‘Better Call Saul’: Bob Odenkirk and Vince Gilligan on Bringing the ‘Breaking Bad’ Spinoff to Life

Better Call Saul Season 2
Chris Buck for Variety

COVER STORY: It’s late August in Albuquerque, and the “Better Call Saul” crew is relieved to have an indoor shoot day. All summer, the production has been plagued by freak lightning storms, causing unpredictable scheduling setbacks.

The high-altitude desert climate is hard enough to handle, with soaring temperatures that lead to dehydration; there’s also the occasional determined paparazzo. Aside from series star Bob Odenkirk, who’s in nearly every scene, the production’s medic might be the busiest guy on set, constantly reminding everyone to drink water and apply sunscreen.

So today’s location shoot, though a bit cramped, has everyone smiling — as, likely, will be “Breaking Bad” fans when they get to see it. It’s Loyola’s Diner — yes, that diner, where we see Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and the ever-so-charming Lydia (Laura Fraser) first meet.

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But there’s no Stevia in sight. “Better Call Saul,” which has been conceived by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as a prequel to “Breaking Bad,” is set in 2002 — before the birth of the artificial sweetener, and before Saul Goodman became Saul Goodman. That was just a made-up name, anyway — so here, he’s Jimmy McGill.

All involved — from the creators to the cast to the network and studio executives — know all too well they’re walking a tightrope. With “Breaking Bad” holding a rarefied place in the TV pantheon, the pressure is on for “Better Call Saul” to honor its predecessor’s legacy and perform well for AMC.

Now, after a difficult birth, Gould is ready to show off the new baby, which will open with back-to-back episodes Feb. 8 and 9, before settling into its regular Monday slot.

“I think I’m surprised in watching the episodes just how much I like Jimmy,” Gould says. “I always knew he’d be entertaining to watch. I didn’t know how much it would hurt when he gets hurt.”

The stakes are certainly high for “Saul,” but it’s worth remembering that “Breaking Bad” wasn’t an overnight success. The show now hailed as one of TV’s greatest dramas was a slow build over the course of five seasons that ended in September 2013; early on, it was on the fence for renewal more than once. Despite the critical hosannas, it wasn’t until the final season that the program soared to record ratings.

Given that fever pitch among fans, it was inevitable that the stakeholders — Sony Pictures TV, AMC and “Breaking Bad” mastermind Gilligan — would want to keep the magic going.

“They just told me they were doing (the spin­off), and I said, ‘Thank God,’ ” says Sony Pictures TV president Steve Mosko. “It’s been one of the greatest experiences of my career to be involved with ‘Breaking Bad’ — and now with ‘Better Call Saul.’ ”

Echoes AMC president Charlie Collier: “When Vince and Peter have an idea, I’m an investor. Period.”

But the road to getting “Saul” to the screen wasn’t as smooth as Saul Goodman’s silver-tongued spiel. Showrunners Gilligan and Gould, along with their star, grappled for a long time with the concept, while Sony and AMC wrestled over the deal for the show as Netflix and others were waiting just offstage to pounce on the property. And all involved struggled with just how much homage “Saul” should pay to “Breaking Bad.”

Collier asserts that “Saul” isn’t the sixth season of “Bad” — but the question is, how many viewers are going to tune in expecting just that?

It all started as a joke, dating back to the second season. A one-note character the writers had thrown in to solve a plot problem suddenly exploded in popularity. “Sometimes you come up with characters, and you don’t know how they’re going to play,” says Gilligan. “But very quickly with Bob playing Saul Goodman, we saw all kinds of possibilities.”

The back-and-forth between the producers and the actor about a potential spinoff continued throughout the run of “Breaking Bad.” “Whenever I’d see Vince and Peter, they’d say, ‘Do you think there’s a show there?’ ” Odenkirk recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Don’t ask the actor. An actor is just going to say yes every time.’ ”

As “Breaking Bad” was winding down, the joking turned to a serious conversation of what a program featuring Odenkirk’s character might be. Gould, the writer who birthed Saul Goodman, was the natural choice to take the reins of the project. Gilligan and Gould quickly got Sony’s sign-off, but they soon realized that the idea that at first seemed so simple was anything but. Was it a comedy or a drama? An hour or a half-hour? A prequel or a sequel? And more crucially, should they even do the show at all? For every “Frasier,” there’s a “Joey” and an “AfterMASH.”

“The easy decision would have been for Vince and Peter to walk away after ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” says Jamie Erlicht, Sony’s president of programming. “Truly they had conquered television. They had put on one of the best shows of all time. I know they struggled with that, because how do you outdo or equal ‘Breaking Bad’?”

Chris Buck for Variety

That question weighed heavily on the minds of Gilligan and Gould, who went for long walks around the block outside their writers’ room in Burbank. “It took us a lot of talking before I think we both felt firm enough that this was something that was worth doing — that there was enough story there, enough character there to make this worth our time,” Gould says.

At first, they came up with a version of “Saul” that was a half-hour comedy. “It would have been: You never leave the guy’s office, and he’s kind of a crazy, colorful lawyer,” Gilligan recalls. “And even more crazy, colorful characters come into his office, so that he is ultimately the straight man, and he solves their problems.”

That idea, though, soon stalled out creatively. Ultimately the showrunners realized they could mine more material in telling the lawyer’s backstory from a dramatic perspective. “It was hard-fought,” Gilligan says. “But it dawned on us, it really is more about the guy who is going to become Saul Goodman. He’s a striver, he’s an underdog, and he’s heroic in his own cockeyed manner.”

But while the producers were figuring out what the show was from a creative standpoint, AMC and Sony Pictures TV were having a tug-of-war of their own. It’s no secret that there was tension between the two in the early days of “Breaking Bad,” when the show seemed perpetually on the bubble. The cabler’s deal with Sony gave AMC the right to an exclusive negotiating window for any spinoffs to come from “Breaking Bad,” a standard component of series pacts — and the companies had a difference of opinion on the time frame for that window.

All this was taking place starting in early 2013, just as the final season of “Breaking Bad” was heating up, and the creators were still struggling with the concept for “Saul.” AMC suggested the team produce a pilot to help them figure out if the comedy format worked — which left some bristling on the studio side. The negotiations became protracted; meanwhile, the soaring success of “Breaking Bad” only increased the pressure to get the deal done.

As AMC and Sony wrestled over dates and other deal points, Netflix, FX, WGN America and other players let it be known that they would pick up the show in a hot second if AMC’s window passed without a deal. The threat of “Saul” landing elsewhere after AMC’s five-season investment in “Bad” provided the final bit of urgency to seal the deal. The order for “Saul” was finally confirmed in September 2013, a few weeks before the “Bad” series finale shattered all expectations, with more than 10 million viewers and a tidal wave of critical acclaim. (By June 2014, AMC would pick up a second season of “Saul,” bringing the total order to 23 episodes.)

Netflix didn’t come away entirely empty-handed, however, landing streaming rights for “Saul” in all of its territories, although it will have to wait until two weeks before the start of the show’s second season to make the episodes available in the U.S. “It’s a big bet, but as safe a bet as we’ve ever made,” says Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos.

Getting the deal done, though, proved to be only the first hurdle. Once Gilligan and Gould hunkered down in the writers’ room to start breaking the episodes, they faced a greater challenge: crafting a worthy successor to the original.

While the pitch for “Breaking Bad” has become legendary — “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” or what Gilligan calls “the million dollar pitch” — the one-liner for “Better Call Saul” was much murkier. “It’s what makes a Saul Goodman,” Gould offers.

Odenkirk says he didn’t find an answer to what the show was really about until late August, midway through production. “It’s a superhero origins story,” he explains. “The superhero is Saul, and his special power is his mouth, an agile mind and some stones. And instead of a cape, he has a yellow tie and green socks.”

Chris Buck for Variety

The Saul Goodman we meet in “Breaking Bad” is “truly comfortable in his own skin,” Gilligan explains. “So how does that work dramatically for a main character? Because the essence of drama is wanting something that you can’t quite obtain.”

Put another way, how do you turn a supporting character into a lead? How do you take a comedian and turn him into a straight man? Gould was troubled by one question in particular: “What is the problem that being Saul Goodman solves?” Time for more walks around the block.

In “Breaking Bad,” season two, episode eight, Saul confessed that his name was really just a play on words: “It’s all good, man.”

So in “Saul,” we meet Jimmy McGill as a struggling lawyer who’s yet to become the best worst lawyer in town. You can almost smell his desperation through the screen as he chases for clients and his next paycheck, yammering all the way. He doesn’t even have an office; he drives around town in a beat-up old car. And he’s under the spell of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), a far more accomplished lawyer at an upscale firm — though Chuck has his own issues: a yet-to-be-revealed condition that keeps him homebound.

“Much of it was trying to figure out how much of Saul’s journey we were going to get into in season one,” Gould says. “And we fought through probably pretty much every variation.”

Watching “Saul,” it’s easy to see how the spinoff almost became a comedy. Without the blazing self-confidence that comes to define him later in life, McGill gets himself into a lot of scrapes — you can’t help but laugh at him. “It’s not like he’s stupid, but he has blind spots that are caused by his enthusiasms,” Odenkirk says. He ricochets from one mistake to the next. Adds Gould, “Jimmy follows his bliss right into the buzz saw.”

Gilligan admits that the initial effort to define the show as delivering a certain percentage of drama vs. comedy was misguided. “I was one of the first guys trying to put a ratio to it,” he says. “But I was just kind of talking out of my ass. It really is its own thing.”

No wonder people have variously compared the show to “Nebraska,” “Fargo” and “The Rockford Files” on acid.

“The fun thing for (the creatives) was that the highwire act we played in ‘Breaking Bad’ of drama with a sense of comedy was now a highwire act of comedy with a real sense of drama,” Sony’s Erlicht says.

No one’s putting more pressure on Gilligan than he’s putting on himself. “I do my best to not spend too much time thinking about that,” he says, of living up to the “Breaking Bad” legacy. “And I’m always so careful when I say that because I would never want it to read like I don’t care. But the trouble is that I care too much. The only thing we can control, and we’ve been working our butts off to do just that, is putting on the best show we know how to create. Because there’s so much baggage that comes with any show that comes from a world of ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”

AMC and Sony, not surprisingly, say they are enthusiastic about the results. Execs at both companies saw their roles as getting out of the writers’ way. “Vince and Peter have earned the right not to get traditional notes,” Erlicht says. Plus, he adds with a laugh: “They have yet to meet a character they didn’t want to kill. So if we have any note, it’s to try to keep Saul alive.”

During a visit to the writers’ room in late summer, the showrunners are struggling to come up with a teaser for episode seven, which has somehow come in short. Gilligan gets frustrated as the debate stalls. “This is what happens in the room,” he says. “We pitch the same things over and over again.”

Then Odenkirk enters bearing a box of desserts, along with a few ideas of his own — including a “during ‘Breaking Bad’ moment.” The writers in the room all nod in agreement. Says Gould, “I love the idea of running between the raindrops during ‘Breaking Bad.’ ”

Rest assured, there are Easter eggs galore — we’ll be visiting more than just Loyola’s. In the premiere episode of “Saul,” from the first scene to the last, it’s clear the showrunners are going to be giving the devout some answers. “There are massively rewarding, holy shit moments,” Odenkirk promises.

Adds Gilligan: “Like ‘Breaking Bad,’ … people who watch the show loosely, just sort of eating a ham sandwich or listening to the radio, will enjoy it. But the folks who watch it really closely and pay attention to little details and nuances will get rewarded.”

Chris Buck for Variety

The showrunners also deliberately set out to make “Saul” look and feel different in as many ways as they could, from the cinematography to the direction to the pace of the show. “We made some really bold choices and we stuck with them, and I think they were the right choices,” Gould says. “But they’re definitely not what anyone’s expecting.”

That translates to a show that takes its time to reveal its secrets — and in contrast to “Bad,” has a distinct decline in the crime rate. “Maybe not every scene has to have a killing or a maiming or a chase,” says Sony’s president of programming Zack Van Amburg. “Maybe we can just live in some of the intricacies and the calm and quiet.”

But there will be a hitman: Mike Ehrmantraut is one of the few characters from “Breaking Bad” we’ve been guaranteed to meet in Jimmy’s world. That was an easy decision for the showrunners. “We both felt that there was a certain magic to these two actors in these two roles,” Gould says. “And I think just instinctively, it felt like a good match.” Not to mention that a lawyer might need a private detective at some point, from a plot point of view.

Back in the diner, Banks, as Mike, is holding court in one of the booths, over his usual breakfast of coffee and eggs. Unlike his verbose co-star, he doesn’t have a single piece of dialogue here, and yet his silence speaks volumes. He shoots a few takes, then breaks the crew up by hilariously oversalting his food. “Water for Jonathan, please!” calls out one of the crew.

Notably, we’ll get to see how the lawyer and the fixer first meet — which goes about as well as can be expected — which is to say, not well at all.

As with “Breaking Bad,” secrecy is paramount. So when it comes to discussing the plot, Banks is, naturally, just as taciturn as the character he plays. “Yes, Mike is the same kind of guy as in ‘Breaking Bad,’ but you are going to get a few insights into why he is the same kind of guy,” says the actor. “Mike still has his code. Mike has always had his code.”

As for “Breaking Bad” cameos, “Nothing’s off the table,” Gould says. Adds Gilligan: “The great thing about setting the series six years in the past is that really the sky is the limit. Anybody’s fair game.”

Talking to Odenkirk on set after a late lunch break, he’s sounding tired, for which he apologizes profusely. He’s struggling with balancing long hours and helping out his wife back in Los Angeles, who’s dealing with their two teenagers. “The show is called ‘Better Call Saul,’ and I play Saul, so I can’t be too surprised (about the workload),” he concedes.

He’s well aware that the pressure is on him to deliver in what Gould calls “the acting Olympics” — he’s got long scripts to memorize — though by all accounts, he more than delivers. Still, he can’t help but be self-deprecating. “I always joke with my friends that real actors who went to Julliard are going to be like, ‘How did he get this job?’” he says.

A sketch comedy writer who achieved cult status with HBO’s “Mr. Show,” Odenkirk has had to adjust to stepping into the spotlight and taking on the role of leading man. He does not covet the fame, the attention. “I lead a quiet life, I’ve got kids,” he says.

He’s quick to focus on the work of his castmates (“McKean’s doing the greatest work of his career,” he raves) and the skill of “Saul’s” creators. “I hope that the show is the star. Vince and Peter’s writing is the star. I’m not being asked to go out there with nothing, to sing and dance and put on a show. I’m playing a guy whose words, whose inner demons, whose motivations and intrigue are all scripted carefully and thought out by the two people who created him.”

Jimmy couldn’t be more different from Walt — which ultimately delights his creators. Gilligan admits, “I love Jimmy McGill in a way I never loved Walt” — who was, after all, a sociopath. “It was tough writing for that character, because he was a very dark individual,” he says. “If you have to put yourself in this guy’s head every day, it was a dark place to be. I’d be driving home at 11 o’clock at night, and I’d be like, ‘That son of a bitch just cut me off!’”

Says Gilligan: “I’d much rather have a beer with Jimmy McGill.” Agrees Gould: “You’re much more likely to get out of it alive.”

For AMC, much is riding on the success of “Better Call Saul.” With “Mad Men” winding down, the cabler could use another non-zombie hit in its stable. Collier is confident, though, that “Saul” will deliver.

“When people tune in for the first hour, they’re going to see some creative risk-taking, beautifully implemented by some of the best in the business,” he says. “The pace, the cinematography and the patience Vince displays as a director is as cinematic as anything you’ll see on AMC’s air, including some of the biggest blockbusters.”

Since the announcement of the prequel, AMC has been doling out teasers to fans on social media, who’ve been feverishly gobbling them up. A small clip with Mike, for example, got 24,000 likes on Facebook. Collier, though, is careful to manage expectations: “I remember vividly our launch night for ‘Breaking Bad’ season one,” he says. “It needed to build its own momentum, and we’ll be treating ‘Better Call Saul’ with the same respect.”

In the first episode of the new show, big brother Chuck says to Jimmy, “Wouldn’t you rather build your own identity? Why ride on someone else’s coattails?”

That’s a pretty good description of the biggest hurdle for “Saul,” too.