"Gotham" Showrunner Bruno Heller Loves Telling Origin Stories

With just a few days left before TV audiences make their first visit to Fox's "Gotham" and its pre-Batman world of lone hero cops, corrupt officials and psychotic bad guys to be, creator and executive producer Bruno Heller shedd a few more glimmers of light into Gotham City's back alleys.

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In advance of the September 22 premiere of the show -- which was deemed the most promising new series of 2104 in a Television Critics Association poll -- Heller took to a conference call to discuss the long-term vision for "Gotham," including addressing a nagging concern about the pilot -- which focuses on Det. James Gordon's (Ben McKenzie) crusade to clean up the city in the wake of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne -- feeling somewhat overloaded with the proto-versions of familiar Bat-baddies despite also delivering a stylish and compelling entry point into the TV version of Bruce Wayne's dark and dangerous home town.

On striking the right balance among the large cast of characters poised to become members of Batman's infamous rogues gallery:

Bruno Heller: Obviously, the demands of opening big mean that we will frontload it with lots of characters in front, 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 sort of 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, but in a much more measured way, if you like.

On the role of the city itself in "Gotham":

It's an urban story, it's about city life. I think often it's kind of a dream world that everybody shares. Everyone has a vision of Gotham in their mind, so you really have to create a three-dimensional, believable world that is both believable but a notch above reality, that has that fantastic element. Both me and Danny Cannon, the director, had kind of seminal moments in New York in the '70s when it was a really gnarly, dark, but very sexy and attractive, charismatic place. So that's the seed of the city is that old New York. Danny and his crew did such an amazing job creating a believable but fantastic world. What that allows us to do is it allows 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 we call it "Gotham."

On the essential lure of working on the show:

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 kind of childlike curiosity of how did things get the way they are? It's just the "Just So Stories," Rudyard Kipling, "How Did the Leopard Get its Spots?" This is a world that everyone knows: everyone knows who Batman is, everyone knows who the Riddler is and who the Joker is, so telling their fully fledged, adult stories -- it's not been-there-done-that, but it's tough to find a fresh way in. This way, you get to learn how things got to be the way they are, and 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.

On the projects that paved the way for "Gotham's" attempt at reinvention:

I'd been talking with DC for many years before we got to this point and landed on "Gotham." It wouldn't be possible, and I think that's a combination of the brilliance of what the Nolans did to revivify the Batman franchise and also the shows [like "Smallville" and "Arrow"]. People could see that there's both an audience and a way of convincingly doing that larger than life world on the small screen. I would say that the difference, to a degree, between those shows and this show is those were cable shows, this is network, and there are slightly different demands, there. The analogy would be those are arena shows and this has to be a stadium show and has to appeal to an even larger audience. So it 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 and you just have to grab them on the strength of the story and the characters. But yes, absolutely, all of those -- one of the things about working for an old school studio like Warner Bros. is there is a kind of institutional culture and institutional memory, both in terms of production design, camera work, directors who understand how to do this kind of thing. So it's very much within the parameters of the wheelhouse -- that's definitely a mixed metaphor, but you get my point. Absolutely, we're in the middle of, just like in the '50s it was a Western cycle, we're in the thick of a superhero cycle here.

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On exploring fresh, sometime controversial new ground with well-known characters like The Penguin:

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 and 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 Penguin, it was important to be true to the psychology of that kind of person -- the sort of graphic novel version of the character, as opposed to a comic book version of the character. In comic books, I wouldn't say he's more comedic, but it's hard to distill it down to an essence -- there's also a certain amount of charm. Also, 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 [indiscernible] and 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. In general, like I say, it's important, even if some of the audience goes "That's not my idea of that character," well at least a little friction and a little controversy in those terms is not a bad thing. All I can promise is we work very closely with Geoff Johns at DC to make sure we're not betraying the essence of who these people are, because that would be pointless. We're never going to sort of change up the characters simply for the shock value of changing them. It's just our [task] is to deliver something new and interesting, and that involves taking chances now and again.

On the show's distinctive take on Alfred Pennyworth:

I wouldn't say he's the bad father, but he's certainly the permissive father, the enabling father -- as opposed to Gordon, who represents the law. What Sean Pertwee brings to it is a kind of avuncular strength, but also a sense of irony and a sense that he has strength and power. In order for Bruce to turn into Batman, Alfred had to be an enabler there. Bruce could not have done this in secret; at some point they made a pact, whether an unspoken or a spoken pact, that this was going to be allowed. So you 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. Someone who could carry that, but lightly, and that's what Sean does so brilliantly. And to me, that's who Alfred was -- which is what Michael Caine used to play [in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy]. 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 kind of much more the English butler than the soldier. We went for a dynamic character who can carry his own stories, who is a genuine, positive, dynamic influence in Bruce's life, and that requires an actor with great charisma and strength and also, underneath, you have to feel that he loves and cares for this kid. So it's a very tricky line he's walking, there, but he's walking it brilliantly.

On the process of laying out the paths that will lead the various villainous characters toward their dark destinies:

The main challenge there is reverse engineering enough that we have a journey to take, without destroying all of the iconic elements of the characters that people know and love. But 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 making it and watching it, I hope, is 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, you know, sort of like novelists say the book starts to write itself, 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 [parameters], but you've got to leave space for these characters to live and breathe, you know.

On the Bat-elements he thinks "Gotham" will do best to avoid and embrace:

There are certain characters that would be very, very difficult to put on the screen. That crocodile guy [Killer Croc] 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, if you like. 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. So that's how I would divide that world. But the simple answer is we're ready to go with any of them.

"Gotham" premieres Sept. 22 on Fox.

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