Breaking-Down The Teaser of the “Breaking Bad” Pilot
Why does the “Breaking Bad” pilot have a teaser? Because the show would start out very slow and almost nobody would watch it long enough for it to get interesting, basically, it would suck (at first). Let’s break it down and see why it works so well.
There are some fairly major changes from the spec script (which is what I have) to the final cut that we watch on television. The first one you will notice is that it was originally set in California, not New Mexico. Either way, this was going to be a great teaser and I want to know why it works. Let’s break it down by scene.
EXT. COW PASTURE — DAY
Deep blue sky overhead. Fat, scuddy clouds. Below them, black and white cows graze the rolling hills. This could be one of those California “It’s The Cheese” commercials.
Except those commercials don’t normally focus on cow shit. We do. TILT DOWN to a fat, round PATTY drying olive drab in the sun. Flies buzz. Peaceful and quiet. Until…
… ZOOM! WHEELS plow right through the shit with a SPLAT.
This piece has a very interesting voice. That second paragraph is where we realize this story is not going to be normal. Then…we jump into action. The question that goes through my mind is, “what’s going on here?”
NEW ANGLE — AN RV
Is speeding smack-dab through the pasture, no road in sight. A bit out of place, to say the least. It’s an old 70’s era Winnebago with chalky white paint and Bondo spots. A bumper sticker for the Good Sam Club is stuck to the back.
The Winnebago galumphs across the landscape, scattering cows. It catches a wheel and sprays a rooster tail of red dirt.
I like the colloquial phrasing that Vince Gilligan uses. “Smack-dab” gives me a good feel of what he is going for, I wonder if he is from the Midwest as well. The bumper sticker didn’t make it into the show, but I think it is a good way to show setting, character, and circumstance. There is a lot of action here, I feel like I am on a wild ride.
INT. WINNEBAGO — DAY
Inside, the DRIVER’S knuckles cling white to the wheel. He’s got the pedal flat. Scared, breathing fast. His eyes bug wide behind the faceplate of his gas mask.
Oh, by the way, he’s wearing a GAS MASK. That, and white jockey UNDERPANTS. Nothing else.
Buckled in the seat beside him lolls a clothed PASSENGER, also wearing a gas mask. Blood streaks down from his ear, blotting his T-shirt. He’s passed out cold.
Behind them, the interior is a wreck. Beakers and buckets and flasks — some kind of ad-hoc CHEMICAL LAB — spill their noxious contents with every bump we hit. Yellow-brown liquid washes up and down the floor. It foams in a scum around…
… Two DEAD BODIES. Two freshly deceased Mexican guys tumble like rag dolls, bumping into each other.
Completing this picture is the blizzard of MONEY. A Von’s bag lies leaking twenties. Fifteen, twenty grand in cash wafts around in the air or floats in the nasty brown soup.
CLOSE on the driver’s eyes. He’s panting like a steam engine. His mask FOGS UP until finally he can’t see.
The first paragraph has me feeling tense. Then, in the second paragraph Gilligan first points out that he just said something important that should also be surprising. The scene is vivid and detailed. Time after time I am saying, “why,” “what’s next,” “why’s that?”
EXT. COW PASTURE — CONTINUOUS
The Winnebago comes roaring over a berm and down into a deep gully. Too deep. BAM! The front bumper bottoms out, burying itself. WAAAAAAH! The rear wheels spin air.
The engine cuts off. Silence again. The Winnie’s door kicks open and out stumbles underpants man. He yanks off his gas mask, lets it drop.
He’s forty years old. Receding hairline. A bit pasty. He’s not a guy who makes a living working with his hands. He’s not a guy we’d pay attention to if we passed him on the street. But right now, at this moment, in this pasture? Right now, we’d step the fuck out of his way.
Underpants man looks at the RV. End of the line for that. He listens hard. Out of the silence, we hear… SIRENS.
They’re faint, a few miles off — but growing louder. Our guy knows he’s boned with a capital B. He HOLDS HIS BREATH and leaps back inside the RV.
The wording is very casual, like someone is telling the story to someone they know on the street, with a lot of enthusiasm. You can actually feel the enthusiasm in the writing. The character description is pretty specific, and the show comes fairly close to that description. Adding “BAM!” and “WAAAAAAH!” help add a lot of flavor to the writing.
INT. WINNEBAGO — CONTINUOUS
A chrome 9mm is clutched in the hand of one of the dead Mexicans. Underpants grabs it, tucks it in his waistband.
His unconscious passenger, still strapped in his seat, lets out a groan. Underpants leans past him, yanks open the glove box. He comes up with a WALLET and a tiny Sony CAMCORDER.
There is such a mix of unusual things occurring in this scene, and there is a lot of momentum coming into the scene. Why would he be grabbing a wallet and a camcorder? Why isn’t he helping the guy in the passenger seat? He obviously has some sort of plan, and I am eager to see what it is.
EXT. COW PASTURE — CONTINUOUS
Ducking outside, he starts breathing again. A short sleeve DRESS SHIRT on a hanger dangles from the Winnebago’s awning. Underpants pulls it on. He finds a clip-on tie in the pocket, snaps it to his collar. No trousers, unfortunately.
He licks his fingers, slicks his hair down with his hands. He’s looking almost pulled together now — at least from the waist-up. All the while, the sirens are getting LOUDER.
Underpants figures out how to turn on the camcorder. He twists the little screen around so he can see himself in it. Framing himself waist-up, he takes a moment to gather his thoughts… then presses RECORD.
In such a situation why would someone be making a video? Apparently this is going to be a really important message.
My name is Walter Hartwell White.
I live at 308 Belmont Avenue,
Ontario, California 91764. I am of
sound mind. To all law enforcement
entities, this is not an admission
of guilt. I’m speaking now to my
Skyler… you are… the love of my
life. I hope you know that.
Walter Junior. You’re my big man.
I should have told you things, both
of you. I should have said things.
But I love you both so much. And
our unborn child. And I just want
you to know that these… things
you’re going to learn about me in
the coming days. These things.
I just want you to know that…
no matter what it may look like…
I had all three of you in my heart.
An intelligent and articulate man. Our suspicions are confirmed, he is in trouble with the law, but there is something more important that he has to do. This is about family. Who is his family? What has happened to them? The dialogue is real, I can feel it. He explicitly tells us that there are things his family doesn’t know, but that will be revealed. What did he do? Was it really for his family? Is it going to hurt his family?
The sirens are WAILING now, on top of us. WALTER WHITE, the underpants man, turns off the camcorder. He carefully sets it on a bare patch of ground by his feet. Next to it he sets his wallet, lying open where it can be seen.
CLOSE ON the wallet — a photo ID card is visible. Walt’s smiling face is on it. It identifies him as a teacher at J.P. Wynne High School, Ontario Unified School District.
Walt pulls the chrome pistol from the back of his waistband, aiming it across the tall weeds. It glints hard in the sun.
Flashing red LIGHT BARS speed into view, skimming the tops of the weeds. Heading straight for us.
Walt stands tall in his underpants, not flinching. Off him, ready to shoot the first cop he sees…
Is this really happening? This guy is going to shoot at the cop cars? Is he trying to commit suicide by police? I want to see how it really goes down, because no matter what happens it is going to be bad.
With a teaser like that, it really doesn’t matter where or when or how Act 1 starts because I am going to watch this show for awhile to see how this has occurred. At each step of the way I am asking more questions, being surprised, and wondering what will happen next.
I like this dramatic writing, and I think it is something to emulate. It may take me awhile to get there, if I ever do, but it will be a fun journey. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com