How Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould became ‘pixel peepers’ making ‘Better Call Saul’

“We make Better Call Saul for the pixel peepers — the folks who want to watch it on the biggest, most perfect OLED screen as possible.”

And the noose just keeps getting tighter and tighter. When we last saw Jimmy McGill (played by the always engaging Bob Odenkirk) at the end of season two of Better Call Saul, it appeared as if he was on the verge of being exposed in a lie with deep-rooted legal implications. Too bad he can’t call on his eventual Breaking Bad alter ego, Saul Goodman, to come bail him out if things get exceedingly dire for Slippin’ Jimmy in season three, which will begin airing in early 2017 on AMC.

Until then, we can marvel at the scope, sharp story arcs, and overall audio/visual brilliance of Better Call Saul: Season Two, available now on Blu-ray and DVD via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. As helmed by co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould of Breaking Bad fame, Saul continues to both honor and build upon the high standards BBad set for the postmodern cable-outlet drama.

“Overall, the guideline that has always served us well is we try to be true to the characters — who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and to never proceed until we have a good understanding of that,” Gould told Digital Trends. “We try to let the characters be our guide, as opposed to pushing them around like chess pieces.”

Digital Trends got on the line with both Gilligan and Gould (I was assured they were not, in fact, sharing a pay phone receiver on a random street corner in Albuquerque, New Mexico) to discuss Saul’s strong character motivations, their mutual obsession with a production technique called color timing, and the chances of Bryan Cranston directing a season three episode. You’re the Greatest!

Digital Trends: When I spoke with Bob Odenkirk about Better Call Saul last year, he said you guys were “trying to make something good that had an integrity and an honesty to it.” Do you agree with that assessment?

Vince Gilligan: You know, what a wonderful thing for him to say. To start with, we’re trying to do something different. How would you describe it, Peter — what we’re doing?

Peter Gould: I think when we took on the show, it was such an interesting challenge, because here was this fun supporting character from Breaking Bad, and we both just had this intuition there was more to say about him — but I don’t think we had any idea where it was going or what it would feel like.

I love to think what Bob said is true, but I will say, sometimes that means we have to put off things we think might be fun or exciting, or something that would really grab the audience. We put off the low-hanging fruit in order to earn it, if that makes any sense. That’s part of the honesty in our approach.

That’s a good point, because I’m sure a lot of viewers are asking, “When are we getting to Gus Fring? When are we getting to Los Pollos Hermanos?” But that all has to come when it feels natural to you, the creators behind all of it.

“We write the show for the smartest audience we can think of.”

Gilligan: Yes, definitely. What’s that old [William] Faulkner saying — “sometimes you have to kill your darlings”? [“In writing, you must kill your darlings.”] Sometimes, we’ve had ideas in the writers’ room where we’d say, “Aww man, wouldn’t it be cool if this happened, and then that happened?” And then we thought long and hard about it and realized, “Well, that would be cool, and if we can get there someday, then so be it.” But as of right now, it would be inorganic to do that. I love the way Peter put it — you’d simply be pushing chess pieces around.

Gould: But having said that, one of the wonderful things is if you follow the logic of the show, sometimes it takes you to wonderful places. One of my favorite things to happen is we’d already seen Tuco Salamanca (played by Raymond Cruz) make his first appearance in season one of Better Call Saul, and in season two, he plays a very big part in the Mike Ehrmantraut (played by Jonathan Banks) story. And once we had Tuco in the show, it made a lot of sense to bring Mark Margolis in [as Hector Salamanca, who was first seen in Breaking Bad unable to speak and confined to a wheelchair equipped with a very, shall we say, powerful bell].

If you’re willing to look for it, one thing leads to another. And for me, as a member of the “first audience” for the show, there’s something so rewarding about looking back to go, “Of course that had to happen, because A plus B equals C.”

There’s a quote from [noted director] Billy Wilder we often have in the writers’ room — which is probably not exactly apropos — but it basically goes, “If you give the audience two and two, they’ll make four, and they’ll love you forever.” But if there’s a guideline for us, it’s that we write the show for the smartest audience we can think of.

What we’ve found is we’ve always been rewarded by writing to the top of what we’re able to do and assuming the audience is watching very closely, and they really care about all of the details. That has served us very well so far.

Gilligan: And they’re smarter than we are. (all laugh) That only helps for us to look at it that way too.

What do each of you feel the best way to watch Better Call Saul is? Personally, I’m a 5.1 surround sound and big screen guy when it comes to watching the show, because I feel both the audio and visual design of it are fantastic.

Gilligan: Ohhhh man! God bless you, Mike! If only everyone were like you! (all laugh) I mean, I’m of two minds about it, if I’m being honest. This goes back to Breaking Bad, and even The X-Files before that. I’m happy when people watch my work. If people watch it on an iPhone or whatnot, then so be it. All I can tell you for sure is when we are writing the show and Peter and I get to direct, when we’re editing the show, we’re obsessing over the sound mix and we’re obsessing over the color timing of each episode. We’re always in the color-timing sessions. Peter in particular has a wonderful eye for the color timing.

“We want to future-proof this show as much as we can.”

[Color timing, also known as color correction or color grading, refers to the digital/electronic altering and/or enhancement of a show’s visual image in order to maintain a consistent look and feel to its overall color palette. In the case of Saul, that means retaining neutral tones for the wardrobe of secondary characters, sharpening the brighter colors of the flashier suits Jimmy began wearing near the end of his tenure at Davis & Main, buttressing the earth tones and deep-blue skies native to the Albuquerque landscape, etc.]

We both pay as close attention to the visual and aural components as much as possible, and we are doing it of the mind that when people like yourself are watching, you’re practically pixel-peeping. (all laugh)

There are a lot of people watching the show on an 80-inch screen, and we’re making it for the future. And I gotta say, I’m really impressed with Sony for having the same philosophy. We want to future-proof this thing as much as we can. I’m not an expert on gadgets and technology, but even I know there are headsets you’re going to put on and be immersed in it as if you’re watching it in your own private Chinese theater on a big screen. I want people to be rewarded for watching it in that sense.

The scenery of the Albuquerque settings is so majestic, so I can see how those color-timing sessions really pay off. Do you have a favorite scene, visually speaking, from season two?

Gilligan: Good question! I gotta say, it’s the amazing single shot that [director] Larysa Kondracki got for us in episode 208, Fifi. That opening at the Mexican/U.S. border — that was astounding, visually.

Gould: Another one, in terms of landscapes, is in the last episode of the season Vince directed (episode 210, Klick), where Mike is out in the desert with his sniper rifle. It’s incredibly epic, and it has a wonderful sense of atmosphere. It’s just riveting.

There was also a montage midway through the season in episode 207 (Inflatable) of Jimmy getting on the nerves of the folks around him, intercut with a balloon dancer. That was something our editor Kelley Dixon put together.

There are a few scenes when I’m in the editing room I’m enjoying so much that I’ll say, “Hey, let’s watch it one more time.” I’ll pretend it’s because I’m looking for some detail in the frame, but actually it’s because I love the scene, and I love drinking it in. (chuckles)

And on the sound side of things, how great is it to hear what composer Dave Porter does in 5.1?

Gilligan: Oh, so wonderful. Dave Porter and Thomas Golubic, our music supervisor, are both so brilliant — the two of them work so well together, and we couldn’t be happier to have those two guys.

And because we are future-proofing, we’re now mixing for Dolby Atmos. Right now, I think we’re making it for 7.1. We have these brilliant [re-recording] mixers — Kevin Valentine, Larry Benjamin, and their whole crew — and a brilliant, Emmy-nominated sound editor, Nick Forshager. They work their butts off to make it as special, unique, and perfect, for lack of a better word, as possible.

Gould: We had this terrible creative problem in the scene I was describing earlier where Mike is in the desert. Spoiler alert: He’s perhaps ready to kill Hector Salamanca. Vince directed the hell out of the scene and Dave wrote a wonderful score for it, but Nick and his team did an incredible job of filling the world with sound, scoring it with sound effects with great detail and focus.

Gilligan: It was an embarrassment of riches.

Gould: It was, and we had to make a decision. So, as it aired, you did not hear Dave’s score. That was painful, but on the Blu-ray, you can watch the scene either as it aired with sound effects, or you can watch it with Dave’s score and the sound effects. I think it’s striking either way.

Blu-ray is still currently the best way to watch the show, isn’t it? Otherwise, you’re just cheating yourself out of all the details.

“We think in terms of Blu-ray when we shoot the show and when we edit the show.”

Gilligan: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. It’s the least compressed, and it has the most range to it. We think in terms of Blu-ray when we shoot the show, when we edit the show, post the show, and mix the show.

We don’t finish the show for folks who watch it on an iPhone. If that’s all they want to see, then I’m just happy to have them as viewers. But as “first fans” of the show, we are posting it for the folks who want to watch it on the biggest, most perfect plasma or OLED screen as possible.

For season three, will you have Bryan Cranston direct an episode with [Saul Goodman’s post-BBad identity] Gene working at Cinnabon? (both laugh heartily)

Gilligan: We would love to have Bryan direct, and I think he’d love to direct one. He wants to — it’s just a matter of fitting it into his schedule. Now that James Brown has passed on, Bryan Cranston is the hardest working man in show business.

He visited the set recently, which was wonderful. I was directing the first couple of episodes of season three, and within the last few weeks, Bryan came to Albuquerque and visited the set because he was in town to do press for his autobiography [A Life in Parts] — which, by the way, is a great book.

It was like old home week. It was the first time Bryan had been in Albuquerque in 3½ years since Breaking Bad ended. He was very gracious, and it was a great tonic for the crew to see him. Everyone loves seeing him, and I could tell it was good for him too.

Finally, give me your one-word assessment for what we can expect to see in season three. I’ll even take two words, if you need them. (both laugh)

Gould: Two words: the reckoning.

Gilligan: Wow. (slight pause) My word is not as cool a word as reckoning, but my word is: Satisfying.

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