‘Better Call Saul’ creators on the ‘purposely sh–ty’ opening title sequence

It’s not often that you hear TV producers proudly describe an aspect of their show as looking terrible – and using much less polite language than that – but then it’s not often you have TV producers both as talented and idiosyncratic as “Better Call Saul” creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould.

The aspect in question is the show’s main title sequence (embedded above), featuring various images from Jimmy McGill’s future life as Saul Goodman, all of it presented with the same terrible image quality of early VHS or public access television. Late last week, I spoke first with Gilligan and Gould – who, I should say, had trouble controlling the laughter at times when using a certain profane adjective to describe the picture quality of those credits – and then with “Saul” assistant editor Curtis Thurber, who put together the different title sequences, about what they wanted and what was necessary to put them together.

And while I had Gilligan and Gould on the phone, we also spoke briefly about the huge response to last week’s dramatic Mike-centric episode and why that sort of thing won’t start to dominate the series going forward.

How did you come up with the concept for this title sequence?

Peter Gould: I think we were talking about what kinds of credits were around in other shows. I have to attribute this mainly to Vince and Curtis. One day, while we were cutting an episode, I was sitting there, and you guys started playing with the layers and wondering what shots we had. It started off as a little bit of goofing around, almost. But then pretty soon, the test was the Statue of Liberty, wasn’t it, Vince?

Vince Gilligan: You’re right. The thought was for that to be it. And just have the Statue of Liberty every week. That shot of the inflatable Statue of LIberty is actually from an episode of “Breaking Bad,” it’s a little bit of stolen footage. I think the ultimate impetus behind the way this title sequence looks – specifically, how shitty this title sequence looks, on purpose, purposely shitty – is we look around at other TV shows and see what everyone else is doing. And right now, there’s a lot of wonderful title sequences on a lot of excellent TV shows. And they look very well-produced and beautiful and high-class. There’s obviously a lot of TLC going into a lot of credit sequences on big hit shows these days. Our understanding is that typically, these sequences are farmed out to post production companies who specialize in them, and who do a wonderful job. But because that is such a look now for TV, we figured what could we do different? These titles look so wonderful on all those shows, I know what we can do for sure is make ours look shitty. (laughs) I want to stress that our titles are purposely shitty, not unintentionally shitty, and it takes a lot of work intentionally shitty, and that work is done by the very talented Curtis Thurber, who is really more responsible for them more than anybody else. I think the idea is that Saul Goodman is a man who hires the lowest bidder when it comes to making television commercials and such. Even though our show isn’t centering on Saul Goodman as of yet – it’s centering on the guy who will eventually become him, Jimmy McGill – nonetheless, we’re riffing off of the later Saul of the “Breaking Bad” years, and the very lowball public access look of his advertising. And that was the thought. We also figured these titles are cheap enough to generate, and therefore, why not have a different set of titles every week? Have a different image every week for all 10 episodes.

Peter Gould: Just to add to that, one of the things that was interesting was, actually getting it shitty enough was a challenge. A lot of the process was, Curtis would do something, and then Vince and sometimes I would say, “What if we made it even shittier? What if we made it look like the keying on the titles wavered? How can we make this look worse?” We were both thinking of ’80s public access, and how could we make the color combination even more of an eyesore? It was a little analogous to picking out Saul Goodman’s suits on “Breaking Bad,” which was one of the most fun things on that show. Usually, the costume department is trying to keep things real, and not to have the costumes draw attention to themselves, specifically, and we would go down there, and our brilliant costume designer Jennifer would present us with progressively crazier combinations, and I personally would always pick the most lunatic thing that felt like it could possibly fit into the world. The titles here really go along with that. It’s fun for us to have a little stab at the beginning of each episode of who this guy is going to be. In episode 4, Genny Hutchinson’s episode, you see where he’s picking out shirts and ties, for a moment, he goes after a really crazy color combination with an orange shirt and a pink tie. I think, ultimately, underneath it all, that’s this guy’s taste, and it was fun have that poke out for 26 seconds at the beginning of each episode.

You came up with enough for these 10 episodes, but do you have a sense of whether there are enough visual elements from Saul’s office and that phase of his career to keep coming up with new sequences if this show winds up having a long run? Or would you be okay repeating certain images after a while?

Vince Gilligan: Very good question, and one we’ve discussed. I don’t personally have a great answer for that yet. I think if we had to repeat them, that wouldn’t be the end of the world, but our hope is to have one for every episode, no matter how many episodes that may turn into. He’s an interesting guy with eclectic tastes. As we get to know him more as writers, and as viewers of the show get to know and understand him better, I have to think that level of understanding will be deeper and more layered, and that will allow for more images that we don’t even know or have ourselves yet. I’m sure, as we progress, there are more things we can make use of. I certainly hope so. It would be fun to keep it going and have a different image for every episode.

Peter Gould: You bring up something that was fun and interesting for me. The fun image for me was being on a corner of the “Better Call Saul” stage, and seeing a portion of Saul Goodman’s old office erected. We actually only had a couple of walls of it. It was the very last day of shooting. Some of the images you see behind the “Better Call Saul” logo are pre-existing shots, like the bus bench, or the image of the Statue of Liberty, but there are also quite a few we shot specially, literally on the last day of production. It was something of a trip down memory lane for me, at least, because I happened to be directing that day, to go back to all these things I hadn’t seen in a few years, and reminded me of where we’re going in the show.

Is there a pattern to how you’re assigning them to different episodes? Are you trying to suggest some kind of link with, say, the drawer of cell phones and the episode that follows it?Or is it entirely random and no one should be looking for connections?

Vince Gilligan: There’s no real deeper hidden meaning or puzzle to be solved from the images, but there was some thought given to which images seemed the most fitting for which episode. The main thing we were thinking was making them as randomized as possible, making it feel like there was no hidden message. For indeed, there is not.

Peter Gould: I think that’s true for most of them, but I think, certainly, for the last two episodes, there’s a certain tone that does go with the episode. I don’t really want to give anything away, but there’s a certain direction that the show takes in the last couple of episodes, and those two, especially, to me, echo where we’re going. There were actually times when we thought not to. We have one that’s coming up eventually, that’s actually in the desert, and we decided not to use that one in episode 2, when we’re in the desert, because we wanted to make clear to the audience that this was something separate from the text of the show.

Vince Gilligan: That was a fun one, the desert one Peter mentioned. It was actually shot in our producer Melissa Bernstein’s backyard in Los Angeles. Our excellent assistants, Jenn Carroll and Joey Liew, bought a bunch of sand for mixing with concrete at the Home Depot, and Melissa was nice enough to let us spread it out in her backyard. The interesting thing about this imagery is that it can be shot on a cell phone, and the resolution is so good that what we found is we have to get way back, or way up on a ladder for this purposely-shot footage, and then Curtis would zoom in on it on the Avid, and then magnify it 2000 percent until it looked all grainy and blocky and crappy like ’80s video. It’s very hard to make modern high-definition video look that crappy. you have to hammer way in on it.

Do you have favorite opening credit sequences from other shows?

Vince Gilligan: “Dukes of Hazzard” is pretty good for me, because the song kind of tells you everything you’re gonna get. A lot of the old school TV shows would have a song that told you what the show was about. “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dukes of Hazzard,” even “The Patty Duke Show.” I kind of like these old title sequences that basically give you the franchise every week. Those are fun. We’d never think of doing that ourselves because our running time is so limited and precious to us, that our title sequences on “Breaking Bad” and now on “Better Call Saul” are shorter than we would necessarily have them if running time was unlimited. We’d probably go with longer ones if time was unlimited. The title sequence of any show cuts into its running time, so we make them short and sweet.

Peter Gould: One of my favorites is always the original ’60s “Mission: Impossible.”

Vince Gilligan: Oh, that’s a good one!

Peter Gould: Each title sequence functioned as a trailer for that particular episode. There were images cut together with that. That unforgettable Lalo Schifrin music, and there’d be the optical of a fuse going across. You’d cut to all the great, cool things that were going to happen, with people pulling off masks, and lights going on, and soldiers running down tunnels. That was intoxicating for me. I could actually sit there and watch those. Years ago, I was lucky enough to be at the Musuem of Modern Art, and Maurice Binder came, he was the title designer for the James Bond films, and he would show each time, as the title sequence ended, the movie would start, and we would all groan, because you were perfectly teed up to watch the movie at that point, and instead the lights would come up and we would talk some more and watch another one. I think there are two schools of thought on title sequences. There are traditionally the very elaborate title sequences like “Pink Panther,” that almost had a life of their own, and then the filmmakers who went very very simple. Our feeling with this show is to go very very simple.

Vince Gilligan: You know what else is a good title sequence? Not to sound like I’m shilling for another one of my projects, because I had nothing to do with it at all, but I really like the title sequence for “Battle Creek” and the way they lay the names over different parts of the landscape. When I tuned in the first night, I thought that was really cool.

Shifting gears for a minute, I want to talk about (last week’s episode) “Five-O,” because everyone is still really excited about it. I’ve heard some people say that they now want the whole show to be like that every week, and I know it’s not going to be.

Vince Gilligan: Yeah, that was an unusual episode, and definitely Mike Ehrmantraut is an important part of the show and will continue to be an important part of the show, and may become more central and integral than he is in season 1. But having said that, that was a different kind of an episode, for sure, and it’s one we are enormously proud of. I predict right now: Jonathan Banks is going to win the Emmy for that one, I’m willing to bet. And if he doesn’t, it will be a crime. But the show, it’s fun for us to stretch the boundaries and edges of the show and see how far we can take it, and see how funny it can be versus how dramatic it can be, and also how funny and dramatic it can be within the confines of a single episode. We think we have an elastic form here, which pleases us greatly. We continue to want to stretch and test the boundaries of it.

I imagine if it was a Mike-centric show, it would feel much more in the vein of “Breaking Bad,” and you’re trying to do something different here, eve though it’s in the same universe.

Vince Gilligan: That’s well put, too. That episode, for my money, is the one that feels the closet to a “Breaking Bad” episode. We loved doing that one, we couldn’t be more proud of “Five-O.” Gordon Smith, my former assistant, did a hellaciously good job of writing that episode. We couldn’t be prouder of him. That was the first teleplay he ever got paid to write, as far as I know. What a way to start. Talk about starting with a bang. He’s got another great one coming up, episode 8. We liked his first one so much, it was no rest for the weary. We turned him right around and had him write episode 8 after episode 6 there.

Peter, you mentioned before that the season’s last two episodes are different from what came before. Without giving anything away plot-wise, is there anything you want to say about people should expect?

Peter Gould: I will say what happens in the rest of the show surprised us. These characters went in directions we weren’t expecting. The cast added such layers to these folks. This is the glory of television. We watched what the actors were doing as we shot the first few, and realized that some of our ideas of who these people were could be developed more. What happens in the last few episodes is there’s some twists and turns, but it all grew out of our observations of who these characters are and what they’re feeling. That’s the best thing I could say. But I would say the last two episodes especially surprised us completely. That was not where initially we expected the show to be going in season 1, and I couldn’t be prouder of both of them. Episode 9, which was written and directed by Tom Schnauz, is to my eye, a really spectacular piece of work. To say nothing of episode 10, which I wrote and directed.

Vince Gilligan: Episode 10 is great, too. They’re all great. We’re proud of every single one of these episodes. I would say people shouldn’t expect too many more police officers to get murdered this season, but other than that, there’s a lot of surprising, fun stuff coming out. We couldn’t be prouder of this season. We’re having fun working on season 2.

(We’re in the middle of saying our goodbyes – which include a brief mention of this fan-made ’90s-style credit sequence for “Breaking Bad” – when Gilligan pulls a Lt. Columbo and realizes he has just one more thing he wanted to talk about.)

Vince Gilligan: To talk about the titles, we should also talk about the music. The original idea was to not have music at all, or just have a busy signal.

Peter Gould: That’s the version that went out to critics. We had a couple of critics at TCA say, “I liked that.” And I liked it, too – how spare and weird it was. But having said that, as we played with different kinds of music, I think we felt that was a better choice.

Vince Gilligan: (Music supervisor) Thomas Golubi, as usual, hit it out of the park. He found a group called Little Barrie, this group is in the UK, and this guy is a hellaciously great guitarist. And he came up with a bunch of riffs. There was one song of his that we really liked and pursued, but for certain legal reasons and Sony rules and regulations, we couldn’t use a pre-existing song that Sony didn’t own. So the band, Little Barrie, was very accommodating and came up with some licks and some riffs, and then sent them through Thomas to us, and we liked quite a few of them. But one in particular really stuck with us, and that became the theme music. It cuts off very abruptly, the music, as does the title sequence, and that, too, is on purpose. It is meant to be the world’s shittiest music ending, along with the purposeful shittiness of the video.

(At this point, Gilligan and Gould head back to work, and Curtis Thurber comes on the line to explain more about the process of making the titles.)

So Vince and Peter were telling me that you are the man behind what they described as the “purposely shitty” title sequence.

Curtis Thurber: (laughs) That’s a distinguished honor, to be the one who creates that.

What did they say they were looking for when you began work on the idea?

Curtis Thurber: They wanted to do something that was different from what anyone else in TV was doing. They threw it out to the whole editorial team to be, “What can we come up with here that would mimic what Saul Goodman would have within his means to create, with very little budget, and very little means, and very little know-how of how a professional commercial would be done?” Obviously, our inspiration was from the original Saul Goodman ads, which were done in the same style of public access. We looked up a lot of YouTube inspiration from even the ’90s and public access, some old comedy stuff, even some stuff from “Mr. Show” had the same stylistic inspiration, so there’s a Bob Odenkirk connection there.

But basically, we took that and we ran with it. Earliest drafts of it were understandably a little bit comedic, trying to jam so many different Saul Goodman stylistic elements into it. One of the biggest challenges was to refine it and keep going back to the drawing board and being, “How can we take something that’s this short and in this style, but make sure it fits with both the comedic and dramatic side of the story they’re trying to tell about Jimmy McGill?” In one of the earliest drafts, and this goes out to Vince and Peter, is they had the idea of putting a busy signal underneath the images. For a long time, we actually cut with that as the temp audio component, where this busy signal started off really quiet and raised in intensity, and that’s where they got the idea of it cutting off abruptly at the end. That was very interesting, and informed the process of, “Yes, this is funny, this is a funny character, but there’s this real undercurrent of something uneasy, or something foreboding about it.” Ultimately, going with music was a great choice there, too, but finding the right cue was a process of how do you match this tone?

They thought a lot about different types of teasers and different themes of the show, because one teaser might have a funny side to it, like the con in episode 4 is a little bit more lighthearted, him having fun as a younger man, but then you have the teaser where he’s in jail in episode 3, and how do you have something which can speak to both elements? Ultimately, it was very uneasy, and I think it would have been maybe a little bit too much toward the dramatic, but the cue they found from Little Barrie is an excellent piece of music. They imitate the way that it cuts off abruptly at the end as a way to keep the audience on edge.

Technically, what was involved in creating imagery with 2014 video technology that looks like crappy ’80s and ’90s public access commercials of the kind Saul might have had?

Curtis Thurber: We intentionally limited ourselves to tools we had in our editing software. We’re editing on Avid Media Composer. We could have gone outside the box and brought in Photoshop and AfterEffects, let’s do all these other elements that graphic designers have, or for that matter, that a main title house would be using. We asked, “What can we create by just limiting ourselves to these rudimentary tools?” A lot of which are designed to work on a temporary basis, and in a normal TV workflow, we might temp with some of this stuff and then turn it over to a post-production house, who would recreate things and make them look a little bit flashy. So, for example, just the look of the letters in the frame, there was so much that went into that. The simple request that it look like bad green screen was difficult to achieve in a digital environment. We couldn’t just throw green futz on there. I had to go scouring the internet for green screen, but not good green screen, that wasn’t lit very well, so when I brought that into the Avid and tweaked the green screen effect, I could get it to still have noise popping up on the screen. So there’s all that green futz around it. Or what we call the key effect, which is how you select certain parts of an image to be transparent, tweaking it to be just so right, so just the edges of the letters start to get a little noisy, a little bit of sparkliness to the letters so a little bit of it is showing through. A lot of that was a reflection of the inspiration of public access. A lot of time, those green screens aren’t very well-lit. You end up with a very rudimentary key and you can obviously tell those were on a shoestring budget, and on a set with a screen lit by one light to look like they were a professional news organization or something like that.

Vince said the fact that it was relatively cheap allowed you to do a new one for each episode. But how much effort was involved in doing them? After you did a few, did it get easier, or was the process of making it look like this really time-intensive for you?

Curtis Thurber: That part was kind of fun for me. It was presented as a challenge. They weren’t sure it would work. At first, Vince and Peter thought we would play with different images, but weren’t sure we could come up with enough iconic Saul images, or things that would work that would cue the audience in that this is something that is central to the Saul Goodman character. What they ended up doing was, they shot a bunch of those on set, some of the new ones, like the phone booth. So I took those, but there weren’t enough to fill out the entire season. We had also been pulling – not only myself, but I have to give a shoutout to the rest of the editorial team, Skip MacDonald, Chris McCaleb and Kelley Dixon, who all helped out immensely and threw in a lot of contributions and ideas – other images from “Breaking Bad” as well to start playing with. The challenge became, “How many of these can we make work?” Ultimately, we ended up with nine that they liked, and we had to go out and shoot one additional. But they were really happy when we were able to get a different one for each episode. So I think it turned out really well. Once we had the template, I wouldn’t say it was easy, each one required a little bit of finnessing, and the colors had to be futzed. Some of them, we wanted to go for a slightly more realistic look, and some were more over the top stylish, but that was just a matter of tweaking an initial pass for it, and they would come in for five minutes and we would lock down each additional title.

So some of these were using old “Breaking Bad” footage, and some were shot specifically for this. How different was it trying to do this process with the new footage versus the old footage?

Curtis Thurber: The new footage, we would end up having a pile of stuff. They’d shoot a bunch of takes and a few angles. So in a sense, that was a little bit easier to put together. The bus bench was an interesting challenge, because that was from “Breaking Bad,” but that one was stolen from the beginning of a take, right before the scene where Badger is sitting with the undercover cop on that bench with the big Saul Goodman ad. That was an interesting challenge, because we had a total of 7 or 8 seconds of footage to work with. That was created entirely with editorial tricks. We had a little cut of the camera panning towards the bench right after the slate, and little reframings, and I think it even flips upside down for a second. We ended up taking 7 or 8 seconds of usable footage from a “Breaking Bad” take and turning it into a 13-second main title.

But how much effort did it take to get the pre-existing footage and the new footage shot with this in mind to match visually?

Curtis Thurber: As far as the look of the footage itself, the fact that we were taking so much liberty with the colorization of it helped everything blend together and look like a seamless set of main titles. There were a few extra challenges to using some of the “Breaking Bad” footage, because it wasn’t intended for this purpose. So in some cases, we did have to be more creative with that.

It’s a lot of work to make something look this terrible.

Curtis Thurber: Exactly. Surprisingly so.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com