TV

Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Vince Gilligan do a ‘Breaking Bad’ autopsy

Glenn Whipp
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

“Breaking Bad” triumvirate — actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan — had just seen each other a couple of nights ago at the Television Critics Assn. Awards in Beverly Hills. The week before that, they — and their better halves — broke bread to celebrate the Cranstons’ 25th wedding anniversary.

Still, despite these recent get-togethers, there was much to discuss, including the crazy, unsanctioned Kickstarter campaign for a “Breaking Bad” sequel starring Val Kilmer (the trio have no plans to contribute), the insanely popular, carbon-copy Colombian remake of the show and, of course, “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” spinoff that Gilligan is shooting with Bob Odenkirk. (“You can’t really call it a show yet,” Cranston teases. “It’s still in the womb, gestating. There’s going to be a bloody afterbirth when that spews out on the floor.”)

And while we were interested in all these things, we really wanted the chance to tie up some loose ends and bid farewell to “Breaking Bad,” which came to a spectacular, satisfying end in September and is up for its last hurrah at the Emmys later this month. Over iced tea and coffee, sweetened (but not with Stevia!), we sat Cranston, Paul and Gilligan down together at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, which led to a few discoveries and confessions, no half measures offered or accepted.

First things first: Where’s Heisenberg’s hat these days?

Cranston: I own one and Vince owns one. There’s some talk about the Smithsonian putting on a “Breaking Bad” installation, and I think that would be the best place for it. If they said “go,” I would give them everything I stole from the show. I have Walt’s hat, his sunglasses, his watch and his glasses. I have one full Walter White outfit.

Gilligan: How many pairs of underpants?

Paul: Do you have the tighty whities from the pilot episode?

Gilligan: He’s wearing them now!

Cranston: And I never take them off!

Paul: I wish I was smart enough to steal from the show. I didn’t take anything.

Cranston: Yes, you did!

Paul: OK. I have Jesse’s license plate from the first car.

Gilligan: You have the teddy bear from the second season.

Cranston: You also have the doors to the semi truck that gets shot out.

Paul: Yeah, and I also have Gale’s door that I knock on before I kill him.

You just went from having nothing to curating a small museum. What about the RV?

Gilligan: The RV is currently on the Sony lot in Culver City. The RV and Walt’s Aztec. It’s part of their tour. I want a guy in his underpants that looks like Bryan wearing a gas mask to pop out.

Cranston: Running and screaming!

Gilligan: You could pop out and hold them down and teach them about ionic bonds until they scream for mercy.

Aaron, you recently posted a screen shot on Twitter of the email that contained an attachment of the final episode. You wrote it took you “three full days of staring at it before you finally opened it.”

Paul: There were so many emotions racing through me when I got that email. My heart started racing. I was excited. I was also extremely sad. I knew this was it.

Cranston: It was all anxiety about “This is the last script we’ll ever see from the show.” So it just sat on my counter. And it’s like, “Don’t read it, don’t read it, don’t read it.”

Paul: Three days later, I’m driving over to Bryan’s house in Albuquerque with that script on my passenger seat. It was such a surreal experience. We sat down, opened up some beer, had some food and then just read it out loud together.

Gilligan: Be honest: When you guys waited three days to read that last episode, how much of the anxiety was born of the fear that, when you read it, it was going to be a piece of crap?

Paul: Zero. Honestly.

Cranston: Nothing.

Gilligan: Disappointing, maybe?

Paul: The anxiety was just the fact that, after we turn the last page, there’s nothing beyond that.

Gilligan: I’m manly enough to admit that I teared up. I actually cried when I wrote the end.

Paul: Of course you did!

Gilligan: I was in my condo in Albuquerque, sitting at the kitchen table, typing away, and I got to the end, and I had that song, not “Baby Blue,” which we ended the show with, but “El Paso” playing over and over again on my iPod.

Cranston: Just on a loop?

Gilligan: I put it on repeat. It wasn’t the Marty Robbins version. It was the Old 97s. I got to the end, typed out that bit about the crane shot pulling away from you and then wrote “The End,” and I actually had to take off my glasses and wipe the tears because I knew that was the end of very likely the most important work I’ll ever do. So it was emotional, yeah.

Paul: To say the least. (Looking at Cranston) We couldn’t speak, really, after reading it.

Cranston: It was just stunning. We just sat on the couch and chair for a while in silence.

There had to be a certain amount of anxiety too over the fate of your characters.

Paul: I had such a feeling for Jesse going into the final season, but I didn’t think there was a chance in hell he’d make it out alive. And I sent Vince an email. I’ve never thrown out any sort of suggestions or ideas ever. I mean, why would I? I just like to sit back and enjoy what’s given to me ...

Cranston: (Mischievously) That said ...

Paul: That said, I did want to have a little say.

Cranston: So you sent him a note?

Paul: Just to speak my piece going into the final season. It started off really as a love letter to the past five seasons, thanking him, and then it went to me saying, “If Jesse has to meet his demise in the show, can it be by his own hands?” Jesse was in such a sad, dark place. To me, it just made sense for him to end it himself. I’m so glad that was not the case, though. (To Gilligan) In the writers’ room, did you ever toy around with the idea of Jesse not making it?

Gilligan: Oh, yeah. We talked about everybody getting killed. We talked about the whole White family getting massacred. We talked about Walt getting away with it. You feel your way through it. Everything has got to be up for discussion. But when your email came in, I read it to the writers. We probably didn’t spend more than 30 seconds talking about killing Jesse because we loved him so much. And it’s not like we had it in us to kill Walt, either ...

Cranston: But you know what’s great is that you did have it in you to kill him. The tone of the show allowed you to go anywhere justifiably. So being able to draw a final episode that was both emotionally satisfying, with (Jesse) staying alive, with Walt dying, with Walt making the necessary admission, finally, why he was doing all this, for Walt to still get his plan through to get his money to his family ... for all that to work and still not be a cop-out was perfect.

Some critics argued it was too perfect, that Walt didn’t pay enough for his sins.

Cranston: Which is also a great place to end it. You want to leave it a little ambiguous so people debate it. That’s what art should do. There’s no wrong opinions. Whatever someone came away with as far as the ending of “Breaking Bad” is correct — for them.

Gilligan: Absolutely. Unless they think it was all a dream.

One ambiguous element was whether Jesse got away or drove straight into the cops swarming the neo-Nazi hideout. Of course, the police could always have been arriving on a different road.

Cranston: They were definitely coming on a different road. If Jesse had left and the police came immediately afterward, then it would have been likely he had been caught. But he left, then I was walking from outside into the Quonset hut and it was a long walk, and I looked at all the equipment and then lingered, and then the police came. Timing is everything. That plants the seed that he got away.

Gilligan: That’s the story in my head. He got away. He had suffered enough.

Cranston: There would have been (an outcry) if he got killed. God, there would have been (an outcry).

Paul: I am so glad I did not die and definitely did not die by the hands of Todd. I would have been so mad.

Gilligan: Todd was weirdly likable to me.

Paul: He shot Andrea! And the kid on the bike!

Gilligan: But he didn’t mean anything by it.

Paul: When I read that Jesse puts his chains around Todd’s neck, I was so happy.

Gilligan: And we knew we had to do that. In the final summation of any story, you want the audience to stand up and cheer. We knew that would be satisfying. But the way I saw Todd was, he didn’t really have anger or hate in his heart for anybody he killed. He just had to do it. This is a guy who’s missing some big component of his emotional and spiritual self.

And he did bring Jesse two flavors of Ben & Jerry’s, sending them down with a spoon to his dirt hole cage ...

Gilligan: Yeah, you ingrate! He brought you ice cream! What’s your problem? But, yes, if we had killed Jesse but left Todd alive, the reception might have been a little different.

Cranston: Jesse really became the rose that grew from concrete.

Gilligan: He got way worse than he deserved, in my opinion.

Cranston: I don’t know if he got worse than he deserved. He did kill Gale. He murdered another man point-blank.

Paul: Gale was a bad guy! He cooked crystal meth!

Gilligan: With Gale, I think it’s the socks-and-sandals thing. Maybe he did deserve it.

Cranston: See, even now, a year and a half after we finished shooting, we’re still debating the merits of these characters’ actions.

Gilligan: That’s the whole point. Jesse did kill an essentially innocent man, and yet he did it to save his partner. He could have split on Walt at that point.

Cranston: And not murder someone. “Will you do me a favor?” “Sure. What?” “Will you murder a friend for me? This guy’s getting in my way.” “Sure.”

The way you’re going on here, Bryan, reminds me of an earlier conversation in which you took spectacular umbrage to Jesse being called the “moral conscience of the show.”

Gilligan: I was the one who coined that. You should be mad at me.

Cranston: It was a semantics issue. If Jesse Pinkman could be the moral center, meaning right in the middle, the gray area, part good, part bad, then fine. But I think the moral conscience of the show was Hank. He was the one who held on to his righteousness and morality throughout.

Gilligan: I think when I said all that “moral conscience” stuff, I was compartmentalizing what the show was, thinking in terms of this meth cooking partnership. But you’re right, there was Hank, looking for the bad guy. There was Skyler, wanting to protect the family from the man who protects this family. And yet, in her attempts to do that, she fails.

Cranston: Which is good. You realize a person who you felt would be very upstanding and do the right thing is also susceptible to adjustments of character.

Gilligan: Human beings are endlessly fascinating in large part because they’re endlessly adaptable. You can adapt to riches, privation, success, failure, whatever the universe throws at you ...

Except, perhaps, to life after “Breaking Bad” ...

Paul: (Laughing) We’re working on it!

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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