Better Call Saul Editor Chris McCaleb Welcomes Mistakes

Accidents are surprisingly important in art.

Films and TV shows are massive undertakings. With hundreds of people involved, mistakes are inevitable. The actor flubbed a line. The camera lost focus. The makeup artist was rushed and didn’t have time to properly apply the fake beard.

Dustin Hoffman’s famous line “I’m walkin’ here!” from the classic Midnight Cowboy was not planned. Hoffman and Jon Voigt were being filmed secretly, and a real taxi almost hit Hoffman. True to form, he stayed in character and that accident has become one of the most iconic lines in cinema history.

Until robots replace us all, there will never be a perfectly flawless, mistake-free film project. And that’s for the best, as the most experienced artists, the most talented filmmakers will not only accept mistakes, they’ll rely on them. A flubbed line could be the most natural delivery of said line, a camera losing focus might create an emotional effect that no one would have even considered. As for the fake beard…

Recently, on a production I directed and produced (an 8-episode digital series), our lead actor was supposed to have a realistic beard. Unfortunately, due to lack of time, the beard wasn’t applied as well as we had all wanted (including the very rushed, over-worked and fantastic make-up artist). We had luckily budgeted for a couple of pick up days – but it wasn’t enough to reshoot all of the beard scenes. So, we had an alternative idea: we added a scene about the main character wearing a fake beard.

Sure, it sounds very silly – but it worked perfectly in the story. Better than the original, in fact. It gave the character an extra thing, a weirdness that worked for the overall quirkiness of the series. It helped add the needed depth that not only colored in the character further but also created a new scene that became one of the funniest, most memorable moments in the episode.

Mistakes take your brain and shake it around. They kick the door of creativity down to let you look at your ideas in a different way.

These mistakes are just as important to post production as they are to production itself. To get an idea of just how important, I sat down for drinks with the esteemed gentleman, Chris McCaleb. Chris has edited for some of television’s best and most creative series such as Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire and Amazon’s delightfully strange, Patriot.

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We talked about his use and love of the good ol’ fashioned mistake.

A SURPRISE TO EVERYBODY

Chris has a particular fondness for moments that surprise. Something that is telling in many of the shows he’s worked on. I wondered about how he specifically uses accidents in his edit.

“My approach – and a lot of people’s approach – is trying to find moments that are unique. That weren’t necessarily the plan. Because a lot of times that’s the stuff that’s the most authentic. You know when you do a scene in TV, you often don’t have a lot of takes because there’s just no time. So, as a television director, you’re just economizing. What do you need to get the scene? And then, if you still have time – which you probably won’t – what is the thing you can do that’s different?”

The accidents offer up exactly those kind of moments. Moments that perhaps the director never managed to get but that tumbled out when an actor sneezed, or an actress laughed in the middle of a take or a camera got bumped during a move. Moments that weren’t planned but turned out to be exactly the thing you needed.

Mistakes also provide another key element to a film.

“Authenticity.” says Chris, “Because you’re seeing someone do a thing that they didn’t even expect. And even if you do a scene like, twice, as an actor, there’s a repetition to it. Let’s say you have a wideshot and two close-ups, which is not very much coverage, and let’s say you do three takes of each. That’s still nine takes. When an accident happens, it can infuse the scene with a type of energy that the people in it didn’t expect. Which is way more like real life because –“

The waiter comes by. We’ve been sitting in an outside patio, it’s 11 PM, and the heat lamps are off. We are both talking faster and faster, as if trying to start a warming fire with the speed of our words. Thankfully, he turns on the heater and Chris continues…

“—well, just what happened now. A guy walked up and we were like, ‘hey, can you please get this heater back on, oh thank god, it’s on.’ You look for those things because sometimes you can infuse the scene with an energy that it needs.”

And not just energy. As artists, we try to make films and TV shows that are true, that are emotionally honest. What is more honest than a mistake?

“You want something that surprises you because if it still surprises you, it’s likely going to surprise the audience. As a viewer, I want to be surprised, I want to be taken to a place I haven’t been. And that’s what is great about accidents – they’re a surprise to everybody.”

THE ACCIDENTAL OUT

No one goes into a film shoot assuming that things will go horribly wrong. Most directors and producers have a plan. So, how do mistakes play into that plan?

“Some scenes are heavily designed and they only work in a very certain way. Where the editor has to get creative with using accidents is when that heavily designed scene isn’t working, when you have to cut time out or when you have to change the context of a scene.”

For Chris, mistakes are outs. If a director decided to do a scene in one take and it ends up not working in the edit, Chris’s options are limited. A good editor will use their dailies, scour the unintended moments to, hopefully, be able to rebuild the moment that the film crew never got.

“Sometimes, you need to change the nature of a scene and you can say, well, what if we use this little thing where the person laughs… and it’s now… they’re laughing at that joke because in the end they’re going to get together. And so, you want those accidents to happen.”

And there’s one very important thing you need to do to make sure you’re able to use your accidents successfully…

“The number one, the most important thing that you can do to put yourself in the position to find those accidents, is to watch literally all of your footage.

Even If I look at a shot and think, well, I’m never going to use this shot, this shot is ridiculous.  You can’t do a whole scene on a close-up of somebody’s fingernail and then it racks to the eyeball, and goes back and forth, eyeball! Fingernail! Not a real example… but, sometimes, you know that you can’t use this footage. But you watch it anyway. Because sometimes, you watch it and you go, oh… you know where I could try this? And then you maybe try it and maybe it works! Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe in the not working it sparks another idea…. And you go, oh, but what if I use that other shot to do what this shot is doing…”

So, while mistakes can often be used as clever outs in post – it’s up to the editor to know all of their footage so as to be able to find those mistakes in the first place.

According to the DVD commentary for Guardians of the Galaxy, in the credits stinger when Chris Pratt’s Star Lord comically drops the orb, that was an unscripted accident. Naturally, it worked perfectly for the film and the director James Gunn left it in.

ACCEPTING THE ACCIDENTAL

I asked Chris if he had any specific examples where accidents dramatically changed the course of a scene in his own work.

“There are actually two involving gunshots in Breaking Bad. One is not my story at all. Kelley Dixon, ACE [lead editor on Breaking Bad] was building a scene in Breaking Bad and in your video editing timeline, you’ve got multiple video layers. Sometimes, you start stacking things on top of each other and you cover little pieces, because you’re just experimenting and she just happened to have different parts of a scene on a timeline on different layers. And she just happened to play it and it did this crazy thing where it cut back and forth between things that weren’t linear.

“And she just… found that rhythm, went with that rhythm. And you see that and you’re like, woah. Your brain goes… that’s not right. But it is right. Kelley has such a mind for that. She’s so experimental. I learned a lot from her.”

Sometimes, in an edit, something so strange can accidentally happen that there’s no way to plan for it or think of it yourself. Thanks to Kelley’s significant experience (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul, Shameless) and creativity, she knows how to use fortuitous mistakes to inform the very style of her cuts.

Chris and Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul lead editor, Kelley Dixon, shooting a selfie at the Emmy’s.

So, how can an editor similarly keep themselves open to these sort of mistakes?

“Don’t have preconceived notions. I think that’s good advice for anyone in all jobs ever, from editing to writing to directing. Have a plan, but be open to better ideas. Even if it’s not your idea. Sometimes, the best ideas come from somebody else and even if it’s not the exact same thing, it makes you think… oh but what if I did that? And then it’s a whole new thing and it’s better. If you’re a slave to your first idea, you really are limiting yourself, you’re limiting your palette. You’re limiting the number of tools, the number of paints and brushes that you can use.”

It’s an important lesson. If Kelley wasn’t open to experimentation, a memorable scene would perhaps not have worked nearly as well as it did. If you’re not allowing outside forces to shift your idea of the project, your project may very well suffer for it.

“Art, especially movies and TV, is living and breathing. It’s on its feet. It’s a baby that’s trying to grow up and live and to be its own thing and you’re always going to be hit with something you didn’t expect. You can call those happy accidents because those are the things where something happens and it changes your mind about something else and it makes it better. Even if it makes you think about it differently, it’s worth it. It’s worth the time. It’s worth trying. Always, everything is worth trying.

So, what’s the other gunshot-related accident?

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“It’s from a scene that Kelley and I alt-edited together. Which was this shootout, it’s toward the end of Breaking Bad, this shootout in the desert. The episode ends with it, and it leaves you wondering what happened with everybody. And again, because of time constraints, we didn’t have a shot of Todd (Jesse Plemons) firing his gun at a particular moment. And I can’t remember if it was Kelley’s idea or mine, but there was a part where he was holding a gun, and he kind of accidentally moved in a way that was sort of gun-like, and with visual effects we added a muzzle flash that kind of gave it the appearance of a gunshot. We manufactured a gunshot out of something that wasn’t anything. That’s not exactly an accident, but it’s basically taking something that wasn’t done intentionally and repurposing it for something else.”

Open to trying anything, neither Chris nor Kelley went to the producers to beg for reshoots. They didn’t have the shot–but thanks to them being open to other solutions and using unintentional footage in an intentional way, they found a solution.

WHAT WORKS AND WHAT’S TERRIBLE?

As a director, I have often found that a late night editing session will inevitably lead to weird choices and mistakes. At 4 AM, those mistakes will sometimes blow your mind, sometimes make you laugh and sometimes, when you’re very tired, make you think you’ve just used a television scene to look into the very eyes of God.

Usually, these mistakes will be the first fresh thing that’s happened in fifteen hours, so it’s easy to be drawn to them. They’re new. I asked Chris how he knew when a mistake was useable and when it was just something that was only exciting to the editor and director who had spent way too much time trapped in a room together.

Anne Hathaway’s fall in Princess Diaries was an unplanned accident that went perfectly with the clumsiness of her character Mia.

That’s the other side of the equation. When you’re so used to a thing and something happens that makes you laugh, that makes you excited, sometimes those things that surprise you don’t serve the scene. And it’s about having discipline, I think. It’s about being able to say, this is funny… or this is sad… or this is an amazing moment… but it doesn’t serve the scene.”

So, what if, after ten hours of hibernation, you come back to the scene and still aren’t sure if it works?

“It really is about instinct – and I’m not saying anybody’s instincts are better or worse, they’re just your own, everybody’s unique and has their own approach to the scene. And the way you know that the accident is right or it’s wrong for the moment is you just have to rely on your instincts. And you have to be willing to defend your position to your bosses, and you also have to be willing to let it go, which is hard. But it’s a collaborative medium. It’s an art form that involves many, many people, many, many artists and masters.”

And every position fights for their unique choices. A director fights his EPs, EPs fight the investors–we all buy our creative choices. The mistakes that work are the mistakes you’re willing to go to bat for; they’re the mistakes that breathe life into your scene.

GOING ON A MISTAKE HUNT

I wondered if Chris approached every scene with a particular eye out for accidents or mistakes or if he just let them happen to him.

“I don’t think you’re looking for it, I think you’re hoping for it. You’re hoping for something fresh. You’re hoping for something that’s dynamic that takes you by surprise.”

Always?

“I think so, yeah. Even in just a standard thing, you’re looking for something… unique.”

Something real.

“Definitely real. Depending on the thing you’re doing. I cut on a show Patriot for Amazon and it’s a sort of spy show, kind of, but like a spy drama comedy musical. It’s really good, and it’s very unique. This show exists in this like fantasy… not reality. It is not real life. The show is really different and hard to describe. And it demands that you keep watching it. And it rewards you for that. But man, it is so specific. And it is the singular voice of the guy who wrote and directed most of it, Steve Conrad, who is awesome. But even in a thing like that, you’re trying to find something that doesn’t necessarily feel real but it feels authentic. Based on the world that you’re working in.”

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Our conversation takes a very bizarre turn. Perhaps inspired by Patriot.

“I had never seen Miss Congeniality until recently, for some reason. That movie is ridiculous. It’s so unrealistic. But, they’re finding ways to make a very unrealistic thing feel realistic. Feel authentic.”

Any time someone uses Miss Congeniality as a film standard, you have to listen.

“Why I brought up Patriot is because it’s always in service of the scene and whatever the intent of the scene is. Sometimes, it’s a heightened reality, you’re serving that. Sometimes it’s a comedy. Sometimes it’s two people in love. Sometimes, it’s a drug deal gone wrong. Every scene has different needs and you’re always serving those needs. And you’re just… you’re hoping that something is going to happen in there that… I mean, aren’t we always hoping that we’re going to see something that we’ve never seen before?”

It’s true. Film is about surprise, about showing us the world in a way that is interesting, different. Something that offers a new perspective on the same old thing.

“We’ve seen everything. We’ve got nearly limitless options about things that we can watch and listen to. We can entertain ourselves with screens from sun up to sundown and then through the night. We could never sleep and we could have screens in front of our eyes 24/7 and we would never have to watch the same thing twice, until we just died of dehydration. Isn’t the reason we do that because we’re trying to find something that surprises us? That sparks the chemicals in our brain that get excited when we see something fresh and something original? That’s the stuff that I like, that’s the stuff I like to be a part of.”

It’s the stuff we all want to be part of, it’s what art is about – we just have to accidentally stumble into it first.

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Dustin Hoffman has a knack for cinematic mistakes making cinematic history. The hilarious fart scene in Rain Man was an unplanned REAL incident of flatulence. Both actors stayed in character, yielding one of the funniest moments in the movie.

You can check out Chris and Kelley talking about Better Call Saul on the show’s official podcast.

Better Call Saul podcast 2×05: Chris, Kelley, co-creator Vince Gilligan, writer Ann Cherkis, actress Rhea Seehorn, and co-creator Peter Gould.