Vince's methodology is adapted from his experience on X-Files. There's a great advantage to doing things by hand as opposed to electronically. I know not all show runners or all rooms run this way, but we're all sitting there. Some of us are doodling or doing crafts, but the thing that we're focused on is a corkboard which has three-by-five cards pinned to it. You can actually see pictures of this on the internet. There are a few that I think I've shared on my Twitter stream. It's divided into acts, and these cards are somewhat laborious to write so there's a certain commitment that you make as you put each final card up. It's a pain in the ass to change them, and I think that one of the things you really look for is to talk about it as much as you possibly can, and then you commit. You say, "OK, this is what the scene is."

When you guys know you've hit an idea, when those moments happen, does everyone kind of sit back like "Oh, right on," and high five?

Oh, yeah! Oh, yeah! The one I remember the best—and this is a pretty good example of collaboration—was in season two. There was a scene where we knew we were going to kill Tortuga, and Vince said he just had this image that Hank looks through his binoculars and he sees just the top of this guy's head moving through the grass. Then someone else said, "What if he's moving through the grass because his head is on top of a turtle?" Then somebody else said, "What if when they find this decapitated head on top of the turtle it blows up because there's a grenade inside?" So each person is adding to the story, and you're watching as somebody tells you this great story. And you tell it over and over and over again until everybody feels rock solid with it.

You're now considered the best who've ever done that. How do you top that?

You don't think that way. You don't think, Whoah, I'm soooo good at this. You think, This is impossible. I'm never going to be able to do this. This is way too challenging.

Can I ask you a stupid question about the last season of Breaking Bad? How can people with automatic weapons shooting close range at each other not kill each other? Everyone should have died in the battle at the end of To'hajiilee.

You know, it's remarkable if you really look at the use of armaments and how many bullets are shot in battle. It's amazing how many—and I don't have the statistics in front of me—its amazing how many shots are fired versus the number that land. This is true in any gunfight. It seems like people should be picking each other off, but the truth is that—this is in my episode—the truth is that there's a lot of rounds going off in a real gunfight, especially with automatic weapons.

Having said that, I'll also reveal that our original concept for the end of that episode was to literally go out on Hank who was shooting his first shot. The first shot of that gunfight. That was the original concept. But George Mastras, who wrote it and produced it, and Michelle MacLaren, who produced it and directed it, had such a vivid concept for how to continue that, that you saw a little more of the gunfight than I think we had originally imagined. I think it's great.

What are the different elements that you're going to throw into Better Call Saul to separate it from Breaking Bad?

Well, that's an interesting problem. This is one of the things that we-Vince and I especially—spend a lot of time talking about. How do you build a show around a character like Saul Goodman? I think we've come up with some ideas.

Saul Goodman is your creation, right?

I originated Saul. He appeared first in an episode that I wrote, but I always hesitate saying that he's my creation because everyone in the writer's room throws in. We all like to think about the romantic ideal of the lone creator.

Do you guys wake up in the middle of the night and text each other ideas?

Sometimes. Sometimes email. But you know, when you spend eight hours a day, five or six days a week around a table, you really get to know each other quite well. There's plenty of time for pretty much any kind of conversation you could think of.

What can you tell me about the new show?

You know, there's really not much to say except we're very excited to be working with Bob. I think he's a tremendous actor and is very funny. When you ask how it's going to be different from Breaking Bad, it's because the character of Saul Goodman is so very different from Walter White. The thing that is similar between the two shows is that they grow out of the DNA of who the main character is.

Will you use the same production qualities?

Nothing's been settled. It's all still up in the air. The truth is that we had a great, great team on Breaking Bad, and a great group of collaborators, and obviously we'd love to work with as many of those people as possible. But the other truth is that everyone is very, very successful. It's not necessarily that easy to get the band back together.

What's the per-episode cost for this?

I'm hoping, well, I have no idea.

Do you have any intentions to do feature films or anything like that?

I'm so focused on the show that I'm not really thinking too far beyond it. Obviously I'd love to do features. I'd love to do more television. For me the difference really is that I don't know what the difference is. The main thing that I'm interested in is telling stories that are exciting to me, and that hopefully connect with an audience.

Do you believe the chatter around television that says TV has now superseded the feature world?

I don't know, because they are such different forms in a lot of ways. In some ways, they're exactly the same. In some ways, they're completely different. I think … one of the reasons people are excited about it is that there is something a little bit new about an intensely serialized visual drama. And the great thing about that is that we haven't figured out the rules. There aren't these tomes after tomes telling you how to write your serialized TV show because we're still figuring it out. I think that's one of the reasons its exciting.

When you watch a feature, frequently, especially ones that are more formulaic, you can kind of sense what's going to happen next. You see something. I think the audience is very, very smart. You can always sense what's being set up—I'm talking about features, especially—because something happens at the beginning and you can be pretty sure it's going to get tied up at the end in a certain way, if it's a well-written piece. But in serialized television we don't have those rhythms. They're not as familiar yet. That's one of the things that's very exciting about it. By having a serialized show, you can spend an episode delving into one character or one situation that you just don't have time for in a feature.

You guy made David Simon look like a pussy.

Oh, are you kidding! No, The Wire is an amazing show.

Yeah I'm kidding, but I do hate cops.

I don't think you can compare them because we're trying for different things. In fact The Wire is an incredible show, an incredible work. [Laughs] I'm not going to accept your pussy comment on this one.

Fine. What's the biggest change in your life in the last 10 years?

I think the biggest difference in my life is just getting to come to work with a bunch of other creative people. I spent a lot of time on my own in a room figuring out things by myself. I love the collaboration. Not just with other writers, but also with actors, with DPs, and editors. It's a much more social activity, and I guess in a lot of ways the biggest change.