The 2016 Emmy race is underway, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until the awards on September 18.
Two seasons in and Better Call Saul is already one of the most respected dramas currently on TV. This year, it’s up for seven Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Lead Actor. Earlier this summer, New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz sat down with Better Call Saul cast members Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, and Michael McKean, and co-creator Peter Gould, for a wide-ranging conversation on the morality of each of Saul’s characters, how plot development can be confining in a prequel, and why no men's shirts on the show have white buttons.
Matt Zoller Seitz: You’re coming into this from Breaking Bad, a show that was and is beloved. It ran for five seasons, was a very big deal, and then seemed to have a satisfying ending. And while fans were, I think, delighted, or at least curious, when this prequel was announced, you’d have to really wonder how the hell you were going to do this?
Bob Odenkirk: Peter, how are we going to do it?
Peter Gould: The first thing I had to do was talk Bob into it. And I think that was — Bob had a lot of questions, did you Bob?
BO: I did have questions but you know I think that the concern that I expressed to Peter and [co-creator] Vince [Gilligan], they had already been thinking about, obviously. They’re always a couple steps ahead of everyone else.
But the big concern was, what kind of show would it be? And as it started, the guys were considering every option. And then [there were] concerns about, you know, “Is the character likable enough?” Because in Breaking Bad, [Saul Goodman] was very self-interested and — you know, he was funny, but maybe [would have been] hard to follow for a while if he didn’t grow some depth.
PG: I think that was our great concern when we started thinking about the show, too. Frankly, I thought it was too good to be true.
We started joking about it in the writers room almost as soon as Saul Goodman was introduced. It was a running gag. There’s something that we wanted to do on Breaking Bad and it seemed too silly or — especially if I was pitching it, was probably too silly. And the running joke was, “Well, we’ll do that on 'The Saul Goodman Show.'” And I always thought it was too good to be true. In fact my experience in show business is nothing good ever happens at least until Breaking Bad because nothing good ever happens in show business ever except for Breaking Bad.
Rhea Seehorn: Wow!
Michael McKean: Sgt. Bilko?
PG: Sgt. Bilko and then this. You know, that’s interesting: We actually did talk about Sgt. Bilko.
MM: [To audience] Do you have any idea what we’re talking about?
[Applause from the back.]
RS: A Sgt. Bilko fan!
MM: They’re known as Bilkies. Where my Bilkies at? [To Gould] You were talking about show business and how nothing good ever happens.
PG: That’s right! Nothing good ever happens, and it seemed too good to be true. So I was trying not to get too emotionally invested in it especially when we were really preoccupied with Breaking Bad. And then when Vince and I started talking about it, we were in this very unusual position for writers because usually you’re going to a studio or network and begging them to even hear your idea. And here we're in the situation where they were pretty interested in this. And so we had to kind of work it out for ourselves first.
The first idea we had, I think I might have mentioned this, was doing a half-hour show. The comparison we always made was to Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Do you guys know that? [To McKean] Were you ever on that?
PG: I’m surprised.
MM: [Pauses] ... No.
RS: That’s how much he works! He’s not sure!
PG: But part of our concern was if we did it as a shorter show, almost as a straight-up comedy — well, I had two concerns. One was, the fun would come from the characters you bring in, and the thing that we came to realize was that there’s no show unless we’re interested in the main characters, unless there’s depth there.
So we spent a lot of time trying to understand the paradox of this character, which was introduced as soon as he was introduced on Breaking Bad, whose real name’s Jimmy McGill. “I just call myself Goodman because the homeboys want a pipe-hitting Jew.” How did he get to that? And the great question that we ask ourselves — I think we’re finally on the way to answering it in the writers room — is “What problem does becoming Saul Goodman solve?" And because that question is so weird and it’s so hard to figure out, it’s got enough depth to it for us to continue working on.
I wasn’t absolutely sure that the show would have emotional depth until we came up with the idea of Jimmy having a brother, an older brother, Chuck. Bob was talking about: “Saul Goodman has nothing he cares about. He really has nothing to lose except his own life and money.” And it’s very hard, at least for us, to write a show about someone like that. And what we realized — that Jimmy has this older brother who he really cares about and who really is everything that Jimmy isn’t in so many ways. That started to humanize him for me.
And then [there was] the idea that he had evolved more over the course of season one, that he had this wonderful fascinating woman in his life, this beautiful brilliant woman who’s trying to pilot her own course. That just made it much more exciting.
I have no idea what the question was.
MZS: You answered it. I wonder if Bob could talk about that a little bit: the different challenges posed by this show. There’s obviously a lot more than on Breaking Bad, aren’t there?
BO: Do you mean just the idea of making the show? Because obviously Vince and Peter really, I’d let them —
MZS: Just you filming this lead role, carrying the show, and also playing a character who is not only on screen more, but has many more layers than we were allowed to see.
BO: Oh, that shit was easy! [Audience laughter] You know, the only — Look, I mean, as long as they write it I can do it. I don’t think I could have made him care about Chuck if Chuck was just another lawyer and not his brother. Why does he care about this other lawyer? I love him, I don’t know why.
It was a wonderful challenge to have, a great gift to be given, after all these years I spent in service of sketch comedy, to get to try to do [this]. But I don’t think it was that different. It was just a couple steps up from the kind of work that you’re always doing as an actor. I mean, that’s how I look at it. I don’t know. It’s almost so different that it is a different thing, but it isn’t entirely. It’s just taking the skills and the talent and the things I’ve been working with and seeing from Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and all the actors I’ve been working with the last couple of years and putting my elbow into it and really working, I think, working hard. I had to put in a lot of time and I still do. I have to really focus to do it and other than that, though, it’s the same job.
I mean I could talk about the way it’s different but in as far as like, being intimidated by it, I left that to Peter. I did not get intimidated, really, until they put the billboards up for the first season.
You’re laughing, I can hear you laughing! But I mean it. I really literally wept. I mean, I took it seriously, and I asked myself — there were a lot of questions dealing with it. But really I didn’t really let it freak me out until the billboards went up and I thought, Everyone’s going to try this show because they all liked Breaking Bad.
It’s not like you could fly under the radar with this first episode, you know what I mean?
MZS: That’s actually a good segue to talk about Chuck and what I like to call the Chuck Issue. The Chuck Issue.
I love Chuck. I wrote a whole column in defense of Chuck and I love Chuck as a character, because while he may lack what physicians might call a bedside manner —
MM: Or a soul.
MZS: Or a soul. He’s — I don’t think he’s ever really been wrong about Jimmy.
MM: No. He’s been correct about Jimmy, and he’s doing the right thing by his lights, absolutely.
No, I, yeah, I think his actions are supportable. Are actually, arguably, correct. That doesn’t make him nice. And you know lawyers don’t go into lawyering for niceness.
MZS: Well no, and in fact if I were to look for an attorney, I think I would much prefer to have Chuck.
MM: Somebody actually asked me that question. If you were in trouble who would you call? Would you call Chuck or would you call Jimmy? No question.
And what’s really interesting is that there’s nothing ruthless about Jimmy. Jimmy’s heart is always getting in the way.
And it’s not that Chuck doesn’t have a heart. He does have a soul, too. It’s just that he’s also got this growth that he has to have excised, and that’s kind of a prime directive. He’s associating — I’m giving away way too much. Not story-wise, because they don’t tell us anything — but I think that he associates the presence of Jimmy with the absence of his good life. He’s seen some kind of sliding scale, as he was seeing Jimmy more and more every day that he was losing touch with other stuff.
MZS: We actually have a clip here that I would like to show. I think it’s the last clip, the Chuck clip. This is from the season finale, the opening moments of it.
MZS: That’s one of the many scenes that I would show people to kind of encapsulate the whole range of emotions you get on the show. It’s very — it’s wrenching, it’s wrenching. It’s so difficult to watch. It’s actually, sometimes it’s what I call Cringe TV.
And yet despite this [scene] and despite other biographical details [about why Chuck is who he is], there are a lot of people who resent Chuck for standing in Jimmy’s way. Are you aware of this?
MM: Sure. Oh yeah. Well, they’re wrong!
Look, I just, I just closed a show in Los Angeles in Sunday night and I played this, just the worst person. A guy who makes Jimmy look like a saint.
RS: He was brilliant. Amazing.
MM: I wasn’t fishing.
RS: Fish away.
MM: I play this southern colonel in the Civil War. This racist, slave-owning piece of shit. And [in comparison, Chuck] is like a crisp shower and a shave by a professional — which I did the other day too, to get my beard off. And I even found a way to love that guy. I just think you have to find a way to love the person you’re portraying to the degree that that person has regard for himself and that person respects his own opinions and his own rights, and you know, you have to find the center of that person, even if people from the outside see something awful, you have to make it something kind of, for you, doable and real.
I worked with Helen Mirren one time and she played this awful person and she said, “Whenever I have to play someone who’s really detestable, I try and think of what was done to me to make me that way. What was the input that made this output what you get?”
[To Gould] And I think that by the end of the second season, you were answering all the questions close to what I was supposing. You were obviously coloring in those spaces a lot more, but I always thought — the mantra I had in the first season was, I made my mother proud, Jimmy made my mother laugh. It’s like, on balance, I couldn’t understand why his [contribution] seemed to have more value than mine. I mean, I got my law degree when I was 22 years old. Jimmy was still the Chicago sun-roof thing. I didn’t get it, I didn’t get it.
But it was playable. It was something that was really playable, to keep in the center of it.
RS: And then he does have a good wife.
MZS: Bob, how do you feel about the Jimmy/Chuck relationship as an actor in those scenes, and how do you feel about it as a viewer just with a little distance if you watch it?
BO: And I do watch it and feel a different experience from playing it. Part of that is because Peter and Vince make the show even after we shoot it, which is pretty neat to see how they alter things all the way through the editing process. Yeah, I mean look, this is like, I only have to play my side here so I don’t have to think about the thing in total. I think that Jimmy’s a little — he gets carried away with his enthusiasms, and whatever’s happening in the moment, and that helps me a lot to play those scenes with Chuck and to play a simpler character than Chuck is. Chuck is a more complicated mind.
I have a lot of brothers and we don’t have such rivalry, but there’s an intense closeness to your family. Or can be, and [there] certainly is with mine. I think it all rings true.
I mean, these are great scenes. They’re wonderful scenes. They ring true all the way through, and I get to play them opposite Michael McKean, which makes me look like a real actor. You know, that was true in Breaking Bad too — working with Cranston and Aaron and Anna Gunn and all. It’s the people around you who raise your game. So I love playing those scenes. I could keep doing them. And they’re extremely rewarding, too.
MZS: Can we kind of return to an earlier subject, which is the idea of this as a story of the moral evolution of this guy? It’s not just Jimmy that’s going through it. It’s not just Jimmy. Kim is going through it also, I think. And I would imagine that even Chuck deals with, although he’s very resolute, the question of whether or not to cut his brother a break is something he must surely consider before setting it aside. And then you’ve got all sorts of other characters who are going through that. Is everybody on the show in a way risking the chance of turning into Scarface?
PG: I hope they’re not all following in the same path. We try to think a lot about our characters and their choices and who they are and what they want to do. We also try to create contrast between these folks. Everything I say sounds like Writing 101 but there’s no Writing 102. At least that I know of. There’s only the basics and you have to go back to them.
One of the basics is contrast. As long as these characters take their own path, they all have their own struggles, then hopefully it creates more depth in Jimmy, and a better understanding of Jimmy.
The other possibility is that we just can only see the way we work and the way we think leads to certain results. That’s also possible.
MZS: I should clarify. I don’t want you to misunderstand and say that they’re all the same character. I don’t mean it that way, I just mean in the sense of when people ask me who’s the good guy on the show I’m not sure what to tell them.
PG: Here’s the thing though. And this is — I struggle with this. Is that people talk about morality as if all — this is going to sound like a Talmudic scholar here. They talk about morality and they’ll make comparisons that to my eyes are ridiculous. They say, well, “Kim is really just like Jimmy, because Kim participated in this scam or that scam.” Anybody can see there’s a difference between staging a fake billboard thing and possibly getting somebody to pay for an expensive bottle of booze. It’s that, there are different qualities.
We had this on Breaking Bad, where people would say, “Well, Marie shoplifts, so it’s really just the same as cooking meth.” What?
And the truth is that we all have — and we try to use our own lives in [writing] this — our own struggles about self-interest, and also following the rules, and also what you owe other people with your life. And Chuck has this way of thinking that’s wonderful because he has this wonderful ability to apply a very strict morality. And it’s not just morality, it’s about rules, it’s about following the rules. I actually have a lot of respect for Chuck.
We’re very lucky, because these actors are so much fun to work for. The characters are so much fun to write for. And to make it sound like we’ve got it all planned out is maybe doing the show a disservice. Because a lot of it is about process, a process of playing the game that we’ve established and trying to be true to where these folks are.
I don’t really think, Is this about a moral descent? And that’s a very good question. I think that we’ll find that out as the seasons go on, because Kim and Chuck are both going to be faced with a lot of tough choices, and it’s possible, I personally think it’s possible, that any of these characters could maybe not have a moral descent. Maybe there could be redemption. People get better as well as get worse. It doesn’t all move in one direction. I think a lot of it is to be continued.
MZS: [To Seehorn] Can you talk a little bit about Kim in relation to these questions?
MM: She’s always like this. Slip her a 20.
RS: Talk about Kim and the issues of morality?
MZS: And also just the way that she’s trying to make her own way in the world. And it’s very, very difficult for her because, on the one hand, she’s a woman in this all-male firm and also she doesn’t really seem to fit in there. Jimmy at least realizes he doesn’t fit in.
What are some of the characteristics of Kim, and what are some of the issues that you are dealing with when thinking about how to play these scenes?
RS: I think you’re right, too, and by right I mean because it aligns with what I thought, the presumption that she seems like a little bit of an outsider where she is, too. And I think that that’s one of the similarities that she shares with Jimmy.
When people would ask me at first, “How are those two people together? They seem so different,” I always saw more about them that was alike. I think that they’re both loners in a way. They’re both kind of outsiders trying to fit in, and they both, in some cases literally, know the right suit to wear and the right mask to wear for the environment they’re in. And she is trying to fit in.
I tell people sometimes the specific artistry that goes into the whole show is deeper than even the viewers see. Jennifer Bryan, our brilliant costume designer — we talk about that. When I went in for my first fitting, instead of it being about anything that you might get at some other fittings I’ve had in my career, that’s about low-cut shirts or what kind of hot pants would this person wear, she said, “I think Kim’s trying to fit in but she can’t afford the suits they’re wearing yet. So even though you’ll be wearing navy blue and black, the audience won’t be able to see it, but I want you to know that I think they should be mismatched, because she still buys separates at Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack, trying to look like she has the full suit. And I literally started crying. I was having conversations about character at your costume fitting! To know that that’s how much everybody is rowing this ship is a beautiful experience for an actor.
I’m aware of Vince and Peter being two of the best people that can helm a ship, ever, I’m aware of that. But I’m also aware that they think that this is a collaborative art form. And you feel that when you’re on set and you feel that when you’re with the crew and when you’re prepping.
That being said, I do think she’s trying to fit in. And I like what Peter’s saying. I think the danger to any of these characters, I think, is when they think things are black-and-white. And I understand the comfort it gives all of us, and I think the audience feels this when you think about things in black-and-white terms. Like, If I just keep my head down and work hard enough things will be okay. And that’s not true, and it’s unsettling when that’s not true. And it’s not true for Kim and Jimmy, she needs Jimmy as much as Jimmy needs her, I think.
I do not think it’s a one-sided street at all, and when he tells her people do have personal agendas, people do have ulterior motives, you can’t just say like, Nope, I’ll pick myself up and I’ll fix this and I’ll do it myself. He warns her of those things and he is right in many respects — that there are things at play going on in her world that she can’t fix on her own, just by working hard enough and trying to do the right thing. She’s wrestling with that gray area and I think that that makes her more accessible to the audience — that it’s not just about being flawed, it’s about the struggle to decide.
Your moral compass, unfortunately, won’t stay on north when you move. You know what I mean? It just depends on who’s standing in front of you. It depends on what the situation is. And that’s the possible danger or the possible redemption for all of us, when you go: All right, it’s gray, everything is gray. Now what do you want to do?
MZS: It’s interesting that the two most important people in Jimmy’s life are both people who are constitutionally almost incapable of asking for help: Chuck and Kim.
RS: Yeah, she’s definitely a little anti asking for help. Yeah, and so is Chuck. And both of them get forced into positions where they have to ask for help.
MM: Chuck feels he’s entitled to it.
RS: True. You’re so terrible to Ernie.
PG: Chuck got his brother out of jail.
PG: I feel like Chuck has been there for Jimmy all through Jimmy’s life when he really needed him. It does roll the other way.
MM: But it was easy when Jimmy was a soft target. When Jimmy was not an active participant in my life it was very easy because then he was an infant, he was a blob. But the most spine —
PG: Bob can hear you.
MM: He’s back in the bathroom. No, what I’m saying, when Jimmy was just a problem that I was, that I had to take care of, that was easy. When Jimmy became a lawyer, he became a very strange nightmare. It’s different. Time changes things.
MZS: Can we talk a little bit more about the intricacies of the wardrobe?
MM: No white buttons. You will never see men’s shirts with white buttons on our show.
RS: I didn’t know that. Why is that?
MM: [Jennifer Bryan] hates them.
RS: No character narrative.
MM: Especially a black shirt with white buttons. Anything other than a white shirt that has white buttons on it sends her right up the wall. It’s amazing.
RS: And as far as the fitting, another costume thing, and you see it, I think, only in one scene and it’s when he finally busts the Kettlemans and is sitting on their fireplace area in season one. You finally see his shoes, which are one of my favorite things, and they’re either Ferragamo or Gucci. The horse-bit logo, you know, that has the two metal rings and then the bar? And one of his is being held together by a paper clip. And they’re really old and worn out.
We had a couple of really early calls [while shooting that scene], and maybe [during] the first run of the scene you’re like, you know, trying to make sure you’re very present in the scene. And I would just look at his loafers and know instantly why Kim loves Jimmy. He’s fucking holding it together with a paperclip.
MM: Jonathan Banks, now, he is America’s badass. When he and Lee Marvin meet in heaven, hopefully a long, long way in the future, Lee’s going to go [shudders]. That’s how badass Jonathan Banks is. And he’s an amazing actor, he’s one of those.
I mean, you see!
RS: And a teddy bear in real life. He doesn’t want to tell anyone.
MZS: He’s also very, very, very, very drily funny. Like parched humor. I actually met Jonathan Banks after Lincoln Center played all of Breaking Bad, in a marathon [that ran] for a month before the finale of the show. And I went to a reception and Jonathan Banks was there with his daughter, who I think runs the social-media accounts for Jonathan Banks.
RS: Oh, Rebecca.
MZS: Yeah — and I went up to him and I just introduced myself . I said I’m a TV critic for New York Magazine and he said, “Oh, have you ever written about the show?” “Yeah, like 650 times.” And I said, “As a matter of fact, I tweeted about you just this morning.” And he said, “You ‘tweeted’ about me.”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he said, “I’m not ‘online.'”
RS: No way.
MZS: I believed him.
RS: He’s a great guy, and it’s so funny because people tend to — I’ve found — approach actors if they want to come up, a fan wants to come up and talk to you, they tend to approach you in the vein of the character that you most recently played. So if you’re playing a very open, accessible person people will walk up to you. Like I played a [terrorist] once and people were like, "Aahhhh, I loved you." So with Jonathan and Bob, Bob is — can you hear me?
BO: I can hear you.
RS: Don’t you find that when we would go out to the diner or something — Bob plays this very gregarious talkative person and Bob’s very generous and sweet and I would say this even if he couldn’t hear me. He’s very kind and generous with fans but can be a little more shy than they would expect as a person in real life. Less gregarious and jolly. But they’ll walk right up to him because they’re just like, "Hey, it’s Saul, ahhblahblah!" Jonathan, they expect like he might shoot them. So I’ll be in the diner and people are talking to Bob, and they walk by Jonathan.
There was a Marine, a big guy, that came by and just gave his business card and he’s like, [very quickly] "I don’t want to bother you, I just want to tell you …" Left his card and ran away! And then the deal is, though, in real life they’re the opposite. While Bob can be pleasantly surprised by the fans, and shy at times to accept the attention, Jonathan is like, “Get back over here and talk to me! What are you doing?”
He wants to talk to everybody. He’s like your favorite weird uncle at every barbecue.
MM: There’s one quick note to that, though. Have you ever been with Jonathan at a restaurant and he doesn’t like his food? The look that he gives the waiters … [withering glance] and once they’re all the way at the table [another scary look]. He’s hardly said anything and the guy has shit himself and is on his way back to the kitchen.
It’s wonderful, and it’s like he’s using a kind of currency. It’s just genuinely off-putting and charming as hell.
RS: Yes. And he uses them both to his advantage at all times.
He also doesn’t like being looked at by fans, like stared at without them saying something. So you’ll often be eating with him and people will be at the outside table thinking they’re being covert, and he will get up and be like, “If you’re going to stare at me, talk to me!”
But he’s so great and he’s so loving and generous and he loves his job. Like after, what is it, like 50 years or something? He still loves it. He loves to prep for it, he loves to work on it he likes to work with other actors. He’s great.
MZS: Bob, are you still there?
MZS: Can you jump in on this? You’ve logged more screen time with Jonathan Banks than I think anybody on the show.
BO: Not enough! Let’s go, get those two in the parking booth.
MZS: I mean with Breaking Bad included.
BO: Yeah! He’s, what can I say? He’s the best. He’s hilarious and he brings all that energy and very naturally falls into the role, although he is a super-sweet guy in real life. He’s a softy, I think, you have to say.
But honestly, when people ask me what do I hope happens next in the show, I hope that there’s more scenes with me and, you know, with Jimmy and Mike. Because together it does really feel like a comic duo. I just can’t help but giggle whenever my character is standing face-to-face with that guy. Because they just hate each other and need each other and it’s just the best.
MZS: Yeah, sometimes the two of you remind me of that Warner Bros. cartoon with the bulldog and the little dog he hauls around. What do you want to do today, Spike? I do hope you get more scenes with him.
RS: We all do.
MM: I’m still waiting. I can’t even think of a way they’d be in the same room. [To Gould] Work on it.
MZS: Seriously, you’ve got your notes for today.
RS: Kim is so reserved. Would they just have a staring contest?
PG: You have the big wheel of characters. Okay, here you go!
MZS: Let’s talk about Chuck and Kim versus Jimmy and Mike in one respect, which is: We know eventually where two of these characters are going to end up, and we also know that they can’t die, I don’t think.
And so in a sense for me at least much of the suspense of the show is concentrated on your two characters. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but also, they could kill you.
MM: People also leave Albuquerque rather than dying. That could happen too.
PG: This is something that puzzled me for quite a while because people would ask and they’d always say, "Well, Kim dies right? Or Chuck dies." And at first I thought, Well, hold on … imagination. As Michael says, there’s a lot of things that could happen other than people being alive or dead. But then I think I’ve come to another conclusion — and you tell me if you guys agree — I think it’s like, they care, and they feel that these characters are in danger, because there’s that question mark.
And that’s also because these are Jimmy’s two compass points. These are the two characters who he has the most invested in — and deeply. There’s deep connections between Jimmy and both these guys.
I take that as a compliment or an admonishment not to take this too lightly, because the idea, there’s a lot that can happen, other than people …
MZS: Well, there is — and I don’t want to seem argumentative; but then, I am a critic: You say there are other alternatives, that they could just leave it open or do something like that. But the audience loves these two characters so much that if you were to say you know Kim has moved to Saskatchewan, she’s not on the show anymore, people will be mad at you.
PG: Well, if we did it off-screen they would be. But I’m just going to argue back. Anything you do has to be played out dramatically. We’re all familiar with TV shows where a character just disappears season to season, and the other characters go, "Oh yeah, they moved." Because we couldn’t negotiate a contract with that person! And that’s what we want to avoid. Personally, I feel like there’s a lot more to say about both of these folks.
RS: Well, that’s good! Invite me to this panel to be fired!
RS: I was surprised by the number of people that thought there was only one conclusion. I was like, have you seen the writing that Vince does here? You [Peter] and Vince and Bob all addressed on one panel that we did that idea that you only saw Saul in such specific circumstances during Breaking Bad that there’s no reason why the two of us could exist or not exist in that world in some capacity. People are like: He never talks about his brother or Kim. I was like, Would you talk to Tuco? I have a girlfriend, she lives here! There’s so many possibilities to, with the Saul character, because it’s so contained. He’s always in life-or-death circumstances, in little tiny places.
MZS: That’s an interesting way to think about it, though — this idea that on a television show, when there are story lines and characters that we love, we want them to be present all the time.
And I myself as a viewer experience this a lot. If one of my favorite characters is not on a show for a week or two weeks or three weeks I start to get a little antsy, kind of resenting the show, like: What’s next? But on some of the larger-cast shows, it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to go a week or two without seeing a [particular] person.
I interviewed the showrunners of The Americans, and within the course of the season there’ll be working different contacts, I guess, trying to turn somebody, blackmail somebody, and there’s different character arcs [for those characters]. I said, “Well, after the first story line is done,” and one of the executive producers said, “Well, you don’t know that she’s done, we’re just not showing you what’s going on. She could be back six months from now or a year from now, whatever.”
How do you handle that as a storyteller? Because sometimes shows run into trouble with that, where shows feel that they have to service every character?
PG: That is a problem. I mean, it’s certainly something we think about. We spend a lot of time talking about what’s going on with each of these characters.
But ultimately we have to go where the story takes us, if that makes any sense. We’re in the writers room, we’re always pitching. [To Seehorn and McKean] You guys are talking about having scenes with Chuck and Mike or whatever. We talk about those all the time. We come up with crazy scenarios. If it defies logic, if human behavior doesn’t follow the same lines, then we have to discard those.
But having said that, you know, [in] the first episode last season, season two, there’s no Chuck. No Chuck.
PG: No Chuck in the episode. And sometimes, you know, in the beginning of season one there’s very little Kim.
And the wonderful thing we have is that these actors have given us so much freedom and trust. We don’t suddenly get calls from agents: [whispers] “Why isn’t Mike in this?” We don’t. They’ve given us the creative freedom. We have mutual trust that somehow we’re going to try and get it right.
And I think the audience also understands that each episode is a unit, and we try and make each episode entertaining and complete in its own way. But we’re telling a story that goes on. And sometimes the story takes you down little eddies, or you end up going, as we did at the end of season one, to Cicero for most of an episode, and so we had very little. And that killed me, because I directed that one and I had very little of these two guys in that episode [indicating McKean and Seehorn] and I didn’t like that.
But it was where the story took us. And so that’s not a great explanation but I think as long as we try to have — try to keep in mind who these characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, I don’t think we’ll go too far wrong. I hope not. It’s served us so far.
MZS: I’d like to zero in on the storytelling just a little bit more. Which is — and talk about the look of the show, the feel of the show, the rhythm of the show, which is different from a lot of what you see on television drama in at least two respects. One of them is visually. There’s a lot of thought put into every shot, every camera move, every cut. That’s true for Breaking Bad as well. And also the length of scenes. It’s a one-hour show, which is what, 42, 43 minutes?
PG: I think we’re more like 47.
MM: Thank you, AMC!
MZS: But within that, there are many dramas, which for the moment will be unnamed, where scenes will be 30 seconds, 45 seconds.
This show doesn’t usually do that. You’ll stay in a scene, it feels like they’re more shaped.
And within that there’s a sense of architecture in how a scene is built. What I’m wondering is, how do you integrate that with the performances? Because I’ve heard from a number of actors who’ve worked with highly controlled filmmakers, people like Tim Burton or Steven Spielberg, or someone like that, [that] they enjoyed the experience, they’re proud of their work on it, but there’s also something that can be frustrating about it, because you’re acting in pieces: this shot or that shot. It’s like, Now we’ve got that five-second piece that we need; now we’re going to completely relight the set and we’re going to come in from this angle and do this other thing.
How do you reconcile that? I mean, you can’t just stick the camera on a tripod and say, Now I have the scene, guys. A lot of shows can.
PG: This is a big question. We are very fortunate in that we have an incredible group of filmmakers working on the show. We have wonderful directors, you saw two clips there; so far you’ve shown one from Michelle MacLaren, who is just an astounding director.
MZS: One of the best action filmmakers in the world.
PG: Absolutely. And then you have Thomas Schnauz, who wrote and directed the last clip that you showed. These are people who really care deeply about how the story’s told visually. And so that’s very important. And we also have Arthur Albert and his team. And Arthur Albert’s —
RS: Our [director of photography].
PG: He’s incredible. He’s an incredible DP and a wonderful human being. Everybody really cares about the way the show looks. It’s interesting because the way you say it, it sounds almost in opposition. That here we have the way the show’s presented visually and here we have performance. I don’t really feel that those two things are in opposition, myself. I think that, and especially when you have actors up here who are both incredible stage actors. These are incredible performers in live situations as well as in film. They can do anything that we ask them. They have such ability and facility in what they do that it’s not like we’re asking people to — hopefully we’re not asking them to restrain themselves because of the way the show is shot.
And also I think to a great extent that’s the job of the director, to be able to capture the performance and also capture the visual context. So I don’t really think those two things are in opposition to me.
But in the end, when we’re sitting in the editing room — by the way, we have to also mention our editors. Led by Kelley Dixon and Skip MacDonald. They have a wonderful sensitivity to the characters and the performances. And if we get into the editing room and we have some clever visual idea but it undermines the moment, or if it’s not the best moment for me personally, we’ll go for the performance, we’ll go for the character.
But having said that, these [actors] give us something wonderful from every angle. And I’m not blowing smoke. Oftentimes, and I was lucky enough to get to direct both of them in a scene together late in the last season. And the hardest thing about editing that scene was that there was something wonderful and something different —
RS: The three-way confrontation. [Episode] nine.
PG: — where Kim finally tells Chuck off. I shot the hell out of it, these guys acted the hell out of it, and then we had to just decide where we wanted to be. Because everywhere we could be, there was something interesting. And so much of that is just attributable to the fact that they do such detailed work. And they also come in prepared, and on a television schedule it’s, and Bob — Bob?
He went somewhere.
MM: [Addressing the ceiling with a prayerful expression] Dear Bob.
PG: Bob works every weekend; usually each episode each week there’s a couple big scenes and the cast will get together.
RS: We rehearse off campus.
PG: They rehearse off campus. And that, boy, I’ll tell you, that makes a huge difference because when you come in and you say, Well, I know you guys worked on this, can you show me what you did? I go, Oh this is going to be great. All I have to do is shoot it.
RS: Well, there’s also two things. I feel like none of us wants the words to get hidden away. You’re right, these are eight- and ten-page dialogue scenes, which is unusual. And you want to get that, you want to be able to play with everything except trying to remember your lines. Because it just hinders you. You don’t get as much time to play and make up different ways to do it. And I don’t know about you, but I feel like some of what you’re talking about — visually when there’s extreme angles we’re using cinematic wides, which is also unusual on television. Certainly before Breaking Bad and now both of our shows use them.
Maybe it is they’re [skilled] stage performers, so there’s a comfort level with playing a whole scene as though it’s a play. And being able to play it with your whole body, knowing that your dramatic or sometimes dark comedic moment isn’t going to be here [gestures to face], if the best way to play it is the slope of the shoulders instead of squeezing out a tear that’s going to be allowed, too, and that’s going to be on film and might be the cut that’s used. I find freedom in that.
I also find freedom in the fact that AMC and Sony do not note them to death, so we don’t get rewrites, which is unheard of. You get a script and you get to go rehearse it and that’s it. There will be no rewrites.
Often [in television] you’ll get a scene, and you can start to work on it, but most likely it will be slightly altered to very altered the next day. And every day a network is watching it be rehearsed, or watching a daily and then giving notes and changing it, and the actor is trying to keep up. And so you can’t marry yourself to beats of a scene.
We’re getting eight- to ten-page dialogue, beautiful plays, beautiful little short films in and of themselves and then there’s freedom when we get there because now we’re going to just spend our time doing it 50 different ways and finding the right — like you said — the architecture of what the story line is.
MM: And it’s much more fun doing those scenes that last 30 seconds, because then you feel like an accomplice in a cheat. If you see a scene and you say, Oh, I get this, this is a page and a half and it ends with someone looking at the other person and going, “Do I, Steve? Do I?” That’s all we need folks, because nobody gives a shit.
The other point is, there are people — and thank God that we don’t have this — but there are people who are very, very good writers who are not getting notes from the studio or from the network but are rewriting constantly anyway. You know there are people who autonomously say, You know what, that big speech that you’ve got on page six here, I’ve totally changed it and we shoot in 30 seconds.
MZS: You’re working with David Milch now?
MM: I wasn’t going to mention that! My one experience with Milch was exactly the opposite. But I had heard that he would do that on Deadwood. Jim Beaver was talking about that, that he would suddenly say, “Yeah, I wrote this this morning around four and I’d like to do this instead of this other one.” And then it’s like, “Well okay, thank God that I’m a robot.”
Whatever the case, Milch’s stuff hits the air looking pretty damn good so it’s like: There are all different kinds of processes.
But like I say, it’s so much more fun to work on an eight-page scene that is about the way human beings really do interact with one another rather than something that looks like a clip reel. It’s just a different deal.
RS: And then our directors and our editors allow us to breathe in the scenes, which is also unusual. You can hold and it’s not going to be cut. You can know that.
[In] my scenes with Bob, there’s so much more that’s between the lines than on the lines, which I think portrays the history of a relationship. It’s what doesn’t have to be said. And we’re able to do that and know in our hearts it’s not going to get cut. They’re not going to try and make it snippy. They’re going to try to let it breathe.
MZS: Yes, you know, you and Peter both mentioned theater, and something kind of clicked for me when you said that, because that is an area where you can have an extremely controlled visual [that’s] very, very exact from moment to moment, and also have long scenes where things can breathe.
Something about the lighting on the show often looks theatrical. Where you’ll see a wide shot where three-quarters of the frame will be black. And it almost looks like there’s a spotlight on Kim or on Chuck. Something like that. Or old movies.
RS: Yeah, that film-noir stuff.
MZS: You talk about old movies? Do you think about old movies when you’re working on the show?
PG: Yeah, we talk probably more about old movies than anything else. We quote dialogue to each other. This is special for me to be right here where we are at Milk Studios because I grew up about three blocks from here, going to what’s now the Joyce, but I think at the time was called the Elgin. It was a revival house and getting to see — this was of course a period before home video. New York was filled with old movies. There was the Elgin, the 8th Street Playhouse, there was the Thalia, which I think still exists. Those for me were the formative experiences, watching movies that were made mostly before I was born. A lot of them silent movies from the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
And those are things that we talk about in the writers room. There are certain movies from the '70s, too. Certainly on Breaking Bad, The Godfather was something that we [talked about], that’s sort of the Ur-text for people of my generation, filmmakers of my generation. And certainly one of our touchstones on that show.
But this show, for me a lot of this show has influences, things like Billy Wilder movies. There are a few moments that really feel like that. Or movies from the '40s, the Preston Sturges films.
One of the things I love about Kim is that she seems to me in some ways to be in that tradition of female characters who could really hold the tiller of their own ship, who are self-contained, who are with the people they’re with because they want to be, not because they have to be.
There’s something about Rhea right now, in fact, with your hair, all feels like an echo of that.
RS: Not the first time I’ve been told I’m from the wrong era.
PG: So many of us!
So old movies, those are very important to all of us as a writer. A lot of film buffs in the writers room. Film buffs from different eras, though. That’s one of the things that’s terrific about it. I tend to skew, I’ll be the one who talk about [older films] and then we have also some folks who are more contemporary in their taste, which is good.
MZS: I think we have time for some questions. Can we do that?
MM: Can we make the lighting more oppressive? There was a moment there I wasn’t squinting at all.
There are people out there! You will get quieter as you speak into the microphone.
Audience member 1: Okay, I’ll try to speak extra loud then. Well first of all, I want to say thank you from all the fans for creating such an awesome show. It really makes it easy for us to be fans and we all, I think I can collectively say that we all love the show. So thank you all. Thank you, Bob in the sky. So my question I guess is actually for Peter. At the beginning of this conversation you said there’s no happy endings in showbiz. But I wanted to ask you whether there was the potential for happy endings in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe for anybody at all.
PG: I think so. I don’t think anything’s predetermined. We try not to; I don’t think so. Even with Breaking Bad we had a story that was set up from Vince from the beginning, which was Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. This show we have Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman. Which in some ways seems is not quite as extreme a journey. It’s a different kind of journey. But then we also have the fact that this character, we also see as Gene in Omaha, Nebraska, working at a Cinnabon. So that, to me that hints that maybe there’s more to the story after Breaking Bad. So we’ll see.
MZS: I’ve actually wondered about that in the context of old movies. This, we could be in for a Third Man ending. Harry Lime comes back. Sorry, I spoiled it for you. 1948 so deal. Anybody else?
Audience member 2: As an attorney I’m very intrigued by how much practicing law is part of the show. Do you get counsel from lawyers on "okay, Kim should be doing doc review?" Where do you get the nitty-gritty details from?
PG: Absolutely. One of the things I’m so proud about is the fact that we have a law show that the legal cases are old folks getting overcharged for toilet paper, drunk and disorderly, then there’s interstate banking regulations.
PG: I think one of our great concerns going into this was that it would be a law show. Because neither Vince nor I have that bend. We don’t have that procedural bend and we sure as hell don’t know anything about law. Luckily we’ve had a lot of help and fortunately we have some folks in the writers room who are from families of lawyers. Especially Gordon Smith. Both his mother and his sister are attorneys and we’ve had a lot of attorneys come and help us out. Season one there was more about small-scale criminal law. Moving into larger cases. And then season two we had to learn about things like doc review. We just tried to find out, what’s the bad job that Kim would get if she was out of favor.
RS: But then I spent all morning, like they brought in someone that literally showed you how you catalogue those things and stamp them all and code them and what you would highlight and how you would put it back in the box with a marker. Because it needs to look like something somebody had done a million times. That they could do without thinking.
PG: And all those documents, they actually had text that was relevant. It was written by our folks back in Burbank, led by Ariel Levine, who was at the time, I don’t know what she was but now she’s our writers’ assistant. But she and some of the other folks in the office wrote hundreds of pages of legal documents for you to overline.
PG: And for you to read when you were doing the big banking meeting.
MM: Well, here’s a little secret: I can’t read a thing without my glasses so I’m just faking. I wasn’t really taking anything in. Everything else I do is real but the reading is — You could say Mike McKean’s an asshole on every page and I would not know it. I mean, I’d know it but I wouldn’t know it from reading.
MZS: My friend Alan Sepinwall likes to imagine an alternate universe where you and Vince Gilligan do this meeting first and he wants to see a pitch meeting where you propose Jimmy McGill, elder-care lawyer.
Audience 3: I’m also a lawyer, not from this country, and I find it very interesting how you got a very, what I would consider a very ... in the Chuck character a very rule-oriented and very sort of procedural and knowledgeable person. And then this very extreme other character and I wondered did you actually model these two characters on actual lawyers or are you just thinking that they’re ordinary people that just happen to be lawyers?
MM: I take everything off the pages that we get for these guys. I had no model in my head about what this lawyer was. And I count on them. Everything I saw before me felt genuine and again they didn’t pitch me the entire season before. I didn’t know where it was going.
PG: Neither did we.
MM: Right, exactly. Which is why. I remember we were doing the fifth or sixth show and you called, you and Vince called and told me about the show where it was, it was the ninth episode of the first season where it was kind of revealed that Chuck’s been working behind the scenes to dynamite Jimmy’s progress. Which is a polite way of putting it. But it all made sense and it was almost like, Well, we’re giving you a heads-up here. It’s going to take a turn. I didn’t see the turn. I didn’t see it coming necessarily but it all made sense so like I said, I repeat myself, but it really is on the page. They tell me when I’m on the right track by putting it in the show.
PG: That’s exactly right. One of the glories of this particular kind of writing in filmmaking is that we get to watch the performances and learn about the characters from the way the actors interpret the characters. Kim was shaped a lot by Rhea’s interpretation of Kim. And likewise Michael, when we started the season, season one, Vince and I had written the scene between Chuck and Jimmy and there was a dimension to what you did in the scene and in the subsequent scenes that I hadn’t anticipated, I don’t think we anticipated. Which was, and I think it was maybe you could argue it was there in the writing but we didn’t see it until you did it. It was Chuck’s kind of gravitas and his pride. What a person he is to be reckoned with. Then we asked ourselves, Well, how does this guy feel about having Jimmy McGill for a brother? And in a lot of ways, that insight has led to almost everything we’ve done since. But if we had to write the whole season as I know some people do, and then shoot it we would have never come to that. We would have never been able to watch what we were seeing coming in from the set or watch the rehearsals and go, Wait a minute, I see something else in this person. Something that I wasn’t expecting. And then write to that.
MZS: Can I follow up on that and ask: Have you or any of the other writers on the show taken a character in a different direction or given a character some different type of business or some new ability based on the actors? Or had a conversation with the actors, can you give me an example?
PG: Absolutely. Bob, I don’t know if you’re there, but Bob is — you’re well known for your British accents, aren’t you? You’re incredible at good British accents, isn’t that right?
BO: I’m renowned for being able to cram all the various accents of Britain into one sound.
PG: And I believe you’re also known for your singing abilities.
BO: I am. Equally. I am used as a reference point. I don’t know for what. What not to do.
PG: Since we know this about Bob, any time that we can have him sing or do a British accent, those are things we certainly — Michael is so musical that having him play the piano was a natural —
RS: He can play, really well.
PG: You are musical though.
MM: I play the guitar.
PG: You play the guitar. If we had had a guitar.
RS: Bob is a renowned bagpipe player, though.
RG: I want to get you out of your comfort zone.
Audience member 4: This is a question for Peter. How is the writing process for Better Call Saul different from Breaking Bad, by virtue of it being a prequel? And what I mean by that is are there certain threads, plot threads, that you in the writers room want to go down but then you realize we can’t contradict this background detail that we introduced in Breaking Bad? Does that force you to be a bit more creative with how you develop different ideas and story lines but still be within the lines at least. We want Mike to shoot Hector Salamanca but we know that he can’t by virtue of Hector still being alive. We know that Jimmy never meets Gus. So, how does that force you to develop, or maybe work a little bit backwards?
PG: You picked two great examples. We have 62 episodes of Breaking Bad that we decided we want to abide by. I’ve had people pitch to me that actually maybe Jimmy never becomes Saul Goodman and that just turns out to be an alternate take. But we’re squares so we won’t do that. It makes our lives incredibly difficult that we know some of these characters never met each other. There are characters we’d love to have on from Breaking Bad who we just know met Jimmy/Saul for the first time on Breaking Bad. We'll come up with pitches and then someone will have to say, Well, it always seemed like Jimmy didn’t know this character or that character or Saul didn’t know this character or that character and so those wonderful pitches will have to go in the trash for the moment. So as you said, certain limitations actually force you to be a little more creative.
We experience this, we do this all the time to ourselves. The example I remember on Breaking Bad was that in the fifth season we had this machine gun, we flashed forward and we saw Walt with a beard, the house was all destroyed and in his trunk he had this machine gun. That’s more or less how it went. We had no idea how he was going to use the machine gun or who he was going to use it on and I can’t tell you how many times in the writers room Vince would say, "Oh we could do anything if we just didn’t have that that fucking machine gun in the trunk." And we keep doing this to ourselves because now we have Omaha and we know certain things about Omaha that we’ve learned and then the disappear-er and there’s all kind of things that we know that we want to abide by. We know a little bit about Chuck’s wife Rebecca. These are all things that are limitations but they often turn out to be the seeds of ideas and one of the tricks I think we learned on Breaking Bad was that a lot of time when people talk about writing they talk about going in the future and figuring out where you’re going and: Okay, we’re going to put these landmarks up in the future and this is where we’re going to go and the characters are going to do this and that and the other thing.
That’s valuable in itself but the thing I don’t hear people talking about that I think is just as valuable is going backward in your story. And saying, Is there, what was it they said about this, what was that look that Kim gave Jimmy in that particular scene? What did that mean? Or, I always thought this about the way these two characters were but maybe there’s another way to look at it. So we spent a lot of time actually going over territory that we’ve already been in and trying to figure out if there’s more use to be made of the material that’s already been on the show. And I think that’s one of the things that hopefully makes it feel, as much as we can, makes it feel like an integrated whole.
MZS: Somebody once built a very convincing case to me that this entire show was just Saul’s expanded fantasy while he was working at Cinnabon. That was the saddest thing I’d ever heard in my life.
PG: Would you guys find that satisfying? Show of hands?
Audience member 5: Hi, thank you for doing this. One of my favorite parts of this season was the montages that we see. I’m thinking of Kim and the rainbow Post-it notes or Jimmy trying to get fired with the wacky inflatable-arm man. Can you talk a little bit about how you conceive these montages and what it’s like to execute them?
RS: Well, conceive them.
PG: Talk about, what was it like to do, Kim with the Post-it notes?
RS: So much fun! So that’s five, right? Rebecca.
PG: Written by Amy Cherkis and directed by John Shiban.
RS: Amy wrote that great scene that starts my journey with "You don’t save me, I save me," which is also such a lovely scene to play. Then we go into this, Kim’s life, "I’m going to do this. I’m fixing this myself." This motto that she clings to for dear life of like "I can fix myself." So there was this huge montage scene and it was mostly me by myself that day. We had I think nine phone calls in total plus pocket dialogue, which is text that’s written past where you’re talking that they can use as additional dialogue. So there could be music over it or they’re going to cut in and out of it but you need to do all of it and act all of it. So it was about nine phone calls plus and then you said that you wanted it to look like it took place probably over four days. She doesn’t have an office anymore so they’re at various locations trying to find some degree of privacy. That meant that we took all of those phone calls and shot portions of them over and over in four different outfits in a variety of locations. Which actually takes a long time. It doesn’t seem like it would but it does.
It was an awesome day because the crew — it became like a pit crew because to get it done in 12 hours you’re also looking for a place to put on your mic and change the costume and then makeup and hair has got to fix that and prop people are trying to remember which color Post-it I had with which name on it and where it went. And I, to keep the phone calls straight so that they looked real, wrote the other half of them. I wrote the dialogue that the person would be saying back to me so that I could keep straight. You know a cold call to a friend’s mom in college is different than "a guy that I hang out with told me that his boss may have a case for me." There’s varying degrees of cold call and how you would speak to somebody and what they’re saying back to you so I’m trying to keep that straight with the names that are on the Post-its. And if they had turned the camera around, you have literally like this pit crew trying to change me as fast as they can and tell me what day it is and who. They were amazing.
Everybody helped me do it. As Bob said earlier, it is an amazing experience to think you know what you shot and then see what Kelley Dixon or Skip MacDonald or Chris Caleb in season one does with it. The fact that she displaced my dialogue from me speaking. There’s times in the montage where the dialogue is not matching my mouth and it’s even more disconcerting, you even get more how much Kim was trying to do and the “My Way,” which was brilliant. Who picked that?
PG: That was John Shiban’s choice, I believe.
RS: So great.
MM: What impressed me about that scene in particular was that I knew you were speaking to a different person each time. There were no two phone calls that were alike because there are no two people that you’re exactly alike with on the phone. Different level of "I know you from this or this or this, don’t you remember we met here?" Or we’ve know each other for 15 years. The timbre of the scene worked for me along with the brilliant cutting. It was every phone call was a real phone call.
MM: I was really impressed.
MZS: That is a great scene and also because it’s about two things that television doesn’t usually dwell on, which is work, the actual details of work, and rejection. There’s a lot of rejection on the show. And you see them power through.
RS: And then you see the case taken away from me and that beautiful wide where I’m left standing by myself. I love the number of lawyers that have come up to me and said you’re right, it’s not a procedural. So we do some scenes with legalese but by and large the lawyers that have reached out to me have said like, Thank you for showing the work it takes. Like the actual grunt work and the politics of the hierarchy of getting ahead and getting squashed back down and all that. So we pay a lot of attention to detail in that.