It’s at times easy to forget that “Better Call Saul” is a period piece, if only because its 2002-2003 setting isn’t always noticeably distinguishable from the present day. But then every once in a while, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould slap us in the face with a reminder that this show is happening in the past. It can be as simple as a trip to a video store — but not just any video store.
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It’s something we all accepted as routine, just 15 years ago: Want to watch a movie? Go to Blockbuster Video. So in the Season 3 finale, “Lantern,” Kim (Rhea Seehorn) asks her assistant Francesca (Tina Parker) for a ride to what was once the dominant source for Americans in search of movie rentals, and we then get to see her browse the aisles in search of the perfect comfort viewing, following her near-fatal car accident the episode prior.
Executive producer Gennifer Hutchison, who wrote the season finale, told IndieWire that the decision to have Kim visit a video store came in the writers’ room, as the team discussed what Kim might possibly do after deciding to relax following her accident. “I just really loved the idea of her renting a bunch of videos and sitting around watching movies and eating junk food. Just because it’s something I relate to, it’s something I like to do when I destress. And I feel like it’s not something you see a lot of on TV and in movies,” she said.
And as a result, Gould — who directed the finale — got very excited about the idea of Kim going to not just any video store, but Blockbuster in particular. However, don’t think that this was an easy choice for the show — because according to production designer Michael Novotny, “it was a total nail-biter.”
Novotny told IndieWire that as soon as he received word that “Saul” wanted to recreate a Blockbuster, he got his team to work — specifically, the graphics department. “I can always do a set. A set’s the easy part. The hard part is the graphics and all of the art work you’re going to turn out,” he said.
But that process started before the show had actual permission to recreate a Blockbuster. “We started to build it without approval. That’s part of the nail-biting process,” he said. “It wasn’t until the day before we shot it that we got approval.”
This is because, as anyone who works in production might tell you, trying to depict a real brand on screen can be an incredibly difficult task. And the “Saul” team wanted to actually use Blockbuster iconography, which isn’t the easiest thing given that it’s a brand name you haven’t probably seen in the wild in years.
Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010, and “roughly a dozen” stores currently exist today. Thus, the set was built on one of the show’s Albuquerque soundstages, and in fact, a great deal of what was on screen was made from scratch by the “Saul” production team, including the big Blockbuster sign hanging in the wall and the period-accurate movie covers.
One thing they were able to buy: the shelving units came thanks to an ironic stroke of luck and an Albuquerque video store that was going out of business. The production was thus able to buy those displays, which Novotny made sure were shortened so that, as they shot the scene, Kim and Francesca could be seen walking through the aisles. That framing was based on Gould’s storyboards, which were altered slightly during the production process, but otherwise didn’t require any major additional construction.
But really, here’s what people care about — the movies that are being considered, as Kim prepares for an epic binge in the pre-Netflix days. None of the titles are fake, and Novotny did work carefully with his team to carefully curate the movies that appeared on screen during the scene, all of which were drawn from a list provided by Peter Gould and the writers. Here are just some of the ones we happened to spot while freeze-framing:
“A Knight’s Tale” “Lawrence of Arabia” (the 40th anniversary special edition) “Love Liza” “The Mothman Prophecies” “Punch-Drunk Love” A Richard Pryor stand-up special “Beverly Hills Ninja” “The Cheap Detective” “Hanky Panky” “Blue Thunder” “American Sledge” “Darkness Falls” “Night of the Living Dead”
They’re all movies that feel appropriate to the era at least within a year or two or as classics, though unfortunately a quick Internet search can reveal whether a film in question would have been available on DVD in the year 2003. Perhaps the most glaring oversight is the appearance of Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” which was released in theaters December 10, 2003 and made available on DVD April 27, 2004 — something Hutchison’s husband (who actually worked at Blockbuster in the past) noticed while watching the final product. “We don’t always get it right,” she admitted.
Novotny acknowledged the “Big Fish” error, but he was relatively zen about it, given the intense pressure of making the scene happen in the first place. “It really was a down to the wire thing,” he said. “If that’s as much as I’m wrong… I’m sad to hear that but at the same time I’m happy that it went as good as it did.”
Update: On Twitter, Gould offered a little clarity as to why “Big Fish” might have time traveled back a year:
And that #BigFish they mention? Could be a shoutout to my former student @johnaugust… #YesYouReadThatRight
— Peter Gould (@petergould) June 23, 2017
Hutchison couldn’t remember every one of the 10 films Kim officially rented, though such a list was made during production. Beyond “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Monty Python,” she said the rest were mostly legal dramas, though she did make sure to include the Luc Besson sci-fi romp “The Fifth Element.” “That was one for some reason I was really stuck on making sure was in her stack,” Hutchison said.
While hardly the most memorable scene of the finale, it still sticks in the mind because of how it triggers memories of an experience we’ve largely lost, traded in for the convenience of Netflix.
“I like the idea of physically walking around and choosing movies,” Hutchison said. “There is something about actually going into a store, having everything broken down by genre. Sometimes with the streaming services it’s a little overwhelming, but having that physical space… I don’t know. It was like a ritual.”
And depicting that ritual was just more proof that “Better Call Saul” will always find a way to surprise us with the seemingly mundane.
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