Love him or hate him, Walter White is one of the most complex characters on television right now. Not only has his arc on Breaking Bad been absolutely captivating, but also seeing both his successes and failures can teach young film producers some essentials of the business not taught in film school. Here are the filmmaking lessons I have learned from Walter White.
1. Good product needs good management
When a producer has a great film and approaches a big film distributor with the assumption that they’ll be fair on a first timer, they may be making a mistake. It’s your job to know the value of the film and avoid your eagerness being exploited. This is the hard lesson Walter learns in the first season as he is nearly killed multiple times to for his product. While distributors are generally more law-abiding than drug dealers, they’re just as self-interested. You can have a mutually beneficial relationship with distributors, but negotiate for what’s yours.
2. Pick your battles wisely
Being business savvy doesn’t mean being aggressive. It’s about timing- knowing when to bear down vs. being cautious. As a filmmaker you have enough fires that need to be put out- you can’t invest too much time in arguments. Walter is almost too good at this; he works well with less than ideal partners, but is always prepared to change allegiances. Loyalty is important, but its earned through your actions, not vague promises based on mutual interest. If they don’t prove their loyalty, get what you need, but maintain control of your fate when possible.
3. Dream big, start small
Good ideas are needed in the industry, but they’re worth nothing if you don’t act on them. When you are looking for a story, think about how to make it. Leaving out the ethical questions; Walter saw an opportunity and took the time to recruit the people that he needed to begin a smaller business. Throughout the series he expanded into a bigger operation. No one will finance you until you are a proven commodity. Have ambition to grow, but be realistic about where you’re starting in the business. If you don’t have the resources to make your three part intergalactic sci-fi epic, try producing a simple location script that doesn’t require $150 million.
4. Reputation means everything
Appearances are a powerful thing. You can get away with more when people think you’re a nice guy than when they know you’re a jerk. Despite all the atrocities he’s committed, we still want to believe Walt’s a nice guy. We ignore the monster that he is and underestimate his cruelty, much like his competitors. Good or bad, first impressions are difficult to change. Start with a positive reputation and it’s easier to be forgiven for decisions you make later on.
5. Separate your work from your personal life
It’s important to make friends in the film industry, but avoid bringing them in. You can establish boundaries about work and friendship when you meet people. When a close friend becomes a business partner, those boundaries aren’t as clear. This is one of many mistakes Walt makes when he allows his wife, Skyler, join his business and worsening an already complicated marriage. Production is already physically and mentally exhausting, as great as having buddies on set sounds, its better to keep them as a soundboard/ therapist outside of the film.
6. Keep your focus on one main goal
When producing a film, don’t get ahead of yourself thinking about future projects- finish the job at hand. When you plan without knowing the circumstances, you set yourself up for trouble. Walter starts out with a basic plan: sell drugs to pay for his cancer treatment. Once he discovers how much money he can make, he loses focus and things become more complicated than necessary. When people plan too far ahead, they ignore the problems in front of them. Once your first film is finished, then you can plan your sci-fi ninja epic.
7. Always have a back-up plan
Luck is a very complicated component of filmmaking. The smallest change can alter the outcome of your film for better or worse. You cannot control what happens, but with some smart planning, you can be prepared. When you don’t, very bad things can happen, Walter teaches us this in the very first episode with the discovery of his cancer. He made the mistake of not organizing his finances and resorted to crime as a result. So talk with your accountant, your crew and anyone else with insight to maintain a budget. Selling meth to fund your film is a sign of very poor planning.