Bryan Cranston on What It Takes to Make It in the Arts

By Brendan O’Meara

Many of you know the actor Bryan Cranston from his unforgettable portrayal of Walter White on Breaking Bad. 

I came across an interview he did and was struck by one particular passage. I’ve transcribed it for you. Please enjoy.

In order to have a successful career in the this business…whether you’re writing, acting, directing, or producing, or whatever the case may be…

There are components that are necessary for that to come about. One is talent. You really do [need it]. You have to work hard and get educated and learn your craft and learn your business. Aside from that is personal development, patience, and perseverance, but there’s also a component that is necessary that’s the wild card…And that’s luck.

You have to have a healthy dose of luck to become successful. That’s just the way it is. You can’t prepare for it, but you can be ready for it if does come to you.

Speaking of luck, Breaking Bad was one of the greatest beneficiaries of said luck. The show had a cult following through four seasons, teetered on the brink of cancellation, yet was a masterpiece before it got barrels of attention. Here’s how Breaking Bad got lucky:

Between Seasons 4 and Season 5 it went on Netflix at the beginning of the Binge Watching Boom. This show was hyper-serialized to begin with so it leant itself to the Binge. This allowed the show to simmer and then instantly boil.

The writers delivered on what was one of the most satisfying final seasons in the history of television, this in an era that puts far too much weight and pressure on finales. RIP Lost.

In any case, my point comes down to luck. Vince Gilligan, the executive producer and creator of Breaking Bad, never could have predicted this BWB. He and his team did great work and then luck ushered them into notoriety.

All of this also means that talented people can toil in obscurity forever because they never had Luck hold their hand.

Ultimately what Cranston gets at is this: Do good work and let that be its own reward.

Did You Catch What Anna Gunn Said?

Written by Brendan O’Meara

“My mom and dad, you’re my heart, thank you for keeping me going all these years and never letting me give up.”
—Anna Gunn from her acceptance speech at the 2014 Emmy Awards

Did you catch that quote by Anna Gunn, the wonderful actress who portrayed Skyler White in Breaking Bad? I caught it and it stood out to me like Walter White’s blue-tinted crystal.

Here’s a brilliant actress who, by her own admission, got lucky to land the role of Skyler White (the same luck bestowed upon Bryan Cranston). Both landed life-changing roles fairly late in their careers.

So what?

Even these amazing talents have dark days. Speaking specifically to Gunn, that quote from her acceptance speech at the 2014 Emmy Awards was very heavy. There must have been times when she wanted to give up, but she kept going. She kept believing in her craft even when she may not have believed in herself. She had the support of her parents who made sure she plowed through the dark times.

Who is keeping you bright during the dark times? Maybe you should write them a letter. Screw email. Write a letter. Or a postcard. I like postcards.

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What Every Storyteller Needs, and it Only Costs $21

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Thanks to Den of Geek for posting this image.
Thanks to Den of Geek for posting this image.

A Little Background

As a big fan of Breaking Bad, I’m as enamored with the process of Breaking Bad as much as the show. Its creator, Vince Gilligan, has always been forthcoming with the creative process. It’s reassuring. A finished product, whether movie, book, or television show—when done well—gives the illusion of having been effortless. Emphasis on illusion.

Check out this interview with Gilligan.

For a single episode of Breaking Bad, the team of writers spent 8-10 hours a day hashing story ideas for a week or two to create the beats and scenes, for an episode. They then put those on note cards and tack them to the board. The writer for that episode then takes the board and spends about two weeks writing the episode. That’s a lot of work.

The Value of Story Boarding

I was inspired.

I’m a product of daily journalism, sports journalism specifically. I go out, cover a game, then have 45-60 minutes to write and edit a story. It doesn’t have to be good. Just good enough. I carried this mentality too much over to my narrative work. My notes are pretty scattered, unorganized, and I just write. Sometimes thousands of words at a crack just by the seat of my pants. And, if I’m being honest, I think the work has suffered. It’s sloppy.

Many great writers take their time with structure. John McPhee, a hero of mine, hangs up note cards. They’re his scenes and it allows  him to move them around. Spending time on this, on organizing, on thinking, makes the writing flow from the beats of the notes.

My stories have largely felt stagnant. They’ve been acceptable, but nothing of the stuff that ends up in year-end anthologies. I figured a logical step would be to adopt Gilligan’s outlining, his story boarding.

At Staples, a 3’x4′ cork board is $48. No, thanks.

It was time I built my own.

1/4 ", 2' x 4' product panel from Home Depot, two 4-packs of 12"x12" cork from Target, Smarty and Jack optional.
1/4 “, 2′ x 4′ product panel from Home Depot, two 4-packs of 12″x12” cork from Target, Smarty and Jack optional.

The Down and Dirty Cork Board: $21 to better storytelling

I went to Home Depot looking for a sheet of plywood I could adhere cork to. I found—on an end cap—these sheets of wood. Several kinds. I picked up a few and liked how sturdy this one felt. It was 1/4″ thick and 2′ x 4′. And it cost only $6.71. Bonus.

I got the cork from Target, two four packs, for $7.27 each. Two for $14.54.

All my parts were only $21.25, a savings of 44 percent over the one from Staples. Double bonus.

Almost done.

The cork came with stickers, so I just used them to space out the cork evenly. It wasn’t a perfect four feet across so there’s tiny gaps in between the boards.

The finished product. Thanks, Vince Gilligan!

So, there you have it. For my longform magazine projects and book projects, I’ll be rockin’ this board. Maybe once I have my notes, I’ll spend an entire day or two writing out my scenes and tacking them up, giving the story order and shape. To see an entire story in one flash will be of such value. The bricks are in place and just need the prose, the mortar to lock them in place.

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Breaking Bad Season 5: Our Great Punishment

Written by Brendan O’Meara

I watched an interview a few months ago with Matthew Weiner, show runner and creator of Mad Men. In it he spoke of his time writing on The Sopranos and how much he loved the ending. He said something to the effect that the most famous cut-to-black in television history was a big “fuck you” to the viewers. Reason being we had rooted for this monster, Tony Soprano, all these years but as the show reached its climax, we wanted to see the bloodshed. And David Chase was just the guy to make us feel like our cable went out instead. That was our punishment. Continue reading “Breaking Bad Season 5: Our Great Punishment”

Really, another split season?

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Breaking Bad’s final season was broken up into two eight-episode mini-seasons. It has worked to great fanfare. Namely, it allowed people to catch it on Netflix (like me) and then attack the cages when the show began airing its final eight episodes in August (I don’t have cable, so I bought the season on iTunes, the best way to a la carte your TV experiences). It has worked brilliantly for them as the first episode of Season 5B, as Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, calls it, was the most-watched episode of the show’s history.

Now Mad Men, the golden child of AMC, has adopted the same strategy for its final “season.”

It’s one thing for a show with action, drama, and suspense, like Breaking Bad, to adopt this strategy. A cliff  hanger in Breaking Bad is watching [spoiler alert] Jesse Pinkman shoot Gale in the face, or stop an episode mid-gun fight while Nazis rain bullets on Hank and Gomey. But for Mad Men? The brooding drama set in the 60s? What’s our cliff hanger? What brunette will Don Draper throw it in in the final six? Last season’s ending when Don brought his kids to the whore house he grew up in was a nice scene, but no cliff hanger. This show isn’t built on that. And as my friend and fellow writer Richard Gilbert once wrote, the arc of Mad Men should have ended long ago.

Perhaps they want people to binge-watch Mad Men on Netflix to similar a outcome from the Breaking Bad camp. One Mad Men a week is fine by me, but I can watch 16 straight Breaking Bads as blood pours out of my eyes and ears.

Frankly, this is a stupid move especially since, at this point, it is so unoriginal. AMC’s goose-laying-the-golden-eggs is about to die so they’re making sure they squeeze out every last egg before the time is up.