The man behind next season’s most anticipated new show is breaking his silence on Gotham. Showrunner Bruno Heller recently sat down exclusively with EW to discuss Fox’s hugely ambitious Batman prequel series. Below Heller answers the burning questions fans have wondered about Gotham since it was first announced last year, and makes a few bold claims along the way: All those Batman films? Heller says Gotham will exceed them in terms of visual style. His very young Bruce Wayne? Gotham‘s actor is better than any who have previously played the character, he claims. Comparisons to other superhero shows? Here’s why Gotham’s approach is superior.
Heller has a track record to back up his confidence. The British writer-producer’s first series was HBO’s acclaimed Rome, which paved the way for sweeping historical and fantasy dramas on cable. His second was at the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, and a popular hit: CBS’ procedural The Mentalist, which has run for six seasons. Still, Gotham is a show built around Det. Jim Gordon (Southland‘s Ben McKenzie) and the nascent Batman villains, rather than the caped crusader himself. Will fans accept this alternate vision of Gotham City? Will the show (trailer below) be a police procedural or serialized? And will Heller attempt to rebirth The Joker? Read on…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My assumption has been that the reason this TV show can be done — rights-wise — is because Batman himself is not in it. That way, it doesn’t overlap with any films. Is that correct?
BRUNO HELLER: Certainly from Warner Bros. and DC’s business point of view, that’s why it can be done. For me, if they said, “Do Batman,” I would have said, “No.” I would have not been interested at all. I don’t think Batman works very well on TV — to have people behind masks. Frankly, all those superhero stories I’ve seen, I always love them until they get into the costume. And then it’s, “Oh, okay, they’ve ascended, they’ve stopped becoming humans.” It’s their apotheosis. They go to heaven and they’re Superman. There have been so many great versions of it. This is a version of something else entirely.
How did you first become involved?
Junior’s Deli in Burbank. I sat with [Warner Bros. President and COO Peter Roth and Warner Bros. TV development chief Susan Rovner] about what to do next. I’ve been talking to Geoff Johns at DC for a few years about wanting to do something in the DC canon. I came in to pitch the idea that we’re doing, essentially, and they came to pitch me the same thing. The nut of the idea was: What if young James Gordon was the detective who investigated the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents? And once you make that connection, it opened up a whole world of storytelling that we realized hadn’t really been looked at before, which is the world before Batman — the world of Gotham, young Bruce Wayne, and young James Gordon and the origin stories of the villains.
You first show was about Roman history; your second was a Sherlock Holmes-inspired detective. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a comic-book reader. Were you a Batman fan?
Growing up in England, we didn’t have DC and Marvel Comics until the ’80s. I was aware of Batman and that world. Gotham itself is much more a fascination for me than Batman specifically. When thinking about how to enter the DC world for TV, certainly on network TV, to do shows about superheroes — about people who wear spandex costumes — that doesn’t work very well. We want to see people’s faces. TV is about emotion and character, not stunts and special effects. This is a way of entering that world in a fresh way.
When reading your script, I kept thinking how difficult this must have been to write — there’s so many tough decisions that need to be made, so many ways to do this idea wrong. How did you decide the tone, how realistic vs. comic, which villains you would use? Can you talk me through the creative process?
The first thing was starting with Jim Gordon, who is the most human and real and normal person in the DC pantheon. What would the city of Gotham look like to a young rookie cop coming into this world? And that’s where we calibrated. This is a world that’s going to become that familiar world of Batman, but it’s not there yet. It’s an embryo. A lot of the work was reverse engineering the story to look at what these characters were like when they younger. Penguin, for instance, is not a powerful gang leader, he’s a gofer for a gangster. It’s about giving the world room to grow, but at the same time giving the fun and pleasure and drama of that heightened world. One of the great things about the Batman world is [the characters] have no super powers. Nobody flies or leaps over buildings. You start with psychology and that’s where we build from.
Did you do a lot of research? And what’s your favorite Batman comic or film?
I did a lot of research, and what it told me is this world is a little like Greek or Roman mythology. There are so many iterations of the story and so many great versions [that] there is no one road to go down. And if you stick to one of those roads, then you lose other parts you could go down. I read everything I could and then — I didn’t throw it away, but I started fresh. I would hate to pick a particular Batman iteration because I would be dismissing others. But for me, The Killing Joke was one of the great ones in the comic books. Obviously the [Frank] Miller version [The Dark Knight], as well.
How much of the first season story do you have mapped out?
All of it.
I don’t understand people who do shows who don’t know what episode 3 is. I like to know what episode 6 and episode 20 is going to be.
How serialized will Gotham be vs. how procedural?
Good again! We always hear, “Oh, the show will have stand-alone episodes but with serialized elements,” trying to make a program into two different things in an attempt to keep everybody happy.
There’s a procedural framework for it, but the world of Gotham is too big and operatic and complex to do it any other way but serialized.
And Fox didn’t push back on that?
No. Fox was very much on the same page. The stories have to be as large and compelling as the city it’s set in. That’s not to say that you couldn’t do a straight-up police procedural. But, for instance, because we are following the villains as well as the police, you’re already breaking out of that procedural mold.
Which Batman characters are you likely to introduce this season?
Obviously, the Penguin, Riddler, young Catwoman, Alfred. Possibly Harvey Dent. Poison Ivy. Um … and then there will be others, but I hate to — I’m so used to doing a police procedural, so I’m used to telling, “Next week he’s going to go there.” With this, it’s very much storytelling. So I would be remiss to tell you who will show up when. I will say we’re not going to skimp on giving people the characters they want and expect from Gotham. But when and how they’re going to show up is half the fun. Penguin is one of those guys that, as soon as you see him, you go, “Oh, that’s the Penguin.” It would be hard to disguise him as somebody else.
So you might stealth introduce somebody who later becomes somebody else.
Exactly. Because we’re starting way before these villains even themselves knew they were villains. Some of them started out as good guys. So there will be a lot of that.
You mentioned The Killing Joke. So you’ll bring in The Joker?
He’s the crown jewel of the Batman villains. He will be brought in with great care and a lot of thought.
Some feel Heath Ledger’s performance was so iconic it would be a mistake to try to do that character again so soon.
I’ve written scenes for Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. So while that is a serious and valid note, you can’t get into doing this without going there. That was a wonderful performance and — apart from everything else — wonderful make-up. And we should try to live up to that. It will be a different character. It’s certainly going to be more Heath Ledger than Cesar Romero. But like I say, all of these people are real people with feelings and emotions and history and parents. I just build from that.
Likewise, some think the Christopher Nolan movies were the best version that we’ve had from the Batman universe. With those having come out so recently, does that add some pressure — that people will make unfair comparisons, especially in terms of visual presentation?
I’m not at all concerned. Actually I would [pauses … considers] — yeah, in that area, I would say in terms of what [director and executive producer Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton] are doing — visually — Gotham will surpass the Batman movies. The movies are a very rigorous, kind of Germanic take on that world. They’re visually stunning, but not particularly visually pleasurable. I would say this is much more on the street level of Gotham. There’s more people, it’s a more colorful place, it’s a more vivid place, it’s more crowded. The inspiration for me and Danny was New York in the ’70s, because we both remember that as a seminal moment, coming to the city for the first time. This is very much that kind of Gotham — intensely visual and three-dimensional and layered and gritty and dirty and sexy and dangerous. From that point of view — and it’s easy for me to say, I just have to write the thing, Danny and David have to visualize it — but I think you’ll see it’s fabulous.
Part of the scuttlebutt on ABC’s Agents of SHIELD is that it’s struggled because — despite trying very hard to communicate its concept before it launched — it felt like a story that took place in an exciting universe without the people who are the usual focal point of that universe, the superheroes. It focuses on these human investigators who are normally on the sidelines. Is there a similar concern about Gotham — that people are going to say, “Well, what do you mean it’s a Batman show without Batman?”
Not to comment on Agents of SHIELD, but [the SHIELD agents] are in the same temporal space as their superheroes. So while watching it, I imagine you feel, well, it’s kind of mean not to show us Thor. If Thor is there in the next room, or the next town, why not come by and see us? For Gotham, if we could bring Batman in to say hello, he’d say hello. It’s not that the celebrities are in the VIP lounge while you’re out front wondering where they are. In this case, the heroes aren’t “born” yet. They’re kids. I am cognizant of that as an issue. But look: Most stories that people tell don’t have Batman in them. You’ve just got to make the story you tell as compelling as it can be.
Is there a certain concern about the story being limiting because it’s a prequel? Like, you can’t kill the Penguin or do something that changes their destiny?
No. Because there’s lots of other people in the world, and one of the conceits of the show is, where did they get all their ideas? There’s precursors to that for the villains and the heroes. They got inspiration from other people, and it’s about how they got to that point in the world. It’s invigorating and expansive how many stories you can tell once you get away from the gravity of Batman. What happens with superheroes is they suck all the air out of the room. You can’t play a scene between two people when there’s a guy in a cape and a mask in the corner of the room. As far as the history goes, people don’t know the ins and outs of it. Even in the well-known stories, there are secrets and backstories that people are not aware of. We also have the pre-iconic villains, like Fish Mooney, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, and those characters that people won’t have seen before.
Does she become another character?
She doesn’t become another character. But we will be telling as many interesting stories about people who are not going to become costumed figures, and she gives a performance that will surprise and shock people, I think.
The script was more violent than I expected for a broadcast show. Was that a conversation at all, how dark to make it?
Certainly that will be a discussion down the road, I’m sure. Tone is one of those things you try not to think about too much. It just comes out that way. For this world, the people and violence — if that’s the right word for it — needs to be as tough as the city. It’s a high stakes life-or-death place.
Were there there any lessons from comic book or shows or movies of things that have worked or not worked in the past? Something to avoid or aspire to?
Not really. Where I start work is to put aside all preconceptions and imagine no one has done this before. Partly that’s the beauty of this — you don’t have to try to avoid stuff, because everybody’s normal instinct is to go straight to Batman, and go to everything that follows from that. This is open and blue sky territory.
One character I really liked in your script was Harvey Bullock. He seemed to really jump off the page.
Yeah — Harvey Bullock, for the comic book fans, he’s an iconic early Batman character. I always liked him just because he encapsulates the moral ambivalence and corrupt-but-fun quality of Gotham. He’s very much a Gotham figure. Gordon is a complicated figure, but he’s very much a good guy. He’s an old-fashioned American hero. So it’s important to pair him with someone who has a darker and funnier side, and someone who personifies that ambivalence of Gotham. And we got Donal Logue playing the character. As soon as we got him, I was able to write the character with much more edge and comedy and wisdom because Donal has all those things in spades. And frankly, I love double acts — buddies, whether it’s Laurel & Hardy or Starsky & Hutch or Holmes & Watson. Erin Richards will also pop out of this, I think. She plays Gordon’s fiancé.
The decision to make Alfred into a tough Marine — there are hints of that in the canon, as well, but I thought that was a cool move.
That was part of the story that I had to reverse engineer. What kind of man would allow their teenage charge to turn into Batman? Obviously, someone with very original parenting notions. So yeah, he’s both a father figure and a dangerous father figure. He’s a tough character, and Sean Pertwee plays Alfred with gravity and humor. We’re lucky to have him.
With Bruce Wayne, in the pilot we see him as we’ve seen him before — as a victim of a tragedy. And of course we know where he goes eventually. What function he serves in the series is unclear.
Well, I will say [actor] David Mazouz is, without doubt, the best actor ever to play the part of Bruce Wayne. Without doubt — including the people who played Batman. He is a genuine prodigy of an actor, as you will see on screen. Frankly, before David was cast, I was ambivalent about how much we would use Bruce Wayne in the series.
Well, yeah, what do you do with him?
What do you do with a 12-year-old kid? Like I say, he’s off-the-charts talented. So I’m hoping to use him as much as his mum will allow us to, and in the kind of stories you’d imagine. It’s not going to be young Bruce Wayne going out and saving the day, because that’s not what kids do. It’s about the strange education of this young man. He has a good idea of where he’s going early on. But it’s about the growth of this young man.
Fox chief Kevin Reilly said the pitch version of the show was that the final scene of the series would be Bruce Wayne putting on the cowl. Is that right?
Yes, whether metaphorically or literally — something like that. But that’s six or seven years down the line. Hopefully.
For a first look and more scoop on Fox’s Gotham, pick up next week’s issue of EW or subscribe now for print + digital access.
Here’s the first full trailer for Gotham: