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[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Sept. 17 episode of Better Call Saul.]
Monday’s Better Call Saul seemed like a good opportunity to pause the regular rotation of writer/director/actor postepisode interviews to talk to editor Skip MacDonald, who won an Emmy for the Breaking Bad series finale, about the new prequel/sequel show’s tricky treatment of the passage of time.
Few programs on TV enjoy a good montage as much as Better Call Saul, and Monday’s installment, fittingly titled “Something Stupid,” begins with a classic. Over the course of a specially commissioned cover of the title song, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) navigate through several months, generally in split screens, allowing Kim to finally escape the cast she’s been in since last season and letting Jimmy’s legal suspension finally come to a close.
Montages are, of course, only the smallest portion of what an editor does, but they’re among the more visible things that a good editor has her or his fingerprints on, so the interview with MacDonald concentrates highly on the “Something Stupid” and “Street Life” montages from recent episodes, as well as the unique pace of Better Call Saul. It’s an interesting look at a side of the artistic process that doesn’t always get a lot of coverage.
Starting with the time-jump montage at the top of the episode, talk me through what’s in the script, what’s the director’s responsibility and where you come in.
As I’m sure you’ve heard from a lot of people, the scripts lay out a lot of the details, so I read the script and I know the director goes through the script. Then it’s determined how, in the split-screen process, how to frame the shot when they’re not shooting them concurrently. One side is shot one day and the other side could be shot a week later, so designing that was a big part of what the director [Deborah Chow] went through to make sure everything would work when it was all tied together. Then from my point of view, it’s taking those pieces and making them fit right and making sure that the action is good on both sides and just really working the details into it.
A lot of it, as you say, is on the director to make sure that those two frames match each other, so what are the challenges from your point of view in terms of making the sequence come together and flow properly?
The challenges are, for me, making sure the sizing is correct. Sometimes we had to resize them and shift them so that lines would match up. Then there was a lot of the timing of each shot. A great one was when Kim was getting her cast cut off and Jimmy was doing the juicer, just to make sure that the timing on those things, with the blade whirring, the juicer whirring and then pulling back on the move, it’s just a matter of making sure I picked the right pieces that blended together and then finding the right out point on them, too. It was kinda that way all the way through. Like with the double mirror shots, we had to do a little repositioning on those to make sure certain things lined up and that the framing of who was where in the frame [worked]; it was a very delicate balance and a challenge, but a lot of fun to do on that particular sequence.
And from what I understand, that was a specially commissioned cover of “Something Stupid” by Lola Marsh that you used? How did that come together?
Yes it was. Thomas Golubic, the music supervisor, reached out to some people and got quite a few responses. It was quite an effort on his part whittling down the ones he felt were going to be usable and workable, and then we took them into the cutting room and would play the possibilities against the picture to see what felt right and what worked well and narrowed it down that way, which was really a great process.
So what was right about how this particular cover married with the images and the tone that you guys wanted to set?
It really was more about the tone of the piece. It wasn’t really, at least in our minds, giving anything away emotionally. It would go through and the words are what they are, so that gives you an indication, but it wasn’t giving away anything of what was transpiring until the end. It was giving the viewer the option to pull what you thought was happening, rather than the song telling us what was going on.
You know going in that this is a montage that will play out over the length of the song, so were there different lengths to the covers? And when did you know what your window looked like?
That was the interesting thing! We first had the montage together, and then when Thomas reached out he said, “We need something this length.” Most of them came in longer, so we would edit them down and get them to fit our images, because we wanted to make sure the picture was in the best possible shape, and then we cut the music to length to fit and designed it where it ended the song and still left some silence at the end.
I have to imagine you don’t often get to do things in that order.
It was good, because it freed me up to cut the picture the way that I felt was working the best. The ins and outs of cutting from one to the next, it freed me up there. I wasn’t tied to any rhythm. I wasn’t tied to a previously recorded piece of music for length or anything. It was great in the respect that it freed me up, and I didn’t have any preconceived melodies to hit the picture with.
Peter Gould has told me that their preference is always to put scenes together without music and then find the music that matches on top of that. Has that always been your preference as well?
Yes, for me it is. With Peter on the show, it’s always good because we generally don’t do much music when we’re cutting, and it gives us the opportunity to make the picture work. Then when you add the music, it just enhances everything. On a lot of other shows you work on, they like to have a lot of temp music in it, so this is a pleasure, to not worry about the music and what people are going to respond to about the music. This is always responding to the images they’re seeing and it’s a great way to work.
I know then that there’s a process of trying out music and seeing what the image will accept or reject. Do you have any favorite examples of cutting something, sticking a piece of music with it and having the combination do something really unexpected or weird? Positively or negatively?
Later in the episode, the sequence where we go through the laundry and down into the superlab area, where we’re using the Burl Ives [version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain”], that one was a total surprise to all of us, how well it played with the scene. It didn’t bring out anybody’s emotions or anything, but it just kinda felt really good, and it was kinda telling the story of how they’re doing their job and stuff. But that was a perfect example of when cutting it, there was no music, but then when we dropped that one in, we tried a few different pieces, but that one for some reason, as soon as it hit and we played it, it just fit beautifully with the images.
To take a different example of a montage without any inherent required form, the “Street Life” montage a couple of episodes ago, how did that come together?
That one, when we started out, the director had a preference of a piece of music that he liked, so cutting that one together I used that piece of music, and we were hitting the beats with the images just so it really moved along and was upbeat and fell into place. Then when we came around and were trying different examples of music, most of them fit pretty well, so we didn’t have to do very many adjustments once we got the last piece of music, the “Street Life” piece. So if you get music that has the same kind of tempo or beat to it, if you’ve already cut it to something that’s similar, then it works out well and all falls into place with maybe a minor adjustment here or there. That was an example where we started with a piece of music that was different from what ended up in there. Montages and stuff we may cut with music, so that was an example of cutting to the music with the images.
That’s also an example of a song that pretty clearly articulates some of the meaning of the scene. When do you have the hunch that’s acceptable?
Thomas, our music supervisor, will give us a number of choices, and we’ll start playing them and see what works well with it. When you get a piece like “Street Life” that really tells the story and works along with it, it’s just when you’re sitting there and it just hits you, “OK, this is a piece that continues to tell our story and works very well with the picture.” Other times you go completely the opposite. That’s another step in our process, that once you get something cut and completed, we will try a number of different pieces of music and see if anything works better than the original piece. When you find the right one, you kinda know it.
One of the common conversations I have with writers and directors is how Better Call Saul is formally different from Breaking Bad from their perspective. Having worked on both shows, how are are the two shows different in your job?
That’s a tough one to answer, because when I’m cutting, it’s the feel of what works and what doesn’t. I know in Breaking Bad and even Saul, we do try to play out scenes in wider shots, occasionally, as long as we can. It’s also just the tone of the scene. The differences are, the tone here with Jimmy, he’s a little more fast-paced in his talking, so we tend to keep that going a little bit more than in Breaking Bad, where things were a little bit more laid back.
Certainly Mike and his process can come across as very laid back on Better Call Saul. How long does it take before you have the feeling and the rhythm of what works in one of those extremely deliberate “Mike does a job as slowly and methodically as possible” sequences?
Those are good because when you’re cutting it, I’m trying to lay it out in the script order and get the feel and see what the performance is that Jonathan Banks is giving us. Because Mike does, he takes his time and draws things out, and sometimes you look at it and say, “OK, this is a little bit too long,” so we have to pull it back. He’s very good at what he does and he’s a man of few words, and you really go by his expressions and his mannerisms to really tell a lot of the story, too.
So many of those scenes with Mike, it seems like they could potentially go on forever because there’s no prescribed song or structure to limit them. He’s just going through a very long process.
For me, it’s the timing and the pacing, and I know that with Mike we have a little slower pace, so I try to keep it slow and as laid back for Mike as I can, but sometimes if all of a sudden I’m going, “Wow, this has just been going on too long” — I start to feel it play long. So for me, it’s like an instinct of “How long can I get away with this?” and then maybe just give it another beat longer, because that’s how we like Mike to go.
How do your instincts on something like that compare to Peter’s or to your average director’s sense of what constitutes too long or not long enough? You’re one point of reference, but there are many others.
I’ve been working on the show since the beginning, so I feel that I have a pretty close perspective with Peter on what he’s going to feel is playing the right length or not. The tricky ones are some of the directors, because if they’re a first-time director to the show, I feel it’s kinda my job to help guide them a little bit and let them see what I’ve come up with, and then they’ll adjust a little bit, but I try not to let them trim it down too much or go in a direction that I don’t think Peter’s gonna ultimately like. It’s a work-in-progress with the directors all the time, but I think I’m pretty close on the page with Peter most of the time. Sometimes he’ll come in and things will be playing a little different, so we’ll work on those, but overall I think I have a pretty good feel with Peter. Then we try to guide the directors in that direction also.
You guys have also taken the step of splitting the seasons with one other editor, so Chris McCaleb this season and Kelley Dixon last season. Do you have different instincts, and how do you standardize your instincts so I can’t tell the difference between who cut which episode?
The only time that I’ll have conversations with Kelley or with Chris about how they’re doing something is when there’s a direct relation of something in my episode that will follow into the next, and then I’ll discuss that with them, but a lot of the pacing is within the script, and you feel it when you’re cutting those scenes. And then when Peter comes in, we’re all working in the direction of him. We all have our own styles, but I think ultimately in the end we all have the same feel for the direction of the show.
What is it like for you to watch a Chris or Kelley episode with your editor eyes?
(Laughs.) I don’t see much of them on a day-to-day basis, and I think they’ve done a really great job, but sometimes I feel like, “OK, I don’t know why they did this and I wonder if they could have done that.” And I’m sure that everybody does that to my episodes, too! But if I’m looking at them, they all have a good pacing to them and they all feel as one, rather than as separate people doing all of them.
How many of Saul’s commercials did you get to cut last season, and what’s the fun or challenge of having to make something look “amateurish”?
I did a couple of them! I did more from the production end of it, not so much cutting the actual commercials, but like when they were in the furniture store and they were shooting the guy in the chair. I did that episode. Those were fun to do, because it’s like you’re behind the scenes watching something being made, but actually creating the whole illusion of that. The commercials are really fun to do because it’s stuff you normally work so hard not to have happen, like when you do an intentional cut that jumps or doesn’t work right, and then the star-wipes, which are just fun and inventive that we normally don’t use. So it’s something out of the norm and it’s a big change for us, and it’s enjoyable to have something new on your plate that you normally don’t do on the show.
Sticking with the montage theme, because this is a show that loves its montages, do you ever have a “this is too montage-y” concern? And then how do you make sure that you’re distinguishing between comparable modes of illustrating the passage of time?
For me with the montages, it’s always trying to come up with a new way to do them so they all don’t feel the same, just with how we cut things or possibly with the transition from one piece to the other. Is there something new or different that we can do? I know that one year Kelley did some little box sequences when they were doing some of the montages. We’re always trying to come up with something that’s a little different so they all don’t feel like, “Oh, this is just a template that they used again.” We’re always trying to come up with something new and a little bit different that makes it interesting and fun for the audience.
Are they all in the script all of the time? Or are there actually some instances in which you have to impose a montage to save time in an episode?
Most of the time those montages are in the script. If something is long and we need to do it, then we’ll try to come up with something, but 90 percent of the time or even 95 percent of the time, the montages are scripted so that we know they’re coming up.
When you talk to friends or colleagues who are editors on other shows, what do they express excitement or jealousy about regarding things you get to do on this show?
I think it’s probably the pacing of the show, that we get to try things and play things out a little more than what a lot of shows do. A lot of shows get you into the dialogue and just keep the dialogue moving, where here we get the opportunity to let people breathe and think about things a little bit before the next line comes in. That’s the biggest thing, the pacing that we’re able to achieve with this and still tell our story and not have it feel like it’s lagging.
And when you’re between seasons on this, how hard is it for you to transition to the pace of a different show?
It usually takes me an episode or so to get my rhythm into what the new show is gonna be like, but it’s usually not too bad. It comes along pretty quickly, because you’ll start to see what the style is that that producers are looking for and it comes to you pretty quickly. But I always have a tendency to want to keep slowing things down a little more than normal, because I think when it plays well, the audience is always smart enough to pick up on these little subtleties of looks and it gives them a little chance to breathe, too.
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