7:05pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Finding Nemo' Director Andrew Stanton's 'Better Call Saul' Debut Goes Dark (Literally)
[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Sept. 10, episode of Better Call Saul.]
The director of this week's assured Better Call Saul boasts only two previous episodes of live-action television on his résumé — not that Andrew Stanton is exactly a neophyte.
The longtime Pixar veteran and helmer of Oscar winners WALL-E and Finding Nemo made his TV directing debut in 2017 with a strong pair of second-season episodes of Netflix's Stranger Things before moving to Saul, one of TV's most visually distinctive shows.
"Piñata," Stanton's Saul debut, is full of memorable moments, including the fleeting return of Michael McKean's Chuck, a terrifyingly dark monologue from Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) to his hospitalized nemesis and yet another step in the decaying morals that are transforming Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman.
Stanton got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss how John Carter inspired his recent push into television, the differences between animation directing and TV, how the specificity of writing on Better Call Saul benefits directors and why Hector's hand doesn't move at the end of Gus' story.
I've been enjoying seeing your name pop up in TV credits the past couple years. Was there a moment after Finding Dory when you became so intrigued by what was being done on TV that you effectively put out an "Eager and Available for TV Work" sign?
It's kinda that. I got the bug after doing John Carter, and I just wanted to stay in live action some more. Like everybody else, I'm bingeing everything out there. The quality of storytelling and the variety of storytelling that I'm seeing coming out of there is just really enticing. It was also a bit of a challenge of like, "Can I work that hard, that fast?" It doesn't get more aggressive than TV schedules as far as actual production, so I wanted to see what that was all about, because I was loving the content so much. So I just went for the shows that I was a big fan of, and fortunately they answered my phone calls.
Was there actually a literal process of reaching out to a certain number of curated shows?
It wasn't like one big sweep. I was dipping my toe in the water and found myself very quickly talking to [Stranger Things executive producer] Shawn Levy, and I've gotta give him a lot of credit for giving me a shot when I hadn't done TV. That went so well that I was talking to some other people about TV production ideas, and it just kinda happened. It wasn't a big campaign, actually. I just suddenly found myself in another conversation without too much effort, and I found myself talking to Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein about something else, and Melissa asked, "Would you be ever interested in doing an episode of Better Call Saul?" and I was like, "Would I?!" I just feel like they're the smartest storytellers around, Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould], so for me it was going to be a master's class if I lucked out. It certainly was.
So you came to this as a Saul/Breaking Bad fan already?
Absolutely. That's the thing for me: I just want to be inspired and learn, and I learned at Pixar that if you surround yourself with people who are better than you, you tend to find yourself raising your game to levels you didn't know you could. I have no ego about wanting it to be my stuff. I just want to work on really good stuff, and it doesn't get much better than Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul as far as intelligent storytelling, I think.
Are you the kind of fan where you get giddy when you get the script and you see you get Chuck's return, plus Gus and Hector and Huell and all of that?
Yeah, I was psyched I got to see Michael McKean! I didn't know until I was committed exactly what was going on this season. I got to read the other scripts, and I think only the first episode was even in a rough cut by the time I was prepping. I felt very fortunate that I got to have Michael on my episode. That was cool!
It's such a brief appearance. How long did you actually have him for?
A day. Almost everything's a day. I think [Bob] Odenkirk and [Rhea] Seehorn and [Jonathan] Banks are in many of the scenes, but everybody else you work with for a day or, if you're lucky, maybe two.
This is a show with such a specific visual language. How did you get up to speed on the cinematic grammar of Better Call Saul?
I don't know what other directors do. I haven't really talked shop, though I certainly probably will over time. But for me, what I do, is that if I'm lucky and it's an established show and they've found their language, is I watch the previous season without the sound on so I don't get distracted by actually getting caught up in the story. If they've done a really good job, I'll just keep getting caught up in the story, and I want to see what they're doing and not doing with the camera and the lighting and the staging.
This is a horrible simplification, but if you're comparing the last two jobs I've done: Stranger Things is very much out of the playbook of Spielberg and Cameron, while when you look at Saul, from my reference, it was out of Kubrick. It was still cameras, not a lot a lot of crazy movement, and really cool graphic shots, trusting the things that were happening in the shot and not feeling like you had to be fancy in any way. They love wide angles. They love to find interesting ways to look at something that might otherwise be boring in somebody else's hands, and I'm always appreciative of that. It's never gratuitous. The thing that blew me away and made me giddy was, it's all in their scripts. They really dot every "i" and cross every "t." They understand their characters and everything that's changing to a microscopic level, and it's awesome.
When you say it's all in the script, how much of the visual storytelling is on the page, and where do you have the ability to improvise?
Well, they're not telling you how to frame things. They're just telling you what's important about the visual. It's all storytelling. You're just following the narrative, and they're very clear about why and where they're focusing their attention, but they're not going to tell you how to focus. So how you decide to introduce two houses inside a giant warehouse? It's up to me. You like to give coverage, because at the end of the day it's their show and you want them to be happy with the work. So in the best scenario, they like the cut of what you've chosen. Then in the next-best scenario, they like something else you've chosen, but they've just picked another angle. It's kinda left up to you to decide how you'd want to dramatize this visually. I don't want to use the word "easy," but it's so comfortable because you know you're in good hands and you just know you're telling a very strong story, so it leaves room in your brain that might be, in weaker material, just trying to figure out how to tell the story at all, and you can spend more of your brainpower toward how best to tell it.
This episode, in particular, offered a lot of very fun and very distinctive lighting challenges that I want to talk about. Starting with the Gus monologue at Hector's bedside, how much of your goal there was to test how far you could push the darkness, while retaining the emotion of his story?
They work with the VariCam, which can get incredibly subtle darks, and you can almost shoot with just natural light. It's insane. So they really trust when you go dark, but I just didn't want to abuse it. I also didn't know how much they had been going dark prior to that. I just knew that that was the scene in the context of the whole arc of the episode, that was the dark point in my storyline. So it just made complete sense, and we thought, "How dark can you make everything about that?" Then it hit us on the day, right when we were shooting, that you only have so much to work with. You're just sitting in a chair. There's nothing else going on. There's no other people. How do you show change happening in this long monologue? It's the most Gus has probably ever spoken in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and I didn't take that lightly. I wanted it to come across as organic as possible. So we picked two very key points in the story where he would lean forward into the light so that even if you're not paying attention to it, it would emphasize and intensify when the narrative was intensifying.
Your work with Giancarlo Esposito in that scene, did it call back work you did in animation with actors doing voiceover? He has to convey so much, and sometimes he has to do it just with intonation and delivery.
I don't know. I'm guessing that there might be an advantage to the fact that I'm used to having to listen to so much being relied on in the audio of somebody's speech. We're pretty visual as well. You've gotta remember that I did WALL-E, so I'm very visually sensitive. I'd like to think I just do what any other director does, and I just am looking for the authenticity of something or just the truth of something. Half of the fun of working film and storytelling is there's always a nuance or a new category of truth that you have yet to discover. You don't want to tell something the same way ever again, because everybody's slightly different, everybody's thumbprint is slightly different and every character's slightly different, and you want to try to capture the specificity of any of their nuances to just make it that much more authentic. So, frankly, it's just being in the moment and really listening to Giancarlo and making sure that he sounded like he really meant what he was saying.
The last shot of that scene, the close-up on Hector's hand, it's such a potent image both because we know what that hand will later do with the bell and with Gus, but also because we're trained to think that that shot in that context is going to end with a twitch of movement, and we don't get that here. What was your approach to the tension of that shot?
There was actually debate! When I first got the script, it was scripted to have the finger twitch. Then, if I heard correctly, there was a little bit of debate about whether that was too much and too far, and then they took it out. Then I asked, "Can I shoot two versions just so we have it in the bank?" But I've gotta tell you, the minute we were shooting, and it tends to reveal itself to you when you're actually looking through the lens, it was like, "Oh. It is too much." And everybody gets it. All of Better Call Saul is the "b" in "subtle," and it would have been, for that show, too much. Everybody's smart. It's a really smart audience and they'll get it.
You mentioned that first shot in the warehouse, and going with your Kubrick analogy, there's something so precise and almost musical about the darkness, the light pouring through the door and then the wave of overhead lights going on. What were the challenges of choreographing that shot?
They weren't happy about this, but they had to basically re-light all the practical lights in that warehouse so that they wouldn't hum, for sound. The advantage is that it gave us complete control of the lighting grid, so we could time it. We could literally call it out, just like a gymnasium, and we made it this cascade of light coming towards us. I just couldn't think of anything that would be a greater sense of scale than getting adjusted in the darkness to these tiny little figures, only to have it flipped on its head once all the lights went on.
And then that climactic scene in the piñata warehouse, it's another scene in limited light. Like the shot of Hector's hand, it's all about threat, but no actual violence or follow-through. How did you want that nightmare to play out?
It read like that, spooky. What I brought to the table was: Would they mind if we brought in the car and had only the headlights of the car lighting the space? Because I thought single-directional light would be very noir and would just make it eerie. It just reminds me of certain noir films where suddenly there's a gunfight in the mannequin factory. And, sure enough, it gave that effect. I think everybody got on board right away with that and ran with that, because it just helps amplify this subtle shift that's happening in Bob. In Saul. Well, not Saul, yet.
Bob. Saul. Jimmy. Gene. It's all confusing sometimes.
I guess the way to put it is that it's a little more Saul at the end of that scene, right? That's the whole point of that scene. He's committing to a little bit more real estate of Saul by the end of that scene. So it's all about: How can you help project that without it being over-the-top? A lot of those shots, they came up with later on to keep some of those shots upside-down. I just thought it had a wonderfully disturbing effect.
Are those upside-down shots an easy or hard effect to achieve?
I think they literally flipped some of those shots, so that wasn't hard at all. The initial shot was just going to be the camera that was attached to the first kid as he got raised up, so you'd be as disoriented as they were, and it just set the whole scene off on the right foot to just keep you off balance, literally.
You've touched on this a bit and it's kind of a big-picture question, but what does your animation background let you bring to the table on a show like this that's useful, and what tools from your animation background are completely useless?
(Laughs.) They could not be more opposite, TV and animation. Animation's all about planning, and you do have the power of God to adjust anything, but there's absolutely no spontaneity. In TV production, you're moving so fast you have nothing but spontaneity. It's a classical, Mozart-level orchestra that you're working for in animation, and it's pure Oscar Peterson jazz when you're in TV production. They're both amazing when they're at their best, but you come at them from very different directions. Having been in the planning world for so long, it's just a breath of fresh air to work with such great jazz musicians.
You're a very established industry veteran in so many ways, but when you're on a TV set, are there still basic, embarrassing things that you don't know that should probably be obvious?
I think you've described every minute of me on-set! But I've learned to embrace it and just enjoy it, and I've found that it creates an atmosphere where everybody's willing to say their limits and it just makes everybody learn faster. I have a blast. I'm always at school no matter where I'm working.