Bob Odenkirk: "Better Call Saul" will be dark

The "Breaking Bad" actor and David Cross talk about their new book, their respective shows, and the coming spinoff

Published October 3, 2013 2:21PM (EDT)

  (AP/Charles Sykes)
(AP/Charles Sykes)

Hollywood said no -- but they're doing fine anyway.

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, the stars of the late, lamented HBO sketch show "Mr. Show With Bob and David," have lately been busier than ever. This year, Odenkirk appeared in the critically heralded film "The Spectacular Now" as well as the yet-more-heralded final season of "Breaking Bad"; he's getting his own spinoff, "Better Call Saul," following the adventures of lawyer Saul Goodman before the story of "Breaking Bad" begins. Meanwhile, Cross, who appears in this year's films "Kill Your Darlings" and "It's a Disaster," appeared in the recent Netflix revival of "Arrested Development" -- a series whose mixed reaction, he told Salon, frustrated him.

But "Mr. Show" began it all for both stars, and they've just released a book of rejected scripts for projects around the absurdist sketch series. "Hollywood Said No!," written with Brian Posehn, features the full scripts for "Bob and David Make a Movie" and "Hooray for America!," two projects that the moviemaking establishment passed on. (Whether that was wise or not, reader, is for you to judge.)

The project, whose audiobook features the full "Mr. Show" cast, is part of a Bob-and-David renaissance; the pair recently completed a grueling month-long tour, their first since 2002. They spoke to Salon about how and whether they've been able to get past typecasting, whether they're happy Hollywood said no and allowed them to make hit TV shows, and what Vince Gilligan has planned for "Better Call Saul."

I’m wondering the degree to which reliving the "Mr. Show" years is kind of welcome, or whether it's kind of like, that’s the past.

Cross: They are not mutually exclusive. We are in different parts of our lives, but we still enjoy going back and working on that stuff. I mean, you know Bob and I, any time we get together to do something is always a treat, especially because we haven’t lived in the same city for almost 13 years now, so it's nice to be able to do that. And you know we look forward to doing it again. There’s nothing obligatory feeling about it, I don’t know if that’s the right word, we enjoy it. There’s definitely tedious things going on, but it was fun to get together.

Are both of you happy, ultimately, that the scripts in this book didn’t get green-lighted? Had they, you'd have had very different careers. 

Cross: No. Speaking for me, I would have loved not only to have done them, but to have been in a place that would have allowed me to have done them. I have no regrets about my career and I’m happy with where I am now, but yeah, I absolutely would have liked to. They are funny. It would have been a really funny thing to have worked on.

Odenkirk: Yeah, I agree. I think it would have been fun to make them and I don’t think you can tell what would have happened.

Bob, how did you fit the show into your schedule?

Odenkirk: It was very difficult to fit it into our schedule. It was crazy. But it also was kind of a manageable show. I mean, both David and I always perform, David does stand-up whenever he can. I do all kinds of stand-up throughout the year and so it wasn’t the hardest job, but it was packing an awful lot into the three weeks for both of us. We would have done more but, as you pointed out, we have a lot going on right now and that was all we could do. And it was pretty wall-to-wall packed.

Tell me a little bit about the title of this book, "Hollywood Said No." Has it gotten easier to get ideas green-lighted now? Was there a turning point at which things got much easier?

Odenkirk: It's not easier. It might be marginally easier, but not really. I think David would agree with this. I’ve always been able to get into a room to pitch something, like, I have enough respect around town that people would be happy to hear an idea that I have, and they might even be excited in the room, but getting the money to actually be freed up or committed that’s been hard. But that’s hard for everyone. Jesus, that's hard for everybody!

Cross: Read Deadline Hollywood around pilot season. I mean there's stuff, made to attract solid A-list people with a great track record, that is better than both Bob and I combined, and they still don’t get projects made.

Odenkirk:  In "Hollywood Said No," for people who know us really, really well, we always refer to Hollywood likes it's this monolithic ship, like it’s a DMV office that you go to and they tell you whether it's "yes" or "no." We always talk about the Mayor of Hollywood, or getting kicked out of Hollywood, or being asked to leave show business as if it’s this, you know, we’re joking. And people who kind of know us know that it’s not like this. "Hollywood Said No" is totally in line with how we’ve always referenced Hollywood, like it’s a heavy-handed …

Cross: ... bureaucratic unwieldy company. At this point.. we’re not implying that we’re victims or that we feel bad or sad or that anybody should feel bad or sad, it's not to be taken that way at all.

Odenkirk: You know, it's like there were totally legitimate reasons why no one wanted to make those movies, and I could tell you what they are, and they make perfect sense. It doesn’t mean you don’t try and write them, or try to get them made. To some extent, any movie that is unique and that has a strong voice or strong point of view in it is a crazy pitch and the only way those movies ever get made, and they do get made, is because the crazy pitch pays off a couple times a year for a couple people, and so we just kind of crossed our fingers and kind of hoped that we would be the ones that caught the break. And we didn’t. But that’s OK. We knew at the time that we were just trying to catch a break. We didn’t think we were writing something that checks off all the markers on the kind of movie that’s got to be made. We knew we were counting on getting lucky. And we just didn’t get lucky. It's like getting mad that you didn’t win the lottery.

And you both have done darker stuff in the years since, and I’ve spoken to both of you this year: David on occasion of the film "It’s a Disaster," which, for a comedy, was pretty pitch-black, and Bob on occasion of the drama "The Spectacular Now." What is it about both of you that has casting directors seeing you as so versatile?

Odenkirk: For me I would say it’s that they just don’t know me. The way show business works is kind of this huge intrigue in which people who know you from one thing, and don’t know you from another. It's very strange to have a crossover, like in the case of ["Breaking Bad" creator] Vince Gilligan, he knew me from "Mr. Show," and he thought I could be good in a drama. That’s really strange. But now that I’ve done a drama, people who watch dramas consider me for those parts.

I mean, "Breaking Bad" crossed a lot of barriers. But I don’t think people think I’m incredibly diverse. I think they just know me from whatever they work in and whatever work I’ve done in that genre, in that direction. So they are not hiring me going, "Holy cow, I’m going to hire a sketch actor for this." With the exception of Vince Gilligan and ["Spectacular Now" director] James Ponsoldt, people only know me from their own endeavor. They don’t know me from other parts of this business.

Cross: I find that attitude so frustrating in its lazy illogic, and I agree with Bob and have had similar experiences, which is why I was so excited to do "It’s a Disaster." It's because I rarely get to play the straight guy, and I really enjoyed it, and not to sound cocky, and I thought I did a really good job in that role, in that part as the guy who's grounding everything. And it's not the most huge stretch, but something I rarely get the opportunity to do, and I’m always frustrated when you still, in 2013, hear people saying, "Oh, I really liked fill-in-the-blank with the name of a comic in that movie. I didn’t know he or she could be serious." Like somehow we don’t have that capability --

Like you’re not really an actor.

Cross: Yeah, it's like, well, clearly they are just joking all the time and that’s all they can do. It’s really frustrating that people still think that way. And you know it’s lazy and thoughtless. At some point, Zach Galifianakis will be nominated for an Academy Award, sometime in the next 20 years, and people will just be shocked. "I can’t believe he has that ability to grasp those emotions and show them to us." It’s like he’s a human being and not a funny robot.

This year, you both had new episodes of your very popular individual shows come out. Each of you in turn, I’m wondering if you were satisfied by the reaction to the most recent seasons of "Breaking Bad" and "Arrested Development," and if you'd speak a bit about that.

Cross: You’d have to be insane not to be thrilled by the reaction to "Breaking Bad."

Odenkirk: I just wish people could hear about them. There’s no way to know about it unless you’re in the vortex.

Cross: It’s extremely under the radar.

Odenkirk: I’m still trying to grasp what happened here. It’s crazy. And it’s a bigger cultural phenomenon than I could imagine ever being a part of in my life, ever.

Cross: I’m still processing the final episode, which I watched [Monday] night for the first time and got to sleep around 3 a.m. Its just such a, man, I’m just in such awe and so appreciative of that show, and jealous of people who haven’t watched it and who get to have that experience.

Did you feel in the same way about "Arrested Development" on Netflix? Were you happy with the reaction?

Cross: The reaction, not so much, because it got very mixed reactions and there were people who were quite vocal about not liking it, so I can’t say I’m excited about that. I thought it was, it took me about seven episodes before I really got the rhythm and understood how to watch the show, and then I really enjoyed it and realized I had to go back and watch it again as there was so much stuff that went past me that I didn’t understand, that I didn’t get. And you know people don’t like or desire change, and because of the severe parameters and limitations that Mitch [Hurwitz] had while doing this he came up with idea, this format, which I thought was pretty genius, and with the premise that this would lead into a final third act which would be a movie, which if you’ve gotten past all the other stuff that you need to get past and now you just enjoy this third act, as it were.

But people didn’t care for that, they didn’t care for the idea of an episode that concentrates on one character so you can figure out what happened to him in the last 10 years. It turned some people off, which I think is unfortunate, but I liked it. As I said, it took me a little while to figure it out, because we watched it the same way everyone else did, so it unfolded for us in the same way. And I liked it. I thought that it was unique and considering the limitations and perimeters he had, as I said before I thought he did a good job.

Will there be a sort of "Mr. Show" influence, or any levity or humor at all, in "Better Call Saul," or will it be as pitch dark as the final seasons of "Breaking Bad"?

Odenkirk: Vince Gilligan and the writers will make the ultimate decision, but Vince has told me, the last time he talked to me, he said that it will be slightly more dark than it is funny. That’s an interesting balance to strike. And I’m excited.

It's crazy to me that you guys did the tour in such an intense way.

Cross: Well, it’s my fault. Or I’m the reason for that. We had planned a more leisurely tour, but then it was just unfortunate timing on my part. We had been trying to get it together for a long time, and it finally happened, and I had to jump on that. We were going to be in one place for the weekend, so we would do two shows a night. You know, we aren’t young guys anymore. There were a couple of times I literally flew in, got picked up from the airport, and went straight to either a bookstore, did a signing, went to rehearsal, we would rehearse, tech the show at the theater for anywhere from two to three hours. And then do two shows, and I wouldn’t even check into my hotel room until like 12:45 in the morning, and I’d check in, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning. So that is not the best way to do that kind of stuff.

Yeah, I can only imagine. In the meantime you have the book that you were assigning. And it seems as though the process of putting the book together was less arduous because you had all the raw material for the book again, right?

Cross: Oh, almost all of it. We took those raw materials, kind of dressed them up, made them more readable, we took out some other stuff so it was easier to read, there were a couple of other things sprinkled throughout, but it's 90 percent stuff that we had written. Putting the book together was not the arduous part. There’s a lot of going back and checking for errors and stuff like that, which is tedious, especially when you’ve been doing it literally for the fourth or fifth time, but outside of the tedious part, it was not difficult.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Better Call Saul Bob Odenkirk David Cross Hollywood Said No