Prequel producers hope to better 'Breaking Bad' series

New series Better Call Saul carries baggage as prequel to the TV classic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm

It's late August in Albuquerque, and the Better Call Saul crew is relieved to have an indoor shoot day. The production has been plagued by freak lightning storms all summer, causing unpredictable scheduling setbacks.

The high-altitude desert climate is hard enough to handle, with soaring temperatures that lead to dehydration; there's also the occasional paparazzo. Aside from series star Bob Odenkirk, who's in nearly every scene, the medic might be the busiest person on set, constantly reminding everyone to drink water and apply sunscreen.

So today's location shoot, though a bit cramped, has everyone smiling - as, likely, Breaking Bad fans will when they see it. It's Loyola's Diner - yes, that diner, where we see Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and the ever-so-charming Lydia (Laura Fraser) first meet.

But there's no Stevia in sight. Better Call Saul, which has been conceived by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as a prequel to Breaking Bad, is set in 2002 - before the birth of the artificial sweetener, and before Saul Goodman became Saul Goodman. That was just a made-up name - so here, he's Jimmy McGill.

All involved - from the creators to the cast to the network and studio executives - know all too well they're walking a tightrope. With Breaking Bad holding a rarefied place in the TV pantheon, the pressure is on for Better Call Saul to honour its predecessor's legacy and perform well for AMC.

Now, after a difficult birth, Gould is ready to show off the new baby, which will open with back-to-back episodes in the US on February 8 and 9, before settling into its regular Monday slot. "I think I'm surprised in watching the episodes just how much I like Jimmy," Gould says. "I always knew he'd be entertaining to watch. I didn't know how much it would hurt when he gets hurt."

The stakes are certainly high for Saul, but it's worth remembering Breaking Bad wasn't an overnight success. The show now hailed as one of TV's greatest dramas was a slow build over the course of five seasons that ended in September 2013; early on, it was on the fence for renewal more than once. Despite the critical hosannas, it wasn't until the final season that the programme - in which Odenkirk's character played the lawyer of teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White - soared to record ratings.

But the road to getting Saul to the screen wasn't as smooth as Saul Goodman's silver-tongued spiel. Gilligan and Gould, along with Odenkirk, grappled for a long time with the concept, while Sony and AMC wrestled over the deal for the show as Netflix and others were waiting just offstage to pounce on the property. And all involved struggled with how much homage Saul should pay to Breaking Bad.

AMC president Charlie Collier insists Saul isn't the sixth season of Bad - but the question is, how many viewers are going to tune in expecting just that?

It all started as a joke, dating back to the second season. A one-note character the writers had thrown in to solve a plot problem suddenly exploded in popularity. "Sometimes you come up with characters, and you don't know how they're going to play," says Gilligan. "But very quickly, with Bob playing Saul, we saw all kinds of possibilities."

The back-and-forth between the producers and the actor about a potential spin-off continued throughout the run of Breaking Bad. "Whenever I'd see Vince and Peter, they'd say, 'Do you think there's a show there?'" Odenkirk recalls. "And I'd say, 'Don't ask the actor. An actor is just going to say yes every time'."

As Breaking Bad was winding down, the joking turned to a serious conversation of what a programme featuring Odenkirk's character might be. Gould, the writer who birthed Saul Goodman, was the natural choice to take the reins of the project. Gilligan and Gould got Sony's sign-off, but they soon realised the idea that at first seemed so simple was anything but.

At first, they came up with a version of Saul that was a half-hour comedy. "It would have been: you never leave the guy's office, and he's kind of a crazy, colourful lawyer," Gilligan recalls. "And even more crazy, colourful characters come into his office, so that he is ultimately the straight man, and he solves their problems."

That idea, though, soon stalled creatively. The showrunners realised they could mine more material in telling the lawyer's backstory from a dramatic perspective. "It was hard-fought," Gilligan says. "But it dawned on us that it is more about the guy who is going to become Saul Goodman. He's a striver, he's an underdog, and he's heroic in his own cockeyed manner."

While the pitch for Breaking Bad has become legendary - "Mr Chips becomes Scarface", or what Gilligan calls "the million-dollar pitch" - the one-liner for Better Call Saul was much murkier. "It's what makes a Saul Goodman," Gould offers.

Odenkirk says he didn't find an answer to what the show was really about until late August, midway through production. "It's a superhero origins story," he says. "The superhero is Saul, and his special power is his mouth, an agile mind and some stones. And instead of a cape, he has a yellow tie and green socks."

The Saul we meet in Breaking Bad is "truly comfortable in his own skin", Gilligan says. "So how does that work dramatically for a main character? Because the essence of drama is wanting something that you can't quite obtain."

Put another way, how do you turn a supporting character into a lead? How do you take a comedian and turn him into a straight man? Gould was troubled by one question in particular: "What is the problem that being Saul Goodman solves?"

It’s a superhero origins story. The superhero is Saul, and his special power is his mouth, an agile mind and some stones

In Breaking Bad, season two, episode eight, Saul confessed that his name was really just a play on words: "It's all good, man."

So in Saul, we meet Jimmy McGill as a struggling lawyer who's yet to become the best worst lawyer in town. The viewer can almost smell his desperation through the screen as he chases for clients and his next pay cheque, yammering all the way. He doesn't even have an office; he drives a beat-up old car. And he's under the spell of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), an accomplished lawyer at an upscale firm - even though Chuck has his issues: a condition that keeps him homebound.

"Much of it was trying to figure out how much of Saul's journey we were going to get into in season one," Gould says. "And we fought through probably pretty much every variation."

No one's putting more pressure on Gilligan than he's putting on himself. "I do my best to not spend too much time thinking about that," he says of living up to the Breaking Bad legacy. "And I'm always so careful when I say that because I would never want it to read like I don't care. But the trouble is that I care too much. The only thing we can control, and we've been working our butts off to do just that, is putting on the best show we know how to create. Because there's so much baggage that comes with any show that comes from a world of Breaking Bad."

The showrunners also deliberately set out to make Saul look and feel different in as many ways as they could, from the cinematography to the direction to the pace of the show. "We made some really bold choices and we stuck with them, and I think they were the right choices," Gould says. "But they're definitely not what anyone's expecting."

That translates to a show that takes its time to reveal its secrets - and in contrast to Bad, has a distinct decline in the crime rate. "Maybe not every scene has to have a killing or a maiming or a chase," says Sony's president of programming, Zack Van Amburg. "Maybe we can just live in some of the intricacies and the calm and quiet."

Talking to Odenkirk on set after a late lunch break, he sounds tired, for which he apologises profusely. He's struggling with balancing long hours and helping out his wife back in Los Angeles, who's dealing with their two teenagers. "The show is called Better Call Saul, and I play Saul, so I can't be too surprised [about the workload]," he says.

A sketch comedy writer who achieved cult status with HBO's Mr Show, Odenkirk has had to adjust to stepping into the spotlight and taking on the role of leading man. He does not covet the fame or the attention. "I lead a quiet life, I've got kids," he says.

For AMC, much is riding on Better Call Saul. With Mad Men winding down, the channel can use another non-zombie hit in its stable.

In the first episode of the new show, Chuck asks Jimmy: "Wouldn't you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else's coattails?" That's a pretty good description of the biggest hurdle for Saul, too.

Variety News Service