[This story contains spoilers for “Fun and Games,” the July 18 episode of Better Call Saul.]
As AMC’s Better Call Saul nears its series finale on Aug. 15, the Breaking Bad prequel has turned its directing reins over to an all-star team of franchise directors, including veteran writer-producer-directors like Thomas Schnauz, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, as well as Breaking Bad favorite Michelle MacLaren.
This week’s episode was directed by Michael Morris, who was behind the camera for the season six premiere, as well as pivotal episodes including “Wexler v. Goodman” and “The Guy for This.” Certainly “Fun and Games,” like “The Guy for This” written by Ann Cherkis, is pivotal.
How pivotal? Well, we’re going to have to see. After two straight episodes featuring the demise of regular characters, “Fun and Games” was casualty-free, but it features key scenes that either will or won’t be series wraps on Rhea Seehorn’s Kim, Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus and Jonathan Banks’ Mike.
Weathering a record-breaking heatwave in London, Morris got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss Jimmy and Kim’s possible parting of ways, Gus’ romantic conversation with a mystery man played by Reed Diamond and what it means to direct scenes that are clearly important without leaning too heavily on their significance.
You directed the season six premiere, but at the time, had you always known or hoped that you could get one last crack at the show?
As it happened, I did know that I was going to another one, right at the beginning when we were all working out the director roster for the last season. It was a real honor, though, because it really is a family affair in this last season, with Vince Gilligan doing a few and Michelle MacLaren coming back for one and then Rhea and Giancarlo, so I was delighted to get the second one.
And you get the script for “Fun and Games,” was there any part of you that read everything that happened in the episode and went, “Oops, they gave me the series finale by accident!”
So I’m going to be careful with my answers, because I really dearly don’t want to spoil anything for anybody, yourself included. But I will 100 percent agree with you, and I kept saying it actually, that this has the sense of an ending about all of it. It has a sense of an ending for almost every principal character, it feels like their stories are ending. Now I’m saying this not to say that that’s true, because there are episodes left that are extraordinary and there will be things that surprise people for sure, but for me this episode was en elegy for certain things. It’s very sad, I think, all the way through with Mike’s story and Gus’ story and certainly, obviously with Jimmy and Kim. There’s a lot of sadness that you get with goodbyes and with endings.
When you have that inevitable sense of looming finality, from your perspective what are the challenges of honoring those potential last moments, those elegiac beats, without over-signaling that finality, that climactic importance at every turn? You want it to embrace the moments of ending, without announcing itself as a big valedictory.
It is a huge part of what I was thinking about in preparing to do this particular one. How do you go about that? I think you have this script that Ann Cherkis wrote, and yes it has that elegiac sense, like we said, but it’s incredibly alive. What I love about Ann as a writer, and I’ve been so lucky to direct almost all of her episodes, is that she comes at all these things from sideways positions. I don’t know anybody else who would write that Gus scene in the restaurant after what feels like the end of his story, after that. That’s a scene where you’re not playing trumpets and waving flags to say goodbye to Gus Fring. That’s just a scene. You have no choice but to be present and in the moment with it, and I think that’s true for the Jimmy and Kim scene too.
I directed a scene very similar to that in a previous season, a scene Thomas Schnauz wrote, where they have a huge argument in that same room and it ended with her asking him to marry her. So for me, certainly, the only way to direct it is just to be very present and not try to make it all too important, like you said. The other thing I would say is that one thing that was in my mind, as we get close to the end of the series, was to try and honor some of the history of the series, too. The episode gave us some opportunities to look back and think back, and I think that helped us, or at least helped me, feel like we were honoring the end. We were deliberately quoting some shots from the pilot, including the shot in the elevator lobby with the trashcan, a shot in Vince’s pilot, and there were a few things all the way through that we said consciously that we were trying to call back to as we get close to the end.
But the quick answer to your excellent question is: Don’t. Do the scenes that are in front of you in the order that they’re written.
So let’s go in order from the top. The intercutting of the opening montage to the Harry Nilsson cover is so poignant and also so very funny. Were the individual shots and edits in the script, and how much did you have room to play around?
The answer, and you’re going to get this from anyone you talk to I’m sure, but the answer is: “Yes.” The answer is “Both.” The script is extremely well-developed by the time we get it, and it’s full of wit and it’s full of ideas, but it’s always given to us with a kind of, “This is the thinking and please if there’s something else, something more, go for it.” So they’re very, in a wonderful way, not territorial about what they write, but they also write really good stuff. So in that montage, which was a really ambitious montage, the tone was something that was apparent. Talking to Ann and Peter at length, what we all decided that we wanted to do was link these three stories, the impossible recovery from what happened yesterday, we wanted to show all the elements being wiped away. It’s the nature of the show that there’s some comedy in there as well, because that’s part of the recipe for what makes this interesting.
There were some wonderful things written in the script. Not all of them were exactly on-screen as scripted, but many of them were and many of them were discoveries through prep. It was a really fun task. For instance, going from wiping up the blood to the tomato sauce, that was scripted. I loved that so much that I was never going to change that.
From your perspective and your conversations with Rhea, how did you determine when Kim made the big decisions she makes in this episode, and how much did you want us to be able to trace those beats through what we actually see on-screen and in her performance?
What I like to think is that she doesn’t make any climactic choice until the parking lot, or at least until just after the scene with [Howard’s wife] Cheryl. That’s when I was imagining it, that that kiss signifies that something has happened and that after that, in a very Kim Wexler way, everything unspools very fast. She’s a person of action. She’s not a person of agonizing. I wanted the kiss to be ambiguous in the moment and something that you would look back on later and go, “Oh, of course. That’s what that was.”
But Rhea being Rhea, you always want it to play on Rhea’s face. She’s never ever going to give you a shot where nothing’s happening. Never. It’s not possible. We talked at length about what was happening and the way that we imagine Kim’s psyche to be developing in the course of the episode. There’s ways that we talked that I think are really productive, but there’s no way that I would say to Rhea, “I want to see this on your face in this moment,” because it’s all there.
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I’ve seen several people discussing how this was the first time we heard these two characters say “I love you” out loud to each other. How aware were y’all of how unprecedented that beat is?
Yeah, we were. It’s gonna be a good question for Peter and Ann and I can’t remember if I even asked them that, but did they know that this was going to be the first time that those words were spoken? I’m not sure. I honestly don’t know. We knew, though, and Bob and Rhea and I rehearsed that scene well before we shot it. We rehearsed it like a play, on the set. The rehearsal of that actually informed a very great deal the style of shooting it. I was originally going to shoot it a different way and after the rehearsal, I realized that I was gonna cover it in a way I think I’ve never covered a scene before.
It was a scary idea. It doesn’t necessarily look it on film. It’s not like doing the whole thing from an elaborate crane shot, but we covered essentially each side of the whole conversation moving from room to room in a single take and we did not use a hand-held camera, which just means we had to build a very, very precise dolly track and a sound plan to get it covered and the set wasn’t really built for that kind of thing. It was a huge effort from everyone to cover the scene that way, but I wanted to do it, because having rehearsed it with them, I knew that this was not a scene that you wanted to break up. You don’t want to go, “OK. We’ve got you into the bedroom and just stop while we set it up again,” because they were so on top of the moment and we would have lost so much. The rehearsal was huge for us.
With this scene, I want to go back to the question about honoring big moments without necessarily over-playing their importance, because I think you could make the argument that this conversation is the most important one in the entire series to this point. And you obviously can’t play it that way, but how big and how small did you rehearse the emotions on display?
My career started off in theater and for many years, that’s what I did. One of my most happy places is being in a rehearsal room and just digging. Sometimes that digging involves a bunch of talking and discussing the beats and really opening it up and then putting it back together. Then you try it many times and it doesn’t work and you feel ridiculous, and then finally it comes together and it’s great. Here, it was more a case of “Let’s see it raw. Let’s just see it.” They might have held their scripts the first time they did it or they may have had their lines already, but we just did it completely raw and saw what that emotion could be. Then we all agreed that there was a certain amount of size and emotional scale to the scene which you don’t always see on this show. The show is quite circumspect, actually, about its emotional freight with these two actors, in a really good way, and I think we all agreed that with this scene, we wanted to see more and we think we learned more, especially from Jimmy.
But then it was not about inflating anything. I’m trying to describe it the way it happened. It wasn’t about, “How can we squeeze more from it?” I think I knew going into it that there were six years of feeling that was going into the scene already. So it became about not releasing it too much, not over-releasing it, not having emotional beats all the way through. And Bob and Rhea, to my taste anyway, they just were so open and available, and when those moments happen in the scene, they break my heart, because they feel completely honest. It was all about not trying to pump up anything, just trying to work with what we knew was going to be there.
Along the same lines, the scene with Giancarlo and Reed Diamond, with Gus and David, showcases an entirely different side of Gus, even if it played off of details that we’ve known about. What were the conversations like in terms of how overtly you wanted to play the romantic undercurrents of that scene?
It’s the most important subtextual thing, certainly of the scene, and one of the most important subtextual things in the episode. Of these three climactic scenes — the Fring scene at the restaurant, the scene with Mike and [Nacho’s father] Manuel and then Jimmy and Kim — they’re all fantastically subtextual scenes, with only a line or two sometimes to see things through. So much of the power in them is unspoken. Subtext is sometimes the best form of storytelling, and people on TV don’t often rely on it as much as they could.
So to answer your question, the shadow of Max is all over the episode, from the swimming pool at Don Eladio’s, to the loneliness of Gus’ house. There are only a few times, I think, that we’ve seen Gus in any way in a domestic way, and there’s been this shadow of domesticity with Max. So when he comes home and he’s feeling great and he’s feeling like he won — because he did — and he opens the door and he lets the light in, there’s something about the emptiness of that house. As happy as he is to be there and to be feeling safe, there’s something about the loneliness. That’s why I don’t think his story in this episode could possibly have been concluded without David, even if it’s like, “What? Who is this guy? We don’t even know him!”
It’s the perfect short story to illustrate the prison that Gus Fring is going to be in for the rest of his life, until we see his end. He’s never going to be able to truly share his life with anybody. He’s had to make a choice right there. He can have a taste of the wine, but he’s not going to have the bottle. It’s too dangerous and too difficult.
Did we want to be overt? No. There’s very little contact, if there’s any contact. It’s a very chaste scene. I do remember that there were takes where we could have found innuendo if we had wanted to find innuendo, but we moved away from innuendo. We wanted to be suggestive at best. We don’t want to say too much, because that’s not the point. The point, to me, isn’t if Gus Fring is gay or if he’s straight. The point to me is intimacy and trust and that this man is never going to have it and that’s a punishment of sorts, a desperate punishment.
And just as a last question: After getting this script and doing this episode, did you have to beg Vince and Peter for the rest of the season or will you prefer to experience the last four episodes watching on TV?
Well, remember that because I’m an executive producer this season, the spoilers are long gone for me, unfortunately. But it is a testament to how well they write, that when I read outlines, my head explodes, on every episode. And then a month goes by and I read the scripts and my head explodes all over again. And six months later I see it on TV and my head explodes a third time. So there’s a lot of power in what they write. I am honor-bound to say nothing about what happens next except, “Watch,” because it’s wonderful.