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Better Call Saul's Writer Gordon Smith Talks about Chicanery

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Shirleena Cunningham:  First of all, Congratulations on the Saturn Nomination for Best Action / Thriller Television Series!

Gordon Smith: Thank you, thank you.

Shirleena Cunningham: You're Welcome!

Shirleena Cunningham: Where did the idea of Chicanery stem from?

Gordon Smith: The title or the episode?

Shirleena Cunningham: The concept.

Gordon Smith: I mean, we kind of figured at a certain point as we were breaking the season that we were gonna end up with, a big show down. It just felt like things had been brewing for two and a half seasons. And we weren't sure where it was gonna land, but at a certain point in the breaking of season three we kind of knew that something was coming and then as we started work on episode five it was like this is where it comes. This is what we ... we just wanted to do it. And we started, you know, we had all these other storylines going with Mike and Nacho and so forth. But it was like, well, lets ... we just gotta kind of ... it didn't make sense to draw it out and make it a kind of, go slowly through it. So, it just became kind of a focused story that we wanted to tell it all at once.
New Speaker:

Shirleena Cunningham: . What kind of reference did you use?

Gordon Smith: Yeah, I mean, I watched, one of our assistants found a great ... she found several video tapings of several disciplinary hearings. And they're several hours long. So I watched those. I've watched probably four or five hours of that kind of stuff at this point. So I watched those and then just kind of tried to, we wanted to be realistic but we also wanted it to be dramatic. So we had to kind of take some liberties and combine some parts of the process to make it kind of ... sing.

Shirleena Cunningham: Let's talk about the teaser.

Gordon Smith: Sure.

Shirleena Cunningham: What was reason to bring Rebecca back for the teaser?

Gordon Smith: You know, that came about because we were talking about ... what was it? When we were sort of figuring out what was going to be in this hearing, and what was it really about. And for us it started to be about, as much as for Chuck it's about justice. For Jimmy it's about revealing Chuck not as the magnanimous, high-minded individual that Chuck would believe he was, but as a kind of vicious guy who had it out for his brother.

 And so the thing that we felt was necessary in that the hardest blow would be if Jimmy could do that in front of somebody that Chuck cared about, and that was Rebecca. So we knew, it felt right for a while and we had to kind of figure out how it was going to happen. But it felt right for a while that somehow Jimmy would get Rebecca to be there, to witness this.

And so, when we were sort of figuring out why he would do that, or what was going to happen in the trial that would necessitate her being there, we started thinking about well, you know, we never saw the terms under which they left things. We didn't, we had all these ideas about what had happened in their divorce and so forth. But we had never gotten into them, we had never seen them.

So we wanted to get a scene that was like, okay, we didn't know, does Rebecca know about Chuck's condition? If not, why not? And so it was a series of questions that came up that kind of led us to seeing this scene that explains some of that, that gave us the ground rules. Like okay, no, Rebecca doesn't know. And in fact, Chuck went to great pains to make sure that she didn't know and couldn't know, and that Jimmy was under sort of indictment not to mention anything. And that was where we started kind of figuring out the teaser.

Shirleena Cunningham: They worked beautifully together,  It was a natural instinct for both of them.

Gordon Smith: You know, that was another thing. That's a good point. We loved that element. Because we never see the brothers kind of ... Chuck kind of has a somewhat finger-wagging quality to him sometimes. You know, looking down on Jimmy pulling scams. But it would be really fun to be like, they have a plan together as brothers, and they're going for it. They're on the same team and they're using both of their sets of skills and they have a target and they're working it. Which is great for us, though.

Shirleena Cunningham: What was it like working with the Director, Daniel Sackheim?

Gordon Smith: Yeah Dan is great. Dan is great. He's very very detail oriented, and he had a plan and it was very, we were super-confined. It was almost all interiors. Which, you know, I think a lot of shows have that, but you have to kind of come up with new angles and new ways to shoot it so that people ... so that it doesn't get visually boring. And he did an incredible job, along with out director of photography, Marshall Adams, who, they found all of these ways to shoot that courtroom and to shoot in the virtually no-light, candlelit set of that teaser. So even though it's a fairly contained, almost claustrophobic episode, I think they did a fantastic job in figuring out ways to keep things moving and find the drama in these scenes.

Shirleena Cunningham: That shot with Chuck and the candles, ... it's one of the most beautiful shots.

Gordon Smith: Yeah, we were really happy with that. And we've got, there's a camera that we've been using for some of our low-light stuff in the last couple seasons, and it allows us to get those kinds of shots that typically, the cameras are not sensitive enough to do it, but they're getting much better and now we can.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. You guys used film for this episode, too, right?

Gordon Smith: Just a tiny bit of film. When Chuck is having his reaction to the cellphone in the teaser, we did this, Dan and Marshall came up with this really cool way to do that by running some actual film through a film camera, and then kind of double-exposing it. So rolling it and then rolling it back and then rolling it through again. So you get those kind of different images on top of each other that you can really only get from doing that kind of thing. And I think it has a ... it certainly has a cool, visceral impact when you see it, because it's nothing like anything else that we've seen in the show.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay, now what happened to Jimmy's  goldfish?

Gordon Smith: Right now? Well as of the end of last season, the goldfish is still a-okay. I don't think we've given him a name yet, her a name yet. But the goldfish, Jimmy has kept the goldfish. He didn't have it in his heart to just flush it away. And you know, I think the vet would never work with him again if he did because he goes to great pains to tell him to treat the goldfish all right.

Shirleena Cunningham: The wide shot with the three animals, cracks me up every time.
Gordon Smith: That's awesome. I'm glad. We wanted that to be some ... there's not a lot of humor, it's a fairly dark episode. So when we were able to find, especially when Dan was able to find humorous moments, and humorous images, we were all for it. We were like, that's great.

Shirleena Cunningham: I know you guys are always looking for ways to bring back Breaking Bad characters in a very organic way, how did Huell come back exactly?

Gordon Smith: We were thinking about ... we thought, well we were trying to, when we were working out what the pieces of this were, you know? What the ... what would Jimmy need to do? How would Jimmy do it? We felt like, okay so he's going to ... he wanted to expose some of Chuck's, some of the cracks in Chuck's conception about his own illness. And the fact that Chuck is not willing to admit this could be a mental illness was sort of the major fault line that Jimmy plans to attack. And in order to do that, we're like okay well, it would be great if he could get something close to Chuck that Chuck didn't know about.

 And when we started thinking about that, we'd seen, you know we knew from Breaking Bad, Huell had done some of the similar kind of work back in the day, so he was a sort of natural case. But then we were just trying to figure out, how does Jimmy come into contact with Huell? How does Jimmy meet this guy? And from there, we just sort of figured, the chain works pretty well if Jimmy asks Mike to do it, Mike would say no, we felt. We felt like that's not a problem that Mike would really do, but he could pass him along to the vet, who could then fulfill that need.

Shirleena Cunningham: Awesome!

Shirleena Cunningham: Now, did you guys plan on this specifically, when Jimmy reveals his con and Huell stands up, there was a big Breaking Bad moment. Where Francesca, Huell, and Jimmy, for the very first time, 'Saul's Dream Team', is there in one room.  Both of them where hired, by Jimmy or Saul, to pull this con on Chuck. 

Gordon Smith: I think we were happy that we could get them, and we didn't really set that, that was something that I think was not as front and center in our minds. But I think that we did kind of like that we could get, you know, as you say, that is the start of kind of a dream team for Saul, is seeing them all there. But yeah, we felt ... It was a happy accident, I would say. Or not even a happy accident, because it wasn't an accident, but it was a happy knock-on effect from the other parts of the story.

Shirleena Cunningham: Okay, so Kim, throughout the whole season, and leading up, obviously to the end, where she ends up in the car accident. Kim's nerves start to build up and she becomes a big ball of nerves. Then in this episode, in the hallway, you can see her breathing, before she meets Kevin and Paige,...Then that deep breath  after they leave... And that breath says... it continues.

Gordon Smith: True. Her problems aren't solved by Kevin and Paige believing, you know, having heard this story and not immediately jumping to conclusions. Her problems continue and get more and more complicated as they go. And she is taking on, she is not unwinding her stress in any productive way, in this season. As you say, all the way, culminating in her just, not sleeping, and not, working too hard. And that leads to her car crash. So.

Shirleena Cunningham: Yeah. Poor Howard, he's in the same situation, because ever since Chuck has gone ill, he's been pretty much Chuck's babysitter.  And now this whole thing with Jimmy, Chuck has turned into this 13 year old girl who thinks the whole world is against him, and he's seeking out revenge against his brother. Now, Howard is like, oh my God, this is one more thing. And now we lost this client, a huge client, to one of our former associates. Chuck's very important, but he's destroying the firm. Howard wants to get rid of Chuck but he can't. 
 It's a very difficult situation that Howard's going through-

Gordon Smith: It is a tricky situation for Howard to be in, for sure. He's stuck between his loyalty to Chuck and his responsibility as an attorney. And he's trying to thread that needle, but it gets more and more difficult as the season goes on. His loyalty to somebody who means a lot to him, eventually kind of can't mean enough. Because he has other responsibilities, responsibilities to the firm that are not the same as his responsibilities to Chuck and responsibilities to his clients that are not the same as his responsibilities to Chuck.

 And so that pressure kind of, as you say, the pressure kind of builds on him. Which, you know, we've obviously all we, kind of a cool trick that you end up having to do in dramatic writing is you're always trying to put your characters under pressure. Because the more pressure that is building, the more dramatic the situation is. So, we're trying to be mean to all of our characters all the time.

Shirleena Cunningham:  I always love seeing Jimmy and Kim alone together. They have such great chemistry. The scene where they're brushing their teeth and getting ready. It really shows that their a team. It's the little things that makes their relationship so strong. The moment when Jimmy turns on the water and leaves it on, then Kim turns it off, it's so natural. It reminds me of what happened in the pilot, when Jimmy kicks the trash can, and then Kim went over there, unconsciously, and cleaned up his mess. KIm always has Jimmy's back, through thick and thin. 

Gordon Smith: And we like doing those kinds of moments where they, where we can see them and think, it's a, we are not a kind of sentimental show most of the time. We don't have characters that tell each other they love them and blah blah blah. But we try and include those gestures that show those things. That show that yeah, she's with him, she's got his back and like that there. It's just a sort of simple intimacy of brushing your teeth together, that can kind of tell you what state the characters are in with each other.

Shirleena Cunningham: When writing a unique character into the storyline for your show, what process do you use to try and get into your character's mindset?

Gordon Smith: Oh, yeah. Well we spend a lot of time trying to get into the character's mindsets. We spend a lot of time both when we're on script and when we're writing. But especially when we're in the room breaking the story, you know we spent hours and hours and hours and days on days, asking the question, okay, where is this character, where's their head at? And usually, or often what that requires is going back to the episodes up until then and saying okay, these things have all happened. What has the character just done? What is the character, what has Jimmy done just prior to this?

And when we do that, it kind of helps us to answer that question. Because it's like well, he did this thing. And oh, that's a little bit strange. You know? That's interesting, that tells me something about what's going on inside him. There's a million options at any one point in anybody's life about what to do next. And finding out what they do, what they do do, explains a little bit of what's going on inside them. So, we kind of just sort of ask what the givens are. Like, okay, we're here in this moment, Jimmy has just, you know, Jimmy has just revealed his brother in court. Okay, where is his head. How does he feel about that? We ask that question and we sort of take it through kind of asking how does he feel about his brother? How excited is he? And so on and so forth.

So we'll do a recap of any given relationship or any series of things that seem most pressing. And then you know, someone will be like, you know, what about this other episode? And we know this from episode 201 and we know this from episode 103. And we'll just kind of sketch in what the history of the character has been and what their attitudes have been through time. And knowing that they can change and everything, and knowing that they should change, but to figure out exactly where they are at that moment.

And that's how we get into their heads, and that helps us kind of inform when we're going off the right. What are they going to say, what's the attitude, what's the feeling that we want.

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