By Iain Blair
Having a legal issue? Thinking of calling someone who has a questionable relationship with the rule of law? Jimmy McGill? Saul Goodman? Or, maybe, Gene, the lonely Cinnabon store manager? The slippery, shady, shape-shifting character — played beautifully by multiple Emmy-nominee Bob Odenkirk — is at the heart of Better Call Saul, the spin-off prequel to AMC’s Breaking Bad. But if you want to know what’s going on under the hood of the show, you better call writer/showrunner Peter Gould.
A Sony Pictures Television and AMC Studios co-production, Better Call Saul is executive produced by co-creators Gould and Vince Gilligan, as well as Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Diner, Rain Man), Melissa Bernstein (Breaking Bad, Rectify, Halt and Catch Fire) and Breaking Bad alums Thomas Schnauz and Gennifer Hutchison. The show recently won a Peabody Award in the Entertainment category and has racked up wins and nominations from pretty much every organization that hands them out, including Primetime Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, AFI and the WGA.
For those of you who are champing at the bit for a new season this summer, you must be patient. The new season isn’t set to premiere until 2020, so maybe binge watch some Saul or even Breaking Bad to get you through!
I recently spoke with Gould about making the show and the latest on the Breaking Bad movie.
Do you enjoy being a showrunner?
I love it. In my opinion it’s the greatest job in show business. It’s a privilege to get to work with all the people on this, and it’s a fantastic situation. If the show falls short I only have myself to blame, as the cast and crew are all extraordinary.
What are the big challenges of showrunning Better Call Saul?
The number one challenge is always figuring out the story and how to tell the story in the most interesting and engaging way… while being as true as possible to the characters we’ve created, and then how to create the most cinematic experience that we can. By that, I mean using every tool we have available in production and post.
How far along are you Season 5?
Today we’re shooting the last day of Episode 3. Episode 4 starts next week, and we’re breaking the last episode, which is number 10. We’re also in the middle of cutting the first three episodes, so there’s a lot going on.
What can fans expect? Will we see more of Gene Takovic, the man Jimmy McGill becomes after he becomes Saul Goodman?
I think it’s safe to say that we’re very interested in Gene. There’s a lot more to be said about him, and fans can expect that. One of the fun things about Gene is that his scenes are in black-and-white, so it gives us a very different space to play in visually.
Why such a long wait from season four until five airs next year?
There’s a lot of moving parts, and we do our best each season to craft the best show we can. So the time is actually spent more in the writing than in the production or post, which are more predictable in terms of schedules. Then there’s the matter of scheduling with the network and other outlets. But I think it’s about the same, month to month. It takes us about 14 months to do a season from start to finish; that seems to be how it works on this. I’m not proud of that, as there are a lot of other TV shows that make a lot more episodes in a lot less time, but we can’t seem to do it much faster and keep up the high quality we all aim for.
Are you still shooting in Albuquerque?
Absolutely. That setting and all the locations are a very important part of the show.
Where do you post, and do you like the post process?
I love working on all the post, and I work closely with our post EP Diane Mercer and the people at our post facility, Keep Me Posted, which is our partner and part of Fotokem in Burbank. We do the audio mix at Wildtracks in Hollywood. Phillip Palmer does our production sound mixing, and Kevin Valentine and Larry Benjamin do all our re-recording mixing. They’re just the best there is.
Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Our editors — Skip Macdonald and Chris McCaleb — cut the show here at our LA offices, where we also have our writers’ room. So at the start of a season, it’s very quiet because nothing much is happening there, but once production starts, every part of our offices are very busy. Then once the writers go home, all the post comes in and it’s really bustling.
What are the big editing challenges?
We have a very big cast and a lot of moving pieces in each episode. Plus there are a lot of time jumps, so we alternate with the editors. So this year Skip is on the odds and Chris is on the evens. They do their cuts and then the directors come in to do their cut. As they’re so heavily booked these days, some of them end up giving notes remotely, and we use Pix to distribute our cuts and dailies.
One of the eccentricities of the way this show’s evolved — and it’s really based on the way Vince Gilligan ran Breaking Bad, and where I learned everything I know about showrunning — is that we don’t really do a producer’s cut until fairly late in the process. There are cuts of pretty much every episode before we close production, but we don’t fully address post until after production has closed, especially on a season like number three.
When I direct the season finale, that creates a big hole in the production schedule, and as soon as I get back we start working on the producer’s cut. Generally, I’ll give notes on the director’s cut and editor’s cut, and the editors will execute those on their own. Then I’ll end up spending about a week with the editor on each episode. Usually, the writer and maybe another producer will sit in too. And often an EP like Tom Schnauz will sit in as he has a great eye for editing, and we’ll do the producer’s cut together in that week.
You mention directing a few of the shows. Do you like directing?
I do, but I find it very stressful. I haven’t done it enough of it to lower my stress level, but I find it very creative. I think it’s very useful for the show to have a showrunner come and direct and episode now and again, as it keeps my humility level going as directing is a hard battle. It’s wonderful to be able to work with the cast and crew in such a hands-on way.
I’ve always loved every aspect of filmmaking, and I’m fascinated by it all — from the chip sensors we use to the dollies, lights and so on. I have such respect for the craft and artistry of everyone making the show, and what I’ve learned about directing is that success or failure is about the situation you’re in as much as it is about your own talent. This is a great situation.
This show has a great score, and great sound design. Where do you mix and talk about the importance of sound and music.
Nick Forshager is our sound supervisor over at Wildtracks. I’m pretty involved in all the sound, but we do things a bit different from most shows. For a start, we use almost no temp music on the cuts, for various reasons. One, it can be a bit of a crutch, and second, you get used to it, so anything new then sounds strange. We’ve trained ourselves to cut without it, and our composer Dave Porter is brilliant at spotting where music can be useful and where it’s not necessary. So we spend time spotting each episode and talk a lot about the music and sound, and I believe sound and music are the way to get to an audience’s emotion by bypassing the logical brain.
You can really enhance the drama and clue-in the audience on how to read a scene through sound design and ambient shifts. I can’t tell you how often we’ve had a scene that sort of played okay, but which just came alive when we found the right sound. There’s a great example of that in a scene at the end of Season 1 where Jimmy’s running the bingo game, and he has this nervous breakdown. We kept making the speakers worse and worse, and added some delay and we had the pops in the mic when he got too close — and it went from being a really interesting scene to one that was funnier, more public and more psychological. So we put in so much detail and it really pays off.
Where do you do the grading, and who’s the colorist?
It’s all done at Keep Me Posted and our colorist is Ted Brady. You asked earlier why it all takes so long, and one big reason is that I’m at every producer’s color session. Our DP Marshall Adams is usually there too, and we’ll go through the whole show together. It takes about a day to do one episode and make sure we’re happy with the look.
It definitely has a different look from Breaking Bad, and even from season to season.
You’re right. That was shot on film, and it was a very different process in post. Now we’re shooting digitally, there’s almost too many possibilities. We also switched cameras this season, from Reds to an ARRI LF, and it has a different look from the Red. And we began shooting night exteriors on Season Three with the Panasonic VariCam, which gave us a very interesting look — neither filmic nor digital. The other thing is that as the characters evolve and change, it just made sense to change the look too.
How long do you see the show running?
Great question! This is a show with a beginning, middle and end, and I can say we’re closer to the end than the beginning. I just hope we can stick the ending the way Vince stuck it on Breaking Bad.
What’s the latest on the Breaking Bad movie?
You tell me! Vince knows.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.