Showrunner Bruno Heller Talks GOTHAM, Avoiding a “Villain of the Week” Format, How the Films Impacted Their Approach to the Show, and More

     September 22, 2014


One of the most highly anticipated new shows of the season is the Fox drama series Gotham.  From executive producer/writer Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, Rome) and with a beautifully cinematic pilot directed by Danny Cannon (the CSI franchise, Nikita), it is the origin story for a number of the characters in the Batman universe, including Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler and Poison Ivy, as it shows what made them the formidable adversaries that they eventually become.  At its core, it is the story of Detective James Gordon’s (Benjamin McKenzie) rise through a dangerously corrupt city teetering on the edge of evil, and it chronicles the birth of one of the most popular superheroes of our time.

During this recent interview to promote the show’s September 22nd premiere, showrunner Bruno Heller talked about not doing a villain-of-the-week format, how much the city of Gotham shapes the story that they’re telling, where they drew inspiration from, how the previous DC films and movies have impacted the way they’re approaching this show, figuring out just how closely they’re going to stick to the comics, and leading these characters to their eventual destiny.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

gotham-ben-mckenzieQuestion:  How is the mood on set or in the writers’ room, in anticipation of the premiere?

BRUNO HELLER:  One of key tasks of my job, and on the set in general, is not to let all of that hoopla off the set affect what is going on, on the set.  The set is a world unto itself, and we’re just trying to make the best show we can.  The anticipation for the show and the brilliant job of marketing that Fox has done is really another world.  Inside the world we live in, certainly it’s hard, but we try to let it go by without getting too excited.

Because you introduce so many future villains in the pilot, are you looking to do a villain-of-the-week, or what’s the plan for the future?

HELLER:  Obviously, the demands of opening big mean that we will front-load it with lots of characters, just to indicate where we’re going.  As the show rolls on, it won’t be villain-of-the-week, simply because these are such great villains and their storylines are so big and epic that it would be short-changing everyone, if we did it in that production line way.  So, there are a lot of big characters in that first episode, but as it rolls on, other iconic characters will be introduced, in a much more measured way.

With the show being called Gotham, how much does the city itself really shape the story you’re telling?

HELLER:  Very much so.  It’s an urban story about city life.  It’s a dream world that everybody shares.  Everyone has a vision of Gotham in their mind, so you really have to create a three-dimensional world that is both believable, but also a notch above reality.  It has to have that fantastic element.  Both me and Danny Cannon, the director, had seminal moments in New York in the ‘70s, when it was a really gnarly and dark, but also a very sexy, attractive and charismatic place.  So, that old New York is the seed of the city.  Danny and his crew did such an amazing job creating a believable but fantastic world.  What that allows us to do is for the actors inside that city to be a notch up.  It’s both real but slightly surreal, and that means you have a broad and powerful canvas to work off of.  So, Gotham is a central character.  It’s not an accident that we call it Gotham.

gotham-ben-mckenzie-david-mazouzAs an origin story, what did you look at and draw inspiration from for the series?  

HELLER:  To me, the immediate attraction of this story was precisely the chance to tell origin stories.  Those are always the aspects of the superhero legends that I enjoy most.  It ties into a childlike curiosity of, how did things get the way they are?  This is a world that everyone knows.  Everyone knows who Batman is.  Everyone knows who The Riddler is.  Everyone knows who The Joker is.  So, telling their fully-fledged, it’s tough to find a fresh way in.  This way, you get to learn how things got to be the way they are.  That, to me, is one of the great gifts of good narrative.  It’s like seeing pictures of your parents before you were born.  There’s something intrinsically fascinating about that period before the period we know, and that’s really the feeling we were going for.

Shows like Arrow and Smallville have proven that mainstream superhero shows can be successful ventures.  How have those shows had an impact on the production and development of Gotham?  Would a show like Gotham have even been possible, 10 or 15 years ago?

HELLER:  That’s a good, deep question.  Both of the shows you mentioned are Warner Bros. shows, and the DC Universe is now very much a part of Warner Bros. culture.  I’d been talking with DC for many years, before we got to this point and landed on Gotham.  I think it wouldn’t have been possible, and that’s a combination of the brilliance of what the Nolans did to revivify the Batman franchise, and also the shows you mentioned.  People could see that there’s both an audience and a way of convincingly doing that larger than life world on the small screen.  This show has to appeal to both people who love Batman and love Gotham and love that world, and also people who have no particular love for the world that you have to just grab on the strength of the story and the characters.  One of the things about working for an old school studio like Warner Bros. is that there is an institutional culture and institutional memory, in terms of production design, camera work, and directors who understand how to do this kind of thing.  It’s very much within the parameters of the wheelhouse.  Just like the ‘50s was in a Western cycle, we’re in the thick of a superhero cycle.

gotham-ben-mckenzie-robin-lord-taylorWhen you were developing the show, how much did you decide to stick to the comics versus what you decided to put your own spin on?

HELLER:  It’s a tricky balance because obviously you don’t want to simply create a new character.  You have to create a character that is that iconic character, so that you recognize who that is, and they have to have their iconic characteristics.  But on the other hand, if we just deliver the character that people have seen before, than we’re failing the audience.  The Batman world is such a vast world, full of so many great iterations of these characters, that you can’t simply take those elements and regurgitate them.  You have to give the audience a fresh look.  For me, with The Penguin, it was important to be true to the psychology of that kind of person.  It’s the graphic novel version of the character, as opposed to a comic book version of the character.  This is Penguin as a young man, striving and struggling and hungry.  That’s going to be a very different character from who he is once he has reached his goals in life.  Right now, he’s that hungry, violent, scrabbling character that he must have been to get where he got to.  All I can promise is that we work very closely with Geoff Johns at DC to make sure that we’re not betraying the essence of who these people are because that would be pointless.  We’re never going to change up the characters, simply for the shock value of changing them.  We just want to deliver something new and interesting, and that involves taking chances, now and again.

What has the process been like, creating the path that leads each of these characters to their eventual destiny?

gotham-ben-mckenzie-donal-logueHELLER:  I guess the main challenge is reverse engineering them enough that we have a journey to take without destroying all of the iconic elements of the characters that people know and love.  At the same time, you want that journey to be as long and as interesting as possible, so we can’t start with the fully-fledged characters, even if we wanted to.  There’s a whole bunch of history that has to happen, before those characters emerge in all their finery.  For me, that’s a big part of the fun of the show, both in making it and watching it.  We’re seeing these people as young people, and seeing how they’re going to change over time and giving them space to grow.  It’s hard to describe, in simple terms, how that works.  A lot of the challenge with TV, as opposed to making movies, is that you have to leave room for the characters in the story to tell themselves.  Sometimes you don’t know where a character is going to go and what’s going to happen to them until you’ve seen the actor take that part and make it their own.  Then, like novelists say, the book starts to write itself, and the characters start to tell their own story.  And then, we know where they’re going, as opposed to mapping it out, step by step.  We have broad, general strokes, but you’ve got to leave space for these characters to live and breathe.

Are there any characters in the stories or the comic books that you absolutely will not include on the show?

HELLER:  There are certain characters that would be very, very difficult to put on the screen.  That crocodile guy is a tough one, although we may go there.  We haven’t excluded anyone from the mix, potentially.  But generally, what we’re looking at is characters where there is some drama, or a story behind how they got to be the way they are.  And we’re looking for characters who can live in the real world of Gotham, as opposed to the even more super-real world of Metropolis.  It’s not about superpowers.  It’s about super will, if you like.  So, we have veered towards those characters who are interesting as people, rather than interesting for their particular power or their particular gimmick or their costume.  But, the simple answer is that we’re ready to go with any of them.

gotham-sean-pertweeSean Pertwee as Alfred is such a different kind of presentation of that character, and obviously he’s going to be a very strong father figure.  But then, you also have Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon, who is another father figure.  How much will those conflicting father influences play a part in the first season?

HELLER:  I wouldn’t say that Alfred is the bad father, but he’s certainly the permissive father and the enabling father, as opposed to Gordon, who represents the law.  What Sean brings to it is an avuncular strength, but also a sense of irony.  He has strength and power.  To take it a step back, in order for Bruce to turn into Batman, Alfred had to be an enabler.  Bruce could not have done this in secret.  At some point, they made a pact, whether unspoken or spoken, that this was going to be allowed.  So, we had to have an actor with an edge of danger to him, who was not simply the good, loyal caretaker, but also someone with his own sense of rage inside him.  We needed someone who could carry that, but lightly, and that’s what Sean does so brilliantly.  That’s who Alfred was, which is what Michael Cane used to play.  I’m not sure that it is such a leap from the previous characters.  It’s a leap from the very old style of Alfred, where he’s much more the English butler than the soldier.  We went for a dynamic character who can carry his own stories, and who is a genuine, positive and dynamic influence in Bruce’s life, and that requires an actor with great charisma and strength.  You also have to feel that he loves and cares for this kid.  So, it’s a very tricky line that he’s walking, but he’s walking it brilliantly.

Gotham airs on Monday nights on Fox.

Bruno Heller Gotham Interview


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