Pandemics & Procedurals: Doug Aarniokoski on making killer serials…

Director-of-choice, Doug Aarniokoski hasn't just survived the current pandemic, he's thrived...

Since the days of his early directorial debut Highlander: Endgame, Doug Aarniokoski has made his name as one of the most strong and reliable go-to directors for primetime television. He’s helmed multiple episodes of Criminal Minds, Sleepy Hollow, Arrow, Limitless, Bull, Blue Bloods, SWAT and others. He’s also firmly planted in the Star Trek universe, directing episodes of Discovery and Picard. But his latest venture takes him back to 1993 and one of the most familiar characters in cinema history. In the new CBS show Clarice, Rebecca Breeds takes on the mantle of Clarice Starling, a year on from the events of her encounters with Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter (in, of course, The Silence of the Lambs) and forced by her superiors to become the poster-girl for an anti-serial-killer task-force.  She doesn’t want the job and the team doesn’t want her… but somehow Clarice has to come to terms with her troubled past and her possibly troubled future… With Doug helming the second and third episodes of the show, it’s the perfect time to see how he’s handling period-drama perpetrators and modern maladies…


Doug, first let’s talk all things ‘COVID’. 2020 was a weird and worrisome year on so many levels, but it was COVID that arguably changed the entire face of film and television production… almost everything ground to a halt.

I’d say there’s no rest for the wicked, but there’s been quite a lot of rest over the last year! We’ve been on the proverbial backburner for quite some time. EVERYTHING did come to a halt for a period of time. Then, slowly, various productions started to tick forward. I got the phone-call regarding SWAT – which was the first main American network show to go back in front of the camera – and they called me because I’d done a few of them in the past and they were going hire just a couple of directors to handle the first five or six episodes… just to get going. There’d be the producer/director who’s always there and me, so we rotated for the first five… just to get our sea-legs again, to make sure we’d get some in the can and minimise the risks. It was tricky… no-one knew what was going on and everybody was on high-alert for the COVID protocols which was scary at times… but it was reassuring because they did a beautiful job. The SWAT producers and SONY and Shawn Ryan and the actors were just making sure everyone felt safe. In that regard, it was great. But I do feel bad for the producers because they got berated with phone-calls from other productions, shows and films saying ‘How did you get up and running? How did you do it?’ They had gotten things sorted even before the union agreements. They pro-actively called and said ‘This is what you’re asking for and this is what we’re already proposing which is above and beyond that’ so kudos to them for getting out in front of it and blazing a trail.

Did it feel like this was a fundamental change, not just a temporary setback?

Very much so. LA in itself was a very strange place to be in general. There was COVID, there were the protests that were going on against Trump, the Black Lives Matter marches… but there were times it was a ghost town. But let’s be clear: there’s plenty of people who are still not working, we’re by no means back to 100%. Those who are working are feeling very blessed about it. I feel bad for some directors because a lot of tv shows adopted that plan of going to block shooting where you shoot two episodes at the same time and only hiring a handful of directors. If you give each directors a couple of episodes, then that means that there’s five or six directors who aren’t working (who normally would be). That’s a tricky one and hopefully it will even out and we’ll get back to some sort of normalcy.

Did COVID play any part in how you came aboard Clarice and how that’s been run going forward?

To be called and be asked to come aboard Clarice… I felt very honoured that they’d reach out to me and ask me to come and help launch the show. Nobody was working, so I was actually about to go up to Canada where my wife’s family are from and where COVID was very minimal (at the time). We could travel there because she’s a citizen. My wife went up there and I did SWAT and then went up to Toronto. Alex Kurtzman and I were just communicating and he asked what I was up to. I told him I was in Canada and he asked why I was up there and I told him and he said ‘Well… Clarice is getting back up and running, would you consider directing episodes two and three as a block?’ I said ‘I would LOVE to!’ It was just happenstance, it fell into place. So I was blessed to get the call and come in on the heels of Maja Vrvilo – who directed the pilot. They’d got shut down as well so they didn’t get to shoot the pilot in the conventional network way (where you shoot the pilot, test it and see how it goes before the network picks it up or they don’t)… they just pushed it and then it was decided to greenlight it to series. So they came back and shot the pilot and literally next day went right to the season. It was nice to be there with Maja (whom I’ve known for years and she did Picard last season with us ) as she was doing the pilot and to be part of that process and see where she was going in terms of storytelling and how she was developing these characters and how the camera was going to be used for the language of the show… and then literally – as she wrapped – to be able to jump in the next day and take over without missing a beat. That was a nice surprise.

Starting up a totally new show is hard enough, but when it’s based off a well-known property, it can come with baggage. The previous adaptations of Thomas Harris’ works have been mixed, so did it ever feel like a wonderful opportunity but also a scrutiny-laden double-edged sword?

It’s not a double-edged sword as a director. It is a double-edged sword as a director / fan of the movies, the tv series Hannibal, the books, etc. As a fan I was elated at the chance to get and read the scripts. The double-edged sword part comes into play where you do realise the weight of the new show and the re-envisaging of the continuation of Clarice Starling’s journey and path. Now, we’re going to tell these stories with these characters that were set up by the (original) movie. It’s not Hannibal, it’s not where he goes off. This could easily have been the next movie if they did the sequel… that’s where it came in. You realise ‘Oh my gosh… now I have the pressure – which I put upon myself , of course – of trying how to figure out how to do these amazing stories and introduce this character and do it justice, do it cinematically on CBS…’ You’re NOT doing the film, you’re doing the series now and there are constraints that come with being on network television – even if you’re on at 10:00pm. It’s very grizzly and very visceral and there’s a lot of imagery that echoes the film – so that can be a tricky, a slippery slope on which you have to navigate. The scripts are so beautifully laid-out… luckily a lot of that angst went by the wayside. I realised, as I was prepping it, that the material was there: The material was there, the story was there, the characters are there… it’s my job to… well, excuse me, but… not fuck it up. That was the ‘exhale moment’ for me… once I started diving into the scripts.

One thing I immediately noted (and liked) was the fact that though this is set in 1993 and technically a ‘period drama’, it wasn’t something that you felt the show was pointing to all the time. Yes, there’s different and more basic technology, but it wasn’t as if there was a big flashing arrow saying ‘Look at the rotary phones! look at the lack of internet!‘ all the time…

It was something you had to remind yourself about. It’s funny that you say ‘period’ and then say ‘1990s’ (laughs) I keep thinking wait ‘When did 1993 become period drama?’. Sure, okay. But, yes, when you realise how far we’ve come in just a very short period of time. Cell phones, no… they’re having to fax things over. There’s no internet. All these things you do have to be very aware of because the analog age is very much part of the story-telling, but we try not to lay a heavy hand on it. It became an organic thing. The show is really about Clarice and her experience so it’s told through her point of view. In the first three episodes, at least, they aren’t too interested in trying to… it’s not ‘Here’s what it used to be like in 1993’, it’s ‘These are FBI agents and these are their objectives and these are the tools that they have to work with’. That’s the story and the world you’re dropped into. We just felt it was 1993 and if there were times it didn’t feel like 1993, we’d ask what we could do to make it look and feel have that tactile elements. It was just really re-calibrating how you looked at everything.

The absence of Hannibal Lecter, never even mentioned by name because of the rights-issues, is going to be frustrating for many…

I appreciate it’s irritating as a fan, but you have to realise that it’s a tv show and that’s a problem with the rights, not a creative decision, just a legal one…

And, arguably, this is Clarice’s story not his. Rebecca Breeds doesn’t seem to be daunted – she plays Clarice in a very under-stated way…

She really does. There’s a lot of heart that she brings to it but also a lot of trauma and tragedy she plays to. This character… she’s broken. To go back into her childhood, which the show does and will continue to do, it’s really heart-wrenching. It’s mentioned in the movie when Jodie Foster is talking to Hannibal and he’s reading her and breaking down her psyche and getting her to talk about the lambs on the farm. There is that scene where it touches upon it – but it’s vague, a sprinkling on his intellectual probing of who she is and what she wants. But it’s dynamic to be able to go further into Clarice and find out who this character is. As you see in the pilot, she’s very reluctant. This is not what she wants – she wants to go back and be in her room and do her behavioural science. Now, because of what happened with Buffalo Bill and all the press (though it’s not the blitzkrieg you’d have now) she doesn’t really have a choice. They need her and she reluctantly becomes the face of the FBI and this new VICAP unit. I think it’s a brilliant way to come at it. I think (executive producers) Jenny Lumet and Alex (Kurtzman) really found an interesting lane to come into that character.

It does make a change for a show to put its momentum behind the hero rather than the villain. The trend has been to celebrate the anti-hero in recent years..?

I totally agree and think it’s an astute observation. I think (our show) is an interesting story to be told from an interesting point of view.

You’ve directed many CBS shows in recent years. The one that springs to mind most – in themes, at least – is Criminal Minds. Was that any kind of touchstone for you?

(Pauses) Yeahhhh, there are certainly are some, but I have to say that the concept of Clarice was and is a much more stylised point of view. We really went for more of a cinematic feel for the show. Criminal Minds came at it differently. Clarice doesn’t feel like a procedural – when I was prepping it never felt like one though if you were asked to put it into a specific box you certainly would. But it doesn’t feel like that – and I think that’s just because of the writing. The writing didn’t feel like it had to service these procedural… well, procedures that you often have on network television: service every character, make sure you have the antagonist’s point-of-view, have a B-story etc etc… it didn’t seem like how they came at this. They focused on her and the fact that she was and is one of the few female agents in the FBI. That, in a weird way, was the B-story, how she had to deal with the men (and the men had to deal with her) being placed in this ‘boys’ club’, as it were. There were not many women in the FBI, certainly not out in the field. I think that was shown really well in the pilot and in episode two you’ll see it even more: the male-gaze and the sheer 1993 of it all in that job capacity. That, to me, is the furthest thing from a procedural. She knows it’s the right thing to do, but as soon as it’s done, she wants out. It’s a constant battle and it’s an interesting way to play it.

In some ways… is it fair to say this doesn’t feel like a traditional network show..?

When I first read the script, I said ‘Wait, you guys know this is going on CBS, right? This looks and feels like an Amazon or streaming show’ and they were so happy to hear it because that’s exactly what they were going for. They didn’t want to feel like every other show that’s on at 9:00pm or 10:00pm. Those shows can be great but they wanted to tear it apart and build it back up and that you’re watching a different type of programme. I think they’ve accomplished that.

On that subject – there is the opportunity to binge-watch streaming shows now. Personally do you prefer the weekly rollout format or the ability to watch as many episodes as you wish at one point?

It’s a good question… I have to say the right thing because we have a weekly roll out, don’t I? (laughs) and Picard came out every week. Look… I come at it both ways as a viewer and a fan. I appreciate the weekly roll-out and it gives me something to look forward to. I grew up with the whole ‘Next week on…’ but I must say that in this era of binge-watching and being able to find shows you didn’t catch in their initial run, I can also appreciate very much being able to sit down and see them. I recently found and binge-watched Fargo, which I hadn’t seen and blew through two seasons – thrilled that I could just keep on going and keep going because I was so engaged with the story-telling. So my answer is I appreciate both.

I admit that I hadn’t seen Game of Thrones before the final run but binge-watched the six seasons and then settled in for a slower viewing pace for the rest. I think it worked better for me…

Ha! I watched it exactly the same way. I was too busy working and my nights were never available and then I binge-watched the six seasons and luxuriated in the final season as it went out. I think we’re very fortunate to have that option, the ability to go back and do that. I know people who are just now finding Breaking Bad – I’m so jealous. It’s lovely to find something so good and just watch it as you want.

Finally, let’s just touch on your work for the Trek franchise. As well as directing more Discovery (the episode ‘Scavengers‘) you also came aboard Picard to direct one of last season’s  fan-favourites ‘Nepenthe‘. I hear Picard‘s finally heading back into production and you’re onboard again…

We start shooting this week, we’re just crossing out Ts and dotting our Is right now. So I think you’re not going to see it until 2022 – that’s just the nature of the time-frame that it will take. (There’s no official dates, so it’s possible it could be late 2021, but I’d be surprised). Hmmmm, what else can I tell you? I don’t think I can tell you anything! (laughs) I can tell you that I’m beyond excited to get the cameras rolling because the stories are so good. Will it be just the same… or completely different. Absolutely and no, not even close to both descriptions – how’s that for a shitty answer?  (laughs) The problem is: If I tell you one thing, your mind will start to unravel in ways that would be so unfair if I didn’t hold on to the end and make sure you didn’t fly away. But that’s exactly where you’d go. I can just tell you that you won’t be disappointed. We are shooting seasons two and three together, there might be a little time-lag in between two and three but the plan, right now, is to shoot through almost an entire year. I’ll be directing the first two episodes of season two. We’ll still be filming in Los Angeles, the same as last year. We have such massive sets and a large footprint, we’re a massive circus and stay put – it wouldn’t behoove us to try and move. Some shows have gone to Canada but we were fortunate that we got to sit tight here in LA.

Sadly, I will not be back on Discovery this next year. With Picard we’ve started later than we thought – if we’d started earlier I would have been able to catch the tail-end of Discovery but the calendar dates could just not line-up. When they asked me to do Clarice, with the same producers, that took me out a Discovery slot. But I love those guys and that show and it was fun to get my feet wet. I can’t wait to do other Trek as well – Section 31, Strange New Worlds starts up any day now, so they go to camera quickly as well – I hope I can into that as I loved working with Anson (Mount) and Ethan (Peck), that would be great.

So despite all that 2020 wrought and brought down upon us all, 2021 feels like you’re still living the dream?

Yeah, I feel very blessed to be able to be a part of telling these amazing stories.

It’s my childhood dream come true…

Clarice is on Thursday nights on CBS…  and our review of the pilot is here…