Fox’s GOTHAM is now in the midst of its fifth and final season on Thursday nights. The series, developed by Bruno Heller from DC Comics, chronicles the rise of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) from troubled, orphaned pre-teen to the adult Batman. It also shows the development of some of his allies, like detective-turned-police-captain (and one day police commissioner) Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), frenemies like Selena Kyle/Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), and foes like Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and the Riddler (Cory Michael Smith).
Executive producers Danny Cannon and John Stephens have both been with GOTHAM for its entire run. Cannon directed the series pilot and has been supervising the directors ever since; Stephens has been part of the writing staff since the inception and has been show runner, with Cannon, since the beginning of Season 3. The duo have created METROPOLIS for DC’s online streaming network. Cannon will also be working with GOTHAM creator Heller on the new Epix series PENNYWORTH, which examines the adventures of the young Alfred Pennyworth.
Cannon sits down in a quiet area of Pasadena’s Langham Hotel for a discussion of what makes GOTHAM all that it is; Stephens joins the conversation partway through.
ASSIGNMENT X: Did you know at the beginning that you would be with GOTHAM for its entire run, because it’s a little unusual for a directing producer to stay with a series for so long …
DANNY CANNON: It is, yeah. There are so many things that are unusual about producing and directing, but I think I’m the only director writing on shows, which I find very strange sometimes. But I think you stick with something when you know how hard it is to maintain the integrity. That is the only way to protect the integrity, visually and tonally, and casting-wise, on a show, is to stick with it. And sometimes that’s a little hard, but on this occasion, it was just such a fun job that I didn’t want to leave, because if you’re gone for a certain amount of time, you do notice things that wouldn’t have happened if you’d been there. It was such a hard world to maintain, and the standard of the acting was so high, that I just wanted to maintain that by being around. There is only me and John. There was Bruno at the beginning, but there was only me and John, and with him stuck writing, a lot of post-production and production and first-hand contact on set was really down to me.
AX: With the other directors who came in to do episodes, were you instructing them, “This is GOTHAM, that is not GOTHAM”?
CANNON: Constantly. And that’s why you’ll see so many of our directors repeat, because once it is lodged in their mind what world they were in, then we had to keep ahold of them, because you don’t want to reeducate somebody. And they became real fans of the show. What was amazing was how many directors wanted to return, because compared to the other things they were directing, this just visually had a lot more going on. The palette was bigger and the scope was bigger.
AX: What did you find that the biggest thing that the other directors needed to know – don’t be afraid to let the actors get big, or, please shoot the sets in a certain way, or, please use these kinds of shots?
CANNON: Right from the beginning of me doing television, even at C.S.I., when [other] directors came in, they would be very complimentary of the pilot and everything, but I would always say, “Well, great, now we’ve seen that. Now kick my ass. That’s your job. I want to watch your episode and come back next week and say, ‘I just got schooled, I have to up my game’.” And I think that friendly competition [was helpful]. We did it with d.p.s [directors of photography], too, we did it with production designers, editors. Everybody was trying to get the best episode, everybody was trying to do that thing that nobody had done before. Sometimes, though, we had to stop people going over the top. Sometimes that was not right for that story. When we brought directors on, we’d always talk about the theme of that [episode], and who to concentrate on, and who not to. But I always find you get the best out of people when you set them free, and you encourage them, and you love them, and you want them to love what you have as much as you do. I don’t think it makes a show better to restrict people and tell them, “We don’t do that, we don’t like that.” It just makes everybody feel a little – it’s the opposite of creativity, isn’t it?
AX: How would you describe GOTHAM’s visual style?
CANNON: I think when we were doing the pilot, nobody really understood what we were doing. I did a visual effect off my own back [on my own] and I did many drawings I did myself, and my designer did some to try and sell the world, but still, that wasn’t getting it across. I was like, “On the pilot, it was Dickensian, circa 1979 New York City, un-gentrified, if the cops were all corrupt, and the gangs had taken over.” There was that, but that felt political. The look of it that I kept going to was that Dickensian thing, that I knew that if I drew, and my production designer helped me with the GCPD [Gotham City Police Department headquarters], if we got that right, that was the [core]. So we took it upon ourselves those first few weeks, before anybody came along, while Bruno is still pitching. He brought me on very early, because he just didn’t want to do a project like this alone. The kind of stuff I do, the kind of stuff he does, are completely different. So he wanted the world being imagined while he wrote, so he could be inspired by what I was doing. It was a nice way to work. And when we got that GCPD right, it straightaway – and it’s funny, I drew one, and Doug Kraner [the initial GOTHAM production designer] drew one, and they were almost identical. But his staircases were better.
[John Stephens laughs.]
CANNON: It was based on St. Pancras Station, a Victorian building, in London. And all of a sudden, that, with the different look of the wardrobe, which was the other thing I was drawing at the same time, was what got us over the edge.
AX: When did you take over entirely from Bruno Heller?
JOHN STEPHENS: Well, I would never say I took over entirely from Bruno Heller. They say the term “show runner,” but really, Danny and I were doing it together these past three years after Bruno kind of took a step back. It’s really at the end of Season 2 that Bruno took a step back, and then Danny and I – it was a great partnership, I felt like, because we complimented each other’s strengths. We were talking about the look of the show, and to me, one of the things I found so appealing about the show is, I think a lot of people can do grim. I think what Danny and Doug, and Richard [Berg] afterwards, were able to do, I mean, everybody, [current GOTHAM production designer] Dan Novotny as well, is to make it look scary and dirty and grim, but also romantic in a way. I still want to be in that world, as downtrodden as it seems. And that’s a very secret little bull’s-eye that’s very hard to hit.
CANNON: As English people, myself and Bruno both wanted to visit New York and see SERPICO New York, THE WARRIORS New York. I wanted to see MEAN STREETS, I wanted to see TAXI DRIVER. It was all gone by the time I got there, but it was the poem of New York, it was the idea of New York. So that’s what GOTHAM became, and “romantic” is a good word. We were making this romantic poem to a city where Batman will be necessary one day.
AX: It’s sort of like GOTHAM is a dream of New York that’s on the verge of being a nightmare?
CANNON: Right, right.
STEPHENS: It’s like those opening scenes of TAXI DRIVER, when that Bernard Herrmann score is playing, and those bright, garish lights are moving, and it feels like Hell, but it also feels very suffused with sex and violence, and it’s really exciting.
CANNON: It [TAXI DRIVER] is one of my favorite films of all time, and Bernard Herrmann was such a strange choice for them to make, but Scorsese knew what he was doing, because he aged the film down by putting Bernard Herrmann’s score in. They say he was old-fashioned. That’s exactly why he did it. We wanted old-fashioned music. When we had to put pop music into the show, we went back to the ‘80s, and to the ‘70s, to the Stooges, to Alice Cooper, and to the Sex Pistols, because music now is too polished and refined and wouldn’t work.
AX: You mentioned the word “grim,” but if I may say, GOTHAM doesn’t feel grim. How do you keep it feeling maybe dark but somehow ecstatic …?
STEPHENS: “Gritty” I think is probably a better word than “grim” in many ways. We speak about these things, particularly in terms of metaphor. It’s like when people talk. I just recently saw this documentary about World War I [THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD] that Peter Jackson made. It was incredible. And at the beginning, they have all these voices of soldiers who were there. And they say, “Four years, it was horrific, I never would have traded it for anything. I felt more alive during those four years than I did in the next fifty years of my life.” And I feel like life in GOTHAM may be cheap in many ways, but it feels very alive to the people who are there. And that was always our point. You want to feel the beating heart of the people who are there, and that they’re living life right on the edge. I always think of that line – I’m [approximating], I apologize – there’s a beat in HEAT, where Al Pacino is talking to his wife, and he says, “I need to be on the edge, it’s where I’ve got to be.” And you always want the characters to be right there on that edge.
CANNON: We watch plays, John more than me, but when you’re doing a Broadway play, and you need to introduce a character, they will always do something with the scenery, they’ll always do something with the lighting. I think what doesn’t happen enough with movies and television right now is, they don’t give characters a good platform. How do we stop it being grim? I think everybody in the show gets a visual introduction. I remember talking about seeing Episode 2, when I had the confidence of the pilot behind me, about the body language, with every cast member. “We should know you’re coming in silhouette.” And I said the same thing to the directors. “Give everybody an intro. Give them that moment where that guy walks in, in CABARET. Give them that moment where you realize the king is entering.” You start to think about things on a grand scale, and all the writers ended up coming around and asking for those little visual tidbits, because they had the story down, and they knew where it needed to go, but everybody just needed a push to show people the cinema of this moment.
STEPHENS: You did that in the first Alfred [played by Sean Pertwee] appearance, when he’s walking down the alley, and there’s crime tape there, and Sean doesn’t slow down. Because he just knows they’re going to raise it up for him because of the authority that he carries. He tilts his head, just a tiny bit. I was, “Oh, he’s in command.”
AX: Now, what are some of the things that have surprised you about the way the characters have turned out? I think one of them would probably be Barbara Keane, played by Erin Richards. She started out as Jim Gordon’s fiancée and then went to some astonishing places …
STEPHENS: Yeah. Erin as an actress continually surprises us. We took her so dark. [Barbara] killed her parents, she became a gang lord, she was completely psychotic, and it became the question, “Can we bring this person back?” One of the themes of the show is transformation. A person changes into another thing. “Can you take someone that dark and still bring them back again? Is there any hope in them?” She does. She finds that way back, and that was so surprising to us.
AX: And Morena Baccarin’s character, Dr. Lee Thompkins, as well?
CANNON: Oh, my God. Amazing. And when Morena showed up, it’s funny how, from that first show she did, you know you want to do some things with a great actress. That’s it. That’s simply it. She can do the same thing over, or she can keep testing you. GAME OF THRONES is the only other show I can think of that has characters do terrible, awful things and you love them the next time they’re punished. The back and forth – we love to hate everybody in the show.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about the rest of GOTHAM? We know there will be a ten-years-forward time jump episode in the finale …
STEPHENS: I think they need to watch every episode, because I think in every single episode, an enormous bomb drops, both for the characters as they live right there, and also things that are going to play out not just ten years, but twenty years in the future, because we all know where those characters are going to end up, and we plant things that real fans of the material are going to go, “Oh, that’s what they were doing. I thought they weren’t going to do that, but they are going to do that.”
CANNON: Everything we’ve done for five years pays off in the last episode.
This interview was conducted during Fox Networks’ portion of the Winter 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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Article: GOTHAM: Showrunners Danny Cannon and John R. Stephens on the Fifth and Final Season of the Batman-universe series – Exclusive Interview