How To Become A 'Criminal Minds' Director -- From Stuntwoman To CBS Procedurals
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Criminal Minds comes back Wednesday night for its 15th (!) and final season. L.A. native Diana Valentine is one of the show's directors, and she's become a go-to talent for CBS -- she's directed seven episodes of Criminal Minds, 11 of NCIS: Los Angeles, and more.
Here's how she got here, plus some advice on how you can go after your dream job too.
STEP 1: FIND WHAT YOU LOVE
Valentine's always been a fan of darkness -- she connected with Criminal Minds over getting into the mind of serial killers and what motivates them.
"I'm one of those people who, even if I'm watching something and it's bad, I have to watch it to the end -- because I have to see how it ends. I have to have that closure of the story," Valentine said.
She thinks of herself as an audience member first -- she puts her own experience of 'OMG' or 'whaaaaat was that' back into the product, using what appeals to her as a fan to know what she's getting right as a director.
If you know up front that you want to go into filmmaking, she recommends finding a school with a film or theater program, or looking for books that fit your interests. (Yes, sorry, you might have to read books, not just watch things.)
STEP 2: TRY DIFFERENT THINGS
From a young age, she wanted to get into entertainment. She acted starting in elementary school and started out trying to be an actress -- but found that career to be too random.
"There's no rhyme nor reason for anything sometimes, and I couldn't deal with the lack of control that you have over your own career as an actor," Valentine said.
She went to college to be an airline stewardess, but that didn't fly for her either.
"One of our things was going up in a Cessna, and they did a mid-engine stall in the air where the plane just drops -- and I was like, 'Oh no, this isn't for me.'"
Valentine found an unusual foot in the door of Hollywood -- she became a stuntwoman. Yes, she's more of a badass than some may think at first. One of her best friends was a stuntwoman on The Fall Guy, and the industry was hungry at the time for athletic women to join the profession.
"There were fights, and car stuff -- so we'd go out and rent cars, and practice our driving, and our slides," Valentine said.
She did stunts on classic action shows like The A-Team, T.J. Hooker, and Airwolf.
STEP 3: MAKE STUFF
With the tools now available, Valentine recommends going out and shooting your own films if you want to get into filmmaking.
"Take your iPad, go out and shoot something. I mean, get friends together, write a script, do some shorts," Valentine said.
Her equivalent of walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways: she started out shooting on film, using a director of photography connection to get access to a free camera -- but she still had to pay for processing, cutting, and storing that film.
You can also volunteer to be a script supervisor for student films or ultra low-budget movies looking for help, Valentine said, where you can start putting in some hours and build your skills.
STEP 4: SUBMIT TO DIVERSITY PROGRAMS
Being a female director is still unusual, but Valentine said Criminal Minds impressed her -- when she did her first episode for the show in 2015, they had six women directors in a row. But one opportunity for women and others who haven't traditionally been able to get access to the industry is diversity programs, meant to expand the diversity in Hollywood.
Once you've made your own short, Valentine recommends looking for programs that you can submit to and sending your work in to as many as you can.
"And if you don't get in the first time, submit again. I mean, just do it," Valentine said.
She did a short called Blood Moon, about whether serial killers are born or made (more of that love of darkness mentioned above), and it helped her to find more career opportunities. There are more opportunities for female directors in television than film, Valentine noted.
You can also find mentorship programs and other places where you can submit your projects, Valentine said.
STEP 5: ALWAYS HAVE A PLAN B
While she enjoyed her time as a stuntwoman, she started to notice opportunities drying up.
"As they were starting to get cancelled later on in their run of their series, they weren't being replaced by other stunt shows, and I thought aaah... I might be out of a job soon," Valentine said.
Uh oh. Her plan B ended up being taking a class at UCLA with a friend of hers, learning to be a script supervisor. She was interested thanks to her own work with script supervisors while she was a stuntwoman.
"They just told you, when you get out of the car, run that way, or open the door with this hand, so it was about continuity more than anything else," Valentine said.
That class helped her find that being a script supervisor fit with the way her brain works. She continued to pursue being a script supervisor -- her friend went on to sell real estate.
STEP 6: GET A JOB AS A SCRIPT SUPERVISOR
The way toward her goals that Valentine found was leveraging that class and landing a role as a script supervisor.
"When I first started trying to direct 15 years ago, there was really kind of no resources -- you just had to get on a show," Valentine said.
She recommends the job for people who can multitask and have a strong attention to detail -- if not, she said, it's not the career for you.
"It's a really hard job," Valentine said. "To be a good script supervisor, you [also] have to have kind of a laid-back personality, because you're dealing with so many different personalities. There's different ways to approach different actors, different people."
STEP 7: BUILD RELATIONSHIPS
Once you've gotten a foot in the door, you need to keep building relationships. She'd directed one episode, but Valentine feels that her big break came when NCIS: Los Angeles was building out its crew.
Her way in: a line producer she knew from her days as a stuntwoman, and a unit production manager she knew from working as a script supervisor.
STEP 8: GET ON A SHOW THAT LASTS MORE THAN A SEASON
The first episode that Valentine ever directed was on Nip/Tuck -- but it was the third-to-last episode of the series, so she didn't get another episode after that.
"You had to just have the perfect storm to be on a show with a showrunner who was willing to give you a shot, but it also had to be a show had done multiple seasons and so the studios were also willing to take that chance," Valentine said.
Valentine said that one key thing is getting asked back for that second episode, so that others can see that you were good enough to be asked to do more.
When she got to NCIS: Los Angeles, she told people at the show that she'd just finished her first episode directing, and they were interested. She got to direct her first episode of that show during its third season, two episodes the following season.
Eventually, executive producer Shane Brennan said she had to make a choice.
"He said, 'If you want to be a director, I'll give you three episodes to direct next year,'" Valentine said.
She quit supervising and committed to directing full time.
STEP 9: PERFECT YOUR CRAFT
Brennan also guided her, sitting with her in editing and telling her why shots either did or didn't work. Valentine said that women don't tend to get that chance to hone their craft, and that when women direct an episode that isn't fantastic, shows just move on.
"But there's a lot of male directors who've gotten shot, over shot, over shot, where they've perfected their craft, and they've gotten better," Valentine said.
CBS's procedurals have proven willing to give chances to directors without as much experience, according to Valentine, letting her learn and grow.
"They have no qualms about giving people shots, [including] directors who have directed other things but maybe not done 40 hours of television," Valentine said.
The more prepared you are, the better your episode goes, according to Valentine.
"It goes smoothly, the more the crew is happy with you because you know what you're doing," Valentine said. "You're not standing around on set going, 'OK, what do we do now?'"
STEP 10: NO MATTER WHAT, KEEP GOING
Whatever your path, Valentine urges people to keep going after what they want.
"People who have dreams and want to pursue directing, or any other part of the industry -- don't let people say that you're too old, or you're too this, or you're too that," Valentine said. "Just pursue your dreams -- you're never too old until you're not walking this earth anymore."
Criminal Minds airs Wednesday nights on CBS. Valentine directed the sixth episode of this season, "Ghosts."
You can watch her action directing reel below:
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