Article by Steve J. Ray
Batman fans should be very familiar with Bruno Heller. He’s a British screenwriter, producer and director known for creating and show-running the TV series Gotham for FOX and Pennyworth for Epix, both based on characters from the Batman mythos. He is also the man behind the huge hits Rome for HBO, and CBS television series The Mentalist.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with the cast of Pennyworth, speaking with them and attending their panels at the most recent MCM Comic-Con at London’s Excel. Mr Heller spoke in depth about his work on Pennyworth, a show which has unexpectedly delighted both fans and critics alike. The fact that Epix doesn’t have the censorship restrictions that other networks do has afforded the show greater creative freedom, and the ability to broach more mature themes, language and dark psychology.
The first season was a resounding success and over the course of this conversation the future of the show was finally revealed, but don’t let me spoil it here… read on, dear friends.
Why Alfred? Why now?
Bruno Heller: Selfishly I wanted to be back in London, I wanted to make a show in London, and this was the way to do it. More than that, when you’re working inside this DC/Batman mythology it’s very hard to find stories that haven’t really been dug over, and worked a lot before. Here was a great origin story, of a very well known character that people really don’t know how he got there.
God bless Michael Caine (Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy) as I think he was the first person to say that Alfred was an ex S.A.S. soldier, which opened up a whole other range of stories you could tell, as opposed to someone who learned how to make tea and serve things on trays. So there was this whole wonderful story that hadn’t been told, so that’s why we did it.
Stylistic differences between Pennyworth and Gotham
BH: First off, I guess the main thing is that London is not an imaginary city, London is a very real city… but it’s also a city with its own folklore, and mythology, and strangeness, and glamor and darkness. People in England are real, so I guess the difference is we had to find a way of making real people glamorous, and special, and give them superpowers.
BH: We were looking for intelligence, wit and charm… and we didn’t get it, but we got Jack Bannon instead. No, all joking aside we got exactly what we were looking for.
London in the 1960s
BH: It’s my memories of London as a child in the ’60s, and it’s using Victorian London, 1970’s London… even Elizabethan London. Mashing them all together, and imagining that history had been slightly different. If Henry the 8th hadn’t chopped off Anne Boleyn’s head, how would England have been different over the years? So, just playing with that sort of stuff means you’ve got a lot of freedom. It’s both a recognizable London, but also very strange.
At the same time we were trying to not make it a strict period show. Even with the music, the first live music you hear on the show is an Amy Winehouse tune… because memory’s like that. Things that happen in the past are all mashed-up together.
Comics Inspired, yet something brand new
BH: This is pretty much our alternative reality. We’re lucky that this isn’t really a place and time that has been examined a lot – certainly not in the Batman mythology – so we had a free hand. But, as soon as you start taking a free hand in this thing, there is no much about London visually, and in the literature and movies, that just lend themselves to storytelling.
David Lean (Widely considered as one of the most influential directors of all time, Lean was mostly famous for his large-scale epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India, amongst many others) was a big influence on the way (the show) looks, and Hammer Horror movies… I could go on. Dickens… you can take liberties, without going over the top, because anything’s possible.
We have Jack the Ripper’s grandson in the show, and why not? Later on we’ll have Jekyll and Hyde in the show… those English folkloric characters are kind of our substitute for superheroes and supervillains. (We have) Felicity Kendal (a British National Treasure, an actress, who has appeared in numerous stage and screen roles over a more than 50-year career) as a sorceress. You don’t often get Felicity Kendal as a master of the dark arts.
The Batman influence and Gotham timelines
BH: Everyone sometimes feels like they’re an orphan, everyone wears a mask, and everyone wants revenge. I’m sure if we took an audience poll everyone would have someone or something they’d want to get their own back about.
(As for Gotham), it’s an alternative past, but the beauty of the Batman mythology is that it’s now large enough that there are several strands that can operate at the same time… even if they don’t necessarily jibe with each other.
If you try to create a world that is constant, with all the canonical versions, then you end up with a mess, or with a very vanilla version of it. We’ve taken the liberty with that time-frame to just tell a story in, and of itself. Really, the bottom line is to tell a story that would work, even if you didn’t know who Batman was… just a good story in its own right.
(With Thomas Wayne) the audience knows exactly where that story’s going as well, so if you play into where it’s going you’re just telling people what they already know. This is much more like finding out about your parents’ life before you were born, you know? Those are the interesting things, not the ones that follow the path you already know.
The future of Pennyworth… and the past. Was the 60’s Batman show an influence, as Pennyworth’s a show set in the 60s?
BH: There is a plan for season two; we’ve started writing it, and hopefully we’ll start shooting it in January.
No. Not because it’s not a great show, but because it’s camp. It’s tough, once you hit that camp note, it’s tough to ever get back to serious. Whereas the best Batmans can do both; you can be funny, you can be scary, you can be deep and fun at the same time… that’s pure fun, you know?
Maybe you didn’t go back to the 60s in terms of the atmosphere, but watching the show, some of the camera angles; they’re turned on their side, and it gets really surreal. Is that more Danny Cannon and the directors, or was that purposely thrown in to throw the audience off balance?
BH: Yeah, that’s very much Danny, who brought his rich visual style to it. Those Dutching techniques, and making things strange is very much a part of… not so much the Batman tradition, but certainly the English, scary tradition, you know? Again, we go back to David Lean, and Hammer Horror, and just the way you want to shoot London, just beg for that sort of treatment.
Bruno, thank you very much
BH: Thank you, too. Take care.
Bruno Heller is without doubt an incredibly talented film-maker and writer. His passion for this project shone through from the off; when he was talking about London, the material and the stellar cast. This was where the news broke of Pennyworth officially being green-lit for a second season, and I was so fortunate to get the news direct from the source.
Every episode of Pennyworth is available on demand right now in the U.S. and through services like Amazon Prime worldwide. Don’t miss it!
Images May Be Subject To Copyright. Photos of Mr. Heller and the cast by Daniel Belgrave.