When Better Call Saul wrapped up its final season, it closed out its masterclass of combining a layered character study with impeccable visual storytelling. One prime example of this is episode 10 of season 6, ‘Nippy’ – the episode that finally gave viewers a look into the world and mind of Gene Takavic, the in hiding alter-ego of Bob Odenkirk‘s Saul Goodman, who happens to also be the alter-ego of Jimmy McGill.
In one of the series’ most tense and revealing episodes, ‘Nippy’ intimately explores Gene/Saul/Jimmy, often not by the words he uses, but in the way it is shot. The episode focuses on a scheme created by Gene, who had been hiding his past Breaking Bad behind his current Cinnabon manager facade. After years of suppressing the inner conman, Saul rises to the surface again in a heist that includes a lost dog, some old associates, Cinnabon, lots of planning, and Caroll Burnett. Thanks to the exemplary work of director, Michelle MacLaren, all these seemingly unrelated element merge into a heart-racing and heart-breaking episode which ranks in the best of the series – an instant television classic.
Awards Radar sat down with MacLaren to discuss her work on the episode and in the Breaking Bad universe. Enjoy.
Steven Prusakowski: You started working with Vince Gilligan back on X-Files, then Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, plus you’re going be working with him again, on The Raven. What’s behind that work partnership?
Michelle MacLaren: Vince and I first met on The X-Files, and he wrote the first script I ever directed. I was a producer on The X-Files and Vince was a writing producer and I got my directing break. The greatest part of that break was that the script was written by Vince Gilligan. And then Vince directed his first episode, and I was producing it. I think that we realized pretty quickly that we have very similar sensibilities and we love working together. I have great memories from from that first episode was an awesome episode, of course, because Vince wrote it. You know, it was it was very exciting. We just love to collaborate. I mean, he’s an amazing writer, and all starts with the words on the page. So I will show up anytime. Vince Gilligan calls. He’s amazing.
Steven Prusakowski: How did that lead to you working in the Breaking Bad universe?
Michelle MacLaren: He called me and said, ‘I’ve got this new show, Breaking Bad. Actually, Vince wanted me to produce it, to produce a pilot, and I wasn’t available. So he said, I’ll come and direct on it. I was a fairly inexperienced director at that point. And AMC was a little bit like, ‘Who? No.” Vince said, ‘Yeah, she’s gonna direct on the show.’ He’s been a huge supporter of mine. I’m so grateful for that. So I directed my first episode on Breaking Bad and thankfully, they liked it. He asked me to produce a show with him and direct several episodes this season, which was amazing. And, then he called me about Better Call Saul and said, ‘We’re going to do a spin off. I’m going to shoot the first episode, you shoot the second episode.’ I was honored to do it. The thing about Vince Gilligan how he is with directors is he says to directors, ‘Look, I really like your work as long as you’re telling the story. Use any style you want.’ Of course the scripts are so well written and so detailed. There’s a style that comes just evolved out of the script, but there’s actually many different styles especially in Breaking Bad. I think Saul’s a little more specific because of the the different worlds that you’re in and in Saul, meaning colored in black and white. I love working with him. He’s incredibly generous to directors. As far as creative hub giving creative freedom, he gets excited and inspired by different director tours, ideas, and it’s it’s a great place to work.
Steven Prusakowski: Did you ever have any concerns about doing a spin off? Because just the word spin off can have negative connotations. Throughout TV history there’ve been a lot of poorly received spin offs.
Michelle MacLaren: You know, none of us have a crystal ball. We never know what’s going to happen. But no, with with Vince and Peter Gould running things I was just excited to be part of it. Because these guys -they’re incredible leaders and they have an incredible team of writers. As I was saying, it’s just really exciting to get a script by this team of people because it inspires you visually. They really challenged directors to when they take it from the page to the screen. They give you a lot of freedom and challenge you to think out of the box. And that’s just the style of a both those shows.
Steven Prusakowski: That’s exciting.It’s exciting to hear that as a fan. I could probably talk for hours and you would probably walk away but I would have so many more questions.
Michelle MacLaren: No, I’d probably talk for hours too because I love talking about these kinds of things.
Steven Prusakowski: Let’s talk ‘Nippy.’ it’s one of my favorite episodes of the series. And it’s a game changer. We were waiting for the Gene story to happen. And we’re finally it is going to be fully revealed. Then on top of Gene there’s so much more to it. Was it exciting to know that you’re getting to get the kind of the first first shot at really exploring Gene?
Michelle MacLaren: It was very exciting. They actually called me a year ahead of time, and said, ‘Will you come and do this?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely!’ Planned my schedule around it, because I was so excited. Then everything got changed, as everybody knows, schedule wise. We were still able to make it out. Make it work, thanks to Melissa Bernstein, and a whole bunch of wonderful people juggling things. But they didn’t tell me right away who the guests are, because it wasn’t for sure. They said, ‘We have very special guests, but we don’t want to tell you – we don’t want to jinx ourselves. We want to make sure everything is is in place.’ Not that I need a special guest star to say yes to these guys. I was just so excited to be part of it. And when they told me, well, it blew my mind. I was I was very excited. And then I really loved telling that Gene story, because early on in Better Call Saul. I did the first episode, where we started to see hints of Saul coming out of Jimmy and it was really interesting. Bob and I actually talked about those earlier episodes that we did when we were doing this this episode. We kind of likened it to those moments because that was the first time back then. And then this time is when it was coming back. At the time when I did that, the earlier episodes, I didn’t know – I should have known – that these guys would pay it off amazingly, because they’re so good at that. But I didn’t know that. Specifically shooting those scenes with Bob then would be so helpful for years later when I came back to, to the end of the season the series.
Steven Prusakowski: The series requires some patience, because I believe some of the first shots of the of the series are Gene, with no explanation. Six seasons and nine episodes later and finally, we really get to explore him. When we do, you go directly into this heist. It’s a kind of procedural and it’s incredibly tense. It’s funny and revealing about who Saul, Jimmy, Gene have become, in these years following following Breaking Bad. Can you tell me about what some of your goals for the episode?
Michelle MacLaren: It starts on the page. It was beautifully written by Alison. The thing that I found really amazing about the episode is it was really fun, it was dangerous, it was exciting and it was heartbreaking. We really wanted to take the audience on this journey with Gene and really take a deep dive and feel these moments. We wanted them to see Gene start to come alive again, start to get excited about doing a con. Then getting to the point where he it brought up some emotions about his brother, about Chuck (Michael McKean), and how that made him feel. How he used his own life for and his his own emotions to actually execute the con. If you follow the show, and hopefully everybody does, you get to that moment when he’s about to be caught and he does have this very revealing monologue. He’s really talking about him and his brother, and it’s heartbreaking. Bob did such a brilliant job with that. It’s a really fun caper, but it’s I think it’s also very emotional, very heartbreaking. I really love the end, when he goes into the store, he picks up the suit and he has these mixed memories about Saul, because Saul is not a good guy, you know, he did bad things. I think that Gene just doesn’t as never seen his values worth and he’s just he’s self sabotaging. In that moment he he identifies more with the guy who self sabotage than the guy who believes in himself. He believes that’s all he’s worth. And Chuck was of course a big part of him believing that. So I found that moment really heartbreaking. I got tears in my eyes when we were shooting it because it brought back so many memories of way back to Breaking Bad when we first meet Saul and all this stuff wrapped up in it. It was a very I’m emotional moment really beautifully written moment. In the heist, Bob was amazing, because we have different levels of the highest because there was an evolution to it. Of course, we had to repeat each step for all the different levels. We literally would set it up and Bob and I had a thing where I go, okay, level one, level two, well, level three, level four. And we’d repeat the shot and he would change performance. In each we keep the camera rolling, and he changed performance in each shot. I love that the music I said in prep was like, you guys, we need something Austin Powers meets Mission Imossible. Peter goes, I know the song – and it was it was a great song. I love to see Bob transition, just even in his walk, you know – at first he’s got the low drag, and he transitions into gears a little bit, got more pep in his step, and he’s really working it happy. Then he’s like, Oh, my gosh, this is really serious, he’s done it. To watch him do that in one take. He’d exit the camera go around and come through again, at a different stage was amazing. I mean Bob is brilliant. He was able to bring in each take the different seriousness or the humor, the lightness, the darkness, whatever it was, in that particular moment. It took a long time to shoot that montage.
Steven Prusakowski: It’s incredible. I was watching it and just re-appreciating. That’s the thing, it’s beneficial to revisit, because the first time you watch it, you’re caught up in the moment of the scheme. My heart’s pounding as you watch Jeff (Pat Healy) slip and almost ruin the whole thing. But upon second watch it’s more heartbreaking. You really see the character elements, the layers, and the nuance throughout. It’s almost like it’s a standalone film – something people could analyze it and not know the story outside and still have a rewarding experience.
Michelle MacLaren: I’m really glad you like the slip and fall. I do you know how we did it?
Steven Prusakowski: I have no idea. Please tell.
Michelle MacLaren: It’s totally old school. I thought ‘Let’s have a Let’s have Jeffie come running down the escalator. He’s running around and he runs behind the rack of clothng and we’ll have a stunt man hiding there, he runs out and does the fall. That’s what we did and it was completely old school. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is this going to work?’ It took several takes, but when it worked we all burst out laughing.
Michelle MacLaren: There is a lot of different layers. It was the first time we the the show went all black and white. Peter Gould did a really wonderful thing he because it was it was going to be black and white for several episodes. He got the directors and the DPa together and we had like a masterclass in talking about black and white film. He talked about what it was that he loved about certain films and certain moments and how the different levels of darkness would affect emotions. And it really inspired us. Whether anybody gets this in depth and watching it, I think that there’s the subconscious. I’ll give you an example, when Gene finally executes the con, and he’s walking down that hallway, he comes around the corner, and he steps into shadow. When he’s in the shadow, he becomes very dark and somewhat menacing, and almost evil to a certain extent. It’s very profound. Then he steps out of the, the darkness and and he’s brought himself together. In that moment in the darkness, you see a hint of regret is you know. I think that the light really enhances that another moment is in the garage when the guys have successfully robbed the place. It’s very shadowy in there. Gene steps out from the shadows but not completely. You have this different level of darkness for him because he’s in a very dark place. It’s the same one when takes the garbage out to the garbage – Jeffie is in more light than genius and this is this was all designed very specific quickly. Paul Donachie, the DP, he did an amazing job. We placed certain lights in certain places and we blocked Bob walking to certain places. He was very specifically hitting the shadows when he was more Saul and hitting less shadow when he was more Gene – which is a very fun and challenging thing to do.
Steven Prusakowski 13:45
That’s incredible. The fans do analyze this, but I’m sure there’s so much more that’s behind what you inject creatively. This is not just actors reading dialogue – it’s a very visual storytelling. There’s one shot that always stands out for me – you could you can sense Gene’s timing the gentleman eating the Cinnabon, and there’s a close up of that last bite. He’s like, ‘That’s it, that’s my time.’ You can almost hear the gears clicking in his head. It is a very simple, almost forgettable shot, but it really gets us inside the head of Gene/Saul the mastermind. It’s one reason why I appreciate the series so much, because nothing’s taken for granted.
Michelle MacLaren: It’s really nice of you to say that, Steven, because every shot is meticulously planned out. Every shot has a purpose. That last bite is placed there for tension, because as soon as that bite is in his mouth, you’re done, if you’re not done. We build it up through repetition – it should be incredibly nerve racking at that point. It’s fun to do things like that, because you can go closer and closer, you’re making a big deal, but about somebody eating a Cinnabon. I will say hats off to Jim O’Heir, because he had to eat a lot. We had a lot of spit takes and stuff, but still, I mean, wow, that was that was very challenging to to do. He is amazing. This episode is incredible, because we had four comic geniuses doing a drama, and one of the greatest comic geniuses of all time, meaning Carol (Burnett). To have these guys together is so fun and so mind bogglingly impressive when you watch them execute their work. Dark comedy is the funniest when you’re playing it very serious and it’s the ridiculousness of the situation. Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad that do that better than anybody I know. That’s really fun to direct. You have to have actors understand both comedy and drama. So it’s amazing to work with these brilliant talents.
Steven Prusakowski: Can you expand on working Carol? When she was first announced, I was like, what role could you possibly play? I just watched her 90th Birthday special. I’ve been watching her for years, but this was something special seeing worlds combine with Carol Burnett as part of the Breaking Bad universe.
Michelle MacLaren: She’s amazing. I was actually at that 90th, the record recording of it. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time. Working with Carol Burnett in this role is was phenomenal. I mean, she’s just amazing. She’s an incredibly good. She’s an amazing, dramatic actress, as well as a comedian. It’s so important to have actors to understand both, because it’s all about timing. One of my favorite scenes was Pat Healy and Bob Odenkirk and Carol Burnett, sitting around the kitchen table, and they’re having two different completely different conversations, you know? It’s all about the looks between everybody. It was like almost like shooting a play. You could just, you could almost point one camera at them and just go ‘Okay, go!’ because they’re so wonderful. Of course, thank thankfully for the visual storytelling of Saul there was more to it than that. It was such an honor and pleasure to watch watch them work. They’re just such pros. Carol is unbelievably talented. I don’t know what more to say. She’s an incredibly down to earth person. She’s really approachable. She’s very collaborative. She’s really funny. Just normally, she’s fun to be around – and she takes all very seriously. She is a pro in every single way and it was an absolute honor to get to work with her and I adore her. She’s a super talent and she is a spectacular human being.
Steven Prusakowski: That’s wonderful to hear. I do have to wrap up I’m going to ask one quick question three words to describe Gene.
Michelle MacLaren: Hmm, I don’t know. Something like Last. Soul. Alive.
Steven Prusakowski: I like it. Thank you so much.
Michelle MacLaren: Thank you, Steven. It is lovely to talk about these shows. I can’t how honored it was to work with with Peter and Vince and Bob and Carol and everybody was. It was amazing.
Steven Prusakowski:And for me, it’s an honor to speak with you and the people that bring this world to life because I absolutely love it. So, thank you so much. Have a great day.