White Collar will bring a new slate of characters to the USA Network family when the new series premieres on Friday, October 23 at 10 PM ET on the USA Network. The new series was created by Jeff Eastin and the creator/executive producer recently held a conference call to discuss this new addition to the USA Network. Here's what he had to say.
Now that you have segued from writer to producer, how're you juggling everything that you're doing because that's quite a bit given that this is a new series.
Jeff Eastin: Yes, it's been a little insane. I've done it a couple times before, so it's not exactly a new experience. I gained some pretty valuable experience on the other shows that didn't survive, so I'm hoping that I can use that information to actually keep this one on the air.
You had commented on your twitter that you thought that the "All In" sequence or episode was a really good performance. What made you think that?
Jeff Eastin: That particular episode, it's sort of interesting. The way we've done it is there's a certain amount of mythology regarding Kate and the man with the ring that we set up in the pilot, and the "All In" episode was one of the episodes that we sort of had built in some major mistrust between Peter and Neal. The episodes prior to that we play with the idea, but there's also a great deal of Neal sort of tracking Kate down on his own, and this is one of the episodes where we kind of brought it together where there's some distrust between Peter and Neal that really comes heavily into play. For me anyway, one thing I'm very proud of this show is I think it's an interesting tone, but I think especially with Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay that there's a really nice sense of humor to the show. In that particular episode, "All In," this level of mistrust that we took it to kind of added an extra layer to it which I was a little worried going in. I didn't know how it would play against the humor. I was just really, really happy to see that I think it actually kicked it up, that it actually really gave this extra layer to the humor and kind of dimensionalized the show in a way that I hadn't seen before.
My question for you, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the genesis of the concept and, I guess, going from the idea to an actual TV series and just kind of that process and how that came about.
Jeff Eastin: Sure, well, the idea really came about, this was prestrike, pre WGA strike, and I had been kind of playing around with a couple of ideas. I'm a huge The Shield fan, and I had worked with a friend of mine. We sort of bounced ideas off each other, a guy Travis Romero. I was a huge The Shield fan. By way, don't tell me because I didn't end up getting to see the final season which I heard was awesome. I'd been playing around with an idea that I'd called 'redemption' at the time. The idea was sort of a much darker, sort of a Vic Mackey, what would happen if he'd killed his partner and gone to prison. Then, they have to let him out of prison to work with a detective to solve the crime. Then, when it came to that, they decide to put a tracking anklet on him and keep him out. That idea percolated around for a little bit in my head, and somebody had pointed out there was a show called Life that's on that they said, "Hey, that's pretty much exactly the same idea." I had kind of shelved it a little bit. At that point (I believe this was just before the strike), Travis and I were sitting around discussing kind of what wasn't on the air. The one thing that I hadn't seen for awhile was kind of the buddy show which I was a big fan of. I did an early draft of Rush Hour 3. I did True Lies 2 draft for Cameron which was back before Arnold got elected, and that was sort of in my wheelhouse, just the buddy thing. I loved, absolutely loved, Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours. I said, "You know, there's nothing really on TV like this anymore." We kind of looked around and said, "No, there really isn't." We kind of dusted off the redemption idea and said, "What if we took this and turned it into a comedy?" At that point, I kind of just started in my head trying to figure out who the characters are, and for me, Matt Nix, who created Burn Notice, and I are pretty decent friends. He'd seen the pilot, and he called me and said, "Hey, dig the pilot. I just realized," he said, "Peter Burke, your FBI agent," he goes, "He's you." I was like, "What do you mean?" He's like, "That's your alter ego." He's like, "Michael Weston, my alter ego, and I think Peter's your alter ego." I thought about it for a little bit, and I realized he's right. With me, Peter, who's sort of more the straight man, is the guy that I am, but I've always been fascinated by the guy who Neal Caffrey is. I've had friends like this. Guys who you could literally parachute them in any place in the world with literally nothing with, just the clothes on their back and by the end of the night, they'd be driving a Bentley and having dinner with the princess in the castle. I'm not that guy, and I've always sort of been fascinated by people who could pull that off. That was sort of the genesis of the Neal character. Taking a guy who literally just by smiling could pretty much knock down any wall, and the idea of pairing him up with somebody who's kind of the exact opposite seemed like a pretty natural. That's pretty much how the characters evolved. Walked into USA and said, "Hey, I've got an idea for a show," and that was how it started.
Within the casting, you've got a really interesting, talented cast here. How did you go about mapping, I guess, those characters into casting and choose these particular actors?
Jeff Eastin: Casting was an incredibly long process. I want to say it was around six months. USA, they move, especially initially, they move very slowly. They grind very fine. There were some frustrating things going on early in casting. There was a sort of sense, like, let's just get this thing going. The good thing about the search, it took a very long time, but in the end it was worth it. We'd started out, and my concept of Neal was what we really sort of thought was a little bit maybe an impossible task. Jeff Artel had said, "You know, what we'd love is a young Warren Beatty." Warren Beatty when he did that screen test back when he was, like 19, 20 years old. There was something just very electric and magnetic about him. That said, I was really hoping we could fine an unknown for the role, and that's a really tough thing to do, somebody very talented, that good looking with that much charisma. Usually those guys are probably working, and they're probably doing features. We started looking, and I was aware of Matt. I'd heard his name before. I'd seen maybe one or two episodes of Chuck where I kind of had registered him as somebody that was pretty good. He came in and, to our credit, my casting director, Gayle Pillsbury, keep in mind I bet we saw 300 guys pretty easily, and that's who I saw for the producer's session. They saw more guys in the non-producer session, and then kind of whittled it down, and Matt was a good looking guy, but there's a lot of good looking guys in L.A. As we went through the process, I remember I walked in and Matt, he's kind of an unassuming guy in person. If you guys were on set and met him, you'd probably realize he's not particularly flamboyant. He's kind of a reserved guy. I saw this guy. You know, he's a good-looking guy, just kind of keeping to himself on the couch, and I didn't really clock him as being a breakout star. Gayle, my casting director came over and said, "I want you to keep an eye on this guy." She said, "He is a star." I said, "Okay, fine." Came in, he did the read, and I was really impressed, but again, it's one of those days where I think we probably saw 20 or 30 guys that day. I put Matt in the pile of people to come back, and every time we saw him, he just would get a little bit better and a little bit better. He's a very good dramatic actor, and I wasn't 100% sure he could do the comedy, so we sat down and we talked about it before we took him to network and we sort of discussed the comedy. He's very intellectual when it comes to acting and sort of really processed it. Went in the next day, and this was, again, very deep in the process. I think we'd probably been holding onto him for probably two months and bringing him in and bringing him in. We went into network, and USA's one of the best networks in the world to go into as far as casting goes. We walked in, and it was very inviting, very friendly room, and Matt just started the scene, and there was just that moment where everybody said, yes, this is it. Wow, this is the guy. That's it. That's how we found Matt.
Tim, I think we drug ... a little longer for no other reason than just we wanted to be sure. When he and Matt read together, I think everybody in the room turned to everybody else and said, yes, we found the pair. I think we probably drug them around a little bit more in terms of bringing him in a couple more times, but I think it was really just, is this the show? Is this the way we want to go? After, I think, two times at network, we said yes, this is the way we want to go. Ultimately, no matter what I write, no matter where the location is, it's really the show comes down to those two guys. I'm really happy now because I think probably the best thing we've got in the entire series right now is those two guys sitting in a car on a stakeout talking. It's two guys sitting in a car talking and it's that compelling, knock wood. I think we may have something good here.
One of the things I wondered right away was if Neal has all of Peter's FBI connections behind him and he has ..., was there ever a worry for you that people would wonder how come he can't find Kate right away?
Jeff Eastin: There was a little bit of concern with that. The theory we're working on is because Neal trained Kate, she's very good at this. The other thing is you're assuming the FBI doesn't necessarily know where she's at already and maybe isn't telling Neal. That's one of the other things we're playing with.
Oh, so they're using her against him kind of thing?
Jeff Eastin: Could be.
What were some of the challenges you guys faced filming in New York?
Jeff Eastin: Surprisingly few. I'd never been to New York before. I literally wrote the show using Google Street View. When I decided that I wanted to do a show about White Collar crime, New York seemed like the obvious place to do it, and Street View makes a pretty good tour guide. I went through and kind of mapped the whole show out on Google, went through it, and I (to be honest) didn't see it. I figured we'd be shooting in Toronto or Vancouver, but I figured why not try it. Then, USA and Fox came together. I got the call originally on the pilot, and they said, "Hey, guess what? We're shooting in New York." "Really, okay." ..., but we said we'd take it. We ended up shooting in December which was not when we intended, but I think we did a pretty good job of hiding the Christmas decorations which were on every street corner at that point. We got there, and I was worried because I'd shot another show in Hawaii, and Hawaii was really tough, surprisingly. The traffic on Oahu was absolutely crazy, and you would sort of be staked down to a particular location. Once you got there in the morning, you're not moving until night, and I'd worried about that in New York. A couple things worked for us there. One is the best thing about New York is just the production value you get. All we have to do is open a door or point a camera at a window, and we've got absolutely brilliant production value, right there, just by pointing at the city which is really nice. The other thing is the crew. I've never seen crew this good in my life. I have my producer in New York, Jeff King, knows the city really well and has been able to do an absolutely amazing amount for a basic cable budget. The one thing I'm really proud about of the show is that he's got a really great look. Bronwen Hughes, who directed the pilot, she's from New York and did a really great job of just making the show look good. New York's actually been great. I went into it a just a little bit worried. It costs a little bit more to shoot there, but in the end, it ends up on screen.
You were talking a little bit about the strike earlier, and I wanted to know in the wake of the strike, have you noticed especially more of an appreciation for writers and their sort of indispensible role in the creative process now since then?
Jeff Eastin: That's an interesting question. It's really interesting to me because post-strike, it seems that sort of while the strike was happening, like, ... or something definitely changed. I don't know. I hate to be mean about this, but I don't really know if I've noticed more an appreciation for writers. The one thing I've got to say is USA, because I'd worked for four years developing with NBC, and NBC and USA are very closely linked. Jackie de Crinis and Jeff Wachtel over there and Sepiol, I'd worked with them prior to this show and prior to the strike, and USA especially was always very, very good at recognizing the contribution of writers. They were very much a network about their shows and their creators. I don't know if they've cancelled a series. I think pretty much every series I've had has stayed on the air, and I think that's kind of a testament to how much care they put into it. Again, they're very selective. They only pick up a couple of things, but when they do, they really get behind it. I was just out here in L.A. The sheer amount of marketing they're putting behind the show is kind of staggering, and I know in New York it's crazy. I got a call from Matt Bomer one late night saying he just saw a poster. He said, "I'm ten times the size of God on the side of this building, and it's freaking me out a little bit." USA has always been very good. In general in the industry, it's a really interesting question. I don't know if there's more respect for writers. The one thing in a weird way I think may have happened sort of away from, as you know, of the networks, USA's doing pretty good right now. Some of the other networks I've noticed (and this is just sort of my impression of it), but I've noticed that there's almost been a little bit of a devaluing in areas for writers. The idea that, hey, with the internet, do we really need this expensive production? Why don't we just throw up a Webisode instead? We'll get the same number of eyes on a YouTube hit that we can get on a show that's costing us $3 million an episode. We can get the same effect with a viral YouTube video that costs $1,500. I've noticed a shift there in terms of sort of the use of writers. I think that may be explained because during the strike, there was sort of scramble to say, okay, there's no scripted material coming out in the traditional sense, but people want scripted material. In a way, I was very excited about seeing that people still wanted scripted material. For awhile, most writers I know, we were very worried that reality would just sort of take over, and there wouldn't be a place for scripted stuff anymore. I think the strikes proved there is. Whether or not that will translate into sort of more shows, I don't know. I think ultimately, they'll probably translate into maybe a lot more sort of cheaper shows. I think once the web is fully integrated, it'll be interesting to see, but I'd say within the next ten years, it's going to be really fascinating to see if traditional scripted shows can survive. I think there'll always be a place for them, but it'll be interesting to see what format. In five years, maybe it'll be guys running around with HD cameras shooting stuff in their backyard.
Actors, directors, producers, every time they all speak highly of USA and working with USA, and right now with so many shows being quickly introduced and then cancelled just as fast, do you feel that there's sort of a sense of calm, not as much anxiety working with USA, or is launching a new show the same no matter who you're launching with?
Jeff Eastin: No, it's definitely different at USA. It'll be my fourth show, and I have to say that USA is by far the most relaxing experience. Going in knowing that we have more than two or three shows to prove ourselves is incredibly relaxing. Normally, when it was NBC from my last show in Hawaii, you're going in on a big network show, you know that that first number better be big, and you know you better not drop at the half hour. At USA it's definitely different. They definitely treat you like, okay, you're here for awhile, so let's figure this out. We've gotten a really good response from the pilot, and I think the feeling that I've come away with from USA is that we know we've got a good show here, and relax, guys. Hopefully, we find it right away in the series, but if we don't, we're willing to stick with you for a little bit until we find the right show hopefully. I've been very excited about the episodes we've gotten done. Everybody at USA and Fox has been pretty happy with what we've gotten so far. I think we may have found it. That said, I can feel it from the actors. I can feel it from the crew that, yes, there's definitely a sense of instead of just looking at it show-by-show, that we kind of can plan a season. Say, okay, let's try to make this work. Let's hone this as opposed to, okay, guys, if this one's not good, we're done. That really does translate nicely into a more relaxed crew and cast. You see it on screen. From a writing standpoint, it's nice because we don't feel the need to compress everything. You know, it's like we've got to throw all the good stuff in the first episode. We feel like we can kind of parse it out. Yes, it's definitely a great network to be launched on.
When I was watching the first two episodes of White Collar, I was kind of reminded that there're some people out there that're comparing it with Catch Me if You Can, the Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio movie, but I got more of a vibe of some early series with Robert Wagner It Takes a Thief and Switch which I believe you were still a kid when those were on.
Jeff Eastin: Yes.
I'm just wondering how do you find an idea like this even though there're several other things out there? Independently, how does that come to you?
Jeff Eastin: It's interesting. I hadn't, in terms of It Takes a Thief, I actually (thanks to Hulu) just discovered those recently and was going back to actually take a look at them to see if there were any good story stuff to pilfer there. Unfortunately, a lot of those were sort of Cold War, but still had some pretty cool stuff to them. Switch I'm actually not familiar with. When was that done?
I believe, was early 70s.
Jeff Eastin: Okay, I have to check that one out. Yes, really, there's definitely the Catch Me influence in this just in terms of sort of the younger con man, but yes, like you said, this format's been around for awhile. A lot of it was, like I said, I was pulling more from my experience which is 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon, probably Lethal Weapon a little bit more just in terms of having a slight age gap between the characters. What I wanted to avoid was sort of a father/son relationship, but I thought the Mel Gibson/Danny Glover relationship was interesting because you've definitely got an age disparity between the guys, but it comes off like partners. That was something I was really trying to shoot for in this one. The ... of the idea really was sort of just looking and saying what's not on TV right now? There's not a buddy show. To be honest, I was a little trepidatious going in because I wasn't quite sure. You know, Simon & Simon, there's a couple others you could probably point to, but there really hasn't been a lot of shows with a team. It's either the ensemble now, or it's like the lone guy, but the true team hasn't been on TV for awhile. One of the things that I did that I looked at was trying to figure out why doesn't 48 Hours or why doesn't Lethal Weapon really translate to TV? There've been a few attempts, but they haven't worked really well, and going in I was kind of worried about that. When I looked at it, what I ultimately decided in my opinion was that a lot of the problem was in a feature, you've got two guys who don't like each other and can get into a fist fight in the middle of the movie, and the last frame of the movie, they can say, okay convict, maybe we aren't friends, but now we're partners. I think attempts to sort of ... that down for TV may have not been as palatable because in TV you want characters that you want to hang out with, and it's hard to hang out with two people that hate each other. I very intentionally decided to make these two guys respect each other. It's a 90 minute pilot, and 30 minutes say, okay, at this point, they are partners, and they respect each other. There's some tension there, but let's make them friends, too. I hope that comes through. I think in the pilot, especially, there is sort of a sense of these guys liking each other, whether it's early on when Peter, the FBI agent, is walking through the prison, and you can see that he's sort of proud of Neal's escape when the warden says, "He used my wife's American Express." Peter has this little smile that I love. There were moments like that where I was trying to build in and say let's make these guys friends right off the bat. We'll see how well it works for us. The other thing, just in terms of sort of the style of the show, you may notice no steady cam, no claim shots. Bronwen Hughes, my director, and I sat down, and we very deliberately decided to go with more of a classic style which is dolly moves and sort of a little more of a retro style to the shooting, too. The hope was that by using a dolly, by going with sort of more of a classic feel to the show that what we'd end up with would be you'd get more frames that are, you almost have frames that look like still shots.
Another thing I noticed immediately about White Collar is that it follows in the same vein as USA's other series in so far as it assumes the audience is reasonably astute, reasonably intelligent, and I like that a lot.
Jeff Eastin: Thanks.
But as a dramedy, what do feel is the right ratio of comedy to drama, and how do you hit that sweet spot?
Jeff Eastin: That's probably the greatest question we've got going right now. It's very tough. I think dramedies are some of the hardest to do because the thing is they're easy to do badly. They're very tough to do well. Straight drama, straight procedural stuff is its own challenge, but at least you know what you're getting into. Straight comedy which I've done, too, is easier than this, at least for me, because, again, it's sort of like you know what you're doing. This one, it's very easy to end up in a position where you're neither fish nor fowl. I think we really sort of played with that on the pilot. In the first episodes we're doing here, we're sort of playing with that line. There's definitely sort of a balance. What I find works the best, at least for this show, is there's an interesting line where there's a certain amount of jeopardy that plays real. As long as the humor is contextual between the guys, it's pretty easy to pull it off. The actors, also, are probably 80% or 90% key to this. We can write whatever we want, and if you're sitting there and you've got a dead body but the actors can find a way to make the lines play, humor us without sort of feeling like you're in bad taste, it's pretty nice, and we've got guys that do that. We actually don't have very many dead bodies. I think we have one in the first six that we actually see. We are kind of trying to shoot for sort of an elegance to the show. The question of where we split the comedy and where we split the drama is a tough one. I tend to like the shows that have a little bit more drama to them. Of the six we've done so far, those tend to be my favorite by a slight margin. I kind of like stuff that has a little more ... to it, but again, The Shield was my favorite show, so I've also screened them for friends and family who felt just the opposite, that they kind of like the ones that're a little more on the humor side. I think once we find that sweet spot and if we can stay within a few percentage points on either side of it, I think we'll be good.
Out of curiosity, are we going to be seeing these flashbacks of his ... Peter apprehending Neal? Are we going to see a little bit more of their dynamic prior to the first episode?
Jeff Eastin: No, we don't have any flashbacks built in. I think in the midseason we've got sort of a flashback, but it's just recalling up a previous episode. We're going to get a bit more information about their relationship, but we're sort of parsing it out in real time.
Is Peter smarter than Neal because he was able to catch him?
Jeff Eastin: Here's the way. Peter isn't smarter than Neal. The way I've always said it is if the two guys are in the room, hopefully, they're the two smartest guys in that room. Neal's intelligence is a little bit different. Neal is really brilliant when it comes to his area of expertise. His one giant Achilles heel is Kate, and when it comes to Kate, sort of all bets are off. He gets sloppy. He screws up. He becomes impulsive. One of the character traits Matt Bomer and I've discussed at length about Neal's character is that at heart he's kind of a 12-year-old. He's sort of a creature of the id. One of my favorite lines in the pilot is when Peter's yelling at him about his new digs in the mansion is he said, "I don't have a $2 million view of Manhattan that I share with a 23-year-old art student while we sip cappuccino in a cloud." Matt looks at him and says genuinely, "Why not?" For me, that was sort of the crux of the character which was when he says, "Why not?" he actually believes why not. Why don't you have these things? It wasn't a rhetorical question. It was they're there. You could have them, and for me, that was sort of the crux of Neal's character. For me, Peter's character is he's very good at his job. He loves the puzzle, and Neal is sort of another piece of equipment for him. Yes, they end up, they have a friendship and stuff, but what Neal really is he's like the DNA test. He's like fingerprints. He's another tool for Peter to catch the bad guys. When it comes to catching him, Peter's not going to waste time. I think there's even a line in the pilot where he says, "We're not going to catch him with road blocks and wanted posters. You're not going to get Neal the regular way." Peter knows that to catch Neal, you go out and you find his weak spot which is Kate.
Jeff Eastin's White Collar will air its series premiere on Friday, October 23 at 10 PM ET on the USA Network.