Besides Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould, nobody has written more episodes in the Breaking Bad universe than Thomas “Tom” Schnauz, and Monday night’s outing, the aptly titled “Breaking Bad,” ends the two-time Emmy winner’s tenure in spectacular fashion.
Schnauz, who first met Vince Gilligan at NYU film school, eventually worked alongside the future Breaking Bad creator and Better Call Saul co-creator on The X-Files and its own spinoff The Lone Gunmen. During a mid-2000s phone call, Schnauz’s joke about a mobile meth lab inspired Gilligan to create Breaking Bad, which Schnauz later joined in season three. His debut script was the Michelle MacLaren-directed “One Minute,” featuring Hank’s (Dean Norris) shootout with the Salamanca cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada), and the barn-burner episode took Breaking Bad to a whole new level, critically speaking. On Breaking Bad season 5A, Schnauz then made a splash with his directorial debut, “Say My Name,” which said goodbye to fan-favorite Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks).
After twelve years and 20 scripts, Schnauz had the enviable task of bringing Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) back into the fold by way of Better Call Saul’s “Breaking Bad,” but because of scheduling, he had to write and shoot their scene inside the famous RV six or seven months prior to the rest of the episode’s filming.
“We had a very small window, and I had to write the scene way ahead of the actual [“Breaking Bad” 611] script. And we shot it in April of 2021 while Vince [Gilligan] was shooting episode two of [season six]. So Vince took a break in his schedule, and we knocked off the scene in a day and a half,” Schnauz tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Schnauz also breaks down Gene Takavic’s (Bob Odenkirk) disturbing behavior following his phone call with Francesca (Tina Parker) and his subsequent call to what he believes is Kim Wexler’s (Rhea Seehorn) current place of employment.
The return to Breaking Bad episode “Better Call Saul” inside of Better Call Saul episode “Breaking Bad” was partially shot before the episode started filming in earnest. Were Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul’s schedules quite complicated?
Schedules were very complicated. They are two very busy actors involved with other shows, and they had facial hair issues to deal with. Aaron had to have a beard or something for whatever he was shooting coming up. So we had a very small window, and I had to write the scene way ahead of the actual  script. And we shot it in April of 2021 while Vince [Gilligan] was shooting episode two of [season six]. So Vince took a break in his schedule, and we knocked off the scene in a day and a half.
Did it feel like old times?
It did feel like old times. We slipped right back into it. It was just like, “Boy, we’re back in the world of Breaking Bad.” And these guys were ready and willing. It was just a lot of fun.
Were there any other in-between moments you considered for Walt and Jesse’s return?
Yeah, we talked about everything, and we finally settled on this because it felt like a sweet spot of how we could address Lalo. This also felt like a good gap for information from when they kidnapped Saul Goodman. What do you say to your kidnappers after this happens? What’s the weird, awkward conversation that happens post-kidnapping and driving him back to his office to get his car? So we talked about whether it was all taking place during the drive back, but we finally decided that we were not in a moving vehicle, just to make our lives easier. It was right when they re-entered the RV, and Saul got a look at exactly what was going on and how crazy it was that he was kidnapped inside a mobile meth lab. So it just felt like this was the sweet spot. Way back, we talked about one of the obvious places to come in on this, when Walt meets Saul for the first time in his office. Walt was posing as Brandon Mayhew’s (Matt Jones) uncle, so that felt like something we would want to do. But we talked about so many different ways to get into this, and the RV just felt like the right one.
As far as Kim (Rhea Seehorn), I’ve always believed that there are many fates worse than death, and fittingly enough, she now resides in Florida.
While I’m glad you’ve defied the prequel fallacy that characters not seen on Breaking Bad have to die, was her survival something you’ve had in mind for a little while? [Writer’s Note: Francesca’s unseen phone call with Kim also suggests survival.]
Well, I don’t want to give anything away, but we don’t hear the phone call. So we don’t know exactly what Gene is told. It’s something very upsetting. It’s something that upsets him a lot. So I think we have to wait and see exactly what went down on that phone call, and we will hear the details of it in a future episode.
As soon as Jimmy solves the Jeff (Pat Healy) problem, he learns from Francesca that his various financial assets have all been seized. Is that why he’s acting so desperate for money even though he’s been affording the lifestyle of Gene Takavic just fine?
He’s not desperate for money. He still has all the diamonds in a little Band-Aid case, and Francesca mentions all that money he got away with and he kind of sloughs it off. So he is not desperate for money. He’s not doing this for money at all. He’s doing this because something about that phone call brought up a lot of pain and hurt. And as we know from the past — and all that went down with Howard Hamlin, and Kim hiding the truth about Lalo and the reasons why she did it, and the breakup that happened — it all caused a lot of pain that pushed him into going full Saul Goodman. He’s been Gene for a while now, but he had a little taste of Saul Goodman or Slippin’ Jimmy or whatever you want to call it, in episode 610 with the mall scam. He was able to push that aside, but something on that phone call upset him so much that the pain welled up again and he had to go back to his drug of choice, which is Saul Goodman, to numb that pain. So he’s doing none of this for money. I don’t think he gives a crap about any of the money. As we see in the montage, he just shoves it in a hole and leaves it there. The money is really secondary. I mean, it’s part of the game. It’s how you keep score. How much money you earn during these scams is a way of scorekeeping how successful you are. That’s the only reason he cares about the money. It’s like, “How many points did I score today?”
Jimmy does quite the face turn as he refuses to let go of a cancer-stricken mark (Kevin Sussman’s Mr. Lingk), and the fact that he didn’t actually need the money makes it even more disturbing. This actually might be his most villainous moment ever. So why hasn’t he learned from the last “Cancer Man” who led to his undoing? You’re obviously paralleling his decisions involving both their doors for a reason. [Writer’s Note: “Cancer Man” is the title of Breaking Bad 104.]
Yeah, I mean, just look at ourselves and the history of everything that’s going on in the world. We never seem to learn from our mistakes, and that’s certainly something we’re portraying with Jimmy McGill. When Chuck died and Howard took the blame for it, he did all the things that Jimmy should have done. He went to therapy, and he worked through the steps and made himself better. He tried to heal himself while Jimmy, instead of doing that, let Howard take the blame and pushed all the pain down and acted out and did scams instead. So Jimmy/Saul/Gene never learned the tools and he never had the tools to make himself a better person. He acted out and caused pain in other people to make himself feel better. So he’s doing that again, unfortunately.
Once he hears that the guy has cancer in the bar, you think for a moment that he feels bad for the guy and is maybe going to turn around, but the drug is too good and making himself feel better outweighs letting this guy off the hook. He just tells himself that [the mark] is going to die in a few months anyway, and he’s going to die before he even knows that all this information was taken. The way the scam works is that they drug these guys, get all their info, sell it to somebody else, and they don’t learn that they’ve been taken until months later. So part of him just feels like he needs to rack up more points on this score and take this guy down. So he fires [Jeff’s friend] (Max Bickelhaup) who won’t do it, and he decides to go do it himself.
We also received some updates on a few Breaking Bad characters. As Walt suggested, Skyler (Anna Gunn) did, in fact, use the lottery ticket coordinates to broker a deal. The oddly persistent Huell (Lavell Crawford) question was also answered as he’s back in Louisiana. Kuby (Bill Burr), Danny Wormald (Mark Proksch) and Ira (Franc Ross) were mentioned, but no updates were given. So what was the strategy here as far as which i’s to dot and which t’s to cross?
I don’t know if there was a lot of thought or strategy put into who we needed to touch on. They just felt right. Huell was a friend of Jimmy’s, and it just felt like he was a guy we needed to touch on. Kuby was a very important player at the end, so it just felt funny to mention him and have Francesca [shrug her shoulders]. He’s like D-Day at the end of Animal House. He just disappears. He’s one of those guys who gets away. And I’m glad you connected Danny to Daniel Wormald. It was always a dream of mine to bring back Mark Proksch as Danny, to be the Danny for [Saul’s] laser tag business [Lazer Base]. So this was just my way of hinting at something. The reason I named him Daniel way back when was because I was hoping that some plot would unfold, allowing us to bring him back as the Danny of the laser tag [business], but it just didn’t work out. So this is my nod to that. It does exist in the world; we just didn’t get to see it. Ira was another important player so it just felt like he was somebody who should be mentioned.
We talked a little bit about somehow connecting everything back to the group of Nazis that kidnapped Jesse and maybe figuring out whatever happened to all that money [that they stole from Walt]. Where did that go? So we talked a lot about trying to tie that thread up, but it just felt like it was taking away from the emotional story that we wanted to tell with Gene.
It’s a stroke of genius that you had Oakley (Peter Diseth) swoop in on Saul’s territory, becoming Albuquerque’s newest and most trusted bus bench attorney.
(Laughs.) I’m glad you saw that. Yeah, once Saul Goodman packed up and left town, there was a real void, and we just thought it would be funny if Oakley switched sides.
In 2015, producer Jenn Carrol and executive producer Gordon Smith wrote a comic called Client Development for the AMC website, and it covered similar territory as the scene where Mike briefs Saul. However, you ultimately went in a different direction than the comic, and I quite liked how Mike was against the idea of working with Walt just a few weeks before Gus first rejected him. This Breaking Bad scene, as well as the one at Walt’s high school, are also paralleling what’s happening in Omaha. So was the Omaha story born out of these Breaking Bad moments?
I think we talked to Omaha first. We tried to figure out how Omaha plays out, and that’s when we started thinking, “Boy, this is a really good opportunity to flash back to the world of Saul Goodman and show the parallels.” So the Omaha story and all the details of that were broken first, and then we started thinking, “Boy, it’d be great to see Mike again, because Jonathan Banks is awesome, obviously, and we don’t want to lose the character entirely. So it would be good to have a scene between those two guys discussing Walter White, and show the same feelings of, ‘Boy. I should let this go, but I can’t,’” which is exactly what Gene is going through. He should absolutely let this go, but he obviously cannot let go, because, again, he’s got to have that drug in his veins.
In Mike Ehrmantraut’s introduction on Breaking Bad 213, he wore sunglasses that he never wore again on the show. So I’ve been wondering for years if they were going to appear at some point on Better Call Saul, and sure enough, they did. But given the way that Mike drops the glasses on the table, was that another sign that he is annoyed by Saul and his chi machine? Or was Banks subtly indicating that he wasn’t too keen on the fashion choice?
Mike is 100 percent annoyed with the chi machine. He’s just fed up. I didn’t direct Jonathan to do that. That was his own choice, but it was absolutely me who wanted him to wear the sunglasses. I didn’t work on the show in season two [when Mike was introduced], so I was simply a fan of Breaking Bad. And I was a fan of Jonathan Banks because I used to watch Wiseguy all the time. So when he came on screen in Breaking Bad with those sunglasses, it really made an impression on me, and it did eventually sink in my head, “Boy, we never saw those sunglasses again.” So I absolutely wanted to bring those sunglasses back, and it was scripted that he’s wearing the same sunglasses that he wore when he was introduced in Breaking Bad.
I just had to ask about Banks’ own reaction since he tends to let you know if he’s unenthused by a costume choice.
(Laughs.) I’m sure he threatened to punch me in the throat once or twice about something. I just remember it being a very fun scene to shoot. Bob came in dressed as Saul Goodman, and he was in a really good mood as this was post all of his medical issues. We shot the first [Breaking Bad-era] scene with Aaron and Bryan before his medical issues, and six or seven months later, we shot the rest of the episode. So it was just fun to have him dressed up as Saul Goodman, and I feel like Bob had a real good time yitzing Mike in that scene.
Knowing that this was your last episode in this universe, did you put more pressure on yourself to come up with inventive movements and angles? In other words, were you consciously trying to outdo yourself?
I don’t think I approached this one any differently than the rest. The montage was very ambitious because there were a lot of shots and we only had so much time to shoot it. So we were picking up montage shots over here while we were shooting another scene over there. So it was just a matter of me and my first AD, Rich Sickler, being very organized about how to pick all this stuff up. But I don’t think I did any camera movements or anything that wouldn’t have been in another episode. I was glad to get that shot at the high school of Saul, prior to the scene in Breaking Bad 208, where he confronts Walt in his classroom. But I didn’t really do anything differently, and it didn’t feel like there was any added pressure. Once we shot the Walt, Jesse and Saul scene way back in April and got that cut together, I knew I could probably screw up the rest of the episode and people would still like this one because of seeing those guys again. (Laughs.) It was shot and edited back in April just to make sure we had it all, but once that scene was done, I felt like, “OK, we’re pretty good from here on out.”
Better Call Saul is now airing on AMC. This interview was edited for length and clarity.