Q&A

Hoping for a breakout hit with 'Better Call Saul'

'Better Call Saul's' Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and AMC's Charlie Collier discuss 'Breaking Bad' spinoff

Just over 10 million viewers witnessed the demise of Walter White on the final episode of "Breaking Bad." It was a triumph for creator Vince Gilligan, who was given a free hand by network AMC to tell the Mr. Chips to Scarface story he envisioned.

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FOR THE RECORD:

"Better Call Saul": In a Q&A in the Feb. 1 Calendar section about the new AMC TV series "Better Call Saul," writer-producer Peter Gould said the character of Tuco (played by Raymond Cruz) on "Breaking Bad" was killed in Episode 2. He meant to say Season 2. —
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AMC's president and general manger, Charlie Collier, was pleased as well. The patience he showed with the highly praised but slow-starting series paid off. But how do you capitalize on those accolades (and late-to-the-game rabid fans) after you've ended the show and killed off the main character at the height of its popularity?

Collier, Gilligan and Peter Gould, the writer-producer who came up with the morally suspect criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, recently sat down to talk about how the strong relationship they developed during the "Breaking Bad" run led to the making of the beloved series' spinoff, "Better Call Saul," which premieres Feb. 8.

Here are excerpts of their conversation.

Bob Odenkirk's character, Saul Goodman, is what TV people used to describe as a breakout character. But he wasn't even conceived until the second season of "Breaking Bad." Was there a reason behind bringing him in?

Gilligan: We felt we needed to leaven "Breaking Bad" with a bit more humor. That was always a concern of mine, going back to the earliest days, because I'd seen some very fine TV shows that were very good but were very dark and failed to get traction with audiences because there was no humor.

Gould: If you remember, Hank [Dean Norris] was really the comic relief in Season 1. We thought we were going to have a season about Tuco. And it turned out, we couldn't because the actor [Raymond Cruz] was on another show, "The Closer." So we had to kill him in [Season] 2. We put Hank behind the gun to kill Tuco, and that changed Hank. He was no longer funny. Walt and Jesse [Aaron Paul] didn't have Tuco to guide them through the world of meth. It didn't seem realistic to us that these guys would be able to create this business on their own.

Gilligan: We needed a consigliere.

Gould: I will say that [the episode introducing Saul Goodman] was the most difficult "Breaking Bad" for me to write. It's Season 2. The show is a heavy drama. And we have this character — it was even crazier when we pitched it [to AMC].

Gilligan: I was questioning everything we were doing. I was not always sure. Saul was the breakout character, because here we are talking about his spinoff. It seems to me there were a great many characters we could make a spinoff about. Jesse. Hank. Gus Fring [Giancarlo Esposito].

Collier: Each night of the week we should have a spinoff.

Charlie, did you get nervous when you heard "Better Call Saul" would be a prequel?

Collier: If they had said, "You know, I want to do — fill in the blank — a musical with puppets," I would have said, "Well, all right, let's look into how to do that." "Better Call Saul" was pitched first to us as a comedy. Then it was a drama. And then "maybe it will be a funny hour." We were going along for the ride.

Gilligan: We even talked about making it as a half-hour.

But doesn't the prequel format take a lot of the jeopardy out of it?

Gilligan: You know he's not going to be killed. You're right. Even furthermore, no, he's not going to lose an eye, or a leg.

Collier: Oh, my gosh. Maybe we should reconsider. [Laughs.] Look, they've found a character in Jimmy McGill [The real name of Saul Goodman's character]. And we all know he's going to transform. And you're putting him in the hands of the people who, with Walter White, led one of the finest stories of human transformation you've ever seen. So if you're in my chair, you bet on that every time. We've had our greatest success as a supporter of creative people that have a vision to do things that are unconventional.

There will be some good will from the audience that loved "Breaking Bad," right?

Gilligan: That's a knife that can cut both ways. Because people can look at this and say, "This is not 'Breaking Bad.'" These are the little anxieties I battle at 3 in the morning.

Is there anything from the "Breaking Bad" experience that you were able to apply to this show?

Collier: Bet on creative talent and nurture them as if they are what they are — the center of your universe. I get asked that a lot — typically from an angle which is "you have something great — don't screw it up." Because everyone covets "Breaking Bad" so badly. I know it's pressure. But it's also pressure to us. We want it to have [a long run], but we want it to be totally original.

Vince and Peter — it looks like you have a lot of latitude in the first two episodes of "Better Call Saul." The characters are conflicted. It takes time to know who they are. It feels like a gritty film from the 1970s.

Gilligan: I think you are right.

Gould: We really couldn't do that under other circumstances. We're so fortunate. It's like winning the creative lottery.

Vince — what's the biggest fight you ever had with Charlie?

Collier: It was the slit throat in the "Box Cutter" episode of "Breaking Bad."

Gilligan: Yeah. Fring slit the throat of one of his henchmen. It was extraordinarily realistic and therefore extraordinarily upsetting and gory. And the broadcast standards note was to cut a second and a half. I got on the phone to Charlie.

Collier: I missed a plane over that note.

Gilligan: I was sort of the offended artist on the phone call. But the truth is, we did cut the second and a half, and when I watch it now, I think it's probably a little too long even as it is. No art was destroyed.

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