Top 5 Brass Tacks in Helping the Breaking Bad Movie Succeed

Back in November, a Breaking Bad film was announced to be in the works by Vince Gilligan, being a sequel to the critically acclaimed series, code named ‘Greenbrier‘.  The logline reads as following “the escape of a kidnapped man and his quest for freedom”.  If we were to run with that premise, many can confidently assume (although it’s not officially confirmed) that the film is about Jesse Pinkman after the escape from the neo-nazi compound in the series finale…

UPDATE – As of 8/24/2019, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie has been officially confirmed and is set to release on Netflix on October 11th, 2019.  It will be released on AMC at a later date.  You can watch the teaser trailer here.

When I first learned of this announcement, I was thunderstruck with both giddiness and apprehension.  I adore the idea of the Breaking Bad universe being explored beyond the original show.  Better Call Saul, woven with such nuance, has proved to be a master class prequel that stands completely on its own as a more deliberate study of change for a character to undertake.  It’s a show that retains similar themes to Breaking Bad but tells its story in a much different way.  Even the tone and visual representation is carried over, but with enough careful tweaks to help give the show its own identity.

I was naturally skeptical of Better Call Saul when the spin-off was first announced in 2013, but then it turned into one of my favorite shows of all time.  Even executive producers Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan knew they were taking a giant risk going forward.  Thankfully, like a veteran team of surgeons, the entire creative staff were able to avoid nicking the artery in the process of crafting a disciplined, distinguished prequel to one of the greatest dramas of all time.  So why should I feel so cautious towards the idea of a single, upcoming Breaking Bad film, especially with the artist intent of Vince Gilligan?

Generally, it’s because mistakes happen.  Surgery isn’t always a success regardless if the best person suited for the job is operating.  As I’ve said before in other write-ups, a lot of success in television/film comes down to luck.  So with that, here’s my list of vital fundamentals I hope Vince Gilligan and his crew keep in mind going forward.

5. No Walter White (unless the story dictates).

I wouldn’t bat an eye at anyone who says Breaking Bad is just as much Jesse Pinkman’s main journey as it is Walter’s.  Of course that’s true.  Together, both characters were intertwined as the main leads for the show as Jesse proved almost immediately (through great writing and the phenomenal performance of Aaron Paul) to be such a remarkably developed character.  At the end of the day however, the show was rightfully intended to be Walter’s exclusive, finite story.  From his lung cancer diagnosis in the pilot, the concept of his character turning from Mr. Chips to Scarface throughout, and the death that was delivered to Walt in the show’s final shot, Breaking Bad was a tightly told, completed narrative following the iconic chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

Just as disciplined as the Better Call Saul writing staff has been in not unnecessarily forcing a Walter White cameo, I think the same line of thinking should follow for the movie.  Most television shows which make the leap to the big screen feel the excitable need to cram every beloved character in so as not to upset the fans (or even themselves).  Again, Vince, don’t feel obligated.   Just focus on telling the sincere story for Jesse that you wish to tell.  Can I see Walter White existing in a new scene serving as some haunting echo to Jesse’s current conflict?  Absolutely.  Flashbacks or flash-forwards are not foreign devices to either existing series, so if Bryan Cranston was to reprise his role and it made sense for the story, then by all means, fire away.  I do believe that there could be more dramatic weight though if Walter White was given as little context as possible.  Let him stand as this dark, shadowy figure that hangs over the film without him really having to show up.  Allow viewers who have never seen Breaking Bad to view Walter through the lens of a ‘mysterious and powerfully manipulative man’ who supposedly impacted this poor young soul’s life (Jesse Pinkman).  This brings me to my next point…

4. The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.

Almost every start to a new season on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul shows a cold open scene that’s completely new to the viewer, followed by the opening title sequence.  Afterwards we’re fed something of a 30 second rewind from last season which establishes where the new season is kicking off.  Here’s examples incase you forgot:

Breaking Bad:

  • Season 2 intro: Walt and Jesse’s drug deal in the junkyard with Tuco gets violent (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: A montage of news broadcasts recaps the plane crash.
  • Season 4 intro: Jesse shoots Gale (reused footage from season 3 finale).
  • Season 5 intro: Walt tells Skyler “I won” (reused footage from season 4 finale).
  • Season 5B intro:  Hank comes out of the bathroom.

Better Call Saul:

  • Season 2 intro: Jimmy contemplates the Davis & Main job (same shot from season 1 finale) and later questions Mike why they didn’t take the Kettleman money (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: Jimmy confesses he tampered with the Mesa Verde files to Chuck (same line of dialogue as season 2 finale, shot from different perspective) and later Mike picks up the “Don’t” message from Gus (reused footage from season 2 finale).
  • Season 4 intro: The embers of Chuck’s house float up into the night sky.

These scenes, no matter in what fashion they’re presented, are brief enough recaps to inform the viewer where the story picks up.  If the Breaking Bad movie was to follow the same traditional, unique style with reused footage after some mysterious opening scene, I think this following moment below is ominous, yet coherent enough to launch the film with for both old and new viewers.  For the sake of my point, ignore the joke ending in this video (but for the sake of the joke, enjoy, because it’s pretty funny).

Imagine this scene being shown in the movie, perhaps with a use of score towards the end to help transition into a new scene.  Prior to that, don’t show the machine gun going off.  Don’t show Walt on the phone with Lydia.  Don’t even let Walt speak here.  Just open with the long drawn out silence and show the nod between these two characters before Jesse drives off.  It would be so cool for viewers who have not seen the show to have no idea what the context of this scene is, but can figure things out in broad strokes that this was a place the lead character, Jesse, is happy to get as far away from as possible.  All the audience has to know is that the heat is hot and the police are closing in.  I’d love to watch this movie without it being clear that this is a character many Breaking Bad fans have long felt empathy towards.  If this film is to be successful as a standalone piece of work, it will give viewers the chance to decide for themselves whether Jesse deserves the freedom he seeks, regardless of if he actually achieves it.  In short, keep exposition to a minimum.  It will be more rewarding in the long run.

3. Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.

There’s no denying Walt is dead, but the question of whether Jesse rode off into the figurative sunset or was dragged down like a dog upon his escape is one of the few pieces of open-ended material in the finale that felt artfully reassuring for a show that was intended to have more of a definitive ending.  Same goes for whether Skyler, Marie, and Walt Jr. found happiness amidst the tragedy that Walt wrought upon them.  We at least know they could find peace knowing where Hank and Gomez are buried, so the potential for coping with their losses has already been planted.

Lots of stuff has been left up in the air though.  Did Skyler become wise to Gretchen and Elliot’s “donated money”?  Was Walt’s threat of impending doom against Gretchen and Elliot even effective?  It’s questions like these that make me wonder how many answers provided in this film would be too much.  Wouldn’t it detract from the finale’s lasting impressions if we learn the answers to these questions?  At the same time, would being too vague and ambiguous detract from the film’s sense of boldness?  Or can boldness be found by maintaining a satisfying sense of ambiguity, ala the finale to The Sopranos or The Leftovers?  There’s an incredibly thin line to walk on here to the point where one would have to pull off the impossible in order to have your cake and eat it too.

Then again, Better Call Saul’s black-and-white, near silent film-esque exploration of Gene Takovic has been successfully entertaining and wondrous to the point where I perfectly support that we get to follow his character beyond Saul’s last scene on Breaking Bad.  Perhaps the same could be said for Jesse or Skyler even though they were more central to the series?  When all is said and done, Vince Gilligan is the storyteller and it’s up to him what new information he chooses to disclose.  How the film changes our perspective of the series finale is his creative choice.  In the very least, I just hope he takes this concern deeply into consideration.  Compared to the limited snippets we’ve been spoon-fed for Gene, a feature length film is a tougher puzzle to crack.

2. The film needs to prove its worth.

If the fate of Jesse Pinkman is to be answered and the wonder of that fate I once experienced at the end of Breaking Bad becomes swapped to serve as a merely satisfying, conclusive note for his role in the series (knowing I could now continue his story directly afterwards), then the film would obviously have to be well worth the ride of existing to begin with.  The choice of continuing Jesse’s story has to feel validated by the richness of the narrative and the overall impact it will leave on the audience.  It can’t just be a movie that ties up loose ends and looks stunning as always in its cinematography.  It’s a project that needs to prove meaningful.  I want to come out of this film thinking, “Wow, this utterly shook me.”  I’m sure there will be the usual heart-pumping action scenes (accompanied by the brilliant scoring of Dave Porter) and emotional moments provided by Aaron Paul, but this film must not fall into the big screen adaptation cliche’ of ‘Vince Gilligan presents: Breaking Bad: THE MOVIE!”.  Everything needs to be earned.

The Breaking Bad film needs to be unafraid to retain its identity, but to also be something else entirely, similar to Better Call Saul. Consider David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) or the 2017 reboot that continued Twin Peaks 25 years later with a completely different tone and narrative structure.  You could tell Lynch truly has something to express in those works.  Breaking Bad should follow suit if it wants to avoid the pitfalls of a poor reboot.  Don’t be afraid to be polarizing if it means you could offer something you truly feel must be put out into the world.  As much as I want to see Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul working together once again, it needs to be for the right reasons.

Another thing to note is that Better Call Saul is a continuing series that has developed at its own pace in order to become distinguished from the parent series and coincide as a companion piece.  Can the format of a two hour film manage to do the same?

1. Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

For me, Jesse’s story in Breaking Bad is about how he’s always getting strung along in the passenger seat, never having a real say about how his life turns out.  Whether he’s being manipulated by Walt, collecting dead drops with Mike, flying to Mexico with Gus, or working as an informant for Hank, it’s always more or less against his will.  Part of that was owed to Jesse getting in his own way.  If he didn’t succumb to drug use and fall into a life of criminality, he would never have had reason to partner up with Walt.  If he didn’t feel the need to hunt down Combo’s killers, he wouldn’t have been under the threat of Gus.  If he didn’t feel the need to seek revenge on Walt for poisoning Brock, he could have moved to Alaska instead of becoming a prisoner for neo-nazis.  On the other hand, how can anyone tolerate the murder of children?  There’s a lot you can’t blame Jesse for.  His life, similar to Walt’s, was dealt a shit hand where external factors keep him pinned down.  He’s a tragic character, no doubt.

That’s why in the finale, I strongly believe Jesse learned the value of peace of mind and the quality of freedom through that wonderful, dreamy flashback sequence of him building the wooden box, representing his full potential (mentioned in season 3’s “Kafkaesque”).

After Walt’s machine gun lays waste to all of Jesse’s captivators, followed by the death of Uncle Jack and Todd, Walt slides Jesse the gun hoping to receive his final blow, knowing it’s something Jesse very likely wants to do.  Jesse drops the gun however and denies Walt his death, telling him “Do it yourself”.  This is, importantly, the first moment in the entire series where Jesse seems to have overcome his own demons, not feeling the need to get drawn back into the drama and not feeling responsible for ridding the world of every evil.  He can walk away, climb in the driver’s seat, and take complete control of his life beyond the fence.  It’s only now the external factors of the universe, like the police and the feds, which will become a gigantic hurdle for him in the film.

It’s this moment of growth though that I would hope gets carried over thematically into the movie, regardless of how obvious it is that it will.  Out of all the things I’ve listed, this is the easiest thing for Vince Gilligan to follow through with, but nonetheless, it is the most important.  We can’t have a Jesse who gets in his own way again or else it removes so much catharsis that was accomplished from the finale.  Overall I wouldn’t put it passed Vince Gilligan if he’s fully aware of everything I touched on in this article.  I know I’m just some random guy on the internet and this is just me as a fan having fun imagining how the film could work.  I’m by no means any authority on the production of this movie but like anyone I wish the best for it.

Your own thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Top 5 Brass Tacks in Helping the Breaking Bad Movie Succeed”

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