Two time Emmy-winning producer-director-writer Thomas Schnauz has been awarded his twelfth nomination by the Television Academy as both a producer of Better Call Saul and the writer of “Bad Choice Road.” In our conversation, Tom and I discuss the creation of that remarkable episode, his path to the Breaking Bad universe, and what it feels like to see Better Call Saul heading into its sixth (and final) season.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the Breaking Bad universe?
Thomas Schnauz: Actually, I went to NYU with Vince Gilligan back in the ‘80s. I was living in New York and thinking about making a move to California, and I called him and let him know I was thinking of that move. It just so happened that at the time he and the people at Ten Thirteen Productions were starting a TV show called The Lone Gunman. So, he sent me the pilot for that show and asked me to pitch some ideas because I was familiar with the X-Files universe. And I pitched some ideas and he got me on that show. Breaking Bad actually came up through a discussion between Vince and I about a New York Times article I had read, which sparked an idea in Vince to write the show.
At the time Breaking Bad was going to go forward, I was offered a writing job on another show called Reaper. I got both offers at the same time, but Breaking Bad had not been picked up yet. So I talked to Vince and being an old friend I said, I want to work with you, what should I do? He didn’t think Breaking Bad was going to get picked up, so he advised me to take Reaper. A week later it did get picked up, but I had already accepted the offer on the other job, which ended up being great, but when Reaper ended for me, luckily there was an opening at Breaking Bad and Vince invited me to join the staff.
AD: You’ve written for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul both, and while they exist in the same universe there’s distinct differences in the shows, particularly in tone and especially in the earlier seasons. I think we’re starting to see those tones start to merge a little bit now. Can you talk about the difference between writing for Breaking Bad versus Better Call Saul?
TS: I see more similarities in the shows than I see differences. Right now the similarities are very obvious since we’re overlapping Mike’s world, which is fully entrenched in Gus Fring’s world and the cartel. I think in season one when we started the show we thought there would be more overlap from the beginning, but as we explored who Jimmy McGill was and what this journey was for him—from being the lawyer he is at the very beginning to being the lawyer he is in Breaking Bad—we just took a different road where we felt a little sorry for Jimmy and his circumstances, where if he had been given opportunities by his brother (or not even given opportunities, but if his brother hadn’t squashed certain opportunities) he’d be a very different character. A lot of the differences between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul started in Season one when we began exploring what this road was that turned Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman.
AD: “Bad Choice Road” culminates with that excruciatingly suspenseful bit between Lalo, Kim, and Saul. What was it like writing the “tell me again” scene?
TS: Writing it was a little bit—I won’t say a challenge, but you just don’t know if it’s going to work. On the page it is a character repeating the same story over and over and over, and as a writer, we’re trained to try not to repeat things. [Laughs] This is a scene where he repeats the same story three times, after having already told the story to Lalo in act one. So, I was sweating a little bit, like, boy, I hope this works. And I didn’t really know it was going to work until we got the thing up on its feet and had the actors rehearse. When they showed it to the crew, that’s the moment I felt like, OK—this is going to work, because I felt the crew’s reaction to the scene. Rhea and Tony Dalton and Bob had done their homework and rehearsed and knew the scene and they just knocked it out of the park. It was not really until that moment that I knew it was going to work. I thought, this is going to be good or it’s going to be a very boring and long scene with a guy repeating the same story over and over again. But once you see the faces of the characters, then you’re like OK, I understand what’s going on here.
AD: I talked to Tony Dalton right before the premiere of Better Call Saul this year, and he had already made an impression on the previous season, but obviously his role was so much bigger and so much more significant this past season. He just seems like a remarkable discovery. I mean, he’s been kicking around for a long time so it’s probably a little unfair to him to call him a discovery, but it has to be something to see an actor like Dalton take ahold of your scene like that and perform it so perfectly. The mixture of charm and menace—that’s a really unusual gift to be able to exude that so easily.
TS: I mean, we are blessed with one of the great casts of all time. I wasn’t aware of Tony Dalton’s work until he was brought to us and we saw his audition. We were wowed by his video tape audition and even more so once he started performing in season four. Just having him as a performer helped us in the making of season five, because we knew we had such a great talent with incredible charm. If you recall the scene where he’s complimenting Jimmy about how great he did on his wife—he delivered that line with such gusto, and it was one of those moments where you write something on the page and, you know, he just found something in that line that made me smile so much. He’s got such charm, like when he comes into the room and says, ‘I like it!’
AD: [Laughs] Right? I love that.
TS: And that was a scripted line, but he delivered it in a way that I didn’t really see in my head. It’s just such a bonus to have somebody with a charisma you can’t define—it’s what makes great actors great. I don’t understand how it works. I am not an actor, I can’t be an actor. But this guy, when he’s on screen, you watch and you’re riveted.
AD: Was it in the script to have Lalo go tap on the fish tank? That felt very menacing.
TS: Yeah, that was absolutely a scripted moment. Because that was all intended to get him in a position so that Mike could see him through the sniper scope. Not that you really want to tell actors where to go, but that’s a moment where I said to Rhea and Tony, ‘By the end of the scene I need you standing here so that Kim is in direct line of fire,’ so we kind of worked backwards from there.
AD: The tapping on the fish tank really adds to the discomfort of the scene. Not only for the characters and the audience, but for the fish. There’s a thought in your head that that tank could hit the ground at any moment.
TS: That’s one of those things that helps set the tone early. You have your hero, Jimmy, saying, ‘Please don’t do that. It’s not good for the fish’ and then Lalo gets up and does it again. That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care what you say. This is not going to go your way.’ It’s a small thing that really helps the tension of the scene.
AD: One of the things I love about Bob’s portion of the dialogue is that you can see him trying to think of other ways to add just enough sauce to each telling without giving up the lie and to convince Lalo that he’s not lying—even though he is.
ToTSm: We were basically building on what had happened earlier in the episode with Kim saying to Jimmy, I know you’re lying—something happened out there. And Saul brought up having to drink his own pee. This is just another version of that. Maybe that worked on Kim, so I’m going to try that on Lalo. He knows Lalo suspects, but he thinks if I just expands the lie by putting more layers on it and make it as real as I can. But by the third time he’s telling it, Jimmy is basically giving up—he’s going to break. I’ll tell you whatever you want, just let Kim go. He’s about to tell the truth, but Kim is the one who knows this truth has to stay hidden, and she uses her skills as a lawyer to tell a lie that is more believable.
AD: I think at the point where drinking your own urine doesn’t get you over the line, you’re pretty much shot.
TS: [Laughs] That’s right.
AD: Speaking of Rhea Seehorn in that scene, you can see during that entire conversation that she’s looking for her shot to come in and solve this. Early on, she tries to take it and Lalo gives her the hand. As the tension builds in the scene, she realizes she has to find another way in. When she does step in, she brings a certain amount of brio, but deep down, she knows she’s pleading for Jimmy’s life.
TS: Absolutely. She knows that whatever she says has to work. Because if Lalo doesn’t believe it and Jimmy cracks, it’s both their necks. She’s trying to save them.
AD: I love how enigmatically the scene ends. I wasn’t entirely sure that Lalo bought her story, but he was so impressed with the explanation that he decided to give them a pass.
TS: That was absolutely a discussion with Tony about that last moment. She’s pointing out that this is the guy who got the money and got you out of jail. What is possibly worth this torture right now? Even if he is lying, where do you want to go with this? Maybe something doesn’t add up in his story, but he didn’t run away with your seven million dollars. He brought every penny and got you out of jail. You’re home free. What is the point of doing this? Because if you can’t trust the guy who got you out of jail, who can you trust? She didn’t convince him that he was wrong, but she did convince him that what he was doing wasn’t worth it.
AD: You’ve been on this ride with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul for over a decade now. With next season being the last, what does it feel like seeing the end of the road ahead of you?
TS: I try not to pay too much attention to it. When this ends, it will be very sad. When Breaking Bad ended I was moved to tears. It was like losing a family member. We were like this group of people raising this child that everyone was responsible for, and you have to let it go. It was heartbreaking. Then I got this opportunity to work on Saul, and of course, I took it. I didn’t want to do anything else. If these guys call me up a year from now and say, we’ve got another one, I’m in. I want to keep working with this group of people, this family we have. I’m not ready to say it’s over. I’m trying to just focus on the episode we’re on.
AD: This is your twelfth Emmy nomination, and you’ve won two as a producer. Does it mean anything different to you to be nominated as a writer? Would it mean anything different if you won for writing?
TS: The awards are just gravy over top of an already great experience. It’s incredible to have people put a vote down for the work you’ve done. It’s also weird that you’re competing with other writers, and how do you measure one against another? I don’t completely understand it. I never thought it would happen. I remember having a conversation with Bryan Cranston on the set of Breaking Bad, and he had been nominated. I was convinced I would never experience the joy of having my own nomination. But if it didn’t happen, I’d feel just as good because I’d had this experience.