Richmond-area native Vince Gilligan, creator of the AMC hit show “Breaking Bad,” knows how to keep a secret.
His top-secret project, a two-hour movie version of “Breaking Bad” called “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” is about to drop on Netflix on Oct. 11. It will also be shown on the big screen in 68 cities, including Richmond’s Bow Tie Movieland at Boulevard Square Oct. 11 through Oct. 13 only.
“El Camino” was filmed in almost total secrecy in Albuquerque, N.M., last year. Netflix didn’t announce the project until August and details are intentionally scarce.
Gilligan, who is quite humble by nature and described by many as a Southern gentleman, said he’s been keeping details top-secret for the fans.
“I feel like the best experience (with a movie or a show) I ever had was when I went in knowing nothing,” Gilligan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a rare phone interview from California. “I’m someone who likes waiting to open my presents on Christmas Day.”
The Emmy-winning show ended (spoiler alert) when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) rescued his meth-cooking acolyte Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) from a gang. The last scene was a powerful one, with Walter White on the ground, dying, and Jesse escaping, driving off in an El Camino.
Critics and fans have called the ending of “Breaking Bad” a perfect ending.
“I always intended for the last episode to be the last word on the subject,” Gilligan said. “But I found myself wondering over the years, whatever did happen to Jesse Pinkman?”
Only three characters have been revealed in the “Breaking Bad” movie: Jesse and his longtime friends Skinny Pete (played by Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones).
But Gilligan did say that Jesse was one of his favorite characters on the series and served as the moral center in a world of outlaws.
“The last time we see him, he’s laughing and crying, ultimately damaged from this awful ordeal. But in my mind, he’s going to be OK. He’s going to get away,” Gilligan said. “Then I started to think, how is he going to get away? One thing led to another and I thought, ‘Heck, maybe there is a little more to this story.’”
Gilligan grew up in Farmville and Chesterfield and graduated from L.C. Bird High School in 1985.
He moved to New York to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on scholarship and caught a lucky break when a screenplay he wrote won the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award that kick-started his career in Hollywood.
He landed a job as a writer on “The X-Files,” before going on to create “Breaking Bad” and its prequel spin-off “Better Call Saul.”
The success of both turned Gilligan into a star writer.
“Breaking Bad” won 16 Emmys, has been called a modern-age classic and has been compared to the new golden age of TV standards like “Mad Men” and “The Wire.”
Still, Gilligan approached writing the screenplay for “El Camino” with trepidation.
“I haven’t written anything on my own for easily over 10 years,” Gilligan said. “The plotting was the hardest part.”
On his own, instead of in his familiar writer’s room, he followed the format that he learned from Chris Carter on “The X-Files,” writing all the plot points and scenes down on note cards and tacking them up on a corkboard to get the arc of the story down. That took six to eight months, he said, then another two months to get the story into a screenplay format.
Afterward, he showed it to friends and producers from “Breaking Bad” who gave notes and helped make the story better, he said.
He called it a group effort, but “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” is his first feature film and the buzz around the top-secret project is palpable. “El Camino” is being released in a fairly unique way: both on Netflix and on the big screen, if only for one weekend.
Which is part of the buzz.
The cast and crew of “Breaking Bad” would watch each season premiere on the big screen.
“If you’re a ‘Breaking Bad’ fan and really want the full experience, do try to see it in a movie theater,” Gilligan said. “It was designed as a cinematic experience in full wide screen. In my mind, it was not designed to be watched on an iPad. It was meant to be seen on a movie screen.”
Gilligan released the movie with Netflix because the streaming service was instrumental in helping “Breaking Bad” catch on with fans.
“Breaking Bad” debuted on AMC in 2008. By Season 3, it had 1.52 million viewers. After Netflix picked it up and introduced it to more viewers, the show netted 4.32 million viewers by its last season, making it one of the most-watched shows on a cable network.
“AMC isn’t in the business of making one-off, two-hour movies. But Netflix is. They’ve been so good to us for so many years,” Gilligan said.
As for making the leap from a one-hour TV show to a feature-length film, Gilligan described it “as an awful lot of fun.”
The movie was shot on the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, the same camera that was used for “The Revenant” and in a 2.39 wide-screen format, details Gilligan talks about with excitement.
“Listen to me, geeking out about this stuff. But really, it was meant to be seen on a movie screen. Hopefully folks will get a chance to see it that way,” he said.
Gilligan returns to Richmond often to see his parents, who divorced when he was young, but who both still live in Chesterfield.
He’s been known to work little bits of his Richmond history into “Breaking Bad.” The high school where Walter White worked was named after L.C. Bird High School and his mother Gail had a cameo role toward the end of the series.
In the movie, Gilligan said that he worked in the birth dates of his mother and father, and managed to work in his dad’s job before he retired as an insurance claims adjuster for Dairyland.
Now based in California, Gilligan returned to Richmond this year to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday at The Jefferson Hotel. When he’s in town, he said he loves to check out the restaurant scene and stop by his favorite restaurant, Heritage.
But for now, he’s most excited that “El Camino” will be headed to the big screen at Richmond’s Movieland “on Arthur Ashe Boulevard,” he said, referring to the Boulevard by its new name.
“To have my first movie ever directed playing in Richmond means the world to me,” he said.