Jon Bokenkamp

7-Jon-BokenkampThe Blacklist was a breakout hit when it premiered on NBC in 2013 and has remained one of the highest-rated shows on the network. Creator and executive producer Jon Bokenkamp has crafted a unique hybrid of a procedural and a serialized show that focuses on Raymond “Red” Reddington, played by James Spader, a criminal mastermind and a former government agent who collaborates with the FBI to help them catch the most nefarious outlaws, but insists on working only with agent Elizabeth Keen, played by Megan Boone. The series blends fast-paced action with insightful analysis of flawed characters, constantly leading viewers to ask what is right and what is wrong.

TV DRAMA: What is your process for breaking stories?
BOKENKAMP: It’s an evolving process, because we’re still figuring out how to write the show. I know you’re not supposed to have an “end” in television—it’s never supposed to end—but we are working toward an endgame and an ultimate truth in the show, and that is our guidepost as far as how much we dole out each season. For example, in season three, we knew that we were starting with Elizabeth Keen on the run, we knew that we were going to have to exonerate her and then [provide] another turn toward the end of the season.

Typically we land on the three or four signposts of what we’re going to do, so we know where we’re starting, we know what our fall cliff-hanger will be, we know there will be a big turn in the back half of the season, and we know what the end of the season will be. Then we map out as much of the season as we can and fill in the blanks. It’s a little bit like looking at the map and figuring out how you’re going to get from New York to Los Angeles using only highways, and picking five or six towns that you’re going to stop in on the way—and then throwing away the map and finding your way to those signposts along the way. It’s an evolving process, but we do work backward from knowing where we’re going to end in a season, and then ultimately with the series, to gauge where our storytelling should be.

TV DRAMA: When Megan Boone told you she was pregnant, you had a choice between writing the pregnancy into the show or shooting around it. How was the decision made to keep the pregnancy in the show?
BOKENKAMP: Well, babies in shows are supposed to be kind of show-killers, and there was legitimate concern from the studio and the network. [So we had to decide] if we wanted to embrace that, or have her carry around plotted plants and stand behind furniture! It didn’t take long for John [Eisendrath, executive producer] and me to decide that we had to embrace it. It’s a show about a woman who is trying to understand who she is, and she wanted nothing more than to have a baby in the pilot of the series, and now she has a baby! How do we [back] away from that? It was great to land on the fact even though it scared us a little bit. It was the right thing to do to just embrace the pregnancy.

TV DRAMA: What has James Spader brought to the character of Red?
BOKENKAMP: James says that he saw this in the original script when he first read it. I’ve always felt like he’s brought more humor to the role than I imagined. If it were just me working in a vacuum, it would probably be a pretty boring show with far too much seriousness. He has a very strange, weird sense of humor that makes me laugh almost daily, and we’ve learned to write to that. We’ve learned to write to all the actors in a different way. James puts a lot of thought into, What would really happen? Who would Red be?

At the beginning of season three, he and Elizabeth Keen had escaped—they were in this secret apartment, and we didn’t know where they were, and we find out that they’re in a shipping container, and that was a thought that James had. He said, “You know, I feel like Red would probably have a shipping container somewhere that is decked out and has electricity and food and wine, and if he ever just needs to disappear, he could just go live in a shipping container for two months.” It’s absurd, but it’s awesome! That episode is one of my favorites of last season because it’s super emotional and quirky, and it’s fun and different. You don’t get to see people living in shipping containers on most cop shows! James gets inside that character and has a perspective about him, but is incredibly fair and generous and a real collaborator.

I have no experience on television outside of The Blacklist, but I can only imagine there are a number of shows where the leads only care how they look or how they come off or how they sound. The only thing that matters to James is, ultimately, the script, and making sure that the story is right. He doesn’t care if he looks ridiculous or if we’re poking fun at Red—he’s up for that, and I think that is a real testament to how important he is to the show. He’s willing to go anywhere for it.

TV DRAMA: Red is unquestionably a criminal, but there are so many times that we see a side of him that is totally human. How do you strike that balance, not only with Red but with a lot of the other characters, that nobody is entirely good nor entirely bad?
BOKENKAMP: Well, that is part of the show, and it’s part of my worldview. The world is a very gray place and the characters are flawed in very real ways and are struggling with real problems like all of us are. Some of the strongest moments in the show have been where you see that Reddington, who is an incredibly violent and dangerous man, has real wounds and he’s scared. One of the most interesting questions, for me, is, What scares Raymond Reddington? What is he afraid of? Those moments now and then, where we see—and James plays it so well—the heartbreak that his character has endured and is enduring, those are some of my favorite stories. So, yes, it is a real balancing act. But again, that’s one of the things he brings to the show—humor. In the first season, he poured vodka all over a guy and was going to light him on fire using his cigar, and said, “Ah! The suspense is killing me!” and shot him instead! But it’s so easy to like this very dangerous and horrible man who has humanity and his own moral code. That’s what’s interesting, and that’s where we go to when we’re on that very fine line. What is Red’s moral code? He has a very specific set of beliefs that is sometimes very difficult to wrestle down, but that is usually our guidepost.

TV DRAMA: Are the Blacklisters based on any real-life people, or are they amalgams of different kinds of people?
BOKENKAMP: The Blacklisters come from all over the place. There was a real “Stewmaker” who got rid of bodies for a drug cartel—just the idea of that was an inspiration. There have been other pieces that are grafted together; things that we read in the newspaper or find online. We’re not a “ripped from the headlines” show, but the things that are happening in the world [do influence us]. I often feel like the stuff that’s happening in the real world is far stranger than anything that we could come up with in the writers’ room. So we pick stuff and then try to weird it up a little bit and heighten it, but truthfully we have a room of incredibly talented writers who are always kicking around ideas, and trying to land on unique and special Blacklisters.

TV DRAMA: Do you believe that a Cabal-like organization does exist in real life?
BOKENKAMP: I guess the short answer is yes. I’m far too cynical to believe that the American political system, or any political system, for that matter, is what it appears. I drive through Hollywood and I see old buildings being torn down and giant buildings being put up, and you see how capitalism drives far more than just politics—I think it is a very murky world. There’s a lot of back-scratching that goes on that bothers me, so, yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth to it. I wish there weren’t.

TV DRAMA: How did The Blacklist: Redemption come about? Did NBC ask for another show, or do you have more story to tell?
BOKENKAMP: It’s definitely about having more story to tell. We talked for a while about what a spin-off of the show would be. I didn’t want it to be a duplicate of The Blacklist. If we did something it would need to stand on its own, be its own world, populated with its own people who are distinct and different from The Blacklist. It’s a little bit of an older template of a spinoff, [like] The Jeffersons or Maude, where one of the characters leaves that world and takes us into another one, rather than doing The Blacklist: Chicago. We’re smart enough to know that James Spader does his very specific thing—we’re not trying to duplicate that. I think Famke [Janssen, who plays Susan “Scottie” Hargrave] is incredibly talented and unique in her own way, and Ryan [Eggold, who plays Tom Keen], same thing; we’ve got a great cast. It will feel and smell like The Blacklist, and I think the things that audiences like about The Blacklist—the pace and the tone—may be similar. But I also think it’s going be a little sexier and a little more fun, and a little more of a spy show versus The Blacklist, which is really a crime drama.

TV DRAMA: So you envision viewers who might step into the show who haven’t seen The Blacklist and still will be able to enjoy it?
BOKENKAMP: Oh, 100 percent. I think that’s critical to it being of any interest. I hope the Blacklist audience will be interested, because they know some of these characters, but to me it is completely its own show.