Inside ‘Better Call Saul’ with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould

Better Call Saul Interview
On the set of ‘Better Call Saul’ with Bob Odenkirk, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan. (Photo by Lewis Jacobs/AMC)

What did we learn about the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul during the 2014 summer Television Critics Association press event? The prequel will be set in 2002, six years before attorney Saul Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk) became an integral player in the lives of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. In addition to Odenkirk, the cast will include Jonathan Banks as fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, Michael McKean as Chuck, Rhea Seehorn as Kim, Patrick Fabian as Hamlin, and Michael Mando as Nacho. And we also learned the basic plot:

“When we meet him, the man who will become Saul Goodman is known as Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer searching for his destiny, and, more immediately, hustling to make ends meet. Working alongside, and often against, Jimmy is ‘fixer’ Mike Erhmantraut, a beloved character introduced in Breaking Bad. The series will track Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman, the man who puts ‘criminal’ in criminal lawyer. The series’ tone is dramatic, woven through with dark humor.” – per AMC

Series creators/showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould also provided a few juicy tidbits on the possibility of Breaking Bad favorites making appearances on the show as well as more of what Breaking Bad fans can expect from this much anticipated series while at the TCAs.

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould Better Call Saul Interview

Peter, what was your inspiration for creating Saul in the first place?

Peter Gould: “Well, it’s true I did originate him, but I think everything that comes out of – and I think Vince would agree – everything that came out of the Breaking Bad writers’ room and everything that comes out of Better Call Saul writers’ room is a group effort. This is all work that we do together, and I think the evolution of Saul came about really because there was a gap or opening in the Breaking Bad universe. We had these – as most of you probably know or maybe some of you do – in Breaking Bad Season 2 we had planned originally to be all about Walt and Jesse versus Tuco. And then because of actors’ scheduling, we essentially had to kill Tuco in Episode 2, and we were left with the situation where we had these two guys who were great at cooking meth but shitty at selling it. And we started thinking about what are the problems they’re going to have? How are these guys going to evolve as characters but also in a business? We realized we needed somebody to help them if they got into a particular situation where, you know, if you’re doing the things that they’re doing, some people are going to get arrested and you’re going to need a lawyer.

We talked a lot about this character Saul Goodman, and I have to say it was a leap into the void for me because I think the show, if you look at the show up to Episode 208, which is where we were, there were some very, very funny parts of it. And in a lot of ways, Hank was one of the most amusing characters, and the relationship with Walt and Jesse was very funny, but I feel like Saul kind of moved the universe two degrees to the left. I’ll speak for myself, I was so worried that somehow we were going to break open the Breaking Bad universe and he wouldn’t quite fit. He’d be this puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. And Vince knew what he had a vision for this universe that I guess none of us completely encompassed, and lo and behold, this weird puzzle piece of Saul Goodman who is this slippery lawyer in the crazy suits in the crazy office, he fit. He made the drama more dramatic and the comedy more comedyesque, if that’s a word.

So that was it was really about. I think, in a lot of ways, Saul Goodman was about solving a problem. But it was also so much fun to write a character who was this slippery and loquacious and where we had Walt White who, especially as we kept on writing him, he got deeper and heavier and, of course, Bryan was always very funny also. But there was a heaviness to Walter White, a depth, and here we had this other character who was kind of skidding over the top of the waves in the scene, and for some reason, it seemed to work. I don’t know if that answered your question but that was the evolution of Saul Goodman, as I remember it.”

Do you have to do anything to make it period to early 2000s?

Vince Gilligan: “Yeah, it is period. It is. We never completely nailed down when Breaking Bad took place. We were shooting the pilot in 2007. We tried hard on Breaking Bad, if you noticed, we tried hard to not be too specific as to when it was. But now we have to kind of be a little more specific than sometimes we’re comfortable with. But I think we’re about in the year 2002.

It’s funny, you learn so much from doing this job. You learn so much from your actors and from your crew and everybody. Like in one of the first meetings, our Teamster captain who was in charge of finding picture vehicles and our hair and makeup folks and everybody was saying to us, ‘So 2002?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and they said, ‘Well, we need period specific cars.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, right.’

So it’s, I hesitate to say it, but it is indeed a period piece that I can’t believe it myself. It feels like it was yesterday, but it was 12 years ago. So yeah, there is a certain amount of effort and blood, sweat, and tears that goes into making it as factual, related to the period as possible.”

There are a couple of new characters joining the show who we don’t know from Breaking Bad. Can you give us any details about them?

Peter Gould: “We are very excited. We have Michael McKean playing a character named Chuck. I think some of our casting breakdown got out and I noticed that some people have different last names for this character, but in fact, McKean plays Bob’s brother, so we have these two comedy legends working together, which is kind of exciting. He’s playing Saul’s brother and I think he’s one of the main characters we’ve introduced. We’re certainly having a lot of fun and he’s just a tremendous performer. He’s just great. And he also answers questions about Spinal Tap.”

Vince Gilligan: “Yes. I could talk to him all day about Spinal Tap on the set. I was fortunate enough to work with him The X-Files and on The Lone Gunmen show. It was great getting reacquainted with him because I hadn’t seen him in about a decade or more, actually since 2002, because that’s when The X-Files ended. Great guy.

Then we got Rhea Seehorn, who is a wonderful actress. She is just as cute as she can be and just a wonderful, funny actress, but also capable of a great deal of depth. She was a lot of fun to work with. Can we talk about who she is? I don’t know if we can. And Michael Mando. He’s an excellent young actor. I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to give away about plot points and whatnot. These are two other actors we’re enjoying working with very much.”

Peter Gould: “There are a lot of lawyers and crooks. I know that will come as a big surprise.


So in theory we know where this story is going. How limited are you by Breaking Bad as a series and where Saul goes, and just by where you’ve already written yourself?

Vince Gilligan: “That’s a damn good question. It’s a challenge.”

Peter Gould: “You know, it reminds me a lot of when we started Season 5 and we had the machine gun in the trunk, and we said to ourselves we knew that that was the right image at the beginning of Season 5, but we had no idea how the hell we were going to get there.”

Vince Gilligan: “Or what it was going to be used on or how it was going to be used. It’s a leap of faith or stupidity into the unknown, and that’s a very good analogy and example because it is. I thought it was going to be kind of easy going forward, ‘Ah, we know who this guy is.’ We didn’t really know who this guy is at all, when you think about it. He was a really interesting supporting character and suddenly Peter and I have taken long, long walks around Burbank, our old Breaking Bad writers’ offices, saying, ‘No, wait a minute, how does this work?’ So it’s a very interesting process, and there are certain limits that you have obviously identified yourself. We know where this guy is going. We can’t, for instance, in the first episode have him lose an arm or an eye or something like that.”

Peter Gould: “Although he could be partially mechanical in Breaking Bad. We never saw, I think, the full extent of his right arm or left arm.”

Vince Gilligan: “Well, maybe so. He could have a glass eye.”

Is there an equivalent of the machine gun in the trunk that you’ve either written in the pilot for this or something you have as a point you’re aiming at?

Peter Gould: “I would say the character you meet in Breaking Bad, and Breaking Bad itself in a certain way, is the machine gun in the trunk because we know that that’s where the guy is going to end up. Or that we’re going to see him, we’re going to bring him to that point. It’s a challenge because, you know, we ask ourselves a lot because as on Breaking Bad, we know that that’s not the name he was born with. And one of the questions we ask ourselves a lot was what problem does being Saul Goodman solve? And that sort of was our kickoff point.”

Vince Gilligan: “We ask it at least two or three times a week in the room now. And I’ll be honest with you, it’s a challenge but we’re having fun, and we’re plugging away. We’re breaking episode 8 out of 10, 10 being the first season order. And it’s challenging, but it’s fun. It’s like being really into this Rubik’s Cube you’re trying to solve. Although having said that, I’ve never actually solved one in my life.”

Did you lose access to certain actors like Dean Norris?

Vince Gilligan: “Well, I’m sure there are actors and there are some of them, we can’t name names because we don’t want to give too much away, but there are some probably, if we thought about it, we know we couldn’t get them now and there’s others who we haven’t looked into and we don’t know whether they’re available or not, but the best way to answer it I guess, suffice it to say that we’re having fun telling the story. We’re having fun finding ways to make it completely new and fresh. We’re also having fun finding ways to loop it back to 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. With that in mind, we’re taking it on a case by case, actor by actor basis.

Have you talked about Bryan Cranston directing an episode, and does it make any sense to have Walter White appear?

Vince Gilligan: “If it makes sense, we’ll do it. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t.”

Peter Gould: “Having said that, Bryan’s a terrific director.”

Vince Gilligan: “I meant as an actor. Yeah, he’s a great director too. You’re right. I’d love to have him as a director. He’s an Emmy nominated director.”

Peter Gould: “He’s a little bit busy, unfortunately. He’s a hard man to get.”

Vince Gilligan: “We’d be happy to have him in any capacity because he’s a great guy. He’s first and foremost a wonderful human being. Everybody says that in this business but it really is true. He’s a great guy. He’s always a pleasure and a joy to have around. They all were, so if we can find ways, selfishly, to have them around in any capacity, we’ll do it. Character-wise, who knows? Maybe there’s a way to do it.”

How hard do you have to work to figure out where you’re going to tell something traditionally and where you’re going to break the mold?

Vince Gilligan: “Oh, it’s very hard. It’s like reinventing the wheel. You sit there and you get six real smart people around you and you sit there and stare at the ceiling all day long and say, ‘What’s a different kind of wheel?’ It’s hard. And you don’t do it every time out.”

Peter Gould: “We spend a lot of time saying, ‘What are we used to seeing? Is there a way for us to do the opposite?’ But on the other hand, sometimes we do just what everybody else does.”

Vince Gilligan: “As in sometimes there’s the one right and proper and fitting and satisfying way to do it. Sometimes you can ‘reinvent the wheel’ to a fault and you can say, ‘Well, we’re going to do what’s different to almost a nihilistic degree.’ Sometimes if you can satisfy the audience, that’s a pretty obvious thought but so be it. Sometimes reinventing the wheel is not the most intelligent way to go.”

Breaking Bad owed a lot to Westerns in terms of cinematography and landscape. Are you keeping that visual palette?

Vince Gilligan: “Another reason I love having Peter as a part of it is he used to teach this stuff at USC. He is even more interested in the visual stuff than I am, if possible. He came into this project with a great idea both of frame grabs from classic movies like Bertolluci’s The Conformist. We talked about a lot of Kubrick. Yes, the short answer is it’s the same way important to us, and it’s important to us that this not look like a carbon copy of Breaking Bad. I was thinking that as I was directing the first episode. Peter was always thinking about that as well and really thinking about it. He’s directing the final episode of this first season. As we were talking about, it’s hard to reinvent the wheel. There’s only so many places you can put a camera to tell a story because ultimately every story is about this. Having said that, we’re doing our damnedest to make it as different as possible and we’re not shooting on film anymore.”

Peter Gould: “And it’s interesting too because we’ve got a character who talks so much. He talks so much, Bob has page after page after page of dialogue. He’s working so hard.”

Vince Gilligan: “And he’s doing great.”

Peter Gould: “But what he’s saying is not always what the scene is really about. So what we try to do is to have the visuals tease out what’s really going on in the scene. Our goal is to do a show that you can’t just listen to. You have to watch it too to really understand what’s going on, so we always say if you go make a sandwich, you won’t be able to follow the story. That’s our hope.”

Walt met Gus through Saul so of all the characters you could bring back, it seems like Gus would be one of the most obvious ones. Plus, we also never found out what the deal was with chili. Any chance of bringing him back and resolving that?

Vince Gilligan: “There’s always a chance, yeah.”

Peter Gould: “You know, these are all characters we love. You talk about Gus. There’s so much more to say about that character, and, you know, we certainly love Giancarlo. So, you know, there’s always a possibility. Having said that, we’re trying to make something that stands on its own that has entertainment value, that’s not just seeing a series of old favorites or remember when. It’s not the series equivalent of a clip show, so we try to balance these things out. But I agree there’s so much to be said about Gus, and you’re right. I don’t know in the series, but it always seemed to me that Saul didn’t know Gus directly. He knew a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy.”

Vince Gilligan: “Yeah. I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say we’re still feeling our way through this. We’re plugging away on the eighth episode, figuring out just how, if and when to perhaps see some of these characters.”

At what point did you know you weren’t going to make the original premiere date? Did it have anything to do with how much pressure is on this and expectations?

Vince Gilligan: “I’m going to take full responsibility for this and tell you the true story of this thing, which is that we could have made the deadline. You feel free to argue…”

Peter Gould: “I’m going to contradict you entirely.”

Vince Gilligan: “I am slow as mud as a TV writer. I always have been. It was my big fear when I got the job on The X-Files. I had been writing movie scripts and I didn’t know if I could write at a TV pace. I still feel I’m very slow for television. We had a pace, thanks to AMC and Sony, on Breaking Bad that was deliciously…”

Peter Gould: “…stately.”

Vince Gilligan: “…stately for television, and it was nothing that they wanted. I think I can speak for them. It’s nothing any studio or network would want, but we have a way of doing things that is slower than most TV shows. And I think we averaged three weeks per episode just breaking episodes. We did on Breaking Bad and low and behold, not a big surprise to me, we’re doing the same thing with Better Call Saul because we want to think everything through. We feel that that pays dividends because with Breaking Bad, people say, ‘That seemed to knit together pretty well.’ That and the largest factor for that being the case is because we had, thankfully thanks to AMC and Sony, we had time to think everything through.

So, here we are doing it again. I think we could have made November, but the bigger point is could we have made our 13 coming in at the same time with Season 2? And AMC was very gracious to us and did not push us to say, ‘You’ve got figure out a new way to do this job.’ Because, A) they’re good folks who were understanding of our process and, B) I think they also know we only know the one way to do it. So they were very understanding, and that is the entire reason we pushed for this show, and it’s also the entire reason our final 16 episodes of Breaking Bad were broken up eight and eight. There was no desire on anybody’s part to sort of elongate it artificially. It was me saying to AMC and Sony, ‘I think we can do this in the time allotted.’ They were very understanding and we were all kind of biting our nails over it. Luckily, it worked out very well for Breaking Bad. So that’s what you’re seeing here, and they’ve been good to us, which is why we like working with them.”

Do you see Better Call Saul as the same kind of show where it sort of fits together like a watch and you, as you’ve said, uses every part of the buffalo, or is this like a looser show where you can do more standalone episodes and things that don’t necessarily resolve?

Peter Gould: “I’m going to be honest. So far we like, as you just said, to use every part of the buffalo. There’s a lot of focus on cause and effect and what does this mean to this character and what does that mean to that character and where was that car parked when we saw it last, and just to be very consistent with the universe. We find that having that discipline just helps make it feel very consistent. So I have to say I think we could someday…it’s not out of the question that we would do standalone episodes. But we seem to be following a rhythm where it locks together.”

Vince Gilligan: “I mean, we talked about this show, what it could be. We even had a version where it was kind of… What was that show? Dr. Katz, where a different person comes in. There’s like a version where you’re always in his office and different interesting people come in with their different legal problems. We talked about every possibility, and we always want to do something new.

We always want to create something, which is hard. It’s hard to reinvent the wheel. There’s really only one wheel. I love the expression ‘Swiss watch’. I hope it will rise to that. That is our intention is to make it feel that way. But that kind of storytelling, it makes me feel that the world we are spending so many hours on working in a room together and ignoring, unfortunately, our families or whatnot, all the time, all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into that kind of storytelling, giving it that kind of attention makes it, to me at least, feel worthwhile, because it makes the universe – hopefully it does for the audience – makes it first and foremost feel as real as possible for us. It’s like we’re doing this mass conjuring, all the writers together, trying to imagine every nuance, every detail. Doesn’t mean we always succeed, but when you do that, the more real it feels for us, at least judged by the example to us of Breaking Bad, the more real it seems to feel for the viewers. It’s a hell of a lot of work, but I don’t know how to do it any other way now.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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