Hi, I’m Eric Conner Senior Instructor at New York Film Academy.
And I’m Aerial Segard acting alum and in this episode, we take a look at the career of Gordon Smith Emmy winning writer of Better Call Saul.
I’m going to be full of spoilers if you haven’t seen this. Get out now. I don’t care. I don’t. I don’t actually believe spoilers lessen anyone’s enjoyment of anything so I’m going to be spoiler heavy.
We’ll be talking about Better Call Saul we’re going to be talking about Breaking Bad. We’re not saying if you haven’t seen the shows like you know you can’t listen but you might want to watch a little Better Call Saul over I think it’s three or four seasons now. It’s basically. Really formed its own voice and Gordon Smith got to be there at the ground floor for Better Call Saul. Because he paid his dues on Breaking Bad as an assistant.
The sort of entry-level P.A. production assistant stuff. I was supporting both the editorial department so post and the writers department. It was everything from getting lunches and you know going on runs and at the time which doesn’t seem like it was that long ago but we were still distributing like dailies and cuts on DVD which meant that I had to like run them all over town and drop them off a different place so I do run to AMC and do runs to Sony and get the get get physical copies of DVDs and like make them burn them label them and then send them out all over town. The nice thing was that it opened up opportunities for doing stuff in the digital space for the show because the producers were very generous and were like hey we know you what we know you have these aspirations. Can you write this game for the website. Can you write this you know copy for the back of the DVD box or things like that. The big thing I would say about being a P.A. It seems everyone wants to kind of skip those steps. I did learn a tremendous amount. And you have a great opportunity to be like boots on the ground learning from the people around you and if you have a good attitude and do your job well they notice like everyone wants you to do that job well because it’s like you know it feels like it’s grunt work. But if you have a great attitude it goes so far towards people like looking at you and being like oh maybe I can give you more. You’re not sweating. You know I’m going I’m going to keep loading you up until you break essentially. So I was a P.A. And that was that gig. And then the Producer’s Assistant role a lot of it is maintaining sort of schedule for your boss and making sure that everybody who needs to get in touch with them can get in touch with them and also being able to prioritize when that’s the case because it’s like the president of the networks calling probably need to pull him out you know making judgment calls and just using your discretion and being somebody that your boss can lean on and kind of trust to make those kinds of calls and because of how he produced the show. You’re the primary line of communication between all of production and the show runner in this case. So like it meant that you know everything was props were coming in and all the things for review. All these questions from set. And again you had to kind of know everything’s burning so it’s like OK this is burning to this degree this fire is like here this. This fire’s like here which fire do I have to put out first because like this is somebody calling me telling me they absolutely need to do this. But it’s like somebody else has a need too so you’re kind of balancing like and being able to assess like in terms of what’s what where where. Every second you’re working someone’s time is burning and that’s all money that’s going down the drain so you kind of want to know where the most expensive fire is and like put that out. It’s usually production like if something’s happening and it’s holding up production you’re just wasting a ton of money if you don’t put that fire out.
I love how he starts talking to his students about the qualifications for P.A. And how hard of a job that is. It’s so essential for students to know that.
And also the paying their dues thing which is such a cliche and everyone hates hearing it oh you god to pay your dues kid right and it’s like we know.
And a lot of people don’t want to know.
God no. No one wants to. But I think part of it’s kind of like anytime you do a job showing up.
Showing up early you know.
Being on time.
Reliable you know. It’s like the very basics of not just this industry but any industry.
And it’s also the attitude behind it a lot of people think it’s beneath them.
And if you go in and learn the ropes I mean the knowledge alone that you get from that.
Right. And I mean he got to work with the writers sort of. Pre pro and you know in post and he was eager.
And because of that. They gave him more you know that was the thing that you prove yourself with this then they’ll give you this plus that you know you bring in fours coffee and then four coffees and a bagel but eventually that’s hey can you stay around you. What do you think of this line?
And just again that positivity goes such a long way and being able to talk to people and really listen too.
That’s the difference.
What you do as a writer’s assistant is I mean it varies from show to show. But for me it was mostly you’re taking notes in the room so you are taking down everything so people are talking and you’re trying to organize all the pitches and the pieces of dialogue and sort of get it in a form that remembers what the room was doing remembers what you know the 18th pitch on this on a scene looked like so that somebody could go through and be like yeah there was that piece of that one pitch that really works in the final form. And there’s this piece that works here. So you’re trying to keep tabs on all of that so that when it comes time for the writers to go out and we we work on index cards so like when a scene is broken. We write it down on index cards and put them up on a board. But those are very condensed. So it’s like you want to be able to read the card and go oh yeah there’s a piece of dialogue here. I remember it and go find it in the notes. You’re also you know you can be the keeper of continuity a lot of times and just knowing what people have pitched. What made it into the script. Oh yeah didn’t always have a piece of dialogue about this and it’s also sometimes just your first line of defense against bulls**t because it’s like you know someone will pitch something and be like what if there was a poison that did this and then it made this person do this and thinking just quickly search and be like is there a poison that does that. No that’s not really how that works. Is there a law that’s this. No there’s not really that. So just like a baseline. You can we obviously stretch to make make the story work we stretch all the time. But it’s like the sort of classic example is the the mercury fulminate in season two of Breaking Bad which mercury fulminate is, in fact, an explosive and it is that it does look that way but the amount that he had would not blow out those windows you know it just wouldn’t be that degree of explosive that kind of thing. So but it’s like there’s a truth there but there’s also like right now we want it to be we want it to be cool. So you know it’s that kind of knowing when you can boost the level to eleven when you got to play it straight. So it was very cool to be in that that room and just be a fly on the wall.
You know I talk in class about comic book store guy from The Simpsons. He’s the one who talks like. Obviously, this is a lie. That is not how the scene would have played out. Thank you. And by the way, if you go see a movie in Los Angeles you’ll you’ll there’s a fair amount of those guys in the audience.
There’s so many guys in the audience like that.
Some of them might even look like me. I won’t lie but in essence that’s like the writer’s assistant part of his gig was peculiarly because he had Breaking Bad which. Had a character as a scientist who’s a chemist. And so like trying to have. Enough of a science in there that it doesn’t feel fantastical.
Well, I always wondered that too. So many times you watch a movie you watch a show and you think to yourself the writers really either had to do their research or they’re really smart on the subject and you always wonder how far that goes. So it’s almost nice to know that they do. Wait you can’t have that that doesn’t work. That’s not how that works.
Yeah, it’s like there’s truth and there’s truthy and then there’s no truth whatsoever. And the beauty of Breaking Bad is you watch it you believe it.
Oh yeah hands down.
That show was so well put together. And the pilot episode if you if you only could see one episode watch that one. It really is a perfect pilot. And yet that show didn’t get popular for a while.
It didn’t. And it’s interesting how it took a slow start for you know my opinion and I’m pretty sure everyone agrees with me. One of the best series out there I watched the first season. On a marathon. I was hooked. Word of mouth. I told everybody.
And then all a sudden as Gordon Smith was explaining to us it’s like. The show wasn’t hit right away but it built up steam. And then it became. That show everyone was watching.
We were aware when things started getting more so. But when I started on the show no one knew it honestly in Season 3 which is when I started no one knew it. I was like I’d tell people it’s like Oh I work on this show and they’d be like Oh what what show I’m like. Well, it’s it’s on a channel you’ve never heard of. And then they’d be like OK what’s the channel they’d press and I’d be like well it’s the other show that the channel that Mad Men is on it and they’d be like oh ok cool. But they never didn’t they hadn’t heard of it hadn’t seen it and then it’s really started to kind of pick up in season 4. Like there was a definite curve where like people were picking up the show more and more and more and more and more and more. So I think there were a couple things. I mean it had gotten word of mouth and people were starting to sort of be like you know have you seen this no have you seen and then like that that word of mouth. And obviously we know there had been a bunch of Emmy nominations and some and Bryan had won consistently to that point. So it’s like that was out there. And also we got lucky in the timing because Netflix streaming really started becoming accessible and they put the first three seasons on and a lot of people caught up on the first three seasons before Season 4 and so they went into Season 4 going oh my god what’s going to happen from from the end of Season 3 which ends with the sort of semi-cliffhanger of of Jesse having shot Gale in the face. I’m going to be full of spoilers if you haven’t seen this. Get out now. I don’t care. I don’t. I don’t actually believe spoilers lessen anyone’s enjoyment of anything so I’m going to be spoiler heavy but Season 3 into Season 4 I think people were able to kind of catch up in a good way.
Spoilers let’s start there. I hate spoilers I can’t stand them.
But he just said it doesn’t matter.
He said that yeah no I just I don’t want to know anything and then I go into it in complete shock talk about Jesse killing Oh my goodness. Let’s relive all of Breaking Bad right now.
I mean it lived and died by those great twists and turns along the way.
And word of mouth got so strong there. Like he said Season 3 into Season 4 everybody was watching it. Everybody was talking about it. And still to this day when I hear someone hasn’t watched it I’m like I will sit you down right now and watch the whole thing with you all over again. And I have several times.
And I remember even during the finale it was like everyone knew. Don’t call.
No one called anyone no one texted.
Nothing on Facebook.
No you become like a bear you hibernate until 8:00 p.m. And this show came out of the mind of Vince Gilligan Vince Gilligan was on X Files before he created Breaking Bad and he wrote this terrific episode called Drive which starred Bryan Cranston and that’s how he also get that idea of like Bryan Cranston could play this role even though Bryan Cranston was known as the dad on Malcolm in the middle you know and.
Such a drastic change.
And what Gordon Smith got to do is he got to work with Vince Gilligan. And that’s one of the reasons Gordon Smith’s career is where it is now. He truly did learn from one of the best.
One of the great things about being a producer’s assistant was that I got to go to Albuquerque whenever Vince was directing which was a totally different experience it’s not just sort of being in the writers room which I knew the rhythm of a little bit but this was just like being thrown to the wolves and production was a very different animal. The pace is very different. So it’s just like OK what am I doing what’s what’s happening here. But watching some of those scenes play out like there’s a big scene where Jessie confronts Walt and it took it took a full day to shoot that and it was really challenging. And Vince was like trying to work with the actors and figure out what was working and what wasn’t working but something wasn’t clicking for him and so it was like. That was a really interesting moment to see like what this creative process was like and how grueling it was and how like small things were really making a difference. And. We had a similar thing with blowing Gus’s face off and like just getting all of the technical because that’s like that was like three different shots that were all married together in post because you couldn’t blow the door off and have a human like we had to do the door blowing off and then the dolly in and all of those parts were really challenging to make sure that they went off just right. And so it was it was this like marriage of like that. Precision of technique and the sort of overall artistic vision was great and really educational.
And if you’ve seen that scene of Gus’s face being blown off or half off right.
Half off yeah because he still had a little bit.
The best part he straightened his tie.
He did. Oh how did he live. Oh, wait he didn’t live really.
No no I don’t think.
That’s oh no he’s dead. OK.
So Gordon Smith got to be part of Vince Gilligan’s team for that and which meant seeing kind of everything work together to make this and then he gets the call.
They say hey you’re ready for the major leagues. You know and lo and behold he went from being a writer’s assistant producer’s assistant. To actually being a writer.
How amazing would that feel. To get that call and be able to just slip into that new role. The one that you’ve been dreaming of. But he does talk about. What that means about losing all the different responsibilities and being able to just focus on the one.
The transition was fast as they say it was like one day I was Vince’s assistant and the next I was not it wasn’t hard to get into the room in the sense of like you know I’m here and everyone’s talking about the story I’m going to talk about the story but I used to I used to know everything like as the showrunners assistant I knew all the information that was going out to everybody I was in like just sort of in the mix of everything and then suddenly I wasn’t I was only involved and only had to do the story and it was like I don’t. I have no idea what’s going on with production. I don’t know what’s going on with hiring directors I have no idea what meetings are going on. And that was a little weird for a few months and then and then I just forgot about it and was like I don’t care anymore. I don’t I don’t need to know that. Honestly better people than I am are handling that stuff. Now in terms of breaking the story and what we do we work very slowly. We’ve had the luxury of kind of a lot of time. We work much slower than a lot of rooms which is great. So yes so we get into the room and usually, it’s like we spend two to three weeks maybe just sort of blue skying and being like alright. Where did we leave things and what does that do for us like where can we go just ideas about characters and where they could go and what we could do. We really don’t do what a lot of shows do. We don’t really break a season like we we will have ideas about where things could go. We don’t lay them out. We don’t kind of set end points or we will kind of lay them out on a board and just be like this. Maybe this maybe that but like big guiding lights that we’ve had often change and move and like they almost always come faster but sometimes they go slower than we think they will. And that was the same on Breaking Bad. We had a ton of ton of things like that that were just like we had a line we kept thinking what’s going to happen. Where like when Hank finds out that Walt is dealing and confronts Skyler that she was going to be like well take your best shot if you think you can take my husband down and we were like That’s really cool that would be really interesting to see the two of them together like that and fight against Hank. It’s like we just never got there. You can kind of see how it guided into the show like some some sense of that but we never got literally to that plot point which I think is it’s a virtue of the way that we tend to work because it’s like we have ideas and if if wherever we we think we want to be and where we are don’t match up we’re just like well this is what we do. We don’t we don’t say well we have to get to such and such a point by episode 5 so we have to do this this this and this to get to that. It’s almost always sort of I feel like it’s backward looking. So it’s like what have we done and where are the characters. Where do they most logically go next. And that has served us in good stead because I think it allows the opportunity to like investigate things and pull them forward and be like oh you know we have this moment. What is that? What can we explore that more. It’s fun and I think it is. It is. It feels like you’ve planned to do something like Ah that’s paid off here but it’s like no we just kind of looked at what what actually ended up in the show and sort of asked what it means for down the line and then and then you know when we get to it we get to it it’s mostly like okay you know this character’s here and you know Mike’s here we know he does these things in the future. Is he there yet. No, he’s not. Doesn’t feel like he’s there yet. OK well, what could get. Is there something? What are the intermediate steps that would get you there? OK well, we need to get something like this or something like this that would move that character. It is a little bit baffling because we have the backstories of these characters that we’re exploring as well as knowing that there’s this whole lump of Breaking Bad that informs all of those decisions that we want to make sure are like fit. And then there’s because Saul Goodman survives Breaking Bad. There’s also after. There’s a period of time after Breaking Bad that we set stuff so we have these different we have. We have a bunch of different time periods that were like trying to keep keep keep in order which our writers assistants and our script coordinator and our other our assistant staff has done a great job like keeping track of.
I love how he talks about taking their time to investigate the characters really taking their time and not having to rush to get to a certain place and to really investigate.
And also too like what’s interesting about Better Call Saul it’s kind of like that’s a train that’s going but we know eventually that train’s going to link up with the train that is Breaking Bad and in Better Call Saul though they also show you a little bit of Saul’s fate after the events of Breaking Bad. So yeah I mean it’s lot of tracks they got to keep track of and you know this is the issue of a prequel. You know prequel’s like you’re beholden to what comes after you and we’ve already seen all that. How do you keep it interesting when we know the endgame. And I think Better Call Saul has shown years in that they’re able still to surprise you because it’s so rooted in him. And basically, that’s been their compass.
Yeah. You know where you’re going to go but yet you have so much story to tell.
Yeah. A lot of room to play and the writers found that even the actors would help them with the work they already did on Breaking Bad. There was only so much backstory that had ever come across in that show so they had to make a lot of this stuff up from whole cloth. And so it was up to the writers and also even in some cases working with the actors to figure out what made Saul Saul.
Actually the stuff that that we’re sort of given as back story for Saul or like ideas for Saul which or rather backstory for Saul that are not things that he says in the course of Breaking Bad but even those we’ve we had taken liberties with because we’re like oh is there a way to make that the thing that he says in Breaking Bad. True is it absolutely true on its surface. But the way it actually comes out like there’s the line where he says in Breaking Bad you know I once convinced a woman that I was Kevin Costner and it worked because I believed it. It’s like I read the line it worked because I believed it and then we see him kind of pull that off but it’s not actually the way that we would have thought in Better Call Saul he does pull that trick off. So we we’ve done some adaptation. We didn’t really have much of a backstory for Mike at all. We knew certain details from like one interview with Hank. I think and we took those and we sort of went OK well we know these things are true. Jonathan Banks had approached us and was like you know that woman who waves at me and is there with Kaylee. I don’t think she’s my daughter. I think she’s my daughter in law. And he’s like and I think and you know at that point we knew his son wasn’t around. We’d never seen him. We’ve never talked about him. None of that. So we’re like OK. And so he had pitched that his son was a boxer who died in the ring and he was like Yeah I really think that this is this is this idea and he just pitched it and he’s like Yeah this is what it was something that he was kind of working on as an actor. He was like this is sort of what I’m working on as my interior life for what where I am and my circumstances. And we went that’s cool that’s interesting that’s an interesting way to think about it. And then we started talking about it we’re like well maybe there’s something there about the son and maybe the son the son certainly seemed to be dead because it seemed like he wasn’t there in Breaking Bad. So we started asking those questions that obviously led to the episode. So we’re very liberal with sort of understanding we didn’t have that much to go off of except for sort of like the established pieces of information about them that they’d said and even then we’re still trying to grapple with like OK is that real? Did do we have to take that as canon do we have to take that literally. Is that true? Is that a lie? Is that someplace? Is that a poetic truth? So we’ve been trying to get as flexible we can basically.
It’s cool to hear that the actor’s personal choice for the character’s backstory helped inform the writers and they were open to hearing that and working with them to get there.
And also to these actors that already played these characters for years. You know so it’d be kind of silly not to talk to the actors but yet not every writer director has the same kind of trust and confidence. I wish we could say that it was that was the case but it’s not and you know the thing they came up with Mike’s backstory where Mike’s son was a cop. And Mike was as well and the actor he basically does a monologue about what happened to his son. And it is the most heartbreaking scene.
Boy was stubborn. My boy was strong. And he was going to get himself killed. Now I told him I told him I did it too. That I was like Hoffman getting by. And that’s what you heard that night. Me talking him down him kicking and screaming until the fight went out of him. He put me up on a pedestal and I had to show him that I was down in the gutter with the rest of them. Broke my boy. I broke my boy.
All of that came from the actor doing his own take on the character with one little exchange.
From one moment of Breaking Bad which beget this beautiful beautiful speech that got Jonathan Banks an Emmy nomination.
And Mike the character is such a relatable character and but also so interesting so many different levels and the way he plays it is beautiful.
He does not say much. And he doesn’t need to.
He doesn’t need to.
And I think this writer’s room from the way Gordon Smith describes it they have a really open communication between the directors and the writers and the actors to make sure they’re being true to the story even if they’re maybe tweaking it from where Breaking Bad was.
Which allows the writers to have the freedom to fail as long as they try.
And failing’s ok.
Because from failure comes.
I was going say more failure but success sounds so much better.
For me it’s knowing the room and also knowing the room and not being afraid to be wrong like or to be contradicted like you’re going to think OK here’s this pitch and I can see it in my head and it’s perfect. And then you pitch it and then it kind of it either comes together or you feel like you pitched it perfectly or not but like maybe it doesn’t get a response. And it’s like sad face but whatever you know you can if it’s if it’s really perfect you can come back around to it if it’s really perfect. It’ll be the thing that somebody else will come back around to and like be like well what about this thing that you know we didn’t we discarded as a thought. So it’s kind of to me it’s really good about not being precious about it you know just be like hey here’s a thought you know what if we did it this way also that even that even that language is great. Like what if we. Well here’s the bad here’s the bad version is a great one because you’re trying to because then you’re you’re saying look here’s the architecture that I’m picturing I’m picturing you know this this thing and you may not be able to pull up the like the perfect polished version immediately but if you can pull up here’s the architecture it’s the bad version would be blah blah blah blah blah. It’s like you know it’s a super cliche version but you you get the idea. Like is there a world where this happens. It also helps people kind of not feel defensive and not feel like they’re judging it’s some it’s tricks that are sort of like improv based tricks almost to like keep people going OK well let’s play with that let’s think about that and if you know people will have to reject things like You’ll probably reject things they’ll reject things but it helps make it feel like it’s you’re just you’re just building hey we’re just playing. We’re just talking here when it becomes more confrontational it becomes more like. I actually tend to be fairly argumentative myself like in my personal dealings with life. And so like if somebody starts arguing with me I’m just like I’m going to f**king destroy you I’m like it just I can’t help it and I have to remind myself no no no it’s just we’re just having a conversation. No big deal.
You know one thing he said and this is an expression I use in writing class too is you can’t be too precious about these things. If you treat your first draft like it’s awesome. Like I just came up with perfection. You’re not going to be much of a writer. See how it plays you know say a line. It’s great at 2 a.m. when I was writing it on a cocktail napkin.
But being open to someone coming back and being like Well what if we try.
Yeah yeah, there’s an art of giving a note and there’s an art of taking a note and no defense. As an actor too you know this it’s like you get notes from the director or you don’t put up a wall or a shield because in that room if you start to put up the wall you’re not gonna hear anything you know. And in a collaborative medium like TV where you have a writing staff. It’s a team. It’s not just one player.
And just not again just not being afraid to be wrong when you pitch an idea. And being open and on Better Call Saul. Gordon finally got to see his own episode which was awesome and I wonder how he took any notes.
This was my first produced episode of television. It’s it’s fascinating. It’s like as the writer on set you’re kind of the emissary of the writer’s room so you’re there to answer questions and kind of make sure that the tone and the feeling everything that was kind of discussed because you know we discuss these things for hundreds of man hours right an episode if we spend two weeks with 10 people in the room which is more than we do but you know you’re you’re there for a long time and you’ve got the collective wisdom of all of that work where you know production gets the episode eight days before shooting and they have eight days to prep it and then they’re in it and then they’re shooting at a pace to try and get it done in eight eight days. So it’s like they’re they’re they’re great people but they’re they’re working at a speed and they they only know they only know up to the episode that they have. So you’re there to be the kind of representative of everything and be the eyes and ears and voice of the of the showrunners to the to the degree that you can so that if something looks like that that’s not a choice that we want to make not because it’s a bad choice just because it doesn’t actually feel like the thing that was discussed you step in and be like could we maybe try this you know can we maybe block this slightly differently. When when I look at that blocking it doesn’t tell the story that we need that piece to tell for the future or for what it is or for the the tone is wrong. Usually the director’s your point person or maybe one of the other producers like one of the dedicated kind of on set producers or something like that. It’s it’s gauche to go straight to the actors and be like like let me give you this note. I know there’s a director but like you know give the spirit of it because you should be able to give the spirit of the note in the same way that you would to the director as you would to the actors which is like here’s what I’m trying to here’s what I think is missing. Tell them that and then they’re free to be like. Well I think I’m envisioning it differently in terms of how I’m cutting they’ve spent more time and more energy probably hopefully in sort of envisioning the shots and how things are going to cut together. So you want to trust that these professionals who know what they’re doing so you know tap into that resource. But but yeah it’s an interesting process.
I just think it’s interesting that the production only has eight days to prepare and they only have up until that episode like hesaid. So it’s interesting to know how much they have to put their faith in those pages that are in front of them. And then with the writers show runners being on set. And being able to be kind of the voice behind and in front of those those pages I find it fascinating that it’s such a team.
And to put it in context too a show like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. I mean they’re really cinematic stories like they’re not. It’s not just a multicam sitcom shoot. You know these shows like they they look like movies our TVs are bigger now and they’re they’re flatter and they’re more beautiful and so they have eight days and meanwhile a movie might have months and months to shoot two hours they have eight days to put together 45 minutes 50 minutes maybe even more. It’s a lot. So yeah the page has to have it. And when we’re talking of Gordon-Smith you know and his contribution to the show he wrote what for me is the best episode of Better Call Saul chicanery which is from season 3 and this one scene nails it.
I’m not crazy. I know he swapped those numbers. I knew it was 1216 one after Magna Carta as if I could ever make such a mistake. Never never. I just I just couldn’t prove it. He covered his tracks. He got that idiot at the copy shop to lie for him.
Mr. McGill please you don’t have.
You think this is something you think this is bad. This this chicanery. He’s done worse. That billboard. Are you telling me that a man just happens to fall like that. No he orchestrated it. Jimmy. He deficated through a sunroof. I saved him. I shouldn’t have I took him into my own firm. What was I thinking. He’ll never change. He’ll never change. Ever since he was 9 always the same couldn’t keep his hands out of the cash drawer but not our Jimmy couldn’t be precious Jimmy. Stealing them blind. And he gets to be a lawyer. What a sick joke. I should have stopped him when I had the chance. Do you have to stop him.
Michael McKeon who started as a comedic actor.
I didn’t know that.
He was in Spinal Tap, Laverne and Shirley.
Oh oh he was.
Yeah yeah. So he’s he comes from comedy.
I knew he looked familiar.
It’s perfect drama you know two-minute monologue he gives and Bob Odenkirk same thing. Humongous comedic actor and writer long before Breaking Bad. Mr. Show which is a wonderfully naughty comedy that was on HBO variety show. And yet these comedic actors show such great dramatic chops.
Like we always say you know there’s comedy in drama but it’s the way that these characters go about each word. You believe every single thing that they say even if it’s something that’s supposed to be funny you know the seriousness because it means something to them you know it’s their character their choice and the reason why they did that they have a back story. They have a reason why this character decided to do it. But especially with Bob. Oh my goodness. With the way that he just so gracefully he’s so subtle in the way he does it.
Bob is an incredible writer and stand up and comedian most of his Emmy nominations to date have been for writing and he’s actually incredibly respectful of our process. He’ll come by once a season and just like have lunch with us. But he never wants to know we never pitch him. He doesn’t want to talk about the show or he just was like he just wants to check in with us and be like hey you guys do what you’re doing and we’ll perform it once in a great while there’ll be some scene where it’ll be like maybe we’ll let you know we’ll let Bob loose for a little we’ll ask we’ll see if he’s ok with just like going going on a run if he’s there but he’s actually better in those circumstances if it’s like here’s the sense of it and then in production like a production meeting or a tone meeting we’ll be like if Bob feels like it let him go. And occasionally he’ll be like hey you know this scene is great. What if we did. I feel like we’re missing a chance to do that kind of riff and it’ll be like OK we’ll try and write something or give him something to work from. I think it also really helps just to know. I think this has helped with a lot of people it helped certainly with Bryan Cranston as well. But it’s like knowing that any range any emotional range is available. Can Bob do comedy. Bob can do comedy. Like Bob is a comic genius. So like if we want to do something funny great and he’s going to be able to kind of land it so we can write to that. If we don’t want to we feel confident with that too. We also know that if we’re like hey this would be funny. And he’s like eh it’s like oh we don’t want to do that. That’s not funny. It’s not it’s it’s not passing the test you know. So I think it does give us some some tools in our kit basically but far more often than not. It’s all really we don’t do a ton of like very very minimal improv or off script it’s like it’s very small and they’re all of the actors are very respectful of that.
I was just thinking how often I watch a show or a movie and it kind of sounds like maybe they improv’d a little do you when you write. Do you often have those times or you think oh maybe if the characters want to take a little liberty.
Well, I think inherently when you’re writing dialogue part of you in the back of your head is always like OK well someone’s got to deliver this. So even if you think it’s the best line ever like it’s got to come out of someone’s mouth in a way that doesn’t seem like. I came up with it or some other writer came up with it but that they just thought of it. So you know kind of going back to what Gordon said about not being precious. I think that’s part of it. It’s like. Have enough confidence in the work you’re doing that if they change it so be it. And you giving them the freedom to let a scene play to let a scene breathe. You watch a Better Call Saul episode. There’s not that many scenes. You know it’s so different than any other show and Gordon Smith described how like it has affected his style as a writer. Being in this environment that says it’s OK let them talk like we don’t have to cut away so fast. That’s cool. But it’s very specific to this show and as Gordon Smith described like it has set him up as a different kind of writer than if he was on a different show besides these two.
I think it’s impacted my writing style more. I think the sort of house style on both shows irrespective of the content it’s slightly different than some shows that I’ve seen. It’s very like. Because there’s a lot of psychological nuance for lack of a better term in how they’re in like what the dramas are about the dramas are so much about like who are these people you know like what are they thinking. So there’s a lot of liberty that I will now take that I’ve learned from this the house style of like not being afraid to throw in a slug line that’s just a purely emotional state that’s like here. This is what they’re thinking so that you know what we should be feeling. So it’s especially because we’re our production is so distant from the writers office. It helps communicate to the people that are reading it blind like what are we supposed to be doing here what is what is the feeling of this scene that you might not get from just the dialogue what’s the like. We’re not going to have a chance to run this thing over and over and like workshop it or hope it hope that it gets there we need to know really what are they kind of what’s the what’s the arc what does it look like. You know hopefully it’s not necessarily being like and they’re feeling this at this point that’s bad writing but like if you can kind of come up with a way to to explain sort of an emotional state or how something impacts what’s landing at a certain point that I think has been really useful in my own writing I’m much less invested or I don’t do a lot of like the sort of like criminal world kind of stuff that or even the legal world that we do on Better Call Saul they’re not things that I usually do on my own but that sort of style is something that I think has been really liberating to just be like oh you know if you need something if you need to call a shot. We call shots all the time. Not even because it’s the sense of in that same way. It’s not like telling the director we need this shot. Sometimes it is but more often it’s like here’s an idea for a way to open this scene. We’ve had a little bit more time and a little bit more luxury to give you a sense of what kind of shot might give us the feeling that we’re looking for for this scene. So we’ll include it and if you know the conversation with the director they’re like yeah do you really need that shot. Oh, we just thought it was a cool shot. Do you have another one? Yeah, I was hoping we could start it this way. Great start it that way. We don’t care like it’s it’s but it’s a baseline to start a discussion of like. Here are some ways to see this or like here’s a shot that might be cool and obviously there’s a series of meetings that we have where you talk to them and then can have those discussions so so that’s helpful.
What’s unique about TV versus film is like film the director kind of drives the boat like we all know Michael Bay did all those transformers but can you tell me who wrote them.
Yeah, that’s true.
In the case of TV it’s very different though because the directors are almost like hired guns. And part of the skill of being a TV director is you gotta be able to come in and that crew’s work together and the writers have worked together. You’re the new kid.
And yet you’re the one calling the shots.
It’s interesting because you hear in class about how you know don’t write. For the director, you know.
Yeah, don’t direct from the page.
That’s right. That’s right. You should be telling that part your the writer.
I’ve told so many students no no don’t over direct it and then he just said it’s OK to direct it a little.
It’s ok. A little bit of that. It was interesting just to know that they have that ability to do so and they take advantage of it when they can.
Well like they have such great cinematic quality in that show so clearly they’re getting really good directors so they’re both elevating each other you know. And it’s funny all this talk of Saul it’s like. OK. When is the new season. Do they know where they’re going. You know all these questions.
We’ve waited long enough.
It’s that question of then for Gordon Smith. Do they have a whole roadmap of where this show’s going to end or not. And his answer was a little surprising.
Vague a little vague too they know where they want to go. But again taking the time to find out these beats it’s exciting to hear him talk about it.
Process of discovery in that writer’s room.
We kind of make it up all along. We have some hopes. We have some stuff that we’re like oh we can do this. This would fit in really nicely. I have a couple of things that I really hope we get to. But by and large we haven’t nailed that down. It’s like building the railroad and you kind of want to make sure all of the spikes like that that you’re not building like this that they’re all going to go kind of connect at the right points. So I think before we can kind of be like OK we’re definitely going to land here we want to make sure that we’re kind of heading in the right direction but we definitely love those and we want to make sure that we pay off the right now. The character of Jimmy McGill and the character of Saul Goodman they’re not the same person they really feel like different people to to us when we talk about them and so we’re like OK how do you get this guy. This guy to this guy OK we’re a little closer. OK we’re a little closer we’re a little closer. So we want to make sure that all of those points along the line match up.
What an incredible opportunity for an actor.
I’m Jekyl right now but soon I get to be. Hyde.
Have you made it to the end of this current season.
I have not. I’m well on my way.
I’m so tempted just to spoil it now just just so you all no suffice it to say by the end of this season. The road from Jimmy to Saul is much further along and what’s really interesting what they do with Mike because Mike’s a different Mike in Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad. So if at this point you guys have not received any new reasons to watch Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul then I guess we really haven’t done our job.
We failed you miserably. But if nothing else you definitely got a reason to really appreciate Gordon Smith.
Humble dude. You know.
Humble dude, I loved listening to him talk too.
Emmy winner and he’s talking just just like regular folk.
Like us folk.
Yeah us back home folk. It was so great hearing him speak and I know the students got a lot out of it. I hope all of you guys listening did too. So thank you for sticking with us as we geeked out.
A little bit. We held it at bay.
As much as we could. As much as right like the dam can only hold back so much water here. But thanks to all of you guys for listening.
Thank you so much for listening.
That’s Aerial Segard.
And that is Eric Conner. And this episode was based on the Q&A moderated by.
Was it David O’Leary. It was David O’Leary by the way check out his TV show Project Blue Book on the History Channel. Tuesday nights.
To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As check out our youtube channel at youtube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy.
This episode was edited and mixed the whole show by Kristian Hayden our creative director is David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Hayden and me.
Executive produced by Tova Laiter Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible.
To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
See you next time.