'Gotham' Showrunner on More Bruce Wayne, Arkham and What Lies Ahead

Gotham TV Still - H 2014

Gotham TV Still - H 2014

Gotham returns for the second half of its freshman run Monday with “Rogues’ Gallery,” an hour that sets up the new status quo for the Fox rookie drama as the city’s one non-corrupt cop, Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), is reassigned to Arkham Asylum while the crime families continue to struggle for power in the background.

After 10 episodes, the show has established itself as more than just a simple prequel to 75 years’ worth of Batman comics, thanks in part to Donal Logue as Gordon’s partner Bullock, Jada Pinkett Smith as crime boss Fish Mooney and breakout star Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot, the man better known as the Penguin.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller to discuss reaction to the show to date, how to stay away from giving audiences what they expect and, of course, a hint or two about what’s coming up in the back-half of the season.

How have you enjoyed the response to the show so far?

I’ve very much enjoyed the feedback so far. There was a lot of expectation and weight, and an understanding that we were dealing with — I wouldn’t say sacred material, but material that carries a lot of weight. The one thing we didn’t want to do was disappoint the true fans of this world, and it was important to create a world and a show that appealed to those hard-core Gothamites, and the much larger audience as well. I think we’ve managed to hit the balance so far.

Were you one of those hard-core comic book fans when you were younger?

You couldn’t get a regular supply of Batman, or any American comics, when I was a kid. They’d arrive like bananas on rare occasions. It was a very familiar, but different world, like America in many ways, this glamorous, exciting, dangerous place that you’d never get to visit very often. I’m by no means a comic book expert, and frankly, for a show like this, it’d be a mistake to get someone like that to run it. It has to appeal to both audiences. If you get too intricate inside the world, you’re not too aware of the world beyond that.

The series isn't too focused on simply retelling comic book storylines. It’s not just backstory that comic fans are familiar with.

The important thing about telling origin stories is that you’re going to be telling something interesting, surprising and new. I always use the analogy of discovering your parents’ childhoods. If your parents’ childhoods were shown to you and it was exactly what you imagined their childhoods were, it’d be kind of disappointing. It’s important to follow the familiar mythic narrative, but also find ways to subvert, or take detours from, that narrative to surprise people with different takes on the thing.

One of the values of having Fish there is that it reminds you that it’s not a sacred myth, it’s a living myth that there have been any number of different versions of. The canonical moments, as long as you’re true to them — we wouldn’t have messed with how Bruce Wayne’s parents died, for instance — but beyond that, you have to add your own spice to the dish.

What’s been particularly surprising from working on the show so far? Was there a performance or character that you saw in the pilot and thought, "We should do more of that?" 

The joy of television is that you can respond immediately to what’s working, and actors that pop, and storylines and characters that offer exciting avenues. Robin Lord Taylor did such a genius, star-making performance in the pilot that it was just natural to [focus on him]. It was always intended that this first season would be the rise of the Penguin, so it wasn’t as if we changed plans to feature him more. It was always intended that Penguin would be central, we were just as lucky to have someone as great as Robin play him.

It’s absolutely a question of balance. Gordon is kind of the square-jawed hero of the show, he’s the good guy, an old-fashioned, straight-ahead good guy. But in order to have that balanced, you need to have villains who are equally compelling.

I would also say that, initially, we didn’t intend to use Bruce Wayne quite as much, because with child actors you always want to be defensive, but David Mazouz is as good an actor as I’ve ever seen — child or adult. It’s rare that you can write dramatic scenes and be confident that they’ll deliver, and with David, he always does, and he can do more and more. We’ve definitely written to him more than we would have otherwise.

David’s been surprisingly enjoyable to watch, especially when he shares the screen with Camren Bicondova’s Selina Kyle. After the way the two parted in the last episode, will we see the two of them together again anytime soon?

Absolutely. Their relationship grows, develops and changes; they have their ups and downs. They have such a wonderful contrast to each other. Camren is full of such wonderful light and energy, and has this cocky arrogance about her. She’s incredibly compelling to watch. David is thoughtful, interior, intense and passionate, and the two of them together — you could make a great movie just with the two of them.

Something else that been noticeable is how quickly the show moves in terms of story. We’re at a point midway through the first season where it feels like other shows would have reached at the end of their first year.

I think modern TV, for good or ill, you have to burn through story to keep people interested. And this is a semi-serious world, there’s a comic book element — as much as you have to take it seriously, you can’t take it too seriously. We’re telling a number of stories at the same time. There’s a certain fun element of music hall there — this idea of acts coming onstage, and going off again: "If you don’t like this thing, there’s always this thing." There are switches in mood and in tone that make it a sensational experience that is tough to do on network TV, but it makes it different and exciting, I think. It’s unpredictable and compelling, because you know the characters but not where they’re going.

Comic book shows almost have to have a strong visual element because of the source material. How did you arrive at the visual aesthetic of the series?

When we came up with the show, it was very much an abstract principle. Danny Cannon [who directed the pilot] came on very early in the process, and as soon as we sat down and talked about what we both wanted to do, we keyed in on the same [look] — the idea that it’s a real 1970s, Hades kind of look, with a touch of Bangkok and any other kind of city, even some London. The visual style of the show is down to the genius of Danny Cannon. He pretty much had that vision before we sat down and talked about it — he’s an illustrator and an artist, and constantly drawing. He’d pictured this world since he was a kid, and it was very much taking that world and translating it onto the screen.

As the show hit its midseason break, you shipped Gordon off to Arkham Asylum, splitting up his partnership with Bullock. Was this just where the story was going, or an attempt to give newcomers to the show a good place to jump on with the first episode back from break?

It’s the next step of the story. I didn’t want to peter off after 10 episodes! [Laughs.] Arkham, in itself, is a big Gotham character, so it’s a chance to introduce Arkham as a character and then let the audience see how [Gordon] manages to get out of that particular predicament. You have to keep moving forward — the important thing about Arkham, and the first episode back explains it, is why is it so easy to escape from Arkham? In the Batman stories, there’s kind of a revolving door in there. It’s one of the fun things about setting up this world, being able to put the architecture in place to explain things like that. This is one of those things.

What kind of teases can you drop about the back-half of the first season?

You’re going to see Nygma take a giant step forward into becoming the man he becomes. You’re going to see Fish Mooney placed in a situation where it’s almost unimaginable how she’ll get out of it. Her relationship with Butch and Penguin are going to be pushed to the limit. Selina Kyle’s going to do something incredibly shocking — also, so’s Fish, come to that. One of the things about the second half of the season is that all the story we’ve set up so far comes to fruition. Some people come to an end, other people are triumphant. Gordon is…no, I can’t go there. I almost told you the story, and I can’t. But I guarantee that, if you liked the first half of the season, you’ll love the second half.

Gotham airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox. Come back to THR's The Live Feed after the episode for a special postmortem.