Lucky me was able to get the busy-as-all-getout Virgil on the phone for what turned out to be over an hour of back and forth. Find out about the man who’s been with our show for the past three years, where his roots are, and what he does when he’s not pumping life into our heroes at the BAU!
“I’m just a quarterback throwing them a pass…”
TJ: We do know you’re a Chicago boy at heart, and that you were a child actor. But let me get this right, were you born in Chicago? And if so, what brought you to the sunny climes of L.A.? Tell us how this part of your life is different than growing up in the Windy City.
VW: Born and raised in Chicago, yes ma’am. The most obvious difference is the weather, out here we are seeing all this about the Polar Vortex and watching football games so yeah, but I miss Chicago every day. I miss taking trains and buses- the weather sounds so cliché but it’s a big freakin deal. I miss the city feel, miss walking around, neighborhood bars and restaurants, not that LA doesn’t have any of these things, you just have to look a little harder. Don’t get me wrong there are so many wonderful things about LA, like we can go to the beach! You can’t do that in January in Chicago.
TJ: You’re a big boxing and football fan, how do your sports heroes inspire you? Do you have any influential writing heroes, either from literature or the entertainment industry?
VW: Great question, and oh a great many ways. For me Walter Payton and Michael Jordan are in the pantheon of all sports heroes with their work ethic, determination, and grit. Boxing is brutal yet scientific, and it requires intense repetition a lot like writing… athletes talk about ‘the zone’ and a lot of that relates to writing too… you get so deep in the writing – for lack of a better word, in a fog. And in boxing there’s a term “letting your hands go”. It’s when you’re not thinking you are DOING. And the ability to do that comes from intense repetition. – a lot of times when I do write well it feels like I’m just letting my hands go. Some of my best Criminal Minds episodes were written just by letting my hands go.
TJ: When did you decide you needed to be a writer, and how did you get your start in the business? Did you study writing? And what was your first job?
VW: I got cast in The Blues Brothers when I was 8! That’s really when it started, that’s when a light sort of went on inside me and I knew I wanted to be in and around movies. But writing? I really had always written…supported by comic book reading- I have to say that I really learned how to write visually from comic books. More of a Marvel with these great, flawed characters, characters with problems you know – Iron Man had a bad heart, Wolverine was 5’3 (unlike in the movies)…. They had faults, and it was something I connected to. But my first job – I guess it depends on how you look at it but it was in many ways as a Writers PA on Lois and Clark – that’s where I really found TV writing. But my first job technically as a pro writer was on 24… And no, I did not study writing. I went to USC , but got rejected from the film school.…getting rejected from film school was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it forced me to go out and get internships. And my internship at Orion Pictures changed a lot. And when I was a student and then fresh out of college I had NO money. But Writing was free. All you need is pen and paper, and I could afford that. TJ: You’re old enough to have been aware of the first television writing revolution with Norman Lear, The Charleses, Bochco and Milch among others – yet young enough to be working in the midst of the current Golden Age. How does that feel, and did you ever suspect that television writers would come to be so appreciated and scrutinized?
VW: No! Actually no, it’s so funny – I have this discussion all the time with people. It used to be that you could be a feature writer then segue to TV easily, but now everyone is trying to come on the TV train. They’re not making movies like they used to, they aren’t paying what they used to… when I got to Lois & Clark I first noticed the attitude that ‘writer is king’. Feels great, and it’s nice to be getting that respect. But no, I never suspected that. It’s a wonderful time right now… I feel like I have a small toe hold in a certain craggy section of the mountain… maybe more difficult now but in a way it’s not. Kids are grabbing little HD cameras and getting hits on YouTube … it’s interesting and I can’t wait to see how it plays out.
TJ: You’ve been with Criminal Minds almost three years now. Do you have a favorite season? VW: Ah, that’s a great question. I can’t say that I do. They are like kids, all different and I find things to love about all of them. Season 7 was awesome because it was my first season and there was this discovery process. You know, my first episode was just… I just went for it and it was ridiculous, and it worked! And I went for the most absurdist concept, and well, my second episode, A Thin Line, is probably my least favorite of the nine episodes I will have done by the time 9×18 is done.
TJ: What is the best part about being a writer and producer on Criminal Minds? The worst part?
VW: Tough question.The best part, and this is intensely personal – I really feel like I’m living the dream. I have moments, a lot of moments, and I suspect when I stop having them I need to leave here but I just think how did I get here? You know, when I’m in my nice car driving to my cool job on a hit tv show, and who am I? I’m just this kid from Chicago. This fruition of hard work and desire…it’s an affirmation of faith because at one time that’s all I had. Apart from being a father and a husband, it’s the most fulfilling part of my life.
TJ: Which is more difficult to write; the actual cases, or the personal lives of the team?
VW: The cases. Exposition is tough. You have to make sure that all the info is clear. The writing needs to be there to get the information across. Breen is our profiling guy! Everybody uses him for that – if you want to check anything about your profile, any profile, he’s the expert. Not saying he can’t write emotion, because he can. But my strong suit is emotion, weak suit is cerebral.
TJ: Which character are you most comfortable writing for? What episode are you most proud of?
VW: I don’t have a character I’m most comfortable writing, though I do wish I were as clever as Sharon Lee Watson and Kim Harrison with my Garcia dialogue. My favorite episode is a tie between Route 66 and Profiling 101, my least favorite is A Thin Line.
TJ: Walk us through your writing process. From the first keystroke to ‘Fade Out’, what have you found through the years that works best for you? Do you have it down pat or is it ever-changing?
VW: Alcohol! Red wine! No, let me take you through the show’s writing process. There’s a rotation, if you watch the show regularly you can see the rotation. When you are up, I try to come to the table with no less than three ideas, between three and five, though I usually don’t get past two… pitch an idea, and Erica Messer or Janine (Sherman-Barrois, our other Executive Producer) say ‘Okay let’s go with that idea.’ The writer then writes a paragraph and submits it to the network and studio for approval. Then as a group we break the story and put it on the board. And once every beat is on the board we pitch to Messer. Then the writer goes away and writes an outline. Then the writer gets notes from the entire room. Then after that the writer goes away with all the notes and does a draft. After that its another round of notes from the room, then the writer goes off and re-writes the draft. Then you get notes from the studio and network. Then you shoot it! This current writing team, after working three years together, has a strong, effective shorthand and it goes with the procedural nature of the show. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re so successful.
TJ: Do you have any special techniques that help you battle the inevitable anxiety that comes with the big responsibility of writing a hit show? What do you do to unwind?
VW: I box, play video games, and go to the yoga studio. Fighting, good boxing is about relaxing and breathing, and there’s a science to it, great stress relief. If you can breathe and relax when someone is throwing punches at your face and body, you can relax anywhere. I try to go to the gym about 4 days a week, so I’m usually too tired to have any anxiety after boxing.
TJ: Your crucibles were blockbusters like ER and 24. What did you bring from those experiences that you rely on for CM, from a storytelling perspective?
VW: What I brought from 24 is velocity. Writing 24 could be counter-intuitive, big things were little and little things big. An ordinary traffic stop could become huge because it was in real time – “just write the ticket, hurry up, she has to get outta there!” You take a piece of every show you write for. On that show I really learned how to write lean and mean. My shows… I call them fastballs, very straightforward. ER was a broad spectrum of human emotion, and human character. Anyone could walk through those doors, and I could be telling five stories at any given time. The emotional part is more difficult here (on CM), there are no ‘B’ stories here. The closest thing I’ve ever come to a B story is in Route 66, you know, Hotch is having surgery and has a dream about facing the man who killed his dead wife. B stories on this show have to be big, and that was big. But emotional spectrum is hard to do here at CM because let me tell you something: No matter what your problem is, if you have cancer, if your wife cheated on you with your best friend, no matter what it is, if a serial killer is present in your life in any way, shape, or form, that trumps any emotion. Any.
TJ: Are you on set the entire time they are shooting your episode? Do you prefer that the actors stay faithfully on script, or are you okay with improvisation?
VW: Yes, every show is different but that’s how we roll on our set, from call time to wrap, the writer is there every day just to make sure everything makes sense, I’m like a backstop. It’s really situational as far as improvisation goes, it’s all a thousand percent collaborative. Some stuff you let happen, some stuff isn’t a deal breaker. The telltale sign of a good writer/producer is flexibility. As long as the essence stays, every single word isn’t the main thing – it’s the essence of what you write that is key. If you’re rigid, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
TJ: Our team faces a lot of adversity and tragedy in both their personal and professional lives, and you are extremely skilled in writing (believably) the spectrum of emotions they experience. Without prying, can you tell us if you’ve seen tragedy in your own life, and if so, how does it inform you (or not) in writing for the show? Are you ever overly affected by the subject matter?
VW: Great question. Like anybody, I’ve lost people to illness and old age, when adversity happens in any form, you can either run from it, or learn from it, you know? Like from the Lion King. Fight or flight in any situation, you either fold or you grow. I’ve been lucky to have people around me that infused me with a fighting spirit, and I can thank my mom and grandparents for that. Some people think I have a Napoleonic complex because I’m a little guy with big confidence. But I’m not scrappy because I’m short, it’s just my nature. I don’t come from a lot of money, I come from people who work really hard, I come from people who believe in themselves. And as far as personal tragedy or emotion is concerned, I don’t care if you’re from Mombasa or Modesto, matters of the heart are universal. Once I became aware that I was a writer, I started observing people on an active level, not just observing by default. How flawed and how fragile we are. If you’re a good writer you have the ability to create a compelling dramatic situation. Good writers have their finger on the pulse of humanity.
TJ: The show has just seen its 200th episode completed (airing February 5th on CBS, check local listings) – congratulations! By all accounts it was epic and the atmo on the set looked to be intense and thrilling! We were given a lot of photos which are fantastic, though we really haven’t heard from anyone who was actually there. What can you tell us about the shoot, the general vibe of everyone involved, and the cast and crew’s response to Paget’s return?
VW: We were all over the moon to see Paget back, we miss her terribly. Jeanne is awesome, is great too. I just did Bully which was all Alex Blake so we got to know more about her. Everything was positive. I was never really on set so it’s more of a Rick (Dunkle, writer on 200) question but everything was really upbeat on the set and we hope you all like it. I was on ER for its 300th episode and this is just as cool if not cooler! But no, it was great having Paget back, everybody misses her so much.
TJ: The CM fans are a group apart. We are incredibly passionate and possessive about the show, the staff, the writers, and of course, our characters. What is your overall impression of the fandom as a whole, how does the show gauge fan reaction, and is there an intrinsic value to any of it?
VW: Amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I haven’t ever seen anything of this caliber, internationally. I have twitter followers from Romania, Australia, The Philippines, the UK, all over! Even coming from ER, the most Emmy-nominated show in tv history, and 24, which was a big breakout hit. And I’ve never seen the numbers go up in the ninth season of any show. And new fans all the time. There are fans that are teens now that were 5 and 6 years old when the show started. We do listen to you guys, we take all of it under consideration.
TJ: What do you think of fanfic (honestly!)?
VW: I’m not familiar enough with it. I think it’s wonderful – that’s when people take the characters and write them into situations that we never could, right? If we’re successful, people want to take what we’ve built and expand on it and I think it’s great that that’s out there.
TJ: To what extent do the actors have in influencing their character development?
VW: A lot. They live them every day, so there’s a lot of collaboration. I count on them as a truth gauge, I’m just a quarterback throwing them a pass.
TJ: Aspiring writers will be reading this too, what one piece of advice would you like to pass on? What is the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
VW: If you want to be a writer, write and write, then read, then go write some more. Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me too. At the time I was like, ‘Gee, thanks lady’, but it turned out to be the absolute best advice.
TJ: To wrap up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask for at least one juicy tidbit – will you tell us something definitive that happens this season with say… Reid?
VW: Nothing huge for Reid coming up. There are some things but nothing Maeve-sized… but I can tell you that we are shooting in Vegas at some point.
Thank you, Virgil!