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[This story contains spoilers for the April 6 episode of Better Call Saul, “Bagman.”]
In the first part of Vince Gilligan’s in-depth conversation with The Hollywood Reporter about “Bagman,” the eighth episode of Better Call Saul‘s fifth season, the series co-creator talked about the logistical challenges of shooting an extra-long episode in August in the depths of the New Mexico desert.
Let’s just say it was very, very hot. Too hot for snakes.
In the second part, it’s time to get down and dirty about several key details from the pivotal episode, including: How much does $7 million in hundreds actually weigh? How was that desert car flip executed? And what yellow, frothy beverage was Bob Odenkirk actually drinking?
Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks are pros and they’re great here, but did you discover that there were different ways you had to handle them when you were out in the desert to get them where they needed to go?
Not really. Bob was really amazing. I think he enjoys physical comfort as much as anybody else, but when he’s working, he’s pretty Method. He wanted a little more weight in the bags. In the beginning. That kinda went away as the days and weeks marched by.
The bags of money, it’s $7 million in $100 bills and Mark Hansen, our prop master, showed us the prop early on. He said, “Try lifting it,” and I’m like, “Jesus. I’ve had back surgery. I’m not messing with this.” I could barely get the thing off the ground and he said, “It’s not even the actual weight.” He said, “We figured it out mathematically. Seven million dollars, $3.5 million per bag, will fit in these duffel bags, but they’re 75 pounds apiece.” That’s 150 pounds of cash is what $7 million in hundreds is. So I thought, “Does it have to be $7 million? Can the bail be $3 million? Do they still print the thousand-dollar bill? Can it be a cashier’s check?” But I think finally the prop on day one maybe weighed 35 or 40 pounds per bag. And Bob was saying, “I need more weight.” And then every day the bag got five or 10 pounds lighter. Even though Bob’s very tough and he’s in great shape and he wanted to do it very Method-y, even he, by the end of the first week or the second week, was saying, “I gotta be able to work tomorrow. I can’t carry these things when they weigh 50 pounds each.” The bags got lighter as the days went on.
And how about Jonathan? Everybody loves to talk about he’s a take-no-shit actor who isn’t afraid to test you if he isn’t sure that what’s being done is necessary.
Yeah. Exactly. I was nervous about Jonathan just, by the midpoint of the first day, just saying, “Fuck this. I’m not doing this shit.” But I should not have worried, because he was a pro. He was a trooper. I did more complaining than either of those guys put together. I’d be saying, “Goddamn it! Why is it so hot? I can’t think straight! Gimme a sandwich!” I turn into an enfant terrible when I’m directing, especially when I’m uncomfortable. Plus, I looked like the Invisible Man, because I’m wearing this giant hat and then a bandana and sunglasses and construction gloves. I look so idiotic in the photos from the set, but I didn’t want even a square centimeter of skin showing, because I just knew I’d get burned to a crisp. So everyone else is out there in sunscreen or whatnot, but not looking like they got leprosy or something, and I’m out there and you can’t even tell who I am in all the photos. So I was the one complaining more than either of them put together.
The Mike monologue about why he’s doing this is pretty much an encapsulation of and explanation for everything he’s done this entire season. How many times did you make Jonathan do it out there?
I remember the first time he did it. Usually what you do, and this was no different, you start with the wider stuff and then you march the cameras and the crew in and you get the close-ups. The close-ups are usually the gold. That’s the stuff, especially for a scene like that, you’re typically gonna be in. I think we’re just in a long close-up, one shot, I think. But even in the wide shot, the first time he did it, we’re all 100 feet away watching this tiny figure on this infinite landscape, and I’m listening through the headphones and I think we all just burst into applause hearing it for the first time, even in the master, even in the wide shot. He was fantastic. If you interview him, he might say, “I had to do it more often than I should have because fucking Gilligan kept putting the camera some new place and I had to do it over and over again,” but it was probably honestly no more than five or six times. Though maybe I’m deluding myself! But he was letter perfect every single time. It was wonderful watching.
Actors do like joking about the number of takes you prefer to do. Did you have to adjust that preference at all given the specific conditions out there?
All joking aside, I’m extraordinarily lucky. I understand that most TV directors, especially when they’re doing a guest shot, they have to do it on time and on schedule and I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I try not to abuse the privilege that I’ve been given. I generally don’t shoot until it’s right, and I do feel worse the more takes I ask for, because I feel bad for everybody and I feel bad to spend that money, even though nobody’s threatening to fire me. Nonetheless, I put the pressure on myself.
But honestly, more important than anything else, you don’t get an award for finishing on time. It’s not about awards, but that’s not what anybody is celebrating when you’re trying to make art. I guess that sounds hoity-toity, but you’re trying to make something that people are gonna watch decades from now when you’re gone. No one’s gonna give a shit decades from now if you came in under budget, although that’s a nice thing, too. Mainly, you just want it to be right. I get a little neurotic, too, so I wanna really make sure. In the past I’ve been in the editing room working on stuff I’ve directed and I said, “On this scene they did it in one take and it was great!” And then I watch it and I see all these things that are wrong. It’s not the actors necessarily, but something in the background wasn’t right or whatever. So ever since then, even once I get what I think is a perfect take, I usually do one more take after that and very often that’s the one I’ll use.
How was the flipping car executed, and where was Bob for that shot?
That was really something. That is a stuntman named Corey Eubanks. He is a virtuoso of cannon rolls. Basically, the stunt driver swerves the vehicle and then simultaneously detonates, basically, this cannon that shoots a steel piston — back in the old days I think they used a piece of telephone pole — shoots it into the ground and the recoil of this thing shooting into the ground flips the vehicle over and makes it barrel-roll. This guy Corey is probably the world’s foremost cannon-roll artist, and we were blessed to have him work his magic in our episode.
It was shot toward the end of the schedule, and that is Corey in the shootout — the last guy to survive is actually him on camera. He wasn’t just the guy driving the car in that one stunt. You see him earlier, too. He’s an actor as well, and he did this cannon-roll and I was told by somebody on the set that it came maybe only two revolutions shy of breaking or equalling the world record. It was astounding.
He and Al Goto, our stunt coordinator, and their crew, and then Werner Hahnlein, our special effects department head and his crew, those are the guys who built the cannon and rigged the special fuel [tank], because you only want to have enough gasoline basically for the stunt, because God forbid you don’t want a fire afterwards. So between all of those guys working together, this is the best part of being a director, because you say, “This is what I’m picturing and this is where I want to do it and I want the actor standing here in the foreground when it goes of….” Except I knew — even I knew — he couldn’t be that close to it, so I said, “How do we do this?” And then our visual effects geniuses up in Montreal figured it out like, “OK. We’ll put a greenscreen up and we’ll shoot the stuff with Bob reacting to the car crashing behind him and then we’ll take the greenscreen away and we’ll leave the camera in exactly the same spot, and Bob will get the hell out of the way and everyone will get 300 feet away from the thing when it goes off.” And then the camera’s unmanned, because parts of this car came off like nobody’s business. All the wheels are coming off and flying around like projectiles. It’s amazing stuff. When you’re a director, you dream it up and you say, “OK, I’m gonna go have a sandwich.” And then all these other geniuses make it real and then you get all the credit. It’s the greatest job in the world being a director.
And as great as that stunt was, I think people are going to be just as invested in discussing the previous scene. So…almost the same question. How was the urine-drinking executed and where was Bob for that shot?
(Laughs.) I keep saying he’s a Method actor, but I suggested we use the real thing and he put the kibosh on that. I just thought, “If we’re really gonna go for it here,” but he said no. I believe it was water with a little bit of yellow food coloring in it. I’ll be honest, I was afraid that that moment would play as inadvertently humorous. I was afraid people were going to watch it and laugh. It was one of the biggest things I was worried about pulling off. I knew the cannon-roll would go off, because we had the best people in the world doing it, but the urine drinking I thought, “If Bob’s not fully committed and if I get it wrong as a director, people are gonna laugh at this.”
I shouldn’t have worried, because Bob is so into the moment there. I think it’s the finest moment of acting I’ve ever seen Bob Odenkirk do, and that’s saying a lot. That moment, when he drinks from the bottle, that’s the moment I was so worried about, that silent moment when he actually does it, I remember watching it through the monitor and saying, “That’s great. I think we’ve got it. Let’s move on. I feel better.” It wasn’t until weeks later in the editing room that I saw it on the bigger screen, and I saw all the nuances on his face. You’re watching it out there in the sun and you’re watching it on a screen that’s not much bigger than a big iPhone, so watching it on a bigger screen in the editing room, I said, “My God! I didn’t even see how good this was!” I’ve said to anyone who will listen that I think this is the best moment of acting he’s ever done. There’s not a word said. There’s just the look in his eyes, that look of determination, that look of, “I am gonna survive this no matter what it takes. I’m walking out of here and I’m getting out of here alive.” It just gave me chills, but on the day I just thought, “Well, that’s pretty good. Let’s move on.”
That’s so true. It would be so easy for us to laugh and I think we’re all watching the scene looking for permission to laugh and all Bob would have to do is make a face, just a kind of funny reaction, and there’s nothing like that.
It’s interesting. He does react to the taste of it. It’s amazing what actors do, the great ones especially. Some actors are wonderfully dramatic and they can’t be funny to save their lives, but then there’s people like Bob and Rhea Seehorn who can also be hilariously funny, but they can turn it on and off at will. In that moment, yeah, if he had moved the muscles of his face another fraction of a centimeter a different way, you’d be laughing, but just because in his mind there wasn’t anything funny about it…. All I can guess is he was thinking, “There’s a woman I want to get back to, and for her sake I need to survive this.” It’s funny how a guy like that can turn it on and off at will. So he does react, it’s just not funny, because it’s not intended to be. It life or death. It’s existential and it’s an amazing moment.
It made me think of the moment — again, a silent moment with no dialogue — when Bryan Cranston played that extraordinary reaction to the death of Jane, to Jesse’s girlfriend, when she chokes to death and he could have saved her and he doesn’t and he tears up and he looks so horrified with himself and then he steels himself and he girds his loins and he looks to the future, as it were. He stares off into space and it’s an extraordinary moment of acting. And this moment, at the end of this episode, with Bob Odenkirk put me in mind of that.
You mention Jimmy having Kim as his motivation to get out of the desert. Keeping that in mind, talk about the importance of those two Kim scenes — with Jimmy and with Lalo — to keep her in the viewer’s mind as well.
It’s always a pleasure working with Rhea. She just makes me happy. She makes everybody happy, but she is so wonderful. Like I always said with Bryan Cranston, even if he were the world’s biggest asshole, he’d be worth working with. It’s like that. She is so good that even if she were difficult, you’d say, “Yeah, but still I’m looking forward to getting to work today, because man, I can’t even imagine what great stuff she’s gonna give me today as a director.” But on top that, she’s just so sweet and funny and warm, so it’s always a pleasure working with her. I was sad I only got the two scenes, but God they were fun to do!
And getting to direct the scene where she gets to meet Lalo, where she gets to work for the first time with Tony Dalton — because he’s a treasure — that was wonderful. The only downside is that we were shooting with a set that is basically just four walls and a ceiling, the jail cell conference room. It’s a great set, but there’s not much to a set like that. You can’t reinvent the wheel. You’ve gotta make it look like real life and those rooms in real life are just, visually speaking, boring as hell. I never look forward to shooting a jailhouse scene, because there’s just no place to put the camera that somebody hasn’t already put it before.
That’s the kind of thing where I show up to work and I’m like, “God, this is gonna be friggin’ boring visually,” but then you kinda relax because you see what the two actors are giving you. The visuals are important, but that’s not the real point of it. It’s about human faces and it’s about the emotion and the drama that comes from two people interacting. That was why it was a great day.
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