By 1994, Vince Gilligan was still waiting for his big break. The 27 year-old screenwriter had graduated from NYU on scholarship five years earlier and had seemed destined for immediate stardom after he won a screenplay contest only months after graduation. Yet only two of his screenplays amounted to anything within this stretch of time—the money then disappeared, as did his writer’s guild health insurance.
Thirteen years later, his opportunity arrived. By then, Gilligan was on the television world’s radar after his seven year stint during the late 1990s and early 2000s as a producer and writer for The X-Files. But in 2007, Gilligan approached AMC executives and laid out his new idea: the story of a high school chemistry teacher who discovers he has terminal cancer. In order to provide financial security for his family after his death, he teams up with a former student to cook and sell meth. The idea of Breaking Bad was born, which would finish as one of the most phenomenal shows in TV history.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the creative process as dynamic interplay between three nodes: individual talent, the domain (category), and the field (peers, critics). It is helpful to examine Gilligan’s creation in light of these three areas.
Gilligan’s talent and motivation were evident from his youth. As a child outside of Richmond, Virginia, he made science fiction movies with his brother using an old Super 8 film camera. College provided him with the opportunity to share his talents, and his old professors have noted that class attendance was unusually high on days that he presented his work. Gilligan’s long experience in film-making allowed him to develop a keen sense of perception and attention to detail— in his work today Gilligan is meticulous to the point of perfectionistic. Brainstorming sessions with co-writers tend to be exhaustive and smaller details such as the correct color shade of a character’s shirt must be right. Gilligan’s choice for playing Breaking Bad’s main character Walter White perhaps best exemplifies his insight. Gilligan recognized actor Bryan Cranston’s potential from a single episode of X-Files in 1998 and so he cast him to play White, even though Cranston was famous at the time for playing oddball characters in shows such as Malcolm in the Middle. Breaking Bad’s existence alone points to Gilligan’s genius, considering that the idea for it emerged from a casual joke with a friend.
By examining Gilligan at the individual level, it is also important to note that in certain ways he is an outlier amongst creators. Famous creative individuals are commonly seen as leading imbalanced and oftentimes turbulent lives outside of their domain. Howard Gardner concludes that the creators he studied were each involved in a Faustian Bargain, meaning they will make sacrifices (usually in their personal lives) in order to fully focus on their task. Yet Gilligan is described as a remarkably amicable and easygoing man who has remained with his partner Holly Rice since 1991 (unusual among Hollywood stars). Gilligan’s personality may be especially surprising considering the dark themes of Breaking Bad. This is not to say that he has not had to make sacrifices, but it is clear that he leads a healthy personal existence without compromising his work.
Just as Gilligan excels in noticing potential in other people and ideas, those who saw the same in him were invaluable in nurturing his creative ability. Gilligan’s father exposed him to Western classics and his grandparents provided their curious grandson with boatloads of books. Producer Mark Johnson (who worked on Breaking Bad with Gilligan) noticed his ability while serving as a judge during the 1989 contest that Gilligan won and set him up with an agent in Hollywood. Yet perhaps the most influential figure in Gilligan’s life was art teacher Jackie Wall, his best friend’s mother, who lent Gilligan her camera in his youth and encouraged his film-making projects with enthusiasm. Today, Gilligan is known for being quite involved in interviews and fan events compared with many other producers, reflecting a genuine desire to hear feedback from fans and critics alike. Yet at the same time, he has said that he avoids the internet to ensure he doesn’t allow public opinion to completely alter his writing plans for a series.
Lastly, the ultimate success of Breaking Bad reveals Gilligan’s creation was timely in the domain of the television industry. Interestingly, widespread success proved elusive for Breaking Bad during its first few seasons. Yet thanks largely to Netflix it eventually was discovered: the season finale of season 4 reached only 1.9 million viewers (which was an improvement at the time), yet amazingly the finale of season 5 was watched by 10.3 million people! Not only is Breaking Bad known for violence and gore that other hits such as The Walking Dead have capitalized on, but the moral ambiguity that defines the show came to be embraced by mainstream society. Gilligan’s ability to create relatable characters undergoing significant character development is another reason for its success.
J.C. Kaufman and R.A. Beghetto (2009) provide a more developed model of creativity that expands on the traditional “Big-C and little-c” division of creative thinking by introducing “pro-c” (between “Big” and “little”) and ‘mini-c” (below “little”, refers to a basic and personal level that looks at childhood creativity). Before Breaking Bad fully emerged as a hit show by season 5, it could be argued that Gilligan fit best in the “pro-c” category, but now that public opinion has overwhelmingly approved of Gilligan’s creation there is no doubt that he is a “Big-C” creator. The only question now is whether Gilligan merits inclusion in the subcategory of “greatness” or a level above: “legendary”. As he is still relatively young, perhaps it is too early to make this evaluation.
Last night, Gilligan’s work returned to TV screens across America with the debut of his Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, which follows Walter White’s colorful lawyer Saul Goodman six years before Bad takes place. Considering the premiere set a viewership record and that AMC has already decided to renew the show for a second season, we can expect many more good things to come from the great minds of Gilligan and Co. in the coming years.
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