Over the twelve days from Monday, December 23 and concluding on Friday, January 3, we will present special Re-Podcasts of my Crime Story Podcast interviews with storytellers in the world of crime and justice. Each interview will be presented in its entirety, and so interviews that were previously offered in multiple parts can now be accessed in one download or streaming session.

This is Day 3:

Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.

Today’s podcast is part one of a two-part conversation with Ed Bernero, the co-creator of Third Watch and Executive Producer and founding showrunner of Criminal Minds.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In addition to discussing the works and artists who shaped their creative thinking, we zeroed in on one particular piece of their work. 

With today’s guest, we chose Criminal Minds. In part one of the conversation we will hear about Ed’s unusual path into storytelling, as well as covering how came to run the show, and how he built the story mythology that has allowed Criminal Minds to achieve global financial success. In part two of the podcast we will zero in on two of the show’s episodes to discuss how the details of their creation offer us broader insights into the creative process that Ed established on the show. We will also hear Ed’s answers to questions posed by USC students.

And now, here is today’s Crime Story Podcast…

Kary:

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Ed Bernero.

Ed Bernero:

Hi. That’s a hard episode to clap for, isn’t it? At the end everyone’s like, “Uh. That was fucked up.”

Kary:

So take us on a little journey from cradle to this.

Ed Bernero:

From my cradle to this? Or my professional cradle to this?

Kary:

Well, I don’t know. Give us a sense of your path into the entertainment business, including your life immediately before the entertainment business.

Ed Bernero:

Right. Probably the most relevant part of my life before this is I was a cop in Chicago for 10 years. I was a street cop in Chicago. And while I was working the midnight shift as a cop, I started writing in my basement just for something to do. My wife is a surgical nurse, and my kids would go to school and she would go to work. So I had nothing to do all day. So I just started writing for something to do.

Ed Bernero:

And after a few years … so here’s how I started writing scripts. I actually was going to write a book. Because you tell your war stories and people are like, “Oh, you got great stories, man. You should write a book. You should write a book.” So I’m like, “All right. I’m going to write a novel.” So I sit down and write the book, and I tend to ramble. You’ll find out tonight. I’ll start answering a question and then it’ll be like, “What are we talking about again?”

Ed Bernero:

And I was complaining about this problem I have to another cop who’s an actor. See, people think cops are just cops. But cops actually are science teachers and lawyers and there’s cops from every kind of walk of life. And I was complaining to this guy … who sung all night, by the way. He sung “Love the One You’re With” all fucking night. He never stopped singing, this guy. It’s a nice voice but the 175th time you hear that, there’s a rose in the fisted glove. God. What an awful song to listen to all night.

Ed Bernero:

But anyway, I was complaining to him about this problem I have, and in between songs he said, “Oh, you should write a script.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Well, there’s rules. You have to do something by page three, something by page five. You can’t really ramble.” And I’m like, “There’s rules?” And he said, “Yeah. There’s a book called Screenplay. You should read that book and it tells you what to do and when to do it.”

Ed Bernero:

So I read that book in a squad car over like the next three nights. And I said, “I think I can do this.” And my wife goes … I said, “I’m going to write a movie script.” She goes, “Does that cost anything?” And I said, “No.” She goes, “Okay. Have fun.” And she went to work, and I just started writing scripts in my basement, sort of following Screenplay.

Ed Bernero:

And after about three years my wife read one of them and said, “You know, you should send this to someone, because I would watch this. This seems like something I would actually watch.” So we didn’t know what to do, so I ended up putting a package with the script and a letter, and sent it to all the networks. Because it’s the only contact in Chicago that I had with Hollywood. And I wrote like, “Dear CBS, I know this isn’t the thing to do, but I’m a cop in Chicago. If you could forward this to whoever’s supposed to get it, I’d really appreciate it.”

Ed Bernero:

And the guy from NBC called me. They had a thing called the New Voices Program at NBC at the time. And he was like … well first of all, I didn’t believe it was him. I thought it was my partner Bobby. Because my partner Bobby would have done something like this. They all knew that I sent it. So I’m like, “Bobby, quit fucking with me. Quit it.” He goes, “No, no. Seriously. I’m calling from Burbank, from NBC. And we have a New Voice-” And I’m like, “Oh, stop fucking with me, Bobby.” Because he sounded exactly like Bobby. I mean seriously. I’m not making that up. He sounded exactly like Bobby.

Ed Bernero:

So finally he says, “Okay, I’ll tell you what. You can call me back. I’m going to leave my number. My name is Geoff Harris. G-E-O-F-F Harris at NBC.” And immediately … I would die for Bobby [Pasternak 00:03:28]. I swear. But there is no way he would ever spell Geoff with a “G” Right? He’s just not smart enough. So I’m like, “Oh my God. I’m so sorry, sir.” So he asked me to write a … because I only wrote movie scripts. He asked me to write a TV script. If I could watch one of their shows and write what’s called a spec of one of their shows and send it to him. He could try to get me into this New Voices Program.

Ed Bernero:

So I’m like, “Holy shit. I have to write one like now.” I was afraid he was going to forget me. So the weird thing is, I didn’t actually watch television. Because as a midnight shift cop, that’s the time you sleep. Like time is when you sleep. So I had my wife tape all the cop shows on NBC, and I picked Homicide. Seemed like the one that was the most real. It was a show called Homicide: Life on the Streets. And I wrote an episode of that show, and sent it to him on a Thursday. I overnighted it to him on a Thursday, and on Tuesday a whole bunch of agents called me at my house in Chicago.

Ed Bernero:

It was just like boom, he sent it to agents and they called me. Mostly because I was a cop. Not because I’m the greatest writer in the world. But when you have sort of some past that you’ve lived it kind of moves your script up to the top of the pile. So I came out here in August of ’96, and had a bunch of meetings. And the meetings all ended with some version of, “Yeah, but you don’t live here. And to work in television you have to live here.” Which is so not true now. But at the time you had to live here. So my wife and I decided I could be a cop here and she could be a nurse here if worse came to worse. So we packed up the kids and moved to [inaudible 00:05:04].

Kary:

I don’t know how much you want to share of the story-

Ed Bernero:

I’ll share anything.

Kary:

Can you tell the story of the moment that you realized-

Ed Bernero:

Oh yeah. My epiphany moment?

Kary:

Yeah.

Ed Bernero:

Yeah. By the way, I love this guy. This guy’s amazing. We talk all the time. He knows all of my secrets. These aren’t just from pictures, there are just from hey what’s up, what’s up, and hanging out. So when I started the police department, people tell you it’s going to change you. Being a cop is going to change you. And I didn’t believe it. I thought that was bullshit.

Ed Bernero:

I’ve had other jobs before, it didn’t change me. I was in the Air Force. I didn’t believe job could change you. You do it eight hours a day, you go home, and then you live your life. So there was a … this was about five years on the job. There was a place in my district, a liquor store, that would sell us cigarettes for a quarter a pack. Me and my partner. They weren’t like they are now. This was in the ’90s, so they were like $3 a pack. So it was still pretty cheap.

Ed Bernero:

We would go there out of roll call every day, buy two packs of cigarettes, and then once in a while through the night we’d stop in and we’d have to be really friendly with the guy behind the counter, who was a gay Native American named [Fabian 00:06:08]. Sweetest guy in the world. So one night … now we’ve been going a couple of years, going to this place. First thing out of roll call. One night we come back from our days off, we go straight there, and he’s not there. First time I had ever seen him not there.

Ed Bernero:

Do you guys remember the Drew Carey Show? There was a woman with the mumu? That’s what this woman looked like, she looked like the woman from the Drew Carey Show. This giant woman in a mumu with pool cue eyeshadow. And I said, “Oh, where’s [Fabian 00:06:33]?” She said, “Oh, he got killed this morning.” And I was like, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, he got his face blown off with a sawed-off shotgun for $23. That’s what they stole.”

Ed Bernero:

But here’s the thing. So I’m getting back in my car. As I’m sitting in my car … I was on the passenger side, because I always, surprise, like to write the reports. As I’m sitting down, I have this realization. When she said, “He was killed,” the first thought … can anyone guess what the first thought I had in my mind? “Where am I going to get cigarettes?” I realized I had fundamentally changed as a human being. That someone dying was just an inconvenience to me. I was like, “Boy, that sucks for me.” And I realized that there were parts of me that I was afraid I would never get back if I didn’t get out of that job.

Ed Bernero:

So that was the point where I tried … I made sort of a vow to myself not to go over 10 years. Because I felt like 10 years was a career. You got a pension, you got to think about your family. So I ended up actually leaving two weeks shy of 10 years. We moved out here. But that was the moment that I realized that you could be changing and not even know it. And now I’m totally back to … now I don’t even smoke.

Kary:

When you got out here, what were the significant milestones and stepping stones? And who were the one or two significant mentors that you had?

Ed Bernero:

Well definitely Geoff Harris at NBC. NBC had a program at the time where they were actively … they had a thing called the story department. All networks had a story … they don’t have them anymore. Because the story’s not important in the network anymore. They had story departments and they were actively looking for new writers. So Geoff Harris was definitely someone who I wouldn’t have been here without.

Ed Bernero:

But the first job that I got when I got out here was … a month after we got out here I was hired to write an episode of a show called F/X: The Series. Which was based on the movie, where the police go to a movie special effects guy. That’s real. The funny thing is, that was filmed in Canada. So I moved here from Chicago, I had actually been closer to my first job in Chicago, because it was in Toronto, than I was here. But the Internet kind of happened while I was here.

Ed Bernero:

And when I turned that script in, Steven Bochco gave me an episode of NYPD Blue to write, which was kind of an audition for a show called Brooklyn South. I’ve never not been working since I came out here. I started working like a month after we got here, and I’ve been working ever since.

Kary:

Tell me a little bit about Third Watch, your experience there, and your developing sense of what it takes to be a showrunner. What it takes to run a show and guide a show through multiple seasons.

Ed Bernero:

Yeah, one of the people I have to thank for a lot of my development as a showrunner is John Wells. Didn’t let me do things I wasn’t ready to do, and I was so mad. I wasn’t even a producer on Third Watch, and I created it. I was so mad. My agents were offended for me and it was this … but it turns out that what he did was he kept me out of rooms I didn’t need to be in yet while I was learning.

Ed Bernero:

And by the time I was ready, he turned the show over to me. And I didn’t realize how much I had learned from him by not being in things. He would take me into things and he would say, “Do you know why you’re here?” And I would be like, “Oh yeah, yeah. I get it.” So the showrunning part of my life … the writing is something that I’ve always loved. I just love to write. That’s my thing. I would write even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. But the showrunning, turns out it’s a lot like being a cop. Because it’s basically babysitting for people who should be able to babysit themselves. You can kind of get a lot done as a showrunner just by going like this. Like, “Sorry.”

Ed Bernero:

So John Wells taught me almost everything I know about showrunning. And then working with Steven Bochco, I learned everything not to do. Because they don’t really run anything, they just kind of ignore people. I mean, it works for them. I’m not complaining about it. I learned a lot when I was at Bochco, because you just do a lot of writing. It’s a lot of intensive writing. But they don’t have a lot of meetings together, they don’t do it … there’s different ways of running a show. Law & Order, the writers never get together. Bochco shows, the writers never get together. On shows like John’s, you spend all your time in a writing room with writers, like a college class. So I learned both sort of ways of doing it.

Kary:

Before we move on to Criminal Minds, would you just relate the story of the Third Watch episode that took place in real time, and was based on an experience that you had as a cop?

Ed Bernero:

Yeah, the 100th episode of Third Watch is an episode called “Call for Help.” And it’s an episode, it’s the most directly taken from my life. It’s an actual case that I handled. And the entire episode has not cuts. It was like a 45-minute murder case that I handled that was beginning, middle, and end. Right in the same spot. And I was like, “Oh, we could do that for the 100th episode.” You try to do something special for the 100th episode, and then nobody ever tells anybody. It’s not like NBC promoted it as an episode with not cuts, it’s just sort of something within the show that you do that’s kind of neat. Like “Call for Help,” or like 100, which we’ll talk about the sort of special things that happened in that episode.

Ed Bernero:

But that episode was the first episode that I directed, which I never would have done if I had known what I was doing. Because it was insane. We shot … every day we would rehearse and act all day, eat lunch, and then shoot it all afternoon. So we would rehearse for six hours and shoot for six hours. And we shot the whole episode in four days. But it’s pretty cool. It’s on the Internet, if you want to check it out. It’s a pretty cool episode. It’s like watching a play. We even have a kind of a curtain that starts at the beginning and ends at the end of it. So that was the first 100th episode that I was involved in. 

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Kary:

Tell us about how you got involved in Criminal Minds.

Ed Bernero:

All right. When I was directing the last episode of Third Watch, and Paramount, which is CBS, picked up my deal, and they sent me five scripts. And they said, “Pick the show you want to run.” So I read the five scripts, and I called this woman Laverne McKinnon back and I said, “Laverne, they’re amazing. I’ll do anyone of them except Quantico.” Which is what Criminal Minds was called at the time. I’ll tell you a story about why it’s not called Quantico anymore.

Ed Bernero:

And she goes … there’s like dead silence on the phone. Because the other things were like these people who had two different lives. They lived in upstate New York, but they worked in Manhattan. And they were completely different people. It was this really cool … called Commuters. It was really cool. None of them had anything to do with cops, except this one. So she said, “Um, we thought you’d want to do Quantico.” And I’m like, “No, I think it’s stupid.” And she goes, “What?”

Ed Bernero:

I said, “Well, think of it as a cop. If you look at what they do, at profiling as a cop, it’s a parlor trick. It’s like I’m going to tell you this … it’s like 25 things about this guy. And when you catch him, that’s the important sentence, when you catch him you’ll find these are all true. But none of it is anything you can use to catch anybody. It’s like he wets the bed. So we’re looking for someone who smells like pee? I don’t know. How do you put this stuff into something you can quantify?” So I thought it was kind of … I didn’t think it was that much different than F/X: The Series. Which is using a movie special effects guy. It’s just kind of a special effect. It’s a neat trick, and …

Ed Bernero:

Here’s an interesting fact. This is a true fact to take from here. Can you guys tell me how many serial killers have been caught by the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI? Anybody? Zero. They’ve never caught a serial killer. We catch one every 45 minutes, but they’ve never actually caught one. It’s really cool for afterwards. After they catch a guy, they can go and testify and say, “Here’s why he’s a serial killer. Here’s why these crimes are put together. Here’s why we know that this was his cooling down period.” But none of it is anything you can use to help somebody, which is why we invented Garcia on the show … who I’ll explain why, but we call her Merlin on the show. She’s kind of magic and there’s always that moment in the fourth act where she comes up with some piece of information. “There’s only nine guys like that.”

Ed Bernero:

So all right, here’s my rambling moment, what did you ask me?

Kary:

What made you say yes? How did you get to yes?

Ed Bernero:

So they said, “Yeah, we really want you to do Quantico.” And I said, “I have to do Quantico, don’t I?” And she said, “Yeah.” They weren’t even picking up the other four shows. It was just … they sent it … it was like a real estate where they show you three bad houses and then say, “This is the one you’re going to buy.” So I ended up on Quantico, and while I was doing the last episode of Third Watch they were doing the pilot of Quantico in Vancouver. So I went up and I met everybody. And I met Mandy and Thomas and the whole cast. And I would go back and forth between the two places while they were shooting.

Ed Bernero:

And then it got picked up, and when it got picked up one of the first things the network asks you to do is give me ten stories. So we hired our writing staff. And we’ll talk a little bit about how you write, because I don’t believe you hire writers, I believe you hire a writing room. Which is a very different thing. You kind of have to cast the room, because there’s different things you need from people who are in the room to get through a 23 or 24- episode season.

Ed Bernero:

And one of the things I realized as a showrunner, one of the most immediate skills you need, is to figure out the box. Writers always want to write a show outside the box. “I want to go outside the box.” But there is no box yet, so it’s kind of up to you to figure out what the box is. You sit down with the show and go, “Okay, so what the hell is this?” What is 100 episodes of this show? Because there hasn’t even been a movie that they’ve made 50 movies of any … even James Bond doesn’t have 50 movies. So that’s a lot of story that you have to let this format carry.

Ed Bernero:

So in Criminal Minds what I did was I realized that we could build a lot of stories … because it’s important for me to be able to say, “That’s not an episode.” Because otherwise we spend eight weeks chasing a story that’s never going to work. And that’s a problem. On Third Watch I didn’t have this problem, because it was my life. Third Watch was my life. So when someone would pitch a story to me, I’d go, “I don’t believe that would ever happen, so find something else.” So it was always … that was my sort of barometer. Do I believe that could happen to me on Third Watch?

Ed Bernero:

Now I have a whole different thing. Criminal Minds, which is this thing that frankly I don’t even believe works. It’s sort of like I’m in this box. So what I realized is we could make every story Arthurian. If you watch Criminal Minds, there are hints that … they get their cases around a giant round table, in what we call The Round Table Room. The entire show is based on Arthurian stories. On the knights getting their call to adventure, and they get on their steed, which on our show is the plane, and they go someplace and they make things right and they come back home again. They always come back home at the end of the episode. It’s an important part of the show. They slay dragons, which serial killers to me are the only dragons left in the world, and then they come back and make the world right again, both outside and inside the castle.

Ed Bernero:

So that makes me able to go, “Oh, bullshit. When you pitch holy water ice bullets to me.” Then it’s like, “That’s not Arthurian. Go figure something else out.” Which was an actual pitch that we got. Holy water ice bullets. Totally misunderstanding how a gun works, because ice won’t shoot out of a gun. Because it’s just a big explosion. So that was the sort of like the eureka moment on Criminal Minds. It’s like, “Oh, these are Arthurian. I can quickly reject an idea for a show.”

Ed Bernero:

In fact in the first season, myself and there’s another writer named Simon Mirren, who’s like my brother, who [Kary 00:18:21] also knows. We were way into it. In fact, he got me an Excalibur for Christmas that year. We figured out who the knights were. Which knight each character was, but the other writers were not so into it. Because I used to say, “Okay, so which knight is it?” And they would be like, “I don’t know. Name me one.” So I kind of let up on them, but still the story had to be within the realm of an Arthurian story.

Ed Bernero:

So if you watch the episodes of Criminal Minds, I think it’s one of the things that people respond to. Is I think people respond to Arthurian tales just kind of naturally. It’s something that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. Not that I can say I did it purposely for that reason, I just needed a box to put the show in. And Arthurian stories sort of came to be … if you watch the show you can get little clues of who … if we did a different class I would tell you which character each one of them is. They all have knights and they follow sort of the search for the Holy Grail. There’s a couple of episodes that we do about a thing called the Fisher King.

Ed Bernero:

I don’t know if any of you know Arthurian legend, but it’s all sort of in the show. So if you ever wanted to step back and get a deeper understanding of it, look at some Arthurian legend and see how it fits. There’s character names that are in the show, but we kind of played it under the … it helped a lot. It helps knowing what’s not an episode of a show. 

Kary:

Tell me about putting the writing staff together. 

Ed Bernero:

I’m a sports fan, so I look at putting a writing staff together like putting a baseball team together. You got to have singles hitters, you have to have doubles hitters, you have to have people who … there’s two things in a great writer. And almost no writer has both of them. One is “what if.” Great people to have in a room are oceans … this is Simon, this friend of mine. I could sit him down and give him any ridiculous set of circumstances and he will tell you a story about it. He’s amazing. The “what if.” He’s an ocean of “what if.”

Ed Bernero:

But what he doesn’t have in him, is the “yeah that.” He doesn’t know when to stop “what iffing.” He just keeps what iffing and what iffing and what iffing. And I have to go, “Simon, stop. We already decided. It’s that.” Like two days later he’ll be, “What if we do this?” I’ll go, “No, no, no. Stop. We’re already writing.” So you need to have what if guys on your staff. You need to have guys that make everyone dream. You need to have guys that make … you need someone who makes everyone go, “Huh. I never thought of that.”

Ed Bernero:

And then you need people who can write kickass, shootable drafts really fast. Because a network television show, unlike [Kary’s 00:21:03] world, where you have five years to put ten episodes together, I’m so jealous of HBO, Criminal Minds now is 25 episodes a year. It’s almost every other week. It’s every seven days, eight days, it eats a script. So you have to be churning out scripts. This is why I tell people, “If you’re a good writer, we will find you. Just keep trying. Keep sending stuff to us. Because we need you. We can’t make this …” Now there’s 280 shows. That’s a lot of writing. And we will find you. You’ve just got to not get up. Just keep sending stuff out. Write a new script. Do a script and send it out. Write a new script and send it out. We have to find you. We’re actively looking for you. I promise you we are actively looking for you. We have to find you. So please don’t give up. Just keep plugging and keep plugging. It’ll feel like there’s no way, but I promise you, we have to find you.

Kary:

Can you make a career out of being just an idea person? 

Ed Bernero:

I know people who do make a career out of it. I know Simon makes a very healthy living. And every time I start something, I call him and he comes and sits with me and consults with me. Same thing when he gets … there are certain skills that he’s really good at, and certain things he’s not. And I help him with that, and he helps me with … I know he does. I know that you can’t make a show without him.

Kary:

In the case of Simon specifically, what he’s done is … when he’s been successful he’s partnered with a yeah that person. Like when he did Versailles, he found a partner that could complete him.

Ed Bernero:

Yeah. And I promise you every crazy thing that happens on Versailles … I watch that show and I go, “Simon. That’s Simon, right there. That’s Simon.” 

Kary:

Can you talk to us a bit about the various levels and titles in a television writers rooms? And why everyone is a producer?

Ed Bernero:

In television there’s like these bullshit titles that you work your way up. Because everyone gets paid the same for scripts, so the way you sort of pay for being there a long time is you move up. From co-producer to producer to supervising producer. When I made supervising producer, I called John and I said, “So what do I do?” He says, “What do you mean?” I said, “Who do I supervise?” He goes, “Nothing. It’s just a title. You do the same thing.”

Ed Bernero:

So that’s how you kind of … he’s been a co-executive producer forever. Co-executive is a dangerous place to be, because you end up costing a lot of money. So first-year shows don’t want to hire you, but that’s the … business is kind of wonky that way. We have this real problem now in the industry with these 10-episode shows. Because they don’t know if the show’s coming back, so they’re holding writers to them even though they’re only working less than half what they’re used to working. They’re used to doing 22 episodes, and they’re doing 10. And then they can’t go anywhere else and get another job. Until they decide next year … like the show Ice that I’m on. The writers on that show had been finished since October. And the show’s not even going on the air until March. Until the end of March.

Ed Bernero:

So they can’t get another … no one’s going to hire them. Because that’s hanging over their heads. So that’s something that we have to try to work out in … we never sort of as a business see the problem that’s going to be the next problem that we have. Like going on strike for DVDs, which basically don’t exist anymore. So we’re always kind of a step behind. I don’t think anyone saw this coming, these little 10-episode shows.

Ed Bernero:

Although frankly, as a businessperson, I’m not sure how they make money on them. I don’t know where the profit comes from on a 10-episode show like Stranger Things. Which you binge watch the 10 episodes and then there’s no after market value to it. There’s no … I guess it sells foreign. But I mean, these shows are expensive. I’m not sure how they’re making their money up on them.

Kary:

Subscriptions. We’ll talk about this as we get into cable shows as opposed to-

Ed Bernero:

Sit in the back when you do that class?

Kary:

Anytime. Just get your USC ID.

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Kary:

When you started, how many writers did you have in the room?

Ed Bernero:

When I started what? Criminal Minds? Criminal Minds has always had about … depending on teams. We have some teams every once in a while, but it’s usually eight writers. And if there’s teams, it can go up. Because you count a team as one writer. You pay them as one writer. They split all the fees and everything. So we’ve had a couple of writing teams, so there’s been as much as 10.

Ed Bernero:

But I find that if you get many more than 10 in a room, it’s just impossible to agree on anything. There’s just too many what ifs and what ifs and what ifs. So I find that 10 is kind of the way to go. And you have to have people that can go … I’ve been doing this 22 years now, so I’ve had writing staffs where you would leave the room thinking you solved something and you’d come back and what they’re pitching to you is like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Where did we get on that?” They need to learn that I go tell people. Right? I don’t just go into the room and take a nap. I call the network and the studio and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do this. Bob’s going to do that. And Sam’s going to do this. And they’re going to kiss.”

Ed Bernero:

I can’t come back in the room and have them pitching something different. So you sort of have to train them in a way that they kind of go, “Okay, that’s what it’s going to be. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Kary:

You’ve been kind of lumped in with other procedurals. We did CSI: New York, and CSI: Cyber last week.

Ed Bernero:

Pam [Veasey]’s awesome, isn’t she?

Kary:

And she said the same thing about him, by the way. And then we’re doing Without a Trace and Law & Order. But I’ve read that you feel like this show has more in common with a show like the X-Files than Law & Order or other traditional procedurals. Why don’t you-

Ed Bernero:

Yeah. See, I do police shows differently than almost anyone else. Ken Sanzel is a guy in New York who used to be an NYPD cop. And he kind of does it from the same place. I left. I told you the story about why I left being a cop. I don’t know why people do that job. I don’t know why people make that a career. I couldn’t do it. What fascinates me is why. Like Criminal Minds, I could[n’t] care less about the serial killers. I’m not interested. I know people are fascinated by them, and love to see what they do and what … I don’t give a shit.

Ed Bernero:

What interests me is why those seven people, of all the jobs there are in law enforcement, would choose to do the worst possible job. That’s what fascinates me. That’s the way I look at stories. Like why are you here? Why are you doing this? We did an episode where Morgan is in a small town, and somebody asks him what he’s doing there. And he says, “Well, I’m waiting.” And they said, “What?” He goes, “For another body.” Imagine that job. Because one body doesn’t help them, they need four before they can start putting a pattern together. Bless you.

Ed Bernero:

So that’s the kind of thing that fascinates me. And I think that because I used to be a cop, I attack these shows from a different place. I also know that cops are not only cops. That they come from all different walks of life. They have all different kinds of interests. And you know what? From the beginning of my career I’ve been sort of like … writers get pigeonholed like actors do. And not that … believe me, there are worst things to be than the cop guy in Hollywood. I’ve been really successful and thank God for that. But the first thing I ever wrote was a movie about Christmas. So I’m really not that interested in police. It’s just sort of like … it’s a story I can tell.

Ed Bernero:

So one of the things I tell people when you go sit down to write something is, “Write the script that only you can write.” I don’t care what it’s about. Don’t just write somebody else’s version of a show. A lot of young writers write imitations of movies and television, because they haven’t really done anything. So just go out and live. And there’s things you know. When people say, “Write what you know,” I think they take it to mean if you’re an accountant, write an accountant show. That’s not all you know. You know what it’s like to have a parent, you know what it’s like to be around sick family, or sick relatives. There’s a lot of shit that you know. Put that in a script.

Ed Bernero:

First of all, the people that you write about will never know it’s them. Because they don’t see themselves that way. I did an episode of Third Watch that was 1,000 percent a shitty thing my father did. My brothers called me after it aired. They’re, “Oh my God. Oh my God. You did that.” My dad never saw it in itself. So don’t worry about telling other people’s stories. They won’t recognize themselves. They’ll be like, “Where do you come up with these crazy characters?” Because they just don’t see themselves the way you see them.

Ed Bernero:

But when you sit down to write these scripts, please write the script that only you can write. Right? Because everybody’s trying to write a Criminal Minds, everybody’s trying to … when I read things, I want to see something original. I believe that if you have an agent, and you’re having stuff sent to me, you can already sort of kind of write. You’ll be able to imitate the show. And at the end of the day, I’ll do a pass on everything anyway. As long as you can get some story in the room, and you can get some life in the room, that’s going to do better for you than being able to sound just like Hotch. Because Hotch won’t say it anyway. He’ll change it anyway.  

What I need is … I can’t tell you how much I stress write the script that only you can write. You know when you write something, whether it’s bullshit or not. And I don’t mean bullshit like, it can’t happen. Whether you have a connection to it. Whether … if you’re not losing time when you’re writing, you’re not writing real. You’re not writing … and look, by the way, writing is … when you’re going well you will lose time. You’ll all of a sudden be, “Oh my God, I’ve been doing this for three hours. I had no idea.”

Ed Bernero:

You’ll lose time. It’s this weird thing that happens in your head that you fall into it. And you only fall into it when you’re not writing on the surface. And by the way, don’t try to write a first draft this way. Don’t. Because you’ll never finish. Just write a first draft, that’s a bullshit draft, and then go back in and try to figure out what it is that you want to say. What you’re trying to say. That only happens in the second draft. That never happens in the first draft. We call the first draft vomit draft. Write your vomit draft, just get it out. Get to the end. Right?

Ed Bernero:

I call that the vessel. Once you’ve got your vessel, now you can go in and fuck with it. Now you can make it into a sports car or you can make it into a luxury car or you could make it into a … but you have to have the car. So write it. Get in there and write it. Write every day. If you wouldn’t write for nothing, find a different job because it’s too hard. Trust me, it’s hard. Writing is not easy. So if you wouldn’t do it … if no one gives you a job. If you wouldn’t do it anyway … like I did it when I was a policeman on the street. I had no conception that I could do it as a living. But I still did it everyday. I went home and wrote, just because I love it. I love doing it.

Ed Bernero:

You need to love it that much, or don’t try to make it a career. In fact, don’t try to make it a career. Make it something you love.

END PART 1

BEGIN PART 2

Kary:

Today’s podcast is the second part of a two-part conversation with Ed Bernero, the co-creator of Third Watch and Executive Producer and founding showrunner of Criminal Minds.

In part one of the conversation we heard about Ed’s unusual path into storytelling, as well as covering how came to run the show and how he built the story mythology that has allowed Criminal Minds to achieve global financial success. In part two of the podcast we zero in on two of the show’s episodes to discuss how the details of their creation offer us broader insights into the creative process that Ed established on the show. We also hear Ed’s answers to questions posed by USC students.

One piece of context, before we begin. Prior to my interview with Ed, the students in the class screened episodes entitled “Omnivore” (from the fourth season of Criminal Minds) and “100” (from the fifth season of the show and the series’s 100th episode). These two episodes mark the beginning and end of an arc in which a serial killer known as The Reaper starts killing again. The Reaper was the first killer profiled by Agent Hotchner, who in the show is the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and is the only one who has since eluded him. By the end of the arc, the unit’s agents are racing to find the Reaper before he brings harm to Hotchner’s family.

And now here is today’s Crime Story Podcast…

Kary: 

Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between creating a close-ended show, and creating character arcs over the course of the season in this show?

Ed Bernero: 

Well we do both. At the beginning of the year, the way we break out a season on Criminal Minds is not by cases, it’s by personal stories. We decide where we want the arc for Spencer Reid to be. And we figure out the four episodes over the course of the season that will tell that story for him. And we’ll sketch in something Reid needs to learn in seven, something Reid needs to learn in 13. And we do that with all of the characters. Morgan has an arc.

Ed Bernero: 

And a lot of times at the beginning of the season we bring the actors in to show them. Otherwise the actors … actors on procedurals get really, really, really bored. Because they think that the only people that get to do interesting stuff is the bad guys. That they never … that they kind of just have to say the same sort of things. So it’s important for me to include them in it, and let them know that there’s an arc for them. That there’s a story for them if they stay with … like the Reaper was a Hotch story for three seasons.

Ed Bernero: 

So once we figure out what personal things we need to happen, then we go, “Okay, what case in episode six is going to best highlight Reid’s trouble in that?” Every case on Criminal Minds starts as a real case from the FBI. You will never ever, ever know what it is. Because I’m so terrified that some mother is going to recognize their son’s case or something, so by the time it comes out the other end it’s so … you just wouldn’t … believe me, you would never recognize what it is.

Ed Bernero: 

But they all start with something real. Because this kind of a show … see, not only did it have to be Arthurian, but one of the things we had starting was the writers tended to make what they do magical. Right? It’s like okay, you tell me that they figured XYZ out. Tell me what in this. You can’t just come in and say, “They figured that out.” You have to tell me the path to that. What did you see at the scene, and what did that lead to, and why did this happen? Because I always felt like if what they did became magical, that people would stop watching the show. That they have to believe that what they’re doing is possible. That they see this, they see that, they put this together.

Ed Bernero: 

And I think that’s what the delicious thing of the show is. Is you try to figure it out too. So we tried to make sure that there was never anything magical in the profiling. So we figured out the cases that would most match their arc, and then do the arc. I don’t know that other procedurals do it that way. I think that that’s kind of unique to us.

Kary: 

So let’s use that as a segue into talking about the two episodes that we’ve seen. I mentioned to the students before we screened it that “Omnivore” is from season four, episode 18. And then “100” is season five, episode-

Ed Bernero: 

Right.

Kary: 

So why don’t you give us backstory into how you came up with the idea of the Reaper, and then how you developed Hotch’s arc over the course of the two years.

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah. It’s kind of an interesting story. Andrew Wilder’s a writer who had been on the show from the beginning. And he’s a gun guy. He’s got tons of guns. He likes to go shooting. And he talks about guns all the times. And he always wanted to do a killer that killed with guns, but that’s not what serial killers do. They don’t … it’s just sort of like, “Andrew, stop it. That’s not what they do.”

Ed Bernero:

So he came up with this idea of a guy who kills every kind of person every kind of way. And I said, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” And he goes, “And it starts with him shooting a bunch of people on a bus.” So I’m like, “All right. Do your gun guy.” So it started with a guy that did a gun. But then I had this realization, if he kills people the way you say he does, all kinds of people all kinds of ways, we can’t catch him. It’s like how … what are we using to profile him if he changes his MO, if he changes his signature, if he changes everything about him. It kind of like highlights the flaw in what we do.

Ed Bernero: 

So it was the first character that we did that we kept alive. It was like, “Well, we have to have a special way to catch this guy.” And people would come and pitch for it. “I want to do the Reaper. I want to do the Reaper.” And I’d be like, “Okay, tell me.” And it would be like reject it. It just didn’t work. And there’s an episode at the end of, I think, season five where the Reaper attacks, or season four, attacks Hotch. And shoots him at the end of the season. In between these episodes.

Ed Bernero: 

And then the 100th episode I thought, “Okay, now. We need to figure out a way to catch the Reaper. Because that’s kind of something special.” It’s the only guy that we had hanging out there, only guy or woman, that hadn’t been caught. Did anyone notice the name of the writer of the 100th episode? Of the one you just watched? No. It’s the first initial of all the writers. Because every writer wrote one of those little sequences in the … so I wanted everyone to be able to participate in the 100th episode. Everyone who had been on the show for 100 episodes. I can’t remember what the name is, but it’s actually a registered name at the WGA. Every writer on the show got one eighth of a script fee.

Ed Bernero: 

That’s why we did it the way we did with those little talking to the FBI. Every writer wrote a different version of those. The writers who like … when you do a show, there’s writers that are like, “I love writing A.J., I love writing A.J.” So we would say, “Okay, Erica you write the A.J. one, you write the …” Because everyone kind of has a character that they fall in love with. Except Reid, everyone loves Reid.

Kary: 

So you came up with the idea for the Reaper, and you played out that first episode.

Ed Bernero: 

And he was the only one left to do in the 100th episode. And there was another thing that we had written on the board from the first day. One of the other ways that I look at a show is there has to be a recognizable family in the show. Family structure. There has to be a Dad, there has to be a Mom, there has to be a sibling rivalry. Something that you sitting at home can recognize in the show, because I think that’s … because we’re in your living room, right? Well I guess now we’re on computers at Starbucks.

Ed Bernero: 

But in the beginning we were in your living rooms. I always felt like to be invited in … every successful show in the history of television has a family in the center of it. ER has a family. It’s an identifiable family. You can pick out Anthony Edwards as the Dad. He does all the Dad things. George Clooney was the crazy uncle when it started. So that’s something that I also look at very carefully in the show. And one of the things we had written on the board was, “Hotch can never cry.” We felt like if Hotch cries, the show’s over.

Ed Bernero: 

So the two things we did in “100” is I said, “We have to catch Reaper, and Hotch has to cry. Because it’s the first and only time that he ever cried.” So those were the two things going into it. And we sat down. It was a very, very, very collegiately put together episode. And all the writers were on set when we were directing it. It was really kind of a fun sort of party for us to go through. 

Kary: 

So talk to me about the visual style of the show. And how that was established. I know you directed many of the episodes over the course of the seasons you were there.

Ed Bernero:

Sort of another secret about Criminal Minds is it’s never, to me, been a procedural show. It’s been a horror show. We make sure that the opening of the … and there’s a reason why I’m saying it this way. Because it has to do with the way the show looks and the way the show feels. You can’t come to me and pitch okay, so rich guys from Beverly Hills are getting killed. Because that’s not enough everybody. I want you to be able to feel like that could be you or your dad or your brother. That it feels everyman.

Ed Bernero: 

Almost every episode of the show has an everyman quality to it. We tried to start in neighborhoods that looked just like everybody else’s neighborhood. We don’t start in nightclubs, we don’t start in … we always try to start in a place like home. And the show … I never wanted to do … there’s not a lot of camera tricks in it. Because I very much want you to feel the whole time like this could be happening to you. The camera, the only thing I tell the directors … and I really encourage directors to direct. We don’t have rules. We don’t give directors rules. But we do tell them that, “Always have a point of view.”

Ed Bernero: 

What is the camera? Who is the camera? The camera’s a person. So who is the camera? Don’t put cameras in the ceiling, and cameras in the floor. Unless you can tell me that’s a person laying on the floor, or that’s God watching. Or something like that. Have a POV of the camera, because the audience has to feel like they could be in the middle of this with these people. So that’s kind of the visual style of it, is we tried to make it not move too fast. We tried to make the camera moves be normal pans, like no faster than you would look somewhere.

Kary: 

Talk to me about post. And editing and sound mixing, music.

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah, that, by the way, is the place I think where showrunners are mostly necessary. And I think it’s why some showrunners are successful on multiple shows, and some just kind of do one or two shows. It’s because, I think, that if you are able to make the show, at the end of day, look like all the other episodes. And make it feel like the same show, and make it … it’s the last rewrite. Editing is the last rewriting. Because you’d be stunned at how much you thought you needed that, when you get into that editing room, you don’t need.

Ed Bernero: 

I love editing. Editing is … I like writing, and then editing is pretty close on the heels of that. I’m in the middle of editing a show now that I spent all day just kind of going, “Try this. Try that. Flip that negative. Turn the light on from that side.” It’s just kind of a cool place to play. You know, Criminal Minds is like any other network show, we only have a finite amount of time to edit them. We’ve usually got four days. And we’ve got to post an episode in four days and get it on.

Ed Bernero: 

We do things like someone will come from pitching an episode of Criminal Minds, to it being on the air, is generally about six weeks. Six or seven weeks. That’s writing the scripts, shooting them, editing them, getting them on the air. That’s all we’ve got. It’s one of the reasons, I think, it’s so unfair that cable shows and network shows all get lumped into the same thing for awards. Because it’s not even the same business. Something like Game of Thrones, they take years to put that together. But it is what it is.

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Kary: 

What were your influences cinematically? And I ask that in a two-pronged way. Number one, generally speaking, what were the movies or television shows that made you want to get into the business, want to do that? And then specifically, for Criminal Minds, you’ve described very eloquently how you approach the show visually, where did you get those ideas? Or those points of view?

Ed Bernero: 

First question, by far my favorite movie, and the movie I watch constantly over and over … and there’s a scene in that movie that if I could write a scene that good, I would stop. It’s because I would just go write something different. It’s that movie called It’s a Wonderful Life. I know that’s a weird thing for people … it would be the last thing you think of. But there are things that happen in that movie that I try to do in every episode of television. Like the beginning has to match the end.

Ed Bernero: 

I developed a style of writing, like I write up to the middle, and then I write the end. And then I make the middle of the next part make sure it matches perfectly to the end. There’s no deus ex machinas in that show. Everything that happens in the end is set up in the beginning of that movie, and it’s something that I pull into … like the little boy hiding in the thing happens in the beginning of the show. It can’t just happen in the end, where he’s hiding in the cabinet. Working the case.

Ed Bernero: 

There’s things like the first episode of Third Watch that I wrote had a … I needed a character’s radio not to work. And it couldn’t just not work. So what I had is I had him check out a radio at the beginning of the episode, and the radio guy didn’t like him, so he gave him a radio that was … if you turn it on it’s full blast. So all day his partner’s telling him, “Turn that fucking radio off.” Because every time it would go off it would be full blast in the car. And I’ve had that happen to me. And you’d turn the radio off, but then when you need the radio, it’s off. But it’s set up from the beginning.

Ed Bernero: 

That’s all stuff like that from Wonderful Life. That everything has to be set up. And it just makes it delicious. It’s also difficult sometimes with network notes, because they want to pull something out. They go, “I don’t think we need that look.” That’s what happens in the fifth … you guys got to be there. I’m always arguing with them about why things have to be there. But that movie is the movie that influences almost everything.

Ed Bernero: 

As far as television, NYPD Blue was a … once that came out here that really sort of shocked me at how good it was. And how good it felt with how little story they actually told. That show was always … I don’t know if you guys know anything about the history of that show, but David Milch is the voice of that show. And he’s notoriously late. Like that show ended up being, the last couple of years, David would be onset telling them what to say, and then they would write it down. And the script would be published after. He would just say, “You say this, and you say that, and you say this.”

Ed Bernero: 

But if you watch that show, the way that they used all the cinematic stuff, it’s not that much story. It ends up being a very small amount of story that they tell, but that manages to carry a lot of weight because of who’s doing it. Because of how good Dennis Franz was. And early on, Starsky & Hutch, and I loved Starsky & Hutch. People don’t realize Starsky & Hutch was a really, really violent show for its time. So those are kind of the shows that inspired me.

Ed Bernero: 

But also, Criminal Minds is a collaboration. Glen Kershaw was the DP at the beginning of the show, when we didn’t know what it was going to be. And the pilot was shot in Vancouver, and then because of Mandy Patinkin it moved to Los Angeles. We shoot in Glendale. We’ve never left Glendale. Which is … people who tell you now that you can’t make a show in Los Angeles, bullshit. I’ve been making one for 12 years in Glendale. A show that’s ostensibly in every state in the union. We go everywhere. We just have to change plant pots and it looks, “Oh, now we’re in New Mexico.”

Ed Bernero: 

But we had to figure out … because Vancouver looks entirely different than anywhere else in the world. You guys must know X-Files, right? You know the way that X-Files looks? That kind of smoky overcast way? That’s totally Vancouver. In fact, the show changed when it moved to LA in like season ten, I think they moved to LA. So we had to figure out a way to kind of not make it look like that. Because we wanted it to be a horror show, but we didn’t want to hit people on the head that it was a horror show.

Ed Bernero: 

So there’s a lot of people involved in making a show look the way it looks. There’s directors come in. You’re careful who you pick for the first ten directors, because they have to be people that you are really cool with. And you could say, “Uh, let’s try it this way, let’s try it that way.” Because we’re trying to figure it out. So yeah, it’s a lot of people. It’s not just me. I’m really happy with how it looks. It feels like a family.

MUSIC BREAK

Kary: 

So let’s talk a bit about the cast, and the characters particularly. So without getting into the minutiae of the Arthurian parallels, in the initial-

Ed Bernero: 

I dig that though.

Kary: 

In the initial season, Hotch and Mandy Patinkin were kind of both co-leads. Is that right?

Ed Bernero: 

No. It was always Mandy Patinkin was the lead. Then when he left, what we were looking for was another lead. Although it flushes out as an ensemble, there’s clearly a lead. In most of this stuff, it goes by numbers on the call sheet. And that is actually determined by their salaries. Doesn’t really have anything to do with saying like, “You’re his boss, or you’re …” But no, it was widely … he was definitely the lead of the show.

Kary: 

So give us a sense of the … who each character was in the family that you were-

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Definitely Hotch is the father. If people have a father question to ask, they always go to Hotch. Definitely Mandy was the mother. Was emotion. What I mean by mother is less gender-related and more emotion. That he’s the character that if you have an emotional problem you go to. Or who can solve those kind of things and is more apt to hug you and is more apt to tell you you’ll be okay. Which is not gender-related. It’s just sort of role-related.

Ed Bernero: 

And then definitely Morgan. And at the time it was Lola Glaudini, when I first took over, were the brother and sister. And they had sibling rivalry. And Matthew was the little brother that they all protected. One of the problems when I first started the show is I put together a poster and said, “They all look the same. They all have dark hair. They all kind of look the same.” So we introduced Garcia and JJ to try to make the cast look a little bit different. To look a little bit lighter, to have characters who are a little bit lighter. Because it’s such a dark subject matter.

Ed Bernero: 

And Garcia, we just let go. That’s Kirsten. She came in and she goes, “Would it be cool if I had a lot of like toys on my …” I’m like, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” When you look at that room that’s Garcia’s, that’s all Kirsten. Did all of that. She kind of brought all of that avant garde stuff to that character.

Kary: 

And did you know early on that she was going to be the Merlin of the show? 

Ed Bernero: 

I knew we needed one. And that character was actually a male who you just saw his mouth in the pilot. That was the original plan for him. Kirsten was cast after the pilot was finished. It was just … we slug … if something is going to be shot later on, we slug in what they say. They’ll be a slug line that says, “This is Garcia says bah, bah, bah, bah.” That was the way that it was presented to the network, was without a Garcia. And then we saw everybody, and I always like to have the casting director bring someone in that’s totally wrong. Like look at this description of this character, now bring someone who’s absolutely not that. And that was Kirsten. And it was like, “Holy shit was she fresh.” It just made the whole thing like pop off the page.

Ed Bernero: 

But I knew I needed a Merlin, by that point. I needed someone to … we were already in breaking stories and we realized that it’s a five-act show, plus a teaser. So in the fourth act, which is generally the third act, the fourth act we were always bumping into, “Okay, but how do we get from here to there?” Which is the problem they have in real life. It’s like, so we’ve got all of this information about this person, how does that get us to where he is? Or where she is? And that’s what we invented … we needed Merlin for. I knew we needed someone to, say, cull all that information into that computer or something and come out with an answer at the end. So that’s how Garcia was created.

Kary: 

Let’s talk about the network, the studio, and the evolving success of the show. And then the-

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah. The show was never supposed to be successful. We got dug by the press bad before it came on. It was like, “Oh, it’s all about violence against women.” And then Mark Gordon made this unfortunate joke where he said, “That’s what we were trying to do, we wanted to do as much violence against women as possible.” It was like, “Oh, God, please stop talking.”

Ed Bernero: 

So it was never supposed to be a critical … it was never a critical hit. The audience just loved it. From the beginning. And it’s been … our kind of core audience are the people who they said wouldn’t watch it, which are women. Especially sort of like middle-age women. Like your moms. I don’t know why. It’s not like we set out to get them. I think that they like to know that someone is out there making this better. I think that that’s basically it. It’s like they can sit down and watch an episode, they don’t have to watch 12 episodes. They know that someone’s going to catch the bad guy and put the dragon … Arthurian. They know that the knights are going to go out and fix it and everything’s going to be better again. I think it’s comforting. It’s kind of like yams. It’s just kind of comfort food.

Ed Bernero: 

But it was never supposed to be that way. Everyone said it was going to be … it wouldn’t make 13 episodes. Ha, ha.

Kary: 

What-

Ed Bernero: 

There was something else you asked me in that too. Oh, I wanted to tell you this. Okay, this is a secret. All right? The reason the show is called Criminal Minds, nobody tell anybody. I got called right before it went on, because the head of the network that it’s on had just done a bunch of press and called it QuantEEco. A bunch of times. And they didn’t want to tell him that he was wrong. So they asked me if I could change it, so I could some up with a different name for the show, so he wasn’t calling everyone and telling them, “Quantico‘s going to be great.”

Ed Bernero: 

So we named it Criminal Minds, and he’s never called it QuantEEco since. But now he has a show called QuantEEco.

Kary: 

That’s pretty genius.

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah. Okay. That’s network. That’s what working with networks is like. “Hey, we don’t wanna say that he’s wrong.” Okay. Although Criminal Minds ended up being a much better name, I think.

Kary: 

How many seasons were you on?

Ed Bernero: 

It’s in its 12th season. I’m not on it anymore. For the same reason I left the police department, I had to leave the show. After seven years I was like, “I just can’t live in this world anymore. I can’t spend my all day thinking about serial killers and catching them.” So I ended up turning it over to Erica Messer, who was on the first day with me and is doing a great job since.

Ed Bernero: 

Although, I won’t watch the show. Just because I know that I would be unhappy, and I don’t want to be unhappy. Because she deserves the right to do the show that she wants to do. And I’ve heard from people that it’s more violent than it used to be. Because I liked it to be … you didn’t see nearly as much as you thought you saw on the show. Like this last … you saw what the result of Hotch beating that guy was, but you never saw him get beat. You never saw … we cut away to pictures of him as a bad guy. And I always felt that your mind is much scarier than anything we could film anyway, so …

Kary: 

Audience reaction to the show that you get anecdotally. People who come up to you-

Ed Bernero: 

Here’s the thing. Criminal Minds was … there’s a couple of reasons that the show has been successful, in a number of ways. Criminal Minds had two studios, and a network. None of them could agree on who could put it online. So Criminal Minds was never available online until like the 11th season, the 10th season. So the only way you could watch Criminal Minds was on television.

Ed Bernero: 

So it kept being repeated over and over and over, because it was the only way you could … Audience Network bought it, and they have marathons of it. And this network bought it, and they had marathons of it. Because there was no other way to watch it. You couldn’t go on iTunes, you could go on … and I always felt that that was one of the things that made us so successful. Certainly financially successful.

Ed Bernero: 

And the other thing is it was the beginning of the Internet. It was the beginning of … I used to reach out and talk to the … there were fan groups that started up, and I would assign a writer to go talk to them. Like, “Get on. Talk to them. Find out what they’re talking about.” And we sort of … we even had, for a short while, we had a phone that we gave the number out on the show, and that phone was on our cart. On our video cart at Video Village. And people would call it all the time. And whoever was there would just talk to them. Matthew loved it. Matthew Gubler. Loved that phone. He was like, “The phone’s ringing, the phone’s ringing.” He would come running around the corner and he would answer and talk to whoever called.

Ed Bernero: 

But it was kind of the beginning of audience participation in the show. And we embraced it fully. And now that’s kind of a normal thing. Joss will talk to anybody. JJ talks to anybody. But that kind of start with Criminal Minds was one of the first things to do it. And it was kind of an accident. I was just like, “There’s groups talking about us? Go there. Find out what they’re saying.” They needed to learn that we’re 12 episodes ahead of them, so we can’t really … they can’t really give us notes.

Ed Bernero: 

But it was fun. We had them come out. We had groups come out and tour the facility and get some swag and go back home. I thought that was an important thing to do, is kind of reach out to these folks that are out there. And it’s a lot of fun too. By the way, I’ve never won a Criminal Minds trivia contest. Like people … I can’t believe people … it’s like, “What’s Hotch’s brother’s name?” Hotch’s got a brother? It’s like I don’t even remember that he had a brother. It’s amazing, the stuff that people remember. And I’m terrible at it. I’m terrible. I always have to call our script supervisor and go, “Hotch has a brother?” “Yeah, Aaron.” “Really?”

Commercial break for Crime Story Dot Com.

Kary:

Tell us about the transition to Mandy Patinkin to Joe Mantegna. And did Joe serve a different role in the family than Mandy did?

Ed Bernero: 

All right. So Mandy Patinkin called me before the first read-through of the third season. We do read-throughs of every episode, the day before we start shooting. And he said, “I’ll see you in a half an hour.” And that is, I swear to you, the last time I’ve ever talked to him. He’s never spoken to me again. I have no idea what happened. He talked to other people, said there was creative differences. I don’t know with who, because we never had a discussion about anything.

Ed Bernero: 

I mean, we called the police. I thought he got into an accident on the freeway. We were expecting him. We waited for an hour and a half for him. So first of all, what happened is Thomas said, “Oh, so I’m number one now?” Which is like, “No. We’re going to find another number one.” And we had to kind of do … it’s like, did you guys ever see the movie Wag the Dog? All right. It’s like that moment when Dustin Hoffman is like, “This is producing.” Okay, that sucks. The lead in the show just isn’t showing up, so now we have to call our families and say we’re not coming home for three days.

Ed Bernero: 

Because we have to … we’re ten episodes ahead. So there’s 10 episodes that have to be thrown out and re-broken and figure out how he’s not there anymore. We have to put that story in. We have to introduce someone else. We have to … we saw a lot of, lot of, lot of actors. We saw a lot of big name actors that would have been just terrible. You’ve got to be really careful who you put as number one. And then we met with Joe, who in the midst of me telling him this kind of nebulous idea that I had … because we have to check … what we’d have to do because it was … you’d meet Harvey Keitel, that can’t be the same character that you’re pitching to Joe Mantegna. There are two … so you’d be sitting in the room with him sort of making shit up. Going, “And then, he owns an Italian ice stand.”

Ed Bernero: 

But in the midst of it, I told him that I used to be a cop. And he says, Joe says, “What?” I said, “I used to be a cop.” He goes, “Where?” I said, “In Chicago.” He goes, “This show is run by a Chicago cop?” And I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “I’ll do it.” I said, “Well, the character-” He goes, “I don’t give a shit. I’ll do it.” He goes, “I got to see what happens.” He goes, “I have to be on a show that’s run by a Chicago cop.” Because he’s from Chicago. So he ended up being like my uncle. He’s the greatest human being ever.  He’s not quite … we still invested the emotional stories in him, and he’s able to do it. He’s just not quite the same as … look, it’s a subtle thing when I say the Mom and the Dad. It’s not anything that you would know necessarily. It’s just something that we know that’s kind of the cement of the family.

Kary:

So before the class I collected questions from the students that they had for you and I’m going to read from some of those now. 

Kary:

As a former police officer, what are some of the cardinal sins you notice in cop dramas and crime dramas?

Ed Bernero: 

“What do we got?” “What have we got?” We actually do that as a joke. When we were cops. We’d come up and do like, “What have we got?” Every case on television or movies at some point goes to a strip bar, that’s not real. We don’t always have to go through strip bars to get to solving a case. There’s almost never parking right in front.

Ed Bernero: 

You know what drives me fucking crazy? Law & Order. They’re investigating a murder, and the people they’re talking to don’t even stop whatever they’re doing. Like a guy’s taking the garbage out, and the two detectives are walking next to him going, “I’m sorry, what did you see?” “I don’t know.” It’s like, put the fucking garbage can down. It’s a murder investigation. It drives me insane.

Ed Bernero: 

And you know, CSI has caused a lot of real life trouble for prosecutors. Because audiences now expect that. They expect there to be a moment, even if you’ve got confessions and you’ve got … they’re like, “Well, where’s the CSI moment? Where’s the bum, bum, bum.” Which doesn’t really happen. Very rarely does it happen. So I actually am cognizant of that. I try not to have our cops do things that people are going to expect that they do and it’s just not done. 

Like, “What do we got?”

Kary:

OK here’s another one. What was the transition like for you from writer to director? 

Ed Bernero: 

The way I write … and I actually always feel a little bit like a fraud when I direct, because I know there’s people who would give anything to do that, and I don’t really care that much about it. It’s not that … it’s not what I love. I love writing. I love coming up with the story. I love sitting in rooms with writers. I love editing. I love all that stuff. The shooting of it is …

Ed Bernero: 

You know, Alfred Hitchcock used to say that the shooting of it is the most boring part of it. And it is. It’s like [inaudible 00:56:47] prep. Once it was prepped, he would fall asleep in the chair. They would have to wake him up and say, “Say, cut. Say, cut.” My directing came out of the way I write. There’s sort of a number of different ways that people write. And my style is, I see it happen, and then I write it down. I don’t feel like I’m imposing myself on it. I feel like it’s happening in front of me. And I’m like, “Oh, I can’t believe Matthew said that.” Or, “I can’t believe that Morgan said that.”

Ed Bernero: 

So it was kind of the next step to me was I’ve already seen it, so let me see if I could transfer that into telling someone how to make that. And for me, it’s always been unfairly easy, because I’ve always been the boss. So I can say, “We’re stopping here. We’re going to drop that. We’re going to omit …” Things that other directors can’t do. They have to kind of direct scared. They direct like, “I don’t want them to think I didn’t get that coverage.” But I would be like, “Fuck the coverage. We’re fine. No one’s going to fire me.” So I’ve always been the boss.

Ed Bernero: 

So it’s always been kind of easy for me. Of the things that I do, the thing that I enjoy the least is directing. Not that I don’t love it. I mean, I love all of it. But that’s probably the thing that I wouldn’t miss if I just spent my time writing. Because that’s what I love. Put my headphones on, fall into a world and watch episodes happen and be surprised at what Doctor Reid said and be surprised at JJ. That’s what I kind of love to do.

Kary:

This student writes: One of the things I really love about Criminal Minds is that there are lots of twists that are equally horrific and thrilling and also very grounded. What is the secret to writing in that way? 

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah. That’s very, very, very on purpose. We spend a lot of time with what I call bullshit pitches. I call bullshit, I call bullshit. They’ll be like, “Now, Garcia, I’m looking for guys who live way beyond their means in———- South Florida.” “There’s nine of them.” “Bullshit.” Like what database is that that you looked in that people in Miami living beyond their means? Bullshit.

Ed Bernero: 

So all of that stuff has to get handed … it’s like the last sanding of it. When you pitch the story, the last sanding of it has to be … you have to pass the bullshit moments. Or as Simon calls them, “Bollocks.” That’s British for bullshit. So we very carefully try to make sure that I can see that happening. That that’s something that I believe can happen. And scary is always the first, scary rather than gory.

Ed Bernero: 

You know, it’s funny, I’ve only gotten one, in the whole time I was there, in the seven years I was there, one note on violence on that show. And it was, “Can you make the blood darker?” Because they couldn’t’ tell that it was blood that JJ stepped on on a body part or something like that. Oh no, redder. “Can you make the blood redder?” That’s the only blood note I ever got on Criminal Minds. But it’s very carefully made to be a horror show, and not a cop show.

Kary:

What training did you have as a writer? 

Ed Bernero: 

Well, my training for writing consisted of reading Screenplay, and a book called How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, by Viki King. That’s my whole education in writing.

Kary:

Do you think it was better that it was as simple as that?

Ed Bernero: 

Well, I don’t know that it was simple. That was just my journey. And then I was around people like David Milch and Steven Bochco and John Wells and great sort of writer producers that I sort of absorbed everything from. That’s kind of my biggest skill, I think, is sucking up … part of that’s from being a cop. Because I was a cop in a district that had projects, and it had $100 million homes on Castlewood. It’s like Studs Terkel lived in my district.

Ed Bernero: 

So in the course of a day, I would talk to people from every kind of socioeconomic strata, and you have to fit in. You can’t talk to a guy on the street and talk to him like you’re talking to a guy on Castlewood. They’ll be like, “What?” You have to be able to communicate on whatever level you’re at. And I think that’s one of the things that I learned as a cop, because I was sort of able to absorb things without people knowing it.

Ed Bernero: 

I also get angry a lot … David Milch was, to me, he knew that I didn’t go to college. So he was kind of an intellectual bully. I like to be kind and say he was forcing me to learn these things, but I think he was just kind of making fun of me. But he would say things about a book that he knew I hadn’t read, because it’s like books you read in college. But I would go home and my wife and I would go to Super Crown, and I would sit on the floor of Super Crown and read it that night.

Ed Bernero: 

So I would be like, “Fuck you, you’re not going to do that to me again.” So the next time he did it, I’m going to be like, “Oh yeah, chapter 12.” So I kind of forced myself into learning things in that way as well. Now it’s easy.

Kary: 

Rage is a great motivator.

Ed Bernero: 

Yeah, it’s done a lot of great things for me. It really has. My boss told me, in the police department when I quit … when I quit, no one knew how to quit. I went to the office … I stayed until the morning, so they come in at 10:00ish. And said, “So I need to resign.” They’re like, “What?” “I need to resign.” They’re like, “I don’t know how you do that.” They had to call down and find out. They could fire the hell out of you, but no one ever quits the Chicago Police Department.

Ed Bernero: 

So my district commander made me wait. His name was … it was an Italian guy, what was his name? Fungili? Francela. And he made me wait on my last day to have an exit interview, which I’ve since found is bullshit. There’s no such thing as an “exit interview.” Just sign the damn thing. That I didn’t steal my baton. So I wait, and he comes in, and they take me into his office. And he’s got this little piece of paper in front of him. And he doesn’t look at me. He says, “You’re moving to Hollywood?” I said, “Well, Los Angeles. I don’t know if Hollywood’s really a place.” He goes, “To be a writer?” And I said, “Yeah, I hope so.” And he looks up and he goes, “I think you’re a fucking idiot.” And he signed the thing and gave it to me.

Ed Bernero: 

So when I got my NYPD Blue check for $38,000, which is basically a year’s salary as a police, I photocopied it and wrote, “Not bad for a fucking idiot.” And mailed it to him. I got that one. I started to say before, a lot of people give me credit for quitting my job and moving here, but I look at it like this, I did that with faith in me and my abilities. My wife did it with faith in someone else. And I give her so much credit for having the balls to leave her life too. And say, “If this is what you want to try, I’m going to support you, and you can try it.”

Ed Bernero: 

Because we didn’t have a job. It’s not like I came here and knew I was going to be on Brooklyn South, or knew I was going to be … we didn’t have a job. So I think that she doesn’t get enough credit for … because I wouldn’t have done it without them. I wouldn’t have done it without my kids, who were teenagers at the time. They left their lives. My wife left her life. Ultimately, looking back on it, it looks like it was an easy decision to make. But it could have really gone bad. 

Kary:

We got into this a little but, this student asks about working with the network and dealing with notes from executives.

Ed Bernero: 

It can be difficult. I don’t let it be difficult. I kind of go … like I don’t put other … there’s different ways you can handle notes. Some showrunners say, “Someone on the staff, you handle the notes, you talk to them.” I talk to them. Sometimes it’s easy to just … look, everybody’s just trying to do a job. I don’t take it personally. Sometimes I go, “Yeah, we did that on purpose.” And they go, “Okay.”

Ed Bernero: 

So I don’t have a problem with notes. Our show was kind of at the beginning of the Renaissance of television. I think that shows are much deeper than people think they are. So we’ve kind of been left alone a lot in that way. There’s also kind of this bar of success, when you reach a certain bar, nobody can really tell you anything anyways. So you just …

Ed Bernero: 

I’ll tell you this great story. This is like the greatest note I ever got in the history of Criminal Minds. I’m directing an episode that I wrote, and my assistant comes down and says … I can say his name, because he’s brilliant. “David Brownfield is on the phone. He says you can’t do the ending that you did for this episode.” This is like season three or four. I’m like, “What? I make Criminal Minds.” So I go up on the phone, I said, “Get David Brownfield on the phone. Get David Brownfield on the phone.” I said, “David, I make Criminal Minds. You don’t make Criminal Minds. You don’t decide what episodes I can and can’t do. I make Criminal Minds.”

Ed Bernero:

And he said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I heard that you said I can’t do this ending on the show.” He goes, “No, no, no, no, no. I never said that. What I said was it’s boring.” He said, “You’re right. You make the show. You earn the right to be boring. If you want to be dull, be dull. All I said was it’s boring.” And I’m like, “Fuck, that’s a brilliant note.” Because now I’m like, “Why is this boring?” So I changed the whole ending, but it depends on how notes are delivered.

Ed Bernero:

But yeah, notes are not a problem. It’s just part of the process. Sometimes they’re really helpful too. Sometimes having someone who’s not in the room, you can really convince yourself stuff is brilliant. But there’s different … but you get notes at all different points during the process. Like you get script notes, you get story notes, then you get script notes, then you get cut notes, then you get final notes. So you get notes on music, you get notes on … everybody has a note on something.

Ed Bernero:

But I have found that if you don’t run away from them, if you take them and you … a lot of times on the phone I can say … because they are really respectful. They don’t … sometimes when you read a note, it feels way less respectful than they intended for it to be. Because sometimes I’ll write back, “Well, this sounds like you’re being a dick.” So I like to talk to them. I like to hear them. And yeah, it can be a problem. But there’s a level where they can’t really tell you what to do anymore anyway, so. But yeah. It depends how you look at it. I look at it as a benefit to the show.

Kary:

And my last question, which I ask of all our guests. What is the best piece of advice you ever received or that you wish to share?

Ed Bernero:

Write the script that only you can write. There should be something in it no one knows but you. Does that make sense? Like some emotion, some feeling, something that … because even if it’s an emotion other people feel, they don’t feel it the way you feel it. I’ve been stunned to find out first, as a kid growing up, that my parents didn’t remember my childhood the way I remembered it. And now I’m equally stunned to find out, I’ve got seven grandkids, that my children don’t remember their childhoods the way it happened.

Ed Bernero:

So tell your story. Get it out there. Even if it’s in an episode of … you can do it in an episode of Criminal Minds. But tell your story. Tell something in it that only you can tell. That’s the best advice I can give you, because that’s going to make it jump. That’s going to make it jump. I’ve had assistants that … I encourage them to write. And they’ll send me stuff. And I’ll be like, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.” I’ll read it, I’ll say, “Bullshit. You’re copying Criminal Minds. You’re copying emotion. You’re not writing emotion, you’re copying it.” And I say, “Write the script only you can write.” And then when it comes it’s like, bam, it’s like there. It’s there.

Ed Bernero:

You know David, one of the last people … it was a guy that I met from HBO. David, the cop. The ex-cop that worked … no, at Cinemax. He was an assistant at Cinemax. David. He was an ex Chicago cop. And he sent me a script, I’m like, “Holy shit, that’s it. That’s a story that only this guy can tell.” So that’s the best advice I can give you. And to write everyday. Don’t convince yourself you don’t have time, because that’s just a bullshit excuse. You can write anywhere.

Kary:

Please join me in thanking Ed Bernero for coming in tonight.