There's a night spent in the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard, circa 1995. Gilligan notices the light from the TV set project his shadow on the wall, and thinks, "Wouldn't it be creepy if that came to life?"
A hint of darkness, a hint of wonder. These are the building blocks for the creator of Breaking Bad, whose lighthearted, conversational demeanor stands in unmistakable contrast to the brooding AMC drama.
"For people who have known me for many years, and for people who just meet me in passing, there seems to be this running theme of people being surprised how dark the show is vs. how light I seem to be -- more or less normal," says Gilligan. "The simple fact is that I'm not as normal as I seem."
The shadow appears at a fortuitous moment for Gilligan. After some precocious but modest success in film, enough to give him a living but little more than that, Gilligan is wasting his life in his home state of Virginia, five years and counting, "basically farting around, playing videogames and eating Cheetos from 1990-95."
And watching TV. A new series, The X-Files, enthralls him. When he mentions it to his agent, simply in passing, she tells him she is related by marriage to X-Files creator Chris Carter and would be happy to arrange an introduction the next time Gilligan was in California. Would he like to meet him?
"Yeah, that'd be cool," Gilligan thinks. "Maybe I get a free T-shirt out of it, shake his hand. That's literally all I intended."
Even today, amid the compelling success of Breaking Bad on AMC, Gilligan is hands-down one of the most down-to-earth people you'll meet in Hollywood. You can imagine how he was two decades ago, when he was meeting the guy behind his favorite show.
They start talking with each other. Carter is familiar with Gilligan's 1993 film, Wilder Napalm. He is also dead tired. X-Files is a hit for Fox, and Carter and his staff are in the soup of a 26-episode order.
"They needed some help," Gilligan says. "They needed some warm bodies."
Carter asks Gilligan if he has any ideas, and Gilligan, without any planning, mentions the shadow at the Sofitel from the night before. ("If I had known I was going in to pitch, I probably would have messed it up," he muses.) Carter is intrigued, and the 23rd episode of season two of the show is born -- along with Gilligan's transition into television.
"I'm about to lose my Writers Guild insurance," Gilligan recalls. "The movie end of things has really been sucking ass the last few years. Why shouldn't I move to California to learn a new trade?"
Gilligan recognizes that for aspiring writers, even if he's not evil, the story kind of is. "Every time I tell that story, I wind up pissing somebody off," he says. "I was sort of like Kramer on Seinfeld -- I fell ass backward into it. ... If it helps anybody, I've had plenty of kicks in the butt since then. You pay your dues -- either you pay them in advance or you pay them later on."
Is that where the shadow comes from, in all its darkness and wonder? Where's the trigger, the moment that TV has made us so familiar with, the inciting incident that set Gilligan down the path toward the bleak reality depicted in Breaking Bad?
"I don't know," he says. "I've got no real reason to be dark and unhappy. My life's been really good. I had a good childhood. ... I don't have any real tragedies or traumas. I think some people are just melancholy by nature.
"Sometimes our brains are wired the way they're wired."
* * *
Years back, Gilligan is a boy in Farmville, Va., spending weekday afternoons with his mother, an elementary school reading teacher at the J.P. Wynne Laboratory School. Breaking Bad Trivial Pursuit champs will recognize J.P Wynne as the name of the high school where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is teaching chemistry when we meet him.