Summer 2020

Bad To the Bone

Although it's a prequel, the directors of Better Call Saul treat the series like its own animal, with no detail too small, and no situation too outrageous

By Ann Farmer

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Better Call Saul Bob Odenkirk Tom Schnauz
Tom Schnauz, in cap, on location filming episode 9 for Season 5 of Better Call Saul, with Bob Odenkirk in the title role. (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

When Jimmy McGill accidentally drops his mint chip ice-cream cone on the sidewalk in the final moments of Better Call Saul's episode two this season, there is no apparent reason to dwell on it. Jimmy climbs into a vehicle. The cone stays behind.

"It seems like an incidental thing," says Michael Morris, who directed the following episode three. But this, after all, is Better Call Saul, a TV series where every camera shot has a reason for being. "There is nothing accidental," says Morris.

Picking up where things left off, the first image Morris brandishes is the cone again, which has landed upside down, a large red harvester ant now scurrying toward it. Morris instructed the camera to close in tight to provide a microscopic examination of the ant's beady orbs, its six crooked legs, its bulbous exoskeleton, its pincer-like jaws and its antennae raking the waffled contours of the cone that it scales to its very tip. A soundscape of Alpine yodel music accompanies its victorious free solo. Not far behind, though, are literally 2,000 other red harvester ants clambering over each other to procure their share of the sweet goods.

"To me, it's a mini-story of unintended consequences," says Morris, referring to how the show is about the evolution of earnest, small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) into sleazy, nimble-tongued Saul Goodman. ("It's all good, man!" Get it?) The ramifications of his legal maneuvers on behalf of criminals may not always be pretty to watch. But it is the sly visual splendor of scenes like this one and how the gripping story often unfolds without anyone uttering a word that make Better Call Saul one of the most interesting shows to direct on television today.

"Directing Saul is a gift," says Michelle MacLaren, also known for directing Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. "There is a style and a freedom to the show. You get to do things that are kind of outrageous at times. But you are always telling the story."

MacLaren, for instance, gleefully directed the cold open of "Mijo" (Season 1) with a blurry red image accompanied by the distinct sound of knife hackings. It conjures any number of bloody suppositions: "Is it a body?" suggests MacLaren. "Oh, it's just vegetables. But, oh no, it's Tuco," she adds, referring to how she sharpened the focus to show diced red peppers, then widened the frame to reveal Tuco, a sociopathic Mexican drug kingpin. Viewers now know to fasten their seatbelts.

Better Call Saul started as a joke in the Breaking Bad writers' room. That series, created by Vince Gilligan, tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, NM, who becomes a ruthless crystal meth producer and dealer. He hires the shady lawyer Saul Goodman to handle his legal snafus and more. "Anytime someone came up with a good idea that was just a little too crazy for Breaking Bad," recalls director and writer Peter Gould, "we'd say, ‘We'll do that in the Saul Goodman spin-off.' But I didn't put too much weight behind that."

It turned out, Breaking Bad was so popular and Goodman so relished by viewers that AMC embraced the idea of a prequel. Thus Gould and Gilligan teamed up to co-create and executive produce BCS. Over five seasons, BCS has steadily reintroduced characters from Breaking Bad such that the two series should finally fully mesh in its next and final season.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Better Call Saul Michael Morris

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Better Call Saul Michelle McLaren
(Top) Michael Morris, with arms crossed, discusses a scene with Odenkirk during Season 4 of the series that acts as a prequel to Breaking Bad; (Bottom) Michelle MacLaren, a veteran of Breaking Bad, works with the cast during Season 1 of the spinoff, Better Call Saul. (Photos: (Top) Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television); (Bottom) Lewis Jacobs/AMC

Gould initially composed a "look book" to give guest directors a feel for its style. He no longer knows where it is. "One of the things that gives it its evolution and forward motion and keeps it fresh," he says, "is that the directors all have their unique vision. We end up bouncing off each other."

There are visual trademarks: a spontaneity to the compositions. The unexpected angles. "It's a visual style where things are off-kilter in a way," says director Tom Schnauz. "Things are framed to the side. Or the compositions are big and the characters small."

Morris, who studied every episode of both series before tackling his first, says: "It's got that slightly absurdist tint to it. Always beautiful. Sometimes banal. Always at the same time."

Shot in and around Albuquerque, the series is engorged with desert scenes that highlight the enormity and eloquence of the western landscape. Gilligan's most recent episode, "Bagman," looks and feels like a classic Western, only inhabited with armed drug runners instead of cowboys and Indians. Following some unforeseen circumstances, Jimmy and a corrupt former cop, Mike (Jonathan Banks), are wandering the desert with two heavy bags of cash. The sun is beating. They are dying of thirst. If it sounds tragic, it's actually hilarious.

With such dark subject matter, "If there's ever a moment for a laugh," says Schnauz, they beeline for it. Schnauz wrote and directed the episode following "Bagman," which continues with the two men stuck in the desert, only worse off. Schnauz found risible ways to keep kicking Jimmy in the balls using a split-screen montage, which contrasts Jimmy with Kim, his girlfriend, played by Rhea Seehorn, who's at home in a panic: On her side of the screen, Kim dabs her face with water. On his, Jimmy smears the dirty sweat on his brow. Kim pours herself a refreshing drink of water. Jimmy pulls out his bottle of yellow piss and forces down a disgusting gulp.

Schnauz storyboards key moments, scratching out stick figures or images that pop into his head, which he might later put into action. "For my most recent episode, I drew a shot of Kim looking through a bullet hole in a coffee mug, which mirrored an image of our villain Lalo looking through a bullet hole of Jimmy's [Suzuki] Esteem." Schnauz explains: "Mirror images are something I personally try to do," especially since Better Call Saul can feel like two parallel storylines—Saul's unfolding and the cartel turf conflict. "So viewers feel there is a connection between the two.

"Time is the biggest challenge," Schnauz continues. The directors have eight days to prep and nine to shoot. Twice Schnauz drove out to the To'hajiilee Indian Reservation, where Gilligan was shooting—once to scout and once to see how Jimmy's car landed after being pushed into a ravine. Because it's private land, the car had to be yanked after Gilligan's shoot and placed back for Schnauz's. The only problem was, rains washed sediment away. The ravine was 10 feet lower. That also made it harder for a stuntman to jump down. They placed a cushion to soften his landing. "He said, ‘Yeah, I can do this,'" recalls Schnauz. "When I saw him do it in the wide shot, I said that's all I need."

You might think, since it's a prequel, the directors would be fixated on making the actors look younger than they appeared on Breaking Bad. Not so. "It is what it is," says Morris, who views the inconsistency as part of its unique texture. "I think it gives the show some of its weirdness and personality."

The directors are instead more concerned with character development. These characters are not yet the self-assured, hardened souls they evince on Breaking Bad. "It's a prequel," says MacLaren. "Even Tuco, we had to remind ourselves, they are not those people yet."

In the beginning, for instance, Jimmy may engage in some crazy stuff, but he is not acting devious. "He's a good lawyer. He has heart and he cares," says MacLaren, who worked with Odenkirk to calibrate his performance in an early scene that resulted in one of BCS's most indelible moments. It starts with a pair of skate-boarding twins who foolhardily try to pull a scam on Tuco's beloved granny. Tuco seeks revenge. The twins appeal to Jimmy. It ends with Jimmy saving their necks by talking Tuco into breaking their legs instead. "Bob and I talked a lot about how he's not Saul yet," says MacLaren, "even when he's negotiating with those guys in the desert, his stomach is turning. 'Oh, my god, I can't believe I'm doing this.'"

It was a tough scene to direct: seven characters. Fourteen pages. A desert setting with a fast-shifting sun. MacLaren is not inclined to show gratuitous violence. Since Gilligan had mentioned using a '70s-style zoom shot for the previous episode, she decided to echo it in a bypass of Tuco's gruesome leg stompings. "I'll do a slow zoom, and just as we get past seeing the leg, Tuco can jump on it and we'll keep pushing into Jimmy." The shot lands on Jimmy's pained grimace, making clear what he's seeing. "Bob is so brilliant," says MacLaren. "It's so twisted, it's funny. You're never forcing the comedy. You play it real and grounded and as if this is really happening."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Better Call Saul Vince Gilligan

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 beter Call Saul Tony Dalton
(Top) Vince Gilligan, who co-created the series with Peter Gould, wears his director's hat while consulting with actors Mark Margolis (in wheelchair) and Tony Dalton during filming; (Bottom) Gould, right, between takes with actors Rhea Seehorn and Odenkirk. (Photos: (Top) Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television; (Bottom)Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Then MacLaren delivered another visual payoff. She shoots Jimmy furiously wheeling one of the twins into the ER, cutting to his broken leg dangling freakishly backward. "You are the worst lawyer ever," the twin spits. "I am the best lawyer ever," Jimmy responds, and you can see in his face that he believes it.

"So much directing is really about working with people and communicating," says Gould, adding that it is absolutely necessary to cast the right actors for the roles. "We try to set our directors up for success."

Gould weighed in on last season's shrewd casting choice of Tony Dalton to play Lalo, a clever, ruthless cartel member who oozes charisma. "We knew it as soon as we saw him," says Gould, referring to Dalton's self-tape audition when he seamlessly switched from English to Spanish. "Tony brings such a light touch to the darkness of the character." Gould also oversaw the casting of Seehorn as Kim, whose fate remains agonizingly uncertain. She never appeared in Breaking Bad. But when she acted in the pilot opposite Odenkirk, "We could see the chemistry," says Gould.

Although it's a killer cast, countless shots advance the story without any dialogue. When Jimmy and Kim escape to a hotel fearful that Lalo's out to get them, Gould cut to a close-up of the noisy wheels of the luggage cart frantically racing into the hotel. "I was hoping it would be a little bit shocking," he says, "especially since the previous scene is a little quiet. I thought we needed a little cymbal crash to help us get into Jimmy and Kim's state of paranoia."

When Morris shot a cavernous bar scene, he imbued it with the melancholic feel of an Edward Hopper painting. Mike, the only customer in the joint, is in a foul mood. He's reflecting on someone he took there, whom he later regrettably executed. Morris wanted to emphasize his remorse—even if viewers experience it only subliminally—by framing the scene with an open space next to Mike. "You don't need to track why everything is what it is," says Morris. "If it's consistent and it's done with care over a period of time, it will add up to something meaningful."

Another fine shot shows Mike, a guy without fancy tastes, entering a super-ostentatious hotel for a clandestine meeting with a patronizing conspirator. He pauses to look quizzically at a lobby sculpture. "He looks at that statue like, 'Is this art?'" says MacLaren, who was staying there and immediately recognized it as a place Mike would never enter. His discomfort, therefore, enhances the scene's tension. "If you can say a lot in one shot," says MacLaren, "and immediately set up the scenario or put the viewer into that mindset, great."

Thoughtful lighting is another oft-used device. In a scene where Mike takes a call from an underworld associate, he walks out of the sun into shadow. It wasn't an accident. "I wanted him to walk into darkness," says Schnauz, as if he's getting in deeper.

Most seasons end dramatically. "When shooting the final episode," says Gould, who directed the latest, "you want to whet everyone's appetite for tuning in next season."

He wrapped with a bloody rampage of Lalo's Mexican compound by hitmen. Because it involved firearms shooting blanks and three handheld cameras running simultaneously, Gould planned carefully. Then he posted his storyboard on set—broken down in shooting order—so everyone could be fully prepared. It also required a special prop: a secret tunnel under Lalo's bathtub that he uses to escape. "That was a different kind of challenge," says Gould, who was in and out of mockups determining its size and ensuring that a pickle on a techno crane could easily dip in and out. Gould was able to tell Dalton, "You go as fast as you want. The camera will keep up with you."

The camera also kept up with the 2,000 red ants that inhabited that haunting cold open in episode three by Morris. His first task was to locate an ant wrangler. One insisted he could train ants to walk in a line. Later he backed down, saying, "They don't listen." Another, however, knew just what to do. "You cool them down. They get slow," says Morris, who shot the ants on a studio tabletop using high-speed film and a periscope lens that got within fractions of a millimeter. There was also some unique hands-on directing involved. "What you don't see," says Morris, "are giant fingers coming in and nudging ants left and right."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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