INTERVIEW: Gotham star Ben McKenzie gets in the Directors Chair for a second time

WARNING! SPOILERS FOR GOTHAM episode One of my Three Soups airing in the US on 29th March, 2018.

One of the perks of being a series star is that if you’re game (and they have confidence in you), they’ll let you play in the sandbox a bit. An established series is a great place for an actor to dip their toes in the water and really get a feeling for other aspects of the creation process, be it producing, writing, or even directing an episode. Gotham star Ben McKenzie (Jim Gordon) took his first shot at directing with what he likes to call an “introverted story, much more of a slow burn,” with a Season 3 episode titled These Delicate and Dark Obsessions, and his first shot at writing an episode with Season 4’s The Demon’s Head. This week he gets back in the Director’s chair with One of my Three Soups.

David Giesbrecht/FOX

This time, he’s been tasked with an episode of Gotham that is “much bigger, obviously,” McKenzie told media at a Q&A immediately following a screening of tonight’s episode. This time around the episode features “A lot of action, a lot of green screen work, a lot of big set pieces. We had several hundred background performers in several scenes.” Not to mention, a lot of plot. Tonight’s episode features a breakout from Arkham Asylum lead by none other than Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monahan), with Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel) and The Scarecrow (David W. Thompson) in tow, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) discovering more about her role as The Demon’s Head as she and Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) meet the League of Shadows, and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Selina Kyle (Cameron Bicondova) getting into their own shenanigans, with a nice dose of sexual tension thrown into the mix.

This is where McKenzie’s experience working on the show for nearly four years seemed to really pay off for him, in this bigger role. “No one knows the show better, I would argue, than me,” says McKenzie, before qualifying that comment by adding. “Well, Danny Cannon and after that, me. That does not mean I’m the second-best director below Danny, but I know the tone, I know the characters. I know where we are in the story in terms of their evolution. And so that’s actually very helpful, to be able to understand what specific role this episode needs to fulfill to serve the larger story of 22.”

It was in helping develop the plotline for Jerome Valeska, alongside Monahan, where McKenzie saw the real benefit of his experience with the series. “As an actor, I’ve obviously seen what he’s been able to do, and so as a director – and this applies not just to him but to all the actors – I rather really want to do is give them room to do what they want to do. Give them a lot more feedback than I think they’re used to hearing, because a lot of journeyman directors come in and they have a lot of other things going on, trying quite frankly to sort of get up to speed initially. Because they just did Lucifer and now they’re coming onto Gotham, and those shows are a little different. Plus they don’t want to piss anybody off. And I know that I’m not gonna piss them off because I know what traps not to get into, and how to talk to people because we have a great cast.”

David Giesbrecht/FOX

McKenzie also spent a lot of time working with his youngest co-stars, Mazouz and Bicondova, in developing some sweet moments in the Bruce-Selina relationship development that fans are hankering to see more of. “I specifically wanted to lean into how much we as an audience want them to figure it out. We want them to be able to have these tender moments of affection.” He points out a specific instance where he added a gentle moment between the two, “The scene in the diner when they end up on top of each other – that was a shot that was very important to me, because it’s a little bit of the archetypal shot of a tender moment between two potential lovers. And they were game for it, they have grown a lot in four years, and to watch them come into themselves and be able to use that to bounce off of each other was really rewarding.”

The scene also worked for McKenzie as a necessary grounding moment in a series that can sometimes be a bit over the top. “It’s just a tight two [shot] where he’s just landed on top of her. There’s no dialogue, there’s nothing written there for that one beat, but it tells you everything you need to know about their desires or their connection. What I’d like the audience to see is that there’s a real tenderness there between the two of them. At the end, when she basically says, ‘Fine, you’re gonna have to live your life, but don’t get yourself killed,’ you can tell that she genuinely cares for him. We spent a lot of time talking about that and working on that.”

Luckily for McKenzie, the script for this episode of Gotham was written by Charlie Houston, and so he promises there were no full scenes that had to be cut for time. “There’s always a little bit of fat to be trimmed. In a perfect world, I would love for the show to just be a few minutes longer,” he laments, adding that the one benefit for streaming series is that they don’t have this problem. “What you realize is that’s tough as a director to watch your baby get poked and prodded and sliced – sliced is not the way you want to think of a baby – but then you realize there’s a balance there. If the action is cut even tighter at times, then the breathing moments feel more earned. So you do try to come to a zen place at the end there a little bit.”

Gotham airs on FOX on Thursdays, at 8PM.