Rigorous research is par for the course for scientists, academics, and journalists, but less often is it associated with creative writers. Talk to enough writers, though, and you’ll realize that digging for facts is often a precursor to excellent storytelling—the more you know about the world you’re portraying, the richer your material becomes.
There’s no better example of this than Breaking Bad, where research is an indispensable step in the writing process. Part of what makes the show so riveting is the fact-based minutia that lesser shows would gloss over. "Every episode requires research," says George Mastras, who’s been writing for the show since season one and is up for an Emmy next month. "We don’t skip over the process of how things are done. Vince [Gilligan, the show runner] finds that fascinating, we find that fascinating, and a lot of it is also very visual. So there’s stuff that we’ll show that other shows would just leave out."
The writing staff employs an army of consultants on a wide range of topics—chemistry, drug addiction, cancer, the DEA, hazardous waste disposal. It’s all in the name of story plausibility, which Mastras says is paramount. "In the writer’s room, I’m one of the people that gets hung up on logic and plausibility more than most," he admits.
We asked Mastras to discuss aspects of the show where research was especially integral to the writing process, whether it served as the genesis of an entire plot or supplied writers with details to enrich a scene.
"Dead Freight," in which Walt and Jesse rob 1,000 gallons of methylamine from a train, is arguably one of the best episodes in the series. Part of what made it such gripping television was the level of detail that went into executing the train heist—details culled from Mastras’s research.
"Walt’s big problem was supply of methylamine—that’s something we knew from speaking with the DEA," says Mastras, who wrote and directed the episode. Everyone in the writers room loved the idea of a train heist—it hewed to the show’s "modern-day Western" theme—which left Mastras with the challenging feat of writing the scene as credibly as possible. His first step was to consult with experts in the fields of hazardous waste, trains, and chemistry. From there, he obtained a wealth of fascinating details that gave shape to the heist scene and ultimately translated into terrific drama. For example, he learned that methylamine—because it’s a highly regulated Schedule I substance—is weighed twice: Once when it’s loaded onto the train, once when it’s offloaded. This became a key point in Walt’s elaborate plot.
"You’re able to utilize these technical aspects and build them into the story’s suspense and near-misses, those peaks and troughs of emotion," Mastras says. Had he written the scene without research, Mastras thinks the results would have been subpar. "I think other shows might’ve written a train heist and not really explained how they’re doing it," he says. "You’d just see it: They’re siphoning stuff, and you’re not getting the details. It just happens and it’s done."
If Walt was going to live from one season to the next, the writers knew they had to make his longevity believable. To do this, they learned everything they could about advances in cancer treatment—then wrote their findings into the show. "[On the show], we talk a lot about the leaps and bounds that have been made in treating lung cancer, and how there are certain people that have a less aggressive disease, or they’re more resilient to the tumors," Mastras says.
They also researched smaller details to make Walt’s cancer symptoms realistic. "The first episode I wrote is the first time that Walt gets chemo," Mastras recalls. "I talked to my brother [an oncologist who served as a consultant on the show] about that—and the lingo and the chemicals that are used in chemo." In one post-chemo scene, Walt passes red urine. The sight is horrifying, but Mastras didn’t just gratuitously throw it in for visual effect. "That’s actually accurate," he explains. "There’s a chemical that is pretty strong that passes through your body as red."
In every season, writers researched all facets of the drug world. "At the beginning of the first season, we had a former drug dealer come in and talk to us about how things worked in the drug world," Mastras says. In the episode, "Mandala," he consulted a former heroin addict to make Jesse’s heroin addiction believable. "I did a lot of research into how heroin is done and then put the detail in the script about what that would look like, how it’s cooked." They also consulted the DEA on countless plot points, including specifications for building the superlab.
When it came to picking a front for Walt’s drug empire, the writers read up on money-laundering and learned that cash businesses were the way to go. This made the car wash a perfect choice. "It’s the kind of business where it’s easy to say you’ve washed a hundred cars as opposed to ten, and put in false receipts."
Ricin has been a lurking plot element for the past three seasons, but what made it stand out from all the other poisons they could have picked? Mastras recalls Gilligan suggesting ricin in the writer’s room. Upon further investigation, they learned it was a highly lethal drug that was relatively easy to synthesize—perfect for Walt’s purposes. They also found that ricin could be manufactured by cooking castor beans, which made for a visually compelling lab scene. "It was something that is interesting visually and is also pretty nasty stuff," Mastras says.
Legal issues arise throughout the show, so it didn’t hurt that Mastras is a former defense attorney. He recalls a small but memorable moment from season three, when Hank is in a junkyard about to discover Walt and Jesse in their RV. Writers needed a way to stall Hank, so someone suggested that he require a warrant. Mastras knew that warrants aren’t necessary to enter RVs, since they’re on wheels, but upon further research found that warrants are required if an RV is specifically used as a "domicile." They modified the script to include a terrific dialogue between Hank and the junkyard owner about the legality of searching the RV. It’s a classic moment of Breaking Bad comedy, and one that could only have sprung from Mastras’s legal know-how.
[Photos courtesy of AMC | Ursula Coyote]