21CF Chats: Ben McKenzie, star of FOX’s ‘Gotham,’ on directing his first episode and how directing is like fatherhood

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Ben McKenzie, the star who plays lead character James Gordon on FOX’s “Gotham,” has been waiting a long time for the 16th episode of the show’s third season, which will air Monday, May 1, at 8 p.m. ET/PT: It will be the first time he’ll be credited as a director.

In a recent conversation with Ben, I asked him about how long he’s wanted to be a director, the scenes in the episode he was proud of and how directing is like fatherhood.

(Spoilers below if you haven’t watched the episode yet.)

When did you first have a hunch that you wanted to try your hand at directing?

Probably when I stopped leaving the set in between setting up shots and started hanging out, watching what they were doing, asking questions and becoming curious about all that other stuff that happens after actors rehearse a scene and leave. I really pushed to start directing on my last series, “Southland,” and came close, which made me even more excited to do it in the future. So, it’s been probably 5-10 years since I’ve been wanting to do it, and I’ve finally been given the opportunity.

Better late than never. What was the preparation process for your directorial debut?

The preparation process was smooth. I directed episode 16 of Season 3, so the writers needed to write me down in the episode prior to my debut – they needed to limit how much I was in episode 15. They wrote the episode so I was on location in 15, so we could shoot everything in one day. I only missed one day of prep to film as an actor in episode 15, and that allowed me to go through the full process, which, honestly, I’ve been through before because I’ve shadowed directors both on “Southland” and “Gotham.”

Where does the process start?

It always starts with the script. Sometimes you get it nice and early, a week or so before, maybe even earlier than that; sometimes it comes in the day before and you’re working off just an outline. But once you have a script, you can start making a lot of choices, you can scout a lot of different locations, you can sort of get into it. This one was relatively smooth. It just required production to accommodate me in the previous episode.

What was it like to finally jump behind the camera – on a show that you star in, nonetheless? Were you surprised by certain aspects of it?

As a director, you’re given a lot of people coming up to you constantly asking for your opinion on everything from which location you should shoot at, how that location should be dressed, props, casting, dialogue. I was surprised at how much I didn’t know that I knew, and I was able to answer more questions than I thought I was going to be able to.

 

 

Did you get any good advice before directing the episode?

One piece of good advice that I got from Danny Cannon, who’s our executive producer and director, and the guy that I owe this opportunity to, was: Don’t make a decision on something you don’t need to make a decision on quite yet. Everyone’s going to come to you and ask you to make a million decisions on the first day. You don’t need to make them all immediately. Some you need to make early on because they’re more important and determine the rest of the shooting. Many can wait. You can take your time, think about them, and come to a more reasoned and thought-through decision later on, and everyone benefits from that.

Was it awkward to adjust your relationship with the cast when you went behind the camera?

It surprisingly wasn’t – maybe not surprisingly. We have a very good cast who is very professional, very accommodating. I think I was more nervous than they were because the first time you switch roles and you’re on the other side, you’re trying to guide a scene into a direction that you think fits the story. So, you have all these ideas in your head and, of course, when you show up and the actors come and bring all their ideas to it that are usually infinitely better than your own, you need to meld the two. You need to still accomplish what you set out to do and tell the story, but you need to listen to their input and use their input. It worked remarkably well.

What was challenging about directing?

I took great pains in pre-production to streamline the episode so the focus could be on the characters rather than on the shots. The look of the show is very polished. It’s a beautiful show to look at, and we owe that to our entire crew, including our fantastic cinematographers. But occasionally we’re so ambitious with filming huge action pieces and incredibly complicated blocking arrangements in expensive and difficult-to-light locations that we run out of time for the acting. I wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time for the actors to feel at home, feel comfortable and have many takes to explore. At the end of the day, I think it all turned out quite well.

Is there a scene in the episode that you are particularly proud of?

There’s a scene where James Remar, who plays my uncle [Frank Gordon], reveals that he effectively killed my father, pulls the trigger on himself and commits suicide in front of me. It’s a very challenging scene emotionally. That was a scene I felt had to be handled delicately, for obvious reasons, and shot a certain way – more still than anything else. I wanted the dialogue and performance to speak for themselves. I’m very proud of how it worked. I’m also proud of the work of David Mazouz [who plays Bruce Wayne] with Raymond J. Barry, who plays The Shaman character who’s mentoring Bruce. I think both David and Ray did excellent work, and their storyline in the episode culminates with Ray giving a call to action to Bruce saying that the city needs a protector and needs to be defended, and you see the beginnings of that glint in Bruce’s eye showing he will become the Batman. With a slow camera push-in and the beautiful score swelling behind it, it’s quite a moving little piece and I’m proud of it. Robert Hull, who wrote the episode and whom I should give a lot of credit to, delivered on some great dialogue. As a fan of the Batman canon, it was a real treat for me to direct an iconic scene like that.

In preparation for our conversation today, I googled your name and saw a lot of headlines about you becoming a father, so I was wondering: Do you see any parallels between fatherhood and directing?

That’s a great question and you’re right to ask it. I do. I guess it’s a line I’m cribbing from Spider-Man, but “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you’re entrusted with telling the story of, in this case, an episode of television, at the end of the day the buck must stop with you. You have to know what you’re doing, come prepared, and adjust on the fly to the problems that will inevitably arise and fix them as best you can. That is quite a lot like being a parent. You are responsible for this little human being, or human beings in my case. At the end of the day, they can’t feed themselves, clothe themselves or put a roof over their heads, and you’ve got to plan it out. The difference with being a director is that, in a sense, you’re a father to grown children. These are smart, capable, successful people in their own right. You’re just the one who has to ultimately make the call. I’m the final vote at the end of the day. You need to listen to everybody and treat them equally, but at the end of the day you have to make the call. Otherwise nothing happens. But like a new dad, I make lots of mistakes, and begging for mercy is never a bad thing, whether it’s with an actor, a producer, a crew member or a 1-year-old baby.

Do you think we’ll see you rack up more director credits in the future, either on “Gotham” or elsewhere?

Well, I haven’t been fired yet…

“Gotham” airs Mondays at 8/7c on FOX. Watch the show’s full episodes on FOX NOW.