[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Feb. 15, season two premiere of AMC’s Better Call Saul.]
Monday’s return of Better Call Saul featured the return of several familiar faces.
Everybody, of course, recognized Gene from Omaha, the post-Breaking Bad alter ego of Saul Goodman, now a mustachioed Cinnabon employee living a black-and-white life of extra frosting and quiet desperation.
But how many fans recognized Kyle Bornheimer’s Ken, the financial planning moron scammed into a hefty tequila and apps bill by Jimmy and Kim, as KEN WINS, the similarly obnoxious businessman from “Cancer Man,” the fourth episode of the very first season of Breaking Bad?
The premiere, titled “Switch,” was written and directed by Thomas Schnauz, who did similar double-duty on last season’s “Pimento” and on the Breaking Bad classic “Say My Name.”
The Hollywood Reporter talked with Schnauz about the Gene from Omaha opening and the future of that black-and-white world as well as the surprising empathy the writers have found for Jimmy McGill and how that has changed the progress of Better Call Saul in its journey toward Saul Goodman.
Check out the Q&A …
What are the pleasures and challenges of getting to do that five minute black-and-white Omaha short film that starts the season?
I was so damn excited to be able to get to do that! Bob [Odenkirk] just inhabits that character so great, and our d.p. Arthur Albert makes it look so beautiful, the black-and-white. It was just fun. The most challenging thing for me is that we had to go and take over this mall overnight, because we had to shoot after-hours, after the mall closed, so it’s hard on the crew, because it was a Friday night and we’re shooting into early Saturday morning, so that’s taxing. The end results, I’m very proud of what we got to do there, especially the dumpster sequence, because that was actually a different location, so we got to shoot all the stuff of him walking through the mall and being in Cinnabon in an actual mall and then the dumpster scene with the different location.
Other than the black-and-white of it, are there other pieces of the cinematic grammar that you change for these Omaha scenes?
I went for a lot of low-angle, wide lenses. They really designed that room for that dumpster sequence, they hung all those overhead lights so you were able to get back in the corner and some great wide-angle shots on the perspective of the room. Even though it was a small room, it comes off as very bold in black-and-white. It looked much different in color. There were no rules. I came up with some hopefully very dramatic shots. Nobody said to me, “You have to do this or that.” I kinda had free rein. The one shot we did discuss in the room was that long push-in on the graffiti on the wall. When we first started talking about it, I was like, “Are they going to let us have the camera meander around for however long it takes?” It’s such a weird shot and I’m so proud that we got to do it. I feel like it’s not something you ever see on a network television show. It’s more like some experimental film in the 1970s where the camera just slowly drifts in and you’re like, “What the hell are we looking at?” and sure enough, you find this little, tiny scratched piece of graffiti that this poor, pathetic man left behind.
Was there any debate at all about the initials he would write? Whether he’d write Saul’s initials or Jimmy’s initials or whatever Gene from Cinnabon’s initials are?
There was not a long debate. There was a discussion about whether it should be Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman, but just because of the season one opener where he’s sitting and watching the Saul Goodman commercials with the tear in his eye, it just made more sense for him to write “SG Was Here,” because I think when he thinks of the bold man who would push open a security door and set the alarms off and not give a shit, I think Gene is thinking that guy was Saul Goodman, he’s not thinking it was Jimmy McGill. I think the Saul Goodman personality really does away with Jimmy McGill for a long time and he really becomes Saul. So when Gene is thinking, “Who would have the nerve to do what I want to do, but can’t?” it was Saul Goodman.
Is there an interest in exploring more about Gene from Cinnabon’s life or do you guys like that he’s a five-minute short at the beginning of seasons and that’s who he is?
We have talked about many different things. We talk about doing a whole Gene episode. It’s really wide open and we’re not locking ourselves into anything. We might never see him again, but we probably will see Gene at the beginning of season three if we do get picked up for season three. I think there’s gonna be more Gene, but I’m not sure how much. I think at some point there will be at least a Gene episode, if not the finale then somewhere along the way that ties a bow around this whole package that we have of Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman and Gene the Cinnabon Manager.
Does it feel to you like the show is shifting in season two from being not just Jimmy’s doomed transition into Saul, but also more of a doomed love story with Jimmy and Kim?
Absolutely. When we started season two, I think a lot of the audience, and even the writers included, when we ended season one we thought, “OK, here comes Saul Goodman,” but the more we talked about it, we realized that Jimmy McGill has people that he cares about, one being his brother, even though his brother betrayed him and that was part of the reason he wasn’t going full Slippin‘ Jimmy in the prior season. But as he moves forward, he cares a lot about Kim. There’s a love story happening here. He’s wearing Marco’s ring and he wants to go off and be that guy, but he realizes that if he wants this person he cares about in his life, he can’t really do that right now. So he has to keep being Jimmy McGill, the lawyer, for her.
Has there been surprise in the writers room about that? You guys are building to a character who you all love and who fans love, but has there been a shock at how much sympathy you feel for Jimmy and how much you want to stay with Jimmy?
Yeah. When we started Better Call Saul, I never in a million years … it’s really thanks to Bob Odenkirk. It’s what he brings. We write the show, but what he does shapes what we do, so it’s a give-and-take. Vince has talked about it in other places, what Chuck [Jimmy’s older brother] became at the end of season one, the betrayer? We never thought of that when we started out, but Michael McKean brought this certain element to the role that helped shape our storytelling. I think Bob is absolutely doing the same thing with Jimmy McGill. You see him on screen and you root for him and he has this likability to Jimmy McGill that was not really there with Saul Goodman. So when we started out, no, I never would have thought we would feel for him so much or he’d be the character that he is, but it’s the combination of what we do in the writers room and what Bob brings to the character that shapes all of it.
Has that had a demonstrable effect in terms of slowing down the storytelling and keeping us in Jimmy-ville for longer?
I think so, yeah. I think us caring for Jimmy is probably one of the factors in why he’s not full-blown Saul Goodman. It’s hard to let go of Jimmy right now, as much as a lot of the audience and myself included want to see Saul, I don’t want to leave Jimmy behind, so it gets to be a slower transition. Saul definitely pokes out many, many times this season, that personality, but I think it also makes it more believable, too, that we don’t end season one and … he’s that guy. It’s more real transition. Sometimes there’s a catastrophic event that’ll change a person, but in reality it’s a slow transition. It’s just more real this way.
But are there still a few catastrophic events, as you say, that are on the wall in the writers room that you guys know you have to hit at certain points on Jimmy’s journey into Saul?
We’ll start a season and we’ll talk for a few weeks and we’ll put up plot points on a board on one side of the room and then we’ll start breaking whole episodes and at a certain point we’ll look over at the board we had started at the beginning of the season we’re like, “What the hell is that? What were we thinking there?” It’s just these ideas and sometimes we go back to them and sometimes we’re like, “What were we thinking? We can’t do that.” Sometimes we go back to our idea board and sometimes we don’t. Nothing is set in stone, and right now we don’t feel like there’s any certain thing that we have to hit, but there are certainly storylines that are floating up on our idea board that if there’s an opportunity to put them in, then it’ll happen, but we don’t ever lock ourselves into anything.
What was the genesis for bringing back Kyle Bornheimer’s Ken from Breaking Bad?
Along with our idea board that starts our season, we have another board that is just every character from Breaking Bad that existed and we could possibly have back in the world of Better Call Saul, and as we were talking about Jimmy and Kim doing this scam, we were like, “Well, the guy has to be a real douchebag. We need to be rooting for Jimmy and Kim.” It’s more fun to see them take down somebody deserving of being taken down, rather than just some poor schmuck, and as we were talking about this douchebag, the board is there and we were like, “Well, what about KEN WINS? He is the perfect douchebag.” People don’t have to recognize him from Breaking Bad. It’s a fun thing if they do and it certainly helps the storytelling. He’s such a fun actor and he was so great.
Ken is a really deep cut. How fun is it for y’all knowing that you have the type of fans where some core group of them really will pick up on the reference?
I love it. I love that we can do that. That’s what’s so fun about this show is we can put small things in. There’s graffiti on the wall in the dumpster room about a restaurant called Whiskerstays, which was one of Madrigal’s entities. We put little things in, but then there’s the bigger things in like KEN WINS that we get to do. We get to bring back Tuco, of course, which was a big reveal at the end of the first season. It’s great to have these fan favorites that we can bring back, but I think that’s the key thing, is that we want these stories to work for people who have never seen Breaking Bad. We don’t want people to watch the show and be lost. You don’t have to have watched Breaking Bad to know what’s on, but if you did, it just makes it that much richer.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.