Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing production designer Judy Rhee to discuss her work on Better Call Saul Season 4, her design process, and what we might expect to see on the Breaking Bad movie which she recently finished designing and on Better Call Saul moving forward.
Over the winter I slowly watched Season 4 of Better Call Saul and found myself feeling increasing dread for Jimmy McGill as he continues to go deeper down what most would call the wrong path, the path towards Saul Goodman and away from what could be a cozy, productive, and healthy life with Kim Wexler.
The show never moves towards comfortable lifestyles and conclusions, and the show’s production design genuinely reflects this. Jimmy McGill barely fits in in his own apartment with Kim, but he looks perfectly at home in an empty cell phone store or selling items out of the back of his junky car.
If you love Breaking Bad and the Better Call Saul production design aesthetic, take a look at the work of production designer Judy Rhee on Season 4 below. She had the unenviable task of having to design backwards from eight seasons of two incredibly popular television series previously designed by multiple production designers in order to maintain visual continuity and move the story forward. Personally, I feel Judy succeeded admirably.
* Warning: Spoilers Ahead *
Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
Better Call Saul Production Design: Q&A with Production Designer Judy Rhee
How did you start in production design and the art department?
I started in the art department way back when I was still at NYU. I was bartending, and one of our regular customers was doing makeup for the Metropolitan Opera and was hired to do a horror film. He knew I was going to film school, so he came in and said this horror film he had started on is going to fire their art department.
He told me I should go down there and see if they need any art assistants because it was a non-union film, not that art assistants had to be union, but it was very nice of him to say that.
So I went down there, and I got hired, and that was my first film job, which was Frankenhooker, a horror film by Frank Henenlotter. I stayed on, and I got promoted to do props. After that, I did his second film, Basket Case 2 which he was shooting back to back so from that point on I met people and we stayed in touch, and they hired me.
Then I worked as a set decorator for a while, and then I worked as an art director for a while, and then I started production designing about ten years ago? Something like that. I’ve kind of lost count.
What did you study at NYU? Did you train in production design?
I studied film. I went to art school in Pasadena and then transferred. I got interested in photography and then transferred to NYU film school and realized that they don’t really have a design program at the film school, and at the time, and I think this is still the case, the Theatre program did which was called the Theatre and Design program. You weren’t allowed to take classes there with a separate program [Film students couldn’t take Theatre courses].
That may have changed by now, but there was really no production design at the film school, so I ended up taking classes at Pratt which is a different school altogether, and that’s how I kind of found my way into the art department.
Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
How did you get involved on Better Call Saul?
I got involved with Better Call Saul because Melissa Bernstein, who is one of the producers, had seen my work on Patriot, which was a Steven Conrad show for Amazon. I did the pilot and the first season.
She had seen my work for that and got in touch with me. Of course, I was thrilled because I’m a huge fan of Breaking Bad and love watching Better Call Saul as well, so I jumped at the chance and went to New Mexico.
Your first season on Better Call Saul was Season 4. Did you end up inheriting the art department that was already there or did you have to start from scratch and find a new art department in New Mexico?
They encouraged me to keep the continuity of the crew, but I was given the option to interview other people, and you know it made the most sense to keep a lot of the same people. Also because it’s limited- the crew base there.
It made sense to me because a lot of them have been around from Breaking Bad and I knew because it’s a prequel that a lot of their knowledge base was going to be helpful in terms of what was already shot and how they shot it, so I kept most, but not everyone was available.
There were a couple of changes that I made, but most of the people stayed from construction to scenic- actually the scenic team was different. The art director was the same; the set decorator was different; the art department coordinator and graphics were the same. Yeah, so I would think 55%-70% were the same from the previous season.
Kim Wexler and Jimmy McGill’s Apartment | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
Had you worked with the set decorator before?
I had not because I do most of my work travelling or in New York. I had never worked in New Mexico, so that was a completely new crew that I worked with.
For various reasons, I went through four different decorators on Season 4 which was an added challenge to the season, but it worked out well, but I think the changes were unforeseeable and so we dealt with it as it happened, but it all worked out in the end.
What was your prep time and shoot period like? How much time did you have to get this all done?
We had eight weeks of prep on that which was sufficient. I think we had three scripts upfront, which is always helpful to know what’s coming up. We knew the Superlab was coming up, and we knew that Howard Hamlin’s office was going to come back as well. We also knew Gus’ office was going to come back.
During prep, we focused on Kim’s apartment. That took a big chunk of prep time to modify and for them to approve it and make sure it was good. We changed it as we went along as well, so that took a big part of our upfront prep time.
Then doing the Superlab, we knew that that was probably going to shoot by episode 4 or 5, but we weren’t sure, so we started prepping that early on because that took a long time to figure out and we had many meetings with different departments. Just to research alone took a while, and to bring in structural engineers and to have meetings with geologists.
We were asking ourselves how one would do this in real life and get rid of all this dirt in the most secretive way. So whether or not we would show it on camera (which of course we didn’t), it was something that I needed to know in terms of the reality of how they would have done it and what kind of access they would have had to create for themselves.
So now when people might ask, well what did you do with the dirt, we would have an answer because I’m sure some fans would or will ask about it. It wasn’t just cosmetic, and that’s Peter and Vince’s big thing- they want to know how to do it in real life and how would it really take place. They’re very much into the authenticity, and then knowing that they can take liberties, or not, but they like to have that knowledge and that option.
Was the schedule on the standard seven shoot days, seven prep days overlapping? What was the schedule like?
It depends. It went anywhere from seven shoot days to ten shoot days. I think a couple of the episodes went to eleven days, depending on what was written and what was needed. Some went a little longer but yeah, every seven days you’re shooting a new episode which is pretty quick, so it is helpful to have outlines ahead of time. Knowing that while you’re prepping for episode 1 what’s going to be coming up in episode 4 so we can prep for that early on and to leave enough space on the stage for the other sets that we’d have to squeeze in.
Saul Goodman’s Office | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
Were any recurring sets left up as standing sets between Season 3 and 4?
No, they pretty much wait a good six months in between, and the studio stage facility needs the space and availability for other shows coming through. Everything gets folded and put away, or sometimes they just get destroyed for whatever reason because they think they’ll never see it again, but a lot of it was saved. I think the only thing we brought back from Season 3 was Kim’s apartment.
Saul Goodman’s office- I think there were a couple of panels that were saved, but a lot of it was not saved. The door was destroyed and didn’t survive storage well, so we just rebuilt a few of them, but those are the only two that I can think of that were brought back from previous seasons.
Oh, plus Hamlin’s office. That survived quite well except for the reception office which we had to rebuild a couple of the walls. Gus Fring’s office behind Hermano’s- that was a saved set that we brought back on the stage. Everything else had to be built.
A lot of the locations had changed, so that needed a fair amount of work to get it back to what it was. It was always up for review and questioning whether we wanted to keep it exactly how it had last been shot because of this.
If it was Breaking Bad, did we want to see some evolution since we are showing a little bit of a passage of time? We would discuss the storyline and timeline on a case by case basis in terms of how much we wanted to modify the set or not.
How was it working with Vince Gilligan for the first time?
When Vince came on Better Call Saul to do his episode which was the second to the last one we hit it off immediately, we both have a similar sense of humour. We hit it off, laughing about the same things. I loved working with him. He’s a very gracious person, a gracious human being and happens to be very talented, so it was a joy; it was a true joy working with him.
A lot of the directors we worked with were fantastic. I mean they get some really great directors for each episode, and I would happily work with all of them again. They put together a really nice team.
It is a prequel, and you were recreating some sets and in a way, inventing them backwards. So what was your process? Were you working from wrap binders?
Are you referring to the Superlab?
Better Call Saul Season 4 Superlab Set
Various Technical Drawings of the Superlab Set
3D Renderings of the Superlab Set Build Concept
Superlab Set Photos | Photo Credit: Production Designer Judy Rhee
Yes, the Superlab and also Saul Goodman’s office recreation, among others.
Yes, a lot of the sets were already established from Breaking Bad in terms of how it would have looked a few years prior and how it would have looked- let’s say for Saul Goodman’s office. We were asking, did they want to see some evolution from how people had seen it in Breaking Bad or should we make some slight changes, but not too many?
I think it was important to Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan that we kept the visual continuity without distraction because if the change had been noticeable, I guess their thinking was it would have presented more questions than we were prepared to answer in the storyline.
They didn’t want it to be a distraction, so that was one of the things that we talked about in general terms when we approached Season 4. We would talk about all the sets and bring them up for review, but also keep in mind that we don’t want any severe interruption visually for the audience to start asking questions as to why certain things had changed from Breaking Bad.
If it wasn’t part of the story, they weren’t really interested in exploring that from a design stance which makes sense since so much of the design is character-driven, right.
So in terms of the Superlab, we worked from wrap files; we worked from set photos; we did a lot of going back and getting screen grabs from previous episodes of Breaking Bad and seeing how it was established and seen, or not seen, and how much of it we could interpret or reinterpret.
Just because it was built doesn’t necessarily mean it was shot. So let’s say they previously built a four-walled set, maybe they only covered two walls of it on the show so then we could, if we wanted to or needed to for the story, reinterpret it.
The Superlab and Industrial Laundry Facilities Sets | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
The Superlab was especially challenging because I had never designed working backwards before. It was such a structurally specific set too because they were digging into a subterranean structure.
So we did a lot of research, we hired a local geologist from that area, and we hired a structural engineer in order to find out how the characters would go about excavating an area that has a certain amount of weight up top, you know, it’s the laundry facilities above, it’s an industrial laundry facility [above the dig site]. They have very heavy equipment so you can’t just start hollowing out what’s underneath and what is underneath in terms of the geology of it?
So we figured out that it would be a certain kind of soft stone, it’s a sedimentary rock, so what do they need to do to support it and what does that look like? All of this guided the design of the backwards workings in terms of what we see in Season 4, and I’m sure moving forward we’ll see that in the next phase and the next phase until the timeline meets up and it’s in its final finished state.
I’m not sure where Peter’s going with the writing, but I would imagine that it will meet up with the timeline of Breaking Bad at some point. I mean we’re getting close to it now in terms of Saul Goodman’s evolution so it will be interesting to see what happens in Season 5.
With that set, we see it in many different stages. Did you build all the different stages and cleverly cover it from different angles or were you altering it as you went along for the various episodes?
We altered it as we went along. We knew where it needed to end up, which was very helpful, so we built for that and then pulled back and modified for each episode. We did the finished set and then worked our way back to ensure we had all the pieces, and to make sure the pieces actually fit back in. We knew that those pieces would take time to make and fabricate, so it was easier to build the complete set and work backwards.
Better Call Saul Season 4 CC Mobile Set
Location Scout Before Photos | Photo Credit: Production Designer Judy Rhee
After Photo | CC Mobile As Seen in Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
Set Photos After Construction, Paint and Dress of CC Mobile in Better Call Saul Season 4 | Photo Credit: Production Designer Judy Rhee
Which sets on Better Call Saul Season 4 were new to the show that gave you a bit more creative freedom? The look of the show is established, but which sets did you have fun with, doing what felt right for your unique design sensibilities?
There were a handful of sets that came up that were a lot of fun. As we follow Jimmy McGill’s journey to becoming Saul Goodman, you see that he’s trying out different occupations, so you see CC Mobile. The cell phone store was a lot of fun, keeping with a kind of Albuquerque, New Mexico aesthetic from that time period and also having it feel slightly sad but upbeat for Jimmy.
Then there was also a piñata warehouse that we had to build that was a lot of fun but got really dark, and it was kind of an incongruous thing since piñatas are associated with happy kids birthday parties. It was a dark moment for Jimmy McGill’s character, so that was fun to do.
Schweikart and Cokely, a high-end law firm that Kim goes to work for in Season 4, had been shot previously on location, but we were not able to go back there for some reason. I think because it no longer existed. It had become something else, so they wanted it as a stage set. Since it was going to recur over several episodes, that got to be reinterpreted and fleshed out with other offices and a bigger hallway.
I’m trying to remember what else. There were a couple of others- that check cashing place, I think it’s in the last episode, where Lalo Salamanca comes through the ceiling. I can’t remember the name of the actual store that we modified at the location. That was a lot of fun. That was the only kind of stunt driven design that came up in the season. We had to figure out how he was going to drop from the ceiling.
Kim Wexler’s apartment that she now lives with Jimmy McGill in, that got reworked slightly. I felt like the scale of it was a little off, and I opened it up for more camera angles and more lighting opportunity. Once again, Peter Gould was very open to that, and so was Vince. They said as long as it’s not distractingly different, it’s okay.
I kept the integrity of the actual apartment but opened it up and shrank a couple of the rooms, added a bathroom, added some windows, and we added a backing. I always like to have the option to open a curtain. I feel like a lot of times when windows are covered with sheers or curtains, and it’s never opened up it feels a little cheated like you can’t see outside because there’s nothing there to see.
So I opened it up, we added a backing, we shot it, we customized it from the physical location that her apartment is actually based on and although you don’t see it too much, it’s there. I think if you look really hard at some of the angles, you can see it or feel it at least.
Piñata Warehouse Set | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
It must have been a joy to work with such a unique colour palette. I feel like it’s not a common palette and we don’t see it often in movies and television.
Yes, it’s a very fun palette because it’s so not like where I grew up, which is LA, California, or in New York where I’ve lived for the last 30 years. It’s a whole other world, and it is very specific, and you don’t understand the palette until you go there. Then you start driving around, looking around and going to places and seeing these buildings and then suddenly it all makes sense, and you realize this is the world [the design of the show], the real place.
It’s not a retro colour palette- those are their present-day colours [in New Mexico]. Some of the turquoises and mauves can feel slightly retro, but it’s not when you go there, you realize it’s the real thing, it’s a present-day occurrence.
For me, I think that’s what’s really interesting about the look of Better Call Saul, and Breaking Bad, is that it’s very distinct, gritty, and somewhat ugly on purpose. It’s a very unique grungy desert look.
It’s definitely another character. It’s always established in Breaking Bad as another character in the storytelling. You try to keep that look without it once again being too distracting, or too comical. It is a drama with some heavy stuff that does come through, but it does have a sense of humour behind it, which makes the show so great.
The show has a very dry sense of humour with a little bit of a wink at times to the place of Albuquerque New Mexico. The world in which the story takes place, or the world in which these people inhabit, is shown as straightforward, which makes it funny.
Superlab Construction Crew Headquarters Set | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
What did you find to be the biggest challenge for you on Better Call Saul?
The biggest challenge was to keep tabs on the timeline. Keeping tabs on what had already been shot, what context did we see it, when would it have been in the calendar of Breaking Bad to Saul Goodman or Saul Goodman to Breaking Bad. Did we actually see it? Did Walter White ever hold the prop, or was it always just on a shelf?
So a lot of times we did have to go back and rewatch episodes. There’s meticulous record-keeping, but still, there’s so much layering that happens from set dressing to props to the art department to graphics, you know, that, and there’s always an easter egg- always a thought or a reference.
So that was the biggest challenge- to keep an accurate timeline of things that are recurring in the story because even within Better Call Saul you’re jumping in the timeline from Gene when he goes to Nebraska to Saul Goodman to Jimmy McGill and everything in between. It was always a question of: would he have had this by now or did he get it later?
It’s very intertwined with the story. It wasn’t a show where you could design a set because you think it will be interesting or look right. It always had to be linked to an authentic or accurate timeline to the story.
Did you guys add a lot of Easter eggs that the audience can look back on later and realize they were being given pieces to the puzzle?
Where we added things were more for Breaking Bad because it is a prequel so it was always like, wouldn’t it be great if in Jimmy McGill’s Chicago apartment he had the same artwork that we see elsewhere. Not that everyone will remember, but certain people will remember. Not everyone will, but there are enough rabid fans that will pick up on it. So yeah, we tried to put those in as much as possible pulling things from Breaking Bad to add to it, and that was a lot of fun.
So you ended up acquiring encyclopedic knowledge of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
That was what I spent a lot of my prep time doing was getting up to speed on teasing out what we could actually use as easter eggs from Breaking Bad. You know, to offer it up to Peter Gould and Vince to see if they were interested in doing it or not and they were always so into it. Not everything made it in because they didn’t want it to become too heavily layered with that, but they were always open to those suggestions, especially from the prop department.
Better Call Saul Season 4 Schweikart & Cokely Law Firm Set
Technical Drawings and Finishes for Schweikart & Cokely Law Firm Set
Schweikart & Cokely Law Firm Set | Better Call Saul Season 4 | Courtesy of AMC
What was your favourite set on Better Call Saul Season 4?
The Superlab was probably my favourite. Redoing Schweikart and Cokely was also great. We had enough time for both of those sets to look at how we wanted to see it and show it and decide what the interesting angles would be. So we built models, and we did the whole phase from paper to model to rendering.
Then we would offer the set variations to Peter and the writers, discuss it with the DOP in terms of lighting and what made the most sense for the dramatics of each episode. It was great to have that time for those discussions. The process was sped up because you’re working on a TV schedule, but it was helpful to have the outlines and some of the scripts ahead of time.
And you weren’t on Better Call Saul Season 5 because of the Breaking Bad movie. Are you still on that now, or has that wrapped?
The Breaking Bad movie finished, but the timeline with Better Call Saul Season 5 had an overlap so it didn’t work out and I needed to go back home to New York so unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I wanted to go back, but I’m hoping if both our work schedules align I’ll be able to go back for Season 6, but we’ll see.
Season 6 is far away. They’re still shooting Season 5 currently. They may be just over halfway through at this point. Our work schedules didn’t align unfortunately because of the Breaking Bad movie, so we wrapped that a few months ago.
Are you working on anything now?
I am starting a new TV series in New York called Love Life. It’s a romantic comedy starring Anna Kendrick so I’m looking forward to that and it will be a different genre for me which is great because I always want to switch it up. It was important for me to stay in New York and stay home. I just feel like I’ve been on the road for four years.
Yeah, I feel like designers are travelling salesman these days.
Yeah, we go where the circus goes.
Is there anything else about Better Call Saul that you want people to know?
I don’t want to give anything away, but I know that it’s going to be very exciting to see him get closer to the full evolution of Saul Goodman. In Season 4 he was still very much on paper and in the world, Jimmy McGill, but his internal life is starting to shift, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of seasons when he does fully become Saul Goodman. I think a lot of fans, including myself, are all awaiting that moment.
It’s been an interesting slow burn of a show. Are you feeling like it’s going to pick up the pace in the next couple of seasons?
I have a hunch it will be more action-packed now that it’s getting closer to the timeline of Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul Season 4 Official Trailer
Have you been watching Better Call Saul? I’m very excited to see how the show evolves in Season 5 and 6. I’m also really looking forward to see production designer Judy Rhee‘s work on the upcoming Breaking Bad movie. I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
What do you think of Better Call Saul? As always, we would love to know what you think in the comments below.