Criminal Minds' Matthew Gray Gubler Directs "Eerily Cerebral" Episode
Matthew Gray Gubler
Sorry, Matthew Gray Gubler fans. The Criminal Minds star has found his perfect match in show writer Sharon Lee Watson — professionally at least.
"She is like my sister," he tells TVGuide.com of Watson, who wrote Wednesday's episode, which Gubler directed. "She's new writer this year and I didn't really know her that well at first, but she and I have gotten so close the last few months, and now we're like the same person."
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The "love connection" was born late last year via Criminal Minds showrunner and "matchmaker" Erica Messer. Gubler — who first directed two years ago and last year helmed Paget Brewster's first exit (she's leaving again in the season finale) — was originally scheduled to direct a different episode this season. But then Messer, who wrote Gubler's directorial debut, "Mosley Lane," heard Watson's pitch for "Heathridge Manor."
"I think when she heard Sharon's idea, she thought you couldn't find a better episode for me," Gubler, who plays Reid, says. "When I got switched, Sharon was telling me her idea and my mouth just kept dropping open. I couldn't keep drool in my mouth. She was like, 'I have this idea of an unsub who paints these creepy portraits' and I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah? I love it.' And she's like, 'And there's this kids book that the mother's been reading to the kids that's sort of scary and there's a creepy prom scene and a girl with a prosthetic arm.' Really, it felt like she crawled inside my brain. I felt like they were playing a joke on me because it felt so perfect. She wrote a script that addresses everything I love about directing."
"Heathridge Manor" will be a departure for the long-running procedural, which has amped up the gore and shock factor in recent seasons. Anyone who's seen Gubler's website knows that the NYU film grad specializes in the quirky and spooky, and Wednesday's episode will be no different. In it, the BAU heads to Oregon to investigate a series of ritualistic murders that are carried out with Salem Witch Trial tactics aided by the help of a local cop played by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. "Last year, it was a special episode and there was a lot of action, which is not really my thing or our show's, so in a funny way, this one feels like a prequel to 'Mosley Lane,'" Gubler says. "It's non-gory. There's no blood. It's eerily cerebral. There are a lot of bells and whistles and a lot of stuff you never see on Criminal Minds."
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Those things include using The Platters' song "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and some gothic children's paintings that Gubler took it upon himself to create when a hired artist was, well, too good at his job. (Similarly, in Season 2, the show used Gubler's sketch of guest star Anton Yelchin instead of a professional artist's.) "I was encouraging this guy to paint these portraits with his left hand because he's right-handed. He's just such a good painter that he couldn't do it bad! Finally, Sharon said the inevitable: 'Matthew, just do them yourself,'" he says. "I paint in real life a little bit and we took his paintings and I painted over them. And I still have them! But in the process of giving copious notes, I realized that it's a lot of subtle details in this episode that if they were done wrong, it makes it completely ridiculous. It's about riding that line of creepy, but not creepy in a usual way."
That comes down to, he says, show and tell. While the actor knows that the series' direct approach of, say, shoving a rotting corpse in viewers' faces is effective, he prefers to let fans' imaginations run wild with suggestive clues here and there — something he learned from an unlikely source.
"To me, the effect is always heightened when you only see, like, a hand behind a doorway. You know something is there and your brain has to create the image. It's so much more powerful," Gubler says. "I feel like such a d----bag talking about it! But when you show a dismembered figure with a gut hanging out, you know exactly what it looks like and it loses its mystery and its wonder. I really cite Walt Disney as teaching me everything I know. It sounds crazy, but I'm serious! In Bambi, the mother dies, but you don't see the corpse. You see the father, the stag, come up and you see Bambi alone, and that has so much more impact than seeing a mutilated deer. It's my personal feeling, but at the same time, I think our show works as it is."
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Gubler has directed one episode a season for the past three. Does that mean he'll make his fourth stint behind the camera next year? He hopes so, but first, he needs to sign a new contract, which he anticipates will happen soon. "I can't imagine not coming back. It's my family. I'm sure everything will be fine," he says, adding that Brewster's choice to leave caught everyone by surprise. "We'll miss her dearly. I'm still trying to talk her into staying."
But for now, Gubler is concerned about what to do with all those creepy paintings he kept. He recently sent his fans into a tizzy when he uploaded a video of himself dressed as a turtle singing karaoke in a Japanese bar — one that encourages patrons to wear costumes — to The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World," so he may just turn to Disney again for some help.
"I was very hesitant to put it up. I was like, 'I think I just destroyed my career.' And then I was like, 'You know what? If this destroys my career, then it's not a career worth having,'" Gubler laughs. "I think my next one would be Belle's song from Beauty and the Beast. Belle's my favorite Disney princess. Maybe I'll do an online vote to pick which Disney song I should sing next and then auction off the paintings for charity. That might be a good idea. ... I'm gonna have to do it here though because a guy dressed up singing karaoke is standard in Japan!"
Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on CBS.
Watch a sneak peek of the episode below: