*EXCLUSIVE* Ed Bernero Shares His Take on Criminal Minds’ Legacy, and Future!
For the fourth episode of the 15th and final season, Criminal Minds welcomes back it’s OG ringleader as director, the unforgettable ED BERNERO! The always-busy Ed was kind enough to sit down and speak with me across the miles about everything from a few of his much-loved episodes, to whether or not CM might find another home once CBS closes up shop. It’s safe to say that most if not all fans will tune in to celebrate the return of such a well-respected and lauded member of the Criminal Minds family, even for a single episode. Welcome Back!
EB: Hello, Tari! How are you?
TJ: Mr. Ed Bernero, how are you today, sir?
EB: I’m so awesome – it feels so good to be back home! I actually missed this place more than I realized. It feels like I was just off for a long weekend! Even when I just pulled into the parking spot, it just feels like I’m home!
TJ: Well you actually just answered my first question which is how does it feel to be back?
EB: Everyone is so welcoming, and the episode I’m doing has a big Matthew story and I’ve always loved working with Gubler. It’s just great, a great experience being back.
TJ: I’m so thrilled for you – and us! Once we heard that you were directing the 4th episode, I asked Harry if you might talk to me, and you said yes!
EB: Of course, no problem! I always love talking to you guys that take the time to do blogs, and to watch, and care, all of it!
TJ: So excited that you’re back at the helm! How did this happen? What made you decide to come back to direct in the final season?
EB: You know, My son-in-law still works here, and I can’t remember why I came over, but I came upstairs to see Erica, and we were sitting outside her office and I said “If there’s an opening next year, I’d like to come, just come and direct one.” And she said “Great!”, but at that time we didn’t realize that it would be among the last episodes ever. Now I’m actually even more happy that I get to come back and direct one before it went away.
TJ: How did your decade as a beat cop in Chicago inform your writing style? Do you feel that your law enforcement experiences made you a better writer?
EB: Definitely but not in the way most people think… most people think I’ve got this wealth of stories, but when you’re a cop the thing that’s most beneficial to the stories, is that in any given day, 15 or 20 people from different socio-economic statuses, and from every race and ethnicity, become a wealth of characters that I know. I know what gang-bangers to millionaires sound like, because I’ve been in rooms with them all. So it’s been really helpful in that respect, to have that to draw from. In that respect we share what part of the story interests us.
In my writing style, I have a real affinity and respect for the cops, for their point of view, and a lot of times you don’t really see that – what it feels like to be a cop. And that’s what I try to get across. What kind of things scare you, what kind of things irritate you, and what kind of things get you through the day. Much like Jim Clemente, our technical advisor… he never remembers the bad guy’s name. He always remembers cases through the victim’s names. I’m much the same way in that I really don’t care about the people that commit these crimes, but I care about the people that hunt them, and dedicate their lives to bringing those kinds of criminals down. In that respect we share what part of the story interests us.
TJ: Yes. There are fans that tune in for the UnSubs, and the cases, and there are fans that tune in for our heroes.
EB: And that’s fine, that’s good! Serial killers in a lot of ways are the most completely ‘free’ people in the world. They do whatever the hell they want to do and they don’t care who it’s to. I think some people are fascinated by those who don’t bend to any kind of social standards.
TJ: Absolutely agree. If I can, I’d like to get into some of your writer-credited episodes. Many of them are in the upper echelon of every Criminal Minds fan’s Top Ten list: The magnificent Fisher King episodes, The Big Game which kicked off the Tobias Hankel arc and Reid’s subsequent drug addiction, the tense Damaged where Hotch almost smashes an arrogant serial killer inmate into dust. What is it you feel there is about CM that resonates so fully with the fans after all these seasons?
EB: In the beginning, the first thing you have to do as showrunner is get the group to decide what the box is… to me you have to define the box. We spend a lot of time on the structure of the episode, because usually all writers just want to go outside the box. To me, you have to define the box first before you can go outside of it.
One of the things I hit upon, was that they all are Arthurian stories. In fact in the beginning I could have told you which character was which Knight. The room where we get the cases, there’s a big round table – that’s not a mistake. It’s actually called the Round Table Room in the script, it’s meant to be Arthurian. Then they all get on their steed, which is the jet, and they go battle the dragons, the last dragons in the world which are serial killers. But then they always come home at the end, which is a very Arthurian theme as well. They go out and battle the dragons, but then they come home to battle another day, and I think there is something universally acceptable to people about that kind of story.
I also think, and I’ve said this before, is that within every hit show is a recognizable family. Like you can recognize your mother, father, brother, cousin… whether it’s an organic family situation or not. And when you do that it can be anyone – they can be in the BAU, they can be a bunch of ER doctors, whatever is the premise of the show people go with it because they recognize their family in it. So there’s a number of things that I believe people respond to with Criminal Minds.
Also, the cast is uniformly excellent. You know, Dr. Reid is a character no one else has. And Garcia, even though there are characters ‘like’ Garcia out there, nobody plays them quite like Kirsten plays Penelope. Joe Mantegna is an incredible presence to have in that cast. Paget, you know, the worst thing ever done on this show is losing Paget for a good while. She’s a great stabilizing force who stepped into where Thomas’s role was. And it’s just a great group of people that you genuinely enjoy spending time with.
TJ: Exactly. Criminal Minds is the only procedural that I’ve ever been invested in, and it’s due to precisely what you just said. Shows like Star Trek where you have the Enterprise crew, and Buffy where you have the Scoobies… no matter if it’s a created family or not, they are definitely that.
EB: Right, exactly. And there’s a different intimacy that’s created with television, too, because you’re in people’s living room. It’s what I love about television. There are things you can do with TV that you can’t do with any other medium. For instance with our 100th episode, where Hotch’s wife was targeted. If you hadn’t spent the first 100 episodes knowing who Haley was, it wouldn’t matter as much to you.
TJ: That’s right.
EB: You become friends with these people and it becomes much more affecting, and I think that’s amazing.
TJ: Was there ever anything you can think of that you’d want to do differently, in any of your CM episodes, or with any of the characters, that you can recall?
EB: That’s an interesting question. I certainly in my years here had gotten to do everything I had wanted with them. The network has been incredibly supportive of the stuff that we do on this show, and I always try to keep it not as gory as possible, but more from in your mind. If I could change anything, I think I would have liked to have Joe on from the beginning.
Joe has been so great, and we had upheaval from the person who was there before him, and it would have been great to not have that happen. For a long time people didn’t know if they would lose their jobs, it was a pretty scary time. And Joe is such a calming presence, I selfishly wish I had had another couple of years to work with him. But other than that it’s been a really supportive environment and we got to do pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
TJ: Season six was kind of a shake-up for everyone, too.
EB: Yes, I still don’t understand what the studio wanted there, don’t understand some of the things I had to do, like with Paget and AJ. Like they called me one day and said “We need you to get rid of X Y and Z,” and I was like, “WHY?” and I fought them, but the cast doesn’t work for the show, the cast works for the network, so when the network wants to change something like that, there’s only so much you can do to fight them. Like “Here’s why this character is important and here’s what we plan to do with the character,” but they were just determined to try something else.
TJ: And it didn’t work, and they found that out. You gotta feel for Rachel Nichols, she never really stood a chance.
EB: I did have high hopes for the character, she was originally envisioned as an addition to the cast, not a replacement. And in the meantime that happened and I felt so badly for Rachel because she’s such a sweet person, and it ended up being something that was never intended, her replacing people. And I was really interested in that character, and the perspective she could bring in as someone who’s had a parent who was a serial killer.
You know it’s interesting too, in that it affected the spinoff that Chris Mundy left to do, Suspect Behavior. The audience thought that they needed the money to create the spinoff that they were paying AJ and Paget, when really they had nothing to do with any of that. They were completely two separate things, but people don’t know who to blame, so the problem was some people blamed Suspect Behavior for JJ and Emily being gone from the mothership.
That was a tough year. I truly love… AJ and Paget are two of the most incredible human beings you are ever going to meet and I truly love both of them. That phone call I had to make was to this day one of the worst days I’ve ever had as Executive Producer. It was so terrible. And I couldn’t even explain, I couldn’t even say “Here’s why…”. There was no ‘why’. There were other people I would have liked to see go, but those two, never.
TJ: Well, speaking of people going, the sudden departure of Hotch created a division within the fandom, and a tough situation for the showrunners, writers, cast and crew. Can you tell us your thoughts when you heard about Thomas Gibson’s firing?
EB: Y’know, to be honest with you I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t here, so it really isn’t fair for me to comment on it much. I do know that it must have been a blow to the fandom because he had a large following and the Hotch character was always really important to the show, but Thomas always seemed really unhappy to me, and I wish there was a way I could have made him happier. Some people let the outside world affect them too much and they bring it in to work, so I wasn’t surprised that it happened, but I was really sad that such a central character wasn’t going to be there.
TJ: I don’t disagree. A lot of people were also worried that a lot of people might lose their jobs.
EB: Yes, and that’s how I felt about Mandy leaving, too, early on. To do that, and just throw everything up in the air like that… I mean, these are people’s jobs.
TJ: Yes! Thank you! He’s an adult, he knew what he was getting into.
EB: The very first episode had a serial killer. He knew what it was about. You know, I still haven’t spoken to him. He called a half-hour before the first read-through of the 3rd season and said I’ll see you in half an hour, and that was literally the last time I’ve ever spoken to him. He went through the network, but I guess he never felt the desire to reach out to me. What people don’t really know is he did that after going out on a worldwide publicity trip for Criminal Minds, he didn’t quit before that. He went to Australia, and he went to Cannes, and all those places that we paid for for him to promote the show, and then quit. So, he took the freebies.
TJ: Seems like he had a history of doing that, too. Like with Dead Like Me…
EB: Yeah, and Chicago Hope, which he also quit after two years. I was surprised that CBS hired him again (they own Showtime), but I guess some people get tons of chances.
The thing that I’m most proud of as Executive Producer is that we never shut down a single day. We kept it going when we lost the lead of the show, and the rest of the cast stepped up, and at the end of the day I’m so grateful that we found Joe. Joe Mantegna is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met, and we never would have had him without Mandy doing what he did.
TJ: It must have been tough to take, when you’re just going along assuming all is well and then that happens.
EB: It’s part of the lore of the show now, the growing pains of the show, and Criminal Minds is what it is because of everything that’s happened. And like the viewers, and people like you who write blogs about it, and the people who take the show into their lives in a very personal way… I’ve always been so appreciative that people like you take the time out of your lives to do that. And you know, this show was like the beginning of all that.
TJ: That is so true. And all the folks at Criminal Minds have been incredibly generous with their time and their accessibility to the fans.
EB: Fourteen years ago there wasn’t much contact with the audience, and CM was one of the first shows to call someone up and go “Hi, you wanna talk?” It was important to us to engage with and acknowledge something that you guys made so important to you. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you before the show goes away is to just thank you for that, because we haven’t had a chance to talk before.
TJ: You’re gonna make me cry.
EB: The day the show ends I am definitely going to cry. It’s been a long time.
TJ: You’ll definitely be in good company.
We know you instituted a ban on intra-team romance, yet for 14 years these people have worked side by side together, sometimes spending more time with each other than their families. What do you think about JJ’s confession to Reid that she has always loved him?
EB: My confession is that I’ve always loved him, too!
TJ: Me too!
EB: I’m not surprised. I think that’s pretty common in the world that we spend so much intimate time with someone that on some level you have to love them. So, I’m not surprised, but I’m glad that they didn’t take it beyond that and have them become a couple, because that would be hard. But of course she loves him.
One of the things they are going to try to do when they end the series, is to make sure that Reid is happy. You will get the sense that Reid is going to be fine, which I think is very important to the show. I think that anyone who has ever watched and loved the show has a sense of being protective of Reid.
TJ: We are very protective of Reid, yes.
EB: When Shemar left the show, some people were saying “Oh no, there goes Reid’s protector.”… but the Reid character stepped up and became his own protector, and one of the things that is happening in the episode I’m doing, is that he will meet someone (Rachael Leigh Cook as “Max”), and hopefully people will see that at the end of the year he will be happy, which I think is important to people.
TJ: It is important. Spencer deserves to be happy after everything he has been through.
TJ: I do wish that he and JJ could be endgame, but if not I hope he’s happy.
EB: I’m just a viewer now too, and I’m sure however Erica handles it will be brilliant.
TJ: Do you still watch?
EB: You know, I didn’t for the first year after I left. At first it just seemed like Erica deserved her space. I wanted her to be able to do whatever she wanted to do without any comment from me. Then after that year went by, I got caught up and watched all of that season, and then I watched every week, and now watch just like everyone else.
It was difficult for the first year and a half because it was like family, being here, and so it wasn’t easy to watch at first. But mainly I just felt that she deserved her space to do whatever she wanted to do. I told her before I left “Make this your show.” And she’s done that and I’m so proud of her. I’m glad the show was turned over to someone who is so intelligent and compassionate, and she’s been a great showrunner for as long as I was, now.
TJ: I was able to meet her last year, and she was so relatable and kind, so cool. Also, so normal!
EB: I don’t know if you’ve heard this story, but she was pregnant when she first started and I was worried about some of the horrible stuff we were talking about in the writer’s room affecting the baby. So she went and got headphones and put them on her stomach to play music so the little one couldn’t hear us talking about the worst people on the planet.
TJ: Like Mozart, or something?
EB: Yeah, I think is WAS Mozart! I’ve always thought that was a great ‘Criminal Minds and More’ story.
TJ: You directed some of my straight up favorite hours of CM’s run, as well… 100 (which was a perfect episode in my estimation), Demonology (my favorite Emily episode, and one of the most beautifully shot of the series, and when she’s in the elevator, cold, snowed-on, and despondent… the door opens, and the POV is further back and she just looks so small, so sad and vulnerable), Mayhem (edge of seat, relentless intensity from the get-go, you get almost panicky for the team)… how were you able to find such a balance between the high intensity of the action, while still drawing out stunningly emotional performances from the team? Do you think that one is usually sacrificed for the other?
EB: 100 – Ah, thank you, I appreciate that, it’s so nice to hear.
Demonology – I love this episode too, and Walton Goggins was in that one! Also, a large part of the episode was about her childhood, and so I wanted to make her look like a child in that scene. So I wanted to take her back and make her look exactly like that.
To your last part, it kind of dovetails with a previous question, in that me being a cop, I was exposed to a lot of situations like that, and so if you can give a little bit… and our actors, again, our actors are so great, that if you can just give them a little bit about what it actually feels like to be in those situations, then they will fly with it and make it real. And one of the things I’m able to do is say “Here’s what this feels like…” and I think that’s what can create a real balance with the action, no matter what it is. I’ve been in car chases, I’ve been shot at… there’s nothing we’ve ever done that hasn’t happened to me. I’ve never arrested a serial killer, but I found a body once, a victim of one. I really think that helps in those moments, especially when I direct.
And this cast is just so uniformly excellent, you know? Matthew has been Dr. Reid for so long, that he just thinks like him and you can SEE him being Dr. Reid, and SEE Paget being Emily. It’s- what they bring to these characters is sort of that level of reality that doesn’t exist in a lot of shows. So I think yes, it’s part them, and part me being able to just whisper in their ear to tell them what it feels like.
TJ: I love to know that, and to hear from you that there’s that symbiosis with the character, and the grace notes that they’re able to bring to the scene.
EB: Yes, exactly. Do you remember the name of the writer for 100?
TJ: I actually was just going to talk about that! You’re talking about the amalgamation of everyone’s first initials? Bo Crese!
EB: Yep! You’ll remember there was an interrogation for each of the team members. Each of the writers took a character and wrote their interrogation scene, so everyone got in on that one, everyone wrote a bit of it. What’s your favorite episode?
TJ: Elephant’s Memory written by Andrew Wilder. It’s just so very good. We get to see Spencer work through some demons, and also what he will or won’t do in his job. There’s the sympathetic UnSub, too, and some really lovely Hotch/Reid moments.
EB: Aw, yes. I’m glad you like that one, I love that episode too. I miss Andrew.
TJ: We stay in a bit of touch and he knows I’m interviewing you. He loves you.
EB: I love him back! He’s a good guy. I realize in coming back here how many of these people I really miss and didn’t even realize it. Andrew is someone that, we all kind of grew up together on this show, and it’s nice. I miss the ‘every day’ hanging out with him, we had a lot of fun.
You know we weren’t supposed to make it. The press was brutal – how we were exploitative, and all about violence to women, and all these reasons it would never work, and so we just went ahead and made the show we wanted to make, since we weren’t supposed to last anyway. What did we have to lose?
TJ: And then year by year the fan base just kept growing.
EB: Exactly. So, people like Andrew have a big part of my heart because we all came through that together. We lost the guy who wrote the pilot early on (Jeff Davis), and that sparked us all sitting down in a room going, okay, that guy’s gone, now we have to figure out what the show is. For a long time we had this board up that had “The basic structure of a Criminal Minds episode”, there was the “Oh fuck!” moment, then there was the “DOUBLE oh fuck” moment, then there was “Oh, we’re wrong”, and there were these certain beats, and we would veer off of them, but they were just this basic structure of ‘the box’. So yes, we went through that crucible together, like Erica, and she used to have a writing partner named Debbie, and I feel like those people will always have a special place in my heart. Simon is still my best friend out here, I see him maybe twice a week. I just did a second season of a show called Ice, and Simon came in and consulted, so now there’s a whole new group of writers who love him. Everyone who gets around Simon loves him. (laughs)
TJ: Speaking of family, your son Jason wrote the Season 8 episode Magnum Opus, the 175th episode of the series, and one that many of us JJ/Spencer fans enjoy for the Reid parts, especially. What was it like for you, to see that happen?
EB: It’s a really special feeling, in fact now he’s written on almost every show I’ve done! In fact that show Ice, he wrote an episode that I directed, and seeing his name and mine together on the script made me cry. He’s such a talented writer, and a huge-hearted person and great father. He’s about to have his third child, our eighth grandchild! I’m so proud of all my kids, they are all so uniquely talented. Amanda started as a researcher on the show for the first five years. My youngest son is a gifted musician and does all the music editing on the things I do. So they all kind of work with me, but yes, I’m super proud of Jason. Funny, I never have notes on what he writes because he sounds like me!
TJ: So he learned at your knee, basically.
EB: Yeah, I guess I write like I talk because he writes the same way, so his dialogue sounds like I wrote it, it’s really fun to have him around, and yes we were super proud of him doing a Criminal Minds episode, it was a very big deal for him, too. He still has one of the ‘blood’ paintings from that episode in his office!
TJ: ACK! The woman with all the hair?
EB: Yes, that one! I also try and keep something from every show I’m on, and I think from this one I’m going to keep Matthew.
TJ: I think you’ll have to fight the fandom on that one, I’m looking at a six-foot standee of Reid in my living room right now. It’s a bit more narrow that he is, I think. (laughs)
EB: (laughs) Life-size? He’s pretty tall, but yes, narrow! I remember his mom used to call me when we first started, to find out if he was eating.
TJ: I think he had a swallowing issue there for a while.
EB: Yes, he had an operation, but for a while there all he was eating was jello because he had a problem with his esophagus. We made him go to the doctor, “You gotta get that fixed, man!” He did and he’s fine now.
TJ: It must be nice for you to see how he’s come along.
EB: You know, he’s a remarkable person. He’s a great director, I always knew he’d be a great director. I know he’s a really great person, too. He’s stuck with us through thick and thin, and to be honest, I’m sad it’s ending. To me, the BAU could go on and on forever, there’s still so many good stories to tell. People come and go just like in real life, new cast members, it could still be really good.
TJ: I agree with you, and I’d still cover it!
EB: Let’s write letters.
TJ: I hope that if Mark Gordon is going to shop it around, that someone picks it up.
EB: Yeah, if I know Mark, he’s gonna do that. I travel all around the world, and Criminal Minds is just everywhere. Everywhere I’ve ever been, this show is on almost 24/7. In fact I was in Cape Town, South Africa doing a show, and I tried my theory and turned the television on and found Criminal Minds. It’s just everywhere, all the time.
I love that people watch it with their grown families now, too. Like moms and daughters and such. In this era of everyone just watching their phones, it’s nice when they can enjoy something like this together.
TJ: Agreed. My daughter is fifteen, and my son is in his early 20s, and he drives from the other side of Austin every Wednesday night to watch Criminal Minds with us. It’s a way for us to connect.
EB: That’s amazing. Tell them I love them, and I love them as family because I love our audience so much, but what you just said about your son? That makes me happier than anything I’ve heard in years. That people come together specifically to watch together. That makes me happier than almost anything.
TJ: Wow – thank you for giving it to us, and for setting such a high bar for the show.
EB: I’m happy to be a part of it but I get way more credit than I should. There’s a lot of us, and I’ll accept that on behalf of the hundreds of people who have made the show for years.
TJ: Who do you think was worse, Foyet, or Frank?
EB: Interesting question. (pauses) I think I’m probably going to have to go with Foyet.
TJ: YES! Because Frank was a psychopath, but Foyet knew what he was doing was horrible from the get go.
EB: Yep, Foyet was more calculatingly evil when you get right down to it. He was just a bad person, and he didn’t care.
TJ: What’s next for Ed Bernero?
EB: There’s always something in the hopper, and it’s a little early to talk about but I’m doing something with a video game company about professional gamers, a behind the scenes drama. I‘ve also found out how much I love adapting books. There’s a very good book called Bull Mountain that is in the mix that Fox is looking at, and there’s a book called The Dispatcher which I just recently took out that Netflix is interested in, so there’s always something. One joy of Criminal Minds is that it has made it so I can do what I want to do. I can wait for something I really believe in, I don’t have to sort of scramble for a job any more, and I’m grateful to the show and the fans for that. There’s always something out there!
TJ: I’ll look forward to it. I’m such a fan of all your work on Criminal Minds and how you set the standard for the show.
EB: Thank you, and Erica deserves massive kudos too, for keeping it going. Two hundred episodes and Three hundred hours and to still be keeping the show fresh. I mean, when you think about it, one of the most successful movie franchises of all time has been the James Bond series, and that’s what, 15 movies, so that would only be 30 episodes of a tv show. Erica’s managed to work 300 episodes of a tv show with the same franchise, same premise, mostly the same characters. Just think for a minute about how unbelievably difficult that is.
TJ: I cannot even imagine. And 300 was so, so good, too! Erica mentions you too, in interviews as a trusted friend and mentor.
EB: I’m so proud of everything they’ve done here. Breen’s still here too, he’s writing, along with Stephanie Birkett, the episode I’m doing! So I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with him, too.
TJ: That’s good! If your episode is Reid-centric as you say, I’m glad Breen has a hand in it. He writes really good Reid.
EB: There’s a little bit of Reid in Breen, too.
TJ: That’s what he says, too!
EB: I want to say thank you again to the fans, for sticking with the show this long and for bringing your friends and families along for the ride. It means more to everyone here than you know. I was so glad I could come be a part of the final season.
TJ: Thank YOU, Ed! If there’s a spinoff or continuation elsewhere, we sure hope you come back and play!
EB: I definitely hope that happens!