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After Financial Ruin, Plotting America's 'Comeback'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Try wrapping your mind around this
number: $12,544,703,929,352.55. That was the estimate of our national
debt when I checked earlier today. I have no idea how they calculated
the 55 cents part.
You can follow the national debt clock on the Twitter feed of the Peter
G. Peterson Foundation. My guest, David Walker, is the foundation's
president and CEO. Its goal is finding bipartisan solutions for how to
decrease our debt.
You may know Walker from his appearance in the documentary film
"I.O.U.S.A." Walker had a front-row seat as America sank into debt. He
was assistant secretary of labor for pension and welfare benefits under
President Reagan. Under President George H.W. Bush he served as one of
two public trustees for the Social Security and Medicare systems, and
under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush he was the head of the
Government Accountability Office. Walker is also the author of the book
"Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal
David Walker, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, how has the recession that
we're in now contributed to our debt?
Mr. DAVID WALKER (Peter G. Peterson Foundation): People need to
understand that there's a fundamental difference between the short-term
deficits that we currently face and the structural deficits that
represent the real threat.
The current deficits are very large: in 2009, 1.42 trillion; for the
current year, 2010, an estimated 1.5 to 1.6 trillion. But those were
caused largely due to significant declines in revenues because of the
recession, because of additional expenditures for social safety-net
programs, because of two undeclared and unfinanced wars, and a variety
of other factors, including bailouts.
Those are troubling, and they are adding to our debt, you know, at
record rates, but that's not what threatens our ship of state. What
threatens our ship of state is the structural deficits that will exist
after we are out of the recession, after unemployment is down, after the
wars are over, and after we get past the current crises.
GROSS: So when you're talking about the structural deficits, you mean
programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. Is that what you're
Mr. WALKER: Well, they're driving the structural deficits, but basically
you've got to look at both sides of the ledger. You have to look at the
spending side, and the thing that's growing the fastest are health care
costs, which would be Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care
programs. Social Security is growing, but not as fast. But you also have
to look at the fact that before we even entered the recession, we were
spending more money that we took in, and so we had an imbalance between
our revenues and our expenditures even before we had a recession, even
before we had these financial institution and housing bailout bills and
things of that nature.
GROSS: I want to get back to those structural deficits a little bit
later. Washington is very divided now about how much money to spend on,
say, the stimulus program. A lot of people say we haven't spent enough
on stimulus and we need to spend more to get the economy going. On the
other hand, Republicans seem opposed to spending for stimulus programs.
And so I'm wondering, knowing what you know about debt, caring as you do
about debt, do you think that a stimulus program in a time like this is
something we need to be spending on, or are you just opposed to any more
spending because we're already in such debt?
Mr. WALKER: Not all spending is equal. Not all deficits are equal. I
think it's understandable to be able to provide some additional
unemployment benefits, given the fact that unemployment is so high right
I think it's also potentially acceptable to be able to take some
additional steps to try to get unemployment down through timely,
targeted and temporary infrastructure projects that actually will help
grow the economy and improve our environmental and other situations and
through targeted tax incentives that will encourage small business and
other employers in the private sector to be able to hire people.
Those are the kinds of things that might be meritorious, but just
spending without targeting or spending to try to be able to prop up
unsustainable situations, such as the current problems with the states,
doesn't make sense.
GROSS: What are you referring to when you say spending on the current
problems with the states?
Mr. WALKER: The states have their own fiscal problems, and they're going
to need to restructure what they do and how they do business, and in
many cases the states have also grown larger in government employment
levels than they should be, and they've also made promises with regard
to their pension and health care programs that are much more lucrative
than people get in the private sector, and taxpayers are not going to
stand for higher and higher taxes to be able to pay for benefit programs
that are much better than the average American gets.
GROSS: I'm interested in your take on the Obama health care reform plan,
and I know the plan isn't completely formulated yet, but from what you
know, from what's been proposed so far, how do you think it does in
terms of cutting costs?
Mr. WALKER: It doesn't do nearly enough to cut cost. There's absolutely
no question that we need comprehensive health care reform. There's also
no question in my mind that we need some level of universal coverage in
this country that's appropriate, affordable and sustainable.
I would not vote for any health care reform plan unless it meets four
tests: It pays for itself over 10 years. It does not add to deficits
beyond 10 years. It results in a significant reduction in the tens of
trillions of unfunded obligations we already have, and it results in
lower health care cost as a percentage of the economy after the passage
of the bill than we would have with no bill.
The legislation does not meet those four tests.
GROSS: Now, Republicans passed tax cuts under President Bush. What did
those tax cuts do to America's debt?
Mr. WALKER: There were several rounds of tax cuts that were enacted
under George W. Bush's administration. The first one arguably might have
been affordable and sustainable, but the two that occurred after that
clearly were not.
They obviously resulted in lower revenues as compared to what would have
been the case had they not been enacted into law and set us off on a
glide path where even before the recession, even before the bailouts, we
had a gap between current revenues and current expenditures, and that
gap has grown widely after the recession and after the bailouts.
GROSS: One more spending issue about the Bush administration. The wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan were not only â still are not only very
expensive, but when they were first budgeted for, they werenât really in
the budget. How was that done?
Mr. WALKER: When the Bush administration first started budgeting for
Iraq and Afghanistan, they did so through supplementals, which meant
that it wasn't in the base of the budget, and therefore it was something
that had to be debated and considered every year, passed separately. Now
it is in the base budget.
George W. Bush was the biggest spending president in the history of the
republic, but his record is now threatened. George W. Bush almost
doubled the national debt during his eight years as president, but it
could double again in the next eight to 10 years on the current path
that we're on.
We are clearly on an imprudent and unsustainable path, and we need to
change course very soon if we want to recapture our future.
GROSS: There is an ideology among many Republicans that taxes are bad,
that all taxes are bad and that taxes should just be cut and you let,
you know, you let business and bankers do their thing, no regulations,
So having witnessed the Great Recession right after all of President
George W. Bush's tax cuts, what has become of this theory that taxes are
bad, they should just be cut, and that will make us healthier?
Mr. WALKER: Taxes and other forms of revenue are the price of funding
government. Government has important roles to play. Some degree of
regulation is necessary in order to protect the public interest and to
prevent abuse. Reasonable people can and will differ about how they
ought to be done, but it clearly needs to be done.
With regard to taxes, not all tax cuts stimulate the economy. Very few
tax cuts pay for themselves. By that I mean you generate more total
revenues after the tax cut than you would have had had you not had the
tax cut. The only two that typically do that are dramatic reductions in
marginal tax rates and dramatic reductions in tariffs. That's not what
we're talking about.
In the end, you have to have enough revenues to pay your bills and
deliver on the promises that you intend to keep. We're short now, and
we're going to get a lot shorter if we don't get our act together.
GROSS: As the head of the Government Accountability Office, what power,
what kind of voice did you officially have in issues like the ones we
just talked about?
Mr. WALKER: I could state the facts, speak the truth, but it was not my
job, ultimately, to decide what should be done. I advised the Congress.
I advised the president on what I felt was prudent and what was not
prudent, but ultimately, elected officials are the ones that have to
make those decisions, and quite frankly, they made some bad ones.
GROSS: So when you advised President Bush, did you talk to him directly?
Mr. WALKER: No, I spoke with a number of Cabinet-level officials in the
Bush administration. Frankly, I did seek a meeting with President Bush
when I saw things were totally out of control, but that meeting was not
The ultimate irony is that I've met with the current premier of China
and the former premier of China at their request. I didn't say anything
to them that I hadn't said publicly because it wouldn't have been
appropriate, but it's more than a little bit ironic that the Chinese get
it more than we do.
GROSS: What did the Chinese want to talk with you about?
Mr. WALKER: They wanted to talk to me about two issues: the true
financial condition of the United States and how to go about
transforming government, because I've got a lot of experience in both.
GROSS: This is a little scary because we need the Chinese to buy our
debt, and you're basically saying, oh my God, America's collapsing
financially; we're so deep in debt, we're never going to pull out of it.
Is that what you told the Chinese?
Mr. WALKER: No, I didn't tell the Chinese anything that I hadn't said
GROSS: But you said all â what I said is what you've been saying
Mr. WALKER: No, no. What I've said is this: We're on an imprudent and
irresponsible path. We must start making tough choices sooner rather
than later and before we pass a tipping point. Yes, we can do what is
necessary in order to help create a better future.
GROSS: My guest is David Walker, the president of the Peter G. Peterson
Foundation and author of the book "Comeback America: Turning the Country
Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Walker. He's the
president and CEO of the Peter Peterson Foundation. He's a former
controller general of the U.S., and he's the author of the book
"Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal
Responsibility." And his big concern is the American debt.
Now, you write that when you were the head of the Government
Accountability Office during the Bush administration, that the trick was
to, quote, "turn up my rhetoric without going so far that I sounded
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Now, some people say that there's actually deficit hysteria
today, that people â and they might put you in that category - that
people are just so obsessed with the deficit that it's standing in the
way of programs, reform programs that we need to make, like making a
start with health care. So I wonder what your reaction to that term
deficit hysteria is.
Mr. WALKER: Well, I've made it very clear that not all deficits are
equal, that the short-term deficits that we face today are largely
explainable because of the recession, two undeclared and two unfinanced
wars, a number of extraordinary, non-business-cycle challenges dealing
with the financial institutions, insurance concerns, automotive
companies, et cetera, and therefore that's understandable.
I've also made it clear that those deficits may have to go up somewhat
in the short term in order to be able to get unemployment down, and if
that's the case, so be it.
At the same point in time, we need to recognize that what threatens this
ship of state is the ice that's below the water in the iceberg. It's not
today's $12.4 trillion in debt. It's the $50 trillion in unfunded
obligations for Medicare, Social Security, other commitments and
contingencies that we don't know how we're going to keep, and it's time
to start recognizing that reality and taking steps to make sure that we
can deliver on the promises that we intend to keep.
GROSS: So let's get to the structural changes that you'd like to see,
and this has to do with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. You're not
arguing that we do away with any of those programs, right?
Mr. WALKER: Oh, absolutely not. I think it's very important that a
country like ours have a strong, sustainable and secure social safety
net. Take Social Security. I think that's critically important for
retirement income security in America. While it wasn't intended to be
this way, 22 percent of Americans rely solely on Social Security for
their retirement income, and a majority of Americans rely on it
primarily for their retirement income.
So I think we need to reform that program to maintain a base-defined
benefit system, to provide a stronger benefit or a higher-level benefit
for people near the poverty level, somewhat less of a benefit than
currently promised for middle and upper income.
We need to encourage people to work longer, and we also need to add, on
top of a solvent, sustainable and secure base-defined benefit program, a
supplemental savings account that can help to generate additional
savings, reduce our reliance on foreign lenders, provide a pre-
retirement death benefit, and a supplemental retirement benefit for
GROSS: So you're not describing what President Bush wanted, which is
transforming Social Security into private savings accounts.
Mr. WALKER: I did not agree with President Bush 43 with regard to his
proposed approach to Social Security reform. He was basically trying to
convert it from a defined-benefit system to a defined-contribution
system. I do not think that makes sense.
You know, he forgot what the second word in Social Security is. It's
security, not opportunity.
GROSS: I keep thinking if our Social Security money was invested in the
stock market, what would we have right now?
Mr. WALKER: Well, you know, the other debate that we've had in Social
Security is, you know, what do we do with the money in the trust fund,
and what about this lockbox concept? Frankly, the lockbox was picked a
long time ago.
GROSS: How so?
Mr. WALKER: The government spends every dime of the Social Security
surplus on other government operating expenses, every single dime.
There's no savings for Social Security. We've issued additional debt
that ultimately what happens is we'll have to exchange one form of debt
for public debt.
And by the way, the government doesn't even want to call the trillions
of dollars that it owes Social Security and Medicare a liability. It
doesn't want it counted as far as our debt to â as a percentage of the
economy. It wants to make our deficits look smaller than they are
because of these funds, and these are all wrong things. This is creative
accounting and self-dealing that doesn't make sense.
GROSS: Do you think Al Gore had it right, there should have been a
Mr. WALKER: I think that we should've saved the Social Security surplus
and invested it in a responsible manner in order to provide real
security for the Social Security promised benefits. But it's too late
now because Social Security is now running a negative cash flow. It is
paying out more than it takes in.
You know, for many years that was not the case, but 2010 is the first
year that it is the case, and so it's too late to have that debate.
GROSS: Now, since we're in such debt, and we need money for Medicare and
Medicaid, Social Security, do you think that the President George W.
Bush tax cuts should be ended, and those taxes should be reinstated?
Mr. WALKER: In my view, the ones that you want to retain are the ones
that helped to promote savings and investment that can help grow the
economy and try to help create a better future.
At the same point in time, we have to recognize the reality that taxes
are going to go up, and they're going to go up on a lot more people than
those making $250,000 or more. Why? Because of a very simple four-letter
word. It's called math. The numbers don't come close to working.
My concern is, is there's two kinds of taxes. There's current taxes, and
there's deferred taxes, and when you face large, known and growing
deficits, the difference â they basically represent deferred taxes with
interest that our kids and grandkids are going to have to pay - absent
meaningful and fundamental reforms.
GROSS: Let's talk about Medicare and Medicaid. What changes would you
like to see made in those plans?
Mr. WALKER: Well, in Medicare, I think we have to recognize that it's a
very important program geared towards senior citizens, but that there
are actually three Medicare programs. There's Medicare Part A, which is
hospital insurance, which is funded with a payroll tax, and there's B
and D, which are physician and out-payment and prescription drugs, which
are voluntary programs funded with a combination of premiums and general
revenues and state contributions.
The first thing we have to do is recognize that under Medicare Part B
and Medicare Part D, billionaires receive subsidies for voluntarily
signing up for those programs. That makes no sense. We should have
universal opportunity to purchase Medicare Part B and D, if you want,
but we should have more means-tested premiums than we do right now.
There's some means-tested premiums for Medicare Part B. There's not for
Part D. We need to have more means-tested for both.
We need to also be able to have more competitive bidding with regard to
Medicare. We need to move away from the fee-for-service payment system.
We need to move more towards evidence-based medicine. We need to do
something with regard to malpractice. We need to move to electronic
records, more integrated-care systems, a number of things that not only
apply to Medicare but also have to apply to our overall health care
And last, but certainly not least, we need to learn the lessons of every
major industrialized nation. We need a budget for how much taxpayer
resources we'll allocate for health care. We're the only major
industrialized nation that doesn't do that. Every other country has
recognized that it'll bankrupt you if you don't.
GROSS: David Walker will be back in the second half of the show. He's
the president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and author of the book
"Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal
Responsibility." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Walker. His
book "Come Back America" is about the threats caused by America's
deteriorating financial condition and what we can do to reverse our
nation's huge debt. Walker is the president of the Peter G. Peterson
Foundation. He served as the head of the Government Accountability
Office under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.
Do you sometimes feel like we're becoming a third world country? We have
this huge debt. We're dependent on other countries to buy our debt. Our
infrastructure is really old and outdated, especially like, if you
compare some of our infrastructure and some of our transportation system
to China's. Do you feel like we're really falling behind? And I donât
even mean, you know, just financially, but just looking at our
infrastructure, looking at our education system, looking at our public
Mr. WALKER: We are a great country, but we're not as great as we think
we are. We have a number of people, especially elected officials, who
have a false sense of security, who think that because we're currently
the only sole super power on Earth, which by the way, is temporary, that
we must be top three in about everything. That's not the case. We're
below average with regard to public finance. We're below average with
regard to education results. We're below average with regard to health
care outcomes. We're below with regard to the status of our critical
infrastructure. We're below average with regard to investments in basic
research. All of these are critical elements that help to determine
whether or not youâre going to have a better future.
We need to stop looking in the rearview mirror. We need to look ahead,
and we need to look at those leading indicators and start taking steps
that will help make sure that we can make tough choices and help insure
that our future will be better than our past.
GROSS: That's going to require spending, isn't it - on things like
public transportation, education?
Mr. WALKER: Yeah. One of the things that we need to do is first, we have
to take steps to avoid passing a tipping point. Which tipping point
would be a loss of confidence on behalf of foreign lenders in our
ability to put our federal financial house in order. Government has
grown since 1789, much bigger than the founders intended, and in many
cases, it just doesnât generate positive results, both on the spending
side and on the tax preference side.
We lose a trillion dollars a year in revenues due to tax preferences,
deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits. It's not in the budget.
It's not in the financial statements, and many of them frankly, just
donât work. And so, yes, in some cases we're going to need to spend more
money in order to be able to create a better future but we just can't
layer it on top of what we're already doing, because what we're already
doing is unaffordable and unsustainable over time. So we have to start
making tough choices to reprioritize, to eliminate, to target, and to be
able to give us the ability to do more in areas where it makes sense to
GROSS: Let me quote you something by the economist James K. Galbraith,
and this was in a column that was called "In Defense of Deficits." And
he wrote: To focus obsessively on cutting future deficits is a path that
will obstruct, not assist, what we need to do to re-establish strong
growth and high employment.
Private borrowers can and do default. They go bankrupt. With government,
the risk of non-payment does not exist. Government spends money simply
by typing numbers into a computer. Unlike private debtors, government
does not need to have cash on hand. Public debt isn't a burden on future
generations. It does not have to be repaid, and in practice, it will
never be repaid.
What do you think?
Mr. WALKER: I think he's out of touch with reality. You can't spend more
money than you make, indefinitely, without having severe adverse
consequences. Under our present path, within 12 years, without an
increase in interest rates, the single largest line item in the federal
budget is interest on the federal debt. If there is a two percent
increase in prevailing interest costs, which many people believe is
optimistic, itâs going to be worse than that. The only thing the federal
government will be able to do in 2035 - which is only 25 years from now
- based on historical tax levels, is to pay interest on the federal
Let's recognize reality. They're three key points with regard to
spending. Spending more money than you make on a recurring basis is
irresponsible. Irresponsibly spending somebody else's money is unethical
- and if youâre a fiduciary, a fiduciary breech. And irresponsibly
spending somebody else's money when they're too young to vote and not
born yet is immoral. And all three of those things are going on right
now and they threaten America's future.
The decisions that we make or that we fail to make within the next five
years, will largely determine whether our future is better than our
past. And in my view, I want it to be better - for the sake of my kids
and my grandkids.
GROSS: Just one more thing, it seems to me everybody has words of
criticism for Congress. But is it time to start criticizing Americans
too, individuals. And here's...
Mr. WALKER: Great question.
GROSS: ...here's what I mean, it seems to me like Americans, they want
health care, they want roads that work.
Mr. WALKER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: They want schools that work. They want, you know, they want a
country that works. And at the same time, people donât want to pay
taxes; they certainly donât want their taxes raised. But isn't that the
only way of funding a government that works - and creating highways and
roads and public transportation, schools that work?
Mr. WALKER: There's no question that people are frustrated with their
elected officials and they're complaining about their elected officials,
but we also have a societal problem. People are very short-term
oriented. They want what they want, they want it now; they donât want to
have to pay for it. That doesnât work. And so, as a result, we need to
recognize the reality that if you want government to be able to do
certain things, you have to be willing to pay for it. And that
ultimately, if you donât pay for it today, your children and
grandchildren are going to pay for it, with interest, tomorrow.
And so, we need to have an honest discussion and debate with the
American people about how much government do they want and how much are
they willing to pay for, and we have to reconcile the gap. And that
hasnât been done, but it needs to be done.
GROSS: David Walker, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WALKER: My pleasure.
GROSS: David Walker is president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and
author of the book "Come Back America."
Coming up, we hear from the creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad,"
which begins its third season this month.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Vince Gilligan: The Man Behind 'Breaking Bad'
TERRY GROSS, host:
"Breaking Bad," the AMC cable drama series, has been dormant for a
while, but it's about to resurface in a big way. Season two of the
series comes out next week on DVD, and on March 21st, "Breaking Bad"
begins season three on AMC.
Our guest is the creator of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan. The premise
of "Breaking Bad" is about as dark as TV gets. The show's star, Bryan
Cranston, has won back-to-back Emmys for his performance. He plays
Walter White, a high school science teacher who at the start of the
series was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Worried about his
family's future - his wife was pregnant and their teenage son has
cerebral palsy - Walter was determined to leave his family with a nest
egg, so he decided to use his knowledge of chemistry to manufacture
crystal meth and to team up with a former student to sell it.
Season two of "Breaking Bad" ended with a midair plane collision above
Albuquerque, a crash caused indirectly by some of Walter's actions.
Season three begins one week later with the crash still very much on
everyone's minds. Walter's school stages a grief counseling session for
the entire student body in the school auditorium, but when Walter takes
the microphone, his attempts to soothe the students collides with his
personal reliance on cold facts and figures.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Breaking Bad")
Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON (Actor): (as Walter White) I guess what I would want
to say is to look on the bright side. First of all, nobody on the ground
was killed, and that - I mean, an incident like this over a populated
urban center, that right there, that's just got to be some minor
miracle. So, plus, neither plane was full. You know, the 737 was what?
Maybe two-thirds full, I believe? Right? Yes? Or, maybe even three
quarters full? Well, in any rate, what youâre left with, casualty-wise,
is just the 50th worse air disaster.
The creator of "Breaking Bad", Vince Gilligan also worked as a writer
and producer on "The X-Files." Our TV critic, David Bianculli recorded
this interview with Gilligan last month, just as production was ending
on the show's third season.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Vince Gilligan, welcome to Fresh Air.
Mr. VINCE GILLIGAN (Writer, director and producer): Thank you very much,
BIANCULLI: Let's listen to a scene from the pilot, for people who have
not seen any of this show before. And this scene, I think, shows the
playfulness of the characters and the whole idea of the show, as well as
the darkness. This early on in the pilot after getting diagnosed with
terminal lung cancer, Walter White, who is the character played by Bryan
Cranston, decides to use his knowledge of chemistry to cook up some of
the purest crystal meth that Albuquerque has ever seen. He steals some
equipment from his high school science lab, loads it up in the family
hatchback, and takes it over to his new partner, a former slacker
student named Jesse, played by Aaron Paul.
What I love about this scene we're about to hear is that Walter is fine
with breaking the rules to make and sell illegal drugs; he's justified
that, but he's not going to bend the rules when it comes to his lab
(Soundbite of TV show, "Breaking Bad")
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Look at this. Look at this, hell doll
style recovery flask, 800 milliliters. Very rare. Youâve got your usual
paraphernalia and Griffin beakers, your Erlenmeyer flask, but the piece
de resistance, your round-bottom boiling flask, 5,000 milliliters.
Mr. AARON PAUL (Actor): (as Jesse Pinkman) I want to cook in one of
those - the big one. What are these?
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) No, this is a volumetric flask. You
wouldnât cook in one of these.
Mr. PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Yeah. I do.
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter White) No you donât. A volumetric flask is for
general mixing and titration. You wouldnât apply heat to a volumetric
flask. That's what a boiling flask is for. Did you learn nothing from my
Mr. PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) No. You flunked me.
BIANCULLI: Now, with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, that's a scene from
the pilot of "Breaking Bad." One of the things I love, as a TV critic
and as a viewer, when I'm watching television shows that are written
well and acted well - is that after a couple of episodes, you begin to
see that the writer's having seen what the actors are capable of doing
start writing different things for those actors and there's this synergy
that goes on. Am I imagining that as I'm watching it, or can you give us
an example of that actually happening?
Mr. GILLIGAN: Now David, that's very astute. And that's actually very
true and that does happen. I can only speak for myself, but that
definitely happens with "Breaking Bad." I'm sure that does indeed happen
with most television shows, and a good example for us would be that my
original intention for the character of Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron
Paul, was that Jesse was going to die at the end of season one. And he
was - his death would be sort of a just in a very mechanical plot terms,
was going to be an engine for generating great guilt and great - greatly
motivating the character of Walter White in a very dark fashion.
And about halfway through the first episode, Aaron Paul - it was so
clear to me that this young actor was just a wonderful addition, a
wonderful asset to the show and was going to be a big star, I thought.
And was just a great guy, to boot, was a wonderful guy to have around -
that I quickly changed my mind about killing off this character and I
told the story. I took him aside one day and I said, hey guess what
Aaron? I was going to kill you off at the end of the season but now I'm
not because youâre so good.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIGAN: But he - kind of throw him for a loop a little.
BIANCULLI: The most surprising thing of season two to me was a moment
where we watch Walter White, the Bryan Cranston character, actually
allow the girlfriend of Jesse to die, basically by choking on her own
vomit. And they're - Jesse and his girlfriend - are both taking heroin
at the time and Walter White stumbles in on them. And he could, as I
interpret it, have saved her merely by turning her over on her side. But
instead, because it was convenient to him and she was about to out him
as a drug dealer, let her expire. And that was shocking - it was
shocking because as a viewer, I was rooting for him to get away with it
once I realized that was his intention. It was very much like watching
"The Sopranos" and rooting for Tony, and then realizing, oh, wait a
minute. He's doing something really despicable here.
Mr. GILLIGAN: Yeah. That was the one moment last season where AMC called
me up when they got the - actually, there's a step before the script
stage where we outline each episode. In our case, we outline it very -
in great detail. We write about a 14, 15-page outline sometimes and we
do it primarily to give it to the crew in advance so they have enough
prep time. But at that stage, Sony and AMC, you know, read what we have
thus far and they know our intentions at that point in pretty great
detail. And at that point, they did indeed get me on the phone and they
just said, are you sure you want to go here? You realize when you open
this door, when you have Walt step through this door he's never going to
be the same after this and people are going to remember this moment?
And I said, yeah, yeah, we want to remember the moment. They said, no,
but what if it - you take the character some place bad in relationship
to the viewers and you can't return? You know, once you do this you
can't ever return from it. And we talked about it for a long time. And
to be honest, the original version - the original version I had in my
head was that he actually shoots her up with a little extra dose of
heroin, so he's a little more active in his, you know, culpability
concerning her death. But...
BIANCULLI: That's where I draw the line. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIGAN: Yeah, it was - I am glad I got talked out of that because,
you know, in the heat of the moment you probably have a tendency to want
to take things a little too far. I know I did and I'm glad I got talked
out of that.
BIANCULLI: Vince Gilligan, creator of "Breaking Bad," the AMC drama
series about to begin its third season. More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: We're speaking with TV writer-producer Vince Gilligan,
creator of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," which is just about to
begin its third season.
I understand that you came to cast Bryan Cranston as the lead in your
show because of a performance that he gave on one of your previous shows
when you were a producer on "The X-Files."
Mr. GILLIGAN: Yes, that is correct.
BIANCULLI: And so, what I'd like to do is play a fast clip from that and
have you sort of deconstruct it and tell me what was impressive about
his performance to you. Is that fair?
Mr. GILLIGAN: Absolutely. Sounds good.
BIANCULLI: Okay. Bryan Cranston plays a man named Crump, a paranoid
farmer but an understandably paranoid one with a killer headache whose
wife, who also had the same sort of headache, recently died when her
head suddenly exploded. In this scene, Crump has forced Fox Mulder,
played by David Duchovny, to drive him and drive fast while Crump sits
in the back seat with a gun pointed at Mulder's head. Crump is fighting
the pain and telling the story of trying to rush his wife to the
hospital. If you think about it, it's sort of like the movie "Speed"
except it's the head that's going to explode, not the bus.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The X-Files")
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) She starts screaming. I didnât know what the
hell to do. I just - I got her in the truck and took her to the
hospital. But then it seemed like the faster we went, the better she'd
do. But, just as soon as Iâd try to slow down or stop...
Mr. DAVID DUCHOVNY (Actor): (as Fox Mulder) I'm sorry about your wife.
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) Sure you are. You and the rest of your Jew FBI.
Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) Crump, I...
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) You think I donât know, huh? You think I'm just
some ignorant puddknocker(ph) donât you? I get it, man. I see what this
is. I am not sick and I do not have the flu. Thinking we were just some
kind of dumb guinea pigs.
Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) You think the government did this to you?
Mr. CRANSTON: (as Crump) Oh, hell yeah. Who else? You see it all the
time on the TV. Theyâre dropping Agent Orange. Theyâre putting radiation
in little retarded kid's gonads. Yeah, sons of bitches, sneaking around
my woods at night. I seen you. You think I donât know?
Mr. DUCHOVNY: (as Fox Mulder) Well, on behalf of the international
Jewish conspiracy, I just need to inform you that we're almost out of
BIANCULLI: Now, what was it about Bryan Cranston, who most viewers will
know as the dad in "Malcolm in the Middle," so, you know, he's a sitcom
actor in one sense, and yet, he is so much more. What was it about him
that stood out to you?
Mr. GILLIGAN: Well, I was fortunate enough to not know who Bryan
Cranston was when he came in and read for us back for that episode of
"The X-Files." And I say that ironically somewhat. But this was about 18
months before "Malcolm in the Middle" went on the air. And we were
having a hard time casting that part for that role of Mr. Crump there
because what we needed - what we knew we needed was a great actor who
could be scary and very intense and deliver a lot of really horrible,
nasty, hateful lines like the ones you just heard.
Mr. GILLIGAN: And yet, as nasty as he is, nonetheless, you want to feel
bad for him when he expires at the end of the episode. And we knew we
needed an actor who could pull all of that off. It wasnât just a matter
of wonderful acting, it was a little more to it as well. And our casting
director on "The X-Files" brought in Bryan Cranston to read at the end
of a long several days worth of auditions. Weâd read a lot of very
wonderful actors who had the acting chops but who somehow there they
were missing that extra little something that made them very, you know,
that made them - that made you want to root for them, I guess is the
best way to put it.
And Bryan walked in on the last day of our auditions and just nailed it,
just crushed it and was just so wonderful, just was the guy right from
the moment he sat down and started reading the lines. And I looked at
the other producers with this sort of gleeful look and whispered OTW to
them, which is our slang for off to work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GILLIGAN: Which is what you say or what you whisper to each other
when you know that, you know, the guy is being hired right in the room,
whether at that moment he knows it or not. About 18 months later, when
"Malcolm in the Middle" came on, I remember watching the pilot and
realizing it was the same guy. And Bryan, by the way, is a true
chameleon of an actor in my opinion.
Mr. GILLIGAN: This is a guy, he played Buzz Aldrin in "From the Earth to
the Moon." He played the one-armed officer in "Saving Private Ryan" who
sends Tom Hanks and his men on their mission. He was the dentist on
Mr. GILLIGAN: That converts to Judaism for the jokes. You know, he's a
guy in everything that he does, he looks like a different person. You
often - it takes you a while to realize from one project to another that
youâre looking at the same guy. I mean, he really immerses himself in a
BIANCULLI: We're speaking with TV writer-producer Vince Gilligan,
creator of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad," which is just starting
its third season. Among the themes of "Breaking Bad," I would guess,
among the major themes are that families are very complicated and
actions having consequences is my favorite thing about "Breaking Bad"
because at the end of each hour I expect, okay, youâve gone there, he's
done that, he's killed a person or he's done this other thing and then
we'll forget about it next week. We never forget about it next week. And
even this new third season begins only one week after the shocking end
to last season. It's so novelistic and so linear. Is that easy to write?
Is that harder to write?
Mr. GILLIGAN: It is very hard to write but very challenging and very
satisfying. And I'm so glad that you like the - that is one of my
favorite things about the show as well, and is something we work very
hard toward, the idea that actions have consequences. We never really
let things drop on our show.
Mr. GILLIGAN: And yes, indeed, when Walt kills someone, it sticks with
him. And when Walt lies to someone, that lie continues to exist and
becomes kind of a little landmine that will eventually blow up under his
feet perhaps, you know, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 episodes later. As a television
viewer my whole life, that was something that always struck me as a
little false about a lot of television shows, that actions sort of exist
in a vacuum and, of course, you know, we know in real life that we carry
around our actions, our actions in our life sort of like luggage. You
know, they stick with us forever, good and bad. And, you know, back to
the television not typically being like that, that's another issue about
what "Breaking Bad" is trying to be versus other shows.
Television, as a medium, is all about protecting the franchise. In other
words, when youâre watching "MASH," which is a show I've seen every
episode of. You know, I loved "MASH" but "MASH" is a show in which, you
know, a two-and-a-half-year police action in Korea gets stretched into
12 years - 11 years long - 11 seasons.
A show - a typical TV show is all about protecting the franchise. It's
all about stretching it out for as long as you could stretch it out and
itâs all about taking the characters in any given hour as far as you can
take them but then resetting them more or less back to zero, so that at
the beginning of the next week they're still the character you know and
love. The character Mulder or Archie Bunker or whoever that you tune in,
you saw go through some changes last week, he's still - he or she is
still that person fundamentally without much change involved that youâve
been tuning into for years on end.
Because it exists so much in that state, currently television does, I
wanted to do something different with "Breaking Bad" and make it indeed
a story of a character going from A to Z. But this really wants to be -
this show "Breaking Bad" - wants to be a show truly about
transformation, where the character you tuned into to watch in the first
episode is a guy you would not even recognize come the end of the entire
season. You wouldnât even realize youâre looking at the same guy.
BIANCULLI: Well, Vince Gilligan, thanks for making a great TV series.
It's an awful lot of fun to watch. And also, thanks for being on FRESH
Mr. GILLIGAN: Thank you so much, David. Appreciate it.
GROSS: Vince Gilligan is the creator of the AMC series "Breaking Bad,"
which begins its third season March 21st. Season two comes out on DVD
next week. Gilligan spoke with FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli,
who writes tvworthwatching.com and is the author of the book
"Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Comedy Hour."
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
And you can find us on Twitter and Facebook @nprfreshair.
I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.