Go behind the scenes of Better Call Saul's iconic Albuquerque locations
In February of 2015, a year and a half after Breaking Bad drove off into the night, Better Call Saul returned to the scene of the crime — the high-altitude desert of sunbaked, meth-encrusted Albuquerque, N.M. — to unspool the off-kilter origin story of Breaking Bad‘s unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman.
A half-decade later, AMC’s prequel spin-off has dug out at a nifty niche of its own, captivating fans and capturing Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series (and for Bob Odenkirk) in each of its first four seasons. Viewers have not only been given new perspective into Saul/Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk) as he rises from scrappy presence to dubious prominence, they have seen new sides of the ABQ, which features striking mountainscapes, scorching sunsets, and a melange of architecture ranging from pueblo deco to mission to strip-mall blight. “Albuquerque is a place that looks like nowhere else,” observes executive producer Peter Gould (who created the series with Breaking Bad overlord Vince Gilligan). “You have these incredible vistas behind almost any place that you pick. There’s very few locations that we have that don’t have the Sandias behind them. The other reason is there’s a diversity of architecture. You find things that go back way back to the early 20th century when Albuquerque was a big train town, and then there are things all the way up through yesterday and the ’80s and the ’90s. There’s a wide selection of different kinds of locations — and especially locations that have interesting or unusual texture.”
Fellow executive producer Melissa Bernstein marvels at the range of possibilities that Albuquerque offers the franchise, even after five seasons of Breaking Bad, five seasons of Saul, and El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. “It’s really been the gift that keeps on giving,” she praises. “We don’t just keep seeing the same things, trying to figure out how to make them work. We are actually seeing new places every time. And the people there are so on our side. They are really happy we’re there and let us know they’re happy.” Here to make you happy as you envelop yourself in season 5, EW asked Gould and Bernstein to break down the key places in the ABQ where all sorts of colorful characters break bad — and sad.
LOS POLLOS HERMANOS
Breaking Bad invited you to “taste the family,” but its spin-off further feasts on the fast-food joint run by drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). “In a weird way, on Better Call Saul, we see more of what it’s like to work at Pollos Hermanos,” says Gould. “We see more of the kitchen and the inner workings.” The real-life Twisters restaurant that stands in for Pollos Hermanos draws plenty of hungry tourists (and the emu who lives next door). “Lot of people taking selfies there,” notes Gould.
Twisters left up that Pollos Hermanos mural from the Breaking Bad era, though Saul‘s producers originally considered showing a more primitive version. “When we started on Better Call Saul, one of our first thoughts was to figure out what the logo should be before Pollos Hermanos became what it is in Breaking Bad,” recalls Gould. “The funny thing is, as hard as we tried, nothing quite landed. There’s something kind of magical about those two chicken brothers standing against each other in that cartoon.” While the mural saves the crew some prep time for filming, a few changes must be made each time. Says Bernstein: “At the soda fountains, there’s a photo collage, including photos of Vince, so we have to re-dress that.”
MIKE’S PARKING BOOTH
Cop-turned-security-chief-cum-hitman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) spent Saul’s early seasons toiling in a courthouse parking kiosk. (Its true location is next to the Convention Center, and the top level of the parking garage there served as a time-lapse location in El Camino.) “When Vince and I, and the rest of the writers conceived of this, we were really thinking of a small parking structure,” says Gould. “And then when Vince and Melissa were scouting for the pilot, they found this parking booth, which is so much more interesting than what we had conceived, because it’s actually this little parking booth sandwiched between the street and the ramp above it. As soon as we saw that, we thought, 'This is infinitely better than what we had in mind.’”
Even if its flaws enticed. “A pylon went crooked at some point,” shares Bernstein. “We loved, actually, how it went askew. We thought it spoke to the dysfunctional workplace, and we had to ask them to not fix it.” In case you were wondering, the parking booth was a locale that Banks was relieved to be relieved of: “When season 3 started and he was still in the booth — and some people in the writers’ room felt the same way, which was: ‘Enough already with the booth!’” says Gould. “But I was very sad when he quit the booth at the beginning of season 4.”
Not just a prequel, Better Call Saul also teases the future, where we find Jimmy/Saul/Gene toiling at a Cinnabon in Omaha, Neb., as he grimly prophesied on Breaking Bad. This snack shop that the producers film at can be found in Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall, and, yes, those are real Cinnabon employees playing themselves. “Cinnabon helped us get all the ovens, the era-proper cups, and everything from all these different Cinnabons across the country, and we bring them in for the shoot every year,” says Bernstein. Cinnabon's assistance didn't stop there. They helped to train Bob how to make a Cinnabon," says Gould. "I’ve actually had a milkshake that Bob made at that Cinnabon.”
How did Saul's producers come to select this particular Cinnabon? “We looked at a lot of different Cinnabons,” notes Gould. “A lot are just open-air counters. This one has more of a world of its own inside.” After production on season 4 wrapped, that branch closed for good and was boarded up, but the producers worked out a sweet deal to film there again in season 5. But that wasn’t the only obstacle. “It’s an interesting place to shoot because it is an open mall that we cannot close down,” says Bernstein. “So there are a ton of people that are interested in the shoot, and there’s no real workaround for that.”
The producers expressed initial concern about having Jimmy do his freewheeling and dealing in the Old Bernalillo County Courthouse (built in 1926), as Breaking Bad had used that building as a police station. “We’ve tried to be as careful as we can not to shoot that side of the courthouse,” says Gould, noting that the show has filmed in every other part of the building — minus the fourth floor, which is still in use by the sheriff’s department. The Saul team also proceeds carefully for another reason. “I’ve been told that there’s a ghost,” shares Gould. “It might in fact be haunted and haunted tours do go through this courthouse. I will say [the ghost] is friendly because I’ve had nothing but fun shooting there.” For how much longer the fun will continue there remains uncertain. “We are told that a developer may have bought it and it may be no longer at our disposal next season,” laments Bernstein. “So we are on pins and needles.”
The Salamancas — led by new cousin-in-charge Lalo (Tony Dalton) — run their burgeoning drug trade out of this quaint restaurant. (Its real name is El Moreno, and it's located in Albuquerque’s South Valley). “We wanted a very homey, warm little Mexican restaurant,” explains Gould. “And we loved the space. We changed the exterior colors; we tend to be finicky about what colors things are painted.” Adds Bernstein: “They get a good amount of traffic from us, and it’s nice that it’s a restaurant that people can go in and enjoy the food they see Lalo preparing lovingly on their screen.”
HAMLIN, HAMLIN, AND MCGILL LAW FIRM
Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) made a name for himself with Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) at this corporate firm. While Jimmy did not follow admirably in his older brother’s footsteps, Jimmy’s girlfriend, Kim (Rhea Seehorn), impressed both the H and the M with her legal prowess. Viewers have frequented its multi-balconied lobby and leather-chaired conference room, with the latter of which serving as the backdrop of a few tense showdowns. Those two sites aren’t actually located in the same building, though; they’re in adjacent office parks. “The lobby and the parking structure and the exterior are all in one section, which is a Northrop Grumman building,” says Bernstein. “The HHM conference room and Kim’s office are at Sun Health. We can walk between them and shoot them on the same day, but they actually have different owners. Our location manager, Christian Diaz De Bedoya, has to engage with both parties separately.”
“The lobby is great because we’ve got the ground floor, then not one but two balconies,” notes Gould. “It gives you a lot of space to play with. The interesting thing about both locations is that they look out onto the real world, which is wonderful. You get to see the activity going on outside the windows. [But] every once in a while when I’ve been shooting there first thing in the morning, the sky will be filled with hot air balloons, because Albuquerque is the balloon headquarters of the world. We’ve come very close to having scenes in the lobby or in the conference room with the sky dotted with hot air balloons.” Quips Bernstein: “It’s not great for continuity.”
DAY SPA AND NAIL
Once home to Jimmy’s minuscule, sadsack law office, Day Spa and Nails is a real-life salon that the show leaves intact, right down to its name and phone number on its sign. “The manager was all onboard with having the number be public,” says Bernstein. “It streamlines things a great deal for us in post[-production], and it’s all the more legit.” Why did this spa prove to be the A-1 choice for the producers? “It already had this fantastic mural of Mediterranean scenes,” says Gould. “It has the row of massage chairs, and we know from Breaking Bad that Saul loves massage chairs. It’s camera-perfect, just walking in.”
Sorry, there’s no law office in the back of the real spa; that “room” is created on the set at ABQ Studios. (As is the apartment that Jimmy and Kim live in.] And it was no small feat building that office. Or, in a way, that's exactly what it was. “Our production designer created this tiny, little space, and Vince went in there and was like, ‘It needs to be smaller,'” recalls Bernstein. “It is the tiniest set in the world. We bring directors there and they think it’s a practical joke.” They know better than to ask for cucumber water, which is for customers only.
Saul Goodman, first introduced in Breaking Bad, gets his own Vince Gilligan prequel.