'Gotham' showrunner: Killing iconic characters not entirely off the table
Could Gotham break from the Batman canon and kill off one of its iconic characters?
It’s not impossible. Showrunner Bruno Heller reveals that while he’s very reluctant to lose any cast member, his plan is to establish the Fox prequel series as firmly part of the Batman canon, and then start “messing with people’s minds” in unexpected ways.
Heller (Rome, The Mentalist) spoke to EW about how his break-out series has evolved from its earliest episodes, his reasoning behind the show’s villain strategy, and whether canonical characters are truly safe. (A few quotes from this interview appeared in previous stories this week, but this is the first time the entire conversation has been published.)
EW: Gotham feels like it started strong and is getting progressively better—which I guess is another way of saying the show seems to be creatively evolving. Is that accurate? And if so, how has the show evolved from your perspective?
BRUNO HELLER: “Evolving” is one word for it. “Getting it right” is another. Learning. Seeing what works and what doesn’t, and what we have fun doing. So yeah, it’s evolving. There really is no template for this show. There is no other show that’s in this same ballpark. It’s like a circus. There’s lots of different performances and acts. One minute it’s an acrobat flying above your head, the next it’s clowns, and there might be a juggler coming down the road. For me, as long as the audience feels like you’re really working hard to entertain them, and trying new stuff, and trying stuff that might not even work as well as you’d hoped it would, as long as you’re doing it with sincerity and energy and joy, then the show will work. And that’s really the evolution—characters finding the nut of their performance, DPs, directors and writers finding what works best.
What are your favorite aspects of the show, and what are you still playing with?
I would say my favorite aspects of the show are all those that are not within my purview—what [director] Danny Cannon and the DPs have done visually with the show that allows for big theatrical performances and small detail. So we get that graphic novel sense of possibility, but also the emotional tug of a real story. I love the fact that characters as big as Fish Mooney and The Penguin can exist in same world as more down-to-earth people like Jim Gordon; that we can be tragic and comedic in the same scene. That’s what I love most of all—Gotham, the world the story is in. Having said that: Fish Mooney is the one character I invented and we were so lucky to get somebody as genius as Jada Pinkett Smith. There are very few actresses that can pull that performance off.
The big critic note when the show launched was that there were too many major villains too soon. And now there’s Harvey Dent, and we’ve heard Mr. Freeze and Scarecrow are still to come. Is it fair to say that you disagree with that assessment — that the show should have fewer pieces on the chess board at the same time?
I never disagree with criticism. No point. We front-loaded [the show with iconic characters], which we had to do, both for story purposes and marketing purposes. We had to let people know it’s not just a hum-drum police procedural, it’s about these larger-than-life characters. If you do that you can’t just say, ‘Here’s one larger-than-life character, now wait for next season.’ Once we introduced those initial characters—Penguin, Riddler, Ivy, Selina—then we slowed down with those aspects and we’re bringing in those iconic DC characters in a much more measured way, which was always the intention. You have to have that amount of spice in the show to make it pop and different. Once the wheels are turning, it’s much easier to bring those characters in in subtle, organic ways. That’s the plan, anyway.
Can you give us a sense of your plan for Scarecrow? I think some were surprised to hear he would still be a kid because it’s felt like the kids’ storylines have been the toughest to make dramatic and integrate with the rest of the show.
Well, quite. And I don’t want to give too much of that story away. But this is very much about the origin stories. We’re going to do a prenatal origin story for Robin down the line. This is not a kid being a loony Scarecrow; this is a couple episodes about how that character has evolved—everyone’s character is formed in their childhood to some degree or another. His father is involved, as is part of the [character’s] mythology
My antenna went up at “prenatal Robin.” Do you mean literally prenatal?
There are no MRIs involved. There’s an episode coming up where we learn how Robin’s parents got together.
We only saw Ivy once, in the premiere, are there plans to bring her back around?
She’ll be back. Absolutely.
Ra’s al Ghul is coming to Arrow on The CW, any chance of the character coming to your show too? Or does Ra’s al Ghul being on Arrow preclude him from joining Gotham?
It doesn’t preclude him from joining Gotham, but now you’re deep into [DC Comics chief] Geoff Johns’ territory, so you’d have to ask him. Where was Ra’s al Ghul in this particular juncture in Batman’s life? He was probably a teenager as well, with Mrs. al Ghul making him sandwiches and sending him off to Ghul school.
Harley Quinn is the sidekick of the Joker—does her coming into the show mean he will appear this season in some form?
We haven’t got Harley Quinn in it. Riddler’s girlfriend is coming up. And Harley Quinn is definitely planned for later on, but so far no.
So Harley Quinn won’t be this season then? There were reports…
One of the things about the size and scope of this production is that—it’s not that there’s lots of chefs in the kitchen, but there’s a lot of people with opinions and views and inside knowledge. That aspect of the show, which characters to use and when, is a source of constant discussion. And that may well have been an issue that came up and was dropped. For me it’s about what you said earlier—you can’t just keep pumping these characters into the show in a comic book sort of way because you get the Super Friends effect. Which isn’t a bad effect, but then you have spaceships and need to go underwater and get wacky villains and the rest of it. You have to work as a character piece first. First it has to be real.
When Fox ordered more episodes (bumping the first season from 16 to 22) it’s interesting because the reaction among some fans was “Oh no!” The assumption among more production-savvy readers is the fewer episodes you have to make on these sort of serialized high-wire genre shows, the better you can make them. What was your reaction to getting loaded up to a full season?
It’s a bit like that tightrope walker who walks across one building and then they say you got to walk across that other building as well. Here’s the thing, and I say this with modesty because it’s not me, but Warner Bros. and Danny and the production machinery: It’s a challenge. But it’s a challenge the writers room and the production can readily rise to. Those production-savvy readers are not wrong about the challenges involved. When you’re network TV you naturally take into account the possibility there might be a larger order. That’s the business you’re in. It’s an audience business. It’s not about us being precious about our art. It’s about delivering a show people want to watch. So we were thrilled they wanted six more—and we’ll get a long sleep afterwards.
Before Gotham premiered there was some discussion about how the show cannot kill any members of its cast of iconic characters, since the story is a prequel. And you had a great reply to that by saying, “It’s sad thing if you can only generate suspense by killing people.” I’m wondering now that you’ve dug more into the season and are juggling all these characters, with some being more interesting than others, whether there’s a part of you that’s like, “You know, what if we did?” Or is it just iron clad that you can’t deviate that far from canon?
I wouldn’t say it’s iron clad. You’d need a damn good reason to do it and a damn good end game to justify it. We’re certainly just learning the ropes at this stage. Not to be modest about it, but we’re still learning how to do a show this big. I’m always deeply reluctant to kill off characters simply for the shock value of killing them off. I’m not averse to cheap tricks. But apart from anything else, this season literally every actor has come through and [performed really strong]. I would hate to lose any of them. Killing off Sean Bean in the first season of Game of Thrones made everyone go, “Oh, what a good idea that is!” But I don’t think it’s a good idea if you’ve got Sean Bean. The bad one was on Deadwood, when they had David Carradine doing that marvelous Wild Bill Hickok, and then he was gone.
I agree on Carradine, it did feel like that character was gone too soon.
I’m going to put you on the spot: Who would you kill?
It’s not that there’s anybody in particular that I would kill off. But I would say the killing of a so-called un-killable character would add a greater layer of suspense when any of those characters are in jeopardy after that—because the message has been sent to the audience that, “You think you know how this story is going to go, but you’re wrong, because we’re not following the train tracks that you already know so well.”
That is a very good point, and an actor somewhere is cursing you. You’re absolutely right. One of the things about doing the extra six episodes, and hopefully being successful enough to get a season two, is that once we’re up and running, that kind of narrative playfulness—playing with the audience’s expectations—is going to be much more a part of the show. For instance: Who will turn out to be The Joker? Those kind of games you can only get into once you have the audience’s trust and the train is rolling down the tracks. We want to establish the real deal—that this is the canonical Gotham—and then start messing with people’s minds.
I like the sound of that! This season is about the rise of The Penguin. Which villain has the best odds of being the focus of season two?
I can’t tell you at this stage because there’s some wonderful possibilities and we have to talk to Fox and Warner Bros. about who that should be. But back to the circus analogy: It won’t be one guy or gal. Thematically it will be around one of those great iconic characters, but it won’t be solely concerned with one of them.
What can we expect, story wise, for the rest of the season?
What I would say [mild spoilers] is that at a certain point, Gordon says, ‘Screw it. I’m tired of playing it safe and being cautious. I’m going to go full throttle to bring down the corrupt police administration.’ And things start to move fast and furious and urgent. The stakes keep rising. And just when Jim thinks he’s achieved a certain level of success against the powers that be, they pull a vicious table-turn on him that will play out in the last episodes of the season in a very big, scary theatrical way.
Fox’s Gotham airs its winter finale Monday night.