From writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon, and based on DC characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger, the 10-episode Epix drama series Pennyworth follows Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon), as a former British SAS soldier in his 20s who forms a security company and goes to work with Thomas Wayne (Ben Aldridge) in 1960s London. Not yet Bruce’s father, Thomas is a young billionaire from the East Coast of the United States, who finds himself in need of Alfred’s services, especially with a mysterious organization, known as the Raven Society, out there and causing all sorts of trouble.
During this interview with Collider, executive producers Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon talked about why Alfred Pennyworth was a character they wanted to delve into more deeply, what made this the right way to tell this story, exploring the chance meeting between Alfred Pennyworth and Thomas Wayne, not wanting to include the typical Batman villains, how the realism of the story affects the fight scenes and action, having the freedom of storytelling that a network like Epix provides, the role of women in this world, and what they’re most excited about audiences getting to see.
Collider: At what point, along the way, did Alfred Pennyworth become a character that you wanted to explore more, and in this manner?
BRUNO HELLER: That’s a good question. It was a combination of charms and blessings that we had this wonderful character. We both wanted to work in England, and the DC universe has got lots of wonderful superhuman, superheroic characters. There are very few real people that have iconic status, and Alfred Pennyworth is one of them. The really attractive thing about it is that he’s an underutilized and under spoken of character. He’s someone who’s been in the frame, but never really looked at. Because of his age, we could leap back into the past and tell a completely fresh origin story for a character that everyone knows. So, it ticked all of the boxes, in that way.
DANNY CANNON: His age was key because I don’t think there’s been a DC show that’s gone back into the past and been at a different period. The world that could be created, because it had to be a DC version of them, plus the fact that you have a young man, leaving the war and re-entering society, everything just turned us on quickly.
It’s also not something that typically happens, to bring us a show like Gotham, where Alfred Pennyworth was a character, to then do a different show on a different network, still following that character, but at a different time in their life.
CANNON: At first, it didn’t go. There was a very similar version – I don’t think the script changed much, at all – but then it was dead for awhile, and we were asked to pursue Metropolis, which we did. I have to tread carefully here, but as long as we could be true to what we wanted to do and we were pleasing ourselves, we wanted to do it. It’s very hard to weather this industry, if you don’t believe in what you’re doing. You have to believe in it. And this was the one that we were adamant that, “It’s this, or we don’t need to do it”
HELLER: We weren’t looking at other minor characters in the Batman canon to exploit. It was very much that this was a real person with real problems and real history that we could explore. From a larger point of view, today’s TV world is amazing, with the amount of opportunities and material that’s coming out, but it’s very important to have – for want of a better word and it’s horrible word – branded material, and something that stands out because people already have some sense of who the characters is, what the story is, or where you’re coming from. You can make a wonderful show, these days, that nobody sees. If you want people to see your TV shows, rather than just make good TV shows, you have to think about that side of it.
In order to tell the story of Alfred Pennyworth, it means you have to also tell the story of Thomas Wayne, who we’ve only ever really known in death. What’s it like to explore a character like that, who we’ve never really gotten to see the life of?
CANNON: His only function has ever been to die, and to create this drive for Bruce. Going back to the world and figuring out how and why they would meet, Bruno came up with this great idea for them colliding together, by happenstance. That’s when I was like, “That totally makes sense.” The idea is that, here’s a guy trying to avoid violence, but going into security, and then here’s a man needing it. The whole meeting is a mistake.
HELLER: It’s not just the story of Alfred and Thomas, but also Martha. Martha is one half of the DNA that makes up Batman. Thomas and Martha are the two sides of Batman, and Alfred is the surrogate parent that creates the complete character. So, to be able to examine that Batman myth from this completely fresh angle, which is not a spandex, super brilliant, supernatural angle, but is instead about real people, about parents and fathers and sons and legacies, and about life turning out not the way you thought it was gonna be. That’s all good dramatic narrative. Beyond the gung-ho macho stuff of the Batman world, it’s good drama.
Not wanting to have the Batman villains in this means that you can explore villains that we haven’t gotten to see, that come from a more human aspect of the story.
CANNON: When we were first talking about this, Bruno said the villains were people like Jack the Ripper, which totally makes sense. The light bulb, for me, straight away was that it’s England in the ‘60s, or this new Dickensian/Orwellian England in the ‘60s, so drawing from characters in classic literature in Britain is like our superheroes. That made sense to me. Whether they’re the descendants of people or are related to people, or just look or feel like them, five seasons flashed in my head.
Is that the vision? Do you have five seasons of ideas to tell?
HELLER: One of the things you have to start with, or at least I and Danny do, is that, if you don’t have some idea of what Episode 9 of Season 4 is gonna be, then it’s probably not a good TV idea. In success, that’s what you’re gonna be faced with, so it just makes sense to be sure that you have a story that has enough juice in it, that it will carry on, and can keep changing and growing. With these characters, it’s both a challenge and a blessing that everyone knows how the story ends, but they don’t know anything about what happens between when we start and the beginning of Gotham, with the death of Thomas and Martha. It’s a blank slate, which means you can tell very real, character-driven stories, rather than having to be constantly topping yourself. The danger of the straight-up superheroic aspect of the DC comic world is that it’s really hard to top what can be done in movies, and you have to keep topping yourself. With this being much more about the actual real lives and real people, there’s a coherence to it.