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Ben McKenzie is a TV triple threat.
With the fourth episode of Gotham Season 4, McKenzie (Jim Gordon) will add TV writer to a resume that already includes TV actor and, after last season’s superb “These Delicate and Dark Obsessions,” TV director.
“It’s like being a racecar driver, but you’re also a mechanic,” McKenzie says, in a very writerly moment. “You can get into the engine and fix it, if you need to.”
Writing a TV script is something McKenzie has long been interested in. He had previously discussed the possibility with Gotham showrunner John Stephens and Gotham creator Bruno Heller before finally getting the opportunity this season.
“I’ve been fiddling around with writing for a long time,” McKenzie says, “but I’d never written an episode of television, so it was quite a learning process.”
McKenzie went to Los Angeles last spring, during Gotham’s inter-season production hiatus, to take part in the Gotham writers’ room where they collectively broke the story for McKenzie’s episode, as is common practice. Then McKenzie headed back to New York (where Gotham films), writing the episode’s many drafts remotely.
McKenzie wrote the script for “The Demon’s Head,” the fourth episode of Gotham’s fourth season and the second part in a three-episode arc that focuses on the eponymous Demon’s Head himself, aka Ra’s al Ghul, amongst other things.
The “A” plot in McKenzie’s episode centers around Bruce and his various father figures — in this case, Ra’s al Ghul, the ever-present Alfred, and McKenzie’s Jim Gordon. The “B” plot gives us a better look into the relationship between new character Sofia Falcone, Carmine’s daughter, and Penguin. The “C” plot focuses on the fan-favorite dynamic between Penguin and Ed Nygma.
“I got to really play with some of my favorite characters, which include Penguin and Nygma, Bruce and Alfred, Jim and Harvey… Iconic core characters in interesting settings,” says McKenzie of the experience.
Which character did McKenzie find the hardest to write for? That would be his own character: Jim Gordon. “As an actor, you always want to write your own lines until you actually are able to write your own lines and then you don’t know what to write for yourself,” jokes McKenzie.
McKenzie found Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock the easiest to write for because: “Harvey can say anything, and it literally doesn’t matter. Donal [Logue] can deliver any line, he can make any line funny, and he can make any line sincere, if that’s the point. And so you have total creative freedom.”
McKenzie particularly enjoyed the challenge of writing for the Penguin/Nygma dynamic, calling his episode “yet another evolution in their relationship and in their rivalry.” Following the events of the season three finale, Nygma has become unfrozen from the block of ice Penguin had Mr. Freeze put him in, but has lost some of his mental deftness in the de-thawing process.
“[Nygma]’s not as smart as he would otherwise be and he is trying to send Penguin riddles to meet up so they can square off,” explains McKenzie, “but the riddles are so terrible that Penguin can’t figure them out. It culminates in a great scene between the two of them and [Robin Lord Taylor and Cory Michael Smith] were just absolutely fantastic.”
McKenzie has been working in the TV business for a while, getting his big break as main character Ryan Atwood on The O.C. in 2003 and working consistently in TV and film ever since. That being said, because writing takes place mostly away from production, McKenzie said he still had much to learn about the writing process.
“From being on a set, the directing came fairly naturally,” McKenzie says. “It was challenging, but there were a lot of things that I understood about directing just from observing, just from watching director’s work. Writing often takes place behind-the-scenes. Physical production is not privy to how scripts come out … I wasn’t so familiar with that process of breaking a story, of starting with a story document, then an outline, and then a draft; it was informative.”
If there was one thing that most surprised McKenzie about the TV scriptwriting process, it was the “story math,” as he called it.
“The structure of the six acts in network television is very specific and you need to be very aware of where each act break is going to fall, how the action is going to rise-fall, rise-fall, so on and so on, in order to have it play the way you’d like it to play,” McKenzie explains. “I don’t think I’d given enough thought to [things like that] because you sort of take it for granted when you see it on the page.”
Of course, coming from the world of TV acting — and acting on the show he was writing for, in particular — did give him an edge.
“I certainly understood the nature of each character because of working alongside the cast. I knew their voices relatively well,”McKenzie says. “The other great thing about being on the other side, as an actor, is I felt pretty un-precious about all of it. Something that isn’t working for them, I would usually be the first one to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. That doesn’t work. Let’s change it.’ And throw it away. And I think that facilitates the collaborative process.”
Learning first-hand about these other steps in the TV creation process has not only made him a better actor, it has made him a better lead actor specifically.
“If you are the central character on a show, you have a responsibility that goes above and beyond just showing up and doing your work as an actor, day in and day out. You are there to be a leader and be a champion of the show, but also a manager of the show, in a way.”
For McKenzie, this includes managing the different things that are going on, such as “physical shooting, so that it’s shot and shot well, but it’s shot without killing the crew and killing the cast in the process,” as well as making sure “everyone feels included, that everyone feels listened to and feels that their contribution is respected.”
“By being on the other side, as director and now writer, you get as full an understanding of the process from soup to nuts, as you can can get really. You understand it from the true concept stage all the way through to post-production.”
McKenzie doesn’t think he’ll have the time to write another episode of Gotham this season (after all, he is a full-time actor on the show). However, he will be stepping behind the camera again to direct the sixteenth episode of the season.
Despite the logistical difficulties of having your lead actor adding full-time roles like writer or director to his already-full plate, McKenzie hopes to continue expanding and improving on his skill set.
“I’m hopeful that, [for] as many seasons as Gotham goes,” said McKenzie, “I can write and direct one a year and, each time, get better. That’s the goal.”
Going above and beyond the call of duty? How very Jim Gordon of him.