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November 26, 2008

Q&A: 'The Mentalist' creator Bruno Heller

81986541_2 In a trick worthy of any master of manipulation, Bruno Heller has gone two-for-two in Hollywood.

First the British television writer created HBO’s "Rome" -- an epic and gripping series that was prematurely canceled after the show’s high-cost production forced the network to decide its fate before its impressive second season had debuted. 

For his second trick, Heller created CBS’ "The Mentalist," starring Simon Baker as a former psychic fraud who helps the police solve crimes. Nearly every creative aspect is different from "Rome," yet Heller once again captured critics and an audience -- only a much larger audience this time. “The Mentalist” is one of only two new series that have firmly broken out during this challenged fall season (the other is Fox’s “Fringe,” which likewise took the procedural investigative format and added a few new twists).

Below Heller reveals when the “Red John” serial killer story will be resolved, what's the deal with Patrick Jane's vests and how “the notion of the show is not to be a bummer.”

THR: How did the idea for “The Mentalist” come about?

Bruno Heller: It was really a combination of two things: The desire to do a Sherlock Holmes type of character. And noticing that every street in America has a psychic or palm reader -- so there’s a whole world of people in the position of selling a line of bullshit and at the same time helping people. So a detective who uses those type of aggressive manipulation skills seemed like a natural.

THR: Did you watch police procedurals before creating the show?

Heller: It gives me vertigo to watch TV dramas. Previously I did "Rome" and I couldn’t watch any Roman things. So my process was to get things back to basics and try to do the show as if no one had done it before. So I very deliberately avoided seeing what was out there.

THR: When you first wrote the script, who did you picture for the role? Simon Baker is great, but he’s unusual enough so that I wouldn’t think a writer would imagine him per se.

Heller: Yes, as it turned out, he brings whole other stuff to the role that I hadn’t imagined. It needed somebody with grace -- physical and spiritual grace. I imagined a Cary Grant type of role. Somebody who moves and looks graceful, because those guys -- mentalists and psychics -- they have to be people you’d want to get close to because that’s what they are trying to do with you. Simon has those things in spades.

THR: There are many people who believe in performers like John Edward, who have never heard of “cold reading.” What’s been the reaction among those viewers of the show?

Heller: I studiously avoid seeing the reaction.

THR: You don’t read message boards and that sort of thing?

Heller: No. I don’t believe in that [psychic] stuff, but my wife, whom I love dearly and I respect deeply, does believe in it. You can’t prove a negative. The show isn’t saying there’s no such thing as psychics, just that [Patrick Jane] wasn’t a real one and he’s never seen a real one. So in that sense we’re having our cake and eating it too.

THR: There’s a couple things I liked in the pilot that I haven’t seen since, or least not much of: The flashbacks to him being a sleazy charlatan. And the ending of the pilot -- which I could easily imagine a network not liking -- of Jane going to sleep on a mattress in the vacant home where his murdered family used to live. It raised the idea that this guy is much weirder and darker than we suspected.

Heller: I like both of those too. Seeing him in his original guise is lovely. But we can only go back there so often. We will go there, but sparingly. With the whole weird sensibility of his, it’s a question of threading that through a character who is on the surface a happy person and kind of graceful and light. The idea is to show that grace and lightness is an act of heroism; it's not simple-minded happiness. It’s a conscious decision he is making to live his life positively. So where we draw the line at underlining that dark side is tricky. There are episodes coming up where that dark side of him will be featured much more strongly. But the notion of the show is not to be a bummer.   

THR: We’ve seen about eight episodes so far. Are you happy with the show or are you looking to do “more of this, less of that,” in the future?

Heller: I’m not happy. I think we’re halfway there to what the show can be. It’s not changing the proportions of anything. It’s a massive machine. The end result is never quite what you want; you’re compromising and working things out as you go along. So the tuning never stops. The reason the show has been successful is what Simon brings to it. He’s a genuine pleasure to watch. It’s not that he’s doing technical things. He just has that spark and we try to infuse the show with that sensibility.

THR:  When you show Jane winning so much money at blackjack and hypnotizing people to do what he wants, don’t you risk turning him into too much of a superman?

Heller: There’s always a danger of that. The appeal of these kind of characters is in their superiority, and in their flawed superiority. If he is a superhero, he’s one with many flaws. We won’t go too far over that line. The fascinating thing about [mentalists], when you talk to the really good ones, they do have amazing skills.

THR: Looking at what’s working and what’s not working in primetime, what’s your take? Is there something that viewers are looking for that networks haven’t clued in on?

Heller: I only know we’re doing well because people tell me so. I don’t read the numbers. When I’ve had hard times in my life, the one thing about being in TV is that it’s positive. I withdrew to “Cheers,” it was familiar in that it was family. It had a kind of realistic positiveness to it.

THR: The Red John serial killer mythology. Each episode's title has the word "red" in it. I’m assuming that’s to suggest that no matter what case Jane is working on, Red John is always on his mind?

Heller: That’s right.

THR: When do you plan to resolve that story line?

Heller: It’s something that will run throughout the series -- it’s a series ender, not a season ender. There’s lot of wrinkles and twists down that path before we get to it. It’s the epic underpinning of the series that gives it weight. It’s the plot version of the darkness inside the lead character and it’s important it remain a part of the show.

THR: So by saying that, you know what that ending is?

Heller: I got the bones of it, yeah. I know where I’m taking it.

THR: Somebody (and I’m pretty sure it was “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof talking about working on “Nash Bridges”) once said he was told to never name a show after a character, because then they’ll have total control. Any concern about Simon Baker eventually going money or power mad?

Heller: Never name a show after a character if you want to be the guy running the show. But somebody has to be in charge and it might as well be the guy who’s doing most of the work. It can bite you in the ass, but Simon is a genuine pleasure. And people want there to be a key guy at the center. If you look at long-term successful shows, like “NCIS” or “House,” there is a key guy at the center that if you take that person out of the show, then, what is it?

THR: Hopefully CBS won’t have too much problem with that on “CSI.” Speaking of, now that the show is taking off, any plans to change any of the supporting cast?

Heller: One of the things about turning an ensemble into a family is not getting into that in my head. Then it’s like, “Ohh, wouldn’t it be great to get this person?” But if you have a family, you wouldn’t say, “Let’s lose the daughter and bring in Jamie Lynn Spears.” That stuff will happen, but organically.

THR: OK, this question is pretty fan-like, but a friend wanted me to ask this, so I am: Jane’s vests. Was that actually in the script or...

Heller: There was a lot of discussion about wardrobe that was above my pay grade. But both Simon and I knew that Jane should have a specific look. The thinking is these were the suits he used to wear as a mentalist and he would have them dry cleaned and pressed. Now he gets them out of the bottom of the cupboard. It’s also a magician thing. They wear vests because they need to be able to hide things.

THR: That’s a much better answer to that question than I expected.

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