'Better Call Saul's' Vince Gilligan on the 'Bagman' Desert Shoot: "Just Pure Hell"

The co-creator discusses heading deep into the desert in August to direct the pivotal episode and what made filming so tough.
AMC

Going back to last summer, multiple people associated with Better Call Saul began talking about the eighth episode of the new season in hushed tones, referring to how “big” it was and to the exhausting shooting schedule overseen by series co-creator Vince Gilligan.

That eighth episode, titled “Bagman,” finally aired Monday night and it’s easy to understand the buzz now. Most of the episode is just Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) in conversation, but it’s a conversation held on an epic march through the desert, a march that follows a harrowing shootout as Jimmy’s assignment to collect $7 million in bail for Lalo (Tony Dalton) goes very wrong. It’s a thrilling and intense 50-plus minutes of TV.

Gilligan got on the phone with The Hollywood Report last week for an in-depth chat about “Bagman.” 

This first part of the interview is mostly spoiler-free, discussing the conditions and complications that made the shoot so difficult. Stay tuned for a breakdown of several key moments coming Tuesday morning.

It’s gotten to the point where I cringe when I see characters making too much contact on TV shows, so congratulations on directing what may be TV’s first true social distancing episode.

Love it. Maybe so. Those two definitely do distance themselves, that’s for sure.

So you come into the season knowing you were going to be able to direct one episode. How did this end up being the one?

I lay all of that at the feet of Peter Gould. He’s devious. He’s sadistic. He knew I could direct an episode and I told [executive producer] Melissa Bernstein the dates I was able to do it, which were dates based on me finishing up postproduction on El Camino. Basically I would see him for months leading up to them giving me the script for the episode and he said, “OK. You’re doing episode number eight” and I said, “Great! What can you tell me about it?” He says, “Oh, it’s gonna be big. It’s gonna be big!” And then I would work out of the same office that they use on Better Call Saul when I was working on the movie, so I would run into these guys a lot, and every time I would walk by the writers room I would say, “How’s my episode?” and he’d get this devilish grin on his face and he’d say, “Oh, it gets bigger every day.”

So I laughed the first few times he said it, and then I started to get nervous. I would look at Gordon Smith, who wrote the episode, and I would say, “Is he just messing with me?,” and Gordon just would sit there with his arms crossed, as usual, just stoic, and then just shake his head slowly and emphatically. And then they finally started saying, “Well, it’s Mike and Jimmy. It’s a two-hander with these two guys.” And I said, “That’s fantastic,” and they said, “Yeah, but it’s big. It’s like the Heartbreak Ridge of episodes. If it doesn’t kill you, it’s gonna break your heart.” And then when I finally read it, I said, “Oh my God. They are actually trying to kill me here.” So that’s how I came to it.

Having just spent as much time in the desert as you did on El Camino, was there any part of you that maybe craved a two-people-sitting-inside-in-air-conditioning episode?

No kidding. And, by the way, can I say that all the desert stuff in El Camino, it feels like a lot of desert stuff, but that was the best day I ever had in my life — the one really big desert day we had on El Camino. It was at the Painted Desert. This is the difference between movies and TV, by the way. I arrived on the set in a helicopter and then I had this wonderful day. The weather was perfect. I was working with these two magnificent actors — Aaron Paul, obviously, and Jesse Plemons. And then I got to smoke a cigar on set. This was before the phrase “social distancing” existed, but there was enough room out there that I wasn’t blowing smoke at anyone’s face. It was the single best day of directing I ever had.

Cut to being on the set of this episode. The only overlap is that I was working with another two magnificent actors — obviously Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks. But other than that, it was just pure hell. I went from the best day of directing of my life, in a desert, to the worst stretch of weeks and months or however frigging long this thing took. It was like forever. I’m not exaggerating, this was the hardest directing I’ve ever done. I’m so proud of it and I’m mostly proud of the magnificent job the crew did. They were wonderful. And Bob and Jonathan were fantastic. Never a peep of complaint, especially from Bob. This guy, he likes privation. Bob Odenkirk enjoys privation and discomfort. He’s a weirdo and bless him for that, because it makes my job a lot easier. He kept saying, “Bring it on, man! The more uncomfortable the better. I’ve gotta get in the proper headspace here.” Man, it was tough, but I’m proud of it. I wouldn’t want to have to do it again.

How much of what ended up so difficult and taking so much time was anticipatable issues and how much was sorta force majeure, un-anticipatable stuff?

Oh no. It was all anticipatable. And the anticipation was, “This is insane. This is so hard.” You have to understand, we were shooting on the wonderful To'Hajiilee Indian Reservation, which we have shot on before, so somebody reading this might say, “What’s he complaining about? They shot on that very same reservation on the pilot episode of Breaking Bad! What’s the difference?” Well, the difference was that To'Hajiilee is about the size of Rhode Island. It might be bigger for all I know. It’s enormous, hundreds and thousands of acres, maybe close to a million. The difference between where we would shoot on Breaking Bad, still on To'Hajiilee property, the distance was another hour drive, so by the time we would get to the location, door-to-door it was another two hours. And it was August — it was murderously hot. The very first day on the set, we looked down and there was a tarantula crawling past everybody’s feet. And by the way, the tarantulas are nothing. You see so many of them they get to be cute. 

What’s dangerous is the sun and the lack of water. If you got dropped out there without a hat and without any water, just on foot, and someone said, “If you walk this way far enough, you’ll get to Albuquerque,” you’d be dead. I don’t care how tough you are. It’s a murderous landscape designed to kill anything living, and how animals and plants adapt to it, I have no idea. I mean, it’s beautiful out there. So everything was anticipatable. The producers did a magnificent — I’m gonna stop saying the word “magnificent,” because it could be like a drinking game — they did an outstanding job. Melissa Bernstein and Princess Nash and Rob Overbeck and Efrain Cortes, our first assistant director, they did a wonderful job of keeping everybody safe so that we could all concentrate on making the best episode we could make. 

It was tough. I think everybody felt it. Everybody thought, “We’ve gotta have enough water for everybody. We’ve gotta have enough shade. We’ve gotta have a cooling tent or two so that you could duck into it and get a cool mist of ice water sprayed on you. Everyone’s gotta have sunscreen. Everyone’s gotta have hats.” You think you’re gonna get thirsty and that’s how you’re gonna know you’re dehydrated, but the trick of it is you don’t feel it, so people would be wandering around yelling at everybody to drink water. In a nice way! But you forget when you’re wrapped up in your job. You don’t actually feel thirst and then suddenly you’ve got the worst headache you’ve ever felt in your life and you’re nauseated and you start seeing double and then you keel over because of the dehydration. That’s the main killer out there, just the sun cooking your brain under your hat like a baked potato in a microwave!

And then there are the cacti! The cholla cacti with needles sharper than sewing needles and longer! I said to our AD, “If I fall into one of things, I just want someone to shoot me in the head,” because they’re like torture devices. It’s amazing what nature has wrought through evolution out there in the desert.

You’ve obviously built up a tremendous amount of loyalty with the network and the studio, but does anyone try telling you when you’re in preproduction on this, “A desert’s a desert, Vince. Can’t you drive 15 minutes outside of Albuquerque and just shoot somewhere nearby that’s easy?”

I’m telling this story like I had no say in where we were shooting, and that’s a very good point you’re making. We did start close by the studio. In fact, the scene where Jimmy first meets with the Cousins, by the well with the dirt road, that one location which plays as desert — I mean, it technically IS desert — is within sight of our studios, and it was great that we could put that close by. But you’re right, I’m doing this a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I sound like I’m blaming everybody else, but I did have a major hand in picking the locations. But far and away the best ones we saw were the ones that were farthest away. Go figure. Murphy’s Law! 

We figured this was going to be tough no matter how you slice it, because even if you’re in sight of your home base there, you’re still outside all day. You can’t pop in and out to a building with air conditioning. It’s funny. Being within sight of the soundstage in a weird way makes it worse, because you can’t go back. The clock is always ticking and the money’s always flowing. But it was potentially more dangerous when you’re out in the boonies because you’re a lot further away from the nearest hospital in case God forbid somebody gets hurt, but my producers just made it as easy for me as they could. They had all of that mapped out. They really are brilliant and such hard workers, and all that really matters at the end of the day is keeping everybody safe. They had GPSed in every place that we went so that if we had to bring in a medevac helicopter they’d know exactly where to land it and the site was already prepped. We had an ambulance standing by way out there in the boonies. And mainly, everybody worked diligently to make the set as safe as it humanly could be.

We had a snake wrangler. I guess we always have that. But there was someone picking up rattlesnakes and putting them in a bag. It was a very sweet young woman doing that, she’s a herpetologist, and I would say to her every day, “How many snakes did you catch today?” and she’d say, “None yet” and I’d say, “Well, you’re only getting paid by the snake so you’d better get to it!” I was kidding, of course, but finally I said, “Where are all the snakes?” She just looked at me and said, “It’s way too hot for snakes.” So the snakes are smarter than we are. We actually got that put on a T-shirt for the episode: "Too hot for snakes."

When you have a stranded-in-the-desert episode in this show, do you look back or think back on "4 Days Out" at all to figure out what a Saul desert episode looks like versus a Breaking Bad desert episode?

I love that episode. Any time that one’s on TV — hell, any of them I’ll watch — that one is a particular favorite and that was Michelle MacLaren’s first episode for us as director and what a great episode that was. But if I look at an episode like that, I’ll mainly look at it to know what not to do. And by that, I mean it was already done so perfectly, I wanna find new ways of doing it. That was a very different-feeling set, because with that, there was ground cover, there was more low grass, as I recall. It was a bit of a grassland where the desert grasses were up just below your knee. It was very pretty and it too was very desolate looking, but that was actually a very different area not too far from our Q Studios soundstages. Back then we hadn’t quite proven ourselves yet in terms of, “Is this show worth breaking the bank on every week?” She had it tough because she had to shoot everything really within sight of Q Studios, and she did a great job with that.

But I didn’t really look at that. Mainly I just looked at the script that Gordon and Peter and the writers gave me. Gordon Smith wrote this excellent script, and I just mainly would read it and contemplate it and try to figure out how to best shoot it so that I brought all the greatness that was on the page onto film. Or digital, I guess. Ones and zeroes. That was the main thing I was thinking about, what part I could play in not getting anyone hurt, and then how could we make the best episode possible. So it’s just a lot of reading and rereading the script, actually.

When you’re going through the script, these are obviously the most intense scenes that Jimmy and Mike have had together on this show. Is there somebody making sure that what we see between them and the dynamic we see play out and evolve aligns with what we know about these characters and their relationship on Breaking Bad?

Oh absolutely. Gordon was there by my side for the entire shoot, and he’s looking out for that and he’s looking out for the script. I would miss stuff all the time and he would very, very nicely come over to me, so as not to embarrass me in front of the crew, and say, “I think maybe there’s one thing here we wanna get,” and I’d say, “Oh yeah! Right!” And actually Jenn Carroll, our associate producer, she was right there too and wonderfully helpful. She and my assistant Melissa Ng were both there and picking up things that even Gordon would forget sometimes like, “In this episode this happened and in that episode so and so, so maybe you wanna thing about this....” That was very helpful to me. Indispensable. 

There’s so much to concentrate on when you’re directing, and quite often I’d have them there behind the monitor with me. Quite often I’ll ask them to watch the monitor when we’re doing a scene with a lot of people in it, a lot of extras. I’ll say, “Keep an eye on these folks over here in this corner in case they start staring at the camera or looking idiotic, tell me that, please, because I’m concentrating on the star.” There wasn’t as much of that here, because this was mostly just two guys out in the middle of nowhere, but I rely on them every which way. And everyone else on the crew! Our AD and Marshall [Adams], our director of photography and Paul [Donachie] and Matt [Credle], our camera operators. You’re relying on everybody. Whether directors want to admit it or not, it’s not a one-man or one-woman job if you’re honest about it. It’s nothing but a collaboration and you’re surrounding yourself with the best people you can and you rely on them to the fullest.

Check back Tuesday morning for the second part of the Vince Gilligan interview, featuring all the details on flipping cars, urine-drinking and more!