'Better Call Saul' stars, creators on what to expect from their 'Breaking Bad' prequel
And on the seventh day, he objected: Tonight at 10 p.m., America’s favorite fishy lawyer, Saul Goodman, will return to TV as AMC finally unveils the first episode of Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel centering on Bob Odenkirk’s breakout character. Set in 2002—well before the rise of meth lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston)—the show presents Goodman, whose real name is Jimmy McGill, as a hustling small-potatoes attorney whose career is a mess and whose soul is still up for grabs. The story of how Better Call Saul transformed from a joke on the Breaking Bad set into one of the year’s hotly anticipated shows can be read right here and in this week’s issue of EW. Before you sit down and lawyer up, closely read the fine print below, whch contains all sorts of bonus quotes from the Saul cast and series co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, among others.
On the idea of revisiting the Breaking Bad world via a spin-off:
GILLIGAN: Bob reminded me that I first broached the subject with him at the end of season 3, when I was directing the season finale. I said to him, “What do you think about the possibility of that? Would you be open to that?” I don’t think he took it too seriously, but he thought, “Yeah, it could be fun.” Lo and behold, here we are a couple of years later.
GOULD: Bob and I and Vince all had this gulp moment when we realized we were so lucky there was an appetite for this from the companies that we were working with [AMC and Sony Pictures Television, which produces the show], but did we have a show that was worth doing? Did we have a show that would not reflect badly on the work that we’d already done or one that would build on what we’d already done on Breaking Bad? We were so proud of how we ended Breaking Bad and it made me very nervous to open that world up again. But once Vince and I started talking about it and sharing some of our early ideas with Bob—once we started digging into the character, who he really is and how he got that way—I had that feeling of, “The games afoot. I’m excited about this. And as a bonus I get to keep working with Vince and Bob and so many other people on our team.”
On what attracted Gilligan and Gould to the idea of building a show around Saul:
GOULD: It was the idea of this character, his energy, his inventiveness, the twists and turns he takes. We were fascinated by the world that Saul Goodman brought with him. Whenever you went into his office you would see Francesca and you’d see Huell, but more than that you’d see this menagerie of customers who’d be coming though. And even as Walt and Jesse were dealing with Saul, and especially from the experiences that he talks about and his perspective on things, you imagine he’s been involved with all sorts of different wild circumstances. That was one of the things that was irresistible.
On the confidence level that a secondary, comic-relief character like Saul could work as a lead of a spin-off:
GOULD: I don’t think there was a moment when there weren’t some doubts, because it’s a big gamble. Having said that, once we started seeing this terrific cast do the scenes and once we started cutting it together, that’s when we knew “Okay, this is going to work.” If you know for sure that something is going to work, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. I still feel it’s a huge risk and that I have no idea how the folks out there are going to receive this—I just know that I love it.
ODENKIRK: Right from the first time you meet Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, he’s a persona. He’s a front. He says, “That’s not my name.” His office is a show. I just thought about like this: We all put on a suit, wash up, show up at work, and we are a different person from who we are when we go home and we’re a different person alone—different feelings and thoughts than we are with our significant other than we are with our family. That’s another persona. So except for little moments that were quiet where you sort of saw a human being behind Saul, you only ever saw his persona. So I think that there was a feeling like, “Well, I don’t know what that world is, but there is a whole world we haven’t seen of this guy.” But I really trusted Vince and Peter on it.
On the biggest challenge of creating a Saul-centric spin-off:
GILLIGAN: Saul Goodman as a supporting character is so much fun because he always knows the right thing to say. Well, actually, sometimes what he’s saying is very wrong indeed, but he always says it in a very entertaining fashion. (laughs) He always has the perfect glib rejoinder or retort and he can do that because he’s very comfortable in his own skin. That is great for a supporting character and that’s what we all would like to be in our own lives. I always think that’s tricky for a leading character to be that way—aside from James Bond, who is completely confident and comfortable in his own skin. I don’t know how to write a character like that for long because that is so not my experience in life. Furthermore, it leaches dramatic tension out of the story when the main character is so self-assured and cool that nothing really phases him. It’s hard to create drama around a character like that, and that was my biggest fear structurally.
ODENKIRK: Whether they did it subconsciously or not, Vince and Peter get off on that mind puzzle. Vince always talks about getting into corners and getting out of them in writing. Some part of him loves making himself sweat, you know? And he and Peter painted himself into a massive corner right here by saying, “We’re going to see this guy become somebody, but you already know who he is,” so they don’t have that freedom to change who he becomes.
On the probability of a spin-off ever coming to fruition:
ZACK VAN AMBURG [President, Programming and Development, Sony Pictures Television]: Breaking Bad felt very unique and very specific and very driven by Walter White—a singular, important journey that had absolute finality to it. I don’t think anybody along the way involved in that process—and certainly as we started to gain more and more critical acclaim and started to win more and more awards—would have expected with something that had such finality to it that suddenly something else would grow out of it. That doesn’t typically happen. It was none of our intention because Breaking Bad was this wonderful surprise gift.
JAMIE ERLICHT [President, Programming and Development, Sony Pictures Television]: I think we would have said 20/80 against Saul ever coming to be, if you asked us when Breaking Bad was going off the air. The accolades of Breaking Bad—the levels of success for the writers, the actors, every element of that show were so off-the-charts phenomenal, the only way we were going to do it again, and for sure the only way Vince and Peter were going to do it again, was if they felt they could match the quality of that experience. That is really, really tough to do on any show—let alone Breaking Bad.
On working again with Odenkirk:
GOULD: Bob Odenkirk is not only really, really funny, but we found as we went on in Breaking Bad, he’s a hell of an actor and he really inhabited this guy. He can go from being funny to almost tragic in the space of a few seconds. The more we asked of Bob on Breaking Bad, the more he did and he was able to deliver on the most dramatic scenes we could imagine. So we kept pushing him on this show and we still have not found his limit. He’s really pretty extraordinary, both in terms of the emotionality of his performance and also just in terms of his sheer physical stamina.
On how the prequel will play with time, depicting events that happened after Breaking Bad—or even during:
GOULD: We give ourselves the freedom to do that, absolutely. One of the fun things about this is that we get to run back and forth in time and figure out how things got to be the way they are.
On how many Breaking Bad characters will appear on Better Call Saul:
GOULD: You’ll definitely meet people from the Breaking Bad universe. The focus for us was trying to make this story stand on its own. I can’t tell you how many times in the writer’s room we pitched different characters from Breaking Bad popping up in the background or as minor notes, but ultimately sometimes it feels a little bit like cheating.
On Jimmy, the younger, messier version of Saul:
GILLIGAN: We have found out amongst ourselves, as the audience will soon find out, that James McGill is really not all that together. He does not have his ducks in a row as much as he seemed to on Breaking Bad. He’s a guy who is very much the underdog and very much someone who has doubts about himself and is not sure where he stands in the universe and is not sure who he really is.
ODENKIRK: A person discovering his golden tongue and his ability to pull the wool over people’s eyes. A guy who’s got a bit of an axe to grind, something to prove to himself and the people around him that he can make money and that he can be important and powerful. And a guy who’s hurt.
On the pressure of living up to Breaking Bad’s impossibly high standards:
GILLIGAN: The best way I’m going to answer that is I am literally scared of everything. Leaving the house in the morning scares me, which is weird because I do things like I’ve been taking flying lessons, I scuba-dive every chance I get, I’ve jumped out of airplanes. I do all kinds of fun, somewhat crazy shit, and people say, “God, you must be brave.” I am so the opposite. I am scared of everything. But the good thing about being scared of everything is that it kind of flattens out everything so that jumping out of a plane is no more scary than leaving the house in the morning. No matter what I did next after Breaking Bad would scare me.
ODENKIRK: There’s going to be a little bit of a backlash. There’s no way we can repeat the social phenomenon of streaming feeling that occurred during the run of Breaking Bad. There’s an aspect of Breaking Bad that not only we can’t replicate but no other show can replicate. Ever. in history. So, leaving that aside, can it be an excellently written, well-acted, well-played, well-put-together show? Sure. Why not? These are great writers. As long as it came from them organically wanting to explore this, then I’m okay with it, and I can take the heat. And there will be heat. But the good thing is they made a show with integrity, and it’s an idiosyncratic journey down a very unique story hole that only they found. You can’t define readily what the show is. I don’t even know how you compare it to Breaking Bad—or anything else.
CHARLIE COLLIER [AMC President]: What they’ve done is truly created an individual story. This is not the sixth season of Breaking Bad. This is the first season of Better Call Saul. [It’s] original work in the hands of great storytellers and they truly made it a story that is starting from its own beginning. By no means did we ever think we’d position this as the continuation of Breaking Bad. It’s always been AMC’s next original series, Better Call Saul. And I think people who come to this journey will be rewarded by the type of storytelling that Vince and Peter have displayed they have command of.
THOMAS SCHNAUZ (Better Call Saul co-executive producer): “I think I have an idea of what people expect, and if I’m right about what they’re expecting, then we’re not doing what they’re expecting.”On tonal comparisons to Breaking Bad and the end of the series premiere:
ODENKIRK: The last few seconds of episode —they’re pure joy for the audience that watched Breaking Bad and is looking for that cliffhanger, floor-drops-out, holy f— moment. So we got those in there too. It’s a different rhythm, though, it really is. It’s not the same rhythm of storytelling. But it has those moments. It didn’t abandon those.
On Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a talented lawyer who’s sidelined by a mystery illness:
GILLIGAN: Chuck has a very strict and unwavering moral code, and Jimmy’s moral code seems to blow in the wind a bit. He really wants to do the right thing I believe and yet very often, the easy thing is more expedient to him and he sometimes tends to blow that way instead. But he very much desires the respect and love of his older brother Chuck, who is everything in terms of legal success that Jimmy is not. And now that the tables have turned a little bit, in the sense that Chuck needs Jimmy’s help for once in his life, Jimmy is happy to give it and he gives it very well. He enjoys the opportunity to return a great many favors that his brother has no doubt given him over the years, but as the season progresses, we’ll see that it’s a bit of a yolk as well.
MCKEAN: All I knew [about the role] was: it’s his brother and he doesn’t leave the house because he suffers from this peculiar affliction. So I had all kinds of nightmares of what it was because I had already said yes. So when I finally talked to Vince and Peter on the phone, they told me what it was, and I said, “That’s such a relief!” My nightmare scenario was we finally meet Chuck and he’s covered head to toe with sores. It’s like one of those singing detectives—this terrible psoriasis walking wounded: “Yeah, we’re going to get you in [to the hair and make-up trailer] at 3 because we want to start shooting at 7:30, and you’ll be just about getting finished. I did one Star Trek episode—two-and-a-half hour makeup—and that’s enough for me.”
Jonathan Banks on whether he thought he’d ever again play Mike, the fixer from Breaking Bad who will form an uneasy partnership with Jimmy
BANKS: Not in this way. I thought you could do some phony “Mike lives in the grass and the Indians come and give him a secret potion,” but not this.
On what audiences can expect to see from Mike:
GOULD: Mike is a man with a lot of knowledge and skill and abilities, and when the two of them first lay eyes on each other in episode 1, Jimmy has no idea who Mike really is. But as the episodes move forward, Jimmy’s going to get a much better idea of who Mike is and it only deepens the question of: Why is this guy in a parking booth? What is he really up to? We’re going find out how that happened. And more than that, Jimmy’s going to need Mike’s skills desperately.
BANKS: One of Mike’s downfalls is that despite everything, there’s still compassion. A begrudging compassion.
ODENKIRK: Mike and Saul are forced by circumstance to work together again and again. And they hate each other—I think Jimmy likes Mike way more than the Mike likes Jimmy. And it’s funny because It’s such begrudging appreciation. Is there something stronger than a grudge? Be-hating. Be-despising appreciation.
On whether you need to be a Breaking Bad fan to truly appreciate Better Call Saul:
PATRICK FABIAN [who plays Howard Hamlin, a partner at Chuck’s law firm]: People who are in the know will be able to fill in the blanks and color stuff that they had questions about before, and if they haven’t watched Breaking Bad—I’m not going to throw my parents under the bus, but my parents—they’ll be able to watch it from afresh, because the writing is so strong and the directing is so strong. We’re starting a brand new show. There are clearly legs that come from Breaking Bad, but it is a show that stands on its own.