“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan dropped by the TV critics’ press tour Thursday to talk about a project he started long before Walter White was a glimmer in his eye.
“Battle Creek” is a cop drama with a strong comedic sensibility. It’s set in the under-funded police department of this real-life Michigan town whose name is synonymous with Kellogg breakfast cereal. (In fact, that’s how Gilligan picked the setting for the show. He remembered reading it on his cereal box as a kid and thought it was cool because it had the word battle in it.*)
Gilligan sold the “Battle Creek” script to CBS a dozen years ago. Entertainment chair Nina Tassler said Thursday that the casting wasn’t right in the pilot and the network didn’t pick it up for series. The project was put on the back burner.
“And then he went across town and sold another little show that occupied his time for a couple years,” Tassler joked, referring to the AMC hit drama “Breaking Bad.”
“Battle Creek” stars Josh Duhamel as an impossibly handsome, slick FBI guy (Det. Milton Chamberlain) with the federal government’s endless resources at his disposal. He gets transferred to down-on-its-luck Battle Creek, Mich., and becomes the de facto partner of an Everyman cop played by Dean Winters (Det. Russ Agnew). Chamberlain seems too good to be true, and the pilot drops hints that that might be the case.
“I was thinking of the time-honored trope of putting opposites together,” Gilligan said about the rationale for the Agnew-Chamberlain coupling.
Gilligan said his fictional spin on Battle Creek is to make it a “city full of underdogs.” (He’s never actually been to Battle Creek himself. Duhamel hasn’t either but he plans to change that this weekend; he’s taking a red-eye flight after work Friday to spend the weekend in Battle Creek just to check it out and get a feel for the place.)
On the show, the town’s police department is saddled with embarrassingly out-of-date and malfunctioning equipment. The precinct is populated with characters who aren’t that far removed from “The Office.” The series, slated to debut midseason, also features Kal Penn, Janet McTeer, Edward Fordham and Aubrey Dollar.
While the series sprang from the mind of Gilligan, he’s essentially turned over the project to “House” veteran David Shore. That’s because Gilligan is tied up working on the “Breaking Bad” prequel starring Naperville native Bob Odenkirk.
“I’m sorry I’m not as big a part of this show as I would like to be because of my duties on ‘Better Call Saul,'” Gilligan said about the upcoming AMC series slated for next year.
Here’s what Gilligan had to say about “Battle Creek,” the Emmys, “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and more:
Q. How much involvement will you have on “Battle Creek?”
A. It’s hard to specify at this point. My involvement through the pre-production and production of the first episode was a great deal lighter than I would have liked. That was simply because I wasn’t available. I’m really not good at doing more than one thing at once. I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. Best way to put it is: lighter than I would like through no fault of anyone’s but my own.
Q. Will you sign off on every script?
A. I don’t feel a need to because David Shore — it goes without saying — knows his stuff. When you can do a show as good as “House” and do it 22, 24 times a season versus the piddling output we do on cable – 10 to 13 episodes a season — you really know what you’re doing. David does not need my help although we work great together. I think he’s happy to have it whenever it’s available but by no means does he need it. I sleep well at night knowing that. I watched the first episode having had next to nothing to do with the production of the pilot. I watched it as a fan and I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Q. What was the most challenging part of writing the “Breaking Bad” finale?
A. The whole thing was difficult. You break [the story] first and then you write it. Breaking it with all the other writers in a room, figuring out every plot beat is the hardest part. Writing it, sitting down by yourself and putting it all on paper afterward (this goes for any episode) — the breaking of it is the really hard part. I liken it to building a model airplane: You follow the instructions and you have all the pieces, it’s not that hard. If you had to whittle that model airplane from scratch, that’s the hard part. We wanted to come up with a satisfying and fitting ending that would make people happy – not necessarily make them happy, but satisfy them. That is what we lost a lot of sleep at night over … the fear that we wouldn’t pull it off.
Q. Do you have a favorite scene from the finale?
A. It’s kind of like trying to pick your favorite children. I don’t have kids but I gotta figure that would be hard. The machine gun scene was a lot more fun to watch in the editing room than it was to shoot because it was such a lot of little pieces. Those kinds of action scenes that are fun to watch are less fun to direct.
Q. What is “Better Call Saul” going to be about?
A. It’s a story of a man who’s trying to find his place in the world. He has a talent for the law and he’s learning as he goes who he is. We didn’t set out to make it a story of an evolution of a character. That was very much what we set out to do with “Breaking Bad.” Not so much with “Better Call Saul.” That wasn’t our intention, yet it seems to be working out that way.
Q. You’ve said you want “Better Call Saul” to look different than “Breaking Bad.” How are you doing that?
A. We’re trying to distinguish it in any and every way we can. A good example: It’s not like we invented the handheld camera on “Breaking Bad.” When I was setting out to direct the pilot of “Breaking Bad” I was inspired by “The French Connection,” one of my favorite movies, which is shot with a very news reel sort of camera. The old news reel footage was such that the cameramen were traveling so light they didn’t have the ability to carry a tripod with them. They were the tripod. They’d hold that camera still as possible and yet you would see a little breathing, a little movement to it. That’s what I was ripping off when I did “Breaking Bad.” But because that is such a motif visually of “Breaking Bad” we’re now thinking we probably shouldn’t do that handheld look. Or if we do it … we should use it occasionally. When I directed the pilot of “Better Call Saul,” we used very little handheld camera. It won’t be a revolution, it will be more of an evolution.”
Q. “Breaking Bad” is nominated again for best drama. You’re nominated personally for writing and directing. Where were you when you found out about the nominations?
A. I got up and checked the phone machine and my producer had called and left a message. I don’t mean that to sound like I’m blasé, it’s just I need my sleep. I try not to know the night before the Emmy announcements because I get nervous. I turned the phones off and that way I trick myself into saying the phone’s not going to ring no matter what because the ringers turned off. So you can sleep in until 8 o’clock at least.
Q. How did you feel about the multiple noms?
A. It was very — kind of a profound moment to get that news and think man, the Sally Field thing, they really like me.
Q. “Breaking Bad” writer Moira Walley-Beckett also is nominated for writing the episode “Ozymandias”…
A. I would argue that was our single best episode we ever did. She wrote a great episode. Rian Johnson directed a great episode. This is saying a lot. It’s a high bar. We had so many great directors and writers. But that to me was the high water mark of the whole series. If that had been nominated instead of me, I would have been just fine with it.
Q. If “Breaking Bad” doesn’t win, who would you like to see get the gold statue?
A. I’m only human. I want it to be us. But they’re all great. I can say with no fear of contradiction that if Bryan Cranston doesn’t win — it may well be Matthew McConaughey, who’s a wonderful actor. But if it’s not going to be Bryan Cranston I want to see Jon Hamm win it. He’s a great guy and a great actor. I can sign my name to that choice.
Q. You did a cameo on “Community” earlier this year. What do you think about the canceled NBC sitcom being picked up for more online episodes with Yahoo?
A. Delighted. They’re a great bunch of people. Dan [Harmon] and his cast and crew are wonderful people to work with. That was such a treat being asked [to be on the show] because I’m obviously not an actor. It was so much fun. I was so nervous. I was so sad to hear when the cancelation came and then so happy to hear that they’ll live on.
* Gilligan didn’t initially recall this anecdote when asked about the title’s origins. But star Josh Duhamel reminded Gilligan that he’d once told him that story.