‘Better Call Saul’ star Bob Odenkirk (Ben Leuner/AMC)
As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs through June 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Season 2 of Better Call Saul.
They’re responsible for some of the best episodes from Better Call Saul’s second season, and series writers Gennifer Hutchison (“Cobbler” and “Bali Ha’i”), Gordon Smith (“Gloves Off” and “Inflatable”), and Heather Marion (“Klick”) have something else major in common: they all started their journeys in the Vince Gilligan/Peter Gould universe as Gilligan assistants, supporting the Breaking Bad creator and the writers’ room before getting the chance to shine with their own scripts.
For Hutchison and Smith, that’s already led to Emmy nominations, and as Marion becomes an official staffer for Season 3 after co-writing her first script with Gilligan with the Saul Season 2 finale, it seems likely Emmy love will be in her future, too.
For now, all three join in conversation with Yahoo TV to chat about the backgrounds that led them to Better Call Saul, the unique opportunities and experience of working with the Saul writing team, their prescriptions for breaking out of writers’ block, and their favorite moments, and most challenging ones, from the Saul storyline.
Gennifer Hutchison, Gordon Smith, and Heather Marion (Getty Images; AMC)
Genny, your history with Vince Gilligan goes all the way back to The X-Files?
Genny Hutchison: Yes, it does. My first job in Los Angeles was working in the writers’ office at The X-Files. I think I started in Season 7. I quickly moved up to being Vince Gilligan and John Shiban’s assistant. John worked on Breaking Bad and he directed (the “Rebecca” episode) of Better Call Saul last season. I worked there for them until the end of The X-Files. Then I bounced around from show to show for the next several years, working as a writer’s assistant or a showrunner’s assistant. I ended up on Mad Men, working for Matt Weiner. I heard through my AMC contact that Vince had a new show with them, so I had reached out to Vince very quickly, because my job was wrapping on Mad Men, and he hired me based on our history for [Breaking Bad]. So I came in as his assistant, and then moved up to writer’s assistant. Then in Season 3, he agreed to let me write a freelance episode (“I See You”), then made me an official staff writer for Season 4. That’s the very condensed version of that. I mean, that was about 10 years.
Gordon, you’ve been in the Gilligan universe since the middle of Breaking Bad?
Gordon Smith: Right. When Genny got her freelance [assignment], that season I was hired as a post-production assistant. I talked to folks in the writers’ office as well, because we knew when Genny was doing her freelance [script] that they’d need a little help in the writer’s office, with the hope that when Genny got staffed in Season 4, that maybe I would move over as people moved up. That happened, so when Genny got staffed, I became Vince’s assistant and the writers’ PA. Then Season 5 [of Breaking Bad], I moved into writers’ assistant, then I got staffed on Better Call Saul.
Heather, how did you join this fantastic world, and what was the scariest thing about that, not having come from Breaking Bad?
Heather Marion: Yes, I didn’t come from Breaking Bad. Like Genny, I came up through a lot of assisting work. I moved [to L.A.] and started interning and doing a night program. Through that I got a job working for a showrunner [on United States of Tara]. I worked for a comedian EP [Jeff Garlin] for a few years. I really wanted to get in the writer’s room, but I wanted to get a little better with my writing first. I went to grad school at that point at UCLA. When I finished, I was really looking for the writers’ room experience. My boss, Jeff Garlin, had recently done a show with Vince, and heard about [Better Call Saul]. We had a publicist also working on The Goldbergs, who was working on Breaking Bad. She helped get my name and my information through. I had a couple interviews and became the writers’ assistant for Better Call Saul. It was scary coming in, because these guys are so amazing and have been so tight for so long. But they’ve been really supportive, and it’s continuing to get better and [I’m] having a good time.
Smith: It also occurs to me that Genny interviewed me for my job. So I owe my job to Genny. And Jenn Carroll [Gilligan’s current assistant and a Saul associate producer] and I interviewed Heather for her initial interview.
Marion: We’ve each vouched for the other. But you see how coming in at this level, you see the person who’s done what you’re about to do and what they’re doing. It’s really inspiring and encouraging, but also makes you want to bring your A-game every day.
It also all seems to speak to how collaborative the show is.
Hutchison: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that’s nice about how Breaking Bad was and how Better Call Saul continues to be. Vince, and then Vince and Peter [Gould], really create this collaborative environment in the writers’ room where everyone is encouraged to participate. There are some shows where it’s very by level [with who] participates. But they’re very much about, everybody, if you have a great idea, throw out a great idea. Writers’ assistants are encouraged to pitch and be a real part of the process. It becomes a much greater learning experience. You’re not just taking notes. You’re also thinking about the show and trying to come up with ideas. It’s a good boot camp for when you do actually get staffed. You’ve actually had to think on that level already.
Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould (Ursula Coyote/AMC)
What’s the greatest thing about working in a Vince Gilligan writers’ room, or Peter Gould writers’ room, as an assistant? What do you feel you get there that you wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere?
Hutchison: For me, it was the level of craft that was going on. Vince and Peter are very rigorous in the way they break story, very in depth. Because we’re very lucky in that we have a decent amount of lead time to work out our season before we get into production, we’re able to get very in depth when we’re breaking stories. Having that level of rigor and creativity, I think, is the thing that has probably been the most helpful for me as a writer.
Smith: It’s such a collaborative and social medium. You’re not just coming up with ideas, you’re coming up with ideas and you’re pitching them to people. So as a writers’ assistant, you get to learn the strategies and the politics, not in a gross way, but you’re watching how people can sway something or adjust something, and what’s going to be a more successful way of phrasing something and what’s going to be a less successful way. By the time you’re in there, it’s like, “Okay, I have these tools.” You see somebody coming up with a way to start hammering away at a problem.
Hutchison: Learning how a room works, as an observer, when the stakes are very low, when your job is just to record, is invaluable. When you come in as a staff writer, there’s so much pressure to perform. If you’ve never had that experience, you’re also trying to figure out what your place in the room is, but when you’ve been a writers’ assistant and you’re moving up within a room that you’ve lived in, it’s such an advantage. You already know the dynamics. It’s really helpful.
Marion: For me, it’s coming in and seeing the attention to detail, but also the patience and dedication it takes to talk exhaustively until you get something that really truly fits. Also, I learned the value of thinking things out fully — these guys are building ideas and characters in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. They’re open to input from anybody at every level and to making their ideas better. They’re not above saying, “That idea’s better, I’m going to take that one instead.”
I think many of us don’t know exactly what each particular job title on a show means. What would the job description be for a writer’s assistant?
Hutchison: I think the most basic level of what the job is, is you’re in the room whenever the writers are in the room, and you’re taking notes on everything that they’re saying. Then you have to distill those down and get those out to the writers. You’re basically the support person, so that when the writers are going off to write their scripts, they have those notes, which are often filled with dialogue or little moments that don’t make it onto the cards that we use to outline the episode. You’re also doing research. You’re also dealing with sides for casting. We have a level of security — sometimes we’re not necessarily doing the exact scene that we might end up shooting. A lot of times, the writers’ assistant will help with obscuring details that might be giving too much away for casting. You could be working on web content for the show. You’re basically doing any sort of support for the writers.
Vince and Peter have talked about how a big part of their storyline philosophy is writing themselves purposefully into a corner so that they have to figure a way out of it. Is that an approach all of you have adopted as a way of coming up with solutions or story ideas or a direction for a character?
Hutchison: It’s funny, the way that plays out in the room is more hitting a problem head on, not avoiding a problem because it would be scary to try to get out of it. That’s definitely something that I’ve taken into my own writing. When I’m writing something and I start to get scared because the idea might mess up my character too much, that’s when I go, “Oh, no, that’s where the drama is. I have to hit it head on.” I have to really figure out, if I get my character into the most amount of trouble that I possibly can, what could they do to get out of it? That is how drama happens. I think that’s definitely something that I’ve taken from this.
Smith: People never believe us when we say we haven’t mapped out a season. I know a lot of shows really do. They say, “This is what’s going to happen, and that’s going to happen around episode five, and then we have to write to it.” In exactly the same way Genny was just talking about, we’ll just throw that s–t out. If we say, “Oh, we kind of want to get here, but the characters don’t want to go there, the truth of the situation doesn’t want to get us there,” it’s like, okay, well, we’re stuck. We can’t get there. We have to do something else. We have to follow what the next peak has to be. That’s [being] painted into the corner. You’re like, “Okay, we’re stuck here, what is the next thing that happens?” Being bound by that, it actually gives you a lot of tools. If it sucks to be here, then it’s going to be hard to get out, and that’s dramatic.
I always imagine it would be fun to spend a day in the Better Call Saul writers’ room just observing everything that happens there. What is the best or worst or craziest thing about being in the Saul writers’ room?
Smith: It really depends on the day. I bet there would be days that would be really fun to watch, when it’s flowing, and we’re coming up with something, or we find a solution to a problem. There are also days that will go on forever, where we’re just banging our heads against a wall, and we’re trying pitch after pitch on something, any one of which could be good, but they’re not quite right. So we’re just pitching it out forever. We’ll do that for days on end for a single problem, for a beat that’s not quite there. Those days are really horrible, because it’s hard to keep your spirits up. It’s hard to keep being like, “There is a solution to this problem,” to get yourself thinking both outside the box far enough to break loose from the problem, but also in keeping within what the characters are, keeping all the other parameters you need to keep in mind.
Are there special toys in the writers’ room? Special snacks? A mascot? Anything that inspires you or helps you break out of a block?
Smith: I like to think of myself as the idiot mascot of the room.
Hutchison: For me, I’ll get up and walk around. Sometimes I’ll leave the room and get a snack or something, even if I don’t really need a snack, just to change the scenery. I know that Heather, you doodle a bit, and Gordon likes to build Nanoblock sculptures.
Smith: There’s a lot of Nanoblocks in the room right now.
Hutchison: Which are just tiny, tiny Legos.
Marion: I need a visual break, so I like to doodle or look at a book. We have a few books on the table here, so I look at pictures or something to get myself shaken out of the spot.
Smith: Bob Odenkirk, whenever he visits — he usually visits the writers’ room at least once a season — he brings us books. He brought us Humans of New York, some cool photography books, books on comedy or process or things like that. We often have them in the room and we can flip through them, and sometimes they’re good ways to get your head someplace else.
Rhea Seehorn and Odenkirk in ‘Bali Ha’i’ (AMC)
For each of you, what is your favorite Saul episode you’ve written?
Marion: That’s easy for me. I had an amazing time, and I cannot wait to try it again.
Hutchison: I think my favorite was probably “Bali Ha’i” from Season 2, because I really love the Kim character and her relationship with Jimmy. It was really fun to get even deeper into her character and bring her and Jimmy back together at the end.
Smith: You know, I obviously really enjoyed writing my first episode [the Emmy-nominated “Five-O”], but it was very scary. The material was so weighty. There was so much opportunity to screw up. I don’t think I had a lot of fun writing it. I had more fun writing my first episode this season [“Gloves Off”], because it was much more caper-y. There was a lot of good stuff with Jimmy and Chuck. It was a little more balanced between both sides of the storylines. Seeing Mike versus Tuco was a lot of fun, to get into both of those characters and their voices.
Jonathan Banks and Raymond Cruz in ‘Gloves Off’ (AMC)
What’s the most difficult scene or story each of you have tackled on the show so far?
Marion: [In the Season 2 finale], the hospital scene when Chuck came in, because it was very technical, and we had a lot of people there, which is the hardest for me to write. We had some wonderful technical advisors. We broke it through fully in the [writers’ room], had a good place to start. But that was the hardest and scariest for me.
Smith: I think for me, probably the entirety of episode 108, “RICO.” We worked on that episode for so many weeks. It was really, really difficult to break all of it, to try and figure out what the next place was for Jimmy. We were revising it, throwing out storylines, and re-breaking storylines for five weeks or something like that. Just getting that together and then doing the technical research about what the law was, and how a case would proceed as like were talking about it, was very difficult.
The Kettlemans (Jeremy Shamos and Julie Ann Emery) in ‘Bingo’ (AMC)
Hutchison: I think my second episode of Season 1, “Bingo.” I really love that episode, but all the stuff with the Kettlemans and Mike, and then Jimmy confronting Mrs. Kettleman, was all really delicate, and there were so many different moves that had to happen just within that confrontation scene. Mrs. Kettleman had to go from anger to shock to breaking down at the end. Doing that many moves within one scene can be really tricky. It ended up being one of my absolute favorite scenes, but feeling your way through it can be really intimidating. You have to build transitions that feel real.
Do you all miss the Kettlemans, by the way?
Smith: We loved them a lot. We’re constantly trying to find a way to bring them back, like, “What about this? What if Mrs. Kettleman…? What if Mr. Kettleman…?”
What are you each most looking forward to getting to in the Saul storyline? Is there a pivotal thing or something about one of the characters that you’re excited to get to eventually?
Hutchison: That’s a hard question to answer, because there is stuff, but it’s spoilery. I’m really excited to see the transition of Jimmy to Saul and how that really ultimately plays out. I am really excited to see what happens once we get there and what does the end of Saul’s story look like in this show, as opposed to [Breaking Bad], because I feel like he’s such a different character. I feel like there’s so much more to discover about him.
Smith: The two big transitions for me are [Jimmy becoming Saul] and also the question, which we haven’t really figured out yet, is the end of the story just that he’s working at a Cinnabon, or is there something else to be said about that?
Marion: To learn more about Gene. What is he doing when he’s not at Cinnabon?
Vince and Peter have said that they both initially expected us to meet Saul by the end of Season 1. Season 2 is gone and we still haven’t, but we’ve gotten so many great stories, new characters along the way. Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to get to that, meeting Saul, because the trip there is so fun?
Smith: Oh, absolutely. Looking forward to finding out that information is not the same thing as wanting it. I feel like there’s something sad about losing Jimmy to Saul. Saul, he feels much more damaged now. Knowing who Jimmy was — his heart is in the right place, even if it’s playing fast and loose. Going to who Saul is just feels like there’s going to be something that breaks within him. We’re not anxious to do that to him, but we’re interested to see what that is.
Marion: I love that [this writers’ room] is willing to take time to stretch out moments that are not the typical ones you might see. If we get to a point in the storyline where we’re like, “We should spend some more time on this, I think this feels right,” then we do.
Touching on specific Season 2 episodes for each of you, Genny, Squat Cobbler or the Moscow Mule — which culinary “treat” are you most proud of having in one of your scripts?
Hutchison: [Laughs] I can’t take full credit for Squat Cobbler, because that truly was a group effort, in just bringing that entire scene to life. It was so much fun to write. I love being associated with that, because people got such a kick out of it. Moscow Mule was 100 percent me. That is my cocktail of choice. I’m really excited to have brought that into the [story], because that one was so absolutely me, to the extent that people who know me were like, “Oh, of course, Moscow Mule.”
Gordon, in “Inflatable,” we learn a lot from that opening flashback scene with Jimmy and his father in the grocery store about Jimmy’s motivation, his philosophy on things. But we also learned a lot about his father and how gullible he was, and that that was his reputation around town. Is it possible that when Chuck is blaming Jimmy for his dad’s store going out of business, because of the money he was pilfering from the register, that part of the blame also goes to his father for giving money away to strangers?
Smith: Oh, absolutely. In fact, we came up with that scene landing where it did and how it did this season kind of backwards. That is a scene Tom Schnauz wrote and directed, intending it to be for episode 109, but we didn’t have the time. That was supposed to be the teaser. We loved it, and we were trying to figure out ways to use it. We started at [“Rebecca,” when Chuck tells Kim Jimmy stole from their father], in Season 2. We were like, “What would Chuck’s take be on that story?” We specifically were thinking Chuck’s going to ascribe anything bad to Jimmy. The truth of the matter is, we see that there’s a slightly different interpretation. I was happy that landed where it did. We hear Chuck’s side of the story first, and we think, “Well, maybe that’s just Chuck being a jerk.” Then we see this sort of literal flashback truth of it. It’s still gray. It’s still, “Well, Jimmy takes the money out of the register, too.” His dad was flim-flammed by this guy. His dad was kind of an open-hearted guy. It’s nice for us to be able to have arguments between characters where both of them are right in a way.
Heather, with “Klick,” Chuck doesn’t tell Jimmy their mom woke up and said Jimmy’s name before she died. Later, he secretly records Jimmy’s confession. Which is the more cruel act by Chuck?
Marion: That’s hard, because he’s intentionally tape recorded… I don’t think, in his mind, he’s doing either one as a cruel act to Jimmy. I’m thinking about it and judging it from the outside. I’m thinking about where the character’s coming from. Chuck is reacting the way Chuck would to these things. He’s been betrayed by Jimmy as well, in his mind. It’s a tricky one to judge for cruelty.
Better Call Saul Season 2 is available on Amazon Video and iTunes.
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