'Better Call Saul' Veteran on His Journey From 'Breaking Bad' PA to 'Namaste' Director

Better Call Saul - Season 5- episode 4 - Publicity Still - H 2020
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel

TV writing can be a series-to-series journeyman gig, so it’s always interesting to chart a career like that of Gordon Smith, who began as a production assistant on AMC's Breaking Bad in its third season, became series creator Vince Gilligan’s assistant the next year, moved to writers assistant on the series and started Better Call Saul as a staff writer, elevating through the show’s production hierarchy each season and writing multiple episodes.

As a Better Call Saul scribe, Smith has been nominated for Emmy Awards for “Five-O” (Mike’s backstory and the tear-filled “I broke my boy!”) and “Chicanery” (Chuck’s courtroom breakdown).

This week’s Better Call Saul, “Namaste,” is Smith’s first as a director, as he joins Gilligan, Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz among the show’s ranks of writer-directors.

Smith got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss his fears of going behind the camera, the castmember he gained new appreciation for, the scenes that produced the greatest challenges and more.

Congrats on your first episode as a director! Does this feel like kind of a cumulative moment in your 10-year journey from Breaking Bad PA to where you are now?

That was definitely a high-water mark. I got to do two things this season that were pretty crazy: I got to direct and then I got to write an episode that Vince directed, both of which felt like a very long way to come from from being a PA. I still remember Vince walking in and being like, “Hey, I’m Vince!” And that was a special moment, because I’d been a fan before that. I'm very, very lucky and still kind of awestruck at the whole thing.

One of the amazing things about the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe is the number of writers who have over the years gotten the opportunity to direct. It’s a progression that doesn't really seem to happen as much on other shows. Is the explanation for that as simple as “Vince Gilligan” or do you feel, having gone through the system, that there's more to it than that?

I think Vince and Peter have learned through the process that we’ve developed, which is really very meticulous and arduous in the writing process and the breaking, that the people who are going to have a greater chance of success as first-time directors, some of the people at least, are are the people who've been in it for so long. So I think they’ve just learned, “Hey, if we can trust these people who produce the episodes…” — which we get to do as well, which is also something that a lot of shows don't do. “If they’re not going to be able to do it, no one can,” as least as a first-timer, someone who’s primed for success. Melissa Bernstein also directed for the first time this season. She’s a non-writing producer, but she’s up to her ears in prep and she knows exactly what’s going on in the same kind of way.

When would you say that you began to feel like you were actually ready for this responsibility, that you were ready to direct? And is there a process for letting Vince and Peter know, “OK, I feel like I can do this now”?

I never felt like I’m ready. I still don’t think I’m ready. I just kinda went, “Well, I kinda want to do this and I hope that maybe there’ll be enough support,” so I suckered him into thinking that it would be OK. I think I put in the ask somewhere around season three and I said, “Hey, look, I'd love to do this before the show is over. If you think it’s OK.” I didn’t want to put any pressure on Peter and I didn't want to make it feel like it was some sort of awful quid pro quo or something, but just to say, “Look, I'm interested.” And I think that that is really the process for them. It's not a demand in some way. It's like, “Hey, I want to do this.” Because that's what they want to know. They want to know that you are interested enough to say, “Look, I'm going to ask you person-to-person…” which is hard enough sometimes to ask your boss for something that you want. That's the first step to clearing that threshold.

I asked and Peter said, “Yeah, I think that’s a possibility.” And we just had to figure out when the scheduling would work for the show.

And then what is the process where they actually come and tell you, “This is going to be the episode”? And did you know it before you actually started breaking the episode as a writer?

I knew when I knew the episodes that I was going to write. I usually do two in a season, so it was like, “OK, the first one is going to be the one that you're directing.” I knew it as we were breaking and as I started writing, which added an extra layer. The script is such a document for everyone to understand what the story is, but then there’s also thinking about it like, “What are notes that I need to make to myself in any script about how I see this or could see this? How do I imagine it?” without laying eyes on the locations or anything like that. “What could this shot look like?” That’s just for me, and it was helpful in a lot of ways, but it was also like, “OK! There's a lot of things to be thinking about here!”

You always hear the sort of conventional wisdom that if you're writing a script, you you don't want to put in the directing instructions, because that's going to be someone else's job. Did this let you go hog-wild and throw in visual notations throughout?

We put in more than I think is the standard wisdom of what to do with those kinds of flourishes. I think I used maybe a little bit more, but I didn't go overboard. We like putting those things into drafts not as, like, “Here's how you have to shoot it” or “This is the way it has to be visualized,” but more as like, “Hey, if you hadn't thought of a transition, director, here's one that might work! If you have a different one? Great! Do that one!” That tends to be a conversation that we have during our tone meetings with the directors. None of this is prescriptive. It's just, “Here's a suggestion of things to do.”  So in this case, it was, “OK, here’s some suggestions” and then, of course, I was also the director, so I could be there to be like, “I suggest we do this suggestion!”

Does that mean there was still a tone meeting for your episode and it was basically you having a conversation with yourself and maybe one other producer?

Absolutely. No one gets out of the tone meetings. There's always a tone meeting, even when Peter’s directing or Vince is directing, there's always a meeting, because it really helps to go through with all of the parties — the writer, the director, the producers, the showrunners — and just make sure that if there's any questions about a moment, how to realize that moment. You get all of the heads thinking and working on a problem all at once. It's just incredibly helpful so that you can sort through what those issues are going to be and troubleshoot them ahead of time. Yeah, I don’t think my tone meeting was quite as long as some of our tone meetings with directors that maybe don't know the story and you have to give them information about episodes that are coming up, give them information about nuances of the show that they may not be as up on, but mine was still a good five hours or so.

As you approached directing this episode from the outside, were there certain aspects you were confident about, like “I got this, I know exactly what I'm going to do” and other aspects that made you particularly terrified or nervous as the shooting day approached?

I would say it was all terror. It was all terror and I wasn’t sleeping very well, because I’d been working with these people for so long and I value the opportunities they’ve given me. So it was like, “I don’t wanna screw this up!” I didn’t want this to be the one episode where everyone’s like, “Boy! That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen! Why did they let that happen?” So for me, that was the case even when it was something where the shooting was pretty clear, where it’s like two characters and they're just talking.

My first scene was the scene with Mike [Jonathan Banks] talking to his daughter-in-law Stacey [Kerry Condon], and it’s just “Mike drives up, they have a little argument and he drives off,” but even then it was like, “OK, how can I make sure that this feels right and that the characters are in the right place?” and getting it in sync before talking to Jonathan Banks, who I have a good relationship with, but he’s very specific about what he wants and needs in a scene. It’s not in a bad way, but he’s gonna be tough. He’s gonna give you a little bit of resistance just to test you sometimes. So it was all terror.

Put a different way, this is an episode with really a tremendous amount of emotional range in it. You've got the almost romantic comedy stuff with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) at the beginning. You've got the the espionage stuff with Jimmy and the Aphex Twin accompaniment. You just mentioned the stuff with Mike, which is really, really painful. On the set, which of the tones did you find came most naturally for you in terms of capturing it and directing around it?

I think probably the scene that came most naturally to me was the scene with Jimmy and Hamlin [Patrick Fabian] at the restaurant. It was the stuff that was right in the middle. It’s funny and there's a lot of humor in that scene, but there's a lot of weird, awkward, heartfelt moments where Hamlin is putting his heart on his sleeve and Jimmy is so uncomfortable. So I think that level of discomfort and then that awkward hug that they share, that moment plays on the precipice of disaster and that felt good to me. That was the part where I thought, “I understand this feeling!”

I like that scene because it’s also is the scene that, to some degree, defines “Saul Goodman-ness” or at least defines the aspirational idea of what Saul Goodman could be. In that moment, from your perspective, how much is Jimmy buying what he's saying? And how much is it self-defense or obfuscation?

I think in some ways it goes through an arc with him. When he starts that speech, he doesn’t really buy it, and then by the end, I feel like he’s buying it more. He’s worked himself into that mode. I think Jimmy comes in waves. He’ll buy it and then he’ll reflect on it and go, “Oh, what a crock of shit that I just said,” but then he’ll go, “No, that’s right! That’s the real thing.” It crests and falls and crests and falls. So in this case, he starts and I definitely think he's just trying to put Howard off, but I think by the time he gets to the end of it, we wanted it to feel a little bit like his Tom Joad moment. You know, “I’ll be there. Wherever there's trouble. I'll be there.” He does actually start to believe the virtue of Saul Goodman by the end, especially coming off of the scene where he just convinced these two knuckleheads to take a better deal than they wanted.

You've worked with all of these actors for years and you mentioned you've got already established relationships with them. As you were on set and you got to watch them through the camera, as it were, what surprised you about any of the members of the cast?

I got to work a lot more with Patrick Fabian than I had in the past, because of that big scene. I knew he was a delightful human being, but one of the things that I thought was so great with him — and it’s true of all of them, but I hadn’t had the chance to work with him before that big scene — is just how many nuances he can get. When you say, “Try something else,” he’ll take one small note and throw it across the entire performance. If you say, “In this one, I was missing something,” he’ll change everything across the entire take and it works! He understands that if you’re adjusting one moment, then there’s something in the entire scene that needs to be adjusted. All of our actors are very good about that, but it was really interesting to be seeing the Ferrari he is as an actor and how finely tuned the steering is on Patrick. That was really fun.

One of the show’s trademarks is those process scenes, the free-form montages that feel like they can go on for five minutes where I assume the script sometimes just says something as simple as “Jimmy and Kim wake up, brush their teeth and get ready for the day.” What did you learn makes those scenes distinctive from a directorial perspective rather than just writing one line and letting the directors go out and play with it?

Sometimes it's just one line, and sometimes it's very scripted. The one here that I was like, “Oh, God, I wish I had spent more time writing way more suggestions of things” was in the scrubbing the fryer montage with the cross-cutting to the chase sequence. We knew from the beginning that was how that scene was going to play out and that was what we wanted, but I feel like there's never enough pieces. It’s when you get back into the editing room and it's like, “Oh, my God, I could use 100 more different angles of scrubbing a fryer and coming up with a different way of cleaning so that you have more options to build a rhythm.” We were shooting it at the Los Pollos location, which is a practical location, which meant that we had to shoot it overnight. So we're starting to run up against dawn, and we had a couple of shots that we needed to get with night before we finished so I’m like, “Uhhh, you guys go over there and scrub that!” “You! Set up here and scrub this!” So that felt very overwhelming and it felt like, “Oh! I needed to prep more.”

That Los Pollos scene in particular has a ton of subtext and almost no dialogue explaining what's happening. How much did you have to work with those actors to explain what the thematic purpose of all the cleaning of the deep fryer was?

To their credit, everybody got it. Giancarlo Esposito, he’s such a master of taking a big idea and just cramming it into his body in a certain way where he just holds it so tightly wound that you can see it. So I think we had a brief conversation about the structure, because we had to shoot it where his office is on a stage but everything else is at Los Pollos, so I think we filmed it out of sequence. So I just had to remind him kind of where he was in the sequence and he completely was like, “OK, so this is where I am in my journey of rage.” “Yes. This is where you are. Now it's a little more white-hot, but not too hot.” You know, just fine modulations. And our Lyle [Harrison Thomas] is also fantastic. He got it instantly. He was just like, “Oh, so I'm the whipping boy.” “Yeah, unfortunately, you are the guy that he is taking out all of his aggression on.”

And with the other half of that back-and-forth scene, have there been specific rules to writing and directing the Hank (Dean Norris) and Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) scenes so that they don't feel like they're being treated as a stunt within the show? Because obviously everyone's like, “Whoo, yay, great to have these two characters back from Breaking Bad!” And we love them, but you don't want to acknowledge that when you're writing them. You don't want it to feel like they're special guest stars, even if they are.

Right, right. There wasn’t a set of rules per se, except to say that we were very specific and we went through those scenes in the room and then in the outlines and obviously we just made sure that the tone felt right, that the characters felt like the voices were the same. The thing that we wanted to avoid as much as possible was any winking acknowledgement of their futures, in a way. It's one thing to have it be an Easter egg that there are things that tie the two shows together, but it’s another thing if the characters seem to know that they are part of another show and have another history that's coming up. I feel like we would want to avoid that. We wanted it to feel like the characters are consistent, but they didn’t know they were being consistent. It's that fine line of them being in on the joke. And the actors are so great, Steve Michael Quezada and Dean Norris, so they were able to sink into the roles and they helped us a lot in that regard, because there were things they wanted to do with the characters because they know them so well.

And I know you're not going to tell me where exactly Mike is at the end of the episode. And I don't necessarily want to know. But did you have any particular visual touchstones for how you wanted to represent the world he emerges into? My mind went to Michael Douglas in the Mexican graveyard in The Game immediately.

Oh, right!

Where did your mind start with that scene?

We had more visual references to places, to literal places. We tried to imagine places in the world, and we looked at some pictures of some places in Mexico, New Mexico and Texas, to some actual villages that could serve as visual representations or not even visual, but literal representations like, “Oh, that’s a pueblo that actually exists.” When we shot it, we found one within our drive radius from the studio that could stand in and be the best of all those worlds, and it’s actually a preserved historical monument essentially.

Did that require certain trepidation from the production to avoid messing things up?

Oh, yeah, we have to be very careful with the people that are there operating the site and make sure that we’re not bumping into anything, but they’ve done it before. They give tours and show people around so that you can get a sense of the living history there, so we worked well within those parameters to be respectful of the space.

And you mentioned earlier, but how was it different writing the episode that you knew Vince would be directing?

The great thing is that I’ve been working with all these people and reading what Vince writes, and he’s been giving me notes for so long. So I think we just wrote it like we would write an episode, and then Vince did what he does. Vince absolutely approached it like a director. It wasn’t like, “Well, let’s make these changes to the script.” It was, “OK, let me act in the way that a director is the first dramaturg for the thing.” So it’s like, “I’m staging it and I’m having some trouble visualizing how to get this moment. Is there a way that we can change it?” And then we would talk about it and be like, “Yeah, we can. This is what seems inflexible in the scene and here’s what seems flexible. Let’s figure out how we can get everything that both of us need.” The beauty of it was the fact that Vince has been so invested and such a great mentor and Peter has been such a great mentor to me for so long is that we could write it like an episode that we knew was going to be big, but I didn’t need to change any of the technical stuff of the writing, because I was already writing the way that I’ve already been trained to write for this school of people.