Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With BETTER CALL SAUL’s Gordon Smith

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo by Arnold Wells

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Emmy-nominated writer Gordon Smith credits much of his career success to luck. A friend got his resume to BREAKING BAD just as they were looking for a PA. After landing that job, Gordon’s career grew from working as a writers’ PA and assistant to Vince Gilligan, to landing a position as a staff writer on BETTER CALL SAUL. Now a producer on BETTER CALL SAUL, Gordon signed an overall deal with Sony Pictures TV earlier this year.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I don’t often think of myself as a writer. I went to school for writing at Michigan and then I was in the production program at USC, but I primarily focused on writing and editing. It’s that weird thing in my head that I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, but it plays to my skills in the arts. I don’t think I would ever be particularly well suited for things outside of the arts. Within that discipline, I think writing suits me.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

Usually people want to know how I got my job, because everyone is wondering how you get your foot in the door. Unfortunately, my answer is usually luck, because it was luck. I started as a PA. I got my foot in the door. It’s luck, but I think it really can’t be overestimated how social the industry is, how many things happen because you know somebody and somebody else knows you and you can kinda say yeah, that person is okay, I know them and vice versa.

HOW DID YOU FIRST BREAK IN TO TV?

I was working at USC where I went to grad school. I wrote and edited a short film for a young woman, Nicole, who was a friend of mine and she went on and is very successful. Her first gig was as an intern, I think on MAD MEN, where Genny Hutchison was Matt Weiner’s assistant at the time. They became friends and I had been friends with her, so it happened that when I was looking for a job, she was J.J. Abrams assistant. So I was like, “Do you know of anything?” She told me, “No, but I know somebody on BREAKING BAD, maybe I can get your info there.”

My resume landed in their hands just at the right time when they happened to be looking for a PA. Towards that end, be somebody that other people are willing to say, I worked with this person, I like this person. I’m willing to recommend them. You want someone to be in your corner in that way. You can’t turn the switch, but it can happen if you’re ready and you’re in the right place for it.

WHAT TV SHOWS INSPIRED YOU WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER?

In undergrad, I was mostly writing fiction and plays. Theater was especially something that I took seriously. It wasn’t until later that I started thinking about TV as a viable place to express myself. When I did, there were all these shows I loved or felt passionate about and followed. I was a huge X-FILES fan. I wrote a bunch of scalding papers about it at one point. I was and remain a TWIN PEAKS fan. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, I love that show.

My sister has a history of sitting me down and being like, “You have to watch blank.” BREAKING BAD was one of those shows. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was another one. She was like, “You have to watch this. You haven’t. You’re going to and you’ll like it.” She was right.

ANY ADVICE THAT YOU RECEIVED EARLY ON IN YOUR CAREER THAT REALLY STOOD OUT FOR YOU?

I think not being a jerk is a big piece of advice. Be somebody that other people want to be around for ten hours a day, every day for eight months, which seems intuitive, but I think people also learn a lesson that the thing to be is the person who fights for their vision, which is important, but you have to balance that against there’s a bunch of people around you who are also fighting for their vision and you’re all trying to be on the same team.

The other piece of advice that I’ve heard Genny Hutchison give many times, and she’s dead on, is to do the job you have. If you are an assistant, there’s a thinking that the way to go is to dress for the job that you want, not the job you have. You hear that, but there is something kind of misguided about it. It works for some, but you may also alienate some people. You’re likely to end up with people who are like, I needed you to do this job. I needed you to get coffee. I needed you to write the descriptions in a line that are going to go on VOD for the episodes, which are evocative enough that they tell you what the episode is, but they’re bland enough that they don’t have any spoilers in them.

Those kind of things, they can be boring or they can be tough. They are actually quite tough, which is why they are sometimes done badly, but doing them well makes people go, “Oh, you could handle that. Maybe you could handle more.”

AS A WRITER, WHO INSPIRES YOU?

Lots of people. I’m inspired by a lot of the people I work with. I’ve been lucky. They’re a great group of people, because they’re very giving with their time. Tom, Genny, Peter, Vince and the people I’ve worked with a long time now have been very supportive and good mentors. I think they’re all really great writers. So I’m very happy and proud to be part of the team.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

Yes opens a lot of doors. It’s hard to sort of look and say, well, I don’t know if this is worth my time, because your time’s precious. But for a good while, saying yes is going to be way better than saying no. It’s going to open more doors.

I took gigs for a long time that I’m like well, I don’t really love this or don’t know about this. Some web writing gigs, even some projects that weren’t perfectly in tune with my sensibilities with BREAKING BAD or things that I wanted to do, but doing them opened up opportunities. That would be my advice. Say yes to opportunities when they come, because eventually you’ll be able to say no. You’ll get to that point.

Also, keep writing. Keep polishing your stuff. It’s hard to find the time. It’s nearly impossible sometimes, but the more you can keep your head in that, the more you can stay engaged with what you’re passionate about.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Love & Money Dept – TV Writing Deals for 10/4/13

Latest News About Writers Who Are Doing Better Than We Are

  • Blake Herron (THE BOURNE IDENTITY) will write an untitled action drama for TNT about a super agent. (Who just might remind some of the audience of a certain Jason Bourne. Totally coincidental, of course.)
  • Josh Heald (HOT TUB TIME MACHINE) is writing a TBS comedy  which also is untitled but probably won’t be anything like THE BOURNE IDENTITY. (Although some viewers might wish it was.)
  • Vince Gilligan (BREAKING BAD, natch) has sold an 11 year old drama spec to CBS and will share showrunner/writer duties with none other than David Shore (HOUSE). (The show’s about two “very different” cops who team up to inflict justice on the town of Battle Creek, Michigan. And after hearing that description all we can say is, it better be fucking funny.)
  • Josh Harto & Liz Garcia (MEMPHIS BEAT) are adapting Anne Rice’s Songs of the Seraphim novels into a series for CBS. (And we’re going way out on a limb here to tell ya that the series will be so much better than the original books it’ll make Anne Rice’s head bleed. No, we haven’t seen any advance script pages we just luv MEMPHIS BEAT. Watch it if you can and see why. Go on. We dare ya.)
  • Emily Goldwyn & Sasha Spielberg (newbie daughters of famous dads) are writing an ABC comedy pilot called GIRLS WITHOUT BOYS, which we really, really, really hope is about lesbians cuz we’re sort of bent that way.  (And regardless of whether it is or not, we’re hoping even more that the father of one of these fine lady writers stays totally out of the loop of the show cuz let’s face it, Stevie S. doesn’t exactly have the best TV track record in the world.)
  • Joel Hlavin (UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING) is writing the pilot for OASIS, a si-fi thriller, for CBS. (And while we’re getting a little tired of science fiction everywhere we look, we admit to being curious about any show about “the inhabitants of a new…perfect community, who discover there may be danger….” Actually, what really makes us curious here is the understatement in the announcement. It’s so unlike good ole broadcast TV.)

BREAKING BAD Creator-Writer-Showrunner Talks about…BREAKING BAD

Sure beats listening to (just about any) star:

Creator Vince Gilligan Talks BREAKING BAD, How His Vision for the Show Has Changed over Time, the Possibility of a Movie and More
by Tommy Cook

“Because I said so.”  Have four words ever been so chillingly, yet rousingly, delivered? Walter White’s Season Five conversation ender put the definitive mark on his transformation from mild-mannered science teacher to ruthless drug kingpin.  The brilliance of Breaking Bad is that this transformation can be viewed either as a triumph of Nietzschean ‘Superman’ ethics or as the moral turpitude of hubris run amuck.  Sure Walter White is a badass – but he’s also a very bad, bad man.  Breaking Bad is one of the only shows in recent memory that can ‘have its cake and eat it too’ – at once both celebrating and decrying Walter’s actions.  How does it get away with this? Because it’s just so freaking good… ‘Because it says so’.

…[T]oday…,creator Vince Gilligan discusses how his vision of the show changed (or didn’t) since day one, takes exception to the notion of Walter White as a sociopath, puts down any Breaking Bad movie rumors, and more.  For the full interview, hit the jump.

Season five is going to be split in half.  Where are you in filming currently?

VINCE GILLIGAN: We finished shooting the first eight about three weeks ago and I finished doing my pass on the editing of episode six.  I still haven’t watched the final two episodes of the first eight; but I’m real happy with the first six.  I have every confidence that the final two will be just as great because they were directed and written by some very smart folks.  So that’s where we are.  We’re almost through the first eight.

Are we going to see you explore the relationship between Walt’s two sons: Jesse and Walt Jr.?

GILLIGAN: I do see Walt Jr. and Jesse as different sides of the same son.  The coy[est] answer I can give is that we will continue to deepen the viewer’s understanding of all these characters as much as we can.  There are a lot of revelations yet to be played out throughout the final sixteen.

Has your vision for how the show will end changed from day one to now?

GILLIGAN: Immensely.  There’s my vision of the show and then there’s of how it would be received.  I can’t believe I’m here at Comic Con talking about the show.  I didn’t believe for the longest time it would see the light of day. I  didn’t think we would even shoot a pilot.  And then once we did shoot a pilot, I had trouble believing it would go on air as a series.  And then when it did go on air for a year/year and a half, I thought the most story we could possibly milk out of this thing would be three years.  And now look here we are at the beginning of season five.  My vision for how things would shake out and how much people would enjoy it continues to astound. But as far as the story goes, we have abided pretty closely to the original pitch we gave to Sony – which was we’re going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. We have abided by that.  All the twists and turns of character we have produced over the seasons – I certainly have not seen all of them coming.  My writers and I have come up with them week-by-week and day-by-day.  But the ultimate point of the show: taking a good man and, by will, transforming himself into a bad man.  That was always with me from the beginning.

Read it all

Now if only they would put Gilligan’s pic on the posters, like they do Aaron Sorkin’s.

Episodes You Must See to Truly Appreciate BREAKING BAD

From creator Vince Gilligan’s lips to our ears:

‘Breaking Bad’: 11 episodes you need to watch, with suggestions from creator Vince Gilligan
by Rick Porter

“Pilot”/”Cat’s in the Bag …”/”… and the Bag’s in the River”: Gilligan suggests watching the first three episodes of the series in one shot, as it introduces Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) dilemma — stricken with cancer, the high-school chemistry teacher decides to start cooking meth to earn extra money for his family — and “kind of set up who Walt is.”

“If you’re not into it by the third episode, it’s not for you,” he says. “No harm, no foul, and move on. That’s my best advice.”

“4 Days Out”: A Gilligan pick, the ninth episode of Season 2 (pictured above) finds Walt and his meth-cooking partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) stuck in the desert after the battery in their RV dies during a marathon cook. It’s a great look at what is becoming a very complicated relationship between these two unlikely partners.

“Phoenix”: Season 2’s penultimate episode is one where the show’s title really begins to manifest itself: Walt has a chance to help a dying woman but doesn’t take it. He’s horrified by what he’s done, but you can practically see him doing a cost-benefit analysis in his head as the situation unfolds.

“No Mas”: The third-season premiere is another of Gilligan’s favorites. The opening sequence alone, following two mysterious men literally crawling through the desert, is worth the price of admission and signals that Walt’s world is about to get much bigger and much more complicated.

“Half Measures”/”Full Measure”/”Box Cutter”: The final two episodes of Season 3 and the opener of Season 4 essentially tell one big story, with Walt and Jesse desperately working to get out from under Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) thumb. Taken together, they’re also a master class in hold-your-breath storytelling.

“Problem Dog”: Episode 7 of Season 4 finds Walt hatching a plan to kill Gus, with Jesse as the triggerman; Gus trying to split Walt and Jesse by bringing Jesse into his confidence; and Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), getting closer and closer to putting the pieces together. Norris gives a spellbinding summary of his case to close the episode.

“Face Off”: The (literally) explosive Season 4 finale puts Walt in a very different place from where he started the show and sets up the coming season, which picks up more or less immediately afterward.

Read it all

Friendly reminder: BREAKING BAD comes back for its final season tonight at 10 pm Eastern Time on AMC, although way too many of us won’t get to see it.