[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul, “Sabrosito.”]
Thomas Schnauz has been a busy man on Better Call Saul this season. He wrote the season’s second episode, but didn’t direct. This week’s episode, “Sabrosito,” was the first time Schnauz has directed an episode he didn’t write. And stick around for the season’s seventh episode, because that one Schnauz wrote and directed.
It’s the kind of versatility that Better Call Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have encouraged here and on Breaking Bad that few other shows attempt.
“Sabrosito” is packed with Breaking Bad-infused moments, like the return of Steven Bauer’s Don Eladio and Mark Margolis‘ Hector Salamanca, and filled with tense confrontational scenes including several with Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, who is finding himself more and more worked into the Better Call Saul narrative.
Schnauz got on the phone to discuss his busy Saul schedule, how many times it took for Esposito to nail that tin foil basketball shot and why this episode “felt like I was doing a Breaking Bad episode.”
The full Q&A …
Why do I get the feeling there’s a whole conversation that could be had about the challenges of lighting Chuck’s house for a scene that’s both full daylight outside and still needs to have gaslamp illumination cutting through some darkness?
(Laughs.) That’s a conversation to have with the great [directors of photography] that we’ve had. This season we have Marshall Adams and it is a huge challenge, but these guys somehow figure out how to do it. It’s such beautiful photography. Every time we go down to our color-timing sessions, I’m just stunned at how beautiful it is when we get to see it on these beautiful 4K monitors.
Do the challenges working in the Chuck’s house set make it a particularly fun or particularly maddening place to stage action?
Luckily, there were no limitations on me. I go to Marshall and say, “I want to do this shot that takes Mike and Chuck from the front door all the way through the house, through the kitchen and into the back mud room there,” and he and his team, they do it. Very rarely with this crew and this production team do you get, “You cannot do that.” You say you want to do something, and they figure out a way to do it.
I like that Chuck, as a character, is a walking lighting challenge and he brings it with him everywhere he goes.
But he’s also his own lighting device. He’ll carry a gas lantern into the set you need. Boom! It’s like Stanley Kubrick in Barry Lyndon. You need to light the set? Boom! Put a candle down and you’re good.
This is your first time directing an episode that you didn’t write, right?
Correct, but I was in the room when we broke it, so I don’t feel like I faced the same challenges as one of our outside directors coming in who get the scripts nine days before they start rolling. I certainly lived with it through the breaking of the episode, so I didn’t particularly feel any added challenge, because I was there through the whole process. But I didn’t do the actual writing, so it was great to have somebody else give me the great dialogue and have to interpret it a different way than I normally would when I write it myself.
Obviously there’s something very different going on with this show in terms of the versatility that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are enabling. Is the gap between writing and directing smaller on this show than any other?
I can assume that? We tend to work with a lot of people we’re very familiar with. A lot of our Breaking Bad directors come back and this season we have Daniel Sackheim, who directs episode five, who Vince worked with on The X-Files, which was another show the writers were super-involved with. I can’t speak as much about how other shows work, because I’ve been working in the Breaking Bad universe for so long, so I tend to only know this way.
When an actual outsider comes in to write or direct, are they surprised by how different it is?
We haven’t had that many new writers. Jonathan Glatzer, who wrote this episode, is one of our new writers and I would say if you spoke with him, he’d probably say his experience working on this show is probably different than others. We certainly get a lot more time to break an episode and a lot more time to fiddle with it and make mistakes and go back fix things before we actually get to the production side. There’s that. Starting at the top with Vince and Peter, we’re very, very detail-oriented and we talk everything to death to make sure we didn’t make a misstep, to make sure things logically track and people act the way people do in these situations. That’s been my disappointment working on some other shows outside of the Breaking Bad universe is you have so little time to get things correct and what happens is people on the screen don’t act like people would act in a situation where they’re faced with these extreme conditions.
Wonky question, but how does the assignment process go when you’re capable of wearing both of those hats? Did you specifically want to break the writing and directing up?
This was the first season I got to direct two episodes. I usually just do one, and it’s usually one I’ve written. Because I wrote episode two and it was decided that Vince was going to direct the first two episodes of the season for scheduling purposes, then Peter wanted to give me another episode, but I was only writing two. We had some other directors that we really wanted, like Adam Bernstein and Dan Sackheim, and once they fit into the schedule, we had an opening and Peter gave me that opportunity to direct this episode. Then I have another episode, episode seven, that I wrote and directed together, which was a lot of fun to do.
I don’t know if I’ll be directing two next season, because I did end up spending a lot of time out of the room while we were doing some of the directing. It’s great that I get to direct, but it’s hard for the room to lose one of the writers while he’s off directing.
You directed last year’s premiere with the Gene from Omaha sequence, and in this episode you have a flashback opening to Don Eladio’s hacienda. They’re both almost these little stand-alone shorts. How did this one compare to Gene from Omaha in terms of whole-different-show-ness?
I had the great advantage that I was on the set with Michelle McLaren for two days when she was directing the hacienda sequences for the episode “Salud” back in Breaking Bad. I had been around the actors, and I knew the location. It felt like I was doing a Breaking Bad episode of Better Call Saul. We shot it the first day of Daylight Savings Time and the day was shorter and we were really running and gunning and getting all these shots and so the cameras kind of have a little bit of that looseness that we did in Breaking Bad, whereas when we shoot Better Call Saul they’re a little more locked off and a little steadier. On Breaking Bad, the camera had a little bit more life to it and I didn’t actually intend it to be that, but it just sort of happened because we were rushing so much to beat the sunlight. It’s fun to do these other little individual films on their own outside of the episode itself.
Having been on the set for that episode, did you need to go back and re-watch the Breaking Bad hacienda stuff to find specific moments you wanted to foreshadow or echo?
I didn’t re-watch anything, because I tend to have a pretty good memory. I knew right away that the last time we see Don Eladio’s face is face-down in a pool, so I immediately thought, “The first time we see him now, I want to see his face in the pool,” so I knew I had to get that underwater shot of him diving in. That was one thing from Breaking Bad that influenced the shooting of this episode.
You came onto the writing staff of Breaking Bad just as Mike was going from being introduced as Saul’s fixer to being revealed to also work with Gus. What do you remember about how that relationship was initially kicked around in the writing room, and what’s it like now getting to play out the early stage of the relationship?
Yeah, there was a point where we had the Cousins going to Walter White’s house, and my head’s a little hazy on some of the details, but Mike was watching Walter for Saul and we thought, “Well, if the Cousins show up, wouldn’t it be interesting if Mike had a connection to Gus?” We needed to have Gus know that these killers were showing up to Walter White’s house and Gus needed to stop them. That was the germ of the Mike-Gus connection and then it just blossomed from there, that Mike was working for two sides. Saul always had that gray line of “I know a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy” and once we started putting pieces together it was like, “Mike is one of the guys who knows another guy.” It blossomed.
Now as we’re going backwards, there are a lot of puzzle pieces we’re trying to fit together and have make sense, so it’s a great challenge to make sure that all the stuff we’re doing logically tracks for what we know happens in the future of Breaking Bad. It’s not a perfect science, but we’re doing the best we can. I’m sure we’ll make some mistakes along the way, but we’ve got a great team who keeps track of all of the timelines and what happens when and if we do try to do something, have a character cross paths with another character that doesn’t make sense in the Breaking Bad universe, somebody will usually flag it and say, “Guys, we can’t do this.”
In terms of tracking and arcing, do you think the scenes with Gus and Hector and then Gus and Mike show differences between Breaking Bad Gus and Saul Gus?
Gus, he plays a long game, and he moves at an iceberg pace. I don’t know how different he is in the Better Call Saul universe as compared to the Breaking Bad universe. He plays a very long game, and I think we’re just seeing him, in this episode, setting up some pieces that he needs to set up as far as having Mike screw with Hector’s supply chain and forcing Hector to come to him and demand that Gus carry his product. When he crumples up that aluminum foil and makes that basketball shot, we sort of know that he’s manipulating this, that everything he wanted to happen has happened. He goes to Mike and says, “What you did for me was a great service, more than you can know.”
So that garbage can shot, how many times did Giancarlo have to do it?
(Laughs.) I don’t think it was that many times. I don’t think he got it on the first one, but it was pretty soon. The thing I don’t like is that it actually was farther in person than it looks like it was on-camera. It was actually a much more impressive shot than it looks like on TV. I don’t know what it was about how we shot it from behind and that side view, but it takes away a little bit from how hard it was. It was probably the third or fourth [time] that he got it and then he got it a couple times in a row after that. We filmed it a bunch of times from a bunch of different angles. Once he got rolling, he would crumple it up and turn around and hit it all in one shot, and that was what we wanted and he did it. We went in talking about, “Well, do we need invisible string?” and this and that and it was like, “No, just let him make the shot. If Bryan Cranston can throw a pizza on a roof, then he can hit a straight shot across a restaurant with an aluminum ball.”
Bryan Cranston can throw pizza on a roof, but Jonathan Banks couldn’t throw shoes over an electrical wire on last week’s episode?
Nothing against Jonathan Banks, but it was scripted that he didn’t hit it on the first try, so even if he did hit it, we would have filmed some more of him not hitting it. We wanted to show that it was not an easy thing to get those sneakers up on the line.
This episode in particular feels notable for how much it’s about menace and threatening, without breaking confrontations to a head. It’s a lot of people staring each other down and a lot of beginning to put things in motion for big payoffs later down the road. How do you keep that building tension when you know your episode has multiple similarly constructed scenes?
A lot of it is just your gut. We know things will be paid off, and there’s no rule that we have as far as saying, “Well, we’ve set this up in this episode so it has to be paid off [immediately].” Another benefit to breaking the episodes in extreme detail out over a period of time is that if something doesn’t feel right, we’ll go back and say, “This is happening too fast” or “This isn’t fast enough.” The classic example is the third season of Breaking Bad. We broke a couple episodes thinking Skyler was going to discover Walter White as a meth dealer in episode six or seven, but as we were doing it, we were like, “You know, Skyler is so smart that it’s got to happen in episode one.” That’s where it made the most sense. It’s that kind of thing that happens breaking these episodes in their entirety. Going through, as we’re looking at it, if something doesn’t feel quite right, if it doesn’t feel real, if it’s too fast, if it’s too slow, we can fix a few things. Having the time to work on these episodes, the time that AMC and Sony affords us, is invaluable. I can’t even stress how great it is that we don’t start our season and realize at the end of a month, “Oh my God, we have to have three episodes done.” We get to talk big picture and sketch things out and come up with things and toss them out entirely.
Your episode last season, the premiere, also saw Jimmy and Kim working a con together. What do you find particularly appealing about that dynamic, because darned if it’s not the cutest side of their relationship?
It’s Jimmy showing off what he can do best, and I just love that Kim can enjoy that side of him but also keeps it sort of in check that, “OK, we’re gonna do this thing, but we’re not really gonna take their money” or “We’re not gonna cash that check.” It’s just playing out a thing that Kim has always had. In season one where he did that whole billboard stunt and Hamlin was like, “Can you believe this guy?” and she’s the one with the smile on her face because she knows, “Yeah, that’s the Jimmy that appeals to me. There’s something about that rascal.” A lot of us love that side of Jimmy McGill, so I think we’re experiencing Jimmy through Kim’s eyes. He has this great, fun side, but it doesn’t always end in fun and bad things can also happen.
And every episode this season has seemingly been raising the bar on Chuck-as-asshole. Is demanding reimbursement on the tape the most petty Chuck has been?
It really seems to strike a chord with people when they see that. It seems so petty, even though there’s a reason that both sides are maneuvering to get this tape on the record, and Jimmy and Kim are pretending that they don’t want it on the record, but both sides have a longer game going on. So when Chuck does that thing about the extra money, he’s doing it not just to be a dick, but doing it for reason. It’s just that the way he says it is so icky. You just feel disgusting.