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Interview: Inside The 'Breaking Bad' Writers Room With Writer/Producer George Mastras

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage August 13, 2013 at 3:03PM

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.
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Breaking Bad Gus

You touched on this a minute ago but rewatching the show, you notice so many of the details. Like the foreshadowing for Jane, "I think I just threw up in my mouth," or images that mirror each other like the cousins crawling on their hands and knees in the premiere and again at the hospital or the elevator bell dinging for Gus, etc. How much of the fun of the show is coming up with these kinds of things?
You hit it right on the head there. It's so much fun to come up with those little pieces. I think in other shows that are more dialogue-driven, it's not better or worse — and we take a lot of pride in our dialogue too — but a great joy is getting a scene with very little dialogue or no dialogue and it's all told through the images. It's all told on our actors face. For instance, very few shows on television have a scene where an actor sits in a car and we're able to read what's on the person's mind without any dialogue. Those are the kinds of scenes that will get cut from other shows and it's great to be able to write those, pure imagery, pure acting without dialogue. Hell, we had a whole character who didn't speak, Tio [Salamanca], and that was a blast too! So that's definitely been a very rewarding approach, writing in that way.

"Breaking Bad" is so economical there is nothing on screen that is just there, that won't pay off down the line somewhere thematically, plot-wise or character-wise. The show is so rich that "Mad Men" is maybe the only other show on TV that I can think of where every single thing on screen matters.
Yeah, I mean "Mad Men" is a fantastically written show. And thanks for picking up on that!

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Is it exhausting to work so economically where you feel like there is no waste, every scene can only exist if it is driving something forward or revealing something about a character. Or is that the only way you guys know how to do it?
I think it would be exhausting to write scenes that don't have any kind of inner-significance. You know what's more exhausting? If you're writing a crime procedural — which I've done before — and there is information you have to get out just to explain the mystery and the red herrings, so you get into this mode that is truly informational. Obviously we have information that we have to impart but that's never the point of the scene. The point of the scene is what's going on in the characters heads and the subtext. The scene is never really about moving the story forward on "Breaking Bad." That's the functional veneer of the scene but it's always about what's going on with the characters.

What do you think it is that keeps the show so grounded? Despite so many elements that could seem far fetched or convenient, I've never called bullshit on a moment. Is there a litmus test in the writers room?
I don't know if it's a litmus test but we debate that. I think we try to ground stuff as much as possible and we do a lot of research. The grounding mostly comes from the characters. As long as the characters are doing things that make sense organically to their character and if the action of the story comes from the characters, I think everything else will flow from that and the scene will have an intensive reality to it. The pure, "How does Walt get out of this problem? How do Walt and Jesse get out of the RV with Hank right outside? How do they hoodwink him into leaving so they can escape?," those are things that we try to study up on and do the research. Someone comes up with a pseudo-legal argument about a warrant or something and someone else makes a phone call. Those are problems in themselves that can be very difficult to get out of — and believe me, we may pound our heads a couple of days to get out of the logistical problems of things — but you can always bridge that gap if the character stuff makes sense.

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One of the most frustrating things about some other shows is when you know the plot is forcing the characters to behave in a way they wouldn't behave.
Right, right. A prime example is the episode that I wrote and directed "Dead Freight." In the episode, we have a train heist and that completely makes sense because the big problem for Walt's ascendancy [to power] is supply. So that makes sense story-wise and it also comes from Walt's character. Where is his ego at? Season 5 is about Walt's [hubris], "It works because I said it works." A crazy magnet scheme [from "Live Free Or Die"] is probably more difficult to believe than siphoning methylamine out of a train but you believe it because Walt is just so confident. The cockiness makes you believe it. So that part makes sense and now we're presented with a logistical problem, which is these guys who don't want to kill anybody. "We're not the type of people who will rob a train and kill people just to get what we want." That was the big character debate going on this whole episode.

So then you come to the logistical problem of how to actually pull off this train heist. I won't minimize the problem solving that went with that but it came from reaching out to experts and tons of research. We do take the time to research stuff where a lot of people might've had them just do the train heist and if you looked at it closely, it wouldn't have been realistic. But we had to make it realistic. So we went out to experts in hazardous waste disposal and learned that methylamine is weighed when loaded and weighed at the end of the journey. And this stuff is every bit as illegal as methamphetamine itself, it's a meth precursor. So how does someone like Lydia have access to it but no one else would? She would be able to download the website because she has a special license and she can see the location of the car on the train manifest. She would know that the train would be 10 cars back, it wouldn't be in the engine because those are the things that are illegal under hazardous waste disposal laws. So all these little bits of detail, we spend the time to go through and get that stuff right. That's the added reality that we bring to it and the chemistry of the things we do.

This article is related to: Interviews, Breaking Bad, TV Features, Interviews, George Mastras


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