Melissa Bernstein, executive producer of Better Call Saul (pictured above, left, with writer Allison Tatlock, discusses making her directorial debut, how Jimmy and Mike take big steps toward their Breaking Bad futures, and blowing up a Los Pollos Hermanos.
Q: Was directing something you always wanted to do?
A: I don’t think I’ve always had directing as a personal goal. I love directors. I love working with directors. One of my favorite parts of my job as a producer is prepping with the set directors and seeing the episode through their eyes and being able to recruit interesting artists to come and take on our show and to see how they do that. I love that and being in that process has absolutely made me a better producer and made me, again, really appreciate the talent of directors.
Q: How did the opportunity present itself?
I’ve been thinking about it for a few years, and I was always really intimidated by it, I would say. As the kind of producer I am, I’m involved in really every aspect of seeing the show get made, but I’ve never been the ultimate creative decision-maker on the set and that’s a pretty intimidating role and I wasn’t sure if it was something I would do well. Having done it, I’m still not sure. But I did promise myself a couple years ago that, if I had the opportunity, I would take it and, as Season 5 was coming together, that felt like the right opportunity. So, I decided to go for it and I asked Peter [Gould] if he would give me that opportunity and he was supportive. It was something that I really decided to do because it scared me and because I was uncomfortable at the prospect. And I have become very comfortable with producing. I still love it, and I still think that is probably where I will continue to focus my efforts, but it’s something that started to feel second nature and I wanted a way to kind of shake up my own creative point of view.
Q: Was it easier or harder than you thought?
A: It was a little bit of everything — part exhilarating, part feeling like this is everything I could want, and things are going really well to, “Oh, I hadn’t anticipated that.” And then dealing with the choices that you make, come the edit room, when you’re like, “Oh, perhaps I should have considered this and that.” Obviously, when looking back, things have more clarity, but it was everything all in one in a great way. It was a wonderful experience. I felt so supported by the cast and crew, and I felt like I was able to stretch my own skill set. I think there were things I saw very clearly and there are things that took awhile to reveal themselves, so I think it was a mixed bag. But, all in all, I felt great about the shoot, and I felt so fortunate to be a part of such a talented team and such a generous group of people.
Q: You certainly had a lot to work with in this episode. For starters, Jimmy and Kim got married! How did you approach that scene, balancing the pragmatic nature of the arrangement with the underlying emotion that begins to appear?
It’s a very unique wedding. I think we’re all rooting for them to be together and to be happy, but I think we’re all quite worried for Kim, knowing what Jimmy turns into and knowing what kind of situation he gets himself into come Breaking Bad. Peter was very concerned that the wedding would feel saccharine or unauthentically emotional, and so we worked to make sure that it felt authentic to the experience that these two characters are having. It was not a romantic proposal in Episode 506. It was an act of desperation on Kim’s part that they’re making good on, so the wedding had to feel appropriate to that setup. But, yeah, it’s important for us to feel like there’s some real feelings between them and that this does matter to them. I think that’s a wonderful thing about the scene: The marriage happens in a way that’s very believable but the emotion and sentiment of it creeps up on the audience the way it creeps up on the characters. I think that’s unusual, and I found it quite pleasing.
Q: Better Call Saul has been, to date, a somewhat chaste show, so what was it like shooting a racier scene with Jim and Kimmy, and again, finding the balance between their new marital bliss and the reality of their situation in their heads?
When I read that my episode was going to have a love scene, it did make me a little nervous. But I loved this scene because it is intimate in that they are in the bedroom and they are in the midst of making good on their marital vows, but, within that scene is this exchange that is true intimacy between them, where Jimmy is telling Kim something his instinct tells him not to share with her and she accepts it with such love and understanding. I think it would be hard for us to imagine the Kim from Season 1 or Seasons 2 or 3 being able to take in what he’s telling her without just losing it and casting him out of her apartment. But we’ve seen these characters evolve together and, in this moment, we’re seeing them evolve together. I think this is really special and unusual, so the fact that they weren’t wearing many clothes while they were having this very intimate exchange just kind of underscored where the couple is on their journey.
Q: Jimmy finds a way to get Lalo‘s bond and become a “friend of the cartel.” Beyond changing his name, is this the biggest step he’s made toward Saul Goodman?
A: I think so. I think that what we see Jimmy do in that courtroom is a real low for him. To see him consciously find an out for someone he knows has casually murdered an innocent bystander is pretty shocking, and it feels like he’s taken a giant step towards being Saul Goodman. Using that name is one thing, but making such a moral compromise knowingly is a really big deal in that devolution.
Q: Mike also takes a big step, telling Stacy he’s playing the cards he was dealt. Is this him officially giving himself over to be one of the bad guys?
A: I love those scenes with Mike in this episode. We’ve seen him all season struggle with this anger and shame and self-loathing. In this episode, we do get to see him come to terms with that, and I think it’s really interesting to understand. We met Mike in Breaking Bad and he seemed like a very confident, sure-handed person who was secure in his choices. It felt like this episode was a great window into him really starting to make peace with his inner turmoil. It’s still going to be there, but he’s decided to harness it in a specific way and to march forward, for him and his family.
Q: How excited/scared were you to blow up a Los Pollos Hermanos? What goes into a big production day like that?
A: When I read that scene, you’re just like what? There’s so much variety in this particular episode, so many opportunities for fun and for a bit of showmanship. So, I was both excited and intimidated by that particular opportunity. But I will say our special effects department is so talented. Werner Hahnlein has so much confidence. Even talking to him about that setup, I think he would say, “The explosion we got down, it’s the chickens sliding down the tray that’s going to kill us.” That’s sort of how this business works. He’s got explosions really dialed in, but it took a whole team. Christian [Diaz De Bedoya], our location manager, found this restaurant that we were allowed to blow up. He showed it to me, and I was like, “We’re really going to blow it up?” That’s not something that anybody could count on happening, but, because Christian found a location where we could have a practical explosion, we did. And the fact we have an art department that was able to transform a gutted fast food restaurant into what looked like an operational restaurant that was at the standard of Gus Fring is also amazing. The only reason we could execute it in the way that we did is because of the incredibly talented department heads that we had paving the path in that direction. It was pretty incredible. And Giancarlo, so brave and trusting. It’s not nothing to be the guy walking with your back towards a giant explosion — you could feel the heat behind you. To be able to stay in the mode of that character without flinching —you can’t count on that either but, because of Giancarlo’s professionalism and focus, that worked. So, it was a really exciting scene to put together, but it relied truly on everyone being at the top of their game. We did nothing to that explosion in [post-production]. It wouldn’t be bad if we had, but we didn’t have to because it was so incredible.
Q: After that physical explosion we get an emotional one as Jimmy goes off on Howard. What do you make of his outburst?
A: I think it’s a really well-earned scene, just based on where Jimmy’s coming from in that courtroom and how much shame and anger and worry he’s feeling about the decisions he’s made vis-à-vis Lalo. Hamlin is a receptacle for all of those awful emotions. When I first read it, I actually felt like Jimmy was turning the tables on Hamlin and he was going on the offensive and that there was obviously this theater to it from Jimmy’s side. But when I actually fully started rehearsing that scene, I found it impossible not to just feel so deeply for Jimmy because you can see his pain so clearly and you just really feel how vulnerable he is and how dark the spot he’s in. It was amazingly emotional. Bob did such an incredible job, and he really went for it. He was so present and I was so incredibly moved. I could tell it was going to be an amazing scene. That was not one where I was like, “I should have done this or that.” It felt so satisfying and so provocative and so raw, Bob didn’t leave anything on the field there, and I was just so pleased that we were able to capture it in a beautiful way. Our camera operator and our dolly grip, who were managing that move — it’s all in one shot once he’s really on fire there — did such a great job on that. I was just so pleased with the result, but I didn’t realize immediately how dark that scene was going to be. I love it and I think it’s a great end to the arc of that episode for Jimmy.
Q: Has the directing bug bitten you now? Do you hope to do more, either on this show or elsewhere?
A: I would like to do it again. I’d like an opportunity to do, I think, a better job. When everything is new and it’s your first time, a lot of your emotional and professional bandwidth is taken up with making sure you’re just crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. I feel like, once that becomes more second nature, I could do a better job of taking more artistic risks and being bolder. Again, I’ve worked with such talented directors that I just want to feel like I’m nipping at their heels a little more than I was in my first approach. I feel like I’ve seen great direction, and I don’t think I nailed it my first time. But I think I understand it more now, and with that I think I can do a better job.
Well Vince, Peter and your cast members disagree! How are you feeling about the show coming to its conclusion? Any other projects you’re excited to line up after Saul is over?
A: The way we work, it doesn’t feel imminent, the separation from this group. But I will say it’s such a wonderful privilege to be able to write to an ending and to plan for it. I’m really excited about that. Most shows don’t get that opportunity, and I just feel like we have the ability to tell the story the best possible way and end it in a satisfying way and I’m intimidated still by that but I’m really happy that that’s the way this part of this universe gets to go out and I’m grateful for it and I’m excited to see what happens. I think it’s going to be a lot of twists and turns coming our way, but I think it’s going to be really fun and I get to see a lot of what happens before most people do and that’s one of the best parts of my job, to get that preview.
Q: Are there any other challenges or goals you’d like to take on, either with this show or another project down the road? Maybe writing, since you’ve already produced and directed?
A: I want to tell stories that, in some way, illuminate the human condition, that make us think and make us wonder and surprise us and inspire us. For me, it’s about finding more of those stories. I am not interested at all in writing. It’s really hard to do it really well, and I’ve been around just too many talented writers to feel like that’s something I should be doing. Honestly, it’s such a vulnerable experience, like you have to give so much of yourself and open yourself up and put yourself out there on every page, and I don’t think I’m brave enough to do that. I admire writers so much for that. I love producing and I’ve gotten a lot of experience at it, but I’m nothing without a great script. It all starts there, and I can’t make a bad script a great story that people are going to want to see. So, I continue to bow down to the writers and will look forward to interesting collaborations with them.
Read a Q&A with Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin.
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