Vince Gilligan, the co-creator of Better Call Saul and the director of “Bagman,” talks about the challenges of taking on this massive episode, what it was like to have Jimmy in a scene with the Cousins and how happy he is to be back in the writers’ room for Season 6.
Q: This is one of the craziest episodes of the series to date. Was it coincidence you directed this, or did you have your eye on it?
A: I feel very flattered at the thought that Peter Gould had his cap set on me directing this as soon as they were breaking it in the room. I’m flattered, but I’m also a little traumatized by the whole thing. This was the single hardest thing I’ve ever directed in my life — and this was coming off of my first movie, El Camino. I thought that would be the hardest thing ever and that was certainly the longest thing because it was a movie, but this Episode 508 was as tough a job as I’ve ever had.
I didn’t know actually what was going to happen in the episode. Peter and Gordon Smith, who did such a wonderful job writing the episode, and all the other writers would bump into me from time to time and they’d say, “Oh we can’t wait for you to see 508” — because at that point I had just said, “Assign me an episode” [and] I think I can do from this date to that date. That’s what coincided with this. And it just seemed to keep snowballing and getting bigger and bigger every time I’d run into them. Peter would rub his hands together and gleefully say, “Oh I can’t wait for you to see what’s going to happen — it’s huge, it’s enormous.” At a certain point I was thinking, “Oh man, this sounds like they’re setting me up to get murdered.” I didn’t even know what was going to happen in the episode. I just knew it took place mostly in the desert and it mostly centered on Jimmy and Mike and that’s about all I knew, and I kind of kept it that way purposely but also because I was busy with post [production] on the movie. But it really came as a shock to me when I read it, and I said, “Oh my God, how are we going to do all this?”
Q: How did you approach directing this episode knowing it’d center on Saul’s first job with the cartel and unravel from there?
A: I was fascinated by the script. I found the script a real page-turner, as all of them are. And as an aside, I’d like to say I would have been happy directing any of these 10 episodes because I just think this is one of the best TV seasons ever of any show in the history of the medium. I think what Peter and the writers came up with this season is just outstanding, and I feel lucky to be a small part of it, having served as one of the directors. I guess the answer to the question is you always approach it in terms of what’s the best way to tell the story? What tools are you going to need to tell a story?
I probably wasn’t really thinking in terms of this is Jimmy’s first outing as a friend of the cartel, but I was thinking in terms of the sheer logistics of this thing, which were a bear. Just the idea that we’re going to be shooting out in this location in murderously hot weather, miles away from the nearest source of water, in a land where there are tarantulas and scorpions. You could roast to death and then die of heat stroke and dehydration because this is a land that — if you were plopped down into this place without a canteen, without a hat with a big brim on it — you’d probably be dead within an hour and a half. I’m not overstating it. But the thing I’m most scared of out there is the cholla. That particular cactus out there has prickly spines longer than a toothpick and needle-sharp, and that’s what Jimmy rams his toe into by accident. Those things are so scary. I’d rather be covered with tarantulas than fall into one of those chollas. It would be unbelievably dangerous.
I don’t take credit for the fact that no one got hurt. That is all due to our wonderful producers, all of them – certainly Melissa Bernstein and Princess Nash and Rob Overbeck and our wonderful AD, Efrain Cortes. The assistant director’s job, first and foremost, is to make sure that the crew remains safe. It really bears repeating that the single most important thing about this episode — or any episode, but this one stood out in stark relief — is keeping people safe because, at the end of the day, it’s just a TV show. It’s a damn fine TV show I couldn’t be more proud of, but it’s not worth one person getting hurt. And this episode, more than anything I’ve ever directed, gave rise to a great many opportunities for disaster, and it really is a credit to our producers and to Efrain that nobody got hurt. That’s the thing I’m most thankful for.
Q: Jimmy chooses to tell Kim about this job. Is it important to him to stick to their “marriage promise” or do you think part of him is just scared and wanting to share it with someone?
A: I think Jimmy is trying to uphold his marriage vow here, this promise that he made Kim before they tied the knot that he would be honest with her, but it’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, the way you worded it just now. Maybe on some level he wants to unburden himself and tell her about this thing that does have him nervous, maybe in part just to gauge her reaction, just to see exactly how wide her eyes go when she hears this, and perhaps it frightens him more still. We all have a tendency to rationalize our behavior, and I think that’s what Jimmy is doing in this moment. He’s rationalizing that it’s going to be okay and that he can handle it and it’s only a simple drive out into the desert, which I think is what Lalo says to him. Of course it turns out to be much, much more than that.
Q: We have the Cousins and Jimmy meeting for the initial handoff of the money. What’s it like directing these polar opposite characters — two that never say a word and one that can’t stop speaking?
A: That was so much fun. Yeah, one guy speaks enough for all three of them and then some. It was so much fun seeing those two worlds collide. I felt so very lucky to get to be the guy directing that scene. Most of the episode took place way out in the boonies, way out on the To’hajiilee Indian reservation, which is so very beautiful. And it should be noted that To’hajiilee, where we shot the bulk of the episode, is where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman first cook meth in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad so it was like old home week going out there. Except that we went to a part of To’hajiilee that was literally, I don’t know, a 45-minute drive further out into no man’s land and it really was out there in the middle of nowhere and it almost felt like we were in a whole different place even though it was all the same reservation. The scene with the Cousins meeting Jimmy for the first time was shot in a very different area that was actually within sight of our Q Studios soundstages, so on that particular day, we were shooting with Q Studios off to our right and and the city of Albuquerque in sight off to our left, and we had to do a little digital trickery to erase parts of the city that were off to the left side of the master shot, of the wide shot.
But having those three guys together was so much fun. I love Daniel and Luis [Moncada]. They’re such good-hearted, sweet guys. They’re so much fun to be on a set with and just to hang around with and, in real life, they are as goofy and talkative as Jimmy McGill is as a character. Bob is a sweetheart of a guy but he doesn’t, but he’s just by nature a bit more quiet in real life, and the two scary Cousins who never say a word are sort of goofy and boisterous in real life. They are the complete opposite of their characters, these three guys, so it was funny, when the scene started, to hear Jimmy doing his patter a mile a minute. I had the great good luck to have Gordon Smith, the writer, on the set with me the whole time so he was helping me with every shot. He was indispensable. And there’s a certain amount of dialogue written into Gordon’s script, but we were watching the scene and thinking, gee wouldn’t it be funny if Jimmy talked a little more here, so I think a couple of those funny lines might not have been in the script. They’re just sort of stuff that Gordon and Bob made up on the spot.
Q: What do you think Jimmy is thinking when Mike of all people shows up? Why is it important to put these two together for this traumatic journey?
A: As a fan of the show, I’ve been wanting to see Mike and Jimmy together for a long time, and I know that this has been a hope on the part of Peter and the writers for a great many seasons. We love Mike and we love Jimmy, and they’re like putting the chocolate together with the peanut butter. They’re just great together, but their lives and their life choices and their careers have taken them, as the series has progressed, in very different directions, so you can’t squash them together artificially. You have to let the plot chips fall where they may, so to speak, and I think the biggest excitement for everybody involved — including me as well with the arrival of the script — was that it presented this opportunity for these two guys to be together more than they’ve been together ever before in a single episode, and that was probably my favorite thing about it.
So to answer the question, when Mike shows up, I think it’s of course a huge relief to Jimmy, although he is so utterly in shock and so traumatized at the point that Mike makes his presence known. I don’t even know if Jimmy knows what planet he’s on at that particular moment. I think the release probably floods in later, but at that moment it’s just trauma, shock and horror at what he’s just witnessed and lived through. But, yeah, you don’t want to be on Mike’s bad side, and, if you happen to be on the same side as Mike, what bigger relief than when that guy shows up, because he’s the only guy that could have pulled off that save.
Q: When Jimmy doesn’t come home, Kim goes to see Lalo. There are so many ways to place this scene, especially from Kim’s POV. What was your vision here?
A: I probably should give you a really good artistic directorial reasoning as to how I approached that scene and whatnot when Lalo and Kim first meet. The main relief I felt was that I was working with these two amazing actors who were going to make me look good as a director. But I hate shooting in jailhouse meeting rooms. They are the most boring sets in the world. I mean, our crew did a great job building that set, but, by their very nature, they are just boring as hell. It’s just four walls and a ceiling. And also that set had been shot at least twice before here in Season 5, maybe three times. … I thought long and hard about, “Is there anywhere new to put a camera in here?”, and the short answer is no, there’s really no place new to put a camera. So I just got through that scene as best I could, relying on the wonderful work of the actors, and they really were the special effect, just close-ups on their faces. That’s all you need.
Q: Jimmy almost gets shot and ultimately has to drink his own pee to survive. Why would ANYONE ever go into the desert on your shows?
A: My answer is I go to the desert when Peter Gould tells me, but if he ever asks me to do it again, there’s going to be a lot more pushback next time. I can tell you that for sure. It was rough, but, yeah, as far as our characters, they should probably stay the hell away from the desert too. It’s a beautiful but deadly land in which nothing good is going to happen when you’re in Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. There’s nothing good to come from going out to the desert.
Q: There was a giant shootout and an incredible car crash in this episode. What was the biggest challenge in directing this episode?
A: It was just crazy hard. It was two of the biggest set pieces — one in particular at the shootout was probably the biggest single set piece scene I’ve ever directed. So even in 72-degree weather, with plenty of Gatorade on hand and whatnot, inside a soundstage, that would have been a hard scene for me to do. On the best possible day under the best possible circumstances, that shootout would have been the biggest thing I’ve ever done as a director, and, on top of that, we had to do it way out in the middle of nowhere with a great many privations arrayed against us. It was tough.
The good news is I had the time to do it. I believe it took four-and-a-half to five days just to shoot that one scene, just the shootout scene, which is amazing on a TV schedule. If this had been a movie, that four-and-a-half to five day scene probably would have shot over eight to 10 to 12 days easily, and we just made it work. We just made it happen and we made it happen quick, thanks to this astounding crew that we have, the best crew in the business.
And then the cannon role was a megillah of a sequence, and we had Corey Eubanks, the world’s foremost cannon roll artist, doing our stunt driving and he was our secret weapon during that scene — he and Al Goto, our stunt coordinator, and their crew. Again, hire the best and then stand back and let them make you look good, and, in this case, this cannon roll that Corey pulled off was flawless. It was amazing, and the fact that Corey and Al pulled this thing off on a dirt road, which was I think one of the biggest concerns — usually you want to do a cannon roll on a hard-packed or an asphalt road. Logistically, you have to have an area mapped out with GPS coordinates where you can land a medevac helicopter when you do something like this. You have to have an ambulance on site. You have to have guys ready to put out fires, literally. I mean, just the logistics that went into this — and I take no credit for any of this. Being a director is the best job in the world because you come up with whatever shots you want to get and then you draw them out maybe on a piece of paper and then you wander off and have a sandwich, and all the amazing crew people have been doing the hard work and you’re just hanging out in the shade, having someone mist you with ice cold water or something. It’s a great job. I would highly recommend it.
Q: What are you most excited about as this show heads into its final season?
A: The thing I’m most excited about Season 6 is I’m a part of it again. I am back in the writers’ room and, as you interview me here, we are at work in the writers room on Season 6. We’re taking our lunch break at this exact moment and, in about 15 minutes, we’re going to get back to it. And of course, as all the folks who read this know, we’ve got this scary COVID-19 virus going on, so we are, for the first time ever, we’re doing our writers room with the aid of technology. We’re using teleconferencing, and it’s a little tricky. We don’t love teleconferencing; we’d rather all be in a room together. But I’m excited. Even over a TV screen, I’m excited to be back working with these folks again. I’ve forgotten what it’s like being in a writers room, so I’ve gotten a little bit rusty. We’re almost three weeks in now, and I still feel like I’m not sure I completely fit in, but I’m having a good time. And that’s what excites me the most. I think it’s going to be a bittersweet day when the series ends at the end of Season 6, but I think it’s going to be a great season of television and I’m proud to be a part of it and couldn’t be happier to be back in the room with everybody. Peter and the writers took this thing that we came up with years ago and, man, they have just run with it.
Read a Q&A with Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin on Better Call Saul.
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