Better Call Saul Q&A – Tom Schnauz on How Walt and Jesse's Return Informs Gene's Recklessness

Better call Saul executive Producer Tom Schnauz, who wrote and directed this week’s episode, “Breaking Bad,” discusses why now was the moment to feature Walt and Jesse, staging Gene’s latest con, and why even a hint of Kim is enough to send Gene down a “dangerous” path.
The episode features with the long-promised return appearance of Walt and Jesse, re-creating and re-contextualizing the classic Breaking Bad scene where Saul Goodman was first introduced. How did the writers decide this was the time and the way to bring these characters into the show?
In the episode, Gene reverts back to his Saul Goodman ways and we wanted to draw a parallel between who Saul was in the past and who Gene is and the reasons he became Saul. In episode 609 we do the 2001 moment with the bone turning into the spaceship, where Kim breaks up with him and tells him about how she kept the truth from him about Mike and Lalo being alive, and then he goes full Saul Goodman. So, in this episode he has a phone call with, we think, Kim. He tries to call Kim, he reaches her place of work and something bad happens on that phone call that we don't hear and brings back all the pain of the past and he decides to go back to his scamming ways. He needs to do something to numb the pain of the past and being Gene isn't going to do it. So we wanted to see Saul in the past and see Gene now and see the steps that made him go towards Walter White, where Mike advises him to "let it go" but he can't because he's got something inside him nagging at him that he needs to do something bigger and badder to numb the pain of what's happened in the past. So this just seemed like the right episode to flash back and forth between the Saul Goodman times, the Walter White times, and comparing it to what's going on in Gene's world.
So, then, we were looking for a spot – where [in the timeline] do we show Walter White return? For the longest time we talked about the moment where Brandon Mayhew's uncle walks through the door and tries to hire him, but that didn't seem quite right or dramatic enough. Looking back at all the different scenes, we realized it was the space between the kidnapping and when they're planning how they're going to save Badger and that just seemed like a real sweet spot to fill in, “What do these guys say to each other after the attempted kidnapping during that awkward ride back?” And in this case the ride back is filled with an awkward RV stall and they have to sit uncomfortably together in the dark looking at each other.
Unlike some of the other writers you have written Gene scenes before, back in the opening of Season 2? Was there anything different or unique about writing that character this time around?
We all broke the episodes together so all the writers were very familiar with Gene and had worked with the Gene character before. But this is a much different Gene. This is a Gene who's taking control. I mean, he's really more Saul/Slippin' Jimmy in these scenes than Gene. I mean, Gene is now a cover. He's in the bar with the bully Al Hill. He's using the Gene persona to rope these guys in to think he's pathetic and can be taken advantage of.
Early in the episode we see a post-Breaking Bad Francesca showing up at the appointed day and time to take the call Saul promised to make. Does it say anything about their relationship that, despite all the heat on Saul, she’s willing to jump through hoops to take that call?
Well yeah, definitely in Breaking Bad we see her transform and she wants and needs money. So, I think she does this more for the promise of the money than for any feeling she has towards Jimmy McGill/Saul. But in the moment where she reveals that Kim called her to check in on her, we see she has some real emotion about the things that happened. She does feel bad on some level for everything that's gone down and for who Jimmy used to be and who turned into and who she let herself turn into by being associated with him.
I’m sure the very mention of Kim will delight fans who may have worried Kim wasn’t alive in the Breaking Bad/post-Breaking Bad timeline – especially after there was no sign of her at all after the big breakup in Episode 9. How did you all decide how you would dole out that information?
It was very similar to the thought process between Lalo disappearing after Episode 1 and returning in Episode 5 – just keeping the audience wondering what is going on with this character who they love and care for very much. We just thought it better to leave things unanswered now and revealed later on/
Bob Odenkirk as Gene in Better Call SaulAs you mentioned, the pair of phone calls between Francesca and Kim send Gene back to work. To you, is it about the money that Francesca informs him is all gone or whatever happened in that call we didn’t hear?
I would say pretty definitively it has nothing to do with money. The money is really secondary to this thing. He probably thinks the game is about earning money, but he does it because, as I said earlier, he's got some pain he needs to numb and being Gene is not doing it. And he got a taste again. In Episode 10, he solved his Jeff problem by doing this scam with these guys and it probably gave him a jolt of energy, that familiar feeling of what it's like to take that particular drug. It's exciting and it feels good, and he's been cold turkey for a very long time and he got a taste again. I think, after the phone call to Kim's workplace, he needed to go back to that drug again and so he does. He does it big time. He goes full addict. It feels so much better doing what he's doing -- hurting and taking advantage of other people -- than being Gene the Cinnabon manager.
The grift he starts to run on all these different guys feels classic Slippin' Jimmy. How much fun was it to think about this con in terms of seeing him operate on that level again?
It was a ton of fun coming up with the method of how he was going to take advantage of these guys. And it was important for us and for me to have these guys be rich, obnoxious, full of themselves, thinking they're better than Gene. Because looking at what they're doing, they're drugging people. This has gone beyond. I don't think he's ever done anything this terrible where you're spiking drinks and water and knocking people out. I think this has gone to another level of mean-ness. But initially the people he's taking advantage of, on some level you feel like, "Yeah, these jerks deserve it. I'm going to root for my guy." Then you get to the end scene where you have Mr. Lingk, their final mark who has pancreatic cancer, and you think for a moment Jimmy is going to raise his head and say, "You know what? I can't do this." You think he's going to take the stance that Buddy does, but he doesn't. He's like, "You know what? Screw it. This guy, yeah he has cancer, but every other guy we've taken has a sob story." And after his experience with Walter White, yes, even people with cancer can be complete jerks. So, he wants to go for it. He doesn't fail at any scams. He wants to go through to the end and he gets very upset when Buddy has a change of heart.
The grift montage in this episode is coming on the heels of the beautiful and devastating opening  in Episode 9 and the Cinnabon security guard con in Episode 10. Logistically how much extra work is it to get all the shots to put a montage like this together?
Directing a montage like this – a majority of the work gets thrown onto my assistant director, Rich Sickler, who's got to organize a way to get all these shots in our allotted shooting time, and so we're picking up montage shots all throughout the shooting schedule. So, when we were shooting in the karaoke bar, we had a third camera. Where the karaoke scene was, there was another bar. It was a restaurant so it had a second bar and we were able to get extra shots. So I'd run back and forth over there to line up shots and do shots of drinking glasses, and and when we did the Mr. Lingk scene, there was another room at that location where we set up a bar, so I was able to run over there and set that up and do that while we were moving outside to shoot the exterior of Gene putting the guy in the taxi. So we were just putting shots in the schedule all over the place. I do my own storyboards. I'd just draw up shots and make a list of shots of what we needed to get and then it's my AD Rich Sickler's job to figure out where and when we can get them. Like the shot of Bob ushering the fellow into the taxicab – that was shot right outside of our studio. That's the front of ABQ Studios there. Our great team just put fake snow and a restaurant sign and a taxicab, and you can't tell that it's a movie studio. It just looks like a sidewalk in Omaha. So we're picking up all these scenes. We built Gene's bedroom on stage, so we could do the zoom out shot of Gene in bed with the various women and paying the women off. There might have been a day dedicated to montage shots, but the majority of things were picked up while we were shooting other things.
And in terms of following those previous montages – and, really, the many the show has done through the years – how do you approach making this one feel unique from the others? Is it just about tone?
I'm a huge Monkees fan and I had the song "Goin' Down" for the first Breaking Bad episode I directed. I've been wanting to use this particular song ever since I saw Mike Nesmith do it live in concert. The original version is much different than the version we used in the episode, and he did this acoustic version and I was like, "Oh my God, I love this." For years I've been thinking I want to use it somewhere and when it came to this passage of time and the sadness of what's happening to Gene -- how he used to be Jimmy with Kim and happy, but now he's this completely lost, different person. It just felt like a good song for that moment, so the song carried the mood of what we shot. We even played it for when they're in the strip club. We played that song so that the dance around the pole moves to the rhythm of that particular song. I didn't know how the previous montages were being shot for 9 and 10, so I didn't really see them or know if I was going to be similar or different to them. I knew how we broke them in the room, but I wasn't there when they shot them. So yeah, I think the Michael Nesmith song really carried the mood of the montage.
I keep hoping to see remnants of Jimmy in Gene. Instead, it seems like we’re seeing just how calcified Saul Goodman has become within him. You mentioned him insisting to go ahead with scam on Mr. Lingk despite his cancer, but by the end, Gene is breaking and entering. Are you trying to signal that Jimmy may really be gone for good?
I think he's lost so much. He has his little Band-Aid tin full of diamonds, so he doesn't need the money. He just needs the action at this point and he's got nothing to gain by going forward with this except to complete the task at hand, and it's just a need he has to get that rush of getting over on this guy. It's a sad point that Jimmy has come to, and we'll just have to wait and see next week what happens. The scam up to this point has been to leave no evidence of being robbed and here he is putting on a glove and smashing through glass to get in a house. I mean, he should stop and breathe and take a moment and say, "You know what? We'll get him next time. You can't win them all." But this guy wants to win every one. He wants to have a perfect record here and go forward. It's more reckless and more dangerous. I think he's upping the danger level here for that ultimate rush.
That notion of not letting go is also there in the flashback to Mike telling Saul to leave Walter White alone, which, of course, he doesn’t. Did the writers debate whether to show more of how Mike becomes more integrated in working with Saul?
Yeah, we had talked about do we see the individual steps? We just didn't know how important it was. It felt like we were going to slow down another story to fill in the gaps of the Mike/Saul relationship and it felt like the pieces were there. I mean, Mike has done P.I. work for Jimmy in the past. Even when he goes to Chuck's house and pretends to be a workman and take pictures for him, the relationship of being a private investigator was there. And at some point Saul Goodman needed a private investigator and maybe probably tried to use other people, but when you know somebody who is the best at what he does… And certainly Gus Fring is a person who wants to know everything that's going on in Albuquerque, so it’s better to have a guy on the inside who can tell him things about somebody who's dealing with the underworld. It’s just better to let Mike freelance as a guy who works for a very connected Saul Goodman and it's a way of information gathering for Gus Fring, which definitely pays off in Breaking Bad when the Cousins show up to Walter White's house and they're there to get revenge.
Executive producers Vince Gilligan and Tom Schnauz on the set of Better Call Saul with Bryan Crantson, Aaron Paul and Bob Odenkirk
Writer/director Tom Schnauz, pictured second from left with executive producer Vince Gilligan, Bob Odenkirk, Aaoron Paul and Bryan Cranston.
Circling back to Walt and Jesse, what was it like having them back on set after all these years? Was it like a big family reunion to have Bryan and Aaron back in Albuquerque?
Yeah, it was a real time-warp, insane, flashback moment. Like, here we are in the RV, which our set decorating crew did an amazing job recreating and rebuilding. Our production team and our set designers and our builders just did an amazing job recreating that set. But then having Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul dressed as Walt and Jesse walking around in the set, it was just really surreal and fantastic and so much fun. I mean, these guys just slipped right back into the roles. Before we shot, I wrote up an email. I believe Bryan asked me because it's been so long, "Where are the characters' heads at, at this point in the universe?" So I wrote up a document for Bryan and Aaron and Bob too because he's been Jimmy for so long, and the document explained what the characters had been through up to the point where they walked back into the RV, so they knew everything that was going on. And then the guys came in, we rehearsed the scene, and it was just like old times again. It was just fantastic.
What was more significant for you – working with and directing Carol Burnett or seeing her spit out "Schnauz Farms" Wisconsin smoked cheddar in the previous episode?
[Laughs] I think meeting her in person and getting work with her. As much as I love the Schnauz Farms cheddar cheese, and I love that it's committed to film, but Carol Burnett – I watched that show when I was a kid, through being an adult and loved her and Tim Conway and Harvey Korman and the cast. Everything they did was fantastic, so it was an amazing experience to get to meet and work with her.
Finally, given that this is your last credited episode as writer and director, what has this experience – from Breaking Bad and now through all of Better Call Saul – meant to you?
Working on these shows has changed my life. I worked with really the best groups of writers on both shows. I felt like when we were working in Season 5, that was our last time working in person together because Season 6 was all through Zoom. But Season 5 felt like one of the best times ever. I felt like we were just clicking on all cylinders on that season and continued on through Zoom for Season 6. It's been great. I just feel incredibly lucky that I got to get on Breaking Bad in the first place in Season 3 and then continue on. When the spin-off came up, I wasn't sure if anybody was going to tune in and watch, and luckily through the strength of all the writers' hard work and then the incredible work that Bob Odenkirk and our hero of the series, Rhea Seehorn, did was just fantastic. And of course not only having our lead actor and actress, but Jonathan Banks and Michael Mando and Patrick Fabian – who was so good in Episode 7, I can't say enough how good he was – and then the luck of finding an actor like Tony Dalton and, boy, Giancarlo Esposito. I mean, this thing could have failed miserably, but it felt like it really turned into something special and things came together. It's been a dream come true and it's changed my life, so it's great to have this opportunity.
The final episodes of Better Call Saul air Mondays at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on the entire final season, read our cast and creator Q&As here.