Better Call Saul Season 4: Directing the Downfall

Better Call Saul Director Daniel Sackheim talks Jimmy McGill, The X-Files, and how darker tone doesn’t always mean darker vision.

Few series have enjoyed such a rapid iconic status such as Breaking Bad, largely due to the consistent quality of the writing and direction, and the significant vision of Vince Gilligan had in executing such a series. Yet lightning did manage to strike again with the prequel series Better Call Saul

In its fourth season, Saul has found its footing quickly and maintained the same high level of quality. To long time fans ofThe X-Files, Vince Gilligan was a beloved writer of the FOX series in its prime, and their interest in Vince as an X-Files alumnus over the years remained strong. Gilligan has been able to use the status he enjoys by bringing in other alumni to Breaking Bad,by bringing in figures like John Shiban, and Thomas Schnauz. Saul has not only brought back some of the same alumni of Breaking Bad, and The X-Files, of note, Shiban and Schnauz, but also director and producer Daniel Sackheim who played an important role in the early years of The X-Files.

Sackheim came on board Saul last season with the episode “Chicanery”, and this season with “Something Beautiful”. But since the days of The X-Files he has been attached to other important series, not withstanding his work on Millennium and the short lived Harsh Realm, he worked on The Man In The High Castle – a show first run by Frank Spotnitz, as well as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Sackheim is a true industry veteran whom has offered some interesting insights. Daniel agreed to speak with us about his work on this season’s of Saul’s third episode, “Something Beautiful”, and a wealth of observations on other points.

Den of GeekYou’ve worked on some iconic shows since the days of The X-FilesHarsh Realm, and Millennium, such as Better Call SaulGame of Thrones, or The Man In TheHigh Castle, or The Walking Dead, as a director was there one series that was a particular challenge?

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Daniel Sackheim: I can’t really say one in particular. Certainly Game of Thrones has more resources than the average television series which allows for bigger set pieces that are more challenging to execute, but each of the aforementioned has it’s own unique challenges, based on the genre, scale and approach to the visual grammar. If there is one constant it’s time, which is the one thing you never seem to have enough of regardless genre or budget.

The tone for this season of Better Call Sau lis already darker, did you have to adjust your approach from the previous episode you worked on (“Chicanery”)?

I’m not sure it was the darker tone that necessitated a different visual approach as much as the nature of the stories.  “Chicanery”, being largely a courtroom drama did not afford me the opportunity to bring much in the way of cinematic scale to the party. I had to find other tricks to bring a strong visual identity to that episode. “Something Beautiful”, regardless of it’s tone, was a blue sky show, and as such offered greater opportunities for the kind of scope that Breaking Badbest known for. 

Was there a scene in “Something Beautiful” that was a particular challenge to execute?

Probably the scene in which Nacho is being treated for his gunshot wounds. The act of removing a bullet did not at first blush strike me as something that I could make cinematic or visually arresting. The key, I believe was making it feel highly subjective so that audience is seeing events unfold through Nacho’s eyes, experiencing his delirium in a way that was visually ingesting while also being grounded. 

When you got the script for “Something Beautiful”, was there a story point that surprised you?

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Not a story point per se, but I was surprised and delighted to be given the opportunity to introduce the character of Gale (David Constabile) who was a big fan favorite from Breaking Bad.

I would think that having a past professional relationship with a figure like Vince Gilligan would give one a kind of short hand in communication. You worked with Vince on a season five X-Files episode as a director, had Vince’s approach towards directors changed from the ‘90s?

Both Vince and I think the way we present stories has evolved significantly from the work we were doing back in the ‘90s, owning in part to kind of tools we now at our disposal. For example: there are digital cameras that require almost no light to render a beautiful image. Other technical advancements like big flat screen televisions allow the audience to have a more movie like experience in their own homes. This has necessitated producers and directors to adopt a more filmic or cinematic approach to storytelling. I think this is evident in shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. One thing that has not changed is Vince’s rigorous attention to detail and a strict adherence to point of view, which is something we both learned from Chris Carter as we were coming up on The X-Files.  

Considering that you’ve worked as a Producer on numerous shows, has your experience as a producer helped you to sympathize with the challenges that television directors face?

Well, I think of myself as a director first and a producer second, but I do think having been a producer, which I consider not only a problem solving gig, but a job that often requires conflict resolution, has afforded me the skillset to be a better partner to directors and certainly more understanding of the pressures they are under to deliver superior work under demanding schedules and tight budgets. 

Did you try to visually or tonally pull from Breaking Bad when you had a chance to tackle episodes of Better Call Saul?

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Well, I try to be faithful to the visual style of the show, which was established by Vince and has been followed by directors that have preceded me. That said, I have been told I have a recognizable style that perhaps has something to do with the way I reveal characters and unfold the visual narrative in scenes, so consciously or not, I guess I bring something of my own to the equation as well. 

Did you get a chance to watch the two most recent seasons of The X-Files? What did you think?

You know I haven’t. I love the show, and am a huge fan of Chris Carter, but for some reason I have not been able to bring myself to watch it. Maybe it’s about not wanting to corrupt the fond memories I have of the original show.

Den of Geek X-Files correspondent Matt Allair is a San Francisco-based writer, freelance filmmaker, musician, and the webmaster of The X-Files Lexicon