Exclusive Interview: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould Talk Better Call Saul


PREMIUM: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, co-showrunners of Better Call Saul, talk to World Screen about balancing a new universe of characters while also maintaining threads to Breaking Bad.

WS: Coming off the success of Breaking Bad, did you initially have reservations about doing what’s billed as a prequel series?
GILLIGAN: Oh boy, did we! [Laughs]
GOULD: We had nothing but reservations! There was a tremendous temptation to do this show, mostly because we loved working with Bob [Odenkirk, who plays Saul]. Speaking for myself, I loved working with Vince on Breaking Bad; it was the great creative experience of my professional life. We both wanted to keep the good thing going. At the same time, we were so proud of how we ended Breaking Bad—it felt like it ended at just the right moment—and it was so gratifying to see how people took to the show. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was worried that this show would always be in the shadow of its more successful predecessor. I also had the fear, and I don’t think I ever expressed it to Vince, that if this was a big fat belly flop it would all land at my doorstep, since I was the different element in this new piece.
GILLIGAN: We jumped in with both feet, for all the reasons Peter said and, in general, to keep the band together, so to speak. We had a real family of cast and crew that we loved working with for the previous six years, and we wanted to keep that group together. We jumped in without really looking where we were jumping, and AMC and Sony were both wonderful to us. They said, We support your desire to do this…now, what’s the show going to be? Then we looked at each other and said, Uh, oh! [Laughs]

In those early days we thought it might be a half-hour comedy. Then we thought, What do we know about half-hour comedies? Not much! So, we started thinking about, Is it a sequel? Is it a prequel? Through trial and error, we wound up with what we are doing now.

WS: Why did the character of Saul Goodman stand out for a spin-off?
GOULD: Breaking Bad had so many wonderful, larger-than-life characters. There wasn’t really a logical process for why [we chose] Saul Goodman except that he was so very different from Walter White. In a lot of ways, he was Walter White’s opposite. Whereas Walt was a man with nothing left to lose, Saul had a lot left to lose. Saul seemed to be skating over the surface of the world, whereas Walt was deep, deep underwater.

We wanted to do something that was a change of pace. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing Breaking Bad part two. That was one of the things I really admired about how Vince handled the end of the show. There was an appetite in the world and all of us who worked on the show would have happily done more seasons, but the story concluded. We didn’t want to make this a backdoor way to continue the story. We wanted to try something that would have a different tone, and this show does have an unusual tone.

WS: How do you strike a balance between drawing from Breaking Bad and introducing new characters and story lines?
GILLIGAN: That’s something that occupies [our minds] constantly. It really is a question of proportion. There’s always an underlying question of proportion with any TV show, which is: How long should this show exist? How much story do we have? We have that going on all the time as the eternal question of Better Call Saul. As Jimmy McGill gets closer and closer to becoming Saul Goodman, we, therefore, get closer and closer to the world of Breaking Bad. So the other question that goes along with it is, how should we parcel out these appearances with characters from Breaking Bad? There’s no good answer to it! It’s a case-by-case feeling that we have in the [writers’] room. We don’t want to overdo it. Sometimes you have to deny yourself, and we realize that all the time in the writers’ room. We could throw Breaking Bad characters into this willy-nilly, but at a certain point it would be counterproductive; it would do the opposite of what we always want to do, which is to satisfy the audience. A little goes a long way with some of these encounters in the world of Better Call Saul.

WS: With it being a prequel, we know the fate of some of these characters. Does that limit your storytelling ability?
GILLIGAN: It does indeed limit things, but limits are not always bad. They make you work harder as a storyteller. We endeavor to be very precise and accurate in terms of how this show dovetails with what we know about the characters, and not just their fates but how they thought and who we knew them to be. Once it’s all said and done, we want nothing more than this to be an enormous experience with many different layers to it, a universe that you can visit in any order. I love the thought that in the future some people will experience the Breaking Bad­Better Call Saul universe by watching one or the other first. We want this to work from both ends, to be approachable from either direction.

WS: What’s the creative atmosphere like in the writers’ room?
GILLIGAN: We always want to keep the conversation going. We want to enjoy each other’s company and have as much fun breaking stories as we can. It’s a very positive and helpful thing that we all like one another. We spend ten hours a day together in this room, so we want to make it as pleasant an environment as possible.

I also always thought that it needed to be a safe environment. People need to be able to speak up without censoring themselves or editing what they’re about to say. Everyone in there, Peter and I included, needs to be able to speak up with the ideas that we have at that moment and not feel any fear that people might think it’s stupid or that it wouldn’t work. Indeed, not every idea works, but, oddly enough, some of the dumbest ideas have led to some of the best flashes of creativity! There’s an old saying: There is no such thing as a bad idea. That cliché happens to be true when you realize that that bad idea can lead to the best idea. You need someone else to twist it just a little bit and turn it into something completely new.

It’s very much a group effort, and we want it to be collaborative. The best possible moments are when we come up with ideas and pay no attention to who came up with them. A day or a week later we have a great scene or bit of dialogue and we honestly can’t remember who came up with it. It’s amazing what you can get accomplished when nobody is jockeying for credit.

WS: What is the working dynamic like between the two of you? Have you developed a confidence and shorthand now after being longtime collaborators?
GOULD: The great thing is that Vince created an atmosphere on Breaking Bad that continues on this show and continues between us. I feel like we can say anything to each other. We can float any idea, no matter how crazy or seemingly stupid, because we know we’re not going to be judged. We both value the conversation around keeping things moving forward. There are times when one of us is acting more like an editor and the other is spouting off, and vice versa. There are times when Vince goes on a run and I or the rest of the people in the room will find a way to sand off some of the edges. When it’s working, and it usually does, it’s very plea­surable. On the other hand, there are a lot of moments, and sometimes long hours, when we feel stuck and like the way forward is not clear. That’s when it’s really wonderful to have collaborators who can remind you that you’ve been in this position before and will find a way out of it. That is a lot of the pleasure of the process and the collaboration. The basis is that it comes from mutual respect. I’ve never worked with anyone as creative as Vince, and he’s a genuinely nice guy! He really cares about the people he works with; that makes an enormous difference.
GILLIGAN: It’s good to keep the conversation going. I’ve been in writers’ rooms in the past where there were 5, 10, 20 minutes of silence. That’s never happened in our writers’ rooms on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. We’ve endeavored to not let that happen. We’ve had maybe at most 30 seconds or a minute’s worth of silence once in a blue moon. Sometimes what you’re trying to find is the shape of the scene or a certain rhythm; it’s almost like composing music. Sometimes literally saying “Blah, blah, blah” or “Yadda, yadda, yadda” helps to keep things percolating!

WS: Do you think AMC has allowed for more creative freedom with Saul since you’ve already delivered them a success?
GILLIGAN: Yes, AMC has given us a lot of freedom now, but the wonderful thing about them and Sony is that they’ve given us freedom from the get-go. Peter and I have both worked with different studios and networks where they will drown you with notes and inundate you with laundry lists of what you can and cannot do. When we got going on Breaking Bad, a very real question at that time was, Can a show exist in which the main character is an absolute shit heel, a terrible, murderous person! And has a death sentence! To be fair, The Sopranos paved the way for Breaking Bad and The Shield did as well. The Sopranos begat The Shield and The Shield begat Breaking Bad, so it’s not as if we forged any utterly new territory, but it was still a pretty novel idea [at the time]. Sony and AMC both, to their credit, didn’t blink. They let us tell the story we wanted to tell. We don’t have any more freedom now than we did then, which is to say that we’ve had freedom throughout.
GOULD: It’s important to emphasize that even before the show was a hit—and Breaking Bad was not that well known for the first few seasons—AMC and Sony really gave Vince and everyone on the show a lot of creative freedom. That’s more impressive than [getting that freedom] after something becomes a success. It’s a bit like getting married to someone back when you’re poor; if you stick together through thick and thin it makes the success all the more delicious.

WS: Do you already know how you’re going to connect the dots over to where Saul Goodman enters the Breaking Bad world?
GILLIGAN: We’re still figuring it out. I’d love to say that we knew from the beginning how it’s all going to play out, but literally what we do every day in the writers’ room is chip away at it. It’s like a giant hunk of marble and we’re picking off tiny chips day by day. Hopefully underneath it all is the Pietà. We’ll find out! [Laughs] All joking aside, we’ll find out when everyone else does, since we really are figuring it out a bit at a time. Not because that’s the way we like to do it, but because that’s the way it works. Breaking Bad was the same way. When we were cracking away at the final 16 episodes, I was very ner­vous about where it was going to end up and particularly nervous that we wouldn’t wind up with a satisfying conclusion. If we had known [years before] where it was all going to end, it wouldn’t have led to as good of an ending. Sometimes if you know years in advance, it locks you in and you wind up in a rut, just heading toward the inevitable. Nothing was ever inevitable story-wise on Breaking Bad. Certain things are a little bit more inevitable on Better Call Saul, but less so than what we originally thought. We know that Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman, a lawyer with a crazy office, but there’s a lot of room for invention and we’re inventing every day and hopefully taking the show into more and more interesting areas.