Growing up in the ‘70s, Vince Gilligan’s first thought when it came to the movies was to build robots and spaceships that films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars had popularized. His full contribution to the craft of visual effects may never be known but in diverting his attention to screenwriting and production we are surely all the richer. If Gilligan had written and produced nothing more than Breaking Bad his name would already be legend.
The AMC show with its maverick central character and twisted story arc captivated global audiences during what some see as another golden age of television. Yet before then, Gilligan had proved integral to worldwide TV phenomenon The X-Files and the fourth season of Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul is on the way. Breaking Bad won Gilligan two Emmys®, five Writers Guild of America Awards, two Critics’ Choice Television Awards, and Producers Guild of America Awards and a BAFTA®. He won another WGA honor for Better Call Saul, as well as two Peabody Awards.
He is particularly proud that Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul were nominated as part of AFI’s TV Programs of the Year seven times. Along the way, he has credited all the editors he has worked with for helping shape his stories into gold. “It is often said that editing is the third telling of the story,” Gilligan says. “You tell the story to yourself alone at a desk first. If you’re lucky enough for it to go into production, then there’s 150 people including the actors giving it a second retelling. But it is only in the edit where the story truly becomes what it is meant to be.”
Gilligan spent his childhood in Farmville, a small town in Virginia where his mother taught in the local elementary school and his father worked as an insurance claims adjustor. Hollywood was 2000 miles away but storytelling and a love of the movies was always close to home. He recalls his mother building a tree out of cardboard and crepe paper in a corner of her classroom for children to sit under and read or be read to. He vividly remembers being introduced to Hollywood movie classics by his father who used to wake him and his brother, Patrick, up in the small hours of the morning to watch a transmission of films like Angels with Dirty Faces and Bad Day at Black Rock.
“They both loved stories and inspired in me a love for Hollywood movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Gilligan. “I grew up knowing about Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart long before I knew anything academic.” At age 11, Gilligan and childhood friend Angus Wall who would grow up to be an ACE member editor and is a twotime Oscar® winner – began to turn excitement about movies into a hobby.
Wall’s mother, one of Gilligan’s school teachers, loaned the pair a Super 8 camera for three months during successive summer vacation periods. Gilligan saved up to buy film cartridges to make “mini sci-fi extravaganzas.” “Jackie Wall was an incredible person who inspired and supported both of us to make the most of our creativity,” says Gilligan. “Perhaps it’s amazing that from a tiny little town of 4000 people, two friends grew up to work in Hollywood as we have done.”
Gilligan’s own breakthrough came after completing a film production course at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’d won a scholarship to attend the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and graduated from the Lloyd C. Bird High School in 1985 to attend Tisch, also on a scholarship. It was during his time at Interlochen and then at NYU where his writing talent began to blossom, first under the tutelage of teacher Jack Driscoll and then professors David Hicks and Jesse Kornbluth. “It’s hard to teach writing.
It requires a discipline and it’s an art form, yet these folks nonetheless were inspirational with their ideas and generous with their advice,” he says. “Jesse Kornbluth was writing for Vanity Fair at the time and I loved to hear his stories about the intersection between journalism and screenwriting.” It was for Kornbluth’s scriptwriting class that Gilligan penned his first feature-length screenplay, Home Fries, “an oddball story of two socially-stunted brothers in their late 20s whose mother tasks them with killing her husband – by frightening him to death.”
A year after leaving college he entered the piece into a scriptwriting competition inaugurated in his home state and won the $1000 first prize. “Man, I could sure use the thousand bucks when I’m fresh out of college but I had lottery level winning luck since one of the judges of the contest was Mark Johnson,” Gilligan says.
An alum of the University of Virginia, Johnson had produced the Oscarwinning Best Picture Rain Man a year previously. “He called me up a short while afterwards as I was sitting in my mom’s house, said he liked the script and asked ‘did I have any more?’ Well, I had been plugging away so I put a copy of everything I had into the mail to him and thus began a professional relationship that is still going strong three decades on.” Johnson eventually got Home Fries made into a feature starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson, released in 1998. Prior to that he produced another Gilligan script, romantic comedy Wilder Napalm (1993), and subsequently executive produced Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
It was Johnson’s belief in him, says Gilligan, that convinced him he could pursue a writing career. “I loved and still enjoy drawing, painting and sculpture but with very much amateur-level ability and I realized before the end of college that while I lacked those skills I perhaps possessed an ability to spin a good yarn.” His natural inclination was to write for the movies. “I wasn’t a snob about TV but what little I knew about TV production was that as a writer you had to be in California. However, I’d just bought a house in Virginia, my girlfriend was there and I didn’t want to move to L.A. where the cost of living would be ten times higher.”
In 1994, on a trip to L.A. to pitch ideas and meet with executives, a chance introduction to The X-Files creator Chris Carter changed the course of Gilligan’s career. It helped that he was a fan of the show, already steeped in its characters and history, when he met Carter. “It was on the cusp of becoming a smash hit and Fox had just ordered another two episodes for the second season. Chris and his writing team were hurting – they had crunching deadlines and with more episodes to fit in they were looking for any warm body who could put it on paper. He was expecting me to pitch to him and if I’d been expecting that I would probably have seized up, but I just gave him an idea almost off the cuff about how a guy’s shadow comes to life and eats people.”
The episode, “Soft Light,” was the first of two episodes he would write as a freelancer, after which he joined the series full time and rose up the ranks over seven seasons to become an executive producer on the show. He also co-created and became executive producer of The X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen. “I enjoyed writing the first episode and I never looked back,” he says.
“Movies were less and less interesting to me and I became more and more interested in TV. Writing TV, for me, has been infinitely more rewarding than the movie business.” Part of that he attributes to the camaraderie of TV production in which everyone is expected to get involved, to chip in and help meet tightening deadlines. Carter, in particular, threw the X-Files writers in at the deep end and in the process opened Gilligan’s eyes to the editing process.
“I had spent time in the edit room on my own back in NYU cutting on 16mm film and 35mm splicers but to me it was a bit of a chore. Left to my own devices I’d never have realized how fundamental editing is to a show.” Before exec producing, Gilligan was sent by Carter to the show’s editorial hub in Vancouver. “The idea was to oversee production and be as helpful as we could to the director on individual episodes,” says Gilligan. “He did this with all the writers and I loved that.
I learned so much about all aspects of production, including directing, and began to realize just how much of the final story stems from the edit room.” Years later, on Breaking Bad, he recalls writer and co-executive producer Peter Gould coming to see him straight from the edit suite grinning from ear to ear.
“Peter explained that they’d just figured out how to cut an entire 3-4 pages of dialogue out of the episode. We’d slaved over the dialogue but we suddenly realized we didn’t need any of this because Bryan Cranston had given a look to Aaron Paul which said all you needed to know. That feeling stuck with me – that it is remarkable how little dialogue is actually needed to tell the story combined with the sheer joy of something working to tell the story that can only come from the edit.”
He continues, “I learned from each and every editor I worked with but in particular I learned every day from my brilliant and regular collaborators, Skip MacDonald, ACE; Kelley Dixon, ACE; and Lynne Willingham, ACE. Every day I learned something about the story that I thought I knew all about since I’d written it. I learned what a story could become in the hands of their creative brilliance and how incredibly nuanced it can be when an editor manages to convey the story or an emotion with a look, a gesture or a juxtaposition that you didn’t expect or even see first time around.”
Willingham had worked with Gilligan for five years as an editor and producer on The X-Files during which she was Emmy nominated for her editing. Gilligan chose her to edit the pilot of Breaking Bad, for which she won the first of her two Emmys for the series and Eddies for the series. Macdonald worked on 27 episodes spanning all five seasons, winning ACE Eddie awards for the “Dead Freight” and “Face Off” episodes as well as series finale “Felina.”
He was also Emmy nominated four times for his work on Breaking Bad, winning for the series finale. Dixon joined the show in 2007 as assistant to Willingham on the pilot, then was promoted to editor when the show was picked up to series. She won an Emmy for the “Gliding Over All” episode and was nominated for three additional episodes of Breaking Bad as well as garnering four ACE Award nominations for the show. Gilligan says this editorial trio was crucial to the global success of the show.
“The pilot tells you the ground rules: Your hero is going to die. He’s given a death sentence and armed with this knowledge he decides to do things he would never have done otherwise. Lynne, Skip and Kelley didn’t let me stray from the logic of that. They were wonderful partners who would keep the writers honest by making sure we obeyed the internal rules of the narrative and of the characters we had set in motion.
That approach was very important to try not to cheat the audience. “In later seasons we also had some fantastic editing assistants step up and edit or co-edit episodes including Chris McCaleb [now editor on Better Call Saul] and Curtis Thurber [who assisted on Better Call Saul and went on to edit episodes of Fargo].” When Gilligan first pitched Breaking Bad – about a middleaged teacher with cancer who cooks crystal meth – he was told by the CEO of Sony Pictures Television, Michael Lynton, that it was “the single worst idea for a television show that I have heard in my whole life.” Lynton said that after he’d taken a gamble and greenlit a deal to distribute the show which aired in the U.S on AMC.
Going into Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his creative team had looked around at what else was going on in TV and deliberately set out to do what other shows did not. For example, they found that TV had become very tightly framed. A lot of drama was filmed in close-up and The X-Files was no exception. “It was extremely successful for The X-Files stories but a typical scene might include a close-up of Scully, screaming, then a close-up of Mulder, also screaming, then back to Scully still screaming. I’d been cutting and shooting that for seven years and I was looking for something new. It was at a point where TV displays were getting bigger in the home and it dawned on me to shoot wider and make more of landscapes and the wider aspect ratio.
And, instead of the frenetic pace of a lot of action films we chose to slow it down and build suspense and character over sequences that lasted six, nine, 12 minutes. “I cannot claim credit for these ideas because Breaking Bad was a group effort and much of the inspiration for the look, the pace, the storytelling was from our editors. It really is a group effort. There’s no one person doing it all in television or in the movies. It’s always a collaborative effort and anyone who tells you otherwise is awfully pumped about their own contributions to the endeavor. But it’s a great feeling, a great collaborative feeling, and it’s wonderful.”
More success followed with Better Call Saul which reunited Gilligan with MacDonald and Dixon (who have each earned additional Emmy and Eddies nominations for Saul). This prequel to Breaking Bad explores how the show’s bent lawyer, Saul Goodman, started out as a good guy, Jimmy McGill. “I couldn’t be more proud,” says Gilligan of the AMC series, starring Bob Odenkirk. “After Breaking Bad I thought this is where we’re going to get our asses handed to us – but so far so good. It may be all downhill from here, but I will always have had these two.
“Receiving the ACE Golden Eddie is a wonderful honor for me. Some of my favorite time spent making TV has been in the dark of the edit room where you can think with just one other person and not have 150 others calling on your attention. It will always amaze me what you can do in the edit, this magic theater, where the story comes to life and problems that you think can’t be fixed, are solved. Mostly, I find that I enjoy myself there immensely. That’s how I feel, a fan watching you guys at work on the sofa behind you.”
BLACK PANTHER Editors Michael P. Shawver and Debbie Berman give the film a James-Bond-like feel and a sense of legacy
Marvel’s latest phenomenon tasked director Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole with delivering a movie version of Marvel’s Black Panther, who first appeared in Captain America: Civil War. In that film, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced after the death of his father and this is the catalyst for the events in Black Panther. T’Challa succeeds to the throne of the fictional African state of Wakanda, but finds his sovereignty challenged by adversary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and threatened by CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). Coogler brought in Michael P. Shawver to edit the picture, having worked together since film school days at USC and on Fruitvale Station and Creed. “In September 2016, Ryan asked me to put together a sequence of ‘scenes of transit,’ where characters travel from one location to another, from world-building movies like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, so he could study what they did that he liked and didn’t like,” explains Shawver. “It was really helpful to see how those filmmakers tell those personal, emotional stories while at the same time creating massive fictional universes. He had me do a similar thing on Creed with fight scenes from movies and real boxing matches and it helped both of us immensely.
“I knew Ryan and the Marvel producers were looking for the movie to have a James Bond-like feel to it but also to have a sense of history and legacy like this family and this world have been here for a long time and will continue to be. A lot of the designs in the concept art and previs combined rich African history with state-of-the-art technology, creating a beautiful contrast that helped tell our story. We had many discussions about themes of ‘the old way vs. the new’ or ‘tradition vs. innovation’ and when we got to cutting, we kept those themes in the back of our minds and let that help guide our editorial choices.” Shawver’s co-editor at the start of the project was Claudia Castello. But she had to leave the project shortly before delivery of the director’s cut. “We definitely felt her absence in the cutting room as we’d been working on Ryan’s movies together since 2010,” says Shawver. “That’s when Debbie came in and joined the team, giving us a jolt of passion and creative energy.” Debbie Berman had already caught the attention of Marvel execs during the edit of 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming, so when Coogler and Shawver needed an expert hand to guide the complex storytelling in Black Panther to completion they knew who to call. “During production, Claudia and I split up the scenes by shooting days for the most part; she would take a day, then I
would,” says Shawver. “We also worked on the scenes that each of us had been working on with the previs team because we were familiar with them. Some of the bigger sequences were split into sections depending on the workload of the other person. We like to let the process unfold organically and Ryan wants both of his editors to have a chance to inject their voice into the scene. “When Debbie joined the team, we each took ownership over half of the project. That was extremely helpful while getting notes from Ryan and the producers. There were times when we’d work on sections in the other person’s half, but we kept it split for the most part. We’d always be open to each other notes and trusted that the other person was taking a ‘movie-first approach.’ Debbie’s drive, creative solutions, and perspective were a great and muchneeded addition to our team. Her work helped me see the project in a different way which allowed me to grow as an editor. “Joining the film about halfway through the process gifted Berman a ‘clean perspective’ because she’d not seen script nor dailies. “I felt the best use of this perspective was to focus on the parts of the film that were in the most trouble,” she says. “For me, that was the first act as there were so many stories to explore and characters to meet, and it was a constant balance of too much or too little information. Ryan gave me his blessing to just cut out anything I felt wasn’t needed as my fresh first pass, and I think I took close to 20 minutes out of the first act, and then about five of those snuck back in for the final film. “Most of what I did was trying to streamline the narrative.
As a rough rule I worked on the first half of the film, and Mike took care of the second half – but that wasn’t set in stone.
He knew the footage for Warrior Falls more intimately so after I did an initial cut down of it, he worked on getting it to the next level emotionally. I initially took over the closing ‘post end battle’ scenes of the film, but we ended up passing those back and forth a lot. Mike did most of the main end battle, but I also worked on certain sections of that. “It could have been so easy for Mike to make me feel excluded as he and Ryan were longtime filmmaking partners, but he let me know right off the bat that I was an equal collaborator in his eyes, and he truly embraced me and my work,” she adds. “As anyone working on these huge monsters knows, you really do go to war in some respects. The physical exhaustion and the intense non-stop pressure can be a lot to deal with. I feel unbelievably lucky and grateful to have such a talented and kind partner, who always had my back, who shared similar instincts, and who loved and cared about every frame in the film as much as I did.” The movie posed an interesting challenge in that it required the set-up of past events, related to how T’Challa becomes king, then about halfway through the film, he discovers things that could cause his world to come crumbling down. The mood and pacing change when these revelations happen. “We don’t give it all away at once, so finding ways to go from T’Challa’s daily life as a new king to a mystery unravelling in front of him takes a lot of trial and error,” says Shawver. “There are a lot of characters and a lot of stories,” adds Berman. “Quite a few of the smaller plot lines and character moments ended up being cut but I feel we still managed to integrate complexity
into their characters, to ensure you felt an emotional connection to them, while keeping the narratives that best served the film.” They are both full of praise for the faith which Coogler put in his editors. “Mike and I would work alone, and then view our work together with Ryan as a group, and then discuss next steps,” says Berman. “Sometimes we would have directorial working sessions for more intricate notes. Ryan is the most specific person I have ever worked with, and his notes can be exceptionally detail orientated. But at the same time, he will be wide open to bold and drastic suggestions. If Mike and I felt one way, but he felt the other, he would usually honor the majority because he trusted us and our instincts. He is an exceptionally talented filmmaker who works from his heart and his gut, but also from a deep analytical understanding of filmmaking.” Shawver adds, “Ryan wants his editors to tell the story their way without influence, to have our voices be part of the storytelling, so he let us do our thing unless he was concerned he didn’t cover a scene properly. It can be difficult at times to decide what direction to take a performance or a scene without knowing what he prefers, but the process has worked over the course of three features together, and I do always feel a strong sense of ownership on his movies.” While keeping the story paramount, the editors had to work with interactive VFX, where characters would use props or ride armored rhinos that weren’t actually there. “This was a brand new creative muscle I had to train,” says Shawver. “My imagination became an important tool. With footage, I’m used to getting a piece of clay to sculpt, here I had to imagine the clay. “ Constant communication with Coogler and the VFX team was crucial. “I would get footage that was just a moving plate of a field with no actors in it, or another of a stunt when a henchman gets thrown, and that was it,” he relates. “Because of my work with previs, most times I knew what they were going for, but Ryan often thinks of newer and better ideas while they’re shooting, so knowing what is intended is important as to not waste time going down the wrong path. “Once we got to post we had VFX review sessions with the Marvel producers every few days and gave notes on the evolution
of the shots. These creative discussions talked about everything from ‘are we using the best take to allow the VFX to help us tell the story’ to how the technology should work, to which color the VFX elements should be. Not all ideas work, but as a team, we were able to come up with some really cool and unique things.” One of the toughest scenes for Berman was the opener set in Oakland. “It’s the first real scene of the film, so tonally you want it to be on point,” she relates. “I also think it’s important to get a comedic moment in the first few minutes of the film because it gives the audience ‘permission to laugh.’ If you wait too long for that first laugh, all the others are harder won. But more than that, there was a lot of information in that scene ... almost an overwhelming amount to grasp. The trick was working out how much information we needed now to set up things that pay off later. What information can we omit? To what extent can we set up events or character moments without disconnecting the audience because of information overload?” She tried a version of the scene which reduced it to basics. “You almost get no information, but you get a taste of the mystery,” she says. “But the team wasn’t feeling that, so I leaned in the other direction which was to emphasize the existing information, further trying to support it with images. “I suspect there’s still some information overload in that scene, but I think it’s forgivable. There’s something they talk about at Marvel which is ‘giving the audience the medicine early, and then getting on with the movie.’ Essentially that’s saying, you might have a rough first few minutes of the film while we feed you the information you need to know, but then you are armed with the required data, and we can get on with the actual adventure.”
Later in the film there’s a car chase set in Korea, which Berman particularly enjoyed working on. “It had a good foundation when I started on it, but I did quite a bit of work to take it to where it is now,” she relates. “I just like car chase scenes; I did the one in Spidey also. There is something so cool and fun about this one, and every time we have a screening you can feel the energy in the room rise. There’s a misconception that cutting action isn’t an intellectual endeavor. It’s actually pretty complex crafting a sequence that tells a story, drives emotion, and looks slick and cool at the same time. I didn’t do too many of the action sequences in this film, but this one I had so much fun with.” The film is intended by Marvel to be the launchpad for
another franchise, but as Shawver explains, “Our main focus
was to make the best movie – which is just about all the pressure I can handle. “We would talk at times about what the cultural impact could be but not really about the potential of a new franchise,” he adds. “We come from a school of thought that the more unique you make a story toward a character, the more universal it becomes. It’s a personal story to all of us who were involved and I hope that future Black Panther stories will follow that path with whatever story they want to tell.” Berman agrees that any pressure she felt came from a desire to do the film justice. “Most of my internal pressure came from being a South African and making sure I did this African story justice, as well as being a woman and making sure these goddesses (including characters played by Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o) were the most kick ass, complex female representations we’d ever seen on screen.”