Wednesday, February 6, 2008
"Criminal Minds" executive producer Edward Allen Bernero interview ~ Feb. 2007
"Criminal Minds" executive producer Edward Allen Bernero interviewed by the Futon Critic (Feb. 2007).
There aren't too many writers in Hollywood who can say they once wrestled a man for their service weapon. Ed Bernero is such a person. Since then, the former Chicago cop turned writer has thankfully only had to have his fictional characters wrestle for fictional guns on such shows as "Brooklyn South," "Third Watch" and now "Criminal Minds." I recently had the chance sit down with Ed at the show's production office where we talked about how he made the transition from cop to screenwriter as well as his love of the Bears, the show's Super Bowl episode ("I almost have to walk into the ocean and die the next day") and TV in general.
Brian Ford Sullivan: How do you not take [the show's material] home with you?
Ed Bernero: We do. First off all, I used to be a cop so I know that most of what we do on here is not as bad as what's really happening out there anyway. I mean we have to tone down most of our show. So they're all based on something real that happened and we sort of have to pull back from the reality, because the reality is usually far worse than we could actually do. But the writers, we have this stack of research when a new writer comes in and has to take home and read - homicide investigation manuals, sexual homicide investigation manuals, etc. Simon [Mirren], my number two, won't even have it at his house overnight. [Laughs.] He'll take them out and put them in his car and then bring them back into his house in the morning. It's just horrendous stuff, but it's happening, happening right now. There's a strangler in London, there's a serial killer in Atlantic City, they're all over the place.
BFS: So then how does one go from being a Chicago cop to running one of the most popular shows on TV?
EB: Very happily. [Laughs.] I was on midnights for the last seven years I was a cop and I started writing for something to do during the day. My wife is a nurse and my kids went to school during the day so I had nothing to do. So I started writing. I was going to write a book and that was horrible. [Laughs.] My problem was I kind of rambled. I would start and then like 12 pages later I was like, "what the hell, it's not even the same story!" And one of the cops I worked with was an actor in Chicago and I was telling him about this and he said, "you know, you should try and write scripts because you really can't do that - you have to hit certain things by certain pages and it kind of keeps you on track." And he brought me Syd Field's book "Screenplay." And I read it in the squad car and I thought "I think I can do this." And I told my wife I was going to write a movie and she's like, "does that cost anything?" [Laughs.] I said "no" and she said, "okay, have fun." And she went off to work and I wrote a Christmas movie and I wrote like four or five movies, never really expecting anything to come of it.
You know, being from Chicago, Hollywood is not something you think about. I really did it just as something to do. After a while my wife was like, "you should find out who to send these things to because they're pretty good, these are movies I'd watch." So we sent some stuff out to Hollywood and one day a guy from NBC called me and after ten minutes of - no you're not, yes I am - he asked me if I ever tried to write television and since [I was a cop] to try and write for one of the cop shows on the air. And the funny thing was is I didn't watch television because working midnights, primetime is like your sleep time. Like I never saw "ER" until I moved here. I knew that it was on - people at work talk about it - but I had never seen it. So I had my wife tape all the cop shows that were on one week and I wrote an episode of "Homicide" and sent it out. And the next week, I had a number of agents call me and this all happened very fast. And I came out here. And the first show that I worked on full time was "Brooklyn South," was on the staff for that. When that was canceled, I met with John Wells and did "Trinity" with him, which was like canceled in the first commercial break. [Laughs.]
BFS: That was the one with Tate Donovan, Justin Louis...
EB: ...right, right, an Irish family in New York. And one of the characters was a detective, which was the only reason I was there. Because I'm an Italian from Chicago, I don't know why they thought of me for "Trinity." [Laughs.] But when that show was canceled, John Wells asked if I wanted to create a show with him and I was like, "ummm, yeah!" And the two of us created "Third Watch," which was on for six years. And when "Third Watch" ended I made a deal Paramount and as part of the deal I was assignable and they sent me a bunch of scripts, and ["Criminal Minds"] was one of them. And I thought "this is pretty cool." So the rest is history. I've been here since the second episode. They did the pilot in Vancouver while "Third Watch" was still on. While the pilot to this was being done, I was directing the final episode ever of "Third Watch." So when the pilot was finished I came over and took over for the second episode on.
BFS: Is [creator] Jeff [Davis] still involved with the show?
EB: No, Jeff hasn't been here since the first month.
BFS: So what's it like to run a show you didn't create after being involved with "Third Watch" for so long?
EB: It was difficult. Any show when you make it, the first 13 episodes all you do is make the pilot over and over to cement in people's minds what it is. And you want to try and get the back nine, you know, the second half of the first season, and once you get the back nine you're sort of out of time to change it. And the second year is where you really can kind of play. What we're doing now is a lot more character-based, we're learning a lot more about sort of their back stories and stuff like that. So it's more fun this year. But it was difficult [originally] because losing the guy who created the show we sort of as a staff... what's different in this environment here is most shows have one person who knows the concept better than anybody and everybody else tries to catch up, to try and be as much help as possible to that person.
In this case, the person who created the show was gone so I, being the showrunner, am much more open to any of the writing staff's ideas because they've all been here from the beginning too. I don't know the show any better than they do. It's very collegiate. We all work together, it's very much a team effort. At the end of the day, I have the final, you know - we're going to do that or no we're not going to that - but I think it's much more collegiate than most shows. Everybody is kind of at the same level, everybody knows the show as much as everybody else. So it had it's disadvantages but at the end, I think it was a huge advantage to have that person pulled out of it.
BFS: You've mentioned [in other interviews] a lot of the show is based on Arthurian mythology, how did that come about?
EB: It started from that. You know how it works - everybody pitches ideas, that you should do this and you should do that - and for me to take all those in and be able to answer whether it works or not I had to have a box for the show. I had to figure out what the show was. Because you don't have time to explore [idea "X"] for three weeks and find out it doesn't work for the show, I need to be able to go "I don't think that's going to work" or "yeah, that'll probably work, this won't." And so I spent a lot of time in the beginning trying to figure out what the show was, what we were telling. And I'm a big fan of Arthurian legend and it occurred to me one day these guys are like the Knights of the Round Table. So when they pitched stories to me, I'd think, "hmmm, does that sound like an Arthurian legend when stripped down to its essence?" We'll even go so far as to figure out which knights each one of them are. So some stories kind of fit under a Galahad or some stories fit under a Lancelot. The F.B.I. itself is King Arthur and all of the knights serve the king in different ways. So it just kind of helps, it gives us a shorthand and I know right away whether a story's going to work or not. So that's how it came to be.
BFS: So I know everybody's big thing is to label a show a "procedural" or a "serial," do you view the show as - "we have an idea, let's see how we can hammer it out in an hour" or is it - "I have a broader sense of where I want to see where these characters go over the course of the year and let's gear the stories to that?"
EB: Yeah, both of those things. Interestingly enough, I never thought of the show as a "procedural." I could never explain what it was. I think it's closer to "X-Files" than to "Law & Order." Because the bad guys that we go after are almost ethereal to people. They're not armed robbers, they're not people you could see every day. These are kind of like ghostly people. Look at the place someone like Jeffrey Dahmer holds in our culture and society, Ted Bundy, these people are kind of ethereal to us. They don't even seem like real people. They're sort of celebrities in our culture in a bad way. It's almost like it's more magical than those other shows although we never try to be magical. Nothing that our guys do are not what the actual F.B.I. doesn't do. The B.A.U. profilers that we talk to and we have one in particular that we talk to a lot, Jim Celemente, who wrote one of our episodes, they're just incredible people. They'll tell you, it's not magic. You look at things and ask "what does this tell you" and "everything you do in a room says who you are." But I think our show is actually closer to "The X-Files" than any kind of procedural.
BFS: So here comes the obligatory "Lost" question - does going against something like that affect how you do the show?
EB: I will say that during the season you don't think about it. Before we were ever on the air, everybody went "oh my God, we're against 'Lost!'" See I was a fan of "Lost" and like most fans of "Lost" I was exceedingly disappointed by the end of the first season that they didn't answer anything. I gave them 22 hours and they [didn't answer anything]. So I thought that they actually made a big mistake. So I thought, "you know, I don't think it's so bad going against [them] because if they're going to disappoint their audience like that we can probably catch them." And I think that's what happened.
Although I think what mainly happened is that we've shown - and like I said I'm a big fan of Damon and Carlton... I think they're incredible writers and we certainly couldn't spend our time thinking, "Can we beat them? Can we beat them?"- but I think what it's really proven is that there's still room for two successful shows [to go against one another]. People think that nobody watches television. I think that if there's something good, people come back. When we have 18 million viewers and they have 17 million viewers, that's not too bad. It almost doesn't matter who comes in first. It can be fun at the showrunner's meeting, but it's not really why we do it. [Laughs.] I'm glad people watch it and I hope they do but you can't write and produce for that. You have to write what you believe in and something that you're proud of and hope that people watch.
BFS: Besides "Lost" then are there any other shows you keep up with?
EB: I gotta tell ya, my newest love is "Dexter." I think that show is amazing. You know, I try to understand why shows on cable feel so much better than shows on network television. And I really believe that the answer is commercials. We have this artificial structure in network television where we have a teaser and five acts, a six act structure. So what we have to have every eight or nine minutes is some high point in drama that we then explain coming back and build up, so we're constantly building momentum every eight minutes. It's unnatural storytelling. Nobody says, "I have a great story for ya" and starts to tell you the story and every eight minutes goes "hold on, I have to go take a shit, then it's really going to get good" you know what I mean? It's not really any kind of natural storytelling. And I think you watch something like "Dexter" where there's a slow build to the story, a pacing to it, a rising action that rises to the end that makes you feel really satisfied.
And I think that commercials in network television... you know, the first time I realized this - it was "24." And speaking of Paul Bromfield, Paul Bromfield did a review of "24" before it came on... and he said, "poor '24,' when you put the commercials in it, it's just not as good." And then I was like, "well, it's not good television then because it's got to be able to sustain having commercials in it." But then I started thinking, oh that's right, when we watch these, I get a DVD and it has the act breaks but they're only a second. It's different than when we see it on television. There's no act break you can do that's going to make people sit there for two minutes and not look at something else. There's just not.
Unless you tell them we're going to give $10 million dollars to the first caller who calls in the second after we come back on. [Laughs.] They're not going to sit there - they're going to get up, they're going to go to the bathroom, pause TiVo, take a phone call, do whatever and then come back and watch the show so it's an unnatural kind of storytelling. And cable, it's very natural. You sit down, you watch an hour - and actually a full hour, not 18 minutes shy of an hour - and I think that's why it's so much more satisfying. It's like watching little movies rather than something that breaks every eight minutes. So yes, "Dexter," I love "Dexter." That's why I have trouble writing a novel, see how I ramble? [Laughs.] I started talking about "Dexter" and I end up talking about slow building storytelling. [Laughs.]
BFS: So with that mind, do you see yourself moving to cable once this show ends - eight, nine years, however long you want it to run - from now?
EB: I think so. I would love to. Every writer I think would love to do something on cable. It's much freer, characters can actually say "shit" instead of "what the heck." I like the fact that you can tell stories slowly. But that being said, I love what I do now. There are certainly not 18 or 19 million people watching "Dexter." If it's got one million people they're happy. We can reach a much larger audience. Last night's episode [EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was done on December 14.] we did an episode that was very personal to us about the Shemar character being molested as a boy and convincing a young boy that it was okay to say that he was molested. Last night I think 18 or 17 million people I think saw that. In that 17 million people there's going to be someone going through that and maybe today they'll actually talk about it which would be incredible.
It's not likely in cable you're going to get that size of an audience that you can actually speak to. I had an interesting conversation with Danny Glover - I was going to do a show with Danny Glover at one point - and I asked him if being on television was like a demotion, being that he's Danny Glover. I said, "well, on an average night 'Third Watch' had 11 million viewers, tell me what movie ever opened to 11 million people? That's a $110 million opening for a movie. And we do that every week. That's an average night for us. So if you want to speak to people, if you want to reach out and say something to them and touch people's lives - it's television, it's network television that you're on."
It's also, cable is a lot like movies. They do the whole season, they write the whole season, they shoot the whole season and you might not come on for six months. We're a very vibrant industry. We have 22 episodes to do in 10 months, basically 11 feature films. And we have this idea that we're talking about right now, we're going to start filming the day after we come back. It's like so immediate, it's there. There's a level of pressure and excitement to it that doesn't exist in any other field. In movies, shit, it's hurry up and wait. You write a movie now, maybe somebody three years from now will make it. We write something and in a week and a half you're sitting down on the set watching the actors say your words and direct your piece. So it's a much more vibrant world.
There's an urgency to this, it's almost like... old time show business. Every eight days we have a new episode to make. We call it a big machine that eats material, you just have to keep feeding this machine. 22 episodes is 22 episodes. It's also kind of unfair that like in the Emmys it all gets lumped into the same thing because working on a cable show is completely different, it's not even the same field of work than we have. We have to make 22 episodes in 10 months. I mean I would love to boil our season down to the best 10 episodes we made and we waited until they were all finished and we tweaked them all up nice and then put them on. But we can't, that's not the business we're in. We're making 22 of these things. We have four weeks off or five weeks off and boom it's like I got good and bad news - you're back next year. [Laughs.] It's both, like "Oh my God, I have to think of 22 more of these things?"
BFS: On that note, does it ever feel like you're repeating yourself? Like we've killed people 34 ways, what's really number 35?
EB: We haven't. One of the benefits of the B.A.U. is that they don't just do serial killers, they do any kind of serial crimes. We've done arsonists and bombings, a terrorist storyline. The B.A.U. is pretty varied in what they do. I gotta tell ya, we're working on number 16 right now, so for 38 episodes we haven't had a hard time finding material that wasn't fresh. It's a pretty twisted world. [Laughs.] Maybe after 100 we'll have trouble, but so far after 38 we're still going strong. We still have a board full of stuff, it's just a matter of "let's do this one now." There's stuff we thought of in the first season we haven't done yet. It seems to me this show could run for 35 years and not run out of stuff because people just get more fucked up all the time. [Laughs.] Lucky for us.
BFS: In terms of character arcs, do you start each season with characters at point A and go into the season with the goal of them being at point B?
EB: We did that a lot more on "Third Watch," my last show, than we do on this show. I think the most interesting thing we have to explore before we start exploring where they're going is where they came from. And that's what we're trying to do this year. What fascinates me is having been a cop, I know how debilitating it is emotionally and how it's just an erosion of your soul. And I don't know how anyone in the law enforcement world would choose to do what these guys do, which is work around the worst possible people in the world, the worst possible crime scenes, the worst animals in our society. It is endlessly fascinating to me is why - why are each one of these characters doing this? Especially when there are so many other jobs in law enforcement they could do. So I think we need to work backwards a little bit before we can look forward. So one of the things we did at the beginning of the year was really thinking about why each one of them was there. We've done an episode where we showed J.J., that she came from a small town and tried to get out of a small town, almost like the Clarice Starling story; we did the episode last night with Shemar being that he was a molested child and he gets revenge by putting those kinds of guys away; we did the "Fisher King" episodes about Matthew's mother being a schizophrenic, I mean Dr. Reid, and he kind of buries himself in books to not face that reality and that he one day may be schizophrenic because it's a genetic disease. So it's much more important to us now in the show to explore why they're there now instead of where they're going.
BFS: Do you have any favorites? Are there any characters that speak to you more?
EB: I love them all. I believe that any good drama is a family and you either accept or reject that family, not the show. You can have 10 shows of the same genre and if people like the family... "ER's" a great example. It's a family. It was in the middle of a hospital but it was a family. You either like the mother, the three brothers and the father or you don't. And our show is very much that. In our show Mandy's the mom, the emotional center of the show, Hotch is the father, Morgan and Elle are the brother and sister and Reid is the little brother and J.J.'s the good-looking cousin who hangs around. And people either like that family or they don't. And I think what people are starting to respond to now is that they really like the family. So I love them all. I think they're all vitally important characters and they all... you know it's funny when you write, and not everyone writes the same way, but when I write like I sort of let the story come to me and all of our characters say just the right things and the right time. In my mind, there's always somebody to say the right thing. So I think they're all really important. They're not lacking anything, I don't think we have too many. We have just the right amount of people and personalities. So I love the characters, I love all the actors too - it's a really good family. We're very much a family environment here. We're setting up downstairs for a Christmas party and all the producers have to dress up in costumes so everybody can laugh at us. I'm going to be Santa Claus, everybody's going to be elves. It's really just a big family that we have here. And I think that it transfers to the screen.
BFS: So in the end, what do you think you'll take away from this show that's unique as compared to "Third Watch" or "Brooklyn South" and so on?
EB: Well, I'll tell you the one thing that's unique for me is "Third Watch" was filmed in New York and written and produced here, the writing and the post-production here. I was never involved as intensely in production daily as I am now. And I gotta tell ya, it's a lot of work. Two or three times a month I would fly to New York for four or five days, I spent a lot of time there but it's different being what - 100 feet away from the set. And the actors are running up all the time. It's pretty intense but I just love it. It's one of those things where you go, "God help me, I love this." I love the hours, I love the vibrancy of it. I love creating things that I know that people are going to see in a couple of weeks. Now we're doing an episode that's following the Super Bowl. Like I said, this could potentially be the greatest night of my life - the Bears could be in the Super Bowl, or God forbid, win the Super Bowl, and then my show immediately follows the Super Bowl. I almost have to walk into the ocean and die the next day.
BFS: So how did that phone call go? Was it Les [Moonves] who told you?
EB: Well it was Rosemary [Tarquinio] who is our direct CBS executive. And we had just come off our highest numbers of the year - like two or three weeks ago. And she called me about that, they always call me up at 7:00 the next morning. And she said, "I have something to tell you with David Bromfield," who's the boss of television over there. I was like, "uh-oh, don't tell me we had our highest numbers ever and we're canceled." She goes, "No, no, it's good news." And you know what they did, they didn't call me [back] for a day. Because I think what they had to do is someone went "hey, did we tell all the other shows?" You know like the "C.S.I.s" because they're the heavy hitters. So then they called me the next day and I thought they were kidding. I would have bet that it would have been "C.S.I." or something like that and they said "no, this actually came directly from Les, that he wants this to be the show that follows the Super Bowl." It's just incredible, such an incredible feeling. It's what made "Grey's Anatomy" number one. And we were like number four last week already and now we have the potential to be the number one show on television and that's just incredible to even consider. Because nobody ever goes in thinking that's ever possible. So many things have to go right. Because if you really kind of have to work for that, you're going to be eternally disappointed. So it's incredibly exciting and humbling. I just am so grateful to Les and Nina Tassler to even think about putting us there.
BFS: So are you using one of your already planned episodes or starting from scratch for the Super Bowl?
EB: We came up with a whole new episode although the next one up [that would have aired that week] is going to be great too. We wanted to tailor something to the Super Bowl. So we've come up with a whole new episode that's a two-part episode that leads into Wednesday night from Sunday night, you know, try to transfer some of that audience into our regular night. When it actually starts, you think you're still watching the Super Bowl and we pull back off a television at a Super Bowl party so we're really kind of tailoring it to that night, to sort of continue to magic that is the Super Bowl, that the Bears are going to win. [Laughs.]
BFS: Finally, at the end of the day - what's it like to do this every day, to have your own show?
EB: Well, first off I don't try to make it my own show. Truly, if I had to come here every day and think of it as my show and I was the guy, I think I'd lose my mind. There's just way too much to do. I have incredible people that work on this show, incredible artists in every facet who I trust completely. So, to answer your question, I love every day. I feel lucky. And the interesting thing is we try very hard to keep it exactly the same today as it was at the beginning of the season before we were this super rising show. Cause you know, we still have to make the show, we've still got to do the work. We try not to get too excited or too depressed when the critics don't like us - we still have to make the show. And if you truly aren't making it for yourself, then none of that stuff really matters. So the fact that our numbers go up every week is gratifying but it's not why I do it. I'm excited people are watching. It's no different than being on a show like "Third Watch" which I'm just as proud of and didn't have as many viewers. I just try to never forget how lucky I am to do this. I've been a cop. I've been shot at. I've had to wrestle people for my gun in an alley. This is pretty fucking special to do this for a living. And get paid a lot more than cops do.