Better Call Saul returned last week for its fourth season, pushing its narrative even closer to that of predecessor Breaking Bad. Production designer Judy Rhee talks about the challenges of echoing the iconic series while maintaining a fresh look for Saul.
After a year’s hiatus from television screens, AMC’s Better Call Saul premiered last week to series-best reviews. As Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) begins to plummet into the Breaking Bad narrative, the prequel series continues to stand on its own as a singular work of art. Talk to any of the cast or creative team, and they will tell you that Saul has to stand on its own as a complete television show. It’s a unique creation apart from Breaking Bad, and that’s exactly what they intend.
That’s not to say that there aren’t fun call-backs (call-forwards?) in Better Call Saul that reference many of the most iconic moments in Breaking Bad. Production designer Judy Rhee gets the opportunity to dabble in both worlds. She works with the creative team to imagine a completely different setting/world. After all, this isn’t Saul Goodman we’re talking about here. This is Jimmy McGill just beginning to develop that new persona. Yet, interspersed through Season 4 of Better Call Saul, you’ll find dozens of references to the upcoming Bad world, thanks to Judy Rhee.
It’s just all in a day’s work for an production designer at the top of her game.
For those that may not know, how would you describe the role of a production designer?
The production designer usually collaborates with the show runner, the writers, the producers to determine the look of a television show or a film. What that means is that you talk about the world that you’re going to create whether it’s going to be built sets or locations. Then, you hire the art direction, the set team, and so forth, and they all fall within the production designer’s direction as to what’s to be the look and the stylistic direction of the show or film. You really work to realize the look that the show runner has imagined for the material.
When you look at something like Better Call Saul, are there certain things you insert into the design or a space that influence what we know or think about the characters?
Absolutely. My design process – every designer works very differently – is to work from the inside out. What that means is that whatever is written or established about the story line or the characters, that’s the kernel from which you design. You want everything to look and feel as authentic as possible without distraction. I rarely make choices because it’s going to look cool. You always want to support the story first. It really is about visually helping to tell the story without being distracting.
One thing we’ve seen in Season 4 so far is Jimmy and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) live together in a clutter-filled apartment. What do you think that says about their emotional state as we kick off Season 4?
Well, we do start the season with their apartment filled with the remnants of their law firm that they abandoned in Season 3. There is a literal sense of why it’s there as this is where they’ve chosen to store that work. There is a visual claustrophobia to it, a visual disarray. We’re not sure where they’re headed in their career or personal lives, and so it’s a visual reminder that things need to get sorted out. Throughout the season, you will visually see the experience evolve and change – their relationship as well as the clutter. It does eventually change, but I can’t say more than that.
In the second episode, Jimmy runs a scam at copier office that’s filled with these fantastic figurines. That must have been fun to plan and assemble.
A lot of those figurines existed from previous seasons and kept by the prop department. That is a previous thread – the Hummels. For the space itself, we had to show a business, built in the 50s or 60s, that was in significant decline, so that was a lot of fun too. We took this raw space and gave it a lot of really interesting layers and timelines.
As Better Call Saul starts moving closer and closer to the narrative of Breaking Bad, is there a concentrated effort to visually echo the earlier series while making the new show a stand-alone event?
As in many shows, Albuquerque is a character within the show. Because it is a prequel series to Breaking Bad, it has to have a visual continuity to that world. Easter eggs are always fun, referencing something from Breaking Bad in Saul. It’s a lot of fun not only for those of us working on the show, but it’s also a lot of fun for the viewers. It’s always great to have that resource to pull from. In terms of moving forward, you always want to keep the continuity of the world. You never want to pull away from it so dramatically that it’s distracting. But you do, as the production designer, want to bring your own take on it and interpretation. Straddle the continuity while putting your own spin on things. The beauty of it all is that Albuquerque is such an interesting city that it gives you a lot of different takes on some of the same visuals.
Talking more about Albuquerque, there are a lot of shots of the desert in both series because that’s where all bad things happen. Are there any challenges in designing locations in a sparse location like that?
There are because you never want to show the same location or something that looks similar to a previous season or episode. It may cause viewer confusion as to where we are. What often drives the decision of where we film or what we use is the camera angles and storytelling. All of these things get considered and negotiated when you’re picking a location. What’s amazing about Albuquerque is that the production team continues to find all of these amazing places we haven’t used before. They’re still unearthing and uncovering locations when you’d think they’d run out after so many seasons of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad.
I want to close with a big question. One of my favorite scenes from the Season 4 premiere is the scene where Jimmy goes to Chuck’s burned-out home. Tell us about creating that moment visually.
That house has been established as the exterior for Chuck’s house. It’s a real house in a specific community in Albuquerque. The homeowner is lovely, and she’s been involved in the show since the beginning. She actually grew up in that house – her parents built that house. She had very sentimental attachments to it. So, we had specific limitations on what we could and could not do to create that burned-out look. It had to have a visual impact because [the scene] is quite traumatic and tough for Jimmy. Yet, it’s necessary to proper Jimmy’s story forward.
The burned house was created partially through light construction, a lot of great scenic work, and post-production. Some of it was done with CGI, and we designed something that would feel authentic to the story. It reflects how much time lapsed between Chuck kicking over the lamp and the time the firefighters would have arrived. We had to really think about how much wood would have burned on this particular 30s-style construction.
Better Call Saul airs on AMC Monday nights at 9pm ET.