When it comes to the Breaking Bad–Better Call Saul universe, there are certain names inextricably linked with those series. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill, Mike Ehrmantraut, Kim Wexler and Gustavo Fring are all indelible characters that sprang from the mind of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, both of whom have, as a result, also become household names for fans of the two critically acclaimed shows they have steered for the past decade-plus.
But there’s another name that fans may notice in the credits each week who is just as critical to both shows’ success: Melissa Bernstein. “I can barely remember a time in my life when Melissa wasn’t a part of it,” Gilligan says. “She was the very first crew hire [on Breaking Bad]. We were the two people in the room with Bryan Cranston the very first time he came in. And the same goes for when we hired our line producer and all these other key players for the pilot and that first season. She’s been integral to the success of Breaking Bad since before Day 1 and I can’t imagine having done the show without her.”
While Bernstein has been comfortable in the behind-the-scenes shadows, she may no longer have that luxury after making her directorial debut earlier this week with a pivotal Season 5 episode of Better Call Saul, “JMM.” While Bernstein says being in the director’s chair was never a stated personal goal of hers, when the opportunity presented itself, she approached Gould.
“It was a very short conversation,” the Saul showrunner recalls. “I didn’t really have any hesitation about having her direct. A director works through other people. A director has to communicate, and I’ve known from working with Melissa that she is expert in those areas. I just knew she was going to do a great job, and she knocked it out of the park. She just killed it.”
The episode, which has already earned praise from critics and fans alike, is just the latest achievement in Bernstein’s remarkable career. After graduating from The University of Pennsylvania, Bernstein knew she wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment business, but, without many connections, she wasn’t sure of the best path. She worked as an intern and production assistant on documentary television series such as National Geographic’s Explorer and the The Learning Channel’s A Wedding Story before ultimately segueing into public relations with a technology focus on accounts including Digital Entertainment Network and Sony Playstation. But that job didn’t last long.
“I was surrounded by film students, and I was so jealous of their day-to-day in this totally creative pursuit,” Bernstein says. So, I ended up quitting my job, and I started working on my friends’ thesis films. I worked in the art department. I worked in craft service. I did locations. I produced a couple. And I found that was really fun and satisfying work. I felt like I was able to do something creative, and it felt like something I could be successful at.”
But turning that experience into an actual career was something Bernstein still wasn’t sure how to achieve. After working at the William Morris talent agency for a year, she was eventually hired as the assistant to Mark Johnson, the Oscar-winning producer of such films as Rain Man, Diner and The Chronicles of Narnia. It was there that two key things happened for Bernstein: She pivoted from pursuing film and began to learn how television works and, as a result, met Vince Gilligan, an old friend of Johnson’s who was prepping to pitch Breaking Bad.
“I’d gotten to know Vince well enough that Vince invited me to meetings with him,” Bernstein says. “So I became this go-between for Vince with AMC and with Sony. I embedded myself, in a way it was hard to work entirely around me, so I became a part of that machinery and I learned how to make a show. I learned, really from the ground up with Vince’s guidance, how that process worked and I loved it. Amazingly that show has now yielded a film and a prequel series that’s still going, so it’s created a lot of work over the years. It’s been a really magical thing.”
That work ethic and desire to learn all of the moving parts of a production is exactly what makes Bernstein such a valued asset. But that, coupled with the vagueness of what a “producer” really does, might also account for why Bernstein remains mostly behind the scenes. “It’s always a deceptively hard answer to give when people ask what does a producer do, and it gets even harder when you are talking about the very best producers like Melissa,” Gilligan says. “They really do everything and they do it so well and so invisibly that sometimes you forget how many things they have a hand in and just how crucial they are.”
For her part, Bernstein describes her role thusly: “I’m very much like a cradle-to-the-grave guardian of the material,” she says. Bernstein works with the writers to bring their scripts to life, through the hiring of the cast – from the main cast down to the day players – staffing the heads of the various technical departments that make up the crew and post-production teams, and scheduling studio space and physical locations when they’re needed. “What I love about being a producer is that no day is the same,” Bernstein says. “I think producing is largely problem-solving. You are trying to be solution-oriented and plan for things that could happen, and then react to things that you didn’t expect to happen. That’s a fun part of it.”
But there’s more to Bernstein’s job than logistical wrangling. “She is the great communicator,” Gilligan says. “She keeps the lines of communication open between everybody on the set and that is a huge part of the job. But then there is the creative component. She gives such great notes because she is a natural storyteller. She can sit in a room with a sharpened pencil with the best of them and say this is how we can save some money if we cut this or do that, but her notes always come from a place of story and figuring out what the story demands first and foremost. She always has something smart to say about the script based on her understanding of the characters and based on her understanding of human nature.”
Indeed, that’s the driving force behind all of Bernstein’s work, which, in addition to the Breaking Bad universe, includes such character-driven dramas as SundanceTV’s Rectify, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and Hulu’s Shut Eye. “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,” Bernstein says. “It’s a privilege to be a storyteller and to have a role in sharing stories with the world. I think they have a potential to enlighten and to motivate and to make people think about who they are and who they want to be, and that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Bernstein’s directorial debut had those elements in spades. The episode not only featured the decidedly understated wedding of Jimmy and Kim, but also perhaps the most intimate moment between those two characters ever. Couple that with Jimmy’s most arguably Saul Goodman-like act yet and throw in an explosive set piece, and you have enough to make even the most seasoned directors sweat. But that wasn’t the case for Bernstein.
“We gave her a full load of big scenes,” Gould says. “And to be honest with you, the scenes that are the trickiest aren’t necessarily ones like an explosion. There are challenges to that, but a lot of that is about managing a crew that really knows what they’re doing. The scenes that are really tough are the more delicate, intimate scenes. Melissa carried that off beautifully and you can’t do a scene like that without having tremendous trust from the actors. Bob [Odenkirk] and Rhea [Seehorn] trusted Melissa, and Melissa handled it with delicacy. Those are scenes that really, really impress me a hell of a lot.”
The actors in the scene echo Gould’s sentiments. “She pays so much attention to story and character, and always has, that I could ask her anything about any beat in a scene and she could have a fully engaged, constructive conversation about it,” Seehorn says. “I loved that she saw the scene the same way Bob and I did – that the true, raw, intimacy in that scene has nothing to do with the nudity or the physicality. It’s about the huge risk to tell the truth, be yourself — be laid bare, literally, and still be accepted. Melissa knew that and really directed the camera and the actors in a way that highlighted that.”
Adds Odenkirk: “Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad is a show where details matter immensely. So much cooperation and oversight and collaboration is done with producers and writers by each of our directors, and Melissa being so close to every choice over the years on these shows, I knew she would get everything right. [She has] confidence, which allows actors to know what is needed and thereby, freedom to discover. Melissa’s knowledge of the story and characters made it possible for her to relax and open things up to discover moments, which is the fun of being an actor — being totally present.”
The love and respect for Bernstein among the cast runs all the way from the top of the call sheet to the bottom. Both Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks recall their first meetings with her with great fondness. Significantly, both were struck by her as a person as much as a professional. “I was met at the airport by a young woman with a beautiful smile,” Banks says. “I didn’t know that day that she was my boss and would be for the following 10 years. The smile hasn’t faded and nor has the welcome.”
In fact, when Esposito arrived in Albuquerque to shoot Breaking Bad but had to deal with a medical emergency, Bernstein immediately jumped in and took care of the actor’s then-8-year-old daughter for the day. “I will always remember her love and kindness, support and grace in what was a very stressful moment for me,” Esposito says. “Then, she happened to mention that she was the producer. I was shocked! I have never met a producer who cares as much about humanity as she does about the show.”
And even though she has a longer history with Odenkirk, Banks and Esposito, she has formed similarly strong bonds with Michael Mando and Patrick Fabian during their years on Saul. “A good director is like a good hairstylist – as soon as they touch your hair, you know whether or not they know what they’re doing and whether or not you can trust them,” Fabian says. “With Melissa, I would’ve let her give me a buzz cut if that’s what she thought the scene needed.”
Adds Mando: “Melissa has always been the go-to person for me since I joined production. She leads effortlessly, always aware and anticipative of everyone’s needs, generous with her time and full of fresh energy as if it was our first day. Melissa holds the show together.”
But even when Bernstein had her hands full directing, she still couldn’t stop herself from producing, says Gilligan, who overlapped with Bernstein on-set while prepping to direct this season’s eighth episode. “What really pissed me off was that every time I visited the set, she’d be doing her job with a minimum of muss and fuss and she’d also be answering an email about a whole other episode, a whole other problem,” Gilligan says. “When I’m directing I think of it as a wonderful excuse to get Tyrannosaurus Rex arms. I can’t butter my own toast, I’ve forgotten how to wipe my butt, I’m busy making art. And she made it clear to everyone who watches me do it that there’s a much better and more efficient way to do it that’s just as good, if not better.”
While Bernstein isn’t lining up for a full-on career change from Producer to Director anytime soon, she says she is grateful for the experience and is eager to take another shot behind the camera. “I’d like an opportunity to do, I think, a better job,” she says. “When everything is new and it’s your first time, there’s just a lot of your emotional and professional bandwidth taken up with making sure you’re just crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. 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.”
Gilligan and Gould are quick to dismiss Bernstein’s modesty and say they look forward to seeing Bernstein direct again, if not in the upcoming final season of Better Call Saul then on other projects. But in the meantime, they look forward to continuing to lean on her as the rock of the production she has been for so many years.
“Melissa is a secret weapon,” Gilligan says. “The shows, I guess, would exist [without her], but in some far lesser form. It would exist in a form that was a little bit shabbier around the edges and it wouldn’t look quite so good. It wouldn’t hang together quite so well. It’s the difference between the Men’s Wearhouse and getting a bespoke suit from Savile Row. They’re both clothing you can drape upon your body, but the one is infinitely more pleasing than the other.”
Adds Gould: “When she’s there, you know that somehow the boat is going to get docked safely no matter how stormy the seas are. The real acid test of anyone in almost any business is what happens when the chips are down, what happens when you have to make a decision that’s a tough one. And that’s when she really shines because, under fire, she keeps her head. There have been times when I have been just flummoxed and she’s the person I turn to and we talk out the options and we always come up with something. Knowing that she’s there just makes it all possible. I wouldn’t want to try doing this without her.”
For more of Bernstein’s thoughts on her directorial debut, read her Q&A breakdown of Episode 7.
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