‘Better Call Saul’: Vince Gilligan on Writing and Directing His Final Episode

[This story contains spoilers for “Waterworks,” the Aug. 8 episode of Better Call Saul.]

The all-star run of Better Call Saul directors is nearing its conclusion, with Vince Gilligan stepping behind the camera one last time to helm this week’s penultimate episode, following series veterans Thomas Schnauz, Michelle MacLaren and Michael Morris. Only one episode remains, and it was written and directed by Gilligan’s co-creator and longtime Saul showrunner Peter Gould.

Not surprisingly, this week’s Saul was a pivotal episode, jumping around in both time and geography, introducing Kim Wexler’s life as a brunette with bangs in Florida and pushing things toward the series conclusion with a surprising confession and a surprising discovery, featuring guest star Carol Burnett.

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Gilligan is a mighty busy man, but he got on the phone for a quick chat covering just a few key episodic details including the concluding scene, Kim’s airport shuttle breakdown and what it meant for him to take this final turn as director and writer in the universe he created with Breaking Bad roughly 15 years ago.

I watched the episode’s last scene a few times to see if, in addition to letting go of the LifeAlert bracelet, Gene maybe also pushed the button, basically turning himself in. It certainly appears that Marion does the pushing, but what was your approach to bringing some ambiguity to those last seconds?

We kinda detoured from the script a little bit. The script, which I wrote, basically I had it in my mind’s eye that she walked a greater distance and he stayed a further distance from her, but then we were on the soundstage set, and I realized that it was smaller than I was picturing when I was writing this thing. There’s not a lot of room to work back up. So I said, “Is it working the way it’s written?” Carol and Bob were very helpful — “What if we tried this? What if we tried that?” So we kinda made it up a little bit at the end.

To me, she definitely pushes the button, but he could have stopped her. To me, the ambiguity or the question … Well, the first question which springs to mind I guess when you’re watching it is why did he let her push the button? But the deeper question, it seems to me, is how in the hell did he get this far in the first place? How did he devolve so completely from a good person into a bad person that he was menacing this sweet lady in the first place? How can you be mean to Carol Burnett, for God’s sake? How can anyone do that?

And for me, I guess in that moment the clouds parted and he realizes, “What am I doing? How in the world did I get this far?” And he lets her go. If the fever hadn’t broken there and the madness hadn’t subsided, he could have stopped her, but maybe in that moment a little bit of the old Jimmy came back. I hope so. It remains to be seen. Obviously we haven’t seen episode 13 yet. I mean, I have. I’m being coy. He’s so completely dreadful as a human being in this episode that it’s just like a breath of fresh air, like a sea breeze here at the end when he doesn’t kill a nice old lady, when he decides instead, “Hey, let me find some measure of my humanity again, because I have just gone absolutely nuts here these past few episodes.”

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When I talked to Michelle MacLaren, she was so enthusiastic talking about the awe she felt working with Carol Burnett. What was your own experience with Carol?

I’ve been lucky. My wife Holly and I have known Carol and her husband Brian [Miller] for several years. We met in large part because I discovered, much to my joy, that she was a fan of Breaking Bad, and I just couldn’t believe it when I heard that. Who of my generation didn’t grow up watching Carol Burnett? And that was just an absolute pleasure getting to know her over the years. But then getting to write for her and direct her, I couldn’t be luckier! I understand what Michelle means when she says those things.

She was just a friend to the crew, Carol was. Her presence was like this wonderful gift. It was a very tough season to shoot for a lot of reasons, some of them not in our control — a great many of them not in our control — but the crew was exhausted. Then suddenly one day Carol Burnett shows up for episode 10, and it just made everybody happy. Her presence made everybody happy. Every now and then, a couple times a week, someone would ask her to do the Tarzan yell and everyone would take their phones out and she’d take a sip of water to prepare, and she’d do the Tarzan yell and everyone would cheer. It was just an absolute pleasure and honor to work with her. I’ve had a lot of good luck in my career. I’ve had a lot of large events happen to me, but this was one of the very biggest highlights you can count on one hand.

This is a show that has always intentionally lacked a clear moral hero. It’s all about the ambiguity and murkiness, even in the people we’re supposed to be rooting for. When in the process of charting the home stretch to the final season did you guys realize that you needed a purely sympathetic character like Marion and when, having realized that, did you decide that you both wanted and could get Carol?

You do everything in fits and starts. Plotting these episodes out was tiny little baby steps in the writers’ room. This final season, the writers’ room was virtual, but it was just tough. You go down a path, and then you back away from where you’re heading and you go down another path.

Dan, the short answer is I don’t remember exactly when we came up with anything! It’s the pain of childbirth! But it just seemed right and interesting in terms of plot that the guy that looked like he’s gonna be big trouble for Gene Takavic turns out to be not-that-big trouble, but then that guy’s mom winds up being, in a lot of ways, the more interesting character and certainly the more formidable character. It just felt right.

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So once we had a character of a certain age figured out, then we said to ourselves, “Who should we put in this role?” I was already friends with Carol and I said, “Guys, should I ask Carol?” And everybody just said, “Oh my God! You think we can get her?” And luckily she said yes. Everybody was very excited once the idea of Carol Burnett was floated.

Moving to the Kim stuff in this episode, starting with the shuttle ride. She goes through an entire series’ worth of emotional journey all in a single shot. Why was it important to do that in a single shot and how many times did you make poor Rhea Seehorn do it?

Well, I always wanted it as a single shot and it is, indeed, a single take. That was a rental car shuttle bus, in use currently in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you visit the beautiful Duke City and you rent a car, the odds of you riding that very bus are probably pretty good. We drove around in a big half-mile or one-mile circle. We did it twice. We did two takes. I felt very guilty about even asking Rhea to do it twice, but I’m very neurotic and I don’t ever want to have just one take of something.

We could have used the first take, because she was brilliant right from the get-go. I think we used the second take, but we had four cameras locked down in this moving bus and I was squeezed in-between them off to the side, only three or four feet from her. She just did it and she was fantastic, but that’s all one take, just two different angles of the same take.

Yeah, that’s the kind of scene as a director, you do not want to break into a lot of little pieces and make the poor actor do it over and over again. You want to get that as a oner. And, like I said, we had it as a oner and we had it on the first take, but I just had to ask for one more.

When you and cinematographer Paul Donachie were approaching Kim’s life in Florida, what was the contrast you wanted to set between Kim’s Florida nightmare and Gene’s Omaha nightmare, these two different versions of black-and-white purgatory?

It’s interesting. We’re limited by having to be in Albuquerque the whole time, although Albuquerque, it turns out, doubles as Omaha, Nebraska and Merritt Island, Florida and Berlin, Germany and a great many other places. It doubles exceedingly well! In the case of Florida, we shot in a house right in the middle of Albuquerque, New Mexico that our brilliant digital effects house, Rodeo, created wonderful digital matte paintings around.

The look of it, we tried to make it look as hot as possible. Paul was a bit handicapped in terms of the fact that all of this stuff, Omaha and Florida and Albuquerque in this episode, all had to be in black-and-white. I love black-and-white. It’s funny. Be careful what you wish for. I’d always wanted to shoot in black-and-white my whole professional career. The last time I shot in black-and-white was at NYU Film School. Be careful what you wish for, because you want some color in Florida! But then again, I guess you don’t in this case, because her life is purposefully bland, so black-and-white Florida was maybe the right way to go after all.

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Paul used some great tricks to make it look hot. A few moments were just a touch over-exposed, with the highlights burnt out a little bit hotter, stuff like that. It was a lot of fun playing with the different looks of all of these places.

Just to wrap, I’ve talked with Peter Gould about how, because of the pandemic, you were able to be much more available this season, especially in the writers’ room, than you had initially intended. With a little bit of distance from the end of production, how important was it for you that you were able to spend that extra time saying goodbye to this world that you created?

It was just great. It wasn’t necessary for anyone but me, but selfishly it’s just a great, great show and I wanted to take part in it, not just in the final season, but throughout. If I could have cloned myself when I was off doing El Camino, the movie we did, if I could have cloned myself and been around for the entire making of Better Call Saul, I would have done that. And again, not because it was necessary! Peter did very well without me, as evidenced by the fact that the show just kept getting better and better and better even after I was gone. Which was a bit sobering for me! [laughs.]

I didn’t need to be there for anybody but me, but man! I had a great time being around for the final season. I don’t know that it was important for me. It was just fun. I didn’t feel driven to do it. I just wanted to do it for fun and because I love the show. I’m a giant fan of the show and I was very lucky to get to direct three episodes in one season. I’ve never done that before. The most I’ve ever done in any season of television was direct two episodes. Getting to direct three of them and getting write one? That was the first episode of TV I’ve written all by myself since the final episode of Breaking Bad. This was the first one I didn’t write as a shared credit with someone else.

There’s no need for that and I wouldn’t even call it bragging rights or anything. I just realized it was interesting just to get one to myself, but even that’s misleading when I say that. I didn’t have one to myself, because all of these episodes are broken by the writers en masse. It’s very much a group episode. You’re never really alone when you’re writing one of these things or when you’re directing it, which just makes it even better that it’s such a collaborative effort.

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