Breaking Bad’s road to success reads like a modern day Cinderella story. It begins with an impossible premise and is rejected by every network in town—except one. It starts slowly but grows into a cultural phenomenon and then catapults into the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed show on TV.
One person behind that astonishing success is USF’s Gennifer Hutchison ’98, a Breaking Bad writer whose very first episode was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award.
Hutchison talked to USF Magazine about the smash hit, and how her USF education helped her get inside the head of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.
The characters of “Breaking Bad” live in a world of meth addiction, drug dealing, and violence. How did you write about a world that you weren’t a part of?
We did a lot of research, and we had consultants, like the DEA, who helped us. Even though it’s a world I wasn’t familiar with, the characters felt like real people. Walt got into this business because he felt desperate and trapped. I’ve felt desperate and trapped. The way I got into the show was by thinking about how I would feel if I were in this position. You get into the emotion of it. The most important thing is making sure it’s emotionally true.
What was it like working with lead actors Bryan Cranston (Walter White) and Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman)?
They’re amazing actors, and they were really respectful of the material. If they had a question about a scene or an alternate pitch, they’d come to you and say, ‘I’m not sure about this one. Can it be more like this?’ But they were mostly just asking questions like, ‘What am I thinking right now? Why are we going in this direction as opposed to that direction?’ Then you’d have a conversation about it. It was great to have a dialogue because they had insights into their characters that we didn’t.
Describe a typical day in the writing room.
photo by Andrew Ortner
There were seven writers on the show. We would start around 10 in the morning. Usually the first few weeks in the room, we would talk about the season as a whole and map out different plot points we’d want to hit: We want Walt to be here by this episode, and we think this and this will come to a head. So you get a general sense of where the season is going.
Then we would do each episode in turn and try to put it together organically. We would use a large corkboard and write down everything that happens in an episode, every beat—we call them beats—on 3x5 index cards and pin them to the board and slowly build the episode: teaser, act one, act two, act three, and four. It would take two to three weeks to map out an episode. Then someone would take that board and write an outline off of it, and then one of the writers would write the script.
Which of the episodes you’ve written are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of my first episode, “I See You.” That’s episode eight, season three, right after Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, gets shot. [Series Creator] Vince [Gilligan] let me go on set and produce it. It’s very unusual for someone who’s never written an episode before to actually be on set to supervise. It was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award, and having my very first episode get nominated was just amazing.
How did you break into television writing? It’s notoriously difficult.
It took me a long time to break in. I moved from show to show getting assistant jobs, and I’d get to the point where I’d be ready to pitch an idea or write an episode and the show would be canceled. I was definitely in a place where I thought I was never going to make it. It takes a lot of patience. Also, as a writer you need to always be working on your own material. You have to be ready when the opportunity comes up.
Did USF prepare you for a writing career?
My USF education opened my mind a lot and made me less fearful of new things. I took media theory and production and took a lot of classes about gender and race portrayals in the media. I always try to take that with me into the writing room. I think about what being inclusive actually means, not just by having women characters and characters of color, but actually having them be fully realized human beings and not fall into stereotypical traps. I always ask myself, “Would Professor [Bernadette] Barker-Plummer [chair of the Media Studies Department at USF] be disappointed in me?”
Do you think the show is a sign of the times?
I think part of the reason Breaking Bad resonated with people is because they recognized some of themselves in it. We’re constantly told that everyone can achieve the American dream, and I think a lot of people feel like they’ve been promised something that wasn’t really delivered. With the economic downturn, a lot of people have been strapped for money, and there’s an element of wish fulfillment in this guy rejecting the status quo and taking control in his life, even though he made a terrible decision. And Walt did get punished for what he did. So you get the thrill of his taking control, but he got what he deserved, so it’s moral too.
Breaking Bad’s series finale aired in late September. Hutchison is working on a new show for FX called “The Strain,” based on a trilogy of vampire novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The pilot will air next year.