White Collar Premiere Week: Jeff Eastin Interview

This week is White Collar Week as USA’s brand new series, White Collar premieres this Friday at 10/9c! Everyday this week, I will present interviews with the cast and crew of White Collar, as well as photos from the set visit that took place on September 30, 2009. To begin White Collar week, check out an interview creator and executive producer, Jeff Eastin conducted with a group of bloggers and also check out photos from the set visit below.

On the Genesis of the Concept:
The idea really came about pre WGA strike, and I had been kind of playing around with a couple of ideas. I’m a huge Shield fan, and I had worked with a friend of mine, Travis Romero. We sort of bounced ideas off each other.

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 Life 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.

On Casting:
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. 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.

On the Challenges Filming in New York:
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.” 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.

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.

On Flashbacks:
No, we don’t have any flashbacks built in. I think in the mid season we’ve got sort of a flashback, but it’s just recalling up a previous episode.

In the wake of the strike, have you noticed especially more of an appreciation for writers and their sort of indispensable role in the creative process now since then?
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.

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.

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?
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.

How do you find an idea like this even though there’re several other things out there (like Catch Me If You Can, Robert Wagner It Takes a Thief and Switch)? Independently, how does that come to you?
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. 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.

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 have 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.

Our DP who just came off The Wire, he’s absolutely fabulous. He 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.

As a dramedy, what do feel is the right ratio of comedy to drama, and how do you hit that sweet spot?
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.

Tune into White Collar, premiering Friday, October 23 on USA Network.

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