Awards Daily Talks to Bob Odenkirk About Better Call Saul
It’s remarkable to think how well Better Call Saul has matched up to its original source – the all-time classic, Breaking Bad. Spin-offs are typically shortfalls – pale imitations of that which gave them birth. Such is not the case with Better Call Saul. It has become a touchstone in its own right.
Last season on Better Call Saul, the conversion of Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman was nearly made complete. Filming now, the series won’t make its debut until 2020. It’s fair to say that fans of the show will be all but rabid by then to see how Jimmy’s full immersion into the dark side manifests itself.
The first thing you notice when you hear Bob Odenkirk’s voice on the other end of the line is how distinctive that raspy Midwestern twang is. His specific form of enunciation, the way he draws out his vowels when considering a thought, and that great laugh of his – it’s as if he knows all the inside jokes. He’s a delight to speak with.
Here, he and I discuss the creation of the show, season 4 – with an eye toward season 5, while also getting to the bottom of the origin of the “Chicago Sunroof.”
You’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Saul? I imagine you could never have expected this.
Not remotely. At the time (during Breaking Bad), I was asked if I could do the character for 3 or 4 episodes. They were still writing the second season and they weren’t sure how much they would need of the character, and shooting had already begun. They were still working on episodes around 6, 7, and 8. That’s what happened in that second season. I actually couldn’t do the 4th episode because I was scheduled already on How I Met Your Mother that week in a semi-recurring part there. So, they invented the character of Mike to handle the plot moves that they were going to use Saul for. They were forced to invent another character (to do that), which was Mike! It all worked out wonderfully.
That’s incredibly fortuitous. A 2 for 1 deal of epic proportions.
Insane! Crazy strokes of luck. The biggest thing is they needed Saul for the plot to move forward and Peter Gould, who wrote the first Breaking Bad episode that featured Saul, had such fun writing the character and wrote a comic tone that hadn’t appeared in Breaking Bad yet. There was a lot of comedy in Breaking Bad, but it depended on how you were watching the episode. (Laughs). It’s such a wonderfully written show, you can watch it and be just completely gripped by anxiety as the tension ratchets up, or you can be laughing at the desperate human comedy of it. It all depends on your POV on that particular viewing. Saul obviously had a more lighthearted comic energy in an overt way. It worked very well for the show and they felt very good about it.
During the original discussions for spinning off Better Call Saul, wasn’t there talk of going for even more comedy and doing it as a 30-minute sitcom?
Yeah, when we sat down at the Chateau Marmont, to talk about what this show could be, Vince (Gilligan) and Peter invited me to have that conversation. Even though I was never intending to participate in creating the show, and I didn’t. I didn’t help at all. (Laughs). They really were open to anything and were talking about a half-hour comedy for a network. They were talking about a one-hour procedural – which seemed to be the way they were most interested in (going). The idea (behind the procedural) – that I still like – of a lawyer who never goes to court. Because he always settles cases outside with manipulations and dealings. I still think that’s a great idea. I actually thought that’s what they were gonna do. Then they kind of built more out of the tension and tone and storytelling of Breaking Bad, but took it in a slightly different direction with more overt comedy, and more internal idiosyncratic struggle of a person in more unique kind of scenario. Not that everybody on Breaking Bad isn’t a unique character – they are. I just think the Breaking Bad set-up is more universal. The idea of a mid-life crisis and simple money issues. The issues on Better Call Saul are really particular to a certain character. It’s only universal if you see it from a real distance and sort of watch it from the view of a character trying to find his place in the world.
I imagine they decided to make the show they did – with a similar tone to match Breaking Bad – to keep Better Call Saul in the same recognizable universe for fans.
You’d have to ask Peter and Vince why they ended up going in this direction. I do think it’s where they have spent most of their professional lives, thinking about people on this level, with this mixture of comedy and drama. I think the idea of a half-hour sitcom is just not something they would (ultimately) pursue. They probably abandoned that pretty quick. A procedural maybe seemed a little less intriguing. I will say, the show that we’ve done, Better Call Saul…it’s apparent that it could never have been made, and certainly never would have survived, if it wasn’t built out of the strength and appreciation that people have for Breaking Bad. It’s(Better Call Saul) just an incredibly unique – you might say “oddball” – show. We were coming from something so strong, and because the writing and the production of Breaking Bad had trained the audience to watch TV on a whole other level, and watch for specifics and small choices, were we able to do Better Call Saul. It (Better Call Saul) doesn’t traffic in big moves. There are one or two big moves per season and everything else is incredibly incremental. You have to watch it with a sensitive eye. Vince Gilligan and the writing staff of Breaking Bad deserve all the credit for engendering that kind of viewing from an audience.
Both shows started out lighter and became progressively darker. I think the key difference is between the main characters of Jimmy and Walt because Walt is a straight arrow guy who finds this darkness in him, whereas Jimmy has a love of the grift from the beginning. I think that sets the shows apart as well, and that’s why it doesn’t feel like you are repeating yourself.
Yeah, it’s hard to say if Saul Goodman is naturally a bad guy or naturally a good guy, who just has gifts that he’s misusing. I feel like Jimmy McGill is a good guy. He has a good heart. He can empathize with other people. He wants genuine love and respect. But in his reaction to his whole life, and to his circumstances, he’s chosen to play to his worst impulses. Saul is a construct of Jimmy McGill because it’s an easier way to interact with the world for him and get acceptance.
I’ve never felt like Jimmy wants to hurt anyone else to get ahead. Although that certainly happens.
Sometimes he wants to hurt his brother, Chuck. What’s that great Randy Newman song? I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do. (Laughs). Do you know that song?
I do. I love Randy Newman.
God, what a great song. So, sometimes he lashed out at his brother in a malicious way, but it’s really from the sentiment of that song, “I just want you to hurt like I do.” Otherwise, I think Jimmy is a really good guy, and if he could have gained any acceptance from his brother…you know, I think sometimes people do this thing – you can see it in friends and family or people you know – where you see they have skills and great energy, but they are putting it in the wrong place, and they are getting frustrated. You want to say to them, “stop putting your energy on that stage, go to this other stage where it fits perfectly, and you’ll succeed.” The fact that Jimmy wanted to prove himself in his brother’s world is an incredibly uphill battle, but it was made much worse by his brother’s resentment. His brother doomed it with his own bad mojo.
The most significant relationship in Jimmy’s life outside of Chuck is with Kim, played remarkably by Rhea Seehorn. It’s an incredibly complex relationship made of two people who seem to be outwardly different, but underneath has this desire to grift that’s less obvious in her character, but completely believable when it comes out.
I do think Rhea Seehorn owned last season. The whole season turned on her character and her journey. I hope to god she gets some awards appreciation – attention at the very least. Because she was really the prime character in season 4, and it was wonderful to see and be a part of. As complex as Jimmy’s character is, I almost feel like she might be more complex. She’s obviously got kind of a dark past. We don’t know it, but she’s open to the grift and swindling, and conning people, and yet she lives her life in a buttoned-down, straight-arrow way. She’s desperately putting all her energy into being a socially approved powerhouse lawyer in the white-shoe law firms of Albuquerque. She has a lot of mixed drives going on.
You do get the feeling of watching Kim and Jimmy together that they are the only two people in the world who could understand “Kim and Jimmy.”
That’s right. I love the scenes written last season and that we are shooting right now – there are even more scenes this season – where the two characters seem to have a real self-awareness about the challenges of their relationship. I love those scenes. We are shooting another one (like that) in a week and a half. It’s the greatest thing to have a character who knows their own shortcomings and can acknowledge them to someone that the character loves. The two people can hear each other, listen, and not react in a formulaic way, but more like real people. Take it in and try to deal with the truth that’s in front of them. They let us do that. The wonderful thing about it is we have those scenes. I think those more than any expression of love or affection – those scenes where they are honest with each other and listen to each other, you think, “wow, they’re a good couple and they can make it.” It’s one thing to have a crush on somebody. That’s not necessarily a long-term relationship. It’s another thing to be able to speak honestly and listen honestly to the person you are with, and make room for a different point of view, and stay together through it all. They are showing that with these two characters. Whatever happens to them – and I don’t think they’re together, ultimately – it’s just going to be sadder because they show the possibility of making it through all this.
I imagine there’s not a lot you can tell me about season 5, but I’ll ask this one question anyway. Are there any characters in the next season from the Breaking Bad universe that will enter Better Call Saul who we have not seen on the show before?
Let me consult my magic eight-ball. God, I’m not supposed to tell anybody anything. Come on! (Laughs). You know, you can put down that I wasn’t able to answer that.
A non-answer can be an intriguing answer.
It’s a non-answer. (Laughs).
Let me get to my most important question. I have seldom laughed as hard at anything as I did at the concept of a “Chicago Sunroof.” I have to know, did you guys invent that term? Because the Urban Dictionary only references it back to the show.
Yes. We invented the “Chicago Sunroof.” Peter invented the “Chicago Sunroof.” Well, I don’t know who wrote it, but I’m going to give credit to Peter Gould. But I don’t know.
Let me read the Urban Dictionary entry to you:
The act of taking a dump through an open sunroof into an automobile.
And here’s the example:
“Jimmy McGill gave a guy a Chicago Sunroof. Too bad he didn’t realize there were kids in the back seat of the car.”
Oh my god. What a thing to be known for. (Laughs). It’s a…it’s a great term. And I hope no one ever does it. (Laughs). I hope we didn’t give anyone any ideas.