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Listen: ‘Pennyworth’ Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred’s Backstory

Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama “Pennyworth.”

“From a personal point of view, the only DC characters I’m really interested in are the real people — and there’s not many of them,” Heller told Variety‘s TV Take, when asked why he decided to focus on a character that’s been often overlooked in most “Batman” iterations.

Set in 1960s London, “Pennyworth” follows Bruce Wayne’s iconic butler as he forms a security company and partners up with Bruce’s billionaire father Thomas Wayne. Unlike “Gotham,” the Epix series focuses on the “Batman” characters who have no superpowers, which is one reason Heller admits that he would’ve liked to work on Pennyworth’s story before “Gotham.”

“To a degree, I would’ve liked to do Alfred before Gotham because Alfred is an extremely well-known mythic character that no one knows the backstory of. There’s a great amount of leeway to tell any kind of story you want,” he said. “There was a real story to be told, just with the simple question of how does a SAS soldier become a butler? That’s a strange journey. And how did he get from London to America?”

Delving into such niche aspects of character development weren’t possible while working on “Gotham,” the producer said, noting that large franchises often have so many complex storylines that it’s impossible to give each one their due time.

“You can tell a simple story in ‘Pennyworth,'” he said. “One of the challenges making ‘Gotham’ was it rapidly became a carnival pageant. There’s so many great characters and the pressure to put all of them in there as quickly as possible was understandable and very strong. But in retrospect, I would say to the detriment of storytelling because it becomes one life to live. You have ten very powerful storylines all running at the same time.”

Heller’s transition from producing for a family-friendly broadcast network like Fox to a premium cable channel like Epix also affected Heller’s storytelling style, with Heller noting that he wouldn’t have been able to create “Pennyworth” on a broadcast network. The producer said switching to premium “means that there’s a duty to find the edge of the material, to give people something they haven’t seen before.”

“And people don’t want to see the DC show that they’ve seen before or that they might expect,” he continued. “You have to surprise them, you have to give them genuine adult themes and character.”

He also said he isn’t worrying too much about the viewers who want to see more Batman in the new Alfred-centered series. “People don’t always get what they want. But sometimes they get what they need,” he joked. “From my point of view, you can’t worry too much about that because creatively you want to be as free as possible.”

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