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“Born from Breaking Bad” Screenwriter Ann Cherkis Talks ‘Better Call Saul’

“Born from Breaking Bad” Screenwriter Ann Cherkis Talks ‘Better Call Saul’
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When there’s an episode of Better Call Saul that needs writing, the producers collectively say “Better Call Ann.” Prolific TV writer Ann Cherkis chatted with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about her TV experiences and what it takes to build a screenwriting career.

The best part of my job is that I get paid to be creative,” beamed Ann Cherkis with a smile in her voice. “When I was in school, I never thought I could do it for a living. I guess I wasn’t confident enough to think that I could do that. In college, I flirted with the idea of applying to a creative writing program where you had to submit material and be accepted. I remember thinking, ‘No way.’ I just wasn’t there yet.” But she did get there eventually.

Luckily for fans, Cherkis found her footing as a TV writer. As a fan of HBO shows like Six Feet Under, she knew she wanted to tell stories about life and death. These days, she’s a writer for the AMC spinoff, Better Caul Saul. The TV show, which is a prequel to Breaking Bad, follows the trials and tribulations of criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill, before be leaned into his conman personality to become Saul Goodman.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Ann Cherkis

Despite her TV writing success, there wasn’t an epiphany-like moment where Cherkis felt like she had made it. Rather, there were various small moments of success. “I guess the very first time [I felt success] was when I got my first writing job and was being paid… or maybe when I joined the writer’s guild.

After working a day job as an assistant for a film executive for five years, the screenwriter was able to use some of her connections to find work as a writer. “It took me a long time to get to that point, but you then have to pay a fee to join the writer’s guild. I thought it was a lot of money, but I very happily scraped that up,” mused the writer. “I thought, ‘This is the beginning.’”

Thinking back on her favorite TV series, Six Feet Under, Cherkis said she loved the pilot and thought the last ten minutes of the series were brilliant. “These characters were living their lives in the shadow of the family business, which was death. I thought that was just a brilliant way of giving these characters a backdrop of comparison.

Ann was asked about specific moments in her life which shaped her outlook on life and her screenwriting. Cherkis’ parents got divorced when she was around 9 years old. This change had a major change in her life, but there wasn’t a direct comparison to her life with the TV shows she wrote for. Movies like Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ordinary People or Shoot the Moon had more of a personal effect on her life.

I tried for a long time to get staffed on TV shows, but it was seven years of, ‘Well, we love your writing, but you have no experience.’ It’s a catch 22. A lot of those TV shows were for network shows and that wasn’t a good fit for me. But cable shows and streaming allowed me to break in.

Cherkis got her start on the ABC Family TV series Chasing Life, where the creators (Susanna Fogel and Joni Lefkowitz) were coming in from features and cared more about solid writing rather than experience. “They gave me three episodes to write. It was a little scary because you have to write more quickly in television with less room for discovery. With television, you write the idea that’s going to be produced.

On set, Cherkis learned how to interact with showrunners, producers, and actors. “I just learned by doing. With Better Call Saul, I felt like a fan of Breaking Bad stepping into the writers’ room. I listened to Vince Gilligan talk about story and I was just living this dream.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

The Mythology Of Better Call Saul

Ann Cherkis joined the staff of Better Call Saul in Season 2. “It really began in the writers’ room of Breaking Bad as sort of a joke,” recalls Cherkis. “I think at some point, the writers started talking about pitches for Saul, but these ideas weren’t used. They joked they would ‘Save it for the Saul spinoff.’ That became a running joke.”

But, thanks to the major success of the TV series, the joke started to become more of a reality by the Season 5 farewell season of Breaking Bad. Credit for the spinoff goes to both Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. The series stars Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, along with other Breaking Bad stars like Jonathan Banks.

As Breaking Bad started to wrap up, Gould and Gilligan would take walks around Burbank [Los Angeles] where some of the show was filmed, and discuss the potential of the spinoff. “I think when they were in post, they would ask, ‘Well, what could this show be?’ I know at one point, they discussed a 30-minute case-of-the-week show. But, Better Call Saul was born in the writers’ room and it’s very different from the original idea.”

Breaking Bad was the story of a chemistry teacher who turns into a meth kingpin. For Better Call Saul, there is also a point where Jimmy McGill “breaks bad” and turns into Saul Goodman. But, the show still very much stands on its own. “They found the tone of the show in the first season. I think the difference is what Bob Odenkirk could do. They believed in his talent, but seeing him helped create his character.”

I don’t think anyone expected to love that character as much as they did. Bob brought something to it that he hadn’t brought to Breaking Bad, because the character was originally created for a little comic relief and to facilitate the other characters. They saw the depth and sadness of Jimmy. In television, you can bring the actor’s traits into the character and tailor the character to the actor’s strengths. This is also true for Chuck McGill, played by Michael McKean.”

Originally, Jimmy’s brother Chuck was meant to be a shut-in for Jimmy to take care of and to show compassion for Jimmy’s character. But, in the pilot, they realized McKean brought much more to the character. McKean viewed the character as a prideful man, forced to deal with odd circumstances and perhaps a mental disorder.

No one thought we would love [Jimmy McGill] so much and not want him to become Saul because becoming Saul meant he was losing this human, vulnerable part of himself. We know who Saul Goodman is, so Bob knows he has to become Saul, but he doesn’t necessarily like it, because it’s a tragedy. He has to lose everyone he loves and everyone who grounds him. It’s a fascinating journey.

Cherkis describes writing for television as a living, breathing organism. The writers were surprised by Jimmy’s vulnerabilities, his love for Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and the underlying goodness in the character. “He wants to be loved like we all do. I think what surprised everybody and what we learned is that he’s so deeply human. For that person to become Saul Goodman was difficult for all of us.

As somewhat of a reluctant villain, the writers are constantly working on turning Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, but it’s an uphill battle of transformation.

Today’s Writers’ Rooms

You hear horror stories about tough writers’ rooms, but I have not experienced that,” said the TV writer. “Yet, I mean. It spoils you to work with great people. In television, you are sitting in a room for months and months. It’s very intense and wonderful.”

As for today’s television landscape, Cherkis said she feels lucky to be in the business today. “There are so many opportunities for screenwriters and creators because of TV streaming companies. I know it’s not all good, but there are so many places you can take your material today. There’s also a lot of money out there.”

On the one hand, it’s an amazing time to be a TV writer and creator. Obviously, there’s a flip side, but this feels like the best time to break into the business. I would think it would be easier now than it was when I first started. That wasn’t that long ago, but ten years ago it was different. These TV streamers didn’t exist.”

The downside, as a viewer, is that it is very overwhelming. There is so much television and some people can’t deal with or begin to watch all of the content.”

There are so many other options. Established people are always working because there are so many TV shows. It’s hard to get people to commit and you would never think that. But they’re already booked on Game of Thrones or something. Even people who have worked with us before are booked due to their popularity. There are so many shows, so we’re competing for writing and directing talent. It’s a good problem to have for talent, but it can be stressful when we’re a few months from production and have not booked all our staff.”

Then, there are great shows on Netflix, but they can’t all be great. They buy so much that the concern, or problem, could be that buying show after show dilutes their brand. You are not always getting the quality you would want when you open your Netflix account. Viewers may move elsewhere. Nobody sets out to make a bad TV show, but it is what it is.”

Cherkis said there’s still a lot of room for women in the industry. Despite positive steps forward, there’s still a lot of opportunities for women to create, star, and write new films and TV shows. This is also true for minorities in the industry. “All of these voices are now getting a chance to be heard. The world is much more open to new voices.”

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