“Once People Decide Who They Are, They’re Impossible To Change” Thomas Schnauz Talks ‘Better Call Saul’
Known for writing AMC’s TV hit Breaking Bad, WGA award-winning TV writer Thomas Schnauz was poised to write on the spinoff series Better Call Saul. The show focuses on the eponymous Saul Goodman and his rise from a bumbling student trying to get into law school. Thomas spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about the process of transitioning from a flagship TV show to Better Call Saul.
There wasn’t a grand plan to generate a spinoff show after the grand finale of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season. There was no template. All the creators knew was that the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman was a story worthy of being told. Schnauz admits they exactly didn’t know what the show was going to be in its early stages. “We didn’t know if it was going to be an hour-long drama or a half-hour comedy.” If you watch the first four or five episodes of the first season of Better Call Saul, the TV writer stated, “we were searching for what the show was as we were breaking it.” The mission was to start with the characters and make them feel true and real.
They explored possibilities and allowed the show to breathe before finding its dramatic stride. Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan (co-creators of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) initially wrote a pitch document that contained some key elements of the new TV series. This included the introduction of Saul Goodman’s sick brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), whose deep relationship with his brother Jimmy McGill is rigorously tested and explored.
Once the TV writers started exploring Jimmy McGill’s character and Bob Odenkirk’s performance of playing him, Schnauz discovered “we really care for this guy.” It wasn’t simply of matter of good guy gone bad. The becoming of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman was more of a tragedy than the writers initially realized.
There’s a sweetness to Jimmy McGill that contrasts sharply to the slipperiness of Saul Goodman. “Slippy Jimmy has a really good heart while Saul Goodman is stone cold and evil. We wanted to explore what that journey.” The series evolved with the characters.
Avid viewers of Better Call Saul are familiar with the callous nature of Saul Goodman. Initially, the team behind the show envisaged the transformation “from Mr. Chips to Scarface” to be completed by the end of the first season. “Getting into the nuts and bolts of how good Jimmy McGill was, the love the brothers shared, and the intricacies of his character, it became a much longer journey for him.”
Tethered To Breaking Bad
Creating a spinoff TV show from its critically acclaimed source material brings its own set of challenges. Are you appealing to the core Breaking Bad audience expecting Breaking Bad – the sequel, or are you attracting a new audience by allowing Better Call Saul to exist in its own right as a standalone TV series? Clearly, there was a degree of attachment to the source material regardless of how Saul would evolve.
“It’s a daunting task writing a story and knowing you have a very specific bullseye you have to hit. The train tracks were laid so we were limited a little bit in where the story could go,” said Schnauz. Much like the story of the Titanic, the ship had to sink at some point. On the other hand, the main characters were already developed. “Breaking Bad has a rich encyclopedia of complex characters we could reference when generating Better Call Saul,” explained Schnauz.
During the opening two episodes of Saul, the writers felt compelled to heavily cross-reference Breaking Bad in order to ensure a smooth transition between the two shows. “There was also some panic on our part as we grappled with who was going to watch the show,” confessed Schnauz. The writers couldn’t simply assume the Breaking Bad audience would automatically tune into the spinoff show. As it turns out, Better Call Saul created a new audience that later went back to binge watch all five seasons of Breaking Bad to complete the viewing experience. “Looking back, maybe this throwback wasn’t needed, but it didn’t hurt us,” said the TV writer.
Creating Better Call Saul
We started off with the concept of the show’s main focus being Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s brother. The writers stumbled into the world of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his strained relationship with his brothers. “Crumb was a character like Chuck McGill, and his interaction with his brothers was something we looked at as we developed the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy.”
Then the performances of the lead actors started to dictate which direction the main characters should move toward. “Once we started watching the dailies of the performances of Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean, it really helped to shape the end of season one. We explored the jealousy and competition between the brothers as Chuck conspired against Jimmy becoming a lawyer while he was taking care of him. Michael brought a sense of pride and hubris to the Chuck character which didn’t initially think of, but later incorporated into the show.”
Chuck could not fathom how “Slippy Jimmy”, the troublemaker of the family could possibly become a lawyer after he had worked so hard to establish his own legal career. “This all clicked for us in the writers’ room in terms of how it was all going to work.”
Chuck and Jimmy McGill are definitely not heroes. “I suppose anti-heroes is the best way to describe them,” mused Thomas. “Michael McKean didn’t think of define as either the good guy or the bad guy. He thought of himself as doing the right thing and not having some chaotic character doing horrible things for the sake of creating chaos. This is how we viewed all the characters.”
Chuck always thought he was protecting the law and protecting society. That is how he justified his behaviors. In terms of the bigger question of Jimmy’s character, “Did Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman because of his brother or in spite of him? Hopefully, there are a lot of different layers to answer that question. How would the outcome have changed if Chuck has helped and supported his brother more?” These deeply philosophical questions are left to the audience to decipher.
Inside The TV Writers’ Room
Since the Breaking Bad writers were familiar with the mythology and storylines of the show, it was a natural step to bring them into the Better Call Saul writers’ room.
“The writers’ room based on Vince Gilligan’s and Peter Gould’s methods for breaking story. We all sit together, we talk about the characters, we talk about ideas and things you’d like to see. Then you write things on index cards and they go on the wall.”
It wasn’t a simple matter of one show continuing where the other left off. Many plotlines in Better Call Saul were born in Breaking Bad TV writers’ room, so the writers didn’t start with a blank slate. “At some point, we had to work out the starting point for Saul,” added Thomas. The writers were mindful not to lock down the show for as long as possible to give it time to rise.
The process of breaking stories was mainly linear unless a big idea came to the writers. “We have big ideas that we jumped to, but normally we go step by step. We don’t necessarily try to get to the big idea in a linear sequence. Instead, we let the story unfold until it reaches that point,” continued Schnauz.
“We get into each character’s head and ask what do they want, what do they need, and what are they going to do next? The answers are puzzle pieces that are put together. We don’t try to force anything. We let things move naturally and let the characters tell us where to go.”
The writing team behind the show is thankful to AMC and Sony Television who gave them the time to nurture and develop stories over a period of months rather than weeks. “We spent months talking about possibilities, characters, and stories before we started writing them. It’s a blue sky exploration and we look at everything. There are no good or bad ideas. We put everything up on the board before the beat by beat process of breaking story began.”
In terms of assigning individual episodes to TV writers, it was initially a matter of seniority. However, when the show reached seasons four and five, many senior writers also became directors, so the episode assignment process was mixed up a bit. Because the breaking story process was so rigid, any writer could technically write an episode. Once each episode was written, the writers would receive notes from Peter Gould or Vince Gilligan so the show has an overall consistency in tone and structure.
The time the writers were afforded, meant that having multiple TV writers simultaneously work on the same script was not present in Better Call Saul. Although writing by committee means that a draft can be written in a few days, having one writer per episode allowed for a tighter script.
Everyone in the room pitches in and you can’t remember who said what. “All the good ideas merge together into a collective brain. You have to let your ego go for the greater benefit of the show,” stated the writer.
Hooking Your Audience
TV audiences have long-loved evil characters whether they be Walter White, Chuck or Jimmy. “The way to hook the audience is to reveal the character motivation from a relatable point of view.” Jimmy does some bad things because his brother is against him so the audience is rooting for him to overcome them because Jimmy’s situation is unfair.
Consider Walter White who was dying of cancer and cooked meth to provide for his family. “Audiences got hooked into this idea even after Walter refused a lucrative, legal partnership. If the underlying motivation was to care for his surviving family after he had died, somehow it was all okay. Similarly, Jimmy does the things he does to protect Kim Wexler from the unfair practices of her boss Howard Hamlyn.”
If the audience understands a character’s behavior, they are invested and more likely to stay with them. “First, we explore the character motivation then we mine the underlying realities of their actions to blur the moral line.”
Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman was a long time coming. “The transformation was so slow that we faced a situation where Jimmy almost never became Saul,” joked Schnauz. There was a tidal wave of events that pushed Jimmy over the edge and finally made him crack. “The death of his brother was a defining moment because he thought he was the cause of it.”
He interfered with Chuck’s health insurance which somehow leads to Chuck’s death. Season four is layer after layer of Jimmy dealing with Chucks’ death. The pressure builds up so much and he cracks. “Once people decide who they are, it becomes almost impossible to break that.” This is apparent in the episode with the shoplifter. It becomes a moment of reckoning for Jimmy.
When Jimmy confronts the board to reinstate his license to practice law, he wrestles with his true nature. “He’s the perfect con. He has phony tears. He has this amazing power to fool people.” That was another pivotal point in Jimmy’s transformation.
The show bathes in a dark, muted tone most of the time. “I try to add as much comedy as possible to Better Call Saul, ” said Thomas. “Things get so dark so fast. Audiences need to have a release valve and laugh at something.”
Better Call Saul has been renewed for another season. Is there a grand finale in sight? “We have a final image of what the final episode might look like. It’s written on a notecard. Hopefully, we’ll reach it,” teased Schnauz.
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