Better Call Saul Q&A — Tom Schnauz (Executive Producer)
Executive producer Tom Schnauz, who wrote and directed Episode 7 of AMC's Better Call Saul, discusses the difference between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman, why Kim is haunted by what she did to Chuck, and what it's like to see the softer side of Mike.
Q: This is the second episode you've directed this season. What new things do you learn each time you step behind the camera?
A: For me, the biggest stretch is always [finding] the best way of communicating with the actors and getting the best performance. I feel like I've always been a visual person, so coming up with shots has been easier for me because I've always been a visual artist. But it's communicating with the actors and getting the proper emotion out of them -- I've been blessed with a tremendous cast who makes it incredibly easy for me. They're so smart, they rehearse, and they come in with great ideas.
Q: You also had the honor of writing the first script with Gus's return in Episode 2 and directing the Gus-Hector face-off in Episode 4. What was it like getting back inside that character's head? How was it directing Giancarlo's performance?
A: He's fantastic. I didn't direct him on Breaking Bad, but I was there on set with him when Michelle MacLaren directed him and Terry McDonough. He's just such a gentleman and such a pleasure to work with. He knows his character and comes very prepared. He knows what he's doing. All these guys make it so easy. Just point the camera at them and they make something great happen. I feel very lucky as a director.
I wasn't nervous or scared about bringing Gus back. It felt very natural, but when I first saw him on-screen and I saw the dailies coming back from Albuquerque where Vince was shooting, I got a real rush from seeing him on the screen. When I was writing it, I didn't realize how magical Giancarlo is. People just love Gus Fring, and I do too. It was a great honor. He didn't do a lot of underhanded “Gus” things, but he also did the perfect Gus thing: hide in plain sight. He gets to be the chicken restaurant manager and be polite to his customers, but he's got a whole other side that he's hiding very well. We get to see a flicker in his eyes in Episode 2, and it just says so much when he's outside his restaurant sweeping and there's Mike and Jimmy in the background. You see that flash in his eye that there's a lot more going on.
Q: In Episode 7, Pryce is back! He seems to always pop up in your episodes. Is that just coincidence or do you have a special connection to the character?
A: I think it's a little bit of both. It's part coincidence that he's been appearing in episodes that I've been slotted to write or direct. It's the same thing with that big factory location – I think it's only been in one other episode that wasn't mine. It just sort of happened that way, but I have a particular affinity for that character. I was very excited he got to come back in Episode 7. It may partially be because I wrote him for the first time that he gets caught up in my gravitational pull, but I can't swear to that.
Q: With Episode 7 (and the commercial at the end of episode 6), we're seeing Jimmy playing the early stages of the Saul Goodman character. What beats are most important at this point in that persona's creation?
A: He's just dipping his toe into the Saul Goodman persona, even though he used it back in Cicero when he said, “S'all good, man.” It's far away from the lawyer we know on Breaking Bad. For me, right now it's just about testing the waters. What I love about this episode with Jimmy and everything that Bob [Odenkirk] does is there's such desperation in this episode. [Laughs] He very badly needs money and to keep up the persona that everything's going fine. We keep seeing him get beat down over and over again with this community service and the guitar store owners who he had a handshake deal with to do a commercial and then they pull out. He's just desperately trying so many things. That's where I feel like Saul emerges from – this desperation of needing to get things done. The Jimmy magic isn't really working for him this episode and things aren't clicking the way they normally do with Kim. I think the real Saul Goodman moment is at the end of the episode when he breaks down and uses that to get back at Chuck, and we don't fully understand the consequences of that.
Q: Although it turns into a con to get Chuck back, do you think there is some truth in Jimmy's emotional release?
A: In my opinion, he actually breaks down. There's too many bad things going against him, and he doesn't need to hear that his insurance rates are going up 150 percent. He comes in like Mr. Smooth to put the charm on and solve the problem, but it doesn't work for him. He gets hit with this news about more money he needs to pay that he doesn't have. I think he genuinely cracks. Chuck doesn't appear in the episode, but his spirit is hovering over this whole episode. Kim has a breakdown at work because of Chuck, and [Jimmy] has the same kind of breakdown. This thing that they did, even though he believes they were right, is itching at him. He doesn't want to take any blame. Like, “It's that son of a bitch's fault. I'm sitting here, crying, and I can unload a little payback.” And he takes that opportunity.
Q: Why do you think Kim has so many second thoughts about what she and Jimmy did to Chuck at the disciplinary hearing?
A: She wanted to save Jimmy and not have him lose his law license, but I think the whole part of it with Rebecca – especially after she tells them that they're terrible people – [Kim wonders], Was that a component that they needed to do? To humiliate Chuck in front of an ex who he still has feelings for? Did Jimmy need to do it the way he did it? Hindsight is 20/20. I'm sure another path could have been taken, but it's hard to know that ahead of time. Kim feels very guilty about the way they did things and guilty overall that they have the Mesa Verde account after what Jimmy did with switching the numbers. She's greatly benefiting from Jimmy's underhandedness, and she's carrying that lie. On top of that, she's humiliating Chuck, and he's cracking because of Jimmy's lie. Instead of being honest and letting the account go, she's continuing the lie, and it's starting to wear on her.
Q: Mike makes a new friend in Anita. Is there a bit of a spark there?
A: [Laughs] He's so hesitant and doesn't give up very much. ... I feel there's a little flash of something [with Anita]. Whether it will lead to something has yet to be seen. I think we're in Stacey's head, where she's getting him to come to the counseling sessions and now it's like, “Well, let's see if I can get my father-in-law out of his shell a little bit to interact with people.” She's playing her own little game. She's looking over at the two of them talking by the coffee maker and she's thinking, “This could be good for him.” He's opening up to people. That's the way we heal. But Mike is so closed off, he doesn't quite understand that healing aspect he has to do to not be damaged. And we know on Breaking Bad, he's a very damaged person.
Q: Is it difficult to write/direct a softer side of the usually gruff Mike Ehrmantraut?
A: I hate to admit this, but the press relationship that Jonathan and I have is greatly exaggerated, and I have tremendous love and respect for the man. I'm proud to call him a dear friend. I hate admitting that because a part of me loves the conflict we have over certain lines of things. We both get great fun out of that. There was no issue at all with bringing out the softer side with Jonathan because Jonathan is an actual softie. The issue might have been making him too soft! Less Jonathan and more Mike.
Q: Why do you think Mike ultimately changes his mind about brokering the deal between Pryce and Nacho?
A: There's something about Anita's story about losing someone. He lost his son and that's painful enough, but there's an added layer of pain and destruction in your life when you lose someone in your life and have zero details about what happened to them. It's clicking in his head. There's some relief that he can help answer a question in someone else's life. I don't know how self-aware he is that doing one thing will cause another thing. Something is nagging at him that he needs to fix, and that's what this season is about for him. He's carrying something with him since Season 2 that's been with him and he has to reconcile and find a way to settle it inside of him. I don't know that he's fully aware of what's going on, but something's bothering him that he needs to repair.
Q: You've talked before about how much you love seeing Gene. What did you make of the most recent glimpse of him? Is there still a possibility of doing an all-Gene episode?
A: I think we're bound to have at least a full Gene episode at some point, if not more. There's just so much to tell about where he is in that post-Breaking Bad world. The story doesn't end with Saul. It continues. Wrapping up that story involves wrapping up the Jimmy story, wrapping up the Saul story and then wrapping up the Gene story. We as writers want to tell the complete picture and complete novelization of Jimmy McGill and play out a full, rich story of what happens to him and that will involve Gene, the Cinnabon manager. We see that keeping this persona is not as easy as he thinks it is. He may have slipped deeply into it and become Gene , but there are little things happening like when he's screaming at a perp to get a lawyer. He knows he should just shut up, but he can't help himself. That Saul Goodman persona squashed out a lot of the Jimmy McGill we know and love, and now that he's inhabiting the Gene persona, maybe the real person may be trying to worm his way out.
Read a Q&A with Mark Proksch, who plays Pryce.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10/9c. For the latest information and exclusives sign up for the Insiders Club.