Editor’s note: The below interview contains spoilers for Season 6 Episode 6 of Better Call Saul, “Axe and Grind.”
The long-running AMC series Better Call Saul might technically serve as a prequel to Breaking Bad, but has carved out a storytelling niche all its own in the realm of drama television thanks to unexpected twists and phenomenal performances. The show chronicles the journey of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a former conman who aspires to become a decent lawyer, through his seemingly-inevitable descent into the role of crooked criminal defense attorney Saul Goodman. Throughout the prior five seasons, Jimmy’s backstory has played almost in tandem with flash-forward scenes from his post-Breaking Bad life, as we learn more about the people who played such a formative role in shaping his burgeoning professional career in law (like his now-wife Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, or his now-late older brother Charles McGill, played by Michael McKean). We also learn how Jimmy’s path first crossed with that of former police officer and security expert Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks), and how he ultimately became a “friend of the cartel” rather unwittingly, thanks to tangling with members of the deadly Salamanca crime family, spearheaded by the unpredictable Lalo (Tony Dalton), who frequently clashes with rival drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Ahead of the premiere of Better Call Saul Season 6 Episode 6, “Axe and Grind,” Collider had the opportunity to speak with Esposito about sitting down in the director’s chair to helm what proved to be an utter nail-biter of an episode, especially knowing that there’s only the midseason finale that now awaits viewers. Over the course of the interview, which you can read below, Esposito also discussed what it was like to be on set for an episode he didn’t appear in, how his preparation process differs when it involves being behind or in front of the camera, what allows him to flourish as a director, the most challenging scene for him to tackle in this week’s episode, and more.
Collider: It was a pleasant surprise to see that you had stepped into the director’s chair for Monday’s episode. Were you approached, or had you expressed interest in directing? I know that you’ve directed before, so I’m just wondering how this all came together.
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: Yeah. I was approached by them. They called me in August, Peter [Gillian], and Vince [Gould,] and Melissa Bernstein, our producer, and asked. I was really quite shocked and amazed because it’d been almost 10 years since I had given my second feature film to Vince with the hope that maybe I could be considered to direct an episode of Breaking Bad. Then I saw how it kind of goes, that writers graduate to directors, and people were in line, and I never asked again. I was very respectful of the process that it takes to be able to be invited.
When I was invited, I screamed at the top of my lungs, took the phone from my ear, and went, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening.” And then right after that moment, I was like, “Oh my God, how do I do this?” They have a very definitive, distinctive visual style. I’ve directed feature films. This is directing a feature film on television. I equate this season to being the most magnificent ever because it just keeps growing and getting better and better in terms of how the visual story is told. I want it to be able to fit into that visual story in a seamless way without getting in my own way, so that’s how it all came about. Then to extend that, there was great support and great questions asked by the masters of the universe who are Better Call Saul. Peter Gould is really quite amazing at how he sees this show and has such a great grasp on what the show is really about and how all the other characters extend themselves through that visual — not only of Albuquerque, but of Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman and Gene all wrapped into one, and this very complicated relationship he has with Kim Wexler.
How does your approach differ when you’re preparing to direct an episode versus preparing to appear in one as an actor? Is it a matter of asking different questions? I guess the other side of that would be: are there any similarities between the two hats that people might be surprised to know exist?
ESPOSITO: Well, depends. Rhea [Seehorn] would probably answer this question a little bit differently than me because she had an episode where she was in a lot of scenes. This episode for me was in a way of blessing because I could focus particularly on directing and not have to think too much about Gustavo — except, by extension, through the scenes with Lalo Salamanca and how much I wanted to kill him, which may have heightened the tension because I was hoping you’d feel like maybe he would lose his life. You look at it very differently.
As an actor, you can isolate because you’re not in every scene of every episode, so you can pull your stuff out and isolate and focus really closely on a particular piece of the episode that you’re in.
As a director, you’re looking at the complete episode of what it’s trying to say, and you’re trying to not insert yourself, but bring something, insert yourself in a way that brings more light to the characters that these folks are already playing and have played for years and probably know better than you. But you’re there to be an observer and to pick up on their physical essence and what they do that you could focus on to tell the story better. Then you’re there to blend the whole story together because it’s part of a block of many stories that will lead to an end.
For me, the major challenge is to forget I’m an actor when I’m directing and use the skills I have as an actor of observance, observing, and listening, right? So you listen to your actors when they’re rehearsing, and you hear for nuance that might guide you in the way you want to shoot it. You listen, if something’s working or not. Now you pay attention to where they might stumble on dialogue to know where they might feel a little less comfortable than they normally would. All of those things help me as a director, but certainly, the biggest thing is to know visually how I want to tell it.
Then the other biggest thing is to not know visually how to tell it so that there’s still an openness, and I’m not etched in stone or rooted in one way to do it. Because many things change in film. Locations change, things don’t work, angles you thought would work don’t. Particularly, in the very tense scene with Lalo and Casper in the barn. I didn’t want to see someone’s foot hanging off by its skin, blood. I didn’t want to go into a horror movie. I wanted it to be real, and I wanted to be believable that Lalo is about to die.
I pay a lot of attention to the stage directions that are written, as I did way back in the beginning when I was asked to do Breaking Bad. What got me to do this show was I didn’t want to do any more guest spots, but what really got me to focus on who this guy was and how I could bring this to life with the aid of good writing and the blessing of Vince was one line in a stage direction that said, “hiding in plain sight.” Boy, I was intrigued by that, and that did it for me. I mean, that allowed my imagination to soar. This dude is hiding in plain sight. He’s so affable, so nice, gives to the Fun Run, goes to the children’s hospital. The dude’s a really good dude. Is he? I don’t know. So it’s things like that allow me to start to really flourish, or flower, as a director, paying attention to all that lead to the strengthening of the whole and not trying to overwork it, overdo it, but find the right balance.
This is an episode that’s intense on a lot of levels, not only the Lalo and Casper scene, like you mentioned. We also get Kim doubling down in deciding to go ahead with the scam. There’s a lot of big drama. What was the most challenging sequence to film?
ESPOSITO: Well, there were a few challenging moments. The most challenging, you’re asking me. I think the most challenging was the barn, was really to feel — because I knew what I wanted to see. I wanted to see head-to-toe Casper, so I wanted to see what was more important for me to see. The strike was one thing, to be able to achieve without it being too bloody but believable — and the table turns, so that scene took a turn. I had to figure out in my brain: what was that turn? How did that turn happen? How would I shoot the car coming in? How would I shoot Lalo coming to the trees? How would I create the tension I needed to be able to be extended into the barn?
Once in the barn, there’s a big lighting change. It’s kind of dark, you don’t see. There’s a sort of cat and mouse chase for a moment in the walk and look and walk, and then there’s a surprise of being overtaken and not expecting it. There’s one character who’s disarmed, literally disarmed, and he’s going to come to his end. I wanted you to feel that, and then, wow, how do these tables turn?
That was the most challenging to get all those moments in and have it still be believable and also have my shots work. But I realized the moment was really in the emotion, the character and physical emotion of the characters, because when I came up Casper’s body and this dude is laying there, his acting is so good He’s so frightened and so scared in that quick moment that the table’s turned, then you see his fear. You go back to Lalo, who’s smiling and says, “Hey, tie that off before you bleed out. We’re going to have a talk.”
It becomes so casual, but again, really fits into what we do in Better Call Saul in what we’re able to do and were able to do before in Breaking Bad, create a really heavy tense moment and then come back to a moment that it could almost be comedic. You’re like, “What the hell just happened?” But it’s so very serious, and then what moment lives beyond that you don’t see? So that’s great filmmaking, you see the imagination of, “Oh, shit, what just happened? Okay, what is going to happen?” And you’re still lingering in that moment, but then you have to stay with it because the story is still going. You’ll find out, you hope, but you can’t forget that because it’s indelible. That’s visual filmmaking at its best.
Season 6 of Better Call Saul airs Monday nights at 9 PM ET/PT on AMC.
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