Interview: 'Gotham' director Danny Cannon on Batman without Batman and introducing Mr. Freeze
Earlier this month -- I've been bogged down with Emmy galleries for 10 days -- FOX hosted what the network called a "Tastemakers" screening of the new drama pilot "Gotham." Basically, that means "reporters and some talent" got to see the "Gotham" pilot at events in New York and LA.
I've already tweeted this and I'll go into more depth when I start my Take Me To The Pilots series next week, but I like the "Gotham" pilot. I have no clue what the show looks like by the eighth or ninth episode and I fear the five or six seasons of delayed gratification, but I think it's a well-made pilot and most of the stars -- particularly Ben McKenzie, Donal Logue and, in a minor surprise, Jada Pinkett Smith -- are quite solid.
A lot of the credit has to go to pilot director Danny Cannon, who worked with series creator Bruno Heller from the earliest stages and gives "Gotham" a look that blends realism with a comic book aesthetic, without being so dangerously ambitious that subsequent episodes are sure to let us down.
After the screening, I had a long conversation with "CSI" and "Judge Dredd" veteran Cannon about creating the look of "Gotham," replicating that look on a weekly basis and the staging of certain iconic franchise moments. We also talked about the inevitable frustration of a Batman series without Batman and the famous Batman villain he's looking forward to bringing to the show.
[The only spoiler in this interview discusses the opening scene of the pilot, which is the formative event Young Bruce Wayne's life. If you've seen ANY "Batman" story, you know what scene I'm talking about. If somehow you haven't... Well, it only spoils the first five minutes of the pilot.]
Keep going for the full Q&A... "Gotham" will air Mondays at 8 p.m. this fall on FOX...
HitFix: How quickly did you know what you wanted the aesthetic of the pilot and this world to be?
Danny Cannon: It's scary. I was on something and Bruno was on something and we met at Thanksgiving and he'd just pitched the story and it had gone very well and he instantly knew that he needed a visual partner and we talked on Thanksgiving, that morning, extensively about where to place this. I had not heard the pitch and I did not know what was in his head, but instantly I knew -- And we shared this, thank God -- I'd watched "Serpico" again when I heard the concept, and "The French Connection" and "The Warriors," and I said, "If New York had not been gentrified, if there was no Koch, if there was no Bloomberg, if there was no Guiliani, and New York had just spiraled downwards after 1979..." we were very interested in that. That was Gotham to us. It was like a romantic version. When I visited New York and Bruno visited New York, we wanted to go to that place. We wanted to go where Al Pacino was. We wanted to go where Popeye Doyle was.
HitFix: Not where Elmo rules Times Square?
Danny Cannon: Exactly. And so that's the world we wanted to create, because we felt like, no matter how old you were, you would identify with that world. It doesn't matter if there's cell phones. They probably don't work that well. And it doesn't matter if there's [newer] cars. The muscle cars are better. So even though it's a f***ed up, run-down, broken-down, corrupt world, we love it, because that's where the best music came from and that's where the best movies came from.
HitFix: Give the way that Gotham has been interpreted by pretty distinctive visual stylists over the years, was there anything you wanted to steer away from to make sure this wasn't Tim Burton's Gotham or Christopher Nolan's Gotham?
Danny Cannon: No, we're very lucky. Greek tragedies were always performed by a group of actors and every night, to every village, it would always be different, but the stories were so good that everyone would always enjoy it. I think the Batman franchise is just so vivid and beautiful and visceral and, unlike other superhero things, it is based in reality. He's not a superhero. It's not supernatural. It's not sci-fi. He's a real man, a vigilante. I think, with our feet on the ground, the great thing about it was if we kept it real, our version of it would just be us singing a Rolling Stones song. It's still a good song. I just hope you like our version.
HitFix: There have already been a lot of jokes from the competition of "What is Batman without Batman?" How do you describe what the Batman core of this is for Batman fans if they're never going to see the guy in the cowl?
Danny Cannon: I would never tell those wonderful fans, the best fans, that this was a Batman show. It's not. It's a Gotham show and that's why it's called "Gotham." The lead character is not Batman. The lead character is Gotham and in Gotham, many things happen, many villains are created. It's a corrupt, messed up, spiraling downwards, beautiful hodge-podge of every great city in the world. What we are creating is the environment where Batman is necessary. So this is not a Batman show. This is the show, hopefully, that will end launching Batman.
HitFix: But that means presumably that this is a dark path that the show is going down, without necessarily the prospect for light, right?
Danny Cannon: I don't know. I love to listen to an audience laugh at Penguin, because he's so delicious. I think Jada Pinkett, her performance for me really summed up the tone, which was that it was a theatrical, but realistic, physical performance, a visceral performance. And she nailed it. And she's a brand-new character, so I think that's when I felt very, very, very confident that this is a brand new franchise.
HitFix: How much fun was it for you to work with the Fish Mooney character? As you say, that's the one where you and Bruno get to really put your fingerprints on this universe?
Danny Cannon: Yes, it was great to create a character that was brand new to the franchise, if only to prove that we understood what it was.
HitFix: When you're dealing with these people who are going to *become* these iconic characters, what's the line between over-indicating the future characters that they'll become, but also giving the right amount of winking and nudging to the fans?
Danny Cannon: [Smiles.] I think that's us as fans. Yeah, it may be winking and nudging, but the genius of Bruno is that just when you think you're gonna go down a path, he will veer off on a tangent and take you down an alleyway and what you think is real is not real. So all I can tell you, without giving too much away about the season, is you will be surprised by thinking something's gonna go an obvious way when it's not. The great thing about starting origins from the very, very, very beginning, which DC has never done... I mean, Geoff Johns at DC has been such a cheerleader. Somebody said, "Do you feel him breathing down your neck?" I said, "No, I feel him hugging me." I feel his support. "Go for it, go for it, go for it" is what we hear and we're taking that literally.
HitFix: In the room for casting, which was the hardest part to get the right person for?
Danny Cannon: Can I tell you? Easiest casting ever on a pilot. Ben [McKenzie]? Bruno said, "Watch Ben McKenzie" right from the beginning. I said, "Watch Donal Logue" right from the beginning. I think Jada was the last one to come on-board and it was just like hearing champagne pop. It made my shoulders go down. It made me feel like my shoes were off.
HitFix: My immediate reaction was when Jada was cast was, "She's kinda tiny. How are we going to think that she's an intimidating mob boss?" [He laughs.] So what is the answer for how you make Jada Pinkett seem intimidating and badass?
Danny Cannon: Because her frame is small, but her brain is huuuuuuge.
HitFix: But how do you make that work within this world of larger-than-life characters?
Danny Cannon: With her and Robin [Taylor], who plays Oswald, there was a lot of shaping and a lot of conversations, but they were not conversations where people were having issues. They were conversations, passionate conversations, as if one were talking about great literature and we were doing an interpretation of that. I think what Jada got great was the body language. She found the skin. And what Robin did great was he found the sensibility and I helped him with the body language. Also, one of the things where things really fit, like a glove literally, was wardrobe. With Lisa [Padovani], with our costume designer, the conversations with her turned out to be such great character conversations that we actually included the characters in those conversations because their wardrobe became part of their persona.
HitFix: OK, so talk to me about the color red. [He laughs immediately.] I was watching the pilot and there isn't a single frame in which anything is accidentally red.
Danny Cannon: Earmuffs on some people who get scared of this word, but I did a lot of desaturation in the pilot, because the influential films that I watched and got inspired by in the beginning were '70s movies and film stock was just desaturated at that point. But what I did in color correction was amplify red as a blood-tone. That's just from the killing of Bruce Wayne's parents to the covering the goes over the gun that Bullock gives to Gordon at the end, is a beautiful red. It's the only red in the whole scene.
HitFix: You've done this before where you've directed a pilot and set a very specific visual scheme and then you've had to figure out how to do it on a week-to-week basis. ["Yeah," he nods.] When you're doing a pilot on this scale what is the thought process in terms of how to keep this replicatable as a series?
Danny Cannon: Only a very bad executive producer doesn't think about that when they're doing the pilot. I would never write a check I couldn't cash. So I'm very conscientious about budget and about building sets that won't play only once, they'll play many times. So I'm very proud to say that everything we built is in Episode 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107. And all the directors that I'm using are not only people that I trust, but are fans. They are guys who, I have my fingers crossed that they are gonna kick my ass and outdo me, because nothing gets me more fired up than somebody kicking my ass.
HitFix: Are you going to be on this on a day-to-day basis?
Danny Cannon: I would never let my child get away from me.
HitFix: But you've had multiple children before with the "CSI" franchise and you've had to divide your love.
Danny Cannon: I have, but I stayed with "CSI" for six year. Yeah, when it matters to me I am always there. The great thing about Bruno is I have a showrunner, a writer, who just appreciates so much what I bring to it, like I appreciate his words. It's great. There are not many chefs in this kitchen. Bruno is coming up with the dishes and hopefully I'm cooking them well.
HitFix: Do you know everything he knows? Or is he keeping secrets from you?
Danny Cannon: No, no. I would be offended... but slightly excited that he would keep secrets from me.
HitFix: Well, going forward on this, how much does he know and how much do you know?
Danny Cannon: I know quite a bit and so does Bruno, but the delicious thing about it is he's still pitching me on some things that I feel passionate about and I'm still pitching him on things that I feel passionate about. So we are still trying to win each other over even though he's like my brother. You know, we're from very similar parts of London. The first time we met, we just started laughing, because it was kinda like, "This is weird this hasn't happened before." It's bizarre. I mean, the relationship is close. So yeah, I want him to keep some secrets from me.
HitFix: Is there a London-based perspective on Batman, on Gotham, on this world that's different from what we might get from a domestic writer and a domestic director?
Danny Cannon: No, no, but I think a lot of great artists, especially ones from England, coming to America and there's something you need to prove, you need to belong somehow. And hopefully you learn how to belong by impressing the people around you and showing that you deserve to be here. That's a lot of drive and a lot of energy goes into that and I think it brings the best out of artists.
HitFix: You mentioned earlier the scene of Bruce Wayne's parents being killed and that's about as iconic as it gets in the comic world and everyone has done their version of it. What was your take? How did you want your version of that scene to play out?
Danny Cannon: I remember looking at that on the schedule and realizing that we could only be there once and being very afraid and going, "Oh my God. I have one night to do an iconic scene." It was bitterly cold in New York, the worst New York winter in 60 years, and I calmed myself by saying that it was an emotional moment, not a logistical problem moment. In other words, if I just get the true sense of what that is, then it doesn't matter if I ever see them get killed. As long as that boy's face -- and luckily we have an actor in David who really is way older than his years -- as long as I get the visceral sense of the emotion of that moment, then I could take a million shots away and just have one. Alan J. Pakula once said, "A scene is only really about one shot" and if you get that shot, the rest is gravy. I remember getting that shot at the beginning and going, "I am now OK."
HitFix: As you look out across the first season, is there a moment that you're already anticipating that you're gonna want to get back behind the camera for?
Danny Cannon: I have a big pitch with Bruno about the Mr. Freeze character, whose origins are uncertain. If I can win Geoff Johns over and if I can win Bruno over, then I look forward to the moment where that character can be realized.
HitFix: What's the parsing out you have to do on the iconic characters so that you don't use too many of them in these first episodes?
Danny Cannon: The beauty of this, both myself and Bruno did not sign on until we heard both network and studio assure us that we would not be forced into realizing this so quickly. We want a slow-burn. All our favorite shows, all our studio's favorite shows, all our network's favorite shows are a slow burn. They assured us and so far, so good.
HitFix: Did you watch the vintage "Batman" show back in the day?
Danny Cannon: I did! I did. Five o'clock on a Friday. LWT.
HitFix: Are there any of the villains who appeared on that show who maybe haven't made it into the recent movies, that you really loved?
Danny Cannon: Dude! All of them! All of them. And that car? Have they ever made a better car? No! You know what it did? More than anything, it was the actors. It was the actors and the fun that they had. I would imagine the best way to watch that '60s show is to watch the outtakes, because they had fun. I've gotta say, however cold it was and however much pressure we felt, we had fun on this pilot. There's something about this franchise that allows you to have fun. Like I said, you're treading that line between something very real and relatable and visceral and camp. And it's right across the street! And just knowing it's there makes you have fun.
HitFix: Would you enjoy doing an episode that fully crossed that street into camp?
Danny Cannon: I don't think that would be the right thing to do, but come visit us on set and you'll watch us experiment with it!