‘Better Call Saul!’ creators: ‘It was not just a joke, but a potentially good idea.’

As I said in my review of AMC”s “Better Call Saul!” I approached the “Breaking Bad” prequel with some skepticism about whether it could work, before ultimately being pleased with the first three episodes. Two other men who had deep and long-lasting concerns about the viability of the project? That would be “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan and producer Peter Gould, who wrote the episode that introduced Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman.

As the two men discuss in this interview I did at press tour, a Saul spin-off was something they had been talking about – half in jest, half not – going back to “Breaking Bad” season 3, but the actual show went through many iterations before it evolved into its current form as a light-hearted drama series dealing with a younger Saul (or Jimmy McGill, as he went by back then) trying to establish himself as a defense lawyer in Albuquerque.

“Better Call Saul!” debuts Sunday, February 8 at 10 p.m. on AMC before moving to Mondays at 10 the following night.

Bob has said you guys were discussing the idea of a Saul spin-off as early as season 3 with him. At what point were you watching him and saying, “There’s a show here with this guy”?

Vince Gilligan: It started as a joke. It really did. I’ve said this a couple times today, and I want to be precise in my language. I should probably not say “started as a joke.” It started as a lark, which is another word for joke, in the writer’s room. It started and it really came from the fact that I love working with Bob, just as we love working with really every actor on “Breaking Bad.” But we also loved the character. We love writing for the character. We love putting words in his mouth. And we had so much fun indeed doing that that it started as a lark; we’d come up with some great term or phrase and we’d laugh about it in the writer’s room. And then we’d say, “You know, when we’re doing the Saul Goodman show we’ll be able to blah, blah, blah, blah.” And we made that comment so many times that it started to dawn on us that it wasn’t a lark; there was truth to it. It was not just a joke, but a potentially good idea.

Peter Gould: It’s funny you bring up Bob, because I remember standing on the set with him on his very first episode and Bob turns to me and says, “You guys are going to kill me off pretty fast, right?” And to this day I don’t know whether he was saying that because he was worried he was going to get killed off or more likely because he just couldn’t conceive of coming to Albuquerque as a regular thing.

Peter, as the guy who created Saul, how much did you have in your head when you wrote that episode of who he was?

Peter Gould: I did write that episode, and you could say I created him, but everything that came out of that writer’s room and everything that comes out of our writer’s room is really a group effort. So it’s very hard to pin down who knew what. I’ll tell you though, it was probably the most difficult episode for me to write out of the whole run of “Breaking Bad,” because I could not tell if the tone was right. And I was so concerned. And if you remember the show up to that point it was pretty serious. I mean, it’s serious even with Saul on it, but I was worried it would break the reality, frankly. I was worried it was going to take the whole thing and move it and maybe be too silly in some way. But I think Vince really had a feeling for what he wanted it to be. There were some silly things that we cut out, but I think there was a rightness to it. For instance, in the original version of Saul’s office, there was also a (mock-up) of the actual White House in Washington DC and a window in front of it. And at a certain point we had to say maybe that’s one thing too many.

Vince Gilligan: I think that was the idea of a very creative production designer. And we did have to put the kibosh on that. I also recall that episode took about five or six weeks to break. That’s what you’re saying about how hard it was to come up with it. Usually an episode, especially at that point in time, took about two weeks on average to break. This took about three times that. We were really, really stuck and we actually had a shutdown that year because of that, in large part because of that. We had to very meekly call up Sony and AMC and say, “We’re out of scripts, and can you give us two weeks?” And that was really embarrassing.

Peter Gould: In fact I remember the last night that we shot in before the shutdown was literally I think the last sequence of that episode, which was Walt and Jesse holding Saul at gunpoint where he says, “Why don’t you kill Badger instead of me?” And the wind was blowing and that was the first insight I had into Bob because I’d always admired him. I thought he was so funny. I really knew him from “Mr. Show.” And it was really the most uncomfortable conditions I ever shot in. The wind was blowing; there was sand going everywhere; lights were literally falling over. And on top of that it was freezing cold. And all the Albuquerque based crew suddenly produced like welders glasses to protect their eyes.

Vince Gilligan: They all looked like those Star Wars guys with the giant gum things, the Tusken Raiders..

Peter Gould: That’s right. They looked like the Tusken Raiders. But Bob just kept going and he actually seemed to relish it, in a weird way. He said, “No, it helps me. It’s good.” And I thought, “Well, wait. This is one unusual cat.”

Was there ever a point in the run of the show where you came close to killing off Saul? And if the story had dictated Saul should die, would you have done it or would you have tried to find a way around it because of this show?

Vince Gilligan: Excellent question. The only time would’ve been in the final couple of episodes. And we did talk a lot about it.

Peter Gould: Well, it was definitely on the table because everything was blowing up around Walt and there were all these consequences to the actions that Walt had taken. And we discussed it.

Vince Gilligan: And it was on the table after we had put it out there to the world that we seriously want to do a spin-off.

Peter Gould: And I think we would have done it. And I think the answer to your question is yes. If it had been the right move for “Breaking Bad,” then I think we would have done it.

Vince Gilligan: Luckily it wasn’t.

Peter Gould: Luckily it wasn’t. And I think we felt there was something appropriate about him surviving like the cockroach that survives the nuclear apocalypse.

The creation of this show went through a lot of evolution. There was talk where you were saying it was maybe going to be more comedy than it wound up being. The level of Vince”s involvement was up in the air. How long did it really take before you felt like you had a good command of the show beyond having a main character you liked?

Vince Gilligan: Longer than you would think. I was excited by the concept of doing this show. I’ll speak for myself, I kind of jumped into it – there was a cliff I used to jump off of into the James River as a kid. The first time you do it, you don’t know if there’s rocks down there. It’s really stupid. It’s like the kind of thing only a dumb kid would do without thinking. That’s the only thing I can liken the beginning of this process to. I jumped into this thing with both feet saying, along with the rest of the writers in the “Breaking Bad” writer’s room, “This is a great character; we ought to make a show about him.” Then once we had already expressed that intent to AMC and to Sony and all the folks at both companies were like, “Yeah, let’s see if we can make this happen.” Once that snow ball got rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger and bigger, then Peter and I are thinking, “What does this thing look like? Is it a half-hour long? Is it an hour long? Is it a flat out comedy? Is it some legal version of ‘Dr. Katz” where,” what’s the name of that show?

“Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.”

Vince Gilligan: Yeah where he’s oddly the straight man and we bring in different comics every week? Sarah Silverman comes in and says, “I want to kill my husband; how do I get away with it legally?” We talked about every possible permutation of this. And I got really scared for a while. I was like, “What is this thing going to look like and do we have a show here?” And we finally, as we always do, we nibbled at it around the edges and we sort of figured out what we figured out. But I have to say it wasn’t until we really got into the editing room after all the ten episodes were shot that I really started feeling truly energized and excited about it.

Peter Gould: A lot of the challenge with figuring out what the show was figuring out Saul. Vince has this phrase I really like it’s, “What’s the itch he can’t scratch?”

Vince Gilligan: Actually that was yours.

Peter Gould: Well, it’s somebody’s. This guy is so happy and complete in himself, what is the story that centers on him? It goes without saying that if he’s complete in himself then probably the answer is you bring in wacky people and do the “Dr. Katz” version. I was never comfortable with that, maybe because of my insecurity around the idea of trying to write out-and-out comedy. I felt that’s somebody else’s show and it could work, but I felt that wasn’t in my wheelhouse.

Vince Gilligan: Mine neither.

Peter Gould: And I felt much more comfortable when we got to the idea of a one-hour, not a drama but just a one-hour. That started feeling really good to me. Like (Vince), I didn’t know until we started cutting them together and then I said, “Wow, this is sort of hanging together.”

Vince Gilligan: And part of what I love about it is that uncertainty I had. I didn’t love it at the time but in hindsight I see that uncertainty I had as indicative of the fact that I didn’t know quite what we had because I didn’t quite know what this show was compared to other shows. I mean is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it a dramety? I think it’s none of those three. I think it’s a comma. It was like for the longest time, what is this thing compared to? What is it like? Still to this day I’m still not sure I know the answer to that but I finally embraced the fact that that’s, to my mind, a good thing and not a bad thing.

In the second episode, (a “Breaking Bad” villain) takes him out to the desert. Saul has been taken out to the desert as well, but that’s a very Walter White kind of moment. How comfortable are you at putting Saul in those situations given the guy we know he has to become by the time “Breaking Bad” starts?

Vince Gilligan: Well, you make a good point. You know that he’s not going to die. And that’s an interesting issue that we face as writers. We know he’s not going to wind up permanently in a wheelchair. He’s not going to get his head blown off.

It’s not just injury. It’s that he’s a guy who you get the sense has not been exposed to the level of craziness that he is as Heisenberg’s lawyer.

Vince Gilligan: You know though, I got to say even from the get to-go, I will offer this thought: in Peter’s first episode, when he is down on his knees in the desert in front of a freshly dug grave, if that were me I’d just pee my pants and start blubbering. That mouth of his kicks into overdrive – I mean, he’s very nervous because he thinks it’s a guy named Lalo, who we still to this day don’t know what that means. But if you watch that closely, as soon as he finds out it’s not Lalo, he’s like, “Phew, that’s a relief.” His hands are tied behind him and he’s on his knees in front of a grave and he’s like, “Okay guys, let’s dial it back a notch. Let’s smoke the peace pipe. Let’s talk turkey.”

Peter Gould: There is that Bugs Bunny side to him. Yes.

Vince Gilligan: Yeah. He’s not physically tough, he’s not a Navy SEAL, but he handles adversity and he handles existential situations way better than the average person would, way better than I would and he comes across like a coward. We’ve been saying lately there’s a little Jim Rockford in him although he’s not a PI, but there is a little Jim Rockford – who didn’t love James Garner? And that character was so great and he never blustered and he never acted like a tough guy and he would avoid fighting at all costs, but he could take a punch though. Saul can take a punch, too. He doesn’t go looking for ’em; he avoids them whenever possible but he bounces back.

Peter Gould: That’s one of the things I love about him. He’s like one of those round bottom things that you had when you were a kid. You can hit in the nose and it pops back up.

Vince Gilligan: The clown.

Peter Gould: The clown. The clown that’s right. He seems resilient and plucky.

Beyond the fact that obviously Saul can’t die and Mike has to eventually go work for Gus, have you found yourself so far in the writing ever butting your heads up against certain facts that you established in “Breaking Bad”?

Vince Gilligan: Oh, all the time. And we also have to keep reeducating ourselves as to what they are. We have folks in the office starting with our two assistants and our script coordinator who help us stay honest and help ensure that we are not doing something that hasn’t been negated previously on “Breaking Bad.” So it’s tricky

Peter Gould: This is a bad example, you tell me, but we would love to have the disappearer on the show. And it would be great to have him back.

Vince Gilligan: Played by the amazing Robert Forster.

Peter Gould: Robert Forster. And you know from “Breaking Bad” that he has never probably met Mike, because people are disappearing trying to get away from Mike. So we think about that stuff a lot and we often come up with pitches, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this?,” and we get all excited and they go, “Oh, no.” And some of it also is the things that people say. For instance, Robert Forrster’s character, the vacuum cleaner guy, he was originally introduced with a business card; it says vacuum cleaner repair, and we had this long discussion about whether it would actually be a vacuum cleaner shop or is that just nominal on a card? And it was just so much more pleasurable to see a real vacuum cleaner place.

Vince Gilligan: And Saul even had the line. He said, “I thought it was a term of art. This is a real vacuum cleaner store.”

Peter Gould: That’s right. I forgot about that.

So if and when you decide it’s time to bring back Giancarlo (Esposito), he can’t really interact with Jimmy; he can only have scenes with Mike.

Vince Gilligan: There you have it.

Peter Gould: Well, in his guise as in the meth kingpin, but in his guise as the owner of the chicken restaurants, absolutely.

Vince Gilligan: It’s very possible. But yes to the greater point, there’s a lot of painful self-discipline involved in this, because you want to be greedy. You want to have fun with it and throw the kitchen sink at it and bring in everybody as soon as you can, but you got to have that self-discipline. Because I think at the end of the day, and what I love about “Breaking Bad” fans so much, and what they seem to respect about the show was that we were tough on ourselves and we didn’t take the easy way out. I love that fans of the previous series watched it as closely as they did and took it as seriously as they did. And it would have harmed that show if we had played fast and loose with the facts. And we learned that lesson. We’re not going to do that here either.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com