*EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW* Showrunner Erica Messer Talks Past, Present, & Future!
From staff writer to showrunner, she’s served on our show for the past 12, now 13 seasons in one capacity or another, and she’s played it pretty close to the vest. Here, Erica reveals from her unique perspective how Criminal Minds changed her life, her thoughts on the landmark episode 300, and how she goes about “casting” the writers’ room!
“The goal is always to learn more about our heroes.”
TJ: Hi Erica, thank you for taking time out of your crowded schedule to answer these questions today! You’re originally from D.C., then Maryland. Did you know at a young age that you wanted to be a writer, or was it something that hit you later in life?
EM: My mom and dad encouraged writing throughout my life. It was never something I dreaded — term papers, plays, essays — loved all of it. I didn’t realize that was weird until college when everyone hated the writing process.
TJ: What jobs did you have prior to writing professionally?
EM: Someone asked me about this recently and I realized I’ve always had an array of jobs and worn many different hats. Quite often more than one at a time. My summers were spent in a resort town so some of my jobs were weather-dependent. I’ve been a babysitter, hostess, waitress, poolside bartender and licensed manicurist… all of them in one way or another have taught me skills I still use today.
TJ: At what age did you leave the East Coast to write for television in Los Angeles, and what motivated you to make that leap?
EM: I moved to LA shortly after I graduated from college. I had job opportunities in New York but felt like it was too close to home (only a train ride away). I had friends who were living in LA so it felt like a good time to give it a shot. That was 21 years ago and I’ve never looked back.
TJ: After JJ Abrams noticed your writing, then penning Alias, the O.C., and Charmed, you came to Criminal Minds and have stayed. You’ve been there since season one, and aside from CM:Beyond Borders, you’ve never left. Can you tell us what it was like for you that first year, staff writing for CM?
EM: I can look back on that first season with a lot of fond memories, as you often do when there’s so much distance from something. While in it, it felt stressful and unknown because writing about serial killers didn’t come naturally to any of us (thank God), and we had no idea if the show would live past the first 13 episodes. We quickly leaned into the heroes and knew we could all create a family that would fight evil each week. And that’s why the show is still on today. That season started the most amazing adventure but it feels like a lifetime ago.
TJ: What are some of the great joys, as well as some obstacles you’ve faced during your tenure on CM? How did you overcome the obstacles?
EM: I’ve told the cast and crew that some of the greatest joys on this show are the same ones any big family would celebrate. We’ve had marriages, births, graduations but there’s also the sad side of life with great losses. Our show itself has gone through many of those changes and the fans have been beside us through it all. There are things that happen none of us could have imagined or could control and our most supportive fans have given their unwavering support. We cannot thank you all enough.
TJ: You’re an Executive Producer and showrunner with a substantial amount of clout in the industry. Coming up through the ranks in a business where there weren’t, and still aren’t, an overabundance of women in key positions, do you feel you were you subject to much resistance or discrimination due to your gender?
EM: The first series I worked on was Party of Five (as an assistant), and that room felt very balanced with male and female writers so I didn’t think other rooms would look any different. I was wrong. After that, my former writing partner and I were sometimes the only women in a writers’ room. Sometimes I was treated like a little sister to some of the male writers because I was young and just starting out. Things are changing albeit slower than they should.
TJ: Did you have any mentors that supported your journey from staff writer to executive producer? In your crazy-busy schedule, have you had time to mentor anyone coming up behind you?
EM: I’ve always remained in touch with my old Party of Five boss, Chris Keyser and my friend (and former CM showrunner), Ed Bernero. They both have given me unwavering support throughout the years. Glenn Kershaw has been on the CM journey with me the whole time. He and Harry Bring are two of the secret weapons on the show. There are so many talented writers that I’ve had the honor of working with and I’d like to think we’ve all learned a great deal from one another. There are writers who I’ve seen come up through the ranks of CM who I’d love to see run their own shows someday.
TJ: How does your personal writing process originate? Do you usually get a lightning bolt from the blue, or is it more of a nugget of an idea that you then work into shape?
EM: It’s never quite the same. Sometimes I’ll see the way in and run with it. Other times I know the end and have to figure out how to get there.
TJ: Criminal Minds is known for hiring female directors, and when I visited I noticed there’s an abundant female presence behind the scenes on the crew and on staff. Is that a conscious choice, or do you feel that women are training and pursuing these professions more than ever before?
EM: It’s a conscious choice. I think the guilds are making diversity and females more of a priority but I think having a female making the final call on writers and directors makes an impact. CM has women in every department — that shouldn’t be something special, it should be normal.
TJ: When it comes to hiring decisions, like writers, do you have a set criteria, or does it just depend on what the individual’s strengths are that they can bring to the table? Does CM usually prefer to hire from within?
EM: Ed Bernero always believed in “casting” the writers’ room and I’ve maintained that. We need people with different backgrounds to help tell an array of stories season after season. Their writing and reputation gets them in the door for a meeting and then it’s all about whether you want to spend all day working with this person — will they fit in with the rest of the personalities in the room, etc. Sometimes we only have one opening but we meet so many great people. Being spoiled for choice is a pretty great place to be.
TJ: I’ve heard that you foster a congenial atmosphere on Criminal Minds. That family time is very important to you and that steps are taken to ensure people get home for dinner more often than not. Is this part of your personal philosophy, or something you work hard to cultivate? Both?
EM: I’ve worked on many shows throughout the years that did not value time away from the office and it just makes for an exhausting work place. CM has worked hard to get it done during “normal” work hours. Sometimes we do, other times we don’t but as a rule I’d say most writers think we have very reasonable hours. And the crew is such a well oiled machine that they can get our workdays done so efficiently, they’re often home at a decent time, too!
TJ: Getting into the show itself – as CM enters lucky 13, you have walked in our heroes’ shoes for the entire series run. How does it feel to see how they’ve grown, changed, and developed in real time? Is there a character that you identify with more strongly than the others? Who do you feel has changed the most, from day one?
EM: It’s like being beside these super hero friends who’ve grown into their powers and have become fully developed characters with lives and complications and specific points of view. I feel like they’re my friends and love them all so I can’t identify with one over the other because all of their voices are in my head. It used to be the working parents were the ones I could “connect” to the most and had storylines to offer specifically for them because I was learning how to navigate the working mom role but it’s been so long now that I’m truly connected to all of them. They’ve all grown and changed the way you should after 13 years. I’d say Reid has changed the most, especially given his prison arc last season. I mean, you can’t come out of that unchanged!
TJ: Do you have a favorite episode?
EM: I will forever love “100” but there have been so many since that are just great. “Mosley Lane” holds a special place given we wrote that for Matthew’s directorial debut. Season 7 finale when Prentiss dances with everyone at JJ’s wedding… so special. The finale and premiere were great, too. Ah! It’s impossible to choose.
TJ: Can you talk about the tonal shift that began with season 6, from a more cerebral mystery drama to an action drama? Do you see this as a natural progression, or was it something the studio and others wanted to see happen? How did you feel about it, initially, and do you see it any differently in hindsight?
EM: It’s a combination of a natural progression — things are bound to change over the years but also the network would ask for “bigger” episodes to kick off seasons and often that means stunts or bigger set pieces than we did on a regular basis. Although I’d look at the premiere of season 4 as a very action-heavy episode so in a lot of ways it was easy to lean in that direction because it was already in the DNA of the show.
TJ: In recent years, we’ve gotten to see much more of our team’s personal lives, and most fans love it (me included)! What to you, is the best thing about being able to go home with our heroes, and what/who decides which team member gets that treatment in any given season?
EM: All of the writers like to dive into the characters so I’m glad that the fans enjoy it, too. There are some characters who we know will get those episodes in a season and others that won’t but the goal is always to learn more about our heroes. If a writer has a great pitch for a character, we try to pursue it.
TJ: Is there any story that you’ve had in your head that for one reason or another, wasn’t able to be told on Criminal Minds (*cough*, musical episode)? Can you give us a bit of the pitch?
EM: Breen is the only one who’s talked about a musical episode but we’ve also talked about a “docu-style” one that we’ve never been able to make work. Never say never but if it hasn’t happened in 13 years…
TJ: I’ve asked a few CM fans if they would like to ask you a question, so here are a few of their thoughts:
MC Scratch, Quantico’s Best DJ asks: Stephen Walker dying was highly unusual for the show, since this is a thing that Criminal Minds does not do often (I mean, I think he’s only the third person [from the BAU], besides Strauss and Gideon). Are you surprised that all of your characters have made it this far through everything they have been through? Have there been any plans in the past to kill off characters rather than letting them exit alive that did not pan out?
EM: Thanks for the question and your amazing handle! I love that so many of our characters have made it this far because it feels like what happens in the everyday workplace. Rarely do we lose someone to tragedy but it can happen which is why we went that route with Gideon, Strauss and Walker. We aren’t afraid to go there but we don’t do it regularly because I’d prefer to think of the heroes who have left the show as thriving in their life outside of the BAU instead of the alternative.
And: I’m sure all of the dog people in the world were happy to see Roxy with Luke on screen, and if I remember right, Roxy is coming back for Season 13. Can all of the cat lovers expect to see a Sergio cameo now that we have Prentiss back?
EM: We’ve talked about it in the writers’ room — fingers crossed we can find a way to have a Sergio cameo!
reidfan asks: PLEASE please please please please give Spencer a happy life, a happy love interest who 1. Isn’t nuts 2. Isn’t imaginary 3. Isn’t one of his coworkers and 4. Doesn’t die by the end of the episode.
EM: Reidfan! I like to have Matthew involved in any decisions involving Reid and we haven’t discussed the love interest for awhile. Reid had his hands full for the last two seasons dealing with mom’s health and the fallout of his help-at-whatever-cost actions but maybe we’ll circle back around to it. People have strong opinions on this — they either never want him to fall in love or they want it desperately. Amazing!
JMO asks: If this is the show’s last season, is there a sense that story lines, like character arcs, should be wrapped up? Or is there a benefit to leaving some of them unfinished?
EM: Hey JMO! We’re not planning on a final season story line at all — whenever that day comes, the hope is that we have enough of a heads-up that we’ll get to wrap up stories and have a proper send off. But we have many more stories to tell and don’t plan on going anywhere yet!
Bookish Jen asks: In what ways did your writing for Alias differ from your Criminal Minds writing?
EM: Hi Bookish Jen! As you know, Alias was very serialized for Syd’s personal story which always had consequences in her work life. It makes for a longer process in the room because you have to pick up threads from the previous episode. CM’s typical structure makes the week-to-week storytelling more contained so multiple writers can be off on multiple scripts at the same time. It makes for a very efficient writers’ room.
@WedNightGirls asks: You’ve said previously that the BAU will be back to solving the case of the week for the most part. Should we get a season 14, the show’s 300th episode will be the season premiere. Without a big bad, or a season-long plot, how do you envision the last episodes of season 13 as a warmup for such an iconic episode?
EM: Another great handle! We’re talking about how to have episode 299 and 300 be a two-parter. That way the big bad can be introduced late in our season 13 and cause trouble for the start of season 14!
TJ: Congratulations on launching your own production company! That’s HUGE! Can you share with us a little more information about your plans for Erica Messer Productions, and fan @KR9582 is especially curious about your green-lit (lighted?) project, Paradise Falls?
EM: Thanks so much! I’m interested in creating content that is still hero-driven like CM but without the heated battle of good versus evil. I think it’s really important to foster relationships with storytellers and the production company allows that to happen.
TJ: I could go on all day, but I think I’ve taken up enough of your time! Thank you, Erica Messer!
EM: Thank you so much for all of your support over the years and for continuing to love our BAU team as much as we do!