It’s been said that a movie is a collection of acts, and those acts are themselves tiny movies. Each act is a collection of scenes and sequences, and that those scenes and sequences are also tiny movies. And each scene is a collection of beats, and so on down the infinitely finite.
I’ve been studying screenwriting, fiction writing, and TV writing for upward of a decade now, but I’ve always been resistant to “micro study,” as Josh Waitzkin describes it in his book The Art of Learning. This reluctance is probably due to an innate panic brought about by information overload and daily exposure to deadly listicles.
But would I be better off having vague recollections of 200 books and 500 movies a year or a deep understanding of three truly great books and three truly great films?
I assume Josh Waitzkin has the answer.
So I begin my daily study of the art of the scene, the idea being that if I can master it, then Acts, Episodes, Movies, and Epics will follow suit easily enough.
And since I came away from nearly every episode asking myself How the hell did they do that? I will try to pull apart as much of Breaking Bad as I can.
NB & DISCLAIMER: Not only have I not mastered the art of the scene, I’m not even totally sure the best way to go about studying scene. But I have a set of diagnostic questions from years of self-study and the very few screenwriting books I don’t regret reading. This will be a journey on how to understand to understand.
This series kind of encapsulates what I think the word “almosting” means: a struggle to understand more deeply, but once you get deeper, you realize you’ve got so much more tunneling to do, an endless progression of realizations about one’s own ignorance in the face of more knowledge.
As both Montaigne and Operation Ivy have contended, “All I know is that I don’t know nothing.”
Two things most interest me about this project and what can be learned from it:
1. Having submitted myself to the tutelage of screenwriting gurus back when I first started down this path, I always bristled at their prescriptive writing instruction based on close readings of films whose worth they assessed based on how well the films fit the criteria they had somehow already decided comprised good screenwriting. I am going to do my best to just objectively understand what the writers of Breaking Bad were doing in each scene.
2. Screenwriters have a distinct advantage over TV writers: screenwriters can write a first draft and pretty much know the entire story they’re writing before the script is even done. TV writers, on the other hand, hold candles on darkened paths.
Through interviews with Vince Gilligan, I realized how little pre-planning had panned out in the execution of the series. Certain actors were amazing to work with, so they weren’t killed off. Certain actors had conflicting obligations, so characters that were supposed to carry the show had to be killed off. There was that writers strike between seasons one and two.
Nothing went according to plan, and yet that happened to be a boon.
The BB team’s job was creating setups, molding uncertain futures, ratcheting up tension, and keeping things entertaining. If they did a good job on one episode, the next one would have ready material for moving forward. This is an amazing, under-appreciated aspect of the serial writer’s virtuosity and something I hope to mine.