Like every other production, The Blacklist had to shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The NBC crime drama was halfway through production on the 19th episode of Season 7 when the order came, but rather than scrap the episode and end the season on an incomplete note, the producers came up with a (graphic) novel solution: Half of "The Kazanjian Brothers," which airs May 15, is animated in a style the producers compare to a comic book. The episode will bring the season to as natural a conclusion as possible, according to creator Jon Bokenkamp and executive producer John Eisendrath. The Blacklist bosses told TV Guide about how the unexpected and unprecedented season finale came together, from idea to execution.
Eisendrath said he and Bokenkamp realized quickly that their best option in lieu of their planned finale in Episode 22 was figuring out a way to finish Episode 19. They considered a few possibilities, including a radio play-on-TV format, before deciding on animation. "In those conversations, we reminded ourselves that the show in many ways, even the live action version, is like a graphic novel," Eisendrath said, with larger-than-life villains and an antihero at the center. "And it just made us think, well, wouldn't it be great if we could find a way to actually animate the portions that hadn't been filmed?" They reached out to studios Sony and NBC, who supported the idea and hooked them up with an animation company called Proof. And so with no idea of what went into making an animated show, they dove into making 20 minutes of animated Blacklist with only five weeks to do it. And they're happy with how it turned out.
"I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say it exceeded our expectations in terms of the finished product," Eisendrath said.
Initially, the plan was to keep it simple, with static panels and voiceover, but the animators at Proof were able to animate the mouths moving, no easy feat to nail in such a short time, so it ended up being more lifelike than the producers initially envisioned. The actors were sent microphones and recorded their lines into an iPhone app. "You can sort of picture the cast in all of their closets and pantries with their microphones doing their performance alone," Bokenkamp said. The audio files were then sent to the editors, who were working at home, and the live-action and animated parts were cut together.
Bokenkamp said that Episode 19 didn't have to be drastically rewritten to get it ready to end the season and be animated. "We realized that there was an opportunity to to make some adjustments within the animated sequences and to shift or maybe accelerate some story points," he said. "But really the episode isn't that different than what we intended to go shoot with live action."
The changes mostly involve using the freedom afforded by animation to make moments bigger than they would have been in live action. A conversation between Red (James Spader) and Liz (Megan Boone) that was originally scripted in Red's apartment now takes place on the National Mall with the Capitol in the background, and a shootout in a motel has more participants. "We were able to go nuts with it and really lean into that graphic novel sort of aspect," Bokenkamp said. "That was one of the things that was really exciting as we were finding the episode. It wasn't necessarily what are the story points that are gonna change, but how do we make this really look and feel like the show while embracing this graphic novel alternate reality."
In keeping with the story not changing that much, the stuff that was planned for the rest of Season 7 will mostly roll over into Season 8, whenever that happens. "We were really excited about the season finale and the story points and the turns within the mythology that were coming up, and I can't imagine we would just jettison those," Bokenkamp said. Some of the plans may retooled in some way, but the writers are now ahead of the game when they reconvene to start working on Season 8 in a few weeks. "We are able to go into the writers' room this season with some really exciting, big turns that would have been a great cliffhanger, but I think are going to be a really fantastic springboard for what happens next season," Bokenkamp said.
The episode will also be the final episode with Brian Dennehy, who had recurred on The Blacklist since Season 3 until his death last month. "We loved having him on the show, and we were all very sad about [his passing]," Eisendrath said. They haven't started thinking about how his passing will affect stories they might tell around his character, Dominic Wilkinson, who is the father of this season's antagonist, Katarina Rostova (Laila Robins), and Liz Keen's grandfather.
They confirmed that the episode will end with a tribute card for the late acting legend. "It's the least we could do to remember him and and acknowledge his participation and his role on the show," Eisendrath said.
The Blacklist's Season 7 finale airs Friday, May 15 at 8/7c on NBC.