In Legal Ethics With Kim Wexler, Better Call Saul EP Melissa Bernstein found a compelling, new opportunity to extend the universe created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, examining with humor a character who’d found herself at a major moral crossroads.
The critically acclaimed spin-off to Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul centers on Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a small-time lawyer and beaten down con man, on a downward spiral toward a life of crime and corruption. In the drama, Rhea Seehorn plays Wexler, an upstanding attorney, who becomes entangled with McGill—and his alter ego, Saul Goodman—on both professional and romantic levels.
Prior to Legal Ethics, Bernstein had produced two installments of Employee Training, centered on Albuquerque drug boss Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and criminal enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). The former won Bernstein the Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series, and with Legal Ethics, the executive producer is back in the race.
Below, the three-time Emmy winner discusses the inspiration behind the short-form series, highlights from production on Better Call Saul Season 5, “sewing up” Saul’s story in Season 6, and how the artists behind the drama are navigating the challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, as they look to return to set.
DEADLINE: How did the Employee Training short-form series come about? What kinds of opportunities did you see in making it?
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: We’ve created a bit of a mini-universe here—a ‘Gilli-verse,’ as Peter Gould is wont to say—and we look for ways to expand that universe, in a way that doesn’t box us in any kind of story corner, but allows us to get to know the characters a little better. Also, we look for opportunities to give to our more junior staff members—our writers’ assistants, our script coordinators and the like—to use their creative brains, and take all the knowledge they’ve gained from our process, and from all the detailed work they do on the show, and have a venue to apply it. So, it actually achieves a few goals for us, and AMC has always been really supportive about being creative about those opportunities.
DEADLINE: Has production on the short-form series overlapped with work on Better Call Saul?
BERNSTEIN: The writers’ room is open for a long time on our show, and then in our production and post, we end up working year-round. So, there’s no way to avoid overlap, I guess I would say.
This one, we were doing with Ariel Levine, who was our writers’ assistant, and who this year is a staff writer, and who co-wrote the season finale last year. I remember we were working with her when we were prepping the [Better Call Saul] finale, because the whole point, with these pieces, is to get them out, connected with each episode. So, we don’t release them all at once.
We also try to thematically tie them to what’s going on in the episode, without being too pointed about that, so we have to know what our episodes are by that point. We have to be very deep into writing, and then we can’t be too deep into post, in order to make the deadlines of the episodes coming out, so there’s a sweet spot between production and post.
DEADLINE: How did Kim Wexler and the subject of Legal Ethics become the center of the short-form series’ latest installment?
BERNSTEIN: Really, we asked Ariel what topics she was most interested in going deep on, and she picked Rhea. That was a character that she was really interested in. I think her moral crisis really came to the forefront in [Better Call Saul Season 5], and I think she felt like this would be a really interesting time to see Kim telling us what’s right and wrong, in terms of her attorney practices. We thought there was some kind of enjoyable irony there.
DEADLINE: The series juxtaposes animated vignettes with talking-head segments, in which Wexler breaks down such topics as marketing, communication and conflicts of interest. Can you elaborate on the process of putting the shorts together? How did your team figure out topics for Kim to dive into?
BERNSTEIN: Ariel pitches those. What we do is, we look at the episodes themselves, and what we think the central themes and conflicts are, and then we try to find ways to point back to that in our mini episodes, while staying on point with our ethics topic. But the way it goes is, Ariel pitches Peter and I a plan, and then we all get on the same page and consult with Vince. Then, we go back to AMC and Dan Appel, the producer. We’ve worked with him for years, in many different capacities, but he’s done all three of these seasons. So, we go back to them, and then Dan works directly with our independent animator, Jay Marks. Then, we talk about what the challenges might be in conveying these ideas and these moments in animation. I mean, Rhea can convey any feeling or mood with her face, but the kind of animation style we’ve chosen for these, which is fun, has its limits, in terms of what can come across clearly. So, they tell us those issues, and then Ariel and our gang work to find solutions.
DEADLINE: What have you enjoyed about working with Rhea Seehorn over the years? And what would you say she brought to Legal Ethics?
BERNSTEIN: She is an incredible human being to work with in any capacity. She is 100% committed. She is really interested in the craft. She comes originally from theater. She shows up having done more work than you can actually imagine somebody having done on a scene. She’s gone all the places, and yet comes with an openness to other people’s ideas. The level of professionalism is incredible, and the intellectual curiosity is just so fun to engage with.
I love just talking to her about scenes that we’ve already shot, and “What do you think that character is thinking? And what do you think that says about where they’re headed?’ What a joy that is, to go down those roads with her, and for this, she was just as prepared. I think you can see it in the piece, because she was like, “I have to figure out, how’s Kim coming to this? Is she nervous about it? Is she comfortable with this? This is so presentational. How does Kim do presentational?”
I think what’s so great is, you can see Kim trying to perform in the way that she thinks these kind of videos should be done. I mean, the level of nuance in there is amazing.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges in bringing her short-form series together?
BERNSTEIN: It really does become about timing, because we were talking about the initial pitches while we were scouting locations for the season finale. Peter was directing that episode, Ariel and Peter wrote that episode, so their attention needs to be on the season finale. But meanwhile, if we don’t progress these ideas and put ourselves on a track, then we won’t make it. So I think it’s just about trying to execute our vision at the level we aspire to, on a timeline that works, when we have to make our air dates.
DEADLINE: Can you recall specific highlights or memorable moments from production on Better Call Saul Season 5?
BERNSTEIN: Our cast and crew, it’s a family. Some of us have been working together since 2007, so when we’re together and we are handed those scripts, which are beautiful, and then given our marching orders to take what’s on the page and elevate from there, it’s just a spectacular collaboration that we all enjoy so much.
I think Episode 508, the episode that Vince directed in the desert, was a really special challenge for us. We were out in To’hajiilee [for] the desert work, which is the remote desert where we shot a great deal of the pilot of Breaking Bad, so it’s kind of like home. There’s just parts of our hearts that are there. This is a really sprawling bit of land, so we were in a very different section of it, but that was really cool, and we kind of were making our own little movie within the season.
And Kim’s turn this season, I found it so compelling, watching her make these complicated decisions, and prioritizing the thing that you would never think she would prioritize, and the way that Jimmy ends up surprised. And it’s like, now he’s on his back foot, taking in her choices.
The season just sort of flipped that on it’s head. I think we’d left Kim at the end of Season 4 on her heel, as she saw Saul Goodman appear, and then by the end of this season, he’s the one who is taking it all in and trying to figure out, I think, how to stay in this relationship, and how to succeed, because he’s a hustler, and relentless in his desire to make things happen for he and Kim.
DEADLINE: With Better Call Saul winding down, we’re presumably very close to saying goodbye to the entire Breaking Bad universe. As someone who’s been with it from the beginning, how are you feeling about that prospect?
BERNSTEIN: I am really excited to see where Saul/Jimmy’s story concludes, and about sewing up that particular character journey.
The idea of parting ways with these colleagues and friends breaks my heart, but I don’t feel like this is the end. Whether or not the universe continues, we’ve all had such success and so much fun working together, that I know we’ll continue to find ways to do that.
I’m so proud, looking back at Breaking Bad and what we were able to accomplish, that I’m excited [and] daunted by the challenge. I think we’ve set the standard very, very high, but I really want to pull that feat off again, and leave everyone satisfied, and maybe a little wrecked. But I want everyone to feel that their time invested in this story universe was worthwhile, and was meaningful. That’s what we’re focused on doing, and if we can achieve that, I will be over the moon.
DEADLINE: Where are you in the process of putting together Better Call Saul’s sixth and final season? And how is the production grappling with protocols imposed by the coronavirus pandemic?
BERNSTEIN: The writers are meeting virtually. They have been since March, so they’re getting into the early middle of the last chapter, and we cannot play the pandemic, as you can imagine. Our show’s period, and we can’t allow that into our story bubble, and I think from a logistical standpoint, we’re still catching up on how to allow these new protocols into our system. You know, we’re very ambitious. We have a very detailed and complicated show, and it’s going to be really hard to add to that all of the practices that are absolutely requisite. So, I think we’re trying to figure out how to do that safely and sanely, and as quickly as possible. We want to make sure we have a good plan, so we’re still working on when exactly we’re going to shoot. But I think we’re all glad that shows are starting to get back on their feet. I think ours might take a little longer than others, just to start shooting, but we’ve got a lot we want to get done.