Better Call Saul writer, co-executive producer, and director Thomas Schnauz owes much of his career success to Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, and he’s not above admitting it. After all, it was Gilligan, his buddy from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, who gave him his first big break in television — writing for The X-Files spinoff series The Lone Gunmen. The job came at a rough patch in Schnauz’s career when he was struggling to get feature screenplays off the ground. Unbelievably, they are still sitting on a shelf — even one he recently wrote with Gilligan’s name above the title, which also never got a second look.
Indeed, there is no rhyme or reason in showbiz, which is why Schnauz, a New Jersey native, set his sights on writing for the small screen and did everything he could to achieve his dreams, taking on odd jobs just to be on set. He worked his way up the ladder prior to winning two Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series for Breaking Bad, which he shared with Gilligan and co-writer Peter Gould — these in addition to nine nominations as a writer-producer on Better Call Saul. He also won three WGA Awards for his work on the writing staffs of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, including one for the episode “Plan and Execution,” which he also directed.
Above the Line recently spoke with Thomas Schnauz via Zoom video from his office in Studio City, where you could see original paintings of View Masters and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots from pop artist Tom Wilson, who played Biff in Back to the Future — paintings that remind him of his humble beginnings growing up in Kearny, New Jersey.
Schnauz discussed how he initially linked up with Gilligan and described a hive mind in the writer’s room, where he would help come up with mind-boggling legal scenarios for Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy McGill, aka Gene Takovic, to weasel his way through. Schnauz also talked about his relationship with Bob Odenkirk and how the actor’s near-fatal heart attack affected him, and how he circumvented fan expectations amid overwhelming social media chatter — particularly with regards to certain cameos he was forced to lie about.
Above the Line: With all these childhood memories in your office, what do you remember most about your journey from New Jersey to Hollywood?
Thomas Schnauz: It was a lot of dumb luck to get from Kearny to Hollywood because, growing up, nobody I knew was in show business or had wanted anything to do with show business. At some point, I started collecting comic books [and] writing and drawing my own comic books, and [I] got the idea that I could tell stories. Jumping ahead, I went to Rutgers University for two years in New Jersey, wondering what I was going to do for a living, just taking communications as a starter. But [I was] always interested in television and movies, having a real love and passion for that but not really knowing how somebody like me could get into that.
ATL: How did you make your first move into the idea of writing professionally?
Schnauz: I was at NYU (New York University), and I had a film studies teacher (at Rutgers) named Roger Greenspun, who was very influential. In his class, you’d go watch a movie and then have to write a paper on it that night and turn it in to him in the morning. It made you really think critically about movies and try to get into what the director was thinking. I would write about films from the past, like Singin’ in the Rain. That was really what first [got] me to think about films critically. And that’s when I found out, “Oh, you can go to NYU to study film.” It blew my mind, like, “Wow, boy!” Something rang in me; [I thought], “I want to do that.” Professor Greenspun wrote me a recommendation letter and pretty much helped get me into NYU to study film, television, and writing — specifically how to structure screenplays and television. I just built from there and kept going.
ATL: What were some of the jobs you had after graduating?
Schnauz: After graduating, I did every job possible on a film set, from parking P.A., which, if you don’t know what that is, is just sitting in the car overnight for 12 hours watching cones, saving the parking spots for the trucks that come [into] New York, and then filming. So you don’t even get to stay for the filming. The trucks come in, you take the cones away, and then you go home and sleep. I did that and many other jobs, either with the dream of being a writer or a director of photography. I always had this dream that I would get my own film camera and people would hire me. I did film some karaoke videos. I still have a reel on VHS!
ATL: What was your first big break in screenwriting?
Schnauz: In 1994, the third screenplay I wrote actually got optioned by Paramount. And that was like, “Oh, I could actually make money doing this.” It never got made. To this day, [I] have not had a screenplay that’s ever been made. That is why I jumped into television in the year 2000. I worked as hard as I could to survive by writing these screenplays that never got made. Studios would option them or hire me to write something else, but nothing ever got made. And finally, around 1999 or 2000, I was just running out of money, and I knew Vince Gilligan from NYU, so I called him up. He was very successful on The X-Files, and I said, ‘I’m thinking about television. Do you have any advice?’
I just happened to call him when they were starting the X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen. I knew the show and I knew the characters, and he said, ‘Well, look, we’re just starting this show. Come up with some ideas and fly out to California and pitch ’em to the guys,’ meaning [creators] Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban and him, ‘and let’s see what happens.’
I came up with all these ideas and whittled them down to six. I pitched the six ideas. They liked it enough to hire me to write it. I wrote it. They liked that enough to hire me and put me on staff. Then, when The Lone Gunmen got canceled, they liked me enough to keep me on the X-Files. So it was really just the luck of my calling Vince that particular month. I don’t think that during that window of opportunity, they might have already had a writer come in that they liked, or if I had called earlier, they didn’t have the show going yet. So who knows what would’ve happened?
ATL: So you owe Vince your professional life, essentially?
Schnauz: [laughs] I tell him all the time. He knows it.
ATL: Fast forward to Breaking Bad. At what point did you decide, “Let’s start writing a prequel?”
Schnauz: Sometime in Season 4 or 5, maybe. It was joked about; I don’t even think with any amount of seriousness that there would be a Saul Goodman show. But really, once the show ended, it was up to Peter [Gould], because it was Peter’s character that he kind of came up with for Breaking Bad. So Peter and Vince got together to say, “Could we really do this?” They sold AMC on the idea of doing a spinoff without even knowing what the show was — because when we met in the writer’s room for the first time, it was still being talked about. “Is this a half-hour comedy? What is this?” We didn’t know, and it was really all the writers together kind of coming up with what you see in the first bunch of episodes.
If you watch the first five episodes, you can sort of tell the show doesn’t know what it is exactly. There’s a search going on, but it works for me because Jimmy McGill turns out to be a character in search of his own identity. Is he going to be Matlock, who does elder care? Is he going to be this slimy ambulance chaser? We had all these ideas that he was almost like [the MASH character] Radar O’Reilly, like, he could hear the ambulance before we could hear the ambulance — like, his ears would go up the way radar would hear the helicopters before everybody else could. But we went away from that idea and got into what makes Jimmy McGill who he is, why he turns into Saul Goodman, and all the events that happened.
ATL: When does he become Saul Goodman so to speak?
Schnauz: I mean, honestly, when we started Better Call Saul, we thought he would be Saul Goodman by the end of Season 1, and it just turned out that the more we dug into it, the slower and more stretched out it became. It’s crazy that he didn’t really become Saul Goodman until probably the end of Season 4 when he does the finger-pointing and says “Saul Goodman” to Kim (Rhea Seehorn) that something clicked and he was more Saul than he ever had been before.
ATL: Talk about your relationship with Bob Odenkirk. How did it evolve from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul? Were you on set when he had his near-fatal heart attack?
Schnauz: I wasn’t there when it happened. We had finished filming Episode 7, which was “Plan and Execution,” and Vince had started filming the next episode. So Vince was directing, and they were on stage. Thank God that’s where it happened. I think Bob was on an exercise bike or something because he was in incredible shape because of the film Nobody. He had done all this work and gotten into the best shape of his life, and he was continuing that.
They had an exercise bike on stage, and I seem to remember that somebody said that he had gotten off the bike and then just went down. Luckily, he was around people instead of being in his trailer, which is where he could have easily been when it happened, and he could have died there. Rosa, our head medic, was almost gone for the day, and she had the paddles in the back of her Jeep.
There’s a set medic, but our stage medic Rosa is also there, and she got the call, ran in with the paddles, and zapped him three times. I wasn’t there to experience any of it. I just got a call from Peter saying that something terrible had happened, and he filled me in.
ATL: So, knowing Bob, did you find that he changed after that — was he a different type of person to work with?
Schnauz: Probably. It’s weird. I mean, he was already the captain of the ship. I feel like he really picked up a lot from Bryan Cranston and probably got advice from him on how to be a leader on set because he was always gathering actors or even guest actors — “Let’s meet; let’s rehearse.” I mean, he was really great from the beginning, and I don’t know how much that unfortunate incident changed things for him. I only worked with him one more time after the incident, and I don’t really remember any change in him. I directed him in Episode 7, which was before his heart attack, and then directed him in Episode 11, the “Breaking Bad” episode.
The scene with Aaron Paul and Bryan is a pre-heart attack. We had to film that in secret way back when we were filming Episode 2 because it was the only time we could get Aaron and Bryan together in secret without anyone knowing [in order] to do the scene. So I had to write the scene for Episode 11 right at the beginning of the season and get it ready. Also, Aaron’s scene in Episode 12 (“Waterworks”) and Peter’s scene from “Saul Gone,” the finale, were all written and shot in a three-day period; I think it was April of that year. So, seven months before I actually directed Episode 11, I directed the scene for the show with Bryan and Aaron in it.
ATL: How did you keep the secret of the Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston cross-over with all the internet chatter going on?
Schnauz: It was crazy secrecy, and I thought we’d keep it secret until it aired, but they blurted out the secret at some event. And all the fans were talking about it as well. I’d been lying to everyone about it, including people in interviews. They would ask, ‘Are Bryan and Aaron going to be on the show?’ I would say, ‘Because of their schedules, it’s impossible to really get them together, and because of El Camino, we felt like we paid that off.’ I had this lie down perfectly, and I really thought we were going to get [away with] it all the way up until the show aired and surprise everyone. But then, for promotional purposes, they thought that we’d get more eyes if they let the cat out of the bag.
ATL: How do the fans affect your writing, if at all?
Schnauz: I’d like to say not at all. One of the best things we ever did from the very beginning of Breaking Bad was [to] have the writer’s room be the audience. If we could make us happy, great, and if other people liked it, even better. But we weren’t ever thinking, “Oh, what are the fans going to like? What is so-and-so going like?” We tried to make [ourselves] happy, but then we’d have cameo appearances by actors, and I mean, we weren’t trying to do fans a disservice. We really tried to bring back Breaking Bad characters into Saul to serve the story whenever possible.
I think some part of us would be thinking, “Oh, the fans will love seeing Jesse,” or “They’ll love seeing the cousins (Marco and Leonel Salamanca),” or whoever we brought back. So yes, on the one hand, storywise, whenever we came up with a story, it was, “Does the writer’s room like it?” It wasn’t like we were looking at the internet, trying to see who the fans wanted to see. For story purposes, we thought, “Who could we bring back from the Breaking Bad universe to make fans happy?”
ATL: So let’s talk about Rhea Seehorn and writing for her character Kim Wexler. Was her chemistry with Bob always evident?
Schnauz: Having Bob Odenkirk, who turned out to be [an] even greater actor than I could have imagined, coming from Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, where he was great and very funny, but he got to emotional levels I never thought he could. So, besides Bob, the other two other actors who really shaped the story for the show and where the series went were Michael McKean (Chuck McGill) and Rhea Seehorn, and everything they brought to those roles helped the writers figure out where we could go with them. I can’t even say enough about what Rhea does and how much work she puts in, and then have it look so effortless, like it was just no work at all. She’s incredible.
I cannot say enough good things about Rhea. Until the day I die, I will be singing her praises of how fantastic she is because she would really research — [she’d] read the scripts, break them down, have questions for us, the writers, and really want to understand everything. I mean, down to single words, like why I would say this word, and just get everything locked down so that by the time it came time to shoot the scene, it was like smoothing butter on bread. It was just so easy. And just the looks she could give Bob and [how] those looks of affection show that even though the things that Jimmy McGill does are despicable, she still has some fondness in her heart for this guy. Rhea just helped the show be the success that it was.
ATL: By now, you’re probably not as phased about actors saying your words.
Schnauz: I remember the first time because I had been writing screenplays that never got made for a long time, and all of a sudden, I got this opportunity to work on this X-Files spinoff. I write this script, and then before I know it, there are actors, including Stephen Tobolowsky, who was in my first episode of television, on tape reading your lines, and I’m like, “What?! This has never happened before.”
TV was so fast… you’d write something, and before you knew it, you were in production and just moving at the speed of light to get this thing done. So it was so much more satisfying in the world of television, and still, in the world of film, I’ve written these screenplays, but they still sit on a shelf and don’t get made. The world of film is frustrating, whereas the world of television is completely rewarding because it just happens so much faster.
ATL: With all your success you can’t try and resurrect the screenplays you wrote?
Schnauz: [laughs] You would hope so, but no, it doesn’t work that way. I spent the past year after Saul developing two ideas for television, and they did not get made. So, it’s like you put all this time and effort into doing these things, and then you have an unproduced script to show for it. I mean, Vince and I wrote a script together, and you would think that with Vince’s name on it, that alone would get it made. No. It gets close, but [for] whatever [reason], somebody decides, they’re not going to put the money into it. There’s no rhyme or reason.
ATL: What were the inspirations for all the different aliases for Saul Goodman?
Schnauz: Again, it’s part of the nature of the hive mind. Gene Takovic — I feel like that was a family name that Peter knew. In my own life, my father passed away while we were filming my final episode of Breaking Bad, and that episode was dedicated to him. In the episode “Plan and Execution,” there’s a moment when somebody drops all these soda cans, and it was just something my dad taught me at some point. I didn’t even know why he told me; it was just that you shake a soda can up or it falls on the ground. You just put it down and sort of slowly spin it.
And I have this moment in the episode where Patrick Fabian’s character, Howard Hamlin, has this intern who drops all these soda cans, and he has this teaching moment with this kid. And I just put it in there. And for some reason, everybody is locking on to this moment of, “Does that really work? Is that true?” It’s this sort of fun thing that I was able to put in, something that happened before I was a writer. You just have these real moments that make it into these scripts.
ATL: Have many friends and family recognized themselves as well in some of your writing?
Schnauz: [laughs] Probably, probably. A lot of my family is reading into things that have nothing to do with them, and they think it’s about them. A lot of family members were saying, “Why didn’t you use my name for a character?” It’s like, I used my sister’s name, Andrea, in Breaking Bad, and she ended up getting shot in the head (the character Todd Alquist shoots Andrea to punish Jesse for attempting to escape and refusing to cook for him). I was like, ‘Is that the ending you want? For your character to be shot in the head by Jesse Plemons?!’
ATL: What would you say was your biggest contribution to this series?
Schnauz: I mean, everybody contributes equally to everything. Hopefully, I made the series a little funnier and maybe darker at times, [too]. All the writers are rowing in the same direction, and we all put a ton of effort into it. I couldn’t tell you, specifically, what my contribution was. If you ask Peter Gould what I contributed, maybe he will be able to parse it out better than I can. I have what we always refer to as the hive mind, where you see an idea in a show and you can’t remember who came up with it. It’s like, we all did it together, in a weird way.
ATL: Looking back on all six seasons, what was the most rewarding thing for you?
Schnauz: I think the way “Plan and Execution” came out, I was very happy with that. I was very happy to get so many directing spots on the show. Peter and Vince were both very generous with that and trusted me right from Season 1. I’m proud of all the episodes. I love the music montage we did in Episode 11, which connected with the Breaking Bad flashback with Walter and Jesse.
I love the way we surprise people and are able to bring the two sides, the Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) story and the Jimmy story, together and surprise everyone, which we also did in Episode 9, “Bad Choice Road.” I’m very proud of that episode. Again, two separate storylines came together in a surprising way when Lalo came into their apartment and asked Jimmy to repeat the story over and over again, almost getting him to break until Kim had this great moment and stood up to him and read the riot act. I’m proud of every episode, even the ones I didn’t write and direct.
ATL: What is the secret to getting an audience to rewatch a series over and over?
Schnauz: From very early on, when working on the X-Files, Chris Carter‘s method of building a story to an exact break and having a twist of wanting to get people to come back and keep watching. It was always really [about] constructing these stories in a way that would surprise you, but even after seeing the surprise, you’re still interested in them because of the psychology of the characters and how they got to that point. So even if you know what’s going to happen, you still want to watch it.
I go back and watch Colombo episodes all the time, which is a show that starts you off with the murder, shows you exactly how the murder happens, and then the fun is watching Colombo figure out what you already know and try to trick the person he’s up against.
I always want to try to work on something that gets people to come back and watch it again. Everybody, every writer, every director, just put everything into these episodes of Better Call Saul, and I’m just glad that it’s something I know a lot of people will hopefully go back and rewatch. Hopefully, it’s not one of those shows that you watch once and say, “Oh, that was great,” [and] then forget about it. It’s something you want to go back and revisit and watch again and again.
All six seasons of Better Call Saul are now streaming on AMC Plus.