Exclusive Interview: Bruno Heller Talks Gotham, Jim Gordon and The Joker

Warning: Potential spoilers for the “Gotham” pilot appear below.

Bruno Heller has created acclaimed and hit TV shows, not always at the same time, but both “Rome” and “The Mentalist” made an impact on television. This fall he brings Gotham City back to television in Fox’s “Gotham.” This is the story of how Det. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) ultimately became Commissioner Gordon.

Spoiler alert, but the pilot begins with the murder of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz)’s parents. Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) are on the case, which also leads them to Fish Mooney’s (Jada Pinkett Smith) gang, including one Oswald Cobblebpot (Robin Lord Taylor). Other future Batman villains like Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) also appear, the latter two being only teenagers.

SuperHeroHype: There was a report that you might go so far as to introduce in every episode a red herring character who could potentially be The Joker. Is your plan that extensive, to have that many misdirects?

Bruno Heller: No. Then it just becomes a silly game and this has to be about real psychological truths of characters, and how they become evil or good or in between. But the story format does give us the opportunity to play with people’s expectations of who would turn into The Joker and why. That’s a long game. The Joker is, after Batman, he’s the biggest of the characters. So we will take our time certainly, and I can say probably the first person that people start saying, “That’s The Joker” is probably not going to be The Joker.

SHH: It can’t be the stand-up comedian from the pilot, right?

Heller: No, I can tell you that.

SHH: It’s clear from the trailers that the pilot deals with the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and establishes many of the characters like The Penguin and Fish Mooney. Can you give us a hint what the second episode is about?

Heller: The second episode starts dealing with the consequences of a very grave but moral error Gordon makes. At the end of the pilot episode, Gordon does something which is the right thing to do, but in Gotham is a grave, grave error. So he both does the right thing and does something terrible. The consequences will start playing out in episode two.

SHH: As Bruce Wayne gets older and more inclined to go out on his own, will Jim be trying to hold him back and talk him out of his inevitable pursuit?

Heller: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely the core of the thing is kind of a triangle between Alfred, who is an enabler as he must have been, and Gordon who is somewhat more outside the household but is trying to exert that moral force on his life, stability and communal sense, law and order. But, Bruce is only 12 years old. The real story is a long term story. As much as possible, we’d like the story to unfold in real time, meaning the show will grow as Bruce grows, and everyone grows at one year a year. We’re not going to jump into Bruce goes out and does maverick crime fighting anytime soon because that ain’t what 12-year-olds do.

SHH: I wonder if Jim would even try to talk him out of training in martial arts and anything that could lay the groundwork for violence.

Heller: Yeah, and it’s funny, because when I first started thinking about what would Bruce be doing? Martial arts, pumping iron, gym stuff. This is a 12-year-old whose parents have just died. I don’t think body building or Health and Fitness magazine is really where he would find sustenance. At first he’s going to go a little bloody crazy and it will take you a long time to get over that and find even the vaguest sense of a path, let alone, ‘I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a vigilante.’ It’s a slow process.

SHH: Do you imagine at one point you’ll have him see the bat and save that memory for later?

Heller: Oh yeah. I don’t want to get too specific about the kind of things you can play with, but it’s part of that comic book sensibility. We’re going to play as much as we possibly can with expectations of where all these things came from. I was originally going to have it that they were coming out of the opera where they’d seen “Die Fledermaus” which is German for “bat” when the parents die, but that was too inside and elaborate anyway. But yeah. Whilst we’re telling a true psychological story of a kid’s trauma and struggle, at the same time it’s got to be fun and funny and amusing for the people who love Batman and entertaining for the people who don’t know Batman from any other character.

SHH: This is the first time in a film or show that Jim Gordon has been the central character. Does that change his function in the story considerably?

Heller: It moves that pillar to center stage. He’s the moral pillar of the show, the moral pillar meaning Batman is a vigilante and an outlaw essentially, but it’s Gordon’s acceptance of him that makes Batman a legal character, makes him a moral character because an arbiter of moral righteousness has given him that. That was always his function in the Batman structure. Once you move him to center stage, then it becomes a story about a man of that kind of moral Gary Cooper/Jimmy Stewart kind of righteousness living in a completely corrupt, decadent, evil, nasty world where nobody else around him has those qualities. So it’s a sort of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington” type of story. Then we’re taking him on a journey from moral certainty, the kind of moral certainty that a soldier has, to the complete moral ambiguity of the commissioner who allows Batman to flourish. And you have to do that for a TV show frankly, a network TV show, because now that cable has kind of stolen the underwear, network TV is the bearer of moral virtue. Once all the moral ambiguity of the real world has migrated to cable, because of all the structural impediments in American broadcasting, what network TV can do well is precisely characters like Jim Gordon who are virtuous. And are demanding virtue of others.

SHH: I think I know what you mean, that the lead characters are virtuous, although I think of “Hannibal” and even “CSI” has pretty graphic stuff. You’re saying the leader of those stories is fighting for moral virtue as opposed to “Breaking Bad.”

Heller: And “Hannibal,” they had to do some brilliant, I must say, twists to the essence of that character. They put all these armatures around him to make an evil person work for good, because essentially now he’s a good person, which is fine. I genuinely think that to that degree, if some aspect of American broadcast culture has to be square and ethical, that’s fun.

SHH: You are a veteran producer of television. Did producing a show in the DC Universe come with any additional elements?

Heller: I guess it does in the sense that it helps to have been through the big show, the amount of, not so much pressure, but what could be pressure that gets thrown up when there’s a lot of expectation and attention. It helps to have done it before, so it’s not that I don’t feel the pressure, but I enjoy it now. It helps me get up for the game.

SHH: Could “The Mentalist” or “Rome” have prepared you for the level of attention and expectation Batman brings?

Heller: No, not the character and that myth itself. That’s a whole different thing from the show business pressure. Dealing with a kind of demigod character like Batman, or rather the childhood of that character, I was going to say it’s like dealing with Antony and Cleopatra. No, actually, it’s not. People don’t have the same visceral attachment and love. They’re big characters. The connection between the two though is that other people, far better writers than me, have dealt with these characters before. In a way, that’s liberating. When you’re writing characters that have been done by Shakespeare, you can’t live up to it. You can just do your best and then everything else after that is up to the gods. To that degree, doing Batman, I can’t possibly hope to do as well as some of the other great writers and artists who have taken part in this ongoing story, so I don’t need to worry. When you’re doing something completely original like “The Mentalist,” then you have to judge did you do a good job, because it’s made out of whole cloth. With this, you get the advantage of it’s a character and a world that everybody understands already and is interested in. The downside is that better people than me have done it already.