*EXCLUSIVE* Interview with CM Director Doug Aarniokoski!
“Appreciate anything and everything that is out there…”
Doug Aarniokoski has done it all. From Universal Studios tour guide, to working director on critically acclaimed and popular films like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Doug has become one of television’s most in-demand directors. No star-trip here, he’s all about the business of show, and has an effusive love for storytelling. Here’s what he had to say in an extremely pleasant and informative phone interview yesterday:
TJ: To begin, can you tell us where you hail from? Where were you born and how did you end up living in Los Angeles? What originally appealed to you about directing and how did you get your start?
DA: Originally from San Francisco and now down in LA full time. And well, I was one of those kids who grew up being dropped off at the Cineplex, and I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays watching movies! I was just a lover of film, grew up watching Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Spielberg, love the experience of being in a dark room with strangers and being told a story. I fell in love with it, and when I graduated high school, I packed up my car, drove down to LA, and I was gonna try and figure out how to work in the movie business. I didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any contacts, I enrolled at UCLA so I’d have a place to live and somewhere to eat every day. I started poking around universal studios and got a job as a tour guide. On my days off, I would pass out resumes with nothing on it just looking for someone to give me a shot. Someone gave me a shot – my first film was Rambo III, I was a PA. From that day on, never worked a day in my life, became an AD for many years, became Robert Rodriguez 2nd unit director, and worked on and AD’d all his films since Four Rooms.
TJ: In going about my research, I discovered that you pretty much have done it all! Production assistant, actor, you’ve written screenplays, assistant directed, now director in your own right. Do you feel as though it makes you a better director, having done all those other jobs previously?
DA: You know, it does. having an understanding of how a film set or tv set works, it all works, the crew works and what their jobs are, one thing to be good storyteller which is first and foremost, still the functioning aspect of the set – understanding the parameters, what it takes and the time that you have…And it’s not always just about storytelling, a lot is time management, people management, set mgmt, knowing exactly where you need to be to get the shots you want to get.., because as a director, you are sort of the foreman of the construction set. And that’s how I really equate it. You try to make sure that the building gets built the way the architects designed it. Up to you to execute the plan, to coordinate as a team. You can’t leave it up to one individual. So, being the sort of foreman on the set if you will, you’re the quarterback. Do I do three more takes, do I do a close up shot of Thomas, another shot of Joe Mantegna, time management. If you aren’t prepared, don’t know how a set functions, and how everyone’s jobs work, you have a harder time making those decisions, and I think a lot of directors, you know, maybe suffer for it.
TJ: You worked with director Robert Rodriguez on films like From Dusk Til Dawn and Once Upon A Time In Mexico and I keep seeing the word ‘protégé’ regarding your relationship to him. Do you still collaborate?
DA: I do! I just got back, I was just in Austin directing sequences for the sequel to Machete, called Machete Kills… and also there’s the new tv show of his called Matador, that will film in LA. I speak to him all the time. Dusk til Dawn (the tv show) films in Austin. I’m excited to collaborate on his tv stuff as well with his new cable network, El Rey.
TJ: I’ve read an account of your making The Day in 2010, a very grim, post-apocalyptic film shot in Canada, outdoors, in very cold weather and challenging conditions. Sometimes difficult shoots can foster a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’, other times it can be a nightmare. How would you categorize this particular project?
DA: Very interesting film in terms of how it all came together, it was a low budget, post-apocalyptic… we had a finite period of time based on budget, weather, availability of cast, we really sort of had to jam everything together. You know, I guess it could have been a nightmare, but it wasn’t. Everyone was so on-board with the concept of how this movie was going to be made and how it was going to be shot and you know we had the luxury… it was very self-contained. No studio was backing us, so we had a lot of freedom, we got to do whatever we wanted to do, however we wanted to do it. We shot the movie completely in order – which never happens! Page one on day one! In sequence, so for the actors, it was literally like being in a stage play. Not having a lot of time made this a very palatable situation because the actors knew that they could stay in-character for the few weeks we had and really dive into everything and give it everything they had, so it was really a pleasure. There’s always challenges, though! Never a simple way to shoot, there’s always challenges and you just have to understand that going in. That’s what gives a script its life. We got into the Toronto Film Festival which really just exceeded our dreams. It was really a pleasure in that regard.
TJ: You’re known for other films too, like Austin Powers, Spy Kids, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. How long have you been working in television, and what prompted you to make that move from film? Was it an easy transition to make?
DA: I’ve been working in tv for about three years. Criminal Minds was first show I ever did, met with Mark Gordon about a couple different projects and he asked me if I’d ever done television, which I hadn’t. There isn’t really a lot of crossover for directors unless you’re doing pilots and that type of thing, and he said would you be interested in it – I think you’d be great! And I said Wow, absolutely! I love good storytelling and there’s SO much good storytelling on television right now, it’s like the Golden Age of TV again. So he said why don’t you go over and meet the folks at Criminal Minds. I did and they were wonderful. They said since you haven’t done TV why don’t you come shadow one of our directors. See how the other machine works. And it’s such a well-oiled machine, such a science, unlike film where you gets months and months to shoot – here you get a week. And I love it! Love the speed and energy, amazing crews, hyper organized, they all just go for it, I feel so blessed every time I’m there, I’d do it for free. It’s so warm and welcoming. The Thirteenth Step was my first episode I directed with Jonathan Tucker and Adrianne Palicki. It was like Natural Born Killers meets Bonnie and Clyde. That cast was really amazing, they both really just went for it, they wanted to do something dark… I wish that I had the email from the studio when they first saw it, there was so much that was cut out, it was really an R rated television show, so sexually charged and they had so much energy together – there is a director’s cut somewhere!
TJ: You’ve told us a little about what the atmosphere is like on the set of Criminal Minds. If you can, walk us through a typical workday for you.
DA: I usually try to arrive about an hour ahead of set call, just so I can walk through location, a lot of times what will be happening is the art department will be finishing up the set dressing, and it’s good for me to get in there and see if there’s any questions so we aren’t wasting anyone’s time on the set, make sure its all coming together. Bring actors in for blocking rehearsal, then they go off and get ready and we set the lights, cameras, etc… and we start shooting! That’s pretty much the day – we have how we’re going to cover every scene, I have a shot list for every sequence… we have a playbook so there’s no surprises, although we always leave room for flexibility and change, and then yeah! We just rock and roll for twelve hours, go to bed, get up and do it all over again.
TJ: Considering the subject matter of the show, we’ve heard there’s usually some horseplay to balance out the grimness. Who on the set is the biggest jokester?
DA: Harry Bring is the biggest jokester! Such a great energy, a great passion for what he does, and yet he has the very best sense of humor and knows exactly when it should be infused. Very nice that someone in his position who has that kind of power who also just appreciates the blessing that we all have to make this show, but who also doesn’t take it too seriously, which is something that’s important for us all to remember because sometimes we can get caught up in the chaos of it all. So it’s nice to have that levity if you will, to be able to laugh at ourselves and at what we’re doing. So yeah I would say by far that Harry is the jokester of the Criminal Minds family, it’s a very nice tone that he sets around the set.
TJ: Of the seven episodes you’ve directed, the current 9×18 “Rabid” being your eighth, which has been your favorite to shoot?
DA: Well, I do have a fondness for all of them… if I had to pick a favorite? I guess it’s a tie between The Thirteenth Step which again I‘m really, really proud of and just loved those performances… and The Fallen – such an important ep for Joe Mantegna and working with Meshach Taylor who is a dear friend of Joe’s. And to bring those characters to life, and getting to tell that story of the Veterans was very personal and important to Joe. And you know he just directed basically the sequel (The Road Home). That one, I really felt the most pressure because I really wanted to tell the story of the homeless Vets, and do it justice.
TJ: “Rabid” is the third time you’ll direct a Virgil-penned episode. Is that intentional, or just luck of the draw? Do you feel as though you work better with certain writers or themes?
DA: Completely luck of the draw, and yeah, I feel very lucky that I get to work with Virgil again for a third time, and you know it’s funny because I really only had repeat writers, so I’ve worked with Janine the first year, Bruce the second year, it’s been great for me, forging not only professional but personal friendships, and also it’s really nice to have that shorthand… sometimes with Virgil we don’t even have to speak, I can just look at him a certain way and he gets it, and vice-versa, but we can take the words out of each other’s mouths, it’s nice to have that rapport.
TJ: How would you label your directing style? Are you more collaborative with your actors during the process, or do you prefer things set in stone? How crucial is it for you to be involved in every step, from casting to editing the final cut?
DA: Well, I think that it’s important to be involved in all that, but everyone is so good, they do this week in and week out for 22 weeks out of the year, I come in and do my week or two, not to say that I wouldn’t need to be there for say casting, because I am there for casting, but if for some reason I couldn’t be there, I would trust them implicitly. Their instincts are amazing, they always give you the best options, no matter what. They’re so incredibly dialed into the show, into the heartbeat of the show, and I spend time in prep talking to the editor, and a lot of times they’ll have a version of the show done by the time we’re finished shooting! So I get to go in and look at it and say wow this is great! A lot of times it’s just little tweaks, little bits, let’s see if there’s something over here. They know these characters so well that it saves all of us a lot of time, but not in the way that you wish you had more time, they are just so dialed into it.
TJ: If a writer and the director have different visions for a scene, whose vision do they usually ultimately go with? What’s the deciding factor?
DA: You know what, I’ve never had an instance on Criminal Minds where there has been a difference of opinion on in terms of how the scene is shot. Certainly there’s been times when a question of a line delivery or a performance question will come up, like “I’d like to try one this way,” or “I thought it would be more this than that” – but I’ve never had it be me versus them – never versus, always collaborative, we talk about the episode for hours and hours before we start shooting. We do what we call “toning” the script, set the tone for the arcs, the delivery of each line… it’s rare to run across something out of left field.
TJ: What would you say is the main difference in shooting a straightforward procedural like CM, as opposed to a genre show like Sleepy Hollow? Do you prefer one over the other?
DA: Don’t really prefer one over the other, both are fantastic stories, they are just very different animals. Criminal Minds is very much about character, story, arcs within, the day in day out within the construct of the story we’re telling with the UnSub … CM is like going to see a great drama versus Sleepy Hollow is like going to see a great action/horror show… I approach it from different sides of my brain. I don’t approach Criminal Minds like I do Sleepy Hollow. Like with Sleepy Hollow I know there’s a monster, there’s period, there’s the fish out of water, you know, Ichabod is from the 1700s and now he’s in 2014 so there’s that element. Sleepy Hollow is also a continuation every week so we have to give little nuggets without shining too bright a light because the arc lasts for several episodes or until the end of the season, whereas Criminal Minds is standalone, mostly. You just have to present it in terms of the script and what you’re presenting to the audience.
TJ: The fandom has noticed when Matthew directs he wears the same brown houndstooth scarf every time. Do you have any personal quirks or superstitions when you direct?
DA: Always wear a baseball hat. Right now I’m wearing a Texas Longhorns hat, how about that? I must’ve subconsciously known I was speaking to you today! It’s funny I will wear a beat up grungy hat when doing action or dirty, nasty UnSub stuff, and when I’m going to be in the BAU I think I wear something nicer and not so beat up, so my hat sets my tone.
TJ: Do you have a favorite director? You’ve mentioned Spielberg, Who are some others that have inspired you?
DA: Really good question, don’t know that I have a favorite director per se. Of course Spielberg is obviously a genius, inspired many a filmmaker and many an audience member and… I just love film, try not to segregate what I see based on the people who are involved in it. I really just try to see as much as I can whenever I can. So it’s hard to say if there’s one particular storyteller who I follow, sort of a hero to me if you will. I think, to work in this business, tell a story, get movies and television shows made… that they’re all geniuses at that point. It’s virtually an impossible task, and I was talking to Tom Mison who plays Ichabod Crane just last night about this, this rare opportunity to be able to work in this business and be successful in the way that you can get something in front of an audience… whether it’s good or bad, whether it succeeds or fails, to get the audience to judge. I never take that for granted, it’s a gift. Appreciate anything and everything that is out there. It may not be my taste, it may not be something that I’d recommend, necessarily, but I can appreciate the effort and the amount of work that 150 people came together just so we can entertain people. I’m just a huge lover of the art of television and love film, and my hat’s off to all of them.
TJ: On a lighter note: what do you enjoy doing on your day off? Any hobbies that you’re especially fond of?
DA: Given a choice I will always run to the movie theater – that’s my big passion, but I also love doing yoga, it’s a very big part of my life, it’s been a wonderful gift these past three years. I’m a big cyclist, ride my bike down by the beach whenever I can. I write as well, really enjoy that, it’s a challenge for me and I like to challenge myself. I like to stay very active – keep moving – decompress, recharge my batteries. Work is all-consuming so when I have time off I like to get out and breathe and stretch, it’s a great stress reliever.
TJ: Word association with the cast! Harry did this too, but Virgil didn’t get to and I feel bad.
DA: Oh! So funny I was watching Skyfall the other day and Bond was doing word association in an interview, and he’s so callous and so taken aback by having to prove himself, so I have to try to be not as verbose as Daniel Craig was!
Thomas – Brilliant
Shemar – Warm
Kirsten – Giving
AJ – Complex
Jeanne – Sincere
Matthew – Intoxicating
Joe – Inspiring and Humble at the same time! I need two words for Joe!
Paget – Delightful
TJ: What do YOU want to see happen in the final episode of Criminal Minds?
DA: I would like to see our team pass the torch to the next team so that this incredible journey can continue. Because I think there are so many stories left to be told. This world never stops evolving, and I like to think that audiences will continue to love the dissection of the mind of a criminal.
Thank you, Doug!
Fun Fact: Doug’s best friend and godfather to his children is Marc Blucas, who most famously played Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as Matthew on Necessary Roughness. Marc also stars in Killer Women, as Dan Winston.