Golden Eddie Award 2018 – Vince Gilligan

Growing up in the ‘70s, Vince Gilligan’s first thought when it came to the movies was to build robots and spaceships that films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars had popularized. His full contribution to the craft of visual effects may never be known but in diverting his attention to screenwriting and production we are surely all the richer.

If Gilligan had written and produced nothing more than Breaking Bad his name would already be legend. The AMC show with its maverick central character and twisted story arc captivated global audiences during what some see as another golden age of television.

Yet before then, Gilligan had proved integral to worldwide TV phenomenon The X-Files and the fourth season of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul is on the way.

Breaking Bad won Gilligan two Emmys®, five Writers Guild of America Awards, two Critics’ Choice Television Awards, and Producers Guild of America Awards and a BAFTA®. He won another WGA honor for Better Call Saul, as well as two Peabody Awards. He is particularly proud that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul were nominated as part of AFI’s TV Programs of the Year seven times.

Along the way, he has credited all the editors he has worked with for helping shape his stories into gold. “It is often said that editing is the third telling of the story,” Gilligan says. “You tell the story to yourself alone at a desk first. If you’re lucky enough for it to go into production, then there’s 150 people including the actors giving it a second retelling. But it is only in the edit where the story truly becomes what it is meant to be.”

Gilligan spent his childhood in Farmville, a small town in Virginia where his mother taught in the local elementary school and his father worked as an insurance claims adjustor. Hollywood was 2000 miles away but storytelling and a love of the movies was always close to home.

He recalls his mother building a tree out of cardboard and crepe paper in a corner of her classroom for children to sit under and read or be read to. He vividly remembers being introduced to Hollywood movie classics by his father who used to wake him and his brother, Patrick, up in the small hours of the morning to watch a transmission of films like Angels with Dirty Faces and Bad Day at Black Rock.

“They both loved stories and inspired in me a love for Hollywood movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Gilligan. “I grew up knowing about Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart long before I knew anything academic.”

At age 11, Gilligan and childhood friend Angus Wall – who would grow up to be an ACE member editor and is a twotime Oscar® winner – began to turn excitement about movies into a hobby. Wall’s mother, one of Gilligan’s school teachers, loaned the pair a Super 8 camera for three months during successive summer vacation periods. Gilligan saved up to buy film cartridges to make “mini sci-fi extravaganzas.”

“Jackie Wall was an incredible person who inspired and supported both of us to make the most of our creativity,” says Gilligan. “Perhaps it’s amazing that from a tiny little town of 4000 people, two friends grew up to work in Hollywood as we have done.”

Gilligan’s own breakthrough came after completing a film production course at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’d won a scholarship to attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and graduated from the Lloyd C. Bird High School in 1985 to attend Tisch, also on a scholarship.

It was during his time at Interlochen and then at NYU where his writing talent began to blossom, first under the tutelage of teacher Jack Driscoll and then professors David Hicks and Jesse Kornbluth.

“It’s hard to teach writing. It requires a discipline and it’s an art form, yet these folks nonetheless were inspirational with their ideas and generous with their advice,” he says. “Jesse Kornbluth was writing for Vanity Fair at the time and I loved to hear his stories about the intersection between journalism and screenwriting.”

It was for Kornbluth’s scriptwriting class that Gilligan penned his first feature-length screenplay, Home Fries, “an oddball story of two socially-stunted brothers in their late 20s whose mother tasks them with killing her husband – by frightening him to death.” A year after leaving college he entered the piece into a scriptwriting competition inaugurated in his home state and won the $1000 first prize.

“Man, I could sure use the thousand bucks when I’m fresh out of college but I had lottery level winning luck since one of the judges of the contest was Mark Johnson,” Gilligan says. An alum of the University of Virginia, Johnson had produced the Oscarwinning Best Picture Rain Man a year previously.

“He called me up a short while afterwards as I was sitting in my mom’s house, said he liked the script and asked ‘did I have any more?’ Well, I had been plugging away so I put a copy of everything I had into the mail to him and thus began a professional relationship that is still going strong three decades on.”

Johnson eventually got Home Fries made into a feature starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson, released in 1998. Prior to that he produced another Gilligan script, romantic comedy Wilder Napalm (1993), and subsequently executive produced Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

It was Johnson’s belief in him, says Gilligan, that convinced him he could pursue a writing career. “I loved and still enjoy drawing, painting and sculpture but with very much amateur-level ability and I realized before the end of college that while I lacked those skills I perhaps possessed an ability to spin a good yarn.”

His natural inclination was to write for the movies. “I wasn’t a snob about TV but what little I knew about TV production was that as a writer you had to be in California. However, I’d just bought a house in Virginia, my girlfriend was there and I didn’t want to move to L.A. where the cost of living would be ten times higher.”

In 1994, on a trip to L.A. to pitch ideas and meet with executives, a chance introduction to The X-Files creator Chris Carter changed the course of Gilligan’s career.

It helped that he was a fan of the show, already steeped in its characters and history, when he met Carter. “It was on the cusp of becoming a smash hit and Fox had just ordered another two episodes for the second season. Chris and his writing team were hurting – they had crunching deadlines and with more episodes to fit in they were looking for any warm body who could put it on paper. He was expecting me to pitch to him and if I’d been expecting that I would probably have seized up, but I just gave him an idea almost off the cuff about how a guy’s shadow comes to life and eats people.”

The episode, “Soft Light,” was the first of two episodes he would write as a freelancer, after which he joined the series full time and rose up the ranks over seven seasons to become an executive producer on the show. He also co-created and became executive producer of The X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen.

“I enjoyed writing the first episode and I never looked back,” he says. “Movies were less and less interesting to me and I became more and more interested in TV. Writing TV, for me, has been infinitely more rewarding than the movie business.”

Part of that he attributes to the camaraderie of TV production in which everyone is expected to get involved, to chip in and help meet tightening deadlines.

Carter, in particular, threw the X-Files writers in at the deep end and in the process opened Gilligan’s eyes to the editing process.

“I had spent time in the edit room on my own back in NYU cutting on 16mm film and 35mm splicers but to me it was a bit of a chore. Left to my own devices I’d never have realized how fundamental editing is to a show.”

Before exec producing, Gilligan was sent by Carter to the show’s editorial hub in Vancouver. “The idea was to oversee production and be as helpful as we could to the director on individual episodes,” says Gilligan. “He did this with all the writers and I loved that. I learned so much about all aspects of production, including directing, and began to realize just how much of the final story stems from the edit room.”

Years later, on Breaking Bad, he recalls writer and co-executive producer Peter Gould coming to see him straight from the edit suite grinning from ear to ear.

“Peter explained that they’d just figured out how to cut an entire 3-4 pages of dialogue out of the episode. We’d slaved over the dialogue but we suddenly realized we didn’t need any of this because Bryan Cranston had given a look to Aaron Paul which said all you needed to know. That feeling stuck with me – that it is remarkable how little dialogue is actually needed to tell the story combined with the sheer joy of something working to tell the story that can only come from the edit.”

He continues, “I learned from each and every editor I worked with but in particular I learned every day from my brilliant and regular collaborators, Skip Macdonald, ACE; Kelley Dixon, ACE; and Lynne Willingham, ACE. Every day I learned something about the story that I thought I knew all about since I’d written it. I learned what a story could become in the hands of their creative brilliance and how incredibly nuanced it can be when an editor manages to convey the story or an emotion with a look, a gesture or a juxtaposition that you didn’t expect or even see first time around.”

Willingham had worked with Gilligan for five years as an editor and producer on The X-Files during which she was Emmy nominated for her editing. Gilligan chose her to edit the pilot of Breaking Bad, for which she won the first of her two Emmys for the series and Eddies for the series.

Macdonald worked on 27 episodes spanning all five seasons, winning ACE Eddie awards for the “Dead Freight” and “Face Off” episodes as well as series finale “Felina.” He was also Emmy nominated four times for his work on Breaking Bad, winning for the series finale.

Dixon joined the show in 2007 as assistant to Willingham on the pilot, then was promoted to editor when the show was picked up to series. She won an Emmy for the “Gliding Over All” episode and was nominated for three additional episodes of Breaking Bad as well as garnering four ACE Award nominations for the show.

Gilligan says this editorial trio was crucial to the global success of the show. “The pilot tells you the ground rules: Your hero is going to die. He’s given a death sentence and armed with this knowledge he decides to do things he would never have done otherwise. Lynne, Skip and Kelley didn’t let me stray from the logic of that. They were wonderful partners who would keep the writers honest by making sure we obeyed the internal rules of the narrative and of the characters we had set in motion. That approach was very important to try not to cheat the audience.

“In later seasons we also had some fantastic editing assistants step up and edit or co-edit episodes including Chris McCaleb [now editor on Better Call Saul] and Curtis Thurber [who assisted on Better Call Saul and went on to edit episodes of Fargo].”

When Gilligan first pitched Breaking Bad – about a middleaged teacher with cancer who cooks crystal meth – he was told by the CEO of Sony Pictures Television, Michael Lynton, that it was “the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life.” Lynton said that after he’d taken a gamble and greenlit a deal to distribute the show which aired in the U.S. on AMC.

Going into Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his creative team had looked around at what else was going on in TV and deliberately set out to do what other shows did not. For example, they found that TV had become very tightly framed. A lot of drama was filmed in close-up and The X-Files was no exception.

“It was extremely successful for The X-Files stories but a typical scene might include a close-up of Scully, screaming, then a close-up of Mulder, also screaming, then back to Scully still screaming. I’d been cutting and shooting that for seven years and I was looking for something new. It was at a point where TV displays were getting bigger in the home and it dawned on me to shoot wider and make more of landscapes and the wider aspect ratio. And, instead of the frenetic pace of a lot of action films we chose to slow it down and build suspense and character over sequences that lasted six, nine, 12 minutes.

“I cannot claim credit for these ideas because Breaking Bad was a group effort and much of the inspiration for the look, the pace, the storytelling was from our editors. It really is a group effort. There’s no one person doing it all in television or in the movies. It’s always a collaborative effort and anyone who tells you otherwise is awfully pumped about their own contributions to
the endeavor. But it’s a great feeling, a great collaborative feeling, and it’s wonderful.”

More success followed with Better Call Saul which reunited Gilligan with Macdonald and Dixon (who have each earned additional Emmy and Eddie nominations for Saul). This prequel to Breaking Bad explores how the show’s bent lawyer, Saul Goodman, started out as a good guy, Jimmy McGill.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” says Gilligan of the AMC series, starring Bob Odenkirk. “After Breaking Bad I thought this is where we’re going to get our asses handed to us – but so far so good. It may be all downhill from here, but I will always have had these two.

“Receiving the ACE Golden Eddie is a wonderful honor for me. Some of my favorite time spent making TV has been in the dark of the edit room where you can think with just one other person and not have 150 others calling on your attention. It will always amaze me what you can do in the edit, this magic theater, where the story comes to life and problems that you think can’t be fixed, are solved. Mostly, I find that I enjoy myself there immensely. That’s how I feel, a fan watching you guys at work on the sofa behind you.”