THE DISH: Like the leads in the hit freshman drama he created—an FBI rookie and a criminal-catching criminal—The Blacklist creator-executive producer Jon Bokenkamp is himself one of primetime’s unlikeliest heroes this season.
His pilot script for the NBC series, produced by Sony Pictures TV, was among the most buzzed-about even before James Spader came on as the lead and before the series scored a post-The Voice time slot. The Blacklist went on to become the top-rated drama among the Big Four for Q4 2013, the top-rated new show of the season and NBC’s most-watched new drama since ER (and that’s going back 19 years). It got a second season pickup in December and has set all-time industry records for most time-shifted viewership. Industry watchers are even starting to ask if SPT might bring the show out early for an offnet sale. All of this, of course, offers evidence that a big, buzzy hit still really can be born on broadcast.
Yet The Blacklist is the first TV show for Bokenkamp, whose feature film credits include Taking Lives and last year’s The Call. He didn’t even own a television for a decade. And he lives in…Nebraska.
Over an 8 a.m. breakfast at Toast Bakery Café in Los Angeles a few days after a big reveal aired (Red was right: Liz’s husband Tom is not who he says he is), Bokenkamp exhibited a humble, fearless approach to primetime—and one of the strongest handshakes you’ll find in Hollywood.
He talked about how he manages to run a TV show while living in Nebraska, his “shotgun marriage” to his fellow exec producers and whether Red really is Elizabeth’s father. (Just kidding on that last one—but he did say who knows the answer to that.) Edited highlights of the conversation follow.
How did you and your fellow Blacklist producers get together?
I met John Fox through some feature meetings and he kind of pitched a version of what the show could be, and I came up with a pitch for the show. My agents introduced me to John Eisendrath (Alias) because I have no experience in TV and he has tons of experience in TV. And he was originally sort of the insurance policy, but he’s become a great partner. It kind of came together from Fox from the producing side, conceptual side, and John from the boots-onthe- ground side. It’s been a really good marriage. Shotgun marriage, but good.
When it comes to the relationship between Red and Elizabeth, and who is good, who is bad, who is who they say they are, do you know all of that? And if you do know, how far out have you planned when to reveal these things?
We know big signposts. I know where I see the series ending. I know the story behind Red and I know his connection to Liz. Within that are a lot of questions. I know what I feel would be the big signposts of the show, but how we’re going to get there, I don’t know. And there’s a lot that I don’t know as well. That’s part of the fun of the show to me, is how are we going to surprise ourselves? How are we going to arrive at those big moments?
I don’t think any of the characters are either all bad or all good. I’m much more interested in the gray and, you know, are they redeemable? And how bad is Red? Is he redeemable? What is he afraid of? I think the more complex the answer is, the more fun it is to write.
Who knows all of this?
A good chunk of the writers and John Eisendrath and John Fox, and Spader knows a good amount.… I sort of have different conversations with different people. I’ve had a lot of conversations with Ryan [Eggold], who plays Tom, about who he may be or where he may be going. But I don’t necessarily have that same conversation with Megan [Boone, who plays Elizabeth].
Do the studio and network know?
I don’t know exactly how much they know. And some things we’ve told them may have changed….To be completely frank, we know big pieces of it, but I have no idea how we’re going to get there and we’re going to have to do it very quickly. Sometimes the studio may say, ‘We noticed a reference to something. What is that? What does this mean?’ And sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t. It’s just a very frenetic dance.
Does your wife know whether Red is Lizzy’s dad?
She does, yes.…She knows that, and a lot of things about the show.
You moved back to Nebraska in 2007, where you’re from. How do you live in Nebraska and have a TV show?
Lots of airplane travel. I’m getting on a plane tonight. My bag has two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, two shirts, my laptop, my wallet, a deodorant stick and my sunglasses. So I sort of—I travel back home a lot. Truthfully, it’s been incredibly hard.
If you were to say, why does the show work? One of the things that has been very different for me is that for the first time in my career, I didn’t feel like I was banking everything on it. I didn’t feel like I had to make it work. I was just happy to have a paycheck, frankly, and be paid to write something…there’s sort of a pressure to make it work that I didn’t feel. And I know that sounds probably odd, but even now, in failure I get to go home. I certainly want all my partners in it, I want it to work for everyone, I want it to be a big hit and for everyone to go off and have great success with it. But at the same time, if it doesn’t work, I get to go back to Nebraska and be with my wife and kids. That’s sort of taken away an element of fear that I’ve maybe had before—when you want something to work sometimes you force it too much.…It has put things in perspective in an incredible way.
You do know that TV shows usually don’t work, though, right? It’s huge that your first is this hit.
I can’t quite wrap my head around it….I’m used to spending six years to see something go from the page through this whole process and then maybe the screen and maybe someone sees it, to be writing stuff that is on the air and people are talking about within sometimes five days, if we’re doing reshoots or something like that. It’s an incredibly fast process. It’s cool. It’s great.
Red’s monologues, can we talk about those?
It’s funny that you say monologues like he has—I guess he has had a couple of them.
Riffs, or speeches. And Spader pulls them off. What’s behind them? Is that a writing style of yours? Is that something that you thought as far as that character that’s kind of how he exists in the world?
I think that’s something that [James Spader is] great at doing. That’s why we lean into that. I didn’t watch Boston Legal but I know that that was a staple of that show, was it not? That he would have these big sort of speeches at the end of an episode.…Those are partly because there’s a larger mythology behind the show and it’s something that we can sort of give little pieces of the mythology through those kinds of speeches. They’re partly super fun to write. And he’s great at them.
Did you plan that from the beginning?
I guess I didn’t plan it from the beginning, but the pilot had that in it. I remember writing that in the car—the pilot was due. Thanksgiving, I believe, was the cut-off date. I remember my wife driving and I had my laptop and I was trying to get this written by Wednesday night before Thanksgiving so I could send it in because that’s when it was expected to be in.
So you’re in the car, she’s driving and you’re finishing the script? In Nebraska?
Yeah, we were driving from Nebraska to Denver. And I remember writing that, and she was kind of helping and taking out the earplugs, my kids were watching something in the back of the car. And it was the speech about—’let’s call it The Blacklist. I’m going to tell you about the criminals that you don’t know about.’ That sort of expanded into a, ‘I’m going to take charge. I’m going to establish myself as the person in control of this room and of the show. And tell you how it’s going to be.’ And I think that is part of the character. He did it in that episode and he has done it a couple times since. And I love that, I don’t want it to be repetitive but I think it does show up in that first script....We are also writing toward wanting to get a good actor and the best way is an opportunity to do that.
Including Spader, can you talk about the chemistry and sort of the group that is The Blacklist, how that’s evolved over this first season?
It’s another one of the things that’s very different [from working in features]. It’s super collaborative. The movies that I’ve worked on before are all very singular and sort of a voice and then there’s a director and then there’s an actor that comes on. They’re sort of fragmented in that way. And this is, you know, we’ll often pick up the phone and call James and say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking of doing. What do you think?’ Between Eisendrath and I, I sort of feel like I’m cheating because he’s not here. He and John Fox and myself—the three Johns—if one of us is adamant about something, it just doesn’t happen. Or it does happen. If I feel really strongly about a story point or a writer or the direction of something, I get to say it, and the same thing with them.
Eisendrath is the showrunner, right? Or are you guys, all three of you?
We’re both doing both now. John and I are basically corunning the show and we’re cowriting. Any of the writing I’m doing, I’m now doing with him. I’ve become very codependent. We just get it. Last night we were doing a screen share thing and he’ll say, ‘Oh, what about—’ and his is a little bit delayed and I’ll type something and it was what he was going to say. And I haven’t had that. Not exactly the word but the idea.
Because as a feature writer, you’ve written solo.
And Eisendrath wasn’t someone you knew before.
That’s right, because I’m humorless and he’s super funny and I’m like very plot-driven and he’s very good character-wise. I think that’s a really nice balance. It sort of plays into Spader’s ability to really walk that fine line, whether he’s vamping, doing some big ridiculous speech, or he’s doing a really emotional sort of intimate moment. I feel like the voice of the show is pretty specific. John really gets that.
You also have a team of writers.
We do, and by the way, they’re incredible. They do great work. We do have a good team of writers.
It just seemed more interesting to me than features at the time and maybe still. I mean, all the stories that I love are on TV. I feel like a lot of movies sort of have to be a video game and a lunch box and a T-shirt and ten certain quadrants and demographics, and I’m sure television has the same sort of issues, but it just feels very incredibly—and much more so recently—incredibly market driven, and that can become really frustrating in trying to tell something that’s remotely character driven. I don’t know—I was a huge fan of like—I love Breaking Bad. I love Shameless, which I haven’t seen in a while. My wife and I would sit up watching these great—either really trashy reality shows or super great dramas. And I’m like, that would be so fun to do. Just a different kind of storytelling, open ended as far as where the stories are going and not always moving toward one plot twist or one concept.
I think with this show, we get to dip into different worlds. With a movie, you sort of pick that world and if it’s a medical drama, it’s that medical drama thriller. If it’s serial killers, it’s serial killers for eight months. This has a lot of variety to it. It just seemed different, exciting.
This week was a big week with the reveal that Tom isn’t who he appears to be. Did you hear the entire world yelling at the TV like I did, ‘I KNEW it!’
It’s been hard not to talk about it when there’s a lot of—‘Is Tom good or bad? Is he Tom Bond?’ People are saying, ‘I hate this guy! He’s so slimy! I don’t trust him!’….That’s where it’s really exciting to look at something like Twitter, to watch as those tweets are coming and people’s instant reactions.
I saw that you’re on Twitter.
I try, yeah.
So what’s that like, seeing the reaction? Are you engaging with viewers much?
I try to. It’s difficult just time-wise, but I try to. I definitely feel like—I want to believe the good stuff, but I don’t want to believe the bad stuff. I know I probably should not listen to any of it....I love reading the theories and the things that are frustrating to people and the things that they like. You sit in the room and as we say, ‘Well let’s go down this road.’ And then you go, ‘Oh my god, I read 15 people last night that hated that. Maybe we should think of something else, or take it in another direction.’ It’s fun to read that stuff, but I sort of don’t—as far as any of either the praise or the stuff that’s harsh, I try to not pay much attention. I try to keep a perspective.
This year, more than ever, we’re seeing—including in the case with Blacklist—that more people are watching a lot of shows on a delayed basis rather than live. And so I’m curious how close do you pay attention to stuff like that? Do you have any conversations with the network or the studio about that? For example, are they asking you for more promotable, big reveals in episodes like this week where you’ve got to watch that live or someone’s going to spoil it?
Not really. I don’t think the way in which people consume it has changed the stories we’re telling. Again, we’re just trying to get the scripts written and shot let alone worry about sort of how they might be consumed. I am a binge watcher. I don’t really watch live television unless it’s maybe a sporting event or something. The way I watch it is certainly delayed.
That’s just how we are. For years I had no TV, and I thought it was cool. I was like, ‘I don’t have TV! Somehow I’m fancier for not having TV!’ And then I realized I was missing all the great stuff.
So you didn’t have a TV for a while.
Oh my God, like, from college. For, like, ten years I thought that was—I don’t know why I thought that was cool.
So how did you watch Breaking Bad and all the shows you like?
Through Amazon, Netflix. We’ll see something—like Modern Family, we’ll watch an episode or two and decide, OK, this is totally us. And we’ll just buy the season and then when we have time between kids going to bed and a night where we have some time, we’ll grab an episode or two. So even when I was watching Breaking Bad, I was like, ‘Please don’t say anything, because it doesn’t upload to my account until the next day.’ So that personally, that’s the way I watch.
…. But it doesn’t really affect the way we write our stories. We’re just trying desperately to keep track of everything and make sure it’s consistent and make sure that on a week-to-week basis, we’re paying stuff off and setting new stuff up.
What made you want to go back to Nebraska?
It’s funny, I love it there. Family. My wife is there, her parents are there, all of her grandparents are there, my parents are there. It’s just a lifestyle thing. I mean, I genuinely love L.A. and miss it when I was there, in ways. I would come back out and have meetings and feel, Oh my God, I’m so out of the loop. But there’s just a sort of small town—I live in a community of 30,000 people, that’s with the college. It’s a little college town.
I’ll give you an example. There’s a—the theater where I grew up, sort of falling in love with movies, is there. It’s on Main Street. It’s brick. It’s not Norman Rockwell, but I try to make it sound like that. And there was a little theater there that closed when they opened the multiplex and so I got together with a bunch of people I kind of knew from years of living there before and we put together this nonprofit and we reopened the theater and we did a big restoration. And now that’s become a passion project. The theater is up and running. Every week or month, I program what’s going to be showing....That’s the kind of thing—getting the theater up on its feet, getting it—it’s all volunteer-run, movies are like five bucks. I sound like I’m giving you a sales pitch. It’s a super passion of mine. It’s like, the popcorn and soda are one, two and three dollars. It’s just a super comfortable, warm environment. That’s the kind of thing that I would know—I wouldn’t have any idea how to launch that here in L.A. There’s just so much going on that I wouldn’t know where to start. There it seemed much more manageable and people really got on board. We went out and raised a bunch of money. And that kind of thing is why I wanted to move back.
What’s the wildest thing anybody’s ever offered to tell you about the story line? Do people, like, beg you to just, ‘tell me?’
There’s some of that. What’s stranger are some of the theories that I find online. I read something that either Liz is an alien or a robot. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we might have something there. We’re going to have to lean into that. It might throw things out of whack, but we’re going to figure out how to reverse engineer that.’