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Richmond-area native Vince Gilligan talks about 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,' debuting on the big screen and Netflix on Oct. 11

Richmond native Vince Gilligan, creator of the AMC hit show “Breaking Bad,” knows how to keep a secret.

His top-secret project, a two-hour movie version of “Breaking Bad” called “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie,” is dropping on Netflix on Friday. It will also be shown on the big screen in 68 cities, including Richmond’s Bow Tie Movieland at Boulevard Square from Friday through Oct. 13 only.

“El Camino” was filmed in almost total secrecy in Albuquerque, N.M., last year. Netflix didn’t announce the project until August, and details are intentionally scarce.

Gilligan, 52, who is quite humble by nature and described by many as a Southern gentleman, said he’s been keeping details top-secret for the fans.

“I feel like the best experience [with a movie or a show] I ever had was when I went in knowing nothing,” Gilligan told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a rare phone interview from California. “I’m someone who likes waiting to open my presents on Christmas Day.”

The Emmy-winning show ended (spoiler alert) when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) rescued his meth-cooking acolyte Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) from a gang. The last scene was a powerful one, with Walter White on the ground, dying, and Jesse escaping, driving off in an El Camino.

Critics and fans have called the ending of “Breaking Bad” in 2013 a perfect ending.

“I always intended for the last episode to be the last word on the subject,” Gilligan said.

“But I found myself wondering over the years, whatever did happen to Jesse Pinkman?”

Only three characters have been revealed in the “Breaking Bad” movie: Jesse and his longtime friends Skinny Pete (played by Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones).

But Gilligan did say that Jesse was one of his favorite characters on the series and served as the moral center in a world of outlaws.

“The last time we see him, he’s laughing and crying, ultimately damaged from this awful ordeal. But in my mind, he’s going to be OK. He’s going to get away,” Gilligan said. “Then I started to think, how is he going to get away? One thing led to another and I thought, ‘Heck, maybe there is a little more to this story.’”

***

Gilligan grew up in Farmville and Chesterfield County and graduated from L.C. Bird High School in 1985.

He moved to New York to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on scholarship and caught a lucky break when a screenplay he wrote won the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award that kick-started his career in Hollywood.

He landed a job as a writer on “The X-Files” before going on to create “Breaking Bad” and its prequel spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”

The success of both turned Gilligan into a star writer.

“Breaking Bad,” which won 16 Emmys, has been called a modern-age classic and has been compared to the new golden age of TV standards like “Mad Men” and “The Wire.” Still, Gilligan approached writing the screenplay for “El Camino” with trepidation.

“I haven’t written anything on my own for easily over 10 years,” Gilligan said. “The plotting was the hardest part.”

On his own, instead of in his familiar writer’s room, he followed the format that he learned from Chris Carter on “The X-Files,” writing all the plot points and scenes down on notecards and tacking them up on a corkboard to get the arc of the story down. That took six to eight months, he said, then two more months to get the story into a screenplay format.

Afterward, he showed it to friends and producers from “Breaking Bad” who gave notes and helped make the story better, he said.

He called it a group effort, but “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” is his first feature film, and the buzz around the top-secret project is palpable.

***

“El Camino” is being released both on Netflix and on the big screen, if only for one weekend — which is part of the buzz.

The cast and crew of “Breaking Bad” would watch each season premiere on the big screen.

“If you’re a ‘Breaking Bad’ fan and really want the full experience, do try to see it in a movie theater,” Gilligan said. “It was designed as a cinematic experience in full widescreen. In my mind, it was not designed to be watched on an iPad. It was meant to be seen on a movie screen.”

Gilligan released the movie with Netflix because the streaming service was instrumental in helping “Breaking Bad” catch on with fans.

“Breaking Bad” debuted on AMC in 2008. By Season 3, it had 1.52 million viewers. After Netflix picked it up and introduced it to more viewers, the show netted 4.32 million viewers by its last season, making it one of the most-watched shows on a cable network.

“AMC isn’t in the business of making one-off, two-hour movies. But Netflix is. They’ve been so good to us for so many years,” Gilligan said.

As for making the leap from a one-hour TV show to a feature-length film, Gilligan described it as “an awful lot of fun.”

The movie was shot on the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, the same camera that was used for “The Revenant” and in a 2.39 widescreen format — details Gilligan talks about with excitement.

“Listen to me, geeking out about this stuff. But really, it was meant to be seen on a movie screen. Hopefully, folks will get a chance to see it that way,” he said.

Gilligan returns to Richmond often to see his parents, who divorced when he was young, but who both still live in Chesterfield.

He’s been known to work little bits of his Richmond history into “Breaking Bad.” The high school where Walter White worked was named after J.P. Wynne Campus School in Farmville, and his mother, Gail, had a cameo role toward the end of the series.

In the movie, Gilligan said he worked in the birth dates of his mother and father, and managed to work in his dad’s job before he retired as an insurance claims adjuster for Dairyland.

Now based in California, Gilligan returned to Richmond this year to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday at The Jefferson Hotel. When he’s in town, he said he loves to check out the restaurant scene and stop by his favorite restaurant, Heritage.

But for now, he’s most excited that “El Camino” will be headed to the big screen at Richmond’s Movieland “on Arthur Ashe Boulevard,” he said, referring to the Boulevard by its new name.

“To have my first movie ever directed playing in Richmond means the world to me,” he said.


Plus
Schapiro: Baliles prepares to 'leave this life' believing in the future

If you’re Jerry Baliles, you don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

Whether you’re a little boy ducking his chores, reading the biographies of leaders long past under a big maple tree on his grandparents’ farm in his native Patrick County.

Or, a cadet at a Virginia military school who learned the hard way it was better to be punctual than to lose time — and opportunity — walking penalty tours.

Or, as an urban legislator, attorney general and governor through the 1970s and 1980s whose approach to policy was disciplined and thematic.

And, now as a retired lawyer, Democratic elder and think-tank director nearing the end of his life, having quietly fought cancer since 2016.

Some of his closest friends had no idea the deeply private Baliles was ill until he began telling them late last month, over lunch and in telephone calls, that there is nothing more his doctors can do.

This figure of consequence, whose ancient Anglo-French surname so confounded voters that Baliles would tell them it rhymes with smiles, is now a profile in courage.

In emails and phone conversations this past week, Baliles did not as much appraise his 79 years — more than half of which he has spent in public life — as anticipate what may lie ahead for Virginia, a state shaped by a knotty history to which he contributed with forward-thinking programs in transportation, global trade and education.

“As my clock winds down, I find myself reflecting on many things, not the least of which is how our knowledge of history continues to inform our future and inspire our decisions — especially in view of current events in this country,” Baliles wrote from his home in Charlottesville, where — in a third career, after politics and law — he led the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

“History provides vicarious experience, like a great virtual reality chamber. It teaches how it feels to live in thousands of places; it offers examples of how others responded in times of high moment.

“Knowing history is having a vision for the future, because it gives us a perspective about where we are going, although it may not tell us how we will get there.”

Because he is more of a listener than a talker, Baliles — ever the soul of discretion — is the rare Virginia politician to whom Democrats and Republicans turn for informed counsel. These traits also generated for him challenging assignments as a former governor, some of which still demand his time and energy.

Baliles led a study that spotlighted wasteful spending by a largely unaccountable state program that steers millions of dollars in cigarette-settlement funds to the former tobacco belt.

Questionable investments produced few jobs in a rural region that’s already lost thousands in textiles, furniture and coal, industries ravaged by economic retrenchment, environmental regulations and a shifting energy market.

And most recently, Baliles has argued for using what remains of those tobacco funds to launch what he calls a “Marshall Plan” to jump-start the countryside’s economy, largely through education.

After all, education was the path on which Baliles left the home he shared with two brothers in hardscrabble Patrick for Wesleyan University in Connecticut, UVA law school and the leafy south-of-the-James neighborhood where he broke into politics in 1975 and which remained his home after he left the governorship in 1990 for a partnership at a white-shoe law firm.

Typing at his computer, dictating to his wife, Robin; daughter, Laura; or former assistant in the governor’s office, Arlene McDermott, and occasionally by phone, Baliles considered a continuum: the history he has studied — and made — and the history that will be made without him.

“I was concerned about meeting a deadline,” Baliles said Wednesday. “Reporters aren’t the only ones with them.”

Baliles — his body slowing down but his brain working overtime — organized his thoughts over several days. He would sit at his desk in a book-lined study, where a file cabinet containing his speeches is in easy reach, or in his light-filled bedroom, which looks out on a deck onto which the occasional deer strays from the nearby woods.

“I guess my place in history can now be evaluated in terms of results over the past 30 years,” Baliles said in a lengthy email. “And I’ll leave that to others.

“But there is no doubt in my mind that the best thing we did in my administration was to make the connection between investments today and opportunities tomorrow.”

Most notably: a highway-financing plan in 1986, supported with Baliles’ promise-breaking tax increase, that for nearly 30 years was unmatched as a commitment to transportation. It was intended to be on a state scale what President Dwight Eisenhower achieved nationally in the 1950s with the interstate highway system, financed with higher gas taxes.

Baliles, who years later joked that as a candidate for governor he had promised only once not to raise to taxes, carried out the nearly $500 million initiative with the deliberate, thoughtful style that is his signature.

Through a bipartisan commission, he created a visible rallying point for a public consensus on roads. But it was a separate panel, whose members included former governors in both parties, that did the heavy lifting, fashioning the tax and bond package that would pay for all that new asphalt, steel and concrete.

To implement the plan, Baliles called a special session of the General Assembly, the effect of which was to, figuratively, squeeze a fifth year out of his nonrenewable four-year term.

As an issue, transportation was, Baliles wrote, essential to establishing for Virginians a symbolic and literal link to what is now a global economy, though in the hurly-burly of mid-1980s politics, that argument could be blotted out by the no-new-taxes philippic of an ascendant Republican Party.

“To pretend that we could remove ourselves from the international community in a time when the digital universe was beginning to link nations in culture and commerce was and is a commitment to failure,” he said.

Improved highways, expanded harbors, reliable rail links and accessible airfields are, Baliles would tell you, more than objects over which people and products are moved.

They are — along with better schools, a strengthened mental health system, more accountable universities and other accomplishments of the Baliles years, which closed with an economy teetering on recession and a bitter coal strike — examples of an enduring image from his youth.

“I remember that when I was a young boy of some 7 or 8 years of age ... I went with my grandfather to visit his elderly friend,” Baliles’ email said.

“The old man drew his water from a well. The water came from pushing a pump handle up and down until water gushed out from below the earth into his bucket.

“I was fascinated to watch the old man fill a second bucket with water and leave it by the pump handle when he finished. He said it was to ‘prime the pump’ for the next user of the well, to make it easier to get water for the next user.

“All these years later, I have never forgotten the power of that symbolism as a guide to life and governing.”

Baliles was preceded and succeeded by the political equivalent of movie stars: Chuck Robb, son-in-law of the late President Lyndon Johnson, and Doug Wilder, the nation’s first elective black governor.

What they accomplished, in part, with ample supplies of glitter, Baliles achieved almost entirely through the grind, seizing opportunity and sometimes creating it.

Baliles recalls another predecessor, Mills Godwin, a former segregationist and anti-tax hawk who was elected governor in 1965 with ample support from African Americans on a platform of progress that would rely on new taxes.

Godwin, elected a second time in 1973, “acknowledged that it is a common mistake to try to do too much,” said Baliles, “but he said that he would rather ‘be accused of having too much faith in the people of Virginia, rather than too little.’

“I prepare to leave this life believing that I also have that faith.”

PHOTOS: Gerald Baliles, former governor of Virginia


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Federal judge sanctions Henrico School Board candidate for lying in case over school placement of student with autism

A federal judge has sanctioned a Henrico County School Board candidate for lying under oath, fined her $1,000 and barred her from working on special education cases filed in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The ruling caps a lawsuit filed by the Henrico School Board against the family of a boy with autism and the woman who once represented them as an unlicensed advocate, a practice U.S. District Judge Robert Payne excoriated in a ruling critical of Virginia’s lack of rules for non-attorney advocates.

“As this case shows, the course taken by Virginia is fraught with problems,” wrote Payne, referring to laypeople representing families in special education matters. “And in this case that approach was harmful to the parents and, more importantly, the child.”

At issue in the case was whether a then-Henrico Public Schools student with autism should be able to take his public school funding to a private school that specialized in autism treatment.

Kandise Lucas, who at one point was working with the student’s family, fired back in an interview last week about Payne’s assertion she’d lied three times in court. Lucas maintains that she told the truth and said Payne is biased against non-attorney advocates who can advise families in special education disputes under federal and state law. She filed an appeal Thursday.

A representative for Payne said it’s the court’s policy to not respond to media questions about cases.

The ruling signed Wednesday comes nearly a year after Payne ruled the lawsuit moot, because the family of the teen had moved to a neighboring school system.

The school district had appealed to the court for a remedy after an administrative ruling directed the system to pay for the family’s son to attend school at the Faison Center in Henrico.

Henrico has paid Reed Smith, an international law firm with offices in Richmond, $264,000 to handle the case. In fiscal 2018, the county spent nearly $912,000 on outside legal counsel to litigate special education disputes, prompting officials such as County Manager John Vithoulkas and Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson to question why school leaders were spending public money to fight against families.

The county added $90,000 to its budget last year to hire a new assistant county attorney to assist with those types of disputes. The county spent $325,000 in fiscal 2019 on outside legal counsel.

Lucas, who has been involved in a majority of special education complaints brought against the school district, said a 2018 report on the school district confirming racial disparities in the discipline of students with disabilities vindicated what she described as an initiative to shine a light on those issues by filing numerous complaints and driving up the county’s legal costs.

In the Gregory Matthews Jr. case, however, the School Board asked the court to sanction Lucas and the Matthews family for allegedly trying to hide the family’s move to another jurisdiction. Lawyers for Henrico argued Lucas misguided the family by telling them their move to New Kent County wouldn’t affect the case.

As the case wound its way through federal court over the past 18 months, Payne determined that Lucas had lied about how she prepared legal documents in the case and about her quoted remarks in a September 2018 Richmond Times-Dispatch report about her advocacy work.

“The court cannot leave false testimony and filing unsanctioned. Lucas has lied three times in these proceedings,” Payne wrote in his opinion. “Lying in sworn statements and giving false testimony like Lucas has done is the antithesis of good faith.”

Payne said evidence presented by Lucas in court shows that her arguments about Henrico still owing the family may have had some merit, but that she had to be sanctioned for giving false testimony in court.

Now, the school district says it wants state lawmakers and the Virginia Department of Education to create new regulations to improve oversight of non-attorney advocates.

“In a state that regulates a variety of professions, we question why advocates like Ms. Lucas are allowed to advise parents regarding one of the most important issues they face — their child’s education,” said schools spokesman Andy Jenks.

In an email Thursday evening, Lucas said she welcomes the idea of new regulations and oversight, as well as legal protections, for advocates like her.

***

While it is rare for the thousands of Virginia families with special needs children to go to court or participate in administrative due-process hearings, non-attorney advocates can be helpful for families unfamiliar with federal and state statutes requiring public schools to meet the needs of children with disabilities, experts said.

Maureen Hollowell, director of advocacy and services at the Norfolk-based Endependence Center, and Robert Dinerstein, director of the Disability Rights Law Clinic at American University, said lawmakers and regulators should be mindful not to make requisite training or certifications for advocates overly prohibitive.

Henrico school officials have said they prefer resolving special education disputes amicably or in mediation, but Hollowell and Dinerstein said families remain at a disadvantage in those scenarios if they are alone negotiating with professionals and lawyers for the school system to agree on special education plans or accommodations for their children.

“Students will be disadvantaged and harmed if they are unable to access the services of an advocate,” Hollowell said. “Once a school district inserts the involvement of their attorney, students and parents often need an advocate or attorney to help them navigate the process and the intimidation they may feel. But few parents can afford the services of an attorney.”

Dinerstein said other states also have had to contend with legal arguments about lay advocates representing families in due-process hearings and court cases over special education services. For example, Delaware started prohibiting advocates from representing families in due-process hearings after a Delaware Supreme Court ruling in 2000.

Dinerstein said he has no reason to think there’s a broad problem with advocates in Virginia or around the country acting unethically. And while some advocates may give bad advice or misguide clients, just like some lawyers, he said some measures could help hold them accountable.

Nonetheless, he said some regulations could have unintended consequences.

“If you create a process that’s too stringent, will it knock out people not willing to go through process and leave parents alone?” Dinerstein said. “I would just be concerned that you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Colleen Miller, director of the disAbility Law Center in Henrico, was more critical of the school district’s intention to lobby state officials.

“It seems like a bad idea to make laws based on one person’s conduct,” Miller said. “It would be unfortunate to potentially punish thousands of families because of that. That’s bad policy in my opinion.”

***

Lucas announced her intention to run for the Henrico School Board last spring, saying she wants to improve transparency and accountability in the school system. She is facing three other candidates in the Varina District race: Alicia Atkins, Michelle Roots Henderson and Joyce Davis.

John Montgomery, who currently serves as chairman of the School Board but is retiring at the end of the year, said relations with Lucas are strained on personal levels because she has previously denigrated him and other school officials by calling them offensive and derogatory names, such as “Hitler” and “Uncle Tom.”

“My concern is how she’ll work with them,” he said about Lucas. “I’m not sure how she will work for people she has such low regard for.”

Micky Ogburn, who is running for re-election unopposed in the Three Chopt District, said she is not as concerned that residents in Varina could elect Lucas to the School Board.

“No matter who is elected, the business of the schools has to go on,” she said. “We will find a way to move forward in a positive matter and try to focus on what’s in the best interests of the students and the community.”

Despite the ruling against her in federal court, which asserts that she lied under oath, Lucas said she does not believe that will have a negative effect on her campaign.

“I actually see it bolstering my position that we as advocates have to stand up against not only the school division, but the abusive court system, too,” Lucas said. “They can’t stop me from fighting for justice for those who have no voice.”


Crime
breaking
Legislation would raise maximum payouts for crime-tip programs statewide to $5,000

Inflation over 30-plus years has greatly reduced the purchasing power of $1,000 in today’s economy, so would a tipster be more willing to call police and report a crime if that sum were multiplied by five?

That’s what board members of the Chesterfield County Crime Solvers program believe, and they took their idea to Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who on Saturday announced that, if he’s re-elected, he will introduce legislation in 2020 that would allow Crime Solvers and Crime Stoppers organizations across the state to raise their maximum reward payouts to $5,000.

Reward funds now are capped at $1,000 because that’s the maximum allowed under state law without the recipient having to pay taxes on the sum. A dollar more and they would be on the hook for taxes, and would have to identify themselves on tax forms to declare the sum. Many tipsters provide information anonymously.

The maximum reward payout has remained unchanged since many of Virginia’s crime-tip programs were started in the mid-1980s. Officials believe that offering $5,000 tax-free for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of criminals may convince more people to provide tips to police.

“This is a critical need for the program to continue to see the great success it has had since 1984,” Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard said of the Chesterfield/Colonial Heights Crime Solvers program, which started in 1984. “As a 30-year veteran of the Chesterfield Police Department, I was there when Crime Solvers was created and worked with it ever since.”

“Crime Solvers has helped keep Chesterfield and Colonial Heights safe by taking bad people off the street through confidential tips,” Leonard added. “However, in the 35 years since its inception, times have changed while the maximum reward has stayed constant. This change ... is extremely beneficial to keeping Crime Solvers the valuable program that it is today.”

Cox said the legislation “will offer more incentive for those with important information to come forward,” while simultaneously helping law enforcement to “close more cases” for crimes ranging from vehicle break-ins to murder.

Cox faces Democrat Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a real estate agent, in the Nov. 5 elections.

The reward funds for crime-tip programs are raised entirely through private donations, and the local, civilian-run boards that administer the programs have sole discretion on whether to raise their payouts.

The legislation is expected to receive bipartisan support and would result in a “very small impact” to state coffers by allowing tipsters to receive a larger non-taxable payout, said Parker Slaybaugh, Cox’s spokesman.

“From the folks we talked to, it does seem to be something that both sides [can agree on], when you look at it having very little fiscal impact,” Slaybaugh said. “And the other nice thing about it is that it’s optional. So if you have a town that has a smaller Crime Solvers group — who may not be able to afford the $5,000 — it’s not mandatory.”

Maximum payouts are the exception rather than the rule for crime-tip programs. The amounts awarded can vary based on the type of crime and the significance of the tip, and the information has to be especially good to get the top amount.

The Chesterfield/Colonial Heights Crime Solvers program, for example, made just five $1,000 payouts in 2015 out of the $21,015 in rewards approved that year for tips. No $1,000 payouts were awarded last year, but three have been awarded so far this year, according to organization data.

The proposal to raise the maximum payout was first pushed by Chesterfield board members Mike Kerr and David Beam.

During a discussion at a meeting 18 months ago, the board members suggested raising the amount to bring it in line with the contemporary economy.

“We have a lot of things going on in our county, and there’s a lot of people dying from drug overdoses and things like that, and a thousand dollars anymore doesn’t get you all that much,” Kerr said. “So the thought was, why don’t we just increase this thing to $5,000, and that’s basically how this came about.”

Kerr said the board tried without success to get some lawmakers to make it happen last year, “but we didn’t get a whole lot of traction. And this year we notified Mr. Cox’s office and explained it to him, and he thought it was a good idea. He’s going to take it on.”

“The Virginia Crime Solvers Association has been trying to do this for years,” Beam added. “We’re trying to get on board and update this process to be more with the 21st century.”

Lt. Tommy Potter of the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office, who is president of the Virginia Crime Stoppers Association, said his organization, which represents 60 crime-tip programs across the state, would “fully back the introduction of this legislation.”

“I think it will offer us the flexibility to offer higher tip rewards, and hopefully that will entice more people to get involved in this and submit information,” he said.

If it passed, the legislation would make Virginia one of the first states to raise the maximum payout to $5,000. “We are not aware of any other state that pays more than $1,000,” Potter said.