'Better Call Saul' Director Michelle MacLaren Helms Another 'Breaking Bad' Reunion in 'Breathe'

'One Minute's' director discusses returning to 'Better Call Saul,' reuniting with The Cousins and the motivations behind Jimmy's copy machine interview.
Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

An Emmy nominee for her work on the episodes "Gliding Over All" and the high-tension classic "One Minute," director and producer Michelle MacLaren was so central to the style of Breaking Bad that she was asked to helm the second episode of prequel Better Call Saul, following only series co-creator Vince Gilligan behind the camera.

Since that episode, MacLaren has been busy with other TV directing projects, including HBO's The Deuce, and developing features, missing out on several steps of Jimmy McGill's transition to becoming Saul Goodman.

This week's Better Call Saul, "Breathe," represented a multitiered reunion for MacLaren. Not only did the episode offer another collaboration with Thomas Schnauz, writer of "One Minute," but it also paired her again with Daniel and Luis Moncada, returning as the cartel hitmen known as "The Cousins."

MacLaren spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about being part of the evolving aesthetic of Better Call Saul, leading man Bob Odenkirk's growth, and what was going through both Jimmy and Kim's (Rhea Seehorn) minds in their big monologues this week.

You're very closely tied to this show and its universe. Does this gig come to you in the same way as any other directing assignment or do you have an open invitation?

Better Call Saul is like family to me. I love directing on Better Call Saul and yes, they've invited me to come back any time I'd like, and I feel really fortunate to be in that situation. Having said that, though, they still have to make schedules in advance, and if I was available to direct more episodes, I would feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so, because I love being part of Better Call Saul.

You've done plenty of one-off episodic directing work and had multiple stints as directing producer on shows. Does this particular gig feel a bit like splitting the difference?

Because I'm so familiar with these characters and because of Breaking Bad, this world is so familiar to me that it is different going to direct a Better Call Saul than going to direct something else, because I've been part of this world for so many years. Yeah, I guess there is a familiarity that goes very deep with these characters and this world. In that respect, it is different.

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have been very proud of the team they've developed and carried through both shows. When you're out there, how much of the crew is still made up of people you worked with in earlier gigs?

I don't know about percentagewise, but there's a lot of familiar faces. What's wonderful is that Vince and Peter are great about promoting from within, so there's a lot of people on the crew who have risen up through the years in their positions. It's very exciting to see Nina Jack, for example, who we brought on to Breaking Bad as a first AD, and who Vince and I had known from The X-Files ... [who] is now one of the producers on Better Call Saul. Vince and Peter have always been great about encouraging growth within their world and, as a result, it's a really inspiring place for everybody to be, because everybody's heard.

You haven't directed on Better Call Saul since the show's second episode ever, and the guys have talked a lot about how the show it is now isn't the show they necessarily knew they wanted to make from the beginning. When you were starting on that early Saul episode, do you remember feeling any confusion or uncertainty about what the show was?

Not confused, but when you're starting a new series, even though it was a spinoff, you're figuring out what that series is. Even though these characters, a lot of them, are characters you're familiar with, of course it's a prequel, so it was a discovery of who these characters used to be. Because Vince was directing episode one and then we were rolling right into episode two as opposed to doing a pilot, Vince and I talked a lot about what was going to be the visual language of the show.

Vince had an idea of using a zoom lens, without necessarily calling attention to it being a zoom lens and using it in a different way from how they used it in the '70s, but not all that different, and finding those places to incorporate that into the world. That was fun and we did! It's something they've continued, because I did it again on this episode, just finding those places to incorporate that stylistically that have an emotional impact, that aren't necessarily drawing viewers' eyes to the fact that we're using a zoom lens, but using it in a way that it's not necessarily used, for emotional emphasis. Vince is such a genius about these things, and that's something that he was experimenting with in episode one, so I continued the experimentation in episode two. So there's discoveries about the visual language and, of course, about the characters.

Peter and Vince, all the writers on Breaking Bad, always talked about having an idea of where you're going to go every season, but that the characters often spoke to them and helped take them there. I think that they have this wonderful ability to explore different avenues depending on where the characters' voices take them, what the evolution is. It's a really interesting, brave and brilliant way to approach a series.

So going into it, we obviously know someday Saul is going to end up where he did in Breaking Bad, but how he was going to go from episode one, it was interesting to take a step back in time. That part of it was a mystery, not necessarily confusing, but it's a mystery.

Give me an example from this episode of the zoom thing you're describing.

Sure! It was very subtle. It was in the hospital room with The Cousins and they're all standing over the bed looking down [at Hector] and the cousins are like, "Talk to him" and I did a slow zoom in on Michael [Mando]. It looks like something that could be a camera-arm or an arm off a dolly or something, but a zoom has a slightly different aesthetic to it, a slightly different feel. It emphasizes, hopefully subtly, a little bit more that you're going into this person's world, into this person's head, and in that moment he's feeling like he's having to pretend that he's supportive and everything's OK with the situation, but he's really hoping that these guys don't realize that he's responsible for Hector. It's a subtle way of getting in underneath what's on the surface and drawing the viewer's attention to what the character's real emotions are. There's a number of different ways of doing it. We just thought, when the opportunity arose, it would be interesting to show it with zoom lens. You have to be super subtle and the camera guys are really great at executing it, so you don't look like you're doing an overexaggerated '70s zoom, which in the '70s they used great and it was style at that time. (Pause) I'm not criticizing the '70s!

But it's still in contrast to the rack focus or pull focus from Jimmy and Kim making out on the couch to the goldfish tank in front of them?

Exactly. That's a completely different thing. That's one of those situations where I like the power of suggestion. We all know what's happening next, but when you pull to the goldfish, it's that little subtle thing of saying, "OK. We know what's going on. We're giving them their privacy." It's a fun way to put an exclamation mark on that moment.

Was it just a coincidence that this episode was a "One Minute" reunion with you and writer Thomas Schnauz?

It was a total coincidence! I loved working with Tom, and when they called me and they said, "Hey, would you be available to do this?" and I said, "I'd love to," that was one of the things they said, was that Tom was writing it. So Tom and I were emailing each other very excited that we were back together. Tom's such a wonderful director himself. I've always loved collaborating with Tom, and it brings back very fond memories to "One Minute."

Since this is a show that has always given its writers a very active presence on set, does it change the impact for you when you have an established relationship with the writer?

The writers don't interfere with the directors, and Tom had to write another episode, so I didn't have a writer on set for this. But the writers on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, they're very respectful of giving the directors their freedom. They're there to support. I think it's great the way it's structured. It's very supportive. It's very collaborative. Tom and I, because he couldn't be there when we were shooting it, we talked in great detail ahead of time to make sure we were on the same page and talked about what was important to each of us and how we saw certain things. When you come in as a guest director, you want to be really respectful, especially in a highly serialized series where it's an evolving story and the writers are way more familiar with what's going on than a guest director is. It's important to understand the arc of an episode and the arc of a character and where they're coming from and where they're going. So I read [episode] 401 and I read 403, and Tom and I talked in a lot of detail, Peter and I as well, about what's important. There was some tricky stuff. The scene with Bob and the copy guys where Jimmy freaks out on them, that was a challenging scene with a lot of nuance. Bob did a brilliant job doing it, and Tom and I talked a lot about it ahead of time to make sure we were on the same page.

It's a great monologue, and the scene keeps you guessing on what Jimmy's motivations are through the sales pitch and then when he rejects the job. What were the conversations like in terms of what's going through Jimmy's head in that scene?

Jimmy, he comes across when he first comes in as very enthusiastic and like he really wants to this job, but I think in reality Jimmy's feeling really horrible about himself. He blames himself for Chuck's death, and I think he hates himself in that moment. When these guys accept him and are like, "OK, you've got the job," he's very self-destructive. He can't take the positiveness of that. The fact that these guys say, "We want you," he doesn't feel deserving of it, so he reacts the way he does. So there's a lot of emotion underneath. Jimmy goes out that morning all positive — "I'm gonna get a job! This is great!" — and when it goes well, he feels so bad about himself. I really think, in this episode, I feel like we're starting to see him become Saul. When he makes that phone call to Mike, that was a very Saul thing to do. It's interesting to me to see where that evolution came from.

Having worked with Bob when he was playing the Saul incarnation of this character, what impresses you the most about how he's evolved the earlier Jimmy version of the character?

When Bob first started playing Saul on Breaking Bad, I'm not sure if he'd done any dramatic work. He's obviously a brilliant comedian, but I saw him go from zero to 60 overnight. The guy is so talented. He works very, very hard on learning his lines and rehearsing. He always works incredibly hard. He thinks about the motivation of the character and what every nuance means. He comes, and always has come, very, very prepared and I feel like he has honed that skill. I feel like he was on Breaking Bad as well, but I see him do it with a more experienced hand now, honing that nuance and that expertise in such a great, subtle way. It's something that Bryan Cranston does so brilliantly as well. You can give these guys a note, and it can be a very small note or a very big note, but they make the adjustment with such subtlety. Bob and I, in this scene, we played around a little bit with the level of awareness that Jimmy has in the scene or not, whether he is a little bit aware of what he's gonna do when he goes in or how much of a surprise it is. … I don't think he went in there thinking he was going to sabotage his success, but I don't think he's completely aware of his emotions and we played around a lot with that.

Kim's evisceration of Howard is the episode's other big emotional moment. I know Rhea's presence was a bit hit and miss in those early first-season episodes. Had you even worked with her before?

Rhea and I had had one tiny, tiny scene. I loved working with her, but it was very brief. We were really excited that we actually got a super meaty scene to do together. She was amazing. She was absolutely amazing.

We really talked a lot about the arc of that scene and the containment of her anger, starting out as very controlled. She enters that scene with the purpose that she is going to give Hamlin a piece of her mind, and she's not leaving until she does. What Rhea does so well is that Kim, in that scene, starts off very controlled and ends up becoming very emotional. You can see that she truly loves Jimmy and that at the end of the scene, when she's said everything she needs to say and Howard says, "Is there anything I can do to make this right?" and she gets her control back and she says, "No, nothing." And it felt to me like, in that moment, she needed to do everything and she needed to say everything that she needed to support Jimmy in that moment. And she did.

Having directed some of their more iconic moments on Breaking Bad, what excited you about getting to worth with The Cousins again?

It was just so great to see those guys. When they called me, they also said, "The Cousins are going to be in it." It's not that they had to entice me with anything! Just getting the phone call and saying, "Can you do it?" and looking at my schedule and I could and I was like, "Yes! Of course! Thank you for asking!" But it was a total bonus that it was Tom Schnauz and The Cousins and Hector. The Cousins, they have a sweet spot for me, and we had a great, great time working together on Breaking Bad. It was just awesome to come back and see The Cousins. I loved being able to reveal them in that very simple pull-back shot in the hospital room and there's such nostalgia in seeing the back of those bald heads. I love it!