Hollywood Reporter recently posted an interview with Gordon Smith, the director of the sixth episode of Better Call Saul. In it he name-checks some of the movies that provided inspiration for a key scene on a train featuring fan-favorite character Mike Ehrmentraut.
“We wanted to give him kind of a classic, Western-style arrival,” says Smith. We’ve been watching Bad Day at Black Rock, and everybody in the room loves Once Upon a Time in the West. Those great ‘hero arriving on a train’ moments. We were trying to come up with something that gave it some weight and some heft, so it didn’t feel just like an arrival and some exposition.”
This information rapidly made its way through online forums and onto wikis curated by fans of Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul writing staff, who have long been cataloguing the shows’ carefully layered cinematic allusions. Gilligan speaks openly and lovingly of his reference points, which range from the obvious (the Godfather trilogy) to the obscure (two Humphrey Bogart movies, The Caine Mutiny and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, cast long shadows over the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season). Film lovers were quick to note the explicit parallels to the end of the 1956 western The Searchers in the final scene between Jesse Pinkman and Walter White in Bad’s finale: both stories conclude with a morally compromised protagonist intending to kill someone they believe to have wronged them, but ultimately choosing to rescue them. In post-season interviews Gilligan conceded the influence of that movie on his writers, saying, “It’s always a matter of stealing from the best.”
Given the (sometimes grudging) admiration Gilligan has received even from established authors like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, fans might be forgiven for thinking that he and his writing staff had conjured a story ex nihilo, out of nothing. Those unfamiliar with the process of drafting and producing a television series sometimes mistakenly presume that these stories, and the ideas that propel them, just appear as if by magic. What Gilligan’s influences reveal is that being a successful writer is less about originality than it is about careful study; less about bursts of inspiration and more about tireless dedication to one’s craft.
The last few years have seen an emerging awareness that stories do come from somewhere, that many of our most beloved entertainments were cobbled together from bits and pieces of earlier entertainments. A popular webseries, “Everything Is a Remix,” traces the influence of Kurosawa and Flash Gordon serials on the making of Star Wars, stopping just short of suggesting that the film was lifted wholesale from other movies. A virtual cottage industry has risen up around the literary influences of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, spearheaded by John Granger, whose book Harry Potter’s Bookshelf argues that the beloved series is indebted to classic authors like Dorothy Sayers, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hughes.
However, approaches to criticism and writing built on the “Everything Is a Remix” model have their own perils. Most pointedly, they can leave aspiring writers under the illusion that they’re guaranteed to make it big if they only watch Metropolis enough. This discounts the critical role imagination plays in the creative process.
Moreover, attempts to trace the origin of a given idea, motif or narrative structure by comparisons to previous works can be misleading. For example, The Searchers is often cited as a seminal influence on George Lucas’s space epic because both feature scenes in which a man wanders out into a desert, only to return and discover that his relatives have been ambushed and their home destroyed. Yet equally striking comparisons could be drawn between John Ford’s western and J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Fellowship of the Ring. Early in both stories, the heroes journey across marshy swamps and fierce rivers to evade deadly hunters, and ultimately form their own hunting party to rescue two of their number who have been kidnapped. Was Tolkien inspired by Ford, or vice versa? Given that both works were completed in the same year, it’s unlikely.
The problems inherent in the “Everything Is a Remix” model of criticism are the same patterns inherent in all forms of pattern-seeking. In its most benign form, pattern-mania is a kind of party game, an entertaining though potentially misleading diversion that can trivialize a great work by reducing it to its similarities to other works. (It’s the same problem encountered in religion by pattern-seekers who leech a faith of its moral substance). At its worst, pattern-mania can become an obsession, sending critics and writers off on hallucinatory quests that promise much but yield little. We begin to evoke Captain Ahab, who stares at a chart in his cabin for so long that the creases in his forehead begin to resemble the lines on the map. We can go on multiplying associations forever, but the mysteries of the writer’s craft, like the mysteries of time and the cosmos, will continue to elude us.