Season 6 of “Better Call Saul” is a tiny break from tradition from the start. Rather than open on Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) living out his days as an assuming Cinnabon employee in Omaha, Nebraska, the season premiere “Wine and Roses” starts on a melancholy tour through the house he left behind. There’s a glimpse of his flashy, rainbow-colored wardrobe, lavish wall art, and a general interior decor that’s far more palatial than you might expect from the Jimmy we’ve seen over the first five seasons of the AMC series.
As the camera winds its way through inside corridors and out toward the dumpster and moving van hauling everything away, the house-clearers dispatch all of Jimmy’s things with ballet-like precision. Of course, as the episode’s cinematographer Marshall Adams describes it, that’s not a coincidence at all.
“[Director] Michael [Morris] and our first AD Rich Sickler had this idea about using a dance troupe for that sequence. So those are all members of a single dance troupe and they basically were keeping time. We rehearsed for an entire Sunday, getting all of those shots exactly right before the whole crew came in on Monday, and we started actually doing it on Monday and Tuesday. They were laid out to the beat, to the moment, just exactly how Michael wanted them,” Adams said.
It’s the kind of elegant execution and visual storytelling that has marked “Better Call Saul” and its predecessor projects — Adams was the DP on “El Camino” and multiple “Breaking Bad” episodes as well — over the years. It’s also far from the only tricky challenge in the opening chapter of Season 6.
While the dancers were busy executing their routine elsewhere, there was another group perfecting their own moves, off-camera. The very first glimpse of Saul Goodman’s belongings is a cascade of ties, falling down into frame. Getting that clump to tumble in just the right way required its own bit of technical choreography with a Photo-Sonics camera.
“Michael had that idea about starting with the ties, and I just thought it was fantastic. When we shot that, I had a separate unit working on the tie sequence pretty much all day,” Adams said. “We shot that at 480 frames, I think they ended up playing it back at 240. So that entire shot only lasts about three quarters of a second. The ties were being fed from from two different conveyor belts, one on each side. So the placement was critical and obviously, it was random how they fell. But you had to get the placement just right for them to fall at the right time in the right sequence. It was a lot of trial and error, but I just thought that was such a cool idea.”
Later, there’s a floor-eye view of the house’s indoor pool as a Saul Goodman standee floats like Joe Gillis, facedown on the surface. Originally, that bit of cardboard was going to be the tour guide of sorts through the rest of the interior.
“They trimmed it down for time, but we actually had a camera attached to that standee. The guy pulls it out of the water and he walks through the whole house with it attached to it, with Bob’s face in the foreground, which was a lot of fun. I’m hoping they’ll include that stuff on the Blu-ray later on,” Adams said.
Maybe the most striking visual moment of the episode is an extreme close-up of the tip of a finger, with an ant crawling along the hand of one of the mercenaries sent to assassinate Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton). A slow pullback reveals that the hired gun is now a corpse, lying in the middle of a crime scene. It’s an impressive technical achievement, done in a single practical take. But on the day, the star of the shot wasn’t exactly the best at hitting its mark.
“That ant was not being cooperative at all. He was the clumsiest ant I’ve ever seen. He was falling off the finger. He couldn’t hold on. And then, all of a sudden, everything just happened to land perfectly in one take. Michael just said, ‘That’s it. We’re moving on. That was too good. I’m not gonna not gonna risk it,'” Adams said. “The tricky part, when you’re starting on something that tight is starting the move-off gently. A quarter of an inch when you’re that tight is a huge move, so that that always ends up being the tricky part.”
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Fortunately, this is an example of what the team was able to accomplish with a little extra time beforehand for Season 6 logistics. Even on a tight production day, they were able to capture that crime scene from all the necessary angles.
“That shot specifically, Michael and I had set up on stage during our prep, just to see how it was gonna lay out and if we could make it happen. The timing of that day was very critical with the shadows on the deck and the shot looking up at the two Cousins with the flare. Those all had to be at one specific moment. We had about a 15-to-20-minute window. So it was critical that we set that up and look at it and make sure we could iron the bugs out,” Adams said.
While The Cousins are busy scouring the compound for signs of him, Nacho (Michael Mando) makes his way through the desert on his way to a safe hiding place. At one point, he takes refuge inside a drain pipe, first as a place to grab a much-needed drink of water, and then to get protection from the shadows inside.
“The tricky part actually was getting a camera on the head inside that drain pipe and we had to have running water down it. It was at the height of Covid, so there was all kinds of planning and thought that went into where that water was going to come from and how it was going to be treated. It had to be sterilized and handled for Michael to be able to drink it,” Adams said.
As far as the location itself, it was a matter of bringing a key addition to a place that’s gotten plenty of use over the years.
“There’s an area behind the studio that we use for a lot of that stuff that kind of started on ‘Breaking Bad.’ It functioned as back areas in Mexico for many, many seasons. There was a natural road that was already built. You see it later on when they drive over the top of him. They dug that hole, they dug that pipe in there, sterilized it and kept it all covered up and cleaned,” Adams said. “We had to be very careful about how we got the camera in so we didn’t step in anything and leave dirt in the water that he was going to drink. And on a drain pipe like that you want to make sure that there’s absolutely no chance that that thing could collapse. We had an engineer out there, watching the whole time and figuring out exactly what it could take. It was quite involved, but I love the way that thing handled the light. That was something that I just kind of discovered on the night. We were edging it, with lights that are just out of frame on both sides. And man, it just knocked me out.”
And of course, it wouldn’t be a “Better Call Saul” episode without a little onboard camera trickery. When Jimmy arrives at the courthouse for his day’s work and he sends his bag through the metal detector, the audience watches as it travels along the conveyor belt toward the other side. For all the intricacies required elsewhere, there are times when the show can take advantage of some simpler setups.
“We carry a small BMPCC [Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera] for such an occasion. It’s not a whole lot bigger than a still camera and it’s really served as well. The gaffer actually had to put a little green light in there, but it literally was strapping a monitor and a cable so that we could watch it go through,” Adams said. “The directors are always trying to come up with a new idea for a way into the scene or out of a scene. It can be simple, or they can be very complicated. You just never know what we’re gonna do.”
“Better Call Saul” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on AMC and is available on AMC+.