Spoilers below if you haven't yet caught up with all episodes in Better Call Saul Season 4.
Now deep in the thick of Jimmy McGill's inevitable devolution into the law-sidling Saul Goodman, Better Call Saul is creeping closer than ever to its Breaking Bad source material. Which means not only seeing familiar faces (and outfits) but also stepping back into some well-known locations. Saul's production designer Judy Rhee spoke with CinemaBlend recently about the magic of Season 4, and the early part of our conversation was all about how she and her team took on the challenges of recreating both Gus Fring's superlab and Saul Goodman's headquarters. First up, the far more difficult project:
The dirt pit, which is what we're calling the beginnings of the superlab, that was basically working backwards. Taking the design of what was done in Breaking Bad, and stepping back from how it would have been started, how it would have been excavated, how it would have been researched. All those things we did ourselves, as well as the art department team, which is to figure out: here is the laundry facility and where it's supposed to be in reality, and what are the logistics of excavating, digging and starting the infrastructure of what will be the superlab? So it was already kind of determined, basically the dimensions of the space had to be a certain proportion. We consulted with a structural engineer. We did some geological research to really figure out how they would have went about doing the excavation and removing the dirt and supporting the structure above them to then continue below it. So that was a fun challenge.
In some ways, that explanation makes it sound like the foreknowledge of the superlab's finished look might offer the crew an advantage, giving them specific parameters to work with. But then you realize that those parameters are less of a guideline and more of an absolute goal that needs to be matched as close to perfectly as possible, lest eagle-eyed TV viewers catch some glaring mistakes. Perhaps that's just my own nervous paranoia talking, though, as presumably influenced by Mike's iron-browed glare from above. Judy Rhee brought up no such worries in our conversation.
But Rhee obviously did show much concern over making sure everything came together in all the right ways, by doing the diligent and extensive research that comes with crafting an underground meth lab. (Or one of many other underground labs, I guess?) Not only to make sure the setting could eventually match what was seen on Breaking Bad, but to make sure the superlab could even physically exist in the real world beneath an industrial laundromat. That's a challenge that literally no one thinks about whenever somebody mentions working on a TV show.
It's unclear when, or if, the in-development superlab will reach a "finished" point that truly dovetails with our first glimpses of it on Breaking Bad. But Judy Rhee did talk about the process of hitting different stages in the construction process for different episodes.
You have a certain timeline of how you want to show and tell the story of the evolution. So it does become a bit abbreviated. In the next episode we'll want to see it in this form. Two episodes from now, we want to see it in this form. And beyond that, I don't know how we're gonna see it next season, if it's coming back. So you sorta have to go episode by episode in terms of the progress that you want to see.
Understandably, Judy Rhee credits co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, as well as the excellent writing team, for crafting the stories and scenes in ways that make her acutely aware of what's required from the show's central locations. Both when it's a completely new sets that are being constructed, such as the Neff Copiers office or the pinata shop, and when it's a place that is already held near and dear to Breaking Bad fans. (Unfortunately, she didn't reveal whether or not that insolent German worker Kai is going to find himself buried beneath the superlab, but boy I'm hoping that'll be the case.)
To that end, I'd also asked about resurrecting Saul Goodman's office for that chaotic cold open earlier this season. Judy Rhee, who hadn't worked on Breaking Bad and only joined Better Call Saul in Season 4. So for her, the office presented a different challenge, in that she had to enliven the recreation of something familiar.
The look of it had already been established, so the challenge for me is to keep the visual continuity, and yet bring something new and a slightly different interpretation, keeping what has been established in mind. For instance, Saul Goodman's office has already been seen and shot in Breaking Bad, so that is very recognizable and iconic. And that was just basically a recreation of what was shot previously.
In a case like this, where they're dealing with a mostly standard room, the challenge isn't necessarily in setting up the recognizable Constitution-covered walls, or in slotting Saul's desk oh-so-perfectly. But rather in finding ways to introduce new elements, such as if the scene was shot from an angle that wasn't used much on Breaking Bad. Or in this specific case, in creating a secret compartment within the wall behind Saul's desk, where all of his Jimmy mementos are kept. Probably wasn't the biggest challenge, but it definitely hooked viewers in.
With more new locations on the way, Better Call Saul will continue offering up some of television's most quietly intense moments every Sunday night on AMC at 9:00 p.m. ET. With only three episodes left, expect for the fans to get hit with the shit soon, and you can hit up our fall TV premiere schedule to see what'll keep you busy when Saul has gone into hiding.