FROM “BAD” TO “BETTER”: Television writer Peter Gould
Peter Gould exclaims, “I was a bad speller. I had terrible handwriting. Doing papers in school was agonizing for me.” And yet today Peter Gould is an Emmy-award winning writer and co-creator with Vince Gilligan of AMC’s “Better Call Saul”, the highly lauded and hugely entertaining spin-off series of “Breaking Bad”. When asked to talk about his career path in the arts, Peter was charming and forthright about his experiences.
HOW DID THE ARTS COME INTO YOUR LIFE?
My parents were both artists. They met at art school. Everyone in my family had art ambition, but it was mostly in visual arts. I never wanted to be in that arena— I didn’t want to compete with my own family. But the prevailing attitude was that the best thing you could do in life was to be an artist. I’m not sure that’s true— there are lots of ways to build a good life— but that’s the idea that was prominent in my family.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CREATIVE WRITING EXPERIENCE?
As a kid, I wrote my own science fiction fanzine when those were brand new. But writing was always a challenge for me. I liked to TELL stories more than write them down. I put on plays. At summer camp, we used one of the counselor’s video cameras and I organized a bunch of kids to do a movie. But there was never a script. I told one kid:”You go over here and say this.” And I’d tell another kid, “You walk over there, stop, turn and say that.”
It took me a long time to get comfortable on the written page. And a big part of finally being comfortable was technology. Spell-check made it a lot easier for me to write. And because of the way my brain works, I need to see things written down before I can see if they’re right. I write it down, look at it, adjust it… all that is much easier to do on a computer than with a manual typewriter or with a pen and pad. Back in school (before the advent of the personal computer) my teachers would see my drafts and be shocked by the layer upon layer of changes, erasures, passages crossed out.
The thing that I had to learn about writing was to carry through the revisions until it was done. I had a short attention span and would get frustrated. Writing seemed to be easy for other kids, but was difficult for me. On the other hand, I could always talk in class. If there was a chance to discuss ideas, I could always do that. I don’t think I learned to write well until college. And even then, it wasn’t so much a matter of learning self-discipline, it was more out of a desire not to embarrass myself!
I guess it’s kind of an ass-backward thing that I’m known as a writer!!! I hope people are encouraged to know that about me…
WHAT PATH DID YOU TAKE AFTER SCHOOL?
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, I worked in commercials in New York for awhile, then I went to USC film school in the graduate production program. I made a short film there that people in the movie business liked, but I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of running around from job to job. I really wanted to write my own stuff. I tried for a long time to write things that were commercial, because I wanted to earn a living in the business. I tried to write blockbuster movies, but I realized I wasn’t suited for that.
So I did something I’d never tried before: I wrote a script based on a true story. It was weirdly liberating. The great thing about writing something that is based in fact is that you can bring your point of view to it, very very strongly. The story has it’s own truth, and you can infuse your own style and fun into it. That script (“Kiting Utah”) hasn’t gotten made yet, but it got me noticed. It led to a lot of meetings and these meeting were about writing. These production companies had projects they needed writers for. That was really the point that my career starting clicking, and I haven’t stopped working since.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU FAIL?
This is one of the most important topics you can discuss, especially in any creative endeavor! Because the moment of failure— and there are a lot of different ways you can define failure: people didn’t like what you did, YOU didn’t like what you did, it didn’t catch on or somebody else did something that people liked better— THOSE moments are the most useful moments you can have in a creative endeavor. Vince (Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad) and I have talked about this A LOT.
When you have something in a script that doesn’t work, it’s almost energizing. You think, “This time I know what I’m going to do, I know what I’ll do differently. This time I’m going to rebel against all the other ideas that were stopping me from making the thing that I should have made.” So, weirdly enough, success is tougher, creatively, to deal with. Because then you run the risk of simply trying to duplicate what worked instead of creating something new. As soon as you start worrying about what grade Entertainment Weekly has given an episode of Better Call Saul this week, then you start thinking about giving the audience what they want to see. But I think that people don’t want to see what they want to see.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D LEARNED IN SCHOOL? AND WHAT WAS THE BEST THING YOU LEARNED IN SCHOOL?
What I wish I had learned in school (but I’m not sure how I could have been taught it) is persistence and focus. I wish that I had been taught to go through my work more carefully, to rewrite the same paper again and again, instead of skipping from project to project doing a half-assed job at all of them, which was often what I did. Along with that, I wish there had been more freedom and play. Those sound like two different things, but they’re not.
The best thing I learned in school occurred when we’d sit around a table and talk about ideas. I learned to listen, to try to understand other people and to communicate my thoughts. It worries me that these skills seem to be getting lost in today’s education. They are tough to teach, they take a lot of focus from the teachers and students, and they are hard to test. But when you get someone in a room for a job interview, or you go to work with somebody, those are the skills that ultimately matter. To be able to talk to someone, throw ideas around and come to a conclusion— that’s REALLY important to know how to do. And just because those skills are intangible and impossible to test on paper with bubbles to fill in with a number two pencil…doesn’t mean those aren’t important skills.
FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOWS?
Oh! Star Trek. Mission Impossible. Columbo. When I was a kid I read a book called The Making of Star Trek by Stephen Whitfield. It was great— it had diagrams and everything. That was one of the key things that got me into film making. Television comedy? Single camera high concept comedies from the 60’s: Get Smart. I Dream of Jeannie. Those shows had two of the most beautiful women in the world. Barbara Feldman and Barbara Eden.
ICE CREAM, CAKE OR PIE?
Cake. Ice cream is too cold and it melts. I don’t think your taste buds can taste much with frozen desserts. Cake has layers. Layers are good. Definitely cake.
You can follow Peter Gould on Twitter: https://twitter.com/petergould
Author Andrea Davis worked as a development executive in the film business after having earned her Masters Degree in Production from the Cinema-TV department at USC. Despite this, she still loves to watch movies and television. She lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and three children.