Yep, the NBC-TV show THE BLACKLIST all started in the brain of Kearney, Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp. It is well into its fifth season, and continues to bring in 5 to 6 million viewers each week for its thrills, chills and secrets.
It stars James Spader as Raymond “Red” Reddington, a high-profile criminal who voluntarily surrenders to the FBI after eluding capture for decades. He tells the FBI that he has a list of the most dangerous criminals in the world that he has compiled over the years and is willing to inform on them in exchange for immunity. However, he mysteriously insists on working exclusively with a rookie FBI agent Elizabeth Keen, played by Megan Boone.
After growing up in Kearney, and a degree from USC, Jon first directed and starred in a documentary about drive-in theaters, AFTER SUNSET. His feature directing break came with BAD SEED (aka PRESTON TYLK), starring Luke Wilson, then writing gigs for features TAKING LIVES with Angelina Jolie, and two starring Halle Berry, PERFECT STRANGER and THE CALL.
Jon is the ultimate Nebraska Coaster, as his wife and kids live back in Kearney and he splits his time between Nebraska and Hollywood. In 2012, he realized a longtime dream when he reopened the shuttered World Theatre in Kearney as an art house and very successful alternative screening venue for Central Nebraska.
What does it take to create and then run a major network show? What is the typical day of a showrunner? What are the pressures of keeping a show fresh in its fifth season? How does one commute to Hollywood from Nebraska? These are just a few of the questions you’ll be able to ask Jon at the November 12th Salon. It’s taken us five years to get this busy writer/producer back to a Salon — don’t miss it!
How a deep connection to home continues to provide
Written by Roslin T. Real
Our featured guest at Monday night’s Hollywood Salon embodies the common advice from acting coaches: “hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
Before becoming the Blacklist showrunner, Jon Bokenkamp had quit the Hollywood hustle and moved himself and his family back to his hometown of Kearney, Nebraska. While sipping water in the Crystal Room at the historic Culver Hotel, he shared with guests that there was a point where I just “stopped chasing.” He was going to write what he was going to write and the rest would come into place.
Bokenkamp had originally moved to the City of Angels to write for film, “fascinated by the fakery of it all.” As a USC student he created a documentary about now nearly non-existent drive-in movie theatres. After meeting NCC founder Todd Nelson at the premiere, the two became friends and witnessed each other’s successes in the industry. Jon asked Todd to read a script he’d been working on, and after reading, Todd suggested the script be entered into a magazine competition which won Jon an agent and his first writing gig.
After holding onto some self-described minor successes with feature films, work slowed. He decided to let go, move back to Nebraska, and founded The World, a volunteer-run, nonprofit movie theatre in Kearney. He continued to keep up his writing, developing scripts and spec scripts that were more deeply personal and exciting than previous more formulaic work. He wrote a Breaking Bad-inspired spec, and though not picked up, he and the producers developed an idea that would become a hit. That’s when everything started to click: Blacklist was being shopped and producers wanted his script.
The studios could not convince him to move back – just yet. Instead he remotes into meetings from a “very large screen” in his home, then travels to Los Angeles every third week in-season. “It’s more healthy for me.”
Blacklist has developed from his initial script with the precise blending of the creative teams. He stressed there is value for him in maintaining a disconnectedness from his original ideas, as this can stifle the project’s overall growth. His characters began as one thing and have naturally grown into another, and he welcomes this shift. Being less “precious” with your idea offers great freedom in the creative process.
His major advice: to “just keep swinging.” Keep throwing the ideas out there to be considered, because it’s about the “persistence of it.” The success he has experienced has been fostered by openness and a growth mindset which has led him to a place he could not have dreamed up from the start.