[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 6, Episode 6 of Better Call Saul, "Axe and Grind." Read at your own risk!]
Gus Fring was nowhere to be found on Monday's Better Call Saul, but Giancarlo Esposito was pulling all the strings from behind the camera. The actor has two feature film directing credits to his name (Gospel Hill in 2008 and The Show in 2017), but "Axe and Grind," a tense and suspenseful hour that lays tenuous groundwork leading into next week's mid-season finale, marked his television directorial debut.
There were a number of narrative pieces that had to come together in Esposito's episode, two of which came in the form of a terrifying scene in which Lalo (Tony Dalton) continues his tour of Germany by cutting poor Casper's (Stefan Kapicic) foot off with an axe, and the final moments, in which Kim (Rhea Seehorn) chooses to double down on the elaborately plotted Sandpiper Crossing scheme she and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) have been working on rather than going toward the legitimate career development offered to her by Cliff (Ed Begley Jr.). They're some of the season's most intricately crafted sequences, and Esposito balances out the anxiety and inspires with a quietly devastating scene in which Mike (Jonathan Banks) watches his granddaughter, Kaylee (Juliet Donenfeld), stargaze, unseen by her while he continues to protect his family as he prepares for Lalo and Gus' inevitable confrontation.
For Esposito, directing Saul was a long time coming, and not something he took lightly. He talked to TV Guide about the complexities of adapting his own visual style, turning Lalo Salamanca into a horror movie villain, and how an iconic Breaking Bad scene influenced his approach to this turning point in Kim's story.
TV Guide: You've directed before, but this is your TV directing debut. Was this something you've been in talks to do for a while? How did you directing this episode come to be?
Giancarlo Esposito: I had sort of dangled the carrot to Vince [Gilligan] years ago when I was on Breaking Bad by giving him my second feature film and just saying, "Hey, I'd love to direct some time, here's an example of my work." It was like handing your resume out. Years later, I asked him if he had watched, and he said he hadn't got a chance to, and I said, "It's not surprising, you're very busy," and I never asked again. But I always thought about it, and paid close attention to other directors, and to camera, to the visual sense of how they tell the story. I made notes of that through the years, and then I got a phone call from Vince and Melissa [Bernstein] and Peter [Gould] the September before we were supposed to start shooting. I was befuddled. Why are they calling me, what's going on? I literally took the phone away from my ear and I screamed, and I came back to them, and I said yes. They said, "We'll figure out what episode, but this is the time for you to do it. We'd love to have you." I was really honored. And then I got nervous, the visual sense of this is different than anything I've done. [I've] directed film, and this season in particular, more than any other, really reflects a film. It's off the chain this season. They're such little films that we make, and we have a great crew and cameramen and DPs to do that. I'm over the moon that I had the opportunity.
You mentioned the visual sense of the show being different from your own. How much of your style did you get to bring to this episode?
Esposito: It's trial and error and thought form and drawing on paper. And sharing. This team is so particular about how they work, and we were prepping during a pandemic. Everything is via Zoom, and you have 25 people on the Zoom, sharing what you think you might do. But it's a lot of questioning. You know, I always joke about my former wife, because although absolutely lovely, I got to the point where I could say, "You just ask too many questions," and she would laugh, and she'd get it. These people ask way too many questions. But it's like, prove it. Tell me what you're thinking. And that's what the director does, he talks about what's in his brain. He talks about it in a way that other people can understand it. That always happens for me with cameramen in the moment, but when it happens in prep, you certainly start to refine your visual sense of how you would do it.
What I wanted to do is create danger. In all the scenes of Lalo Salamanca and Casper in Germany, that was a visual that had to be thought about. A lot of things were floated — backdrops, this, that, and the other. I said, "No, I don't think that really works." I think everyone decided that that wasn't going to happen. Finding the right barn that looked like a machinery barn and not really like a goat barn or a cow barn or a horse barn. All of those things were important. But to create danger in a visual sense was for me to use lenses that were a little bit longer, especially in that sequence. Being with Casper between his legs while he's splitting wood, hearing the car, seeing the car in a long lens. That Hitchcockian feeling of distance and fear through a longer lens view was something, to me, that could create a certain tension. I think they do that well in this show.
Look, Vince did it in Walter and Gus in the desert [on Breaking Bad]. That was all a wide shot. The whole scene is completely wide, and they're having this whole conversation. It's mind-blowing. And the moment I go to snatch that hood, bam! We're on Walter. That's visual storytelling that I thought was magnificent. I always made a note of how the clouds moved. If you ever watched that episode again, you've got to see how the clouds move. I was blown away, because the clouds move in concert. "I will kill your wife. I will go kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter," and I snatch this hood off of his head, and as I'm saying those words in that conversation, the sky goes black. When I finish, the sky goes light again. How did you do that? For me, I try to look for moments like that.
It happened in our episode at the end, when Kim makes that U-turn and is driving away. I felt like, "Oh, I got it!" I didn't get anything, nature got it, the clouds change. I shot it five, ten different ways to Sunday — in front of the car, had a crane, had to come back out for the passenger side, from her side, looking at the passenger side as she's driving. That's when I got it. All of a sudden, she drove right into a dark cloud. She drove into it, which determined and set her frame of mind for me, as an audience member and a viewer. So how did I do it? I just started to think, you've got to be loose, you've got to talk, you've got to share, and then things happen in the moment. There are some things I wanted that don't fit with the style that we didn't do. I wanted to come out of the department store after Kim and her mother, seeing them at the door with the manager. I wanted it to come back on a crane and be in the air to watch their walk away. That would get cut, that's not their style. That's not the visual of the show. Instead, I found a shot from across the street that was like columns.
That was a beautiful shot.
Esposito: It was so simple that I almost missed it. I wanted to get the sense of being caved in. I wanted her to feel like she's waiting in this little office. We had a room that was too large. How do we make the room smaller? It wasn't the office that we would have preferred. Should we build it? Should we not build it? Oh my god, you go through all this stuff. We made the room smaller, and then we cluttered it. She has no place to go in that clutter. Things like that, working with Denise Pizzini, who is our great, great, great set designer, I was able to do that. And also with the barn, make the barn smaller. The barn was like, 40 feet long. It had two doors, which excited me, because I thought if it had two doors, I could follow someone with a Steadicam and go in one and out the other. Yeah, all too complicated, get to the point, what's the story? Keep it moving. I had all these ideas! We want to feel confined and make the space work. I come from theater, so you make the space work. In film, you control what you see.
Speaking of the scene with Lalo and Casper, that really felt like its own mini horror movie. How did you initially envision that sequence when you got the script?
Esposito: I was shocked. It's so specific. I realized, OK, there's a couple different ways to do this, and I'm preparing for the Zoom call with everyone else where I had to prove what I thought I wanted. I wanted to see it, but I didn't want to see it graphically. I wanted to feel the danger of a horror movie, but I didn't want to do the Freddy. It was really a balance. I knew that's what Peter wanted too, but we were all just open. If I'm on certain angles over Lalo, and catch Casper large and frame, and Lalo, small in frame, then I'd be able to see him from head to toe. Then when Lalo makes his move physically and goes for the ankle, I realized I could actually see it come off, and see him go through his swing, and be able to have blood there and shoot the aftermath. I could have just been on [Casper's] foot, but I wanted to come all the way up his foot, all the way up his body to Casper's face. That was the most important thing, the terror on this man's face.
You have a character come into a room and shoot somebody, and he goes, "I'm a bad man, I'm gonna kill you," or you can have a character come into a room and do what Gus did in [Breaking Bad Season 4, Episode 1]. Or the more succinct analogy is you can have a character come into a room and beat someone with an inch of their life and leave them alive. That's terror, and I wanted that terror. I even had a shot where Lalo had the axe over his shoulder, looking like Paul Bunyan. But he's smiling! That would be in my cut.
Another scene I want to talk about is the one where Mike calls Kaylee while she stargazes. You and Jonathan Banks have worked together for so many years now. What was it like directing him here and building that moment together?
Esposito: Jonathan's such a fine actor. I think I know him fairly well. I wanted him to be able to tap into showing us little glimpses of what we haven't seen of Mike. Jonathan's like, "Come on, Mike is always the same, Mike's the one person who never changes." I would always beg to differ and say that the moment with Tyrus in the surveillance laundry room is a moment where he really has to stand up and show us his power. We know that side of him in action — shooting, killing, but I wanted him to do it completely with his eyes and completely with his physicality as if he was growing out of his skin, and just look at the guy and say, "If you want me, I'm here."
He achieved that very well, but I wanted to not lose his edge and his despair in his scene watching his granddaughter and his daughter-in-law, and he delivered that scene so beautifully. He has to give her a directive to go back inside and listen to her mother, which could have been really, really tough. That's a directive, an order, but it sets a gentle side of a grandfather. I contend that Jonathan is a really soft human being underneath his gruff exposure, and visually, it was creating the closeness that he has to them and the love he has for them, but he can't reach out and touch them. They don't know he's that close.
It's tricky to work with Jonathan, because Jonathan is so smart. He also understands Mike better than any of us, and he realizes that Mike has all these colors, and he can pull them out of his back pocket. The challenge is always to allow him to know how good he is, and to allow him to know that we want to see all that variety. I normally start with what works, and from there guide an actor to where they need to be, and then just tweak it. Actors will keep trying different stuff until they wear themselves out. He'd say, "Anything? Small thing?" And I'd say, "Whatever you did in that last take, the nuance between this line and this line, I like that. Get back to that place of feeling what you were then." I love working with him because he delivers. He just needs to understand what you're trying to convey, and when you're on the same page, then it's done.
Gus was not in this episode at all. What was your reaction to finding out that you wouldn't be directing yourself?
Esposito: It was bitter and sweet. Look, hey, I wanted the double paycheck, baby! No, I was relieved because I didn't have to ever be someone I was not, and because everyone on set has such a huge deference for me as me, and they have an even larger deference for me as Gus. When I walked on the set the first day, I wasn't dressed. I normally dress nice when I go to work because I'm preparing to play a guy who does that. Either I dress nice or dressed in a uniform, one or the other. But it's always in preparation for what I've got to do that day. And I got on the set, people didn't even know who I was, doing double-takes. "Who's this guy stepping in with the DP? Oh, it's Giancarlo!" I didn't give a damn. All I could think about was the vision of the show. It was really a great gift not to direct myself, because each time I'm directing, I normally am directing myself. It was a gift not to have to be in front of the camera, and certainly to be able to tell the story in a different way without having to be playing someone else.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9/8c on AMC.