Co-Creator of 'Better Call Saul' and HUMANITAS Trustee Vince Gilligan on the Visual Approach to Storytelling
One of the most extraordinary, defining figures in television—particularly over the last decade—two-time Emmy winner Vince Gilligan is back in the race this year for his directing of Better Call Saul.
Driven on through Breaking Bad and its subsequent prequel series by a passionate love affair with visual storytelling, Gilligan attributes the success of his series to the months of lead time granted by AMC and Sony execs before production starts. As Gilligan tells it, this breathing room allows the writing staff go down all the “blind alleys,” arriving at moments that ring true—a luxury that isn’t afforded on many productions.
How do you like to work as a show creator? Bob Odenkirk recently told me that you tend to find the series as you go along, but how early on did you know the arc for this season?
That’s absolutely a correct statement, but there’s a little more to it. That statement could be misinterpreted to make it sound like we sort of take it free and easy. We do find it as we go, but it is very hard fought at every turn.
I think one of the reasons for the success of Breaking Bad, and now for Better Call Saul, is that we have been blessed by AMC and Sony with enough time to figure things out. In a sense we do find it as we go, but only after many months of serious discussion.
Peter Gould and the writers and myself, we try to leave no stone unturned when we’re figuring out the story. I can’t stress enough how much lead time helps us, because I know from past experience with other networks that most TV shows don’t give the writers room enough time to figure things out. Usually, a show starts up and they say, “Hey, we’ll give you two weeks in the writers room, and then we want scripts to start flowing in.”
That’s a recipe for mediocrity, honestly. When you are gifted with enough time to think things through, and go down a particular path that may not lead to the ultimate destination—when you have time, in other words, to backtrack from the various blind alleys you may go down, story-wise—then you have time to make it all hang together in one cohesive way.
At the point when you’re shooting your show, you look and see what your actors are bringing to it, what they’re contributing. Then, you get to change things up a little based on that. That’s where you want to be a little looser and have a feeling of adaptability. Mainly, we just want as much lead time as possible to make the show the way it is.
These days, a lot of series creators tend to hold their cards close to their chest, even with their cast, but your approach is different. What informs your decision to be as transparent as possible with your actors?
It’s very selfish on our part. We go to great lengths to write these scripts; there’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that go into them. In the 11th hour, if we haven’t communicated all the things that we hope and desire for the episode at hand to the actors, we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot.
We want our actors to have as much information as they can possibly digest. To that end, we’re happy to explain anything we can to them, with the caveat that sometimes they may ask us a question or two that we don’t necessarily have an answer for. But we try to cover all bases—we try to have an answer for everything.
The actors know the better job they can do with complete information. It just seems like a no-brainer to me to not be secretive, in terms of what you tell the actors, or for that matter, what you tell the director of photography, the production designer; certainly, the producers and directors.
All these people need to be in the loop. A big part of the job of being a showrunner is, in my way of thinking, being a good communicator, because there’s really no other way to have hope for getting what you want, at the end of the day.
Despite their conjoined worlds, each of your Albuquerque series has its own flavor. How did you conceive of tone going into the prequel?
It’s interesting that you say there are differences. I’m sure glad to hear it, because our hope is always to give the audience something they haven’t seen before. That’s just a good basic philosophy for any television show, any movie, any novel. As we progressed on Better Call Saul, it dawned on Peter and I more and more that there were a whole lot of similarities to the two shows, and I’m not talking about the setting or the fact that the two worlds overlap, with the meeting of Saul Goodman and Walter White. I’m talking on a more fundamental level.
When you think about it, both shows are the story of one particular character’s devolution from good to bad. When it finally dawned on me that at heart, we’re doing the same story over again, it scared me, it made me lose some sleep. We did everything we could in the meantime, on a more surface level, to make the shows feel as different as possible. We shot Breaking Bad on film; we capture Better Call Saul digitally. In the shooting of Breaking Bad, we would have this steady, handheld, cinéma verité sort of look, so we purposely went the opposite way with Better Call Saul—locked in the cameras and made the movements smoother and more mechanical.
We’re always actively trying to make the two shows look different, but at heart, we’re telling a very similar story. We kind of fell into that, because as I’ve been joking lately, “I guess we’re one-trick ponies.” At the end of the day, I think that [devolution] fascinates us.
The hopeful potential for Better Call Saul is that it doesn’t necessarily have to end as sad or as badly as Breaking Bad did, for the main character and his family. There is a possibility for some sort of redemptive moment. I’m not promising that to viewers, and I don’t know exactly where it’s all going to end myself, but I like to think that we have the possibility for redemption for the character of Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill.
You’re known for your command of visual storytelling. What kind of storytelling ideals inform your approach?
Peter and I both feel in lockstep about visual storytelling—that’s what really turns us on. One time, back when we were doing Breaking Bad, Peter was [editing], and he had this big smile on his face when he came out of the editing room. He said, “I am so proud. I had this couple-paragraphs long speech that I had written into the script, and just now in the editing room, we figured out a way to cut the entire thing out. We realized we didn’t need it. The look between Walter White and his wife told the whole story.”
He looked positively giddy, and I knew right then that this was a great guy to partner with subsequently. For my money, this is why you get into motion pictures, and when I say “motion pictures”, I mean television or movies. Theater is a wonderful medium—I love theater myself, and there are exceptions to every rule—but the thing that motion pictures can do that theater cannot is that in movies, you don’t have to rely on dialogue.
You certainly can have a movie that’s filled with talking from top to bottom, and some of my favorite movies have lots of dialogue, but some of the movies that stick with me on a more profound emotional level have less reliance on the talk, and more reliance on what you’re watching, what you’re seeing that’s flickering by at 24 frames a second. To me, that is the boiled-down, distilled heart of motion pictures, the visual versus the aural.
That’s why I got into this. That’s what continues to excite me. When we can cut a big ream of dialogue that we wrote, realizing full well that we don’t need it, that’s the greatest day in the editing room. It seems counterintuitive because the rap on writers is that they’re in love with their delicious words. We joke in the writers room and call them the “golden pearls”—each line of dialogue is sacrosanct. We just roll our eyes at that kind of thinking. We’d just as soon cut the dialogue than keep it, if we possibly can.
We love sticking it to the “sandwich makers” in the audience. We say that jokingly, but if you want to watch Better Call Saul while you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich, you come back two minutes later and you’re not going to know what the hell just happened. You’re going to be lost. The folks who appreciate that, at heart, are the folks we’re making the show for.
What was the feeling, closing the season, as you seemingly sealed Chuck’s fate? Michael McKean’s character feels so essential to the DNA of this series.
It’s a terrible sadness. I don’t want to sound unnecessarily coy, but we don’t know what the future holds, because Season 4 hasn’t aired yet. I don’t want to be absolutely definitive, but it’s only fair to say that it’s looking very likely that the character of Chuck, in the present tense, will no longer be seen on the show.
I’m talking very much like a lawyer now—I don’t want to be too definitive, yet I don’t want to deny what you just said. It looks like Chuck has shuffled off his mortal coil, and if that is indeed the case, that is a great shame. It leaves a huge hole for all of us, emotionally, because Michael McKean is a great guy and a tremendous actor, and this show would be just a shell of what it is without him.
Jimmy McGill wouldn’t be Jimmy McGill. Chuck was a prime mover, emotionally, and in terms of plot of this show. In fact, that’s ultimately why we’re doing what we’re doing, because Jimmy McGill, who’s a great guy—a guy you’d want to know, a guy you’d want to go have a beer with—is preordained by the existence of Breaking Bad to turn into Saul Goodman. The more episodes we’ve been writing, the more we realize that’s a tragedy, that’s a sad fact, but it is a fact nonetheless.
We’ve got to bring Jimmy McGill to a point where he becomes Saul Goodman, a guy that frankly, we don’t like. Certain things had to happen to get our characters to where they have to be. Just like in real life, they’re not always things that, by any stretch of the imagination, we would prefer to see happen, but they have to happen nonetheless. That’s where this job, in a weird way, overlaps with real life.
How close are we to seeing the show merge with the Breaking Baduniverse?
The boilerplate answer is that we get closer to both those occurrences with every single episode. In geographic terms, how close we are is hard to say, and I’m not being coy. There’s a fair bit of uncertainty on our parts as well. Every day in the writers room, we say to ourselves, “How far off are we from the end of the series?” I think we’ve got some time left.
That doesn’t preclude the thought that there is more story to tell with Saul Goodman versus Jimmy McGill, or even with Gene, the Cinnabon manager. Talk about a guy with a lot of AKAs. This guy must be having some kind of identity crisis by the end of all of this, because he’s been so many different people. We’ve got so much story left to tell.
Do you have a set number of seasons in mind for the series?
We’re always thinking about that. In hindsight, I’m so thankful that most folks thought Breaking Bad was just the right amount, and I do, too.
I’ll tell you, back when we were in the middle of it, I had no idea. The only self-imposed marching orders I was operating under were, we can’t overstay our welcome. That philosophy hasn’t changed.
I suspect we have at least a couple more seasons. I can’t really pin down exactly how many yet, but I can tell you absolutely that however long we go from here on out, it is our fervent hope that we don’t overstay our welcome. As with Breaking Bad, we’d rather end with people wanting more and being frustrated they didn’t have a few more episodes, than with the opposite of that, which is, “Oh man, is that show still on?”