*EXCLUSIVE!* Get to Know New CM Staff Writer Erik Stiller!
Toiling away behind the scenes since 2008, this writer has paid his dues. Starting out as a summer intern a couple of days a week, and many key positions since then has led to being appointed staff writer for season 11. Erik shares with us his journey, and his impressions throughout the years, as each position has given him a different perspective, and deepened his understanding of being a part of making our show. Former Executive Producer Janine Sherman-Barrois (who just departed Criminal Minds to pursue her own development deal) had this to say about Erik: “He’s an amazing writer who is so prolific and twisted. We knew after his script last year he should be on staff. He’ll be an amazing addition to the staff & should be an example to aspiring writers to be prepared. When opportunity knocked, he rocked it!”
“It’s all about trying to find the balance for me…”
TJ: Hi Erik, thanks so much for talking to us today. So I’ve read you’ve been with the show about six years, am I right?
ES: Officially, yes! I did start interning with the show though in 2008.
TJ: Nice. Can we start by learning something about you as a person, your background, going way back? Where did you grow up and how did you find yourself writing for television?
ES: Sure! Grew up in the suburbs of Chicago born and raised there my whole life, working class background, my dad owned a small business, my mom worked in offices. Was an only child, so no siblings, and I grew up playing sports, baseball, basketball, football, and then movies and TV were kind of always in the background.
We watched a lot of sitcoms, I grew up in the era of Home Improvement, Wings, Cheers, etc… didn’t watch a lot of drama shows early on. And then deeper into high school TV and movies became less important as other things became more important, and I got super-focused on baseball in particular. And then I went away to school, a small Liberal Arts school in Wisconsin to play baseball, primarily, and while I was there I kinda fell in love with studio arts, painting, drawing… and comic books again.
TJ: Speaking my language, there.
ES: Right! I grew up on comics, but then got away from them in junior high and high school like most things, and got back into them in college with the Marvel/DC renaissance… Brian Bendis’ Daredevil, thought Molina’s artwork was amazing and it was like “what else can I read, what else ya got?” Brian K. Vaughan’s Y the last Man, Watchmen, the whole Alan Moore Swamp Thing (which predates Watchmen)… League of Extraordinary Gentleman was really important to me. From THAT jumping off point I realized that these were literary characters that I had missed somewhere along the line, so I went back and started reading classic Jekyll and Hyde, Alan Quartermaine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and you know, just kinda got tapped into that world.
TJ: There are worse worlds!
ES: Yes, and while I was doing that I got into visual art which was painting and wanting to create comics and all that and I was also a journalism minor. I wanted to get into sports reporting and I reported for one of the local newspapers, doing freelance here and there. And then journalism crashed and burned. Because of the internet everyone was all like “What do we do with journalism now? How does this work? It’s all AP stuff now….” And I was just going “Um, okayyy…” I was kind of at this crossroads and didn’t know what to do. So I thought I’d get a Masters in art. I’ll get a terminal degree and go teach somewhere and I’ll enjoy it, it’ll be fun! I really liked teaching, coaching and things like that.
Then I went back to Chicago and I needed one more class. I said I like movies and I don’t know how they’re written, so I took a screenwriting class, met this great professor, and he was a screenwriter and also a film critic and he walked us through movies. Great, old John Cassavetes movies and things like that. So I approached him and said “I think I want to do this.” And he said “Well do you want to do New York or LA, because those are your two choices.” And I said well I’m super sick of winter, so… I ended up at Loyola Marymount. I liked the small class sizes, it was a really beautiful campus and I went there and thought I could totally see myself there. It was a three year program which was important. I didn’t have a background in it, and two years felt rushed. I wanted to dig into it as much as I could.
One night into my second year, someone told me there was this entertainment industry career class, and people come and do talks and the like. The class was open to anyone to come visit, and one time Rick Dunkle was the speaker, and he was a script coordinator at the time for CM. There was a professor I didn’t know, and the class was letting out, and this professor said “Oh hey, why don’t you talk to Rick about an internship?” And I’ll always be so grateful to that professor who I didn’t know and never even spoke to again – he probably has no idea how he influenced my life!
TJ: Sounds like it was fated to happen.
ES: Yes! So Rick was like “Yeah, absolutely, you’re part of the LMU family. Let’s talk, maybe you can intern!” Which was great, here I am two years into this program and I’m thinking I want to do television. Then I think it was a couple of days later, the Writer’s Strike happened. And I thought ‘Well, that was an awesome 48 hours, that was so cool’. I had my foot in the door at a TV show, and now it’s done. Because who knew what was going to happen, where he’d be, etc… and he didn’t really know me.
So six months go by, it’s around March, I’m out of town on spring break, and I get an email from Rick out of the blue! “Hey man, you know we’re back in business, I was just thinking about you… do you want to come interview?”
So I interviewed and Rick asked “Do you want to do this?” and I said YES, and he asked how often can you come, and I said as much as you’ll have me. So basically, during the summer for two to three days a week I drove an hour and a half each way in LA traffic because I just wanted to be a part of it, and see it, and it was great! I met Ed, and I met Erica, and a whole bunch of other people like Rick, and Kim Harrison who has shaped everything I’ve done since then.
Then the summer ended and Rick was like “Do you want to come back?” and I was all “Yeah! Can I come back?” He said “Absolutely!” So my third year at Loyola I was running the production office, going to class and also interning here a couple days a week. Then season 4 Rick did his freelance script, and someone else was filling in as script coordinator, so I dayplayed as a PA, then season 5 came and there were no openings. So I felt okay, at least I have some good experience and know some people, and I was faxing my resume, emailing around for an interview, then I got a call from Kim (on my honeymoon!) – can you come in right now as PA? My wife was all “If you need to go I totally understand”- she’s amazing.
So then season 5 I was writer’s PA, season 6 reshuffling due to Suspect Behavior, and Kim got promoted to staff writer. She said I should go for Ed’s assistant and within a day or so Ed emailed me back and said “No problem, sounds great.” So for season 6 I was one of his assistants, and then at the end of 6 there was another reshuffling when Ed and Simon left. When Erica became showrunner she said “Well, what do you want to do?” I said “I’d love to be in the room. If I can be a writer’s assistant and that’s a possibility, I’d love to do that. So seasons 7 and 8 I did that, season 9 Erica promoted me to script coordinator. Season 10 I did script coordinator and I wrote Breath Play, and now season 11 I’m on staff.
TJ: With your familiarity with the scripts and process of the show, I imagine this feels like a natural progression. How did they tell you that you made it to staff?
ES: We shot Breath Play, Hanelle had finished her director’s cut of that I believe, and Erica poked her head in my office and asked if I had a minute, I said of course! And she said…. I’d like to have you on staff next year so keep that in mind. I was just “Yes please, and thank you!” It took me until the 2nd week of June for it to really sink in and we’d already been back here for two weeks.
Just because I’ve been here in so many different capacities, I’ve done… all my adult milestones have been while I’ve been at Criminal Minds. I’ve gotten more out of it than I have ever dreamed. I was just thrilled to be an intern here, and then to work through the process and eventually become a staff writer here, is like ‘pinch me.’ It’s unbelievable. I’m so thankful to everybody who’s helped me through the process.
TJ: I’m so happy for you! Such a better story than someone who just sashays in off the street, “Ha-HA I’m a writer!”
ES: Thank you! Yes and don’t get me wrong there are times during the process when you see peers, you know, “sashay off the street” like you said. They’re all ‘I have a development deal now’, or ‘I sold a hit movie’, or I’m a writer on a show now’, and you say “Ugh, it’s not even a talent thing, how does that even happen?” In retrospect now, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. I don’t know if emotionally I would’ve been able to handle that at 25. I feel like having had that previous experience lended weight to what came before.
I’ve been here in LA for ten years now, and in that very first writing class I took in Chicago, the professor said “If you do this every day for ten years, you might get something out of it.” And I was sitting there doing the math and I was thinking okay, alright, I’ve actually been here 9 years and 5 months. So it happened like he said it would.
TJ: How did the concept for Breath Play come about, and how much research did you have time to do? You seemed to handle the topic very sensitively, very non-exploitive. Was that tricky considering the subject matter?
ES: It was. It was. Because the minute you get into an area where you think you’re going to exploit something, that’s a bunch of red flags across the board. But then you’re also thinking that I want to do more than pay lip service to what this is. If you say this is S&M, this is BDSM, what does that mean, let’s dig into it which was the interesting part of the research, and I loved the research in general.
It came about because the film, Fifty Shades of Grey, was in the zeitgeist… and we were looking at all the things and we pitched it, and the studio loved it, they said run with it. So we said okay cool, and for me, within that framework, the father/daughter stuff was important to me. Parenthood is a favorite universal theme, and the ability to explore that is super important to me. So then we got that approved, and Ticona (Joy), our researcher who’s now a writer on Beyond Borders (the newly-minted CM spinoff starring Gary Sinise), gave me a bunch of stuff, articles, podcasts… she asked if I wanted the book Fifty Shades.
I felt like I should read it, should know what that looks like. So I read it (all on a Sunday when my wife was watching football, weird role-reversal!), then put it away, and focused on what I wanted to with that, and took the terminology from the research and the book to buttress the profiling, while I could lean into the UnSub’s story that I wanted to. And then the notes process, which is the same for everybody when things get added and things go away… and then I got to work with Hanelle, which was absolutely fantastic.
TJ: Is Hanelle Culpepper your favorite director of all time?
ES: (Laughs) Absolutely – she certainly is right now! She’s great, we talked early on about the themes, and the UnSub’s story, and she visually… she talked about what she wanted to accomplish and we tried to write to that. And she was really great at the back and forth, and I was feeling that this is all I imagined it to be, and even better!
In the writer/director process you hear both positive and negative experiences all across the board, and I always thought if I could just find something in the middle I’d be so thrilled. But it exceeded all my expectations, and then seeing it in the cut, in the final episode. She took what I wrote and was able to visually improve on it. I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’
– Tari’s Note: I asked Hanelle what she had to say about working with Erik. Here’s her take on this fella:
I can say Erik is one of those people you work with and realize not only why he got the break, but also that he will go the distance. He’s talented, collaborative, open to ideas, and able to knock curve balls out of the park. But also, he’s a genuinely good human which matters just as much as the rest of the stuff when you work the long, hard hours that we do. I had a great time working with him!
TJ: What are you looking forward to most about this coming season, and can you tell us what you hope to contribute in your first year as a full-time writer?
ES: Sure, I think all the writers bring different perspectives and different experiences. I want to do the sports, art, and being a father background into the perspective. I’m hoping that’s what I’m able to contribute. Because I’m the new person, I can ask questions that may not get asked otherwise. “Why, why is this happening? And everyone in the room is super cool about filling me in and saying ‘and now we’re able to kind of step it out.’
To me, I’m just thrilled to be able to contribute in that way, and bring my own kind of Midwestern blue collar background to the process along with a parental perspective, and some of the art stuff has leaked into one of the episodes we’re doing. Being in the room – it’s a different muscle. It took a little bit to kind of see where do I fit in in that, and I’m still figuring it out. Being in this constant conversation with people and just figuring out where you fit in. It’s been really cool.
TJ: What do you think about the years pre-2009 of Criminal Minds? Have you seen the earlier seasons? Do you have an opinion about the major tonal shift post season 5?
ES: I have! When I became an intern, Netflix still had discs, pre streaming… the minute I heard, when Rick said I have an internship I immediately binge-watched seasons 1 and 2, and then when I got here I watched season 3. Its been interesting to watch the shifting characters, who’s come and who’s gone and I think that… the tonal shift you’re talking about is all part of that. The longer people are here, the more things change, and I think it’s important getting everyone’s feedback on what makes up these characters. Writers, producers, directors, actors… what can we all bring in that informs the characters?
Any kind of tonal shift is ebb and flow, especially when a show has been on this long. Characters change. The same thing that happens to me needs to happen with the characters. I’ve really enjoyed watching that. You know, pre-me being here, and then since I’ve been here seeing that happen as well. Its been interesting!
TJ: Which one of our heroes do you enjoy or identify with the most?
ES: Probably Rossi. Watching Joe perform is amazing, the laid back way he delivers the profiling, the way he moves his body physically through a scene, everybody respects what he has to say and he’s intense in a very positive way. It’s just a joy to write things for him to say and to think up things for him to do. Maybe that’s partially because Joe is a Chicago guy, who knows?
TJ: Do you have a favorite episode?
ES: Hmm, I don’t think I have a favorite single episode. I have episodes that are more important to me at various times in my life. Breath Play obviously, because that was first experience being on set and going through the full writing process and all of that… Edge of Winter was a favorite script to coordinate. As a script coordinator when you go through that process you get very intimate with the scripts, and I think Edge of Winter and The Itch, which was last season that Breen wrote and Larry Teng directed… the Bruce Zimmerman Cinderella episode (If The Shoe Fits)… Bruce is a phenomenal writer and we got to the table read and the actress who played her was fantastic. Yes, I think those are some of the episodes that speak to me the most, particularly in the past couple of years.
TJ: Virgil told us that he’s good with emotion, and that Breen is the best at the technical profiling stuff. What do you consider to be some of your most solid strengths as a writer for Criminal Minds?
ES: Right now it is an ever-morphing process. As you do more of these episodes it will shift, and in a couple years it’ll be different. I think what I enjoy writing most now are father/daughter scenes, family scenes, the emotional scenes like what Virgil is spectacular at, and how does it translate into my own voice and what I’m able to say with it… and then the profiling! It’s an equation. You take this plus this plus that and end up with Z. It’s all about trying to find the balance for me. And I think from a pure writing standpoint right now, it’s just the emotional stuff that is the most fun, and one of the reasons we write in the first place.
TJ: As someone with such history on the show, how much would you say you’re committed to continuity? Do you consider it a top priority, or something that can sometimes be sacrificed for time or other constraints?
ES: Continuity in terms of character history, I would like to preserve as much as possible, but also it’s a juggling act of… is preserving that thing going to hinder what you’d like to do in the future? I think the ideal solution would be to take that history and morph the future based on that. You can’t retcon experience. Personal history continuity is extremely important. In terms of story continuity, in terms of days and timeline… I’m not as into that, but as long as it doesn’t really ‘stick out’, I’m okay with it. But if something falls away and if someone comes in and goes “This needs to be like this”, I’m always cool with that, too.
TJ: What shows do you watch and enjoy? Are you ever able to set aside your writerly mindset to be fully engaged?
ES: Yeah, you know, I’m like 5 years behind everyone else, but Game of Thrones. I’ve watched 4 entire seasons in about two weeks! What’s interesting and engaging to me is I saw an article where they were talking about how their writers’ room works and how it’s different from our writers’ room. And I want to see how that translates. And then watching the show you get sucked up in the story. So as a writer on a show I’m interested in it too from the production angle. That’s enjoyable for me.
TJ: Several writers including Rick, and Exec Producer Janine Sherman-Barrois left prior to the start of the season. How keenly are those absences felt, and how does it affect the rhythm of the writers room?
ES: So much happiness for their success, but it’s also sad anytime you lose a member of your longtime work family. We’ve seen each other day in and day out for years and then all of a sudden, you don’t. Their absences are certainly felt but it’s also opened a door for people like myself to advance. And in terms of a rhythm to the room, each season is different. No two seem to operate or feel alike, so every June, in a sense, it feels like we’re starting anew.
TJ: We’re all becoming excited about the 11th year, as tidbits start to leak out about the direction of the season (possibility of seeing Diana, Jane Lynch, more personal stories for the team). Many fans are saying they’d like a ‘day in the life’ episode, where a character gets one to themselves, showcasing their particular talent or contribution to the team, but also then going home with them. What does Reid do on his day off, etc… Can you tell us if Erica’s hints of more personal character stories could go in that direction?
ES: I think so, we strive to do that… and sometimes extenuating circumstances happen and they fall by the wayside or they don’t always land. But then sometimes they do land. We’re always striving to do that, and part of our goal is in each episode to see who’s doing a Rossi episode, or Hotch episode, or Reid episode, and then trying to inform that while the case is happening, which is kind of a delicate balance. It can be difficult because sometimes you lose pieces of the personal story because of the urgency of the case. You want to solve that case.
TJ: Gotcha. I guess what I’m asking then is would there ever be an episode that might shift from the formula… like have the focus be on the personal, and have the case in the background?
ES: I don’t think it’s a shift that would ever happen fully. I think, upcoming throughout this season, that they’ll meet in the middle more than they have in the past. I can’t really get into detail yet, but I think there’s going to be a huge overlap in the last half of the season, in particular.
TJ: Where do you stand on showing the UnSub right away?
ES: For me, purely from a fan standpoint I’m fine with it. I like seeing it. As long as the team catches up pretty quick, I’m cool with it. With that said I think each story dictates how much we need to see. Like in Breath Play, seeing the UnSub pretty much throughout worked for that story. I don’t know if hiding him would have gotten us anything more. Bruce did A Place at the Table last year, which was a parlor mystery, and he hid the UnSub for most of it, and that worked for that story. I think there are ways to split the difference. My personal preference is I like seeing it, but at the same time I do understand the mystery that people want preserved. What’s your take on it?
TJ: I’m one who likes the mystery. I don’t like knowing more than the team, initially. That said though, you’re right in that my favorite episode – season 3’s Elephant’s Memory – we see Owen right away and know his background. But the team does too. What they’re doing is laying name to what’s happening. I liked that. So it does depend on the episode.
TJ: Quick word association with the cast!
Jennifer Love: Bubbly
Aisha: Presence – people really notice when she comes into a room.
TJ: What has been one of your favorite moments on the set?
ES: Honestly, the first shot of Breath Play because I had never seen it from that perspective before. I just had to take a step back for a moment and just catch my breath. That moment will just always stick out, forever.
TJ: And being on the show, in general, any special moments you’d like to share?
ES: A lot of great moments… I think this is an over-arching thing, but the continuity of people, the comfort of that, of really great people day in and day out. Working as many different jobs as I have here, I’ve enjoyed seeing different perspectives. Doing all these different jobs has allowed me to reach deeper into the making of the show, in terms of understanding how it all works.
Thank you, Erik Stiller!