Last week, I had the opportunity to take part in one of those teleconference Q&A’s that are becoming a way to connect networks and shows to a grassroots audience – in this case, with creator and executive producer of USA’s White Collar [9/8C], Jeff Eastin.
The witty, offbeat series is just into its second season, and Eastin talked with the usual gang of bloggers/journos about what to expect in terms of story, character development and how he and his writing team create worthy adversaries for the FBI/con artist team of Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey.
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Jeff Eastin: Sure. I’ll step back until, I guess, until just before the writer’s strike. I had just come off a show, Hawaii, that we had done almost a full season, and NBC cancelled it, so I was trying to figure out what the next show I wanted to do was. I had actually come up with this idea I called Redemption that was going to be a much darker show. I was a huge fan of The Shield, and it was sort of in its last season, and I had this idea that you take a Vic Mackey type character, sort of a cop who was probably a dirty cop, was accused of killing his partner, he ends up in jail, and then some crime happens where the DA has to let him out to help solve this one particular crime. So they let him out, put his on a track anklet and assign him to a detective. I was pretty excited about the idea. I kind of like the darker, edgier version. A friend of mine called and said, “You should check out a show called Life.” And I did, and I went, “Oh, wow, that’s exactly the same idea.” So at that point, I shelved it.
Then Burn Notice had the pilot just come out, and I had a little bit of a relationship prior to that with USA, because NBC and USA are owned by the same parent company, so I knew everybody over there. I knew Jeff Wachtel and I knew Jackie de Crinis, Bonnie Hammer a little bit. When Burn Notice came out, Matt Nix was looking for a second in command and he had read a script of mine and we had a sit down and talked and he seriously considered whether I was going to come on and be his second in command for Burn Notice. It didn’t work out. Nix decided to go a different way, but we’re still really good friends even so.
But within that meeting, USA had asked me, “Hey, do you have anything?” And I actually pulled out the Redemption idea that I had and said, “What if we run that through the USA Network blue sky filter?” And that’s what I did. So my dirty cop who may have killed his partner became Neal Caffrey, charming con man, and the detective who’s custody he’s released into became Peter. So that was really the origin of the project.
Can you tell us a little bit how this season is going to be different; what we can expect?
Eastin: It will be the same and the season will be different. I think we really hit a stride sort of in the back half of our season last year. It felt like things were really gelling and the cast had really come together. The writing, I think we really figured out the show. So going into season two, I kind of resisted the temptation to change everything. What I really wanted to do was stick with what was really working, and for me what really worked were the interactions between the characters. We’ve never really been a big, complicated whodunit. On our show we usually know pretty quickly. You know who the bad guy is in the first act, and it’s like, it’s usually about how Neal, Peter and Mozzie, in some incredible way, go take that person down. So that’s what we really wanted to stick with.
In terms of what’s different, now that Kate got blown up, Neal’s overall objective has changed a little bit. It’s shifted from trying to find the woman that he loves to trying to find the killer of the woman he loves. So it’s a small thing, but it’s definitely a subtle different, and I think a noticeable difference in how it shifts his character. I think he also is a little more grown up this year. There’s a maturity in his attitude towards the FBI. So those elements will be different, but the … back, and hopefully what made people like the show last year is still there.
You have a habit of giving the shows’ fans relatively quick reveals, so I’m wondering how long will it take for the music box arc to play out. Could you give us any teasers about what’s coming up in that respect?
Eastin: I’ll be careful of my teasers. I’ve been accused of giving too many. The music box arc will play out in the first half of season 2, so by season 2.5, we’ll know the answer to that. Let’s see, what other teasers? Any specific teasers you’re looking for?
The revelations of need to know, how long will it take, do you think, for Peter to realize that Neal really needs to know?
Eastin: We’ll play that out a few episodes. We spent some time and decided that last year we had done that. I mean, coming off of season 1.5, where we had revealed that Peter might be the man with the ring, we revealed very quickly that he wasn’t. That one was by design. We had decided, it’s going into the back half of season one. What I didn’t want to do is crash the dynamic between Peter and Neal, so we figured we could do a pretty good episode where we held that off. I didn’t want to end up doing three or four different episodes.
But this year it’s a little bit different, because really, again, Neal is searching for who blew up the plane, but Peter is also searching for who blew up the plane. So the real interesting thing this year is we sort of have dual mythologies. I won’t spoil too much of it for those who haven’t seen it, but Peter and Diana have their own goals this year, and they’re keeping secrets from Neal.
Tim Matheson has become kind of a fixture at USA and I was wondering, what with him directing the second season premier and playing The Architect, how did you come to him for those roles in the premier?
Eastin: Tim—great guy, by the way—he’s been around USA doing everything, and he had just done the Covert Affairs pilot, and he had gone over to do The Good Guys for Matt Nix, and he was doing some Burn Notice over there. So I was well aware of Tim. We tried to get him on a directors slate for season one, but schedules just didn’t work out. So he became available for our season premier this year.
We got him in, and we were actually trying to cast somebody else to play the architect. We were all sitting around one day and Tim was sort of reading dialogues from within the script, and at one point he read one of the lines and we all looked at each other and said, “Hey, Tim, do you want to do it?” And he hesitated for a few minutes and said, “Yeah,” but at the same time, he’s been doing an arc on Burn Notice, so I had to call Matt Nix and ask him. I said, “Hey, I know he’s doing an arc over on Burn. Do you mind if we use him for an episode?”
Nix told me as long as we did a little shout out to Matt Nix himself, that we could use him. So in the episode, at one point Tim’s character says, “I was just over at the Nix Towers,” so that’s our little shout out to Matt Nix, which got us the permission to use Tim in the episode.
I wanted to know, when you were doing the first season of the show, it hadn’t aired yet so you didn’t know if it was going to be a big hit, but going into season two you knew exactly if the fans had really embraced it. How did you approach that, as far as kind of sculpting the second season? Was that in your mind at all, thinking about that?
Eastin: Yes, quite a bit. As you guys probably know, I’m pretty active on Twitter and stuff, and so I pay quite a bit of attention to the fan reaction. When the show is airing, I’ll usually be searching the White Collar hash tags on Twitter to see what the live reaction is, and that definitely influences you in terms of storylines and things like that.
I think going into season two, what it did was really, I went back and wanted to do something that didn’t mess with what we had working. That was probably the biggest influence, I think, in terms of people liking a show, going into it this year. It’s strange, but there’s a very strong temptation—I’ve heard this from other show runners—to sort of change up everything in season two. I think it’s partly because people have seen 14 episodes of White Collar, but I’ve lived with it for coming up on 2 years now, so the story and the characters and things like that, I feel a lot of times in my mind it’s like, wow, we’ve really gone there a lot, but in reality, no, we really haven’t. I mean, there’s less than 14 hours of the show out there. So the temptation is to sort of branch out and try all these different things. I think my biggest reaction to people liking the show was to sort of curtail that and just really try to stick with what worked last year.
My next question was actually about Twitter. How important is that now for you and what you do, and also just in the big scope of television, because there’s so much you can glean from Twitter.
Eastin: It’s interesting. Some of you may know, we do dial tests. Whenever we test the pilot, like when I worked for NBC they would dial test the first couple of episodes. What it is is you’ll put 100 people in a room, you’ll air the pilot, and people will sit there with little dials, and if they like something they’ll crank it to the right, if they don’t like it they’ll crank it to the left. You watch it in real time and you’ll see this overlay of the numbers going up and down, and that pretty much determines your fate a lot of times. We tested really well in the pilot, which is good, but I’ve had tests where you don’t do particularly good, and I found that being able to watch Twitter reactions is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live dial test. But you’re talking a much bigger sample of people. So for me, that’s really nice because I can get that immediate feedback. If something is not working the reaction is pretty quick, and when something is working the reaction is pretty quick, so that’s really nice.
USA has really embraced the digital media and the social networking stuff, in terms of getting the word out about the show. For myself, I’ve got I think around 6,000 followers on Twitter, which, relative to several million who hopefully will watch tomorrow night, that’s really small, but I think it sort of represents a larger population and gives me a much clearer view of how people are feeling about the show. I think it also helps—I’m not sure, but we really built up on Facebook. I think we nearly doubled the number of Facebook fans from the end of season one to now. I don’t know if things like, I’m always trying to post photos from set and shout outs from the cast and crew and I assume those things get re-Tweeted and they help. So I think just in terms of kind of a grassroots marketing for the show, and getting people excited about it, I think they’re all really important.
And pictures of Matt Bomer helped too.
What would you say has been one of your biggest challenges while working on White Collar, and how did you overcome it?
Eastin: Well, interestingly, going into season two was much easier than going into season one. I mean, going into season one was a pilot—everything is a challenge. You create the world on paper and then you try to populate it. I think what really made the show work is I think the day we cast Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay together, I think that kind of sealed our fate and made us a show people wanted to watch. So that was probably the biggest challenge, was finding that chemistry and making it right.
After that, the other challenges have been on a smaller scale, but they’re there. There was a big debate for a long time about whether we were going to go to Toronto, whether we were going to shoot it for—some of you may know, the original script was set in San Diego, and it’s hard for me now to imagine the show out of New York. So things like that, looking back on it, were huge challenges. There were debates that raged for months about where the show would be shot, and we finally, at the end of the day, got New York. So things like that, I think, were huge challenges.
In terms of the structure of the show and things like that, that really wasn’t too bad. I think once we pushed it in the pilot we realized how important the relationship between Neal and Peter is, and found that counterpart in real life with Tim and Matt, that’s been fairly easy.
As a follow up, is there a dream actor that you would like to see guest star on the series?
Eastin: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. Yes, there’s several, as a matter of fact. There’s a lot of actors we’d love to get. This year we’ve done really good. We’ve got John Larroquette who does a guest spot, he does an amazing job. We have Aidan Quinn this year, who will be in our third episode, who is absolutely amazing. We’ve been really doing good, especially this week, we have some really great guest casts. A dream, boy that’s an interesting one. I think Clooney should come and play Neal’s father, that’s what I think.
We are wondering, we want to ask for all the ladies our there if Neal is going to have a love interest this season?
Eastin: Not really. I mean, it’s sort of interesting. It was reported that Hilarie Burton, who’s doing an arc of six for us, came on and it was reported she was going to be Neal’s new love interest. The truth is we’re not playing her that way. We’re playing her as an old adversary who comes on the show. What I had wanted for that character is, Neal has Mozzie and Peter and Diana and Elizabeth, but there’s nobody that really can walk between the two worlds, and what I was looking for is to try to find a character who could sort of walk in between those two worlds.
So I came up with Hilarie’s character, who is named Sarah Ellis, and she’s an insurance investigator, which is similar to Rene Russo’s character in The Thomas Crown Affair. What I liked about it is it gave her the ability to come in and kind of do things that are sort of on the gray side with Neal, and at the same time, she can walk into the FBI any time she wants to. So to have a character that can kind of walk between those two worlds is what we were looking for.
Now, that’s not to say that at some point there may be a romantic interest between the two of them, because they’re both very attractive people. Luckily we’ve done two episodes with Hilarie so far and her chemistry with Matt is really phenomenal, so we’re pretty excited about that. A very interesting relationship to me, for those of you who have seen the second episode, is, the more fun relationship for me is between Diana and Neal. We’ve got Marsha Thomason back this year, which I’m really happy about, and the relationship they develop over the course of the season is great. I mean, Diana being the one girl who can sort of … Diana’s charm is really nice.
Beyond that, with Kate sort of out of the picture, as it were, Neal has always—this is the question people ask me a lot. Neal has always been a flirt. The main way of pursuing Kate, he was a flirt. Now whether he’ll fall in love again, I think he needs at least a half season to get over Kate’s death.
Will we be seeing more of Mozzie this season? Will he be more involved in the cases?
Eastin: Yes, quite a bit more Moz this season. One of the things we realized last year is Willie Garson was sort of our stealth weapon last year. At least for me, every time a scene comes up with Mozzie in it, it suddenly gets more interesting. So we ended up, for those of you who have seen the first episode, “Back,” that episode was going to be done, we found out sort of a little later in the process that we were going to do a limited commercial premier with it. What that meant was suddenly we had to come up with six more minutes of content. So our scripts are normally, usually around 42 minutes, and suddenly we needed 48 minutes, and so we needed something that could be done pretty quickly.
So I sat down and I wrote two scenes with Peter and Mozzie meeting in the park, and I think they’re really good scenes. For those of you who have seen the first episode, I think they might be my favorite scenes in the episode. And as we expected, for the later versions, which will air at 42 minutes, we have to cut something down and everybody said, “No, no, don’t cut the Peter/Mozzie scenes.”
So once we did that we started saying, “We need more Mozzie this season.” So yes, more Mozzie this season. Our fifth episode in will be a Mozzie-centric episode. It’s about Mozzie has a crush on a girl and she goes missing, and Mozzie sort of has to jump in and work with the FBI to get her back. It’s a really good episode.
Now that Kate’s gone, you said Neal has different focuses, and the jewelry box will be solved, what will be next?
Eastin: You’ll have to wait and see on that one. It’s pretty much what we realize is, the music box was really designed to contain some sort of mystery, and what we find out ultimately is what mystery it contains. I think it’s actually pretty cool. I think people are going to dig what it points to.
After season one did so well, was there more pressure on you going into season two or was it off because it did so well?
Eastin: Both. The pressure was there but in a different way. In season one the pressure is to get people to watch the show. In season two the pressure is to keep people watching the show. I think what we really did is, the mythology for the show, ultimately, people seemed to really like. It helped us gain a lot of regular viewers. It’s a show where I think you can watch White Collar and enjoy it on a week to week basis. You don’t have to always watch ever episode. But with the story of Neal and Kate and the box and things like that, I think people tended to come and watch it a little more regularly than they might have if we were just a straight episodic. So this year the real split was where do we go with it?
I mean, Burn Notice, a show I love, they’ve definitely gotten heavier into their mythology, and for me, the temptation to go heavy into the mythology was there, but we decided ultimately that what we wanted to do was keep it about like we had last year, which is, it’s really a show, if you tune in, you’re not going to be lost. You’re not going to say, “Oh, my God, I didn’t see last week.” You’ll be able to follow it, but there’s enough of the mythology, the ongoing story, that hopefully will hook you in and make you want to come back next week. So that was probably the biggest pressure, was to keep that balance and not start adjusting.
What is the latest on a White Collar/Burn Notice crossover?
Eastin: The reality of it is pretty tough. The biggest problem is just the shooting schedule. We’re pretty much on the same schedule right now, so the idea of getting Jeffrey Donovan up to New York and Matt Bomer down to Florida; with the schedules right now I don’t know how we’d do it. If we wanted to cross over and have—we keep joking that Mozzie should go down and turn out to be … nephew or uncle or something like that. But if the schedules ever flexed up, I think it would be great to do it.
So will Neal and Peter’s relationship change this season, with Kate being gone, and as you mentioned, Mozzie being more involved this season?
Eastin: Neal and Peter’s relationship, I won’t say it changes, but it definitely evolves. There is definitely some turbulent times ahead. Again, one of the things I didn’t want to do, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how not to really mess with that bromance, as I guess everybody is calling it, between the two guys. But within that, we even get into season one, there’s a few episodes where there’s freefall, where we really played with the idea that they can’t trust each other. For me, what was really important is the fact that Peter and Neal are friends, but there’s always some aspect of Neal’s life, usually involving Kate, where Peter can’t trust him. To me, that’s the core of the entire thing. Neal will do anything for Peter, but when it comes to that, all bets are off.
I think he’s sort of a creature of the id, and I think when he’s presented with things like that, there’s almost like a child-like reaction, where he will react without thinking of the consequences. And it’s those moments that will put his relationship with Peter in jeopardy. Like I said before, this season, Diana and Peter are holding back some information from Neal, which is something we haven’t done before.
The other thing is, one of the things we’ve been careful of, and you can go back and watch every episode and this is true, that Neal has never directly lied to Peter. He will never actually lie to Peter, but Peter hasn’t made the same pledge. Peter will lie to Neal and he does this season.
I never noticed that, actually.
Eastin: He’ll say things like, an example I can think of is in the finale, he says, “June is having a champagne brunch. Can I take off early?” And he goes to meet Alice. Now it’s not a lie, because June may very well be having a Champaign brunch. He never said, “I’m going to June’s champagne brunch.” So whenever we write Neal, we’re always very careful to make sure that whatever he’s saying may be a half truth, it may be something that he leads Peter to draw his own conclusions, but it’s never a lie.
You’ve been mentioning earlier about Mozzie having more of a part in this season, are we going to learn more about his and Neal’s past this season?
Eastin: Yes, definitely. We learn little bits and pieces, but we’re actually, what I’m very excited is, what we’re working on right now is a flashback episode, where we actually get to see the first time Peter catches Neal, the first time Neal meets Kate, and the first time Mozzie and Neal meet, so I’m pretty excited about that one.
You were talking a lot about Twitter and getting direct response from viewers as it happens. Is there anything that’s ever gone on in an episode that you’ve gotten a really bad response from Twitter, and you abandoned it right away … anything that was like really great that you were like, you have to do more of that?
Eastin: I’ll start with the second part first. I think the biggest surprise reaction I had that was in the positive spot was Neal singing in “Vital Signs.” Matt’s a big musical theater guy, and we kind of joked about doing it for a while and we came up with the idea for that episode, partly so we could work that in. I was really stunned by the positive reaction on that. That one really surprised me. So we did that and we said, “Huh, okay.”
What I thought was interesting is that episode was never designed to be a heavy mythology episode. I think Kate, her name is mentioned once, maybe, but there’s really no other mythology in the episode, and I think it’s because of that moment where Neal says to Peter, “You’re the only person I can trust.” Most people cite it, and I saw it on the reaction on the boards and on Twitter and on Facebook, people were, “Wow, what a great heavy mythology episode.” So that was probably the most positive reaction that we saw that kind of left us scratching our heads and saying, “Okay, how can we do this more?”
The negative stuff, I’m trying to think of what the biggest—the interesting part, I guess for me, was judging when Kate blew up in the finale. I don’t think I was surprised that most people said, “Thank God she’s dead.” But I was sort of surprised by how many people said, “Thank God she’s dead.”
You mention looking at the boards. What sites do you read?
Eastin: I’ll go check the reaction on IMDb, Hulu, the White Collar Facebook page. That’s probably the ones I check the most often, and then obviously just the White Collar hash tags for Twitter.
You talked about how when you were short on time and you didn’t cut the Mozzie scene. Is there any scene that had been cut before that you wished they hadn’t cut, or maybe something that maybe they left in that you wish in hindsight that they had cut out?
Eastin: Are you talking the entire run of the show, or that particular episode?
Yes, just in general.
Eastin: That’s tough. To be honest, we don’t shoot a lot of extra scenes. I mean, I believe we have a couple of deleted scenes on the DVDs that are out tomorrow, but for the most part we don’t really shoot a lot of scenes. Surprisingly—well, I don’t know if it’s surprising—but like in the editing room I feel very comfortable. So I would say between me and Matt Loze—he’s one of the executives over at Fox—we have a pretty good tag team in terms of what we edit. So we’ll cut things, but rarely will we cut an entire scene. And most of the scenes that we cut seem to be things that are just more expository, where you’ll get a lot of expo about the bad guy or something like that. It will be usually stuff that we cut out that they’ll be sitting around the conference room talking. At the end of the day we’ll say, “You know what? I think we know enough about the architect. I don’t think we need that scene.”
Rarely, rarely do we cut character stuff. I would say probably, for those of you who have seen the second episode, there’s a great moment at the end where Matt is doing a Mario Brothers impression that’s really hysterical. Have you seen that episode?
Eastin: Well, at the end of it there’s this really great thing—I won’t give the context—but he’s doing an impression of Mario Brothers, and the hard part there was in the editing room. We had so much good stuff, because some of the great directors will just let Tim and Matt, once they get the scene as it’s supposed to be, they’ll let them just play. And that’s the hard stuff. It’s really tough when you see all this extra stuff Tim and Matt have done and we can’t use all of it. I mean, we probably could have got five solid minutes of Matt doing his Mario Brothers impression, and at the end of it, I think it’s 15 seconds.
So those are the things that really are tough for me to cut. Those are the things that I wish would be on there, but I guess, hey, that’s what DVD extras are for.
Now obviously, you write a lot for these characters. When you created them or even when you write, are there often things that maybe you incorporate that are from your own life in the characters or from yourself?
Eastin: Oh, yes, all the time. Little things that will happen. A good example was in one of the upcoming episodes Mozzie comes in and is griping about Neal not having a particular wine that he likes. He says, “You had a … I wanted to drink,” and Neal shoots back and says, “The pinot is fine. Drink that.” It’s a small thing, but that happened to be some friends just got me a couple of bottles of wine and they happened to be a Sera and a pinot.
So the gist of the scene was I had just gotten some wine and I had gone in the kitchen and was looking for it and I could not find it and I said to somebody, “What happened to that … that was in there?” And they were like, “Just drink the pinot. It’s open.” So stuff like that is constant, in terms of when I’m looking for something for Neal and Mozzie to do, and there you go. That happens a lot. Obviously, I’m not usually involved in too many extortion scams and things like that during the day, but it’s usually the small details that make their way into the script.
I was just wondering, because there has to be a challenge each week for Neal and Peter, how do you go about sculpting adversaries to test them?
Eastin: We have a pretty simple rule for that. It’s like, the better the bad guy, the better Peter and Neal look. And again, our show construction, one of the criticisms I think we got a lot in season one was that our A stories didn’t really require the use of a lot of brain matter to figure out, and it’s true. We were not trying to be CSI, we weren’t trying to be a really twisted mystery. What we wanted to be was a character driven show.
So for us it’s usually, the bigger the bad guy the better. The bigger the scope, a little bit iconic, arch-villains work pretty well for us. And we usually know who they are within the first couple minutes of the show. So that’s our usual rule; make ‘em big, make ‘em bad. Let you know who they are but make it tough to take them down. That’s kind of the marching order we go through, and I think our most successful shows are when we do that.
Do you have anything else coming up in terms of arch villains that will match The Architect for pure hubris as well as intelligence?
Eastin: Oh, yes, I think most of our guys are full of hubris. That’s usually just to kind of counter Neal. The John Larroquette character I mentioned is pretty awesome. That’s going to be a big card playing, poker playing episode which our director, David Straight, shot incredibly well. I’m mentally going through the episodes right now. In our fourth episode, which is Hilarie Burton’s introduction, we have a very rich guy with a pretty cool twisted back story. Mozzie’s girlfriend gets kidnapped by a big Columbian drug lord, which is a little bit of a change for us. Let’s see, Larroquette is in six. Actually we have a pretty cool one in our eighth episode in, where we have a federal marshal turned bad that’s kind of nice. Other than Fowler, we haven’t seen our guys go up against other federal agents, so that one is a pretty nice pairing with our guys.
Can you talk about how you got started in the business in general, with producing and writing?
Eastin: Sure, I’ll give you the short version. It’s not that short. Basically, I’m from Colorado. I went to school out there, and I worked as a director of photography on two really low budget movies for Roger Corman that were being shot in Boulder and this was really low budget. Corman was the producer; a guy named David Pryor was directing them. They’d come out and they’d shoot them very quickly—a couple weeks each out in Boulder. It was enough for me to think, I think maybe I want to try to go out to Hollywood. I mean, I hadn’t really ever been outside of Colorado at that point. I knew I wanted to be in the show business industry but I didn’t know what that meant, really.
So the summer I graduated college I packed up an old Volkswagen camp bus and I drove it out to L.A. It was my first trip out here, and a friend of mine, who knew a little bit about the film industry than I did said, “If you want to direct, what you really need is a script. Those are the things in short supply.” And I was always pretty good at short stories and stuff, so I sat down and I long-handed a story, just as I drove out. It took me five days to drive out in this little Volkswagen camp bus.
I finished it up once I arrived in L.A. I mean, for those of you who are new to L.A., coming from a small town in Colorado it was serious culture shock. I went through trying to follow the … patterns. I thought I’d go over to USC and check it out, not realizing that it’s not a particularly nice neighborhood over there. So I parked off campus and walked around with my backpack, and when I came back—it was my first day there, and my van was gone. It had been stolen.
So I had nothing. There was a cashier’s check for two grand that I had that was all the money I had in the world. Every other possession I had was gone. So I walked around that area for a little bit, which again is not too nice an area. I walked around and I found an old mansion that was sort of a flop house. There were about 20 people living in it, and I talked to the landlord, who was an old German guy. He was very nice, and he told me he’d give me a room for like $300. He said, “Hey, when you get a job pay me, until then you’ve got a place to stay.” I did that.
Actually, the first night I walked around and there was a Kinko’s over by USC and I had fallen asleep in there. This nice lady woke me up about three in the morning and I talked to her and she was the manager and she offered me a job. So my first day there I had my van stolen and I had a place to stay and I had a job at Kinko’s. The other thing I had was the script that I had long-handed on the way out; I’d held onto.
I didn’t realize what I was doing, but it was a thriller about a doctor who has a patient with multiple personalities, and he falls in love with one of the personalities and starts sleeping with another one of the personalities. And at some point in the show the two personalities start passing notes to each other and videos and realize what he’s doing and plot to kill him. So again, I had no idea what I was doing, but I had it long-handed in a notebook.
Through a friend of a friend of a friend, it got to Zalman King. Zalman was doing a … a lot of work, and he just started doing the Red Shoe Diaries. I didn’t even know my friend had taken the script, because it was the only one I had. It was in a notebook. He gave it to Zalman, and two days later Zalman called and said, “Hey, we’d like to buy that.” So that was how I started my future writing career.
So Zalman bought it. It never got made, but I made a little money off it, got an agent off it, went back and wrote another show, which was at the time called Inconvenience. I was going to take the $5,000 to $10,000 I made off the first script and I was going to shoot it myself, and I ended up throwing that one to Trimark Pictures and that ended up coming out as Held Up with Jamie Foxx, which was the first feature I’d done that actually got made.
And then off of that I got a couple of other things, a couple other small things, and then Neal Moritz, who had produced Fast and the Furious and I know What You Did Last Summer was the producer on Held Up. He came to me and said, “Hey, I’m doing TV, do you want to do it?” And I said, “Why would I want to do TV?” “You’re just a writer; you get to be the boss.” I liked that idea so I started doing some TV.
I did a show called Shasta with Neal over at UPN, which was my first show. Then off of that, you meet people and you do things, and I got Hawaii over at NBC, which is how I met everybody at USA, which led directly to White Collar. So that’s the short version.
Is there anything in White Collar that you wanted to do that you couldn’t, like because of budget or some other reason?
Eastin: Oh, yes. Look, I’d love to blow stuff up and have helicopters every week, but we can’t do that. The one thing I’m really proud about this show is we do it on a seven day cable budget and I’m really proud of how good the show looks. Part of that is because we shoot in New York, a lot of it … came off the wire and is absolutely amazing. I think the show looks as good as anything on networks, where the budgets are probably twice that they have an extra day.
So I would say that yes, I wish we could do action better. I’d love to blow more stuff up. I’d love to get in a little more action circumstance. That’s about it. In terms of Jeff King, who is my co-executive producer in New York, with him out there and Russell, there’s really nothing in terms of the look of New York, locations, things like that, that we haven’t shot. I think we’re incredibly lucky that way.
Would you ever be interested in acting or directing, as opposed to just writing?
Eastin: Yes. I mean, I wanted to be a director when I first came out, and once I realized how early they have to get up, that kind of stopped my desire to direct. Yes, I wouldn’t mind. We’ve discussed it. The studio has told me if I want to come and direct an episode I can, and maybe in season five I might do that. The problem I’ve got is I think in terms of writing I can be a really good writer. When I look at some of the directors we have, Kevin Brady is doing an episode for us right now and John … and what I realize is, I’m not as good as they are. I could probably direct a decent episode of White Collar, but I don’t think it will be a brilliant episode of White Collar. So at this point I want to leave that to the pros.
One of the things I’ve always kind of regretted about the path that I chose just creating the show is I don’t get to spend much time on set. I just got back from New York last week, where I can sit there, I can sit next to the director and watch how these guys work. Watch some really great directors do some really good stuff. But I don’t get to do that too much.
Most of my life is spent in the writers’ room, working with the writers, getting the scripts together, and in the editing room putting the final pieces in. But it’s that middle chunk, where it actually comes to life, that I feel woefully disconnected from a lot of times, which is tough, but it’s the life of a show runner. It’s like there’s the episode we’re writing, there’s the episode we’re editing, and there’s the episode we’re shooting this week. You always have those three that you’re working on, and to be successful, I think you get to pick two of those, and for me it’s the writing and the editing. And it means I just don’t get to spend time on set.
As far as acting goes, I did some theater in high school and college, but no real desire. I’ll watch Matt Bomer and Tim on screen and think, man, there’s no way in hell I could be that good.
What’s been your favorite moment or scene or something from the show?
Eastin: There’s a number of those. There’s probably episode to episode. The moments I think I like the best are, I’ll write it a specific way. When I write a script, I block it out in my head and I have a pretty good idea what it’s going to look like. The moments I love are when I’m watching the cut and I see the guys do something that I wasn’t expecting, and those can be very small, little moments. I mentioned again, have you seen episode two yet?
No, just the first one.
Eastin: There’s a moment in there that really surprised me. Even in that one, it was like, there’s the second scene with Tim and Willie sitting there in the park, and that was really nice, because I had knocked those things out really quickly. And the second one, Tim had set up this circular dolly track going around the guys, and just the park setting, Willie and Tim, they found these really great moments within the scene and that was really cool for me. Those moments are always great, to see those.
In episode two there’s a really great moment, which was Matt doing the Mario Brothers impression, probably because it wasn’t scripted like that. It was a nice little moment, but suddenly he turned it into a really great moment. And those ones that can really make me just laugh out loud, those are always my favorite.
Do you have any advice for other people wanting to get into this?
Eastin: That’s interesting. I don’t want to say I fell into it, but I sort of have. How about this as advice; don’t worry about the odds. I think if somebody had told me what the odds of creating a TV show and actually get it on the air, it might have stopped me back when I started, but I never really thought too much about the odds, and just sort of did it, sort of moved forward.
In terms of writing, my best advice is read everything out loud. I keep telling my writers, “Read it out loud, because if the dialogue doesn’t come off your tongue, it’s not going to come off the actors’ very well.” Think hard about it. What I usually do is I’ll jam through a draft and then I’ll go back and question every single line. It takes a lot longer than a lot of writers; I’m not a particularly fast writer, but I think by questioning every line and saying, “Do we need this line? Is there a better line? Is there a funnier line? That’s a little bit of a cliché, can we turn that around?” I think it does help the final product.
And then in terms of actually getting a show on the air, I’d say probably watch a lot of TV. There’s nothing that annoys me more than meeting somebody who’s talking about they want to be a TV writer or a feature writer and they say, “I don’t really watch TV,” or “I don’t watch movies.” Then how in the heck do you know what’s out there? And inevitably, those are the same people, when they start pitching me something, I’ll say, “Well, it’s a great idea, and James Cameron did it great three years ago.”
So that’s probably my best advice. Just write a lot and pay attention to your chosen medium. For me, I may not like a show, but if it’s doing really well, I’ll make myself watch and at least try to understand why people like it. What are they coming to? What is it about this show that’s appealing to people?
Note: You can learn more about White Collar at the show’s website: http://www.usanetwork.com/series/whitecollar/