‘Better Call Saul’ Writer on Finally Entering the World of ‘Breaking Bad’
This story contains spoilers for this week’s episode of Better Call Saul, which we recapped here.
After Better Call Saul co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz is the longest-tenured writer in the entire Heisenberg-verse, having arrived in Season Three of Breaking Bad and staying through the end of the prequel series. And in a way, his involvement goes back even further, as he was the one who told Gilligan about an article he’d recently read about mobile meth labs, which got his old friend’s mental gears turning.
Now Schnauz’s tenure as both writer and director ends with the full-circle episode that is, appropriately, titled “Breaking Bad,” because it presents flashbacks where we see Saul Goodman’s first meeting with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, reprising their iconic roles) from Saul’s perspective.
Schnauz spoke with Rolling Stone about lucking into the opportunity to direct Cranston and Paul again after assuming Gilligan would get to do it, why the writing staff felt it was important to use the Walt and Jesse scenes as contrast to what Saul is up to under his new identity as Gene from Cinnabon, and a lot more.
You got to finally bring Walt and Jesse onto this show. How often was this idea discussed over the years? Was it just put off as something you would decide near the end? Was there ever a thought that you just wouldn’t do it?
I think we were always confident that they would come back at some point. We just didn’t know when or how. We started talking about this episode, where Gene was going back to his old ways. And we’re seeing what influenced him to become Saul, which was the Kim breakup and her not telling him about Lalo being alive for the reasons that she did — it really crushed the man who Jimmy McGill was. After that phone call he has at the side of the road in this episode, when he calls Florida trying to reach Kim Wexler, we don’t hear what happens on that call, but something on it brings back all the pain from the past, and his need to cover it up again. So his drug of choice is Saul Goodman, and that’s the best way to heal himself. That’s why we felt it was a good spot to flash back and forth between the two eras. And it helps pay some things off that you’ll see in the upcoming episodes.
Peter has referred to the idea of showing events on Breaking Bad from Saul’s perspective as “running through the raindrops,” and he told me once he wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Were there ever points where he or someone else in the room argued that you shouldn’t do this?
From Season One, I was a very strong proponent: “Let’s run through the raindrops.” I wanted to mix the timelines up heavily. I don’t think anybody said, “No, let’s not do this.” I think as the final season was coming, we were all like, “Well, are we going to do this or not?” And we were only going to do it if we felt it worked. And it felt like it worked here. For some reason, we were talking about doing it in 610 [the previous episode], but it felt like we didn’t have enough of Gene at that point to really say it works to bounce back and forth between the two timelines. He did the scam in 610 to get Jeff off his back, but then he got the rush of adrenaline, or whatever the drug is that helps him cover up the pain. But then he made that phone call, the pain came back, and huge, he smashes the phone, he kicks the glass, and he’s hurting and he needs to take that drug. And he slips back into it.
Did seeing Bryan and Aaron reprise those roles in El Camino — in a scene set not long after what they’re playing here — give you more confidence that they could just do it again if you brought them back?
I didn’t really know how it was going to turn out. I had to write this scene for 611 before we shot 602. We filmed this during the filming of 602, because it was the only time that Aaron and Bryan were available together. There were some facial hair things Aaron had to stick to for Westworld. This was the only time we could do it, which was April of 2021. So I had to write the scene — and luckily it was self-contained — so that even if things changed in 611, we weren’t going to be screwed if we filmed this so early. I was in my hotel room and I got this photo of a costume fitting of Bryan and Aaron in their ski masks and posing as goofballs. And I was so happy. We did a rehearsal the day before, and everybody was locked in, and we got the RV set up and running. It was a real time warp. It was crazy to be on that set and shooting with those guys in the circumstance. I can’t say enough about the job they did getting into those roles. Particularly Bob. You watch Bob in the scene, he is so different than Jimmy, he is full Saul Goodman. It’s such a different character than Jimmy McGill.
Aaron is a man now. He does not look boyish like he did on Breaking Bad. And I couldn’t help noticing that the scene takes place in a lot of darkness, and he has a beanie on the whole time. Was that an attempt to conceal his age?
Yeah. I mean, I dread the day when people start cutting Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad into a continuous thing. Everybody — Giancarlo and Banks — is older. You watch Better Call Saul and you think, “Oh, Banks kind of looks the same,” but if you cut it against a scene of Breaking Bad, the difference is huge. It’s going to be the same with Saul and Breaking Bad when you see Aaron. Bryan looked amazingly the same, but yeah, the beanies definitely helped. It was just to avoid a lot of problems. Keeping the beanie on helped with the illusion somewhat. I know people are still going to say, “Oh, he doesn’t look like a skinny kid,” but you either go with it or you don’t.
Had production hung onto the RV interior set for all these years, or did you have to build a new one for this episode?
That sucker was built from scratch. We had airbags that would lift it off the ground and shake it around as well.
When the Saul/Francesca flash-forward in “Quite a Ride” introduced the idea that she would have to be at a pay phone on a specific date and time, did you guys know what the call was going to be about?
Not only did I not know what the call was going to be about, I didn’t even know at first that it would be in the episode, because it was added after we broke the episode in the writers room. Peter and Ann [Cherkis] wrote that into the episode after the season was broken and decided we needed something. I don’t know what they were thinking! When I saw it, I was like, “What the hell is this?” Gordon [Smith] and the others joke that I was against the whole thing, and somehow it landed in my lap and I had to address it.
When I interviewed Gordon a few weeks ago, he referred to a flag the writers planted earlier in the series that would have to be addressed. Was this it?
Yes, that was the flag that we planted. I mean, it’s no gun in the trunk of a car. It’s easier to answer. We can imagine a call between Gene in Omaha and Francesca. We talked through what Gene was up to, and what is a reason he would have to talk to her. Obviously, he’d want to know how hot things are, where things stood in Albuquerque. “Is the heat off? Can I relax a little bit?” Because his life as Gene is so full of fear of being recognized. We talked about what he would want to know from Francesca.
The call also allows you to provide closure on some Breaking Bad stuff, like that Skyler got the deal with the prosecutors. Was it important for you to clarify this?
There wasn’t a lot of importance to it. I just imagined what Francesca would say about wrapping things up, where everybody stood.
You also answered a question that was raging as Breaking Bad was ending: Does Huell just stay trapped in that DEA safe house for the rest of his life?
I hated breaking that illusion. I wanted to maybe sort of keep that going. But we had to address that. Huell is a friend to Jimmy. As it turned out, they were very close. So it felt important for him to ask how Huell was. And Kuby, we had wanted him for an episode in Season Five, and [Bill Burr] wasn’t available, that’s why we went back to Steven Ogg. And he mentions Danny. We made Pryce’s real name Daniel Wormald, and my dream was always to bring Pryce back and have him be the guy who runs the Laser Tag place as Danny. It just didn’t work out that way. But when Gene mentions Danny here, that’s who he’s referring to.
Why, to your mind, is Mike doing investigation work for Saul Goodman when he has a very lucrative job with the Gus Fring organization?
I think because Saul Goodman is a player in town, who’s got his finger on the pulse of a lot of things that are going on. It’s an information conduit for Gus Fring. If Mike is close to Saul, it’s a way of gathering information. It’s also a pretty good cover job, apart from the Fring organization. I think it works two ways for Mike.
There are moments on Breaking Bad where Saul seems oblivious to Mike’s true loyalties, and other ones — like when Mike threatens him in “Full Measure” — where it seems clear he knows who Mike’s real boss is. How much did you talk about the nature of their relationship, both over the years of making this show and while doing this particular episode?
We had to go back and rewatch scenes and see what was said. I mean, nothing is ever going to be perfect. Breaking Bad was written without the knowledge that there would ever be a show that puts all of these characters in a prequel. So hopefully it doesn’t feel like we are twisting and turning to make things right. And we tried to watch all the scenes on Breaking Bad to make sure that it felt like a logical realistic progression from A to B. Sometimes, we’re bending a little, but hopefully, it doesn’t break.
Mike seems genuinely dismissive of Walt when Saul asks about him, even though we know that Gus was intrigued by the blue meth when Gale told him about it. Does Mike not know that Gus is interested, or is he just playing Saul?
I think Mike’s recommendation to Gus would be “Don’t get involved with this guy.” The investigating is done, and he knows Walt’s small potatoes, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s going to get caught or killed. And it’s just through a lot of dumb luck, or Walt’s ingenuity when they get themselves out of situations throughout the years. Walt and Jesse both should have been caught several times over and put in jail or killed by Tuco or whoever. But somehow, they worked their way through. Gus wasn’t going to have anything to do with Walter White, but it was Gale’s fawning over how great this meth was. It spoke to Gus’ strive for quality in all things, from chicken to the drug business.
When Kim walked out on Jimmy a few episodes ago, and then we got the hard cut to Saul Goodman, that really felt like the end of the story you guys have been telling for six seasons. In these last two episodes, the title rubric has changed from earlier in the season — no more “this and that”-style episode names — the opening title sequence is changing, and the cast credits now only feature the actors in the episode. Are you guys treating these last four episodes as almost a different show?
Those decisions about who got credited, what the credits would look like — that all came much later, after shooting. When we broke these episodes, the end of 609, we really wanted that 2001 moment of the caveman throwing the bone in the air and it turns into a spaceship. Really, Jimmy McGill gets hit by a truck in 609, and bam, we are in the future. He’s Saul Goodman. That was something we talked about for a while, and I think that was really effective. Also, we teased Gene in all these teasers at the start of each season, and I think it would have been weirder if we just did another teaser at the start of Season Six, and that’s the end of Gene. What’s the emotional wrap-up of Jimmy McGill going through all these changes? Gene was a temporary “I’m in hiding” moment, but he couldn’t suppress it. He never dealt with the pain of his brother, never dealt with the pain of losing Kim, seeing Howard die. He didn’t deal with any of it. When Chuck died, Howard went through the steps of healing himself, he took the blame for it, he went to therapy, and did all the steps that Jimmy should have done, so all these deep things he’s pushed down will rise to the surface. We want to see how we resolve that. That’s where we’re heading in the final episodes.
That 2001 cut is great. But was there discussion about wanting to show any more of the gradual transformation from Jimmy into Saul, to see any more of him setting up the business the way we see it on Breaking Bad?
From a group of people who thought he was going to be Saul Goodman at the end of Season One, we went very carefully. There were so many points where we were like, “Is he Saul Goodman now?” “Not quite.” It felt like when we got to this moment, losing Kim the way it all went down, that was the cut-off point. I don’t think we had anything to gain from seeing any more steps.
Something we talked about is that when he’s really, really, full Saul Goodman is the point when he decides it’s OK to kill somebody. In my first episode of Breaking Bad, “One Minute,” they talk about what to do with Jesse, and he says there are “options.” That’s a much different character from Jimmy and from early Saul. There were some steps that happened that got him to that point that we’re not seeing. We did talk about whether we should portray those: “Should we see a moment where he feels like somebody needs to die?” We talked about there being a situation where there’s some case — I think they did this on The Good Wife — where Saul is saying something to Mike, “Well, if this guy is gone, it would be really helpful,” and Mike is saying, “You want this to happen?” It was one of those scenes we pitched but didn’t do.
There is a world in which the last that people ever see or hear of Kim Wexler on this show is her walking into the bedroom to keep packing up her stuff. Was that ever seriously considered?
I think people know that there’s no way to get to the end of the series without talking about her fate and what has happened to her. But we wanted to keep the mystery alive a little bit longer. So that’s why we don’t hear, we just know it’s something very upsetting on that phone call. We just don’t know what yet. I think things will become clearer in the future. It was the same with Lalo when Lalo disappeared. It was like, “What the hell happened? When is he coming back?” I feel like that’s some of the same thinking that went into Kim. She leaves, and we want the audience to wonder what the hell is happening.
Finally, you’ve been writing for this franchise longer than anyone but Vince and Peter. Is it a coincidence that you wound up with the last episode not written or directed by one of them?
The episode slots are not a coincidence, they are decided really early on. But what happens in them, we have no idea at that point. Me getting what turned out to be the midseason finale, it was not intentional. We planned on airing 13 episodes in a row, and because of the Covid restrictions and Bob’s health, we ended up dividing the season in two. And it just so happened that something very dramatic happened in that one so that it could become a midseason finale. But me being third from last last and Vince and Peter going to the finale, that’s not random.
But you got lucky in that you got to direct Bryan and Aaron.
Once we we were saying, “Yeah, they’re coming back,” I thought for sure it was going to land in 612 — that was Vince’s episode. But we break these things organically. It just felt like once we started talking about Gene’s story, this felt like the right time now to see these guys. Vince and Peter agreed that now was the time. I felt like it should have been Vince’s episode, but just because of the way the story broke, it fell on me.