An Interview with Breaking Bad writer, Moira Walley-Beckett
Moira Walley-Beckett is one of a handful of writers who spent years crafting the poignant, riveting, and unpredictable narrative of the television series Breaking Bad. The show has become such a part of our current culture that it may not require explanation, but for the uninitiated, it follows Walter White, a fifty-year-old high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and begins cooking crystal meth to pay for his treatments and leave money to his pregnant wife and special-needs son. It ran for five years on AMC to widespread acclaim, winning several Emmys and a spot in Guinness World Records as the highest rated TV series.
Born in Canada, Moira was a dancer, musician, singer, and actor before becoming a writer. She joined Breaking Bad in season two and is responsible for writing some of the shows most enduring and complex episodes, including season three’s “Fly” and season five’s “Ozymandias.”
On Sunday, October 6, one week after the Breaking Bad finale aired to record viewers, I called Moira to talk about the show’s literary references and moral ambiguity, and the chauvinistic backlash against one of its main characters. Moira was generous with her time, candid and incisive in her responses, and patient with me as I revealed my superfandom. (It should be noted that there are spoilers pretty much everywhere throughout the interview.)
I. How Small He Is
THE BELIEVER: I’ve heard [series creator] Vince Gilligan say that it was a victory if a line of dialogue was cut in the edit. Do you agree with that?
MOIRA WALLEY-BECKETT: I do. We tried to have our characters say as little as possible, because we trusted our actors to communicate without dialogue. We also loved visual storytelling and sometimes let the story and the imagery speak more than the actors.
BLVR: You’ve also said that natural imagery—“the landscape, the desert, and the sky”—influenced the show’s narrative.
MWB: The desert is so vast and unknowable, and it can hide a lot of secrets. Also, symbolically, the desert feels dead. But then you look closely and everything existing there that’s alive has this extraordinary tenacity and ability to survive through extreme conditions. That underscored Walt’s journey for us.
Albuquerque has the most mercurial weather—you never know what you’re going to get. We’d just let the sky tell our story. We shot this one glorious moment in episode 411, where Gus and his henchmen have Walt out in the desert on his knees, and Gus threatens him. While we were shooting, this bank of clouds moved across the entire expanse of sky, and suddenly our whole world was thrown into shadow. The actors kept going. We didn’t call cut. And the clouds moved past during the scene. Normally that could be a disaster, but we kept it—it was pure cinematic gold.
BLVR: The sky grounded me at moments where I’d start to think Walt is the king of the universe, and then there’d be a shot of that epic sky, and I’d realize…
MWB: How small he is. In every conceivable way. And that he has such urgency to achieve in his short life.
BLVR: I’ve heard that one of the writing room mantras was “Let the characters tell us where they want to go.” What exactly does that mean?
MWB: Every now and then, we would have a story point that we’d want to reach for, but we never tried to just facilitate story points, so we spent an inordinate, excruciating amount of time asking “Where’s Walt’s head at? Where’s Skyler’s head at? Where’s Jesse’s head at?” We always had to locate where the character was emotionally. I think that’s one of the reasons why the show became so compelling, because it was grounded in the reality of the complicated thought processes of the character.
BLVR: Did you discard any major plot points for that reason?
MWB: I’m sure we did, but the things I remember most are when we had to make lemonade out of lemons. That’s how Mike, Jonathan Banks’s character, originated. We originally thought that after Jane’s death, Saul Goodman would know how to sweep the house and make it right. But the actor, Bob Odenkirk, wasn’t available. We knew the death had to happen, so we created Mike and reaped the benefit for seasons. It’s kind of a great joy when you stumble upon an actor who you thought would be on for an episode or two, and they’re so exciting that everybody can’t wait to keep writing for them, and they turn into a much bigger character. But there were also times that we painted ourselves into a corner.
BLVR: Like the episode “Fly,” where you could only shoot in the superlab, but you didn’t paint yourselves into that corner—it was a bottle episode.
MWB: A bottle episode generally means that you only shoot on the sets on your stages, so the company doesn’t have to go out on location, which costs more money and takes more time. But we chose to do the most extreme version of a bottle episode possible, because that’s how we roll. We wanted to do a Pinteresque two-man play and limit ourselves by making it take place in one location. We chose the superlab and decided to develop Walt’s psychological recriminations, and came up with this fly as a symbol of his guilt and the contamination of his soul.
BLVR: There are so many readings for the fly: The contaminate could be Walt’s cancer, or his decision to cook meth, or Walt himself. When you and Sam [Catlin] were writing it, did you have one in mind?
MWB: We start open. We always take the time to explore everything, which is unusual. Once we came up with the device of the fly, it was fascinating to explore the things it could represent. It certainly is the beholder’s share as to how anyone chooses to interpret it, but ultimately, for me and Sam, we felt like it was a symbol of Walt’s guilty conscience. He couldn’t live with it and had to destroy it in order to continue.
BLVR: It’s important that Walt had a conscience. Every time I’d start to think Walt had crossed that line into pure evil and could not be redeemed, the show would draw him back to the human realm, just a little…
MWB: Just enough.
BLVR: How deliberate were those decisions?
MWB: The moral ambiguity and the position that it puts the viewer in is endlessly fascinating to me. We’ve always cared a lot about Walt and trying to understand him more deeply than he can possibly understand himself. He’s a man who begs the question—who was he to begin with? What lay dormant within him? The incredible conundrum of introducing him as this person who is absolutely relatable and then watching him transform. With each transgression, it became a real challenge for the viewers and for us and even for Bryan [Cranston], playing him, to say, how can I stand behind this man when he’s traveled so far that he may be irredeemable?
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”— Arundhati Roy
For the ninth-and-a-half entry to What Would Twitter Do? I interviewed my favourite corporate account: Melville House, which not only has a smart, fun and lively Twitter account, but is one of the most exciting and brilliant English-language publishers. My questions about their feed were…
Aishwarya Iyer was raised in India and Bahrain, and studied literature in the universities of Mumbai, Jadavpur and Pennsylvania, before working as an editor of books in New Delhi. Her poetry has appeared online in QLRS, Eclectica, Great Works and a now defunct South African e-journal called Donga. She lives in Coimbatore.
My family has always been private about our time spent together. It was our way of keeping one thing that was ours, with a man we shared with an entire world. But now that’s gone, and I feel stripped bare. My last day with him was his birthday, and I will be forever grateful that my brothers and I got to spend that time alone with him, sharing gifts and laughter. He was always warm, even in his darkest moments. While I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there’s minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions. It doesn’t help the pain, but at least it’s a burden countless others now know we carry, and so many have offered to help lighten the load. Thank you for that.
To those he touched who are sending kind words, know that one of his favorite things in the world was to make you all laugh. As for those who are sending negativity, know that some small, giggling part of him is sending a flock of pigeons to your house to poop on your car. Right after you’ve had it washed. After all, he loved to laugh too…
Dad was, is and always will be one of the kindest, most generous, gentlest souls I’ve ever known, and while there are few things I know for certain right now, one of them is that not just my world, but the entire world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence. We’ll just have to work twice as hard to fill it back up again.
”—My only statement. My brothers’ are also online. Thank you for all your kindness, and goodbye for awhile guys. xo (via zeldawilliams)
by Nachoem M. Wijnberg (translated by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei)
Compared to other nationalisms atheistic Zionism is one of the most reasonable. It would be even easier to call it reasonable if the Palestinians were offered serious reparations, financed by a levy on the value of the land that used to be the Palestinian’s and the Jew acquired too cheaply and collected among the Jews in the diaspora who want to have somewhere to flee to. Like in the blue-white metal collection box of the Jewish National Fund that was put on the table when other Jews would visit that you didn’t see often, for example on a day in the week of mourning – the money was used to buy land anyway. And now that we’re at it, how much for the rest of the world? But if land remains the problem, when, under which circumstances, can you start a state, is it necessary for a state to have its own territory? Couldn’t the Zionists have started without a territory? There have been enough states with a territory, but without private land ownership, so why not the opposite: private land ownership but a state without territory, except the land that is owned by its citizens? But a state that a Jew can flee to when he no longer knows what else to do, is that possible without that state having a territory that he can point at on the world map? That doesn’t have to be a problem if the Jew can say: where I live has now become part of the Jewish state, even though I leave it when I enter the street, but I don’t mind having my passport on me all the time. Home is where the heart is and the Jewish state can be where a Jew is, if the other states would be so kind to recognize that. The current Palestinian state comes close to a state without territory, although the recognition by other states is still incomplete – not only by Israel, it would also be nice if a man with a Palestinian nationality were allowed to become a dentist in Lebanon. That’s also why it can be said that Zionism has turned the Palestinians into those who can hardly be distinguished from non-atheistic Zionists. Before you forget, there also should be a simple way in which a Jew can indicate that he doesn’t want to be a citizen of the Jewish state, for example by saying that he’d just as gladly be proud eine Fahne zu haben, ein Kriegsschiff zu sein. (“das stolze Kriegsschiff…”) My father told the story of a mourning visit to the home of a man with five sons: they were standing side by side and said kaddish – with that man I disagreed about nearly everything, but that looked great. Now send on a mourning visit or go to someone whose five sons are all dead: you live in his house now, but you know where to find him.
 From Kurt Tucholsky, “Worauf man in Europa stolz ist” (1932). – Trans.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how my neighbourhood is becoming increasingly popular with filmmakers (mostly French, though it did also appear in Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale over a decade ago). Now it is featuring in what is likely to be the biggest French film of the year; last Spring, a number of fantastical customised cars appeared on the streets around where I live, with the announcement that filming was afoot for Michel Gondry’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours (translated, though little known, in English as Froth on the Daydream). The film has now made it to the screen. The result – a third adaptation of the novel – is a mixed bag, visually resplendent and inventive but ultimately rather empty. That said, it is definitely worth a look.
Vian’s novel is a French counterpart to On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, a mid-century novel that has been devoured by generations of teenagers. It is also, crucially, very different in nature and mood from Kerouac or Salinger’s novels. It tells of the wasting away of Chloé, the wife of the main character, Colin, after she ingests a water lily in her lungs while on their honeymoon. The novel is shot through with the existentialism of the day, even having as a peripheral character, a celebrated philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (the real Sartre would see the funny side and was an early champion of the novel, published when Vian was only 27). Jazz is also a key motif – Vian was a talented trumpeter, and close friend of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many of the other greats of the era – and L’écume des jours is the literary embodiment of the zazou, a type of French student beatnik that surfaced during the German Occupation and which now lives on only in the Monaco, a sickly-sweet grenadine shandy confection popular among French students.
Gondry, not surprisingly, emphasises the fantastical aspect of the novel and picks and chooses for the film’s visual and aural texture. The soundtrack is the very jazz that Vian would have listened to (and played) while the costumes and sets are very much of the 1940s, though it is clearly set in some type of parallel universe of present-day Paris. Every frame of the film is filled with some type of disjointed surreal gadget or scenario – a TV chef instructing Colin’s manservant Nicolas (Omar Sy) as he cooks, a doorbell that crawls all over the apartment as it rings, a pair of two-tone loafers that growl and have a life of their own. My own favourite trope was the assembly-line typing pool located in the belly of Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party HQ. You imagine early on that it will all soon wear thin, but the visuals are actually the most enduring thing about the film. They are constantly inventive and have a gauche charm; they are a box of analogue delights found in the attic, an old hokey train-set resurrected by CGI.
Romain Duris, a man who doesn’t look to be getting any older, is well cast as Colin, even if he has very little in the way of a real character to grapple with. Audrey Tatou does the bare minimum as Chloé – neither good nor bad, she is rather a presence in a film, reassuring for audiences and financiers alike (in much the same way as Tom Hanks is in Hollywood). Better are Aïssa Maïga and Gad Elmaleh as Alice and Chick, the couple whose own travails pad out the subplot. Gondry himself also turns in a surprisingly effective comic performance as Chloé’s doctor.
While the film’s visual inventiveness never wanes, the narrative does. At just over two hours, it is about half an hour too long; what starts off like a sprightly, technicolor Guy Maddin film ends up like an actual Guy Maddin film. The final half-hour is a real slog and whereas Gondry ably captures the style and mood of Vian’s novel (as referenced in the film’s English-language title), his repackaging of its ideas and themes leaves a lot more to be desired. In a way, you can trace the film’s problems, like many of Gondry’s recent films, to the lack of a Charlie Kaufman, who wrote his first two, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman doubles up, folds and contorts plot, time and space in his scripts in much the same way Gondry mangles visual information – in the two early films, they complemented each other well. Without Kaufman though, Gondry is really back to where he started out as – a talented director of music videos with a flair for the imaginative but lacking the structural discipline necessary for a full feature (though you might also say that Kaufman without Gondry or Spike Jonze is himself adrift – his Synecdoche, New York, plays out in an equally plodding way to this film). Mood Indigo is ultimately a thin undertaking that fails to really do justice to the source text. Still, the film is visually exciting enough to recommend, and it is likely to do well internationally, even if its posterior success is set to be as motion-picture wallpaper projected on the walls of hipster bars and clubs.