This morning’s “Better Call Saul” panel isn’t the first time Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have come to press tour to discuss the “Breaking Bad” prequel, but their panel back at summer tour was incredibly light on details and didn’t feature any actors. So this session – featuring Gilligan, Gould, “Breaking Bad” alums Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, plus fellow “Saul” castmembers Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian and Michael Mando – should be much livelier, and not just because critics have now seen the first two “Saul” episodes(*).
(*) Reviews are embargoed until closer to the Feb. 8 premiere, but I can say that I enjoyed both episodes, even though I have some reservations.
As I did in the summer, I’ll be live-blogging the panel as frequently as my fingers and the ballroom wifi will allow, so check back frequently for updates. (And I’ll be doing the same in a little bit for the “Mad Men” farewell press conference.) All times are Pacific.
8:37 a.m.: AMC president Charlie Collier is running through various announcements, talking through development (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s “Preacher,” Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston in an adaptation of John Le Carre’s “The Night Manager,” and other upcoming AMC shows. The “Saul” people should be out in a couple of minutes.
8:39 a.m.: While we wait, several of the trailers for upcoming AMC shows looked promising, particularly William Hurt in “Humans,” a sci-fi series set in a parallel present where people can buy artificially intelligent companions or servants. There’s also the miniseries “Making of the Mob,” which looks like a “Boardwalk Empire” that focused entirely on the Lansky and Luciano corner of that era.
8:45 a.m.: The full panel is on stage now, Jonathan Banks in a black hat that’s like second-cousin to the iconic Heisenberg hat. But he’s already put it under his chair. Boo!
8:46 a.m.: Gilligan and Gould are asked about the series’ unconventional opening sequence, and the ways they tend to go against conventional narrative choices. Gilligan: “If everyone else does it one way, we’re somewhat contrarian in the sense we like showing people stuff they haven’t seen before.” AMC and Sony don’t give them notes that tell them to be more conventional. Gould discusses how quiet the opening of the series is: “We really see it as a movie. You think of television as illustrated radio originally,” but now with big-screen TVs, “you can really tell the story visually.”
8:47 a.m.: Were the new actors “Breaking Bad” fans? Fabian was a big fan, and recalls meeting Banks at the table read after binge-watching the series again. “I see him and I go, ‘They fucking shot Mike!’ And without missing a beat, he just goes, ‘I know. Worst day of my life.'” (Banks sarcastically asks us to ask Gilligan and Gould about “the mistakes that they’ve made” in killing Mike.)
8:48 a.m.: McKean did a few “X-Files” episodes written by Gilligan, and suggests the notion of cinematic TV really started with that show, and was delighted to be hired for this.
8:50 a.m.: Odenkirk is asked about potential overlap with “Breaking Bad” stories and characters. “Every time I come into this office on this show, I say, ‘Has Walter White called yet?'” He says that tonally and story-wise, there’s a ton of overlap given the presence of Gilligan and Gould. Gilligan admits a big part of the fun for him and Gould in setting the show as a prequel is that “it allows the sky to be the limit, in the sense that all the characters who are deceased when ‘Breaking Bad’ ends could theoretically show up.” Though Jesse Pinkman would be “in late middle school, or maybe high school.” Gould says Walt and Jesse won’t appear in season 1. “We want this to really stand on its own. We don’t want to mislead people into expecting something that’s not going to happen… Having said that, everything else is on the table.” They’re not saying it’s never going to happen, but Banks jokes, “I’m saying it’s never gonna happen.”
8:54 a.m.: Odenkirk says Gilligan and Gould enjoy creating ethically questionable situations where the character “has to navigate a complex and ever-changing prism of ethical choices.” Gilligan says Saul “wants to be good, but you’ll see, as the episodes progress, why does he want to be good? Does he want to be good for his brother?” They’re having fun with the question of whether it’s better to be true to yourself. “Why be good?” Gould wonders. “We all know, in life, sometimes being ethical lands you in the shitter, so to speak.” Gould says they went in remembering what a slippery, two-faced guy Saul was on “Breaking Bad,” since his first appearance involved him suggesting they kill Badger, but as they started thinking about who he was, “That wasn’t the guy we were starting with. There’s a lot more nuance to his ethics.” Odenkirk also notes that “Saul Goodman” is a creation of Jimmy McGill, “In this show, you’re getting to meet who he is behind the scenes.”
8:58 a.m.: How do they differentiate the look of the shows, given the same setting, many of the same directors (including Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren), characters, etc? Gould notes that “Breaking Bad” had hand-held cameras, with a lot of movement, whereas on “Saul,” “the camera tends to be more static and locked-down. It changes the feel of it. Sometimes, you feel like Jimmy/Bob is struggling against the corners of the frame.” They talked a lot about how they used color on “Breaking Bad,” and are trying to come up with different color themes to this. “But having said all that, we have these wonderful directors,” he notes, “you have these great ideas at the beginning and they all filter through the aesthetics of these talented people.” Gilligan says he was looking at William Friedkin’s work for inspiration, whereas Gould came in with a lot of Bertolucci compositions. “We spent so much time thinking about the look of the show, just like we did with the last show,” says Vince. He admits there are only so many places you can put the camera, “but man, we have fun trying to mix it up.”
9:01 a.m.: How will time work on “Better Call Saul”? Gould says they’ve given themselves the liberty to go back and forth in time, but they still like to focus on cause and effect as they did on “Breaking Bad,” “and it’s better to have cause and effect come closer together.” They were often surprised by how quickly the “BB” stories moved. Gilligan is having fun finding their way, “But Walter White had a very existential and very immediate problem: he was dying of cancer.” Because of that, the show had to have accelerated storytelling, but they don’t have that issue with this one.
9:03 a.m.: How did Odenkirk and Banks have to shift their thinking about their characters for where they are in the story? “The guy you’re gonna meet in this show is a far more dimensional character than Saul Goodman was on ‘Breaking Bad,'” says Odenkirk. He’s enjoying finding all these new sides to him. Banks, meanwhile, is heckling Charlie Collier for talking to someone in the audience. (“I was explaining ‘Breaking Bad’ to someone who had never seen it,” Collier jokes.) “I am still discovering Mike,” he says. “I try to be true to Mike, and not do him an injustice. When I perform it, I try to remember I am Mike. I ain’t that bright; that’s all I’ve got.”
9:07 a.m.: A critic notes Gould and Gilligan took a risk continuing on in this world, and wonders what the first scene they completed filming that made them feel they made the right decision. “I’m still anxious about how it will be received,” Gilligan admits. He had fun directing the pilot from day 1, “But in all honestly, I had hopes and dreams, I feel so good about the show now, but I don’t think I necessarily did until the writing was over and we were in the editing room.” It took him seeing the episodes in aggregate. “You guys always hear a lot of smoke blowing from people on this stage,” he says, but he thinks the show gets even better past the two we’ve seen.
9:09 a.m.: Mando (Vic from “Orphan Black”) is asked about his character, Nacho. “I would say he’s like a young crocodile, who wants to feed and become king of the pond.” Gilligan says we’ll realize “he’s a very smart and pragmatic criminal, much on the order of other smart and pragmatic but cold-blooded criminals we’ve seen on ‘Breaking Bad.'” Gilligan thinks he’ll “fit into the pantheon” of those characters.
9:10 a.m.: What did it feel like for Odenkirk to be doing this without Cranston and Paul? He notes that it’s the same studio, with many of the same crew members, Gilligan directing, etc. “We all felt pretty grounded.” Banks jokes that they gossiped about their Emmy-winning former co-stars. Odenkirk’s first scene was the most Saul-like moment for Jimmy in the pilot, “So it was a gradual movement, but it felt very comfortable.”
9:13 a.m.: Gilligan says Cranston “was a real dad on the set” who provided a calming presence. “Bob is that guy, too,” he says. Odenkirk sat down with Cranston after “Saul” was greenlit and asked how he did it. He wanted to know exactly how a day in the life on “Breaking Bad” went, and Cranston talked him through the details. “Bryan was a dad and I was a pissy teenager.” Banks says of the other “BB” actors, “They are loved, their ghosts are there, but there is no question, this is a different show. I was missing people, but by the time we got to episode 6 or 7, I realized it was a different rhythm.”
9:14 a.m.: Do they have to showcase a different part of Albuquerque here? Gould notes that Jimmy is maybe indoors a lot more than Walt was, but it’s still the same city. There is more location work on this show than on “Breaking Bad” because Jimmy is always running around; “He’s got a touch of Philip Marlowe, who never spent a lot of time in his office.” He admits “It’s ‘Breaking Bad’-ish,” but they’ve tried to make it look a little bit different.
9:17 a.m.: How many sentimental winks to the future will there be? Gilligan knows that’s the question he would be asking as a fan. “I guess the best way to answer it is,” he says, “We’ve gotta have the storytelling. We need to be as organic as possible. We need to have the story and characters dictate where they need to go.” If it ever got to the point on the show where they thought they needed Cranston for sweeps, “That’ll hopefully be the day I quit. The short answer is: the sky is the limit, any of these characters from ‘Breaking Bad’ could theoretically appear in future seasons, but our hope is that when they do, it’ll feel proper and organic. If it feels like a stunt, then we in the writers room have done something horribly wrong.” He admits Jesse would be tricky due to age. Gould has a corkboard in the writers office with names of all the characters they could bring back, from big ones like Walt and Jesse, to minor ones like Wendy the prostitute. “You also don’t want to have the detail in the background distract you from what’s going on in the foreground,” he says. “We’re trying to keep our eyes on the prize.” Gilligan admits he wants to see them all eventually, but there’s a constant tension between wanting to see it and not wanting it to feel like a stunt.
That’s all, folks! Back shortly with a “Mad Men” live-blog.