Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Conversation with Vince Gilligan - UCD's Mondavi Center - December 10, 2015

Thursday night was very exciting. The Mondavi Center at UC Davis presented "In Conversation with Vince Gilligan" with Moderator Colin Milburn (Gary Snyder Chair in Science and the Humanities; Professor of Cinema and Digital Media and Professor of English, Science and Technology Studies, UC Davis):
Odd couple FBI agents investigating the paranormal. A mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turned “bad.” A hard-working lawyer trying to find his niche. These iconic characters represent some of the very best writing in television and we have Vince Gilligan to thank. The multiple award-winning creator, writer and executive producer of both The X-Files and Breaking Bad (and its prequel Better Call Saul) has garnered two Emmys (for Breaking Bad) as well as a 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, among others. Of Gilligan’s characters, The New York Times has said “they inhabit a realm of moral ambiguities that’s overseen by a man with both a wicked sense of humor and a highly refined sense of right and wrong.”
Of the fans in the Breaking Bad and better Call Saul Facebook groups, I was aware of two others who went: Ron McCrae, who drove in from Reno and back, despite the storms clobbering the Sierra Nevada, and Lisa Van de Velde (and her boyfriend) from Sacramento. Plus myself, of course.

Ron and I met at Black Bear Diner and walked in to the Mondavi.

They followed a "Between Two Ferns" interview format, for 1.5 hours in Jackson Hall (1,800 seat capacity - about 80% full). Recording of any sort was not permitted. Vince left the building immediately afterwards, so my effort to present him with a book was foiled (although the host did suggest I contact his agent). For a die hard fan there was little that was truly new. He spent a lot of time talking about X Files and Breaking Bad (surprisingly little on BCS), and retelling stories most of us have already heard (how he got started in TV; meeting Bryan Cranston; deciding not to kill off Jesse; not knowing how they were going to use the machine gun shown at the start of Season 5 BrBa until much later; using BrBa as an unprecedented experiment in character evolution on TV since he expected the show to crater anyway). He stressed the importance of Cinematography and Music (but everyone knew that already). He looked a bit weary to me (understandable). Not very many questions were taken (Lisa Van de Velde and her boyfriend were very lucky). Gilligan said you learn a lot by failure, but the success of BrBa caught him by total surprise, and he hasn't learned a thing from that success. The biggest revelations to me was learning that Bill Burr now has a helicopter pilot's license and that one of the influences used in creating the amalgam character of Saul Goodman was simply seeing billboards of a personal injury attorney while being driven around ABQ on a siting locations bus and wondering whether, since Walt needed a consigliere, maybe somebody like that would work (Vince didn't identify the attorney because he didn't want to get sued - he said that in dead seriousness - but I'm thinking it's gotta be Ron Bell).

I liked those ferns onstage too. Those were two very good-looking ferns.

Vince Gilligan did talk about how much he enjoyed reading critical discussions of BrBa and its use of symbolism and color. Filmmakers just don't have the control that people sometimes assume and lots of accidents occur that later take on great meaning. Gilligan made a comparison to a Hitchcock movie where a car broke through a picket fence, leaving two pickets in the form of a cross, which a critic noted referred to Christian symbolism, and Hitchcock himself noted was purely an accident, that no one had planned it that way. Gilligan was thunderstruck when a critic noted that Gus Fring getting half his face blown off was foreshadowed by the Teddy Bear with half its face burnt off. He made everybody laugh by recollecting reading the critic's thought. "I wish I had thought of that in advance," he confessed, half a second before regretting he expressed that thought in front of another person, blowing his opportunity to maintain an omniscient pose.

Gilligan did say he did base half the face getting burnt off on a real event, though. Fulminate of mercury was the cause:
John Whiteside Parsons (born Marvel Whiteside Parsons; October 2, 1914 – June 17, 1952), better known as Jack Parsons, was an American rocket engineer and rocket propulsion researcher, chemist, inventor, businessman, expert witness, writer, socialite, and Thelemite occultist. Parsons was associated with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and was one of the principal founders of both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Aerojet Engineering Corporation. He invented the first rocket engine using a castable, composite rocket propellant, and pioneered the advancement of both liquid-fuel and solid-fuel rockets.

Born in Los Angeles, California, Parsons was raised by a wealthy family on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. Inspired by science fiction literature, he developed an interest in rocketry in his childhood and in 1928 began amateur rocket experiments with school friend Ed Forman. He was forced to drop out of Pasadena Junior College and Stanford University due to financial difficulties during the Great Depression, but in 1934 he united with Forman and graduate student Frank Malina to form the Caltech-affiliated GALCIT Rocket Research Group, supported by Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory chairman Theodore von Kármán. In 1939 the Group gained funding from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to work on Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) for the U.S. military. In 1942 they founded Aerojet to develop and sell their JATO technology in response to American involvement in World War II; the Group became JPL in 1943.

After a brief involvement with Marxism in 1939, Parsons began practising magick and converted to Thelema, the English occultist Aleister Crowley's new religious movement. In 1941, alongside his first wife Helen Northrup, Parsons joined the Agape Lodge, the Californian branch of the Thelemite Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). At Crowley's bidding, he replaced Wilfred Talbot Smith as its leader in 1942 and ran the Lodge from his mansion on Orange Grove Avenue. Inciting criminal investigations into allegedly illicit activities, Parsons was expelled from JPL and Aerojet in 1944 in part due to the Lodge's infamy, along with his quixotic working practices as a scientist. In 1945 Parsons separated from Helen after having an affair with her sister Sara; when Sara left him for his friend L. Ron Hubbard, he conducted the Babalon Working, a series of rituals designed to invoke the Thelemic goddess Babalon to Earth. He and Hubbard continued the procedure with Marjorie Cameron, whom Parsons married in 1946. After Hubbard and Sara defrauded him of his life savings, Parsons resigned from the OTO and went through various jobs while acting as a consultant for the Israeli rocket program. Amid the climate of McCarthyism, he was accused of espionage and left unable to work in rocketry. In 1952, Parsons died at the age of 37 in a home laboratory explosion that attracted national media attention; the police ruled it an accident, but many associates suspected suicide or assassination.

Yet people remember, particularly people like Vince Gilligan, who also tries to straddle that Religion/Science divide. Jack Parsons is memorialized in Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan also had nice things to say about Albuquerque and New Mexico. He noted that there are more sheep than people in New Mexico and that of the 50 states NM has the highest per capita number of Ph.D.'s, due to the presence of Los Alamos and Sandia Labs. He said these things in context of a discussion about the role of science in Breaking Bad, particularly as represented by Walter White.

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