Interview with Winning Screenplay Writer Jimmy Prosser (BETTER CALL SAUL)

What is your TV Spec screenplay about?

The logline is “Suspended lawyer Jimmy McGill endures community service at a high school where he meets an accused teen, while Mike searches for the distributor of Cheese, a popular new drug.” Going deeper, this episode provides viewers a better understanding of why Jimmy McGill cares about his clients, and particularly those over their head and in situations they did not anticipate. In a flashback, we see teen Jimmy (along with young buddy Marco) devising a clever money making scam but abandoned by older brother Chuck once caught. In present day, Jimmy identifies too closely with an accused teen as he struggles to find a way to defend him. We also learn more about the Hector/Gus rivalry as they make moves to expand from meth to a new heroin derivative that became very hot in this time frame.

How does this episode fit into the context of the TV series?

“QUESO” would be Episode 26 ½ (during Season 3 between episodes 6/7) and opens on Jimmy’s first attempt to satisfy his community service requirements following his suspension by the New Mexico Bar Association.

How would you describe this script in two words?

Achilles heal

What TV show do you keep watching over and over again?

The show I’ve watched repeatedly over the years is “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Each of the characters are perfectly drawn and I admire the writers’ willingness to really push boundaries. However, the show that I currently admire most is “Black Mirror.” I have been focusing on one-hour drama and, as I work on my own pilot and series bible, the tone and structure of “Black Mirror” is what keeps coming to mind. If I could write for one show, it’s “Black Mirror.”

How long have you been working on this screenplay?

I will be graduating in a few months from New York University’s (NYU), Tisch School of the Arts, where I study Dramatic Writing and Producing in the Maurice Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. I’ve written plays, screenplays and sitcoms, but this script, QUESO, is my first one hour drama spec, which I wrote over 12 weeks this past summer.

How many stories have you written?

I’ve always liked to tell stories – but mostly orally to my family and friends. About 4 years ago, I began dramatic writing in earnest so over that time I must have written 20-30 short stories, plays, screenplays, sitcoms and now television drama scripts.

What is your favorite song? (Or, what song have you listened to the most times in your life?)

Being a kid growing up in San Diego during the 2000s, I have to say “I Miss You” by Blink-182.

What obstacles did you face to finish this screenplay?

I believe I’ve been able to capture the characters/dialogue and tone of “Better Call Saul” pretty well so the toughest part for me is to formulate the proper four act structure in a way that really communicates the right arc for the A, B and C stories.

Apart from writing, what else are you passionate about?

Music, definitely. My favorite escapes are listening to music alone or grabbing instruments to play with my buddies as loudly as we can. When I write, a soundtrack always is in my head.

What influenced you to enter the festival? What were your feelings on the initial feedback you received?

As I mentioned before, I’ve written a lot but this is my first drama spec so I was anxious to hear objective feedback. Some of the feedback I received was right on; some I think missed aspects of the script, especially when it comes to Jimmy’s motivation to help Bobby.

You entered your screenplay via FilmFreeway. What has been your experiences working with the submission platform site?

FilmFreeway has been great. My first experience with it was submitting a short screenplay, “NOTEWORTHY,” which won several festivals and is going to be shot in January. We hope to submit that completed short film to several of the best festivals next year via FilmFreeway because it is very easy to use.

Any advice or tips you’d like to pass on to other writers?

As painful as it is, I feel that you must create a full beat sheet before trying to write the script! Once that solid outline is in place, the writing comes much easier. It is tempting to write a fun standalone scene as soon as you think of it, but if you don’t have your structure in place you may find yourself spending too much time trying to wedge that scene into the overall story.

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Genre: Crime, Drama

Suspended lawyer Jimmy McGill endures community service at a high school where he meets an accused teen, while Mike searches for the distributor of Cheese, a popular new drug.

Narrator: Val Cole
Jimmy: Noah Casey
Mike: David Schaap
Bobby/Nacho: Gabriel Darku
Talbot/Hector: Neil Bennett
Secretary: Clare Blackwood
Kim: Lauren Toffan

Producer: Matthew Toffolo http://www.matthewtoffolo.com

Director: Kierston Drier
Casting Director: Sean Ballantyne
Editor: John Johnson

Camera Operator: Mary Cox

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Interview with Cinematographer Albert Arthur (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad)

What an honor it was to chat with the extremely talented Director of Photography Albert Arthur. A career spanning over 45 years, his brilliant cinematography can currently be seen on the hit AMC TV series “Better Call Saul”. 

arthur_albert.jpgMatthew Toffolo: You got the honor to DP the last episode of “Breaking Bad”. How did that come about? And how was the last day on set? It must have been very emotional.

Albert Arthur: Michael Slovis, the DP for most of the series, and who had been my gaffer many years ago, had been trying to get me to DP episodes he directed for a long time, but my schedule never worked. When it came time for him to direct his last episode, I had to say yes. Then the schedule for the finale got extended and he had a conflict. So I came back to shoot the finale. As you can imagine, the last day was very emotional for cast and crew. There were lots of tears and laughter. I felt honored to be a part of it.

Matthew: You then moved on to DP every single episode of the first season of its prequel “Better Call Saul”. Was it planned all along that you would move to the last episode of “Breaking Bad” and then start from the ground up with “Saul”? It’s like you passed the baton to yourself!

Albert: Michael had launched his career as a director, so they needed a replacement DP. Since I had already shot 3 episodes of Breaking Bad, and everyone was happy with the results, I was a natural choice.

PHOTO: Breaking Bad finale episode:

breaking_bad_finale.jpg

Matthew: When did you first come aboard “Saul” and break down the cinematic design of the series? It’s a little different than “Breaking” in terms of feel and tone. I’m sure there was a lot of discussion as how to make it similar but also very different than “Breaking Bad”?

Albert: I started prep three weeks before the first day of shooting. I asked Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould if the wanted to continue the style of Breaking Bad, and their answer was that they did not want a complete break, but they wanted it to be different as well. They stressed repeatedly that they felt TV shows were all starting to look the same, and that they wanted “Saul” to look like nothing else on television. They showed me stills from “The Conformist” and from Kubrick’s work. Our first day of shooting was in bright sunlight in a skate park. I kept looking for Jean-Louis Trintignant in a period tuxedo, but he was nowhere to be found.

One point of departure was that they didn’t want the handheld look that gave ”Breaking Bad” its’ nervous energy. In fact they did not want any camera movement that was unmotivated. This was quite a departure from my last few shows, where the producers would start twitching if the camera wasn’t moving at all times. It required retraining my operators to avoid movement unless absolutely necessary.

Vince kept pushing the look darker and darker, saying “we know who they are, we don’t need to see them all the time”, which is a departure from what is essentially a comedy.

PHOTO: Better Call Saul first episode:

better_call_saul.png

Matthew: The opening series scenes in black & white in “Saul” is truly magnificent as it sets the tone of the entire series and hooks the audience. We know the ending, so we’re going to watch the series to see how Jimmy gets there. Can you let us in how those scenes were thought up and why you chose to do it in black and white?

Albert: I wish I could take credit for the decision to shoot the opening in black and white, but it entirely was Vince and Peter’s decision. I know they wanted Saul’s bleak present day situation in Omaha to contrast with the bright New Mexico colors of his earlier years.

Matthew: You DP’d an amazing 154 episodes of the landmark show “ER”. How many days did it take to shoot a typical episode? The show introduced the TV world the art of shooting 360 degree scenes, mostly with a Steadi-Cam. How did you bring in your own style from an already tried and true formula when you started working for the series in season 8?

Albert: ER had an established shooting style when I got there. My contribution was to rely much less on the overhead fluorescents, which were unflattering to the cast, and light the closeups individually where possible, and to bring more dramatic feature style lighting when we left the hospital.

Matthew: What’s the main thing you look for from your main crew members? Gaffer, Key Grip, Camera Operators etc…

Albert: I look for experience and social skills. We spend a lot of time together, a lot, so you want people that relate well and communicate well.

Matthew: The art of television is working fast, on schedule, and not compromising what is happening on the written page. I used to like to joke that the director on TV sets is the one who is the least experienced on set because most of the crew is there for the entire season and understands the show inside and out, while the director works at most 2-4 episodes a season. What are you mainly looking for in a director when he joins your TV crew set?

Albert: I find it ironic that I wouldn’t hire a gaffer with less than 15 features on this resume, yet directing is often an entry level position. Even experienced directors are often new to a show, so the producers look to the DP to provide a continuity of style.

I pray for directors who come prepared, collaborate well, and don’t act as if their episode is more important than the general well being of the cast and crew. I want them to prioritize their coverage so that the days can be kept to 12 hours or less. When you go past that, it takes a toll on everybody, the quality of work suffers, and people are endangered. The pros know that, and plan their days accordingly.

Matthew: Was being a Director of Photography something you always sought out to achieve in your life? Or did the job come to you?

Albert: It’s something that came naturally to me, that I have always enjoyed. I bought a 16mm camera when I graduated from college and would shoot movies for free or almost free, so I had shot 5 features by the time I was 25. Then I moved to Venezuela, where I shot 35mm features with reasonable schedules. I had to teach myself everything, but I’ve always believed in earning while I was learning. By the time I returned to the US in 1982, and shot my first Hollywood film, “Night of The Comet” I was a “new” DP with at least 10 feature credits.

PHOTO: Night of the Comet feature film:

night_of_the_comet

I had originally set out to become a “filmmaker”, but I spent 2 years trying to earn enough money to get my first documentary out of the lab, so I decided to focus on making a living. Luckily, I still love what I do. When people ask me what I’m going to do when I retire, the answer is to make movies I care about with friends.That, and sip cava in Barcelona.

Matthew: Did/Do you have a Director of Photography mentor?

Albert: I assisted Jerry Cotts for a couple of years and he was very supportive and generous. When he had to leave a movie he was shooting, “Is There Sex After Death“, I took over.

Matthew: I just recently watched “Happy Gilmore”. Just a zany film that actually still holds up today. What were you thinking during production? Who’s this Sandler guy and why are we shooting this crazy scene with Bob Barker beating him up? The love interest didn’t do so bad either – Julie Bowen (Modern Family)

Albert: The script made no sense to me. I never guessed it would become a classic. Adam seemed to be learning to act on the job. The director, Dennis Dugan helped him a lot.

Bob Barker was a last minute replacement. I think they wanted Lee Trevino. No one knew what to expect as Bob Barker had never been in a movie. When we shot the first take, we knew we had struck gold. Julie clearly was going to have a career. But this Sandler guy?

PHOTO: Happy Gilmore movie. Bob Barker vs Adam Sandler:

happy_gilmore.jpg

Matthew: Have you mentored many people? Do you have examples of people on your crew, once upon a time, who have gone onto doing great things in the industry?

Albert: I would definitely count Michael Slovis, who I encouraged to shoot and steered him to a producer or two. He is now the producing/director on “Preacher”, Seth Rogen’s latest project. I have also moved a number of assistants up to operate (Tom Lohmann, and most recently, Jordan Slovin on “Saul”).

Matthew: What movie, besides the ones you worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

Albert: Apocalypse Now (director’s cut) and Touch Of Evil (director’s cut). All of Fellini.

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Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.