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A Candid Conversation With Vince Gilligan on ‘Better Call Saul’

“I run into people every day now who say ‘Better Call Saul’ is their favorite of the two,” says the creator of ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff. “I love hearing that.”

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 3 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Our candid conversation with Vince Gilligan on 'Better Call Saul' — from its origin story to why some people prefer it to 'Breaking Bad.'

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Better Call Saul – other than the fact that many Breaking Bad fans have said they prefer the spinoff, and even the ones who disagree don’t find that a ludicrous notion – is how it’s become beloved for the exact opposite reason that its creators expected it to be.

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould — and for that matter, all of us at home — assumed the fun of the prequel would be in spending more time with Bob Odenkirk in the role of Walter White’s shyster lawyer Saul Goodman; it was a way for the show to fill in blanks in the Heisenberg-verse. Instead, most of what makes the show great involves the man he used to be: slick but largely well-meaning lawyer Jimmy McGill, who has the depth and emotional resonance that Saul lacks. The longer we spend with this version of the character – which he still is at the start of Season Four, premiering on August 6th – the less we want to see of Goodman or even Walt himself.

I recently spoke with Gilligan about those early days when he and Gould — who became sole showrunner this year while Gilligan largely focused on developing other ideas — had to wonder if they’d made a terrible mistake. He also talked about the painful process of figuring out how Saul could work, the gradual insertion of other Breaking Bad characters into the spinoff and a lot more. (With occasional kibitzing from Gould and some other writers, since Gilligan will be the first to tell you that he has a terrible memory for detail.)

It took you and Peter a while to figure out what the show was. At what point did you say to yourselves, “Wait a minute, this is actually good? This isn’t just a folly that we’ve done, to keep everyone together?”
We would never put anything on that we had worked less than 100 percent on. Having said that, I didn’t know it would come together. I knew it would be the product of a lot of hard work and a lot of talent, in front of and behind the camera. I thought at worst, we would create something that was admirable and a perfectly legitimate attempt at a show. But I didn’t realize it would be as successful as it is in terms of a fully jelled world, a full totality of creation … [one] that is as satisfying as it is.

When we first started concocting the idea of doing a spinoff, we literally thought it’d be a half-hour show. It’d be something akin to Dr Katz, where it’s basically Saul Goodman in his crazy office with the styrofoam columns and he’s visited every week by a different stand-up comic. It was basically, I guess, legal problems. We talked about that for a day or two. And then Peter Gould and I realized, we don’t know anything about the half-hour idiom. And then we thought, okay, well, so it’s an hour … but it’s going to be a really funny hour. I said, “Breaking Bad is about 25-percent humor, 75-percent drama and maybe this will be the reverse of that.” Well this thing, especially in Season Four, is every bit as dramatic as Breaking Bad ever was. I just didn’t see any of that coming. I didn’t know how good it would all be. I really didn’t(*).

(*) Peter Gould recalls that after the Dr. Katz idea was abandoned, they moved on to a version where Saul Goodman was “sort of a Jerry Maguire for criminals,” assembling teams for jobs and getting involved in their personal lives, with his brother Chuck as a Mycroft Holmes-esque advisor for these schemes. 

It’s amazing how hard it was to get it right.
The question we should’ve ask ourselves from the beginning; “Is Saul Goodman an interesting enough character to build a show around?” And the truth is, we came to the conclusion, after we already had the deal in hand [and] AMC and Sony had already put up the money, “I don’t think we have a show here, because I don’t think we have a character who could support a show.” He’s a great flavoring, he’s a wonderful saffron that you sprinkle on your Risotto. But you don’t want to eat a bowl full of saffron, you gotta have the rice, you know? You gotta have the substance.

And it dawned on us that this character seemed so comfortable in his own skin. Peter and I do not possess those kinds of personalities. We thought, “Regardless how much comedy is in it, how do you find drama in a guy who’s basically okay with himself?” So then we thought, “Well, who was he before he was Saul Goodman?”

Because the show is named Better Call Saul, we thought that we had to get to this guy quick or else people will accuse us of false advertising — a bait and switch. Then lo and behold, season after season went by and it dawned on us, we don’t want to get to Saul Goodman … and that’s the tragedy.

If we had thought all of this from the get-go, that would have made us very smart. But as it turns out, we’re very plodding and dumb, and it takes forever to figure this stuff out. Which is why we’re perfectly matched for a TV schedule versus a movie schedule, because you got to get it right the first time when you’re writing a movie. It took us forever to get it right.

It’s funny, because the most frustrated I’ve ever heard you when describing the process of doing something on Breaking Bad is the machine gun in the trunk …
Oh God, yeah. So stupid.

And you’ve created a whole show that is basically that. How much of a headache is that for you guys?
Endless, endless headaches. The really dumb thing is that you’re right: The machine gun was so painful, and then we set out to do an entire show where we got to backfill and everything. The stupidest thing of all is that, I’d forgotten all the lessons of the machine gun. We actually said to one another, “Well, we know where this is going, so this is going to be easier.” [Laughs] Ignorance is bliss.

And in fact, we don’t know where it ends up — and thank goodness for that. Because we have a whole potential world of storytelling with Gene, Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman’s third alter ego in Omaha, Nebraska. Who knows how long that could go on? That’s some great stuff potentially. We’re happy for that, because otherwise, it’d be a real bummer if Saul had died at the end of Breaking Bad, ’cause then we really would be doing nothing but backfilling.

BTS, Executive Producer Vince Gilligan, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

BTS, Executive Producer Vince Gilligan, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut

Have there been any specific times you can think of where, in the course of making this show, you had an idea; you’re starting to do it; and then [writers] Tom Schnauz or Genn Hutchison or somebody says, you can’t do that because it contradicts this thing you did on Breaking Bad?
I’m sure that it’s happened many times. I’m trying to think of an exact example.(*)

(*) I checked with Breaking Bad vets Schnauz and Hutchison, and they said it mostly comes up involving characters who exist on Saul and met for the first time on Breaking Bad. Ted Beneke, for instance, was briefly considered as someone Jimmy could have tried to make a commercial for last season — then everyone remembered that Saul Goodman was part of the scam involving Ted’s “Aunt Birgid.”

As fans started to embrace the show, one of my commenters said something like, “They should show Jimmy or Kim reading the newspaper, and there’s a story: ‘Local high school chemistry teacher dies of cancer.'” Just to free you from the burden and say that this is a different reality altogether.
What a neat idea. I love that idea. Wow. Noah Hawley said to Peter Gould one time, “I just think we should just never have him turn into Saul Goodman.” That’s a great way to do it, too. But you know, life is intractable, pretty much always. Each one of us has an expiration date and real life doesn’t allow for much in the way of negotiating. We figured we have to be truthful in terms of this show. There are days where we’d love to actually make use of an idea like that. But there’s something to be said for playing the cards you’ve been dealt — or in this case, playing the cards you’ve dealt to yourself.

Going in, did you expect to be featuring as many Breaking Bad characters as you have? Did you assume at some point we would get to Gus, for instance?
We always assumed we’d get to Gus — I think we thought we might get to him quicker. Just speaking for myself and no one else: I thought we’d have gotten to Walt or Jesse by this point, as sort of the first fan of both shows. I’m greedy to see all of these characters. I thought we would see plenty of Breaking Bad characters. I didn’t know we’d dig as deep for some of them, as we have.

We’ve gotten a great deal of satisfaction from seeing, for instance, that the real estate agent who shows Mike and [his] daughter the new house, was a real estate agent in Breaking Bad, who had the run-in with Marie. Little shout-outs like that, we love for two reasons. We love those Easter eggs for the really astute students of Breaking Bad. And we also know that that young woman who was such a wonderful actress and so much fun to work with on Breaking Bad. We love when someone did a great job for us on a previous show, to pay ’em back by having them on the new show. Which is not to say that we’ll get every single one of those folks, even though we’d love to. There’s probably plenty we’ll never get to, just for lack of time, lack of episodes … but it’s fun to be able to do that.

When you say you expected to get to Walt and Jesse by now, do you mean the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead approach to the Breaking Bad years? Or just that you would have seen what they were up to in this time period?
I thought we would have touched base with them already. But having said that, it makes perfect sense that we haven’t yet touched base with them. Just being in the writers room, you realize that there’s a lot to do before that happens — if and when it does happen. I don’t even want to promise that it will. It’s like what I was saying a minute ago: You play the play the cards that you’ve dealt yourself. There’s no point in cheating in solitaire. That’s a weird analogy, but ultimately, a pretty good one. You can cheat in solitaire, but there’s nothing satisfying about cheating in solitaire.

And the analogy holds when you get to the writer’s room with Better Call Saul. You can change the character’s history, you can have it be that Walter White never comes into it, but it wouldn’t ultimately be satisfying. And when you play the cards out correctly and you see that it’s time to bring Walter White in, for instance, it’s a wonderfully satisfying moment. If you force it, if you cheat the cards, if you bring them in just because folks are demanding it or expecting it, and you kind of bullshit the character’s way into the show, it’s just not going to satisfy anybody. I believe that in my heart.

“We both wanted it to not be AfterM*A*S*H. That’s about as high as we had set our sights: We wanted to not embarrass ourselves.”

Has the show evolved and become good enough to the point where it doesn’t need Walter White?
Maybe. I mean, it would be satisfying to see Walt. Not to see him shoehorned in — that would not satisfy me. But to see the character properly arrive at a nexus point with Better Call Saul. That’d be wonderful … [though] it’s very possible it won’t happen if it doesn’t feel properly arrived at. And yes, I believe that Better Call Saul is so much its own creation now, its own thing. It absolutely stands on its own.

We’re enjoying this overlap between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul that we’re continuing to arrive at. But there’s a version of the show where you don’t see it as Breaking Bad stuff at all. Where, for instance, we leave out Mike Ehrmantraut, because he barely ever interacts with Jimmy McGill anymore. We could just stick with the Jimmy McGill story: him, Kim Wexler, Howard Hamlin, all of that stuff. We could have a perfectly satisfying show. But we feel like we’re giving the fans two shows for the price of one. It really does feel like two TV shows in one now.

When Breaking Bad was coming to an end, this was already in the works to some degree. But was there a part of you thinking, “Alright, this show is ending. This is the best thing I’ve ever done it, it’s the best thing I will ever do, my career has peaked. What do I do now?”
That’s exactly why I did this, because I was thinking those thoughts exactly as you just put it: “This is the best thing I’m ever going to do. This in the height of my creative life, my career, it’s never going to get any better than Breaking Bad.” And that’s why I wanted to get right into something else, because I was still only 48, 49 years old, I didn’t want to stop working. I knew in my heart if I took six months off, because everyone said I needed a vacation, then six months would go by, the world would’ve moved on — and worst of all, I would’ve been paralyzed creatively. I would have said to myself, “Okay, time to do something else now. What is it? What’s the next big thing?” And then I would just freeze up, because I would say I would come up with an idea, thinking, “Oh, that’s fun.” And then the editing portion of my brain, which I’ve given too loud a voice over the years, would say: “It’s not to the level of Breaking Bad.”

The best thing I could’ve done personally was to just jump headlong into a show that, admittedly, we didn’t fully understand. Once we really got into it, we thought, “Oh man, we got nothing here.” And then luckily, we just kept banging at it until we figured it out, with the help of a lot of great writers. But the smartest thing I ever did was to keep moving.

And Breaking Bad … the beauty of it is, some people are always going to love Breaking Bad more. But I run into people every day now who say Better Call Saul is their favorite of the two. I love hearing that. I don’t know where I fall personally on that scale, that continuum — I try not to choose. I don’t have children, but this is as close as I’ll ever get to having children. I find it hard to choose between them. But I’m just glad they both exist.

But, when you embarked on this, and you and Peter are just banging your heads against the wall asking what the show was, could you ever have imagined the idea that someone would come up to you and say they like Saul better?
We both wanted it to not be AfterM*A*S*H. That’s about as high as we had set our sights: We wanted to not embarrass ourselves. We wanted our spinoff series to not take anything away from the original, to not leave a bad taste in the mouth of the fans of the original. “Let’s hope it’s more Frasier than AfterMASH.” Our rational, realistic goals for Better Call Saul were simply that it wouldn’t suck and it wouldn’t embarrass us. It didn’t rise much higher than that, to be honest.

It’s worked out a little bit better than that.
I’m so glad. I never thought anyone would come up to me and say, “I like Better Call Saul better than Breaking Bad.” If you had asked me before we started, “Would that bother you if someone said that?” First of all, I would have said, “That’s never gonna happen. And yeah, it probably would bother me.” It doesn’t bother me a bit. It tickles me. I love it.

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