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[This article contains spoilers for the Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul, “Bali Ha’i“]
Michael Slovis‘ cinematography work on Breaking Bad earned five Emmy nominations and helped establish the template for one of the most visually distinctive shows in television history. Taking occasional breaks from shooting the AMC series, Slovis became one of the show’s standout directors as well, helming episodes including “Cornered,” “Live Free or Die” and “Confessions.”
Slovis has continued to build a reputation as a top-shelf drama director, working on shows like The Walking Dead, The Affair and Game of Thrones, though that busy schedule kept him out of the rotation for the first season of Better Call Saul.
Monday’s episode marked Slovis‘ Saul debut, an hour filled with memorable moments including a hilariously relatable insomnia opening, a tense two-minute uninterrupted shot of Mike searching a dark house for intruders and another classic Mike/Hector parlay.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Slovis about the differences between Saul and Breaking Bad, this episode’s challenges and his upcoming gig as producer-director on AMC’s Preacher.
I hadn’t known you were directing an episode this season, but within five minutes, I’d written down in my notes, “Is this a Slovis episode?”
You’re kidding! (Laughs)
Everybody always says that it’s harder to do that on TV, but do you see yourself as having directorial fingerprints with this material?
People tell me they see it. I don’t see it myself very clearly, because I’m all about the most efficient and non-intrusive way of telling the story. If it’s true, I’m gonna start looking at my stuff more critically moving forward, because I want the shots to be pretty, I want the graphic language to be pretty, but I also don’t want it to be what’s noticed. I want it to be integrated into the story. I really try, when I go to different places, to make myself fit in and not impose anything. So when I did Thrones or I did Man in the High Castle, I looked at what was done before then and I tried to adapt or learn the language that was written and work within that genre or established language, but put my own little spin on it.
Most episodic directors tend to be guests, but given your relationship with Breaking Bad, is it like a homecoming for you?
The first thing they did when they picked me up at the airport was, the Teamster captain said, “Bring him to us.” I didn’t even go to the office. They took me to the back of the studio where all the trucks were parked and all the Teamsters and drivers had to say hello. So yes, it was very much a very warm homecoming, because it was 90 percent of the crew that I had built for Breaking Bad, and it was lovely and it was fun…. It was one of the highlights of my year, for sure.
Having shot and directed so much in this general world, what is the dynamic that you have with Better Call Saul DP Arthur Albert? Is it different from when you guest direct elsewhere?
You have to understand that Arthur and I have a 35-year relationship. One of the first jobs I had in the industry was working as a gaffer for Arthur when he was shooting after-school specials in New York City. So we’ve known each other for many, many, many years, and then it was me who hired Arthur on Breaking Bad to come in when I directed, and then he finished up on the last season when I had to move on because we ran a little bit over. Not because of me! So Arthur knows me and I know Arthur extremely well, so because of that I would say we have a shorthand with each other. We communicate very, very clearly, and it’s just short little snippets of conversation that get us to where we have to be, and it really helps make the day move along quite efficiently.
Breaking Bad was such a unique-looking show, and you’re part of the group responsible for setting so much of that template. Can you quantify how Saul is aesthetically different from Breaking Bad?
Absolutely! If you look at the formal frames of Saul, you look at the fact that the camera is on the dolly 90 percent of the time, you look at how we’re using zoom lenses to do slow zooms in — we’re not afraid of those on Saul. Hand-held, which was what I called the “white noise” of Breaking Bad, is used only for effect on Saul, and even more than on Breaking Bad, Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] have really embraced the idea of “less is more” when it comes to cutting. So you saw my episode, so you saw the one-r where Jonathan [Banks] walks into the house and we go through the entire house and I made a point of seeing almost every wall of that house, so that you would never guess what was going to happen in that house happens. Or the walk with Howard and Kim through the law office, which goes on for a minute and a half or whatever. Vince and Peter were very clear at the beginning that if you want to do things like that, they’re behind you 100 percent. I’m somebody who believes that cutting should serve the purpose of relaying new information to the audience, because a cut is disruptive and the old school way of telling stories when television was in its infancy or developing in the ‘60s or ‘70s, of turning in five different-sized shots for every scene, and then the producer goes and cuts it into a scene later on — it just doesn’t work anymore. So the whole cinematic approach that we were part of developing and contributing to on Breaking Bad has now developed an audience that is very sophisticated in terms of what they watch. And they get it. Whether they are aware of it, consciously or not, they can feel and see the difference between shows that are really well choreographed and well blocked with the camera and shows that aren’t.
I loved the lighting in that shot, because it’s such a conspicuously poorly lit house and I kept thinking of how dangerous almost every step must’ve been to make sure you had enough light for viewers to process the necessary information. How tough was it find that balance?
One of the things that we do, from a lighting point of view, is that for night, we got very heavily into either silhouettes or backlights, for somebody who’s cinematically aware, and it’s impossible to do that in every direction, because once the camera moves 180 degrees around someone, now you’re into a front-lit situation. Only somebody as skilled as Arthur really could have made something like that happen with a knuckle-headed director like myself who comes in and says, “I want to go into the kitchen in this direction and then turn 180 degrees and go back out.” I talked it over with Arthur, and I said, “I would like to do this in one, because I want that cut to mean something,” and he said, “Yeah, we can do that.” It took a little time, but it was worth it, because other than that, you’re doing what? Two or three set-ups and each set-up is half an hour, so the sum total is that you get a more emotional, more appropriate way of telling the story, and yet maybe you take the same amount or less time. Even though it may seem like it’s a greater allocation of time than should be appropriated to an episodic television shoot, but in the end, if you’re committing to that and you’re not going to cover it from other angles, then ultimately you’re probably saving some time.
And what is Jonathan’s reaction when you ask him to do it this way?
You spoke before about relationships, Jonathan and I, for many years now and ever since we met on Breaking Bad, have always connected with each other. I live on the East Coast and he lives on the West Coast, so we don’t see each other that often, but whenever we do get back together, it’s as if we never parted. So Jonathan’s line to me is constantly, “Whatever you want, Mikey. Whatever you want.” He’s game for anything. He’s such a fine actor. There are certain actors who you can work with in terms of technical stuff and say, “I like to do this,” and they respond as if it’s a challenge. Bryan [Cranston] is that way. Rhea [Seehorn] is that way. Certainly Jonathan is that way, and Bob [Odenkirk] is that way. And then there are other kinds of people that you work with and if they have to think too much about the mechanics of it, you kind of lose something. So you adjust. Everybody is different. Everybody brings a little something different to the table.
Sticking with lighting a bit, the episode’s other great bit of darkness is the ice cream shop meeting between Hector and Mike. Is that something where it’s just a gift from the location scout or you see the location and have to figure out how to make that place work?
One of the great advantages of having shot and DP-ed as much as I have is that I go into places and I just see things. I knew what the scene was going to be about, and I knew that the scene couldn’t be lit the way that an ice cream shop would normally be lit, in terms of all the fluorescents being on and just brightly lit. It just wouldn’t have had the impact that a scene with those characters, the reassembling of those characters from another period of our lives, would have had. I fell in love with the location, and I went to Vince and Peter and I said, “I’d like to do this, but I’d like to modify it a little bit, create something of an expressionistic representation of what’s going on in there.” It’s really funny, because Steve Litecky, the gaffer, he had to put in a florescent light in the one place where there wasn’t a light in that room.
So much of this episode is like that, with the darkness/light exploration. Talk a bit about the opening scene, the insomnia short film. How much of that was scripted and how much was just you guys having fun?
A lot of it was us having fun. What Vince and Peter did was they gave us examples of what they’d like to do, and they said, “Here, tell the story of a guy who can’t fall asleep. We’re not telling you what to do, but here are some suggestions.” So it was like jazz, it was call and response. Genny and I and the folks down here on the set, we all threw out ideas, and then we picked the ones that we all liked the best and the ones that we thought we could do. Some of them I made up, like looking down on him laying on his back and throwing that woven ball up from the ceiling, and the other one looking up on him trying to drop them into the basket, with him all tiny up there. We actually sat with everybody and said, “What are games with balls?” and then we took ones that we felt we could put together with household items. That’s how that evolved.
I know you’ve been working on Preacher. So far, I’ve only seen the pilot, but that pilot was pretty crazy. What has it been like just getting to play around in that sandbox?
Because I am the producer/director, I’m actually involved in the construction of the sandbox, so I am able to bring the experience of shooting and directing to the table and to, early on I think, help everyone determine what’s important and how we should allocate our resources. Because I’ve shot for so many years and directed around and met so many other directors, it was very easy for me to go through and look at who we were going to hire — same thing with directors of photography, whose names I was going to put on the list and whose names we were going to interview. Then, obviously, it becomes a collective decision with everybody and final approvals with Sam Catlin and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Sony and AMC, but we were able to, in a pretty efficient way, move through that decision-making process.
Was there an early conversation you had with Evan, Seth and Sam where you realized that you were all simpatico on what the show wanted and needed to be?
Scott Winant directed one of the early episodes here and he turned to me and he said, “I’ve done a lot of fantasy or comic book-based episodic shows in my life, and none have been as deeply layered as this. It’s extraordinary.” And he’s right, because it crosses over from a full-on comic or graphic novel world, but it has feet and roots in our world and in what’s universal about everybody. It’s a very interesting hybrid. We’re very lucky in that Sam has really thought this out and has very, very clear ideas of what it is that he would like. What you will see moving forward is very much the result of Sam and Seth and Evan putting their marks on almost everything exactly the way that Vince did on Breaking Bad. One of the things that was terrific about Breaking Bad is that even though Vince put his finger on stuff, and Vince and Peter did the same on Better Call Saul, when you’re that well informed as a guest director, it’s not limiting. It’s empowering, because you’re very clear about what these people want. The more defined the canvas that they give you to work on, the broader your brushstrokes can be when you tell the story.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.
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