For the last 15 years, Michael Morris has been one of the most respected and prolific TV directors in the business, and now he’s taken the leap into features with To Leslie, one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Currently, the Andrea Riseborough indie vehicle is certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes, boasting a 98 percent score. The drama chronicles a former lottery winner named Leslie (Riseborough) whose alcoholism has cost her everything, forcing her to return home to West Texas and face the music.
Morris, who cut his teeth as a theater director in England, immediately connected with Ryan Binaco’s script, and having contributed to existing worlds on TV for many years, he yearned to build something from square one again, similar to his early plays. And as rewarding as television has been for him, he also wanted to move away from the conventions that come with the medium.
“Leslie is somebody that really appealed to me, and I very much wanted to tell a story where most of the storytelling was subtextual rather than textual,” Morris tells The Hollywood Reporter. “With certain exceptions, you don’t get to explore that as much in television where there’s a requirement, oftentimes, for plot or plot development or certain things to be spoken. So I was really interested in a movie which allowed us to be a little more elliptical all the way through.”
One of those exceptions is Better Call Saul, and Morris played a key role in putting the finishing touches on the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad spinoff’s final season, which concluded in August. After serving as a guest director on seasons four and five, Morris was invited to be an in-house director/EP on season six, joining Michelle MacLaren (Breaking Bad) as the only two outside directors to receive such a distinction in the Breaking Bad universe.
“I was honored, I was surprised, but I was delighted,” Morris says. “Working with that team, I don’t think that you can have a better experience. Starting with Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and Melissa Bernstein, it’s a group of people who treat everybody with endless respect. It’s just as simple as that.”
Morris has served the director-producer role on several other shows including the Kyle Chandler-led Netflix series Bloodline, which is where he met his future To Leslie stars, Riseborough and Owen Teague.
In a recent conversation with THR, Morris also discusses how supportive the Saul team was of To Leslie and the extra mile they went to in order to ensure its completion.
Well, I first became aware of To Leslie in such a bizarre way. I was doing research for an interview with Andrea Riseborough in December 2020, and I went down such a rabbit hole that I managed to stumble on cell phone footage of the opening motel scene.
So I told Andrea about it, and she became noticeably flustered because that’s obviously not how she wants her work to be seen.
Wow, that must have been some member of the public, saying, “Hey, they’re filming something in this place today,” and then they posted it.
That was our first day, actually. That was the first scene that we shot of the movie with any dialogue. Our very first day of production began with the early montage of her in the bar, but there’s no dialogue in that. And then we went outside and did that motel scene. So it was a pretty intense day, but they all were, actually.
You’ve been a prolific TV director for a long time, and to make an independent film like To Leslie, it’s truly a labor of love. So what was it about the material that drove you to take on your first feature?
I arrived into the world as a theater director and segued into television. When you mount a play, you create a landscape in a world and cast it with people and create a visual language. But in television, oftentimes, you are stepping into worlds that have been created and populated, so you’re contributing to that, which I love. It’s very difficult to talk about this without making it feel like there’s a value judgment; there isn’t. But I’d wanted for a long time to build something from the ground up, and I’d read a lot of wonderful scripts that I just did not have a connection to. If you don’t have a gut-level connection with something, it’s just too hard, and the journey’s too long, especially with a small film. But everything about To Leslie connected with me.
For those who don’t know, you’re an Englishman, so that’s really saying something.
Yeah, I’m not from Texas. I’m not a single mother. I’ve never won the lottery. There are a lot of struggles in this that I haven’t struggled with in my own life, so it’s fair to question what I saw in this. But the movie, to me, is about love. I know that sounds incredibly generic, but love is a scary concept, sometimes. We hurt the people that are closest to us. The people we love the most are the ones that we are able to hurt the most. The people who love us the most are able and equipped to hurt us the most. So what is it to love somebody in the face of that?
There was such specificity about this character, but to me, specificity is a way of making something universal. If you try to make a character universal, you’re most likely going to make something generic, I worry. So, To Leslie was a very specific character study that was written by somebody who has a very specific relationship to this world and these struggles. And as a result, it opened me up to look at it from a bird’s eye perspective and go, “I’m Leslie.”
In fact, I wish I had the resilience of Leslie and her innate power to very rarely be defeated. She has terrible challenges, and she has characteristics which I hope to not have. But at her core, she’s somebody that really appealed to me, and I very much wanted to tell a story where most of the storytelling was subtextual rather than textual. With certain exceptions, you don’t get to explore that as much in television where there’s a requirement, oftentimes, for plot or plot development or certain things to be spoken. So I was really interested in a movie which allowed us to be a little more elliptical all the way through.
So that was my initial instinct, and I can’t say enough about Ryan Binaco’s script. He under-wrote in all of the important ways to me. He was able to understand that scripts are not always finished blueprints and documents that you hand over, because there could have been half a dozen directors who would’ve seen certain things differently. So for about a year and a half, we were able to really hone the script into a really good blueprint for this movie.
Whenever I see Owen Teague, I see Ben Mendelsohn Jr. from Bloodline, but then I remembered that Andrea and Owen also played mother and son on Bloodline. And then I realized that you directed a few episodes of Bloodline as well. So were those easy phone calls to make?
Yeah, I directed an episode of Bloodline in the first season, and then I joined the second season as an executive producer and director. So I was essentially part of the furniture all through the second season, and Andrea’s character came in during the second season. So I was very lucky in the sense that I was able to work with Andrea. She’s an artist of the first order. Nothing is accidental for Andrea. She builds the voice and history that her characters have. There’s no arbitrary decision with her, from the way her hair looks to the way she’ll sit on a bar stool or on a chair. And I was very lucky to do that with her on Bloodline, too.
Owen is an unbelievable story because he was not a known actor. He’s from Florida, and even though he was cast to play a young Ben Mendelson, he was so good that he ended up playing Ben Mendelson’s character’s son. That’s a convention that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before or since on a show that’s not a sort of magic realism show or something like that. He’s just that skillful and talented.
So I knew I wanted them both. Were they easy phone calls to make? Yeah, but calling Owen, he’s like a little brother in a way. He’s really busy, but he was able to come and do this in just a few days. But with Andrea, it’s a much bigger conversation. She’s in every frame of the movie, and it takes her to some extremely challenging and dark places. So we met, we talked it over, and we just aligned in certain ways.
I wanted to make a movie of empathy, not judgment, and I wanted to attack the material from a different point. There’s this wonderful movie called Wanda by Barbara Loden. She made it in the 1970s, and it’s the only movie she made. But it communicated what I’m interested in, and so I mentioned it in passing to Andrea. And she was like, “That’s my favorite film.” So that became the lens through which we looked at this, and to me, that was when I knew we were going to make the film.
Leslie has a very complicated relationship with her hometown, namely because of her family, and as I was watching her interact with Marc Maron’s character outside the motel, it occurred to me that Marc often talks about his own complicated relationship with his hometown and family. Did this ever come up between the three of you?
I don’t know that it did. We shot this in peak Covid, and the only rehearsal we were able to do was on Zoom. Andrea and I were able to do regular Zooms leading up to day one, but we never did what I always do, which is sit around a table and read it out loud. And even when we were shooting, it was masks and shields, and as soon as I shouted cut, everyone went to separate places.
So I never talked to Marc about that, but what Marc has in his bones is a deep understanding and empathy of addiction challenges and those kinds of struggles. So that was incredibly useful in terms of creating a character in Sweeney. Obviously, Marc is a podcaster and a comedian, but he’s a wonderful actor because he was able to be present in those scenes with Leslie, without waiting for his moment to do something. He would react in a in-the-moment way, without looking for a result.
I was with Marc when someone said, “She’s such a good actress. How are you able to be in those scenes with her when you haven’t done much acting?” And he was just like, “Hey, man, I’ve had experience with people like this before, so I listen to her. And I think, ‘Yeah, I can help her.’” And I was like, “That’s acting.” He was able to erase the difference between himself and the character.
You shot on film, which is quite uncommon for a low-budget indie. How did you convince your producers to agree to this?
Right at the beginning, I knew that I wanted this to have the texture and grit and grain of film. I wasn’t directly trying to make a 1970s movie, but I knew it would carry that kind of atmosphere about it. A lot of the visual references actually were from mid-century street photographers, who obviously shot on film.
When [DP] Larkin Seiple came on board to shoot it, we looked at each other and we were like, “This has to be on film, right?” [Writer’s Note: Seiple shot the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once.] We tested 35, 16 millimeter, and some digital grain filters. But it was clear after the test that there was only one choice, and I didn’t want fake grain on this. I wanted to be ingrained in more of an American look.
So we just have some incredible producers, and despite the low budget, we came in saying, “Oh, and by the way, we’re shooting it on film.” And their response was, “Let’s make that work. How do we make that work?” And so I’m fully aware that this might be the last time I ever get that response, but it happened, which was great.
Since Chelsea Handler gave Marc Maron the hard sell about joining the cast, did Allison Janney receive a call from one Mary McCormack [Morris’ partner]?
(Laughs.) Mary McCormack is the greatest supporter anybody could have. I’ve also been lucky enough to know Allison since Mary was on The West Wing with her, and she’s just a terrific human being. In terms of her playing this character, it was a bit like Andrea. People obviously want Allison to do a lot of things all the time, so the process began with her reading the script. And then she and I went out to eat and talked in detail about who this person is and why I thought she should be played by Allison. So it wasn’t just like, “Hey, come be in my movie.”
I’ve never seen Allison quite like this, and same for Stephen Root. And that is one of the reasons why I love them both in the film because I don’t think they’re playing the movie version of this couple. I think they’re just playing this couple. So even though I love Allison and we know each other, she definitely had to weigh who this character is and if she was willing to go there.
So editor Chris McCaleb cut “The Guy for This,” which is one of your five episodes of Better Call Saul. And while you couldn’t have gone wrong with any of Saul’s editors, what made Chris the guy for To Leslie?
Chris and I became close when we were working on Saul together. And you’re right: that’s one of the best editorial staffs you could wish for, up and down, from assistance onwards. Skip MacDonald, Joey Reinisch, they’re all brilliant. So it isn’t a case of, “Oh, I went to Chris instead of Skip.” I had just been talking to Chris separately about other things, and we had a lot of things in common, from the kind of films we liked to the way we watched films. And the way he approaches cutting is very much from a character-first perspective. He’ll always find the cool shots that you do. He uses them exactly right because it comes from the character and not from the outside in. And knowing this material, that was what it needed to be. Every single time we made a cut, it needed to be on point with the story, and Chris is just an uncommonly sensitive human being.
By the way, he personally rescued the film in lots of ways. I moved to Albuquerque to actually start season six of Better Call Saul, and the Saul team were wildly supportive of this film. We were about to start this epic final season, which was a long time in the writing and a long time in the planning. But they allowed Chris to keep some time at the beginning of the schedule in order to be free to finish the film, which I’ll never forget. So Chris packed up his belongings in his car and drove to Albuquerque, and I rented a house big enough for the both of us. So we finished the film there. I mean, imagine that. I was on set or location scouting all day on Saul, and when I would get home, we would begin the process of this. So without that kind of commitment from Chris, I’m not sure how I would’ve gotten the film finished.
I noticed you thanked [Saul executive producer] Melissa Bernstein, Skip MacDonald, Juan Carlos Cantu and [First AD] Rich Sickler, so that likely explains it.
There’s a long list of thanks whose taste and instincts I really respect. And those people that you mentioned, such as Melissa Bernstein and Rich Sickler, watched early cuts and were able to give me feedback when the movie was almost three hours long. I knew that I had to make some very significant time savings, but I did not want to do it in the way that we would do it with a lot of television, which is by removing pauses. That’s not going to tell the story. So it took me a long time to take it from two hours and fifty minutes down to two hours.
In the Breaking Bad universe, you and Michelle MacLaren are the only two guest directors to become in-house directors/EPs. Were you honored when they offered you that gig on the final season?
100 percent. I was honored, I was surprised, but I was delighted. Working with that team, I don’t think that you can have a better experience. Starting with Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and Melissa Bernstein, it’s a group of people who treat everybody with endless respect. It’s just as simple as that. Showrunners are famously busy, but they are never too busy to respect in detail, not just the work that people do, but what people bring.
If you read their scripts, they communicate so beautifully what the feel is. Vince and Peter are cinephiles. I mean, Peter was a film professor, and his knowledge of the medium is fabulous. So they’re able to indicate the kind of thing that we’re going to be working on, but then they love nothing more than for a director and the heads of department to say, “What about if we took it here?” And so their whole process is really a pleasure. They celebrate detail in the smallest form, which is a great lesson to learn when you’re making anything. So when they asked me to join, it was one of my proudest moments.
There’s a Breaking Bad scene where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) approaches Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) at a bar and suggests offing Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), and Mike proceeds to punch Walt to the ground. Because of such loyalty, I was shocked by how little Gus and Mike got along on Better Call Saul. So in your last episode, “Fun and Games,” what did you make of their parting looks in the tunnel before they went their separate ways?
I can answer it from my perspective. I directed the episode and worked with the actors for these looks, but I just don’t want to limit what it means for everybody because that’s the beauty of this series. But I do think this is a moment where Mike might have been waiting to hear that it’s over and that they got away with it [Lalo’s assassination]. Gus went off to Mexico before that to see Don Eladio [Steven Bauer], and Mike, quite possibly, also thought he was never going to come back. Gus could’ve been found in judgment, but he wasn’t. So he not only came back, but he came back with his position and even more. It’s a win.
And for Mike, the end of their relationship in Better Call Saul is interesting because, even then, it’s a moment to understand the scale of what he’s dealing with in Gus Fring. Gus has been given this extra territory by Don Eladio, and he now has this untold power in a way. But he’s still going to start today on finishing the lab, so it’s never going to end. There’s no end to this. So I think it’s a moment of Mike going, “I understand now where I am and what my future is.” It was an unspoken way of saying, “I understand we are in a permanent state of war, basically.”
In 601, when you shot Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) through the barred windows of El Camino Dining Room, were you thinking about the series finale at that moment?
I knew where the series was going, but I love those kinds of motifs in general. In 609, we shot Mike and Nacho’s dad [Juan Carlos Cantu’s Manuel Varga] through the fence, and so I like those ways of implying that these people are either in prison, the literal version, or they are nonetheless entrenched with each other in this space. They can’t get out of what it is that they’re doing. So the [601 shot] certainly foreshadows the end of the season, but I don’t think that Peter had written the end of the season yet. So I didn’t know other than some discussion with Peter about where it would end. So it would be unfair to say, “Oh, it was a deliberate wink to the end.” If anything, I wanted to imply that they are getting into this plan that they may not be able to get out of.
Bob had his cardiac event in the middle of 608, but when he eventually returned, he went straight into your last episode, 609. What were those initial days like for you?
The whole thing was extremely confusing at first and obviously wildly upsetting. It was a real rollercoaster because it was an unthinkable kind of moment. It felt like a tragedy unfolding. Bob’s been very open with just how serious it was. I mean, his life was saved repeatedly, but that’s just the beginning of these things. There’s the sense of, “He survived. My God, that’s a miracle,” but then you don’t know when or how he’s going to come back.. And then gradually you realize that he wasn’t just back, but he was absolutely Bob. And he was weirdly spared a lot of the actual memory of what happened.
So when he came back to set, he was fantastic. He was such a great leader. We all got the company together, the cast and the crew, and welcomed him back. Everyone was thrilled. And as far as I remember it, he spoke and just said, “Hey, you remember this more than I do. So I’m just happy to be here and I’m ready to go.” So he led from the front, and he made it so that we could work again, without everybody getting nervous and worried about him.
Lastly, in the series finale, Saul literally 86ed himself to show Kim that Jimmy was still inside him somewhere. How’d you feel about Peter Gould’s masterful series finale?
I think you said it beautifully. For me, it was such an unexpected way to go, and it’s so classic of Peter and Vince and the way that they’ve always told Jimmy McGill’s story. They found a way for him to be himself. He’s got all these different personas, but his peak self was Jimmy, who does the good thing but in the Slippin’ Jimmy way. That, to me, was so satisfying, and it was so much lovelier than other avenues they could have gone. He sacrificed himself for the one thing that he wanted, which was Kim. And for Kim to see him do that, she was actually able to understand that their life wasn’t a fraud and that Jimmy is who he is. I think that’s a beautiful story, personally, and it was told very effectively. It gave us the chance to see Bob play that character again and be that person again, which I found to be wonderful.
To Leslie is now available in select theaters, as well as on Digital and VOD, from Momentum Pictures. This interview was edited for length and clarity.