On Sunday "Breaking Bad" returned for the first of its final 8 episodes. Anticipation for the premiere was at an all-time high, reviews were ecstatic (read ours here) and ratings were 5 times higher than when the series first debuted back in 2008. To celebrate the final curtain closing on this highly acclaimed series, the cast and crew have been taking a well deserved victory lap — a 90 minute Times Talks event, LACMA Live Read and Q&As at FilmLinc are just the tip of the iceberg — but before Heisenberg cooks up his last batch we sat down with writer/producer George Mastras who was one of the first writers brought onboard by creator Vince Gilligan back in Season 1. In this age of showrunner-as-auteur, Gilligan is one of the few to loudly refute this view, crediting his team of writers (which includes Mastras, Peter Gould, Moira Walley-Beckett, Sam Catlin, Gennifer Hutchison and Tom Schnauz), as well as the cast and crew for making the show the success that it is.
A former criminal investigator and litigator, Mastras is responsible for some of the show's most memorable episodes including: "Crazy Handful of Nothin," "Grilled," "Mandala," "I.F.T." (short for "I fucked Ted"), "Thirty-Eight Snub," "Dead Freight" (which we recently selected as one of the 5 best episodes of the series) and the upcoming "To'hajiilee." He's also credited as co-writer for "Kafkaesque," "Hermanos," and "Crawl Space" which contains arguably the best closing moments of any episode in the entire series' run. Mastras graciously took time off from working on the screenplay for the recently announced "90 Church" to sit down with The Playlist for an extensive conversation about the "Breaking Bad" writers room. Below you can read Part One of our talk which focuses on his origins with the show, the importance of having the writer on set and his directorial debut on last season's Emmy-nominated "Dead Freight."
My agent sent me the pilot script which had been shot but hadn't been shown to any writers yet. They were just starting to put together a writing staff and I read the pilot and was really blown away by it. I was flabbergasted that it was really going to be on the air. I was like, "Are you sure this has been shot? This is going to be on the air?" [laughs]. Then I went through a series of interviews over at AMC and with the producers and then I had a sitdown with Vince Gilligan. He had read some of my work and I think he responded to some of my television work and also my novel ["Fidali's Way"] and lo and behold, I got hired for the first season. I've been on for all all 5 seasons from the writers-strike-shortened first season all the way up to the present.
How does the writers room work on "Breaking Bad"?
It works exceptionally well [laughs], which I think is a prerequisite for a good show. In general terms, we start each season talking about where the characters are going and pitch around big ideas for story arcs but the story builds organically from where the characters heads are at. The biggest question we ask is, "Where is Walt's head at right now? How is he engaged and what's engaging him? Is he in the business? Is he out of the business? Where is he at right now and where is he at on the continuum of his character?" So we talk in general about where things are going. Some seasons we have an idea of where we want to head and signposts [to plant on the way there] and other seasons we build brick-by-brick.
Then we go episode-by-episode, "Where are the characters at? Where's Jesse at? Where's Walt at? Where's Skylar at? Where's Hank at?" And we build the story, we build each episode out and we break each episode in the room. It's a very collaborative, very vocal room and we debate what the characters would be doing and what their behaviors would be at that given point and come up with the story for that particular episode. Then we go through and break it scene-by-scene and figure out whatever the scene is about and the visuals that go with it. We like to pay off things visually, you know, you've watched the show, so you have things like the fly [in the episode "The Fly"] and then have the fly come back. And the teddy bear [as a recurring image from Season 2].
For the most part, it's so thoroughly broken in the room that anybody could really write that script. But we generally know who's episode it is while we're breaking it and we run it through the filter of all seven brains in there. Then, the story is boarded and whoever's writing that one outlines it and writes a draft. The writers on our show are also on set, which is not always the case. That's something that has been profoundly helpful to have the writer there, the person who understands what the subtext is and where the characters are. In a highly serialized show, you don't want to do something that messes something up down the road, so it's good to have that person with a roadmap in their brain on the set.
This is such a tightly structured show, is there much rewriting on set or is it really just more to provide motivation and make sure things don't veer too far off track?
More for the latter because the script is pretty locked. That said, there are moments. We're not like old school playwrights that don't allow an "ah" turn to an "a" or something like that [laughs]. Collaboration is in the air on "Breaking Bad," so you want to allow the director and the actors to discover things. If it's something that's coming out inconsistent with where the story needs to go, then the writer can voice it at that time.
Another good reason to have the writer there is that you can allow for that kind of creativity. Whereas if the person wasn't there that really knew the story and where the characters were going and understood the subtext, then the actors wouldn't really want to diverge too much because they wouldn't want to screw something up. The writer's not just out there to police, he's out there to allow for the creative process to work and function. We have fabulous actors and fabulous directors and you want to engage them and you want them to discover things and to add their incredible talents to the show. And they do.