White Collar Podcast Interview Part 2: Jeff Eastin, Creator/Exec. Producer, Talks About Developing This USA Network Series
White Collar premieres on USA Netowrk tonight at 10 PM.The show about the unlikely partnership of a con artist and an FBI agent who have been playing cat and mouse for years. It’s time to set your Tivo or DVR boys and girls.
Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer), a charming criminal mastermind, is finally caught by his nemesis, FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay.) When Neal escapes from a maximum-security prison to find his long-lost love, Peter nabs him once again. Rather than returning to jail, Neal suggests an alternate plan: He’ll provide his criminal expertise to assist the Feds in catching other elusive criminals in exchange for his eventual freedom. Initially wary, Peter quickly finds that Neal provides insight and intuition that can’t be found on the right side of the law.
This is part 2 of the Jeff Eastin White Collar inteview! Moderator Our next question is from the line of Kenya Jones with ACED Magazine. Please, go ahead.
Ms. Jones Hi, thank you for talking to us. My first question is 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?
Mr. 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.
Ms. Jones One more question I wanted to know. 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?
Mr. 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.
Ms. Jones That’s excellent. Thank you so much.
Mr. Eastin Yes.
Moderator Our next question is from the line of Sheldon Wiebe with Eclipse Magazine. Please, go ahead.
Mr. Wiebe 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.
Mr. Eastin Yes.
Mr. Wiebe 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?
Mr. 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?
Mr. Wiebe Switch, I believe, was early 70s.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Wiebe More elegant.
Mr. Eastin …, who’s our DP who just came off The Wire, he’s absolutely fabulous. He’s the guy that shot the pilot, and he’s also doing the series for us, and it’s sort of shocking to me to see the difference just in dailies. You have these really gorgeous beautifully composed frames that the action takes place in, and I think that’s also a bit of a throwback to the older shows.
Mr. Wiebe It’s very elegant.
Mr. Eastin Thank you.
Mr. Wiebe As a followup, 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.
Mr. Eastin Thanks.
Mr. Wiebe But as a dramedy, what do feel is the right ratio of comedy to drama, and how do you hit that sweet spot?
Mr. 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.Mr. Wiebe Thanks very much, and good luck with the show.
Mr. Eastin Thank you.
Moderator We now have a question from the line of with Stefan Blitz from Forcesofgeek.com. Please, go ahead.
Mr. Blitz Hi, how are you today?
Mr. Eastin Good, how are you?
Mr. Blitz Good, thanks. 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?
Mr. 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.
Mr. Blitz Okay, and I guess followup would be is Peter smarter than Neal because he was able to catch him?
Mr. 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.
Mr. Blitz Awesome. Thank you so much.
Mr. Eastin Thank you.
Mr. Eastin Thank you, guys. This was fun.
Thank you to Jeff Eastin, USA Network and Electric Artists for providing the opportunity to speak to Eastin and get you some material to see and hear about the premiere of White Collar.