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May 12, 2017

Making the List

Jon Bokenkamp takes a hands-on approach to making NBC's The Blacklist.

Melissa Byers
  • Jon Bokenkamp

  • The Blacklist

    NBC
  • The Blacklist

    NBC
  • The Blacklist: Redemption

    NBC
  • The Blacklist: Redemption

    NBC

Jon Bokenkamp enjoys complexities.

As the creator, writer, and showrunner of both NBC’s The Blacklist and the recent eight-episode spinoff The Blacklist: Redemption, he has dealt with more than his share of multi-layered, complex characters.

The Blacklist centers on the character of Raymond “Red” Reddington, played by James Spader, a master criminal on the FBI’s most-wanted list who turns himself in with the caveat that he work with the FBI to catch other criminals on what he terms the “Blacklist. He has a mysterious connection to FBI agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), which has been explored over several arcs in the series’s four seasons.

Keen’s husband, Tom, played by Ryan Eggold, has mysteries of his own, some of which were explored in The Blacklist: Redemption. Also in Redemption were two former “Blacklisters,” Susan “Scottie” Hargrave (Famke Jannsen), who may or may not be Tom Keen’s mother, and Matias Solomon (Edi Gathegi), who has a history with Tom, including that he shot up Tom and Liz’s wedding.

Keeping track of all those storylines keeps Bokenkamp very busy, but he doesn’t mind.  He says, “I’ve also been not busy in the past, so it’s good to be busy.”

At the time of this interview, no decision had been made about the fate of Blacklist: Redemption, which has since been cancelled. Still, he enjoyed the experience of making the spinoff.

“I think it’s fun. It’s different from The Blacklist in a way that I think is fun and a little more sexy and heist-y and caper-like, and that’s a ton of fun to do. We’ve got a great cast, and the serialization of that show is a little less than what we do on The Blacklist.

"It’s kind of fun to go into that case of the week thing as well, and to tell a fun, sort of stand alone caper, and yet toward the end of the season, we arced toward something a bit more serialized, and we definitely have some fun things in mind there.”

The spinoff characters came directly from The Blacklist. “We had a great character in Tom, who had really compelling questions about his past and himself, and who also had been established as someone who goes undercover in all kinds of worlds,” Bokenkamp says.

“So, once we landed on the idea of the man who can go into any world undercover has to go undercover in his own family, that felt like we could get a lot of mileage out of that.”

Another fun character was Edi Gathegi’s Mr. Solomon. Bokenkamp says, “It’s crazy. He’s somebody who came on in the third season of The Blacklist. We weren’t quite sure what the character would be. We had ideas, and as we started to see him perform it, it’s hard not to write toward an actor who is really hitting on all cylinders.

"We talk about it, Edi and I talk about it. He just has so much fun being bad. It’s a weird thing he’s able to pull off. He’s good-looking, he’s dangerous, he’s bad, he’s funny and likable. It’s a very odd sort of alchemy of characteristics that he’s able to somehow embody. And he’s just a blast to write for.

So, we jumped through a couple of hoops to bring him back and get him onto The Blacklist. He was taken out to be murdered by the end of the third season of Blacklist. But it also felt like, because of his past with Tom - he had tried to shoot up his wedding, tried to kill Tom - but there was such a good buddy cop thing there that we could write to and have a lot of fun with between Tom and Edi’s character, Mr. Solomon.

"And that is not something that we really had on The Blacklist. Something, again, a little bit lighter, a little more fun, and that’s one of the things that were unique and different about [Redemption] from The Blacklist, and it’s fun to do. And they’re great at it, Ryan and Edi are just fantastic at that. “

However, since The Blacklist: Redemption did not score a pick-up, Bokenkamp and his writers do have a back-up plan to incorporate the story back into The Blacklist.

He says, “Should we not come back, is there a version where we could resolve that story in The Blacklist world? I’m sure we could. I’m confident that Raymond Reddington would have something to say. about what Tom has gone and done and the situation he finds himself in. I’m confident he has a perspective on that.”

And, it is Reddington’s perspective that really powers The Blacklist, along with Elizabeth Keene. Bokenkamp and team have some big plans for season five.

“I’ll tell you, what we have up our sleeve is a really strong engine for our fifth season. He’s a character where we’ve had the most fun on the show, and I think the show works its best when we find ourselves written into a really impossible corner. At the end of the second season, Elizabeth Keen had murdered the Attorney General. All of a sudden, then, she’s on the run in the third season. That was a great engine for us.

"And I think we have a similar sort of push forward coming out of the fourth season and into the fifth. Where does he go? I’d go wherever he wants to go. I’d go to sleep in a cave with him in some far-flung desert or to have some amazing meal somewhere.  The character is so fun to write, and James plays him with such a sort of lust for life that it is not difficult for us to find complex, weird dangerous situations to put him in.

"It’s a joy to write that character, and here’s why: James had said something before we even started shooting the pilot. We were just talking about the character, and something that we all agreed on was that once you think you understand this character, you realize you know nothing about him.

"All the things you thought you knew were sort of put into question. And he is a little bit of an enigma. And I think that’s what makes him so fun to write. So, where he goes? We’ll have to see. He’s a very tricky guy. He’s a very tricky, complex character that is just full of secrets, and each one you start to pick up, as writers.”

Even as he also wears the hat of showrunner and executive producer, Bokenkamp finds the time to work on each episode’s script.

“We have an incredible staff. And they all have something unique and different - maybe this is the way it works on every show. I don’t know, I haven’t worked on another show - our writers all feel like they have a little bit of a different toolbox to bring to the party, whether it’s Swiss watch-like plotting or great dialogue, or sort of a heightened sense of almost comic-book quality, other people are great at Blacklisters.

"Myself, I think, myself and also [executive producer] John Eisendrath, we take a pass on most, if not all of the scripts, and we’re heavily involved. I think that’s the job. I wouldn’t quite know how to do it without doing that. I get too excited about it, and I’m too invested not want to have something to say about all the scripts. But that’s not to take away anything from the great work that our writers do. It’s a great group.“

Not only the writing, but every aspect of the production comes under Bokenkamp’s purview.

“There’s so much to do that it does become consuming, but at the same time, that’s what i really like about it. I love the music and the edits, and I like the process. I’m a guy who comes from a feature background where I would write a movie, and then maybe six years later it would finally be made, and maybe I’d show up on set and maybe it would kind of represent what I had in mind.

"But now I can make it happen every couple of weeks. Where it used to be six years for something to be made, now it’s six weeks. And it’s mind-blowing, and I have been in the position where I haven’t worked, where it’s been quiet and the phone doesn’t ring. So, I relish the opportunity with every one of these episodes to really become part of it.

"I do think also, because our show is very specific, I don’t think it would be easy to step back, as some show runners do it, just step back and say we’ll take a pass at it, and are better at delegating. I think it would be easier to delegate if the show didn’t have such a specific mythology, a specific set of rules that we’re following.

"It’s very complex, so in that way, it’s also a very specific sort of tone. It’s a weird balance of procedural and Red’s voice, and his weird ethical perspective on the world. It’s a specific sort of sound. So, I, and Eisendrath as well, are perhaps a little more involved because of the backstory and tone that we’re trying to hit with each one of these episodes.“

That tone is enhanced by the production staff on the other side of the continent in New York. Bokenkamp marvels, “I’m always surprised. When we send a script off, one of my favorite things to do is watch the playback. I’m going to hear episode 19 today, and I’m going to see it color-timed and all polished and all the sound effects.

"I’m always surprised when we send a script out and we’ve done everything we can to make it as good as possible, and then it comes back from New York, which we’re not heavily involved in there, and I’m always impressed in how much they elevate the material.

"And I sound like I’m trying to talk pleasantly about the people I work with, but I really am impressed with their ability to make the show look and feel cinematic. They’ve got a big challenge.”

And the challenges won’t stop anytime soon. The Blacklist has been renewed for a fifth season, so Raymond Reddington’s story goes on.

As Bokenkamp notes, “Raymond Reddington is on and has been on just a crazy, weird, fun, dangerous sort of ride. He’s a guy where you just listen to the character. It sounds goofy when I say it, but we really do kind of listen to who that character is and hear James’s voice.”

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