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White Collar: Interview With Creator, Jeff Eastin

by Lynn DeVries on March 3, 2010 · 0 comments

in Interviews,White Collar

Tim DeKay & Matt Bomer

Jeff Eastin is the excutive producer and creator for the show White Collar. He took the time to talk to several of us a few days ago about how he came to create the show, how Matt Bomer was cast as Neal Caffrey and so much more! Here’s the entire discussion:

Q: My first question here was about season two. And we heard the good news, I guess in December, that season two got picked up. But I just wondered if you could maybe talk a little bit about planning for that, what you might do different, and are we going to get a major cliffhanger leading into that?

Jeff: Yes. We have a pretty major cliffhanger coming up here in two weeks. And what we’ve done in season two is really—we’re right into it now. The writers’ group has been going about two weeks now and most of that time; we’ve been just working on the mythology moving forward into season two. What I did, really, was looked and say what we thought we really did right in season one and just try to duplicate that.

Luckily, I was sort of surprised, but most new shows, there’s usually a few shows you’re sort of not happy with and I’ve got to say, I mean, just amazing cast, amazing crew. We had some really good directors this year and we got really lucky. I mean, I can’t really think of any show in season one that I wasn’t happy with. I mean, I’ve got my favorites. But even the ones that are my least favorite, I still think came out pretty good. So I’m pretty happy about that. I mean, we have been dealing pretty specifically with Tiffani’s pregnancy. That’s something we’re really trying to deal with in season two.

We’ve decided not to bring it up on the show. So working around that has been a real challenge and very interesting, but kind of fun to find out technologically what you can do in terms of green screen and things like that to be able to work around that. So those are the challenges we’ve got going into season two.

But for the most part, the way I’m looking at the show right now is it ain’t broke and we’re not going to try to change anything majorly in season two in terms of dynamic. For me, the show is really about Peter and Neal and that’s where the focus is going to stay, supported by Elizabeth and Mozzie, and that’s really where we want to keep it going into season two.

Q: One of the things that I think was probably the most amazing things I’ve read was how when you’re coming up with this concept, you’d never been to New York and you did your research, I guess, with Google Streets. I was kind of wondering how in hindsight did that work out, and is New York, I guess, different than you thought it would be?

Jeff: That is true. Yes, I had not been to New York. New York was a very obvious choice if you’re going to do a world of white collar crime. And Manhattan, you really can’t beat it. I mean, it’s the perfect city for the show. And the one problem that I had was that I had not been there. So I’m a computer geek anyway, and I think Google Streetview when it had first came out, I thought it was pretty amazing, and once I started poking around on it, in Manhattan, it was really nice. I mean, you could stroll down the street. I could plan out Neal and Peter’s movements and actually walk through them. That was really helpful just in terms of sort of orienting myself geographically.

What really shocked me about New York, I have to say, are the people. I mean, I sort of—being from Colorado originally and then from L.A., there was sort of a perception that people from New York can be very cold and sort of distant. I was really surprised that that was the exact opposite of what I found. I found that people there were incredibly nice, incredibly warm.

I have to say that I was sort of—Central Park was probably the biggest surprise I had. I spent some of the most peaceful moments in my life I’ve spent just sort of strolling through Central Park. And that’s from a guy who grew up in a very small town in Colorado. So that was probably the biggest shock is that there were these places of solitude in New York that you could find. It wasn’t the big hustle bustle capital that I was expecting. It does have those elements, but there are also these wonderfully tranquil moments that really surprised me.

Q: You’ve often said in interviews that Neal and Peter are the smartest guys in the room. And over the course of the season, we’ve seen them go up against some pretty clever criminals, but really the only one who kind of seems like a match for them has been Keller, which makes me wonder since Fowler is somehow connected to the whole case scenario. Clearly, he’s not the guy pulling the strings. So when are we going to learn more about the mastermind behind that and how is that going to play into future episodes?

Jeff: Yes. The, as we call him, the big bad, who ultimately will be the guy that Fowler reports to. We’ll learn a lot more about him in season two. Our season two, and knock wood, our season three mythology really deals with that and really we spend some time exploring Fowler’s back story, which is actually kind of interesting stuff. Glad to hear. I don’t know if that was you saying you like Keller, but that he was formidable, which I was very happy to hear. We liked Keller quite a bit, and actually the bad guy, Wilkes, who’s coming up in next week’s episode of “Front Man,” is pretty formidable also.

Just as a side note, people have asked if “Free Fall,” which is our finale where Neal had bailed out of a judge’s chambers and ended up in the front page of the newspaper, whether there were going to be ramifications. And yes, Keller is one of those ramifications. Wilkes, also, is somebody from Neal’s past, which is that sort of by exposing himself, Neal sort of comes out of the shadows slightly, and that’s attracted some of the people from his own life.

So two of the bad guys, Fowler will return and we’ll find out a little bit more about who’s pulling his strings and why, which I think is actually a pretty interesting story.

Q: When you’re writing a show that has so many characters. I mean, when you put your four main characters named Peter, Neal, Mozzie, and Elizabeth in a room, they are the four smartest people period. How hard is it to maintain a level of excellence writing for that kind of a cast?

Jeff: It can be difficult. What we’ve done is we’ve really broken it down to each person has their own sort of specialty. Peter’s specialty is usually sort of the puzzle solving, the putting the pieces together that an FBI agent would be good at. And Neal, I always look at Neal as somebody who can sort of look at the problem from outside the box and approach it in a way that most people wouldn’t think to. Mozzie adds his own expertise, which usually that sort of that street level guy who knows the way that criminals do it. And Elizabeth has a certain amount of emotional intelligence that we try to play off of. She’s going to see things from a human perspective that a lot of times Peter won’t see or Neal won’t see.

So it can definitely be difficult, but I have to say that at times, we put all four of them in a room has been some of my favorite scenes. In “Bad Judgment,” for example, when Elizabeth finally meets Mozzie. Mozzie walking in and debugging their house is one of my favorite sequences so far, I think, in the series.

Q: Since the first season has done so well with the viewers and the ratings and everything. Does that take the pressure off or does it actually add more pressure for you to kind of keep the momentum going for season two?

Jeff: I would say both. It’s a different kind of pressure. There’s a certain pressure you feel when the ratings are sliding and every week they go down. That’s not a good pressure. It’s sort of usually a debate whether you’re going to work on the show or start sending out resumes. And the pressure we’re under right now, I much prefer. It’s really the pressure to keep the show going the way it’s been going. To keep people happy. As a lot of you probably know, I’ve spent a lot of time on Twitter lately.

And the one thing I like about it is it really connects you to people that watch the show. I mean, you get to see what people like and don’t like. But just by putting a face on it like that, it really does, I think, increase the pressure to do it right. I mean, there’s several people, I don’t actually know them by name. I sort of know them by the handle or their Twitter icon. But there’s definitely a sense that we’re doing the show for them. And it’s very gratifying.

I mean, for example, this last week’s episode. The actual production of it was very difficult. We ran into a lot of problems just in terms of logistics and all sorts of stuff. The episode was really very difficult to put together and for all of us on the production side, it was very tough. And we usually watch the Twitter feeds coming in. We’re on the west coast. And we’ll start watching the feeds come in from the east coast starting around 7 o’clock out here.

And when you see people reacting, people who you know are fans of the show saying, Oh, I really liked Keller or that was a great scene. It’s a really good feeling because we feel like we’ve done something right and kept the people who like the show happy. And at the end of the day, that’s really all we have. It’s people liking the show, telling their friends to watch the show. And that’s how we survive.

I mean, a lot of shows go a season. A lot of shows die in season two. And what we’re trying to do now is just keep building on the momentum we’ve got and do our best to really make a show that’s going to keep people who really do like the show happy and try to bring some new people on board.

Q: What surprised you the most about filming the first season? Was there something you weren’t expecting that kind of popped up, either in the filming or in the story breaks or anything like that?

Jeff: I think, in a vague sort of way, I would say it was the reaction to the show. You never know. You go in expecting certain things. You do the best job you can and then you just put it out there. I would say, I expected Tim and Matt to really pop. I mean, the whole show was really designed for those two guys to pop.

I think I was surprised by sort of the Matt Bomer’s star quality. I mean, we always had our fingers crossed, but the reaction to Bomer was pretty shocking to me regardless. I mean, having travelled out to New York several times and seeing his picture up everywhere was kind of neat. But then seeing the reaction to it was even better.

From a story standpoint, I think probably the most refreshing thing that happened was we’ve been making a real effort to try to make an intelligent show, to do a show that tries to stay smart. I mean, we may not always succeed, but at least that’s our goal. And I wasn’t quite sure how that would be accepted. I mean, we’re constantly—we have a lot of chess games. We quote Dostoevsky, things like that. I didn’t know how things like that would be accepted. Last week’s episode which dealt a lot with sort of the nuance of wine.

Again, in an MTV world, I wasn’t sure if people were going to like it. And the fact that people do, the fact that people seem to really be buying into that and enjoying it, where a lot of shows rely really heavily on action, we obviously don’t. We don’t rely much on girls in bathing suits and we haven’t done that. And it was refreshing to really not have to and to not be pressured to because people have really reacted well to—so I guess, maybe the more intellectual pursuits that we’ve done on the show. That’s been really nice.

Q: Earlier, we had a chance to talk with Tim [DeKay] and Matt [Bomer], and they were talking about their characters. They talked about Peter and Neal having a growing relationship, and they were learning to trust each other. And I kind of wanted to get your opinion if you saw it that way and what do you think the dynamics of the characters will evolve to?

Jeff: Again, going into season two, one of the things we want to be careful of is that we don’t adjust too much. But again we kind of keep what’s working. And too, there’s a growing trust between the guys. What we’ve really moved away from is Peter is not afraid currently that Neal’s going to pack his bags and run. We’ve definitely advanced the relationship to that not being a big concern. In the first few episodes, it was always is this guy going—In the pilot even, when he says cut his anklet, Peter was pretty sure he’d run.

At this point in the episodes we’ve done, when Neal, if he cuts his anklet, Peter’s pretty sure he’s sticking around. So that doesn’t really affect the trust between the guys. What does still factor in is Kate, the fact that Neal still has secrets on that side, and Peter has a few of his own. And that’s where the trust issues between the guys will still play and will continue to play into season two, the issues revolving around her, around that relationship. I think Elizabeth had a line. If I recall, it might have been flipping the coin, where she says there’s only reason Neal will ever lie to you. And he says Kate. And that again, is going to be something we really factor in in terms of the trust going forward.

As far as the relationship between the guys, I think the actual growing relationship between Tim DeKay and Matt Bomer is factoring in. And you see it on the screen. You see it between takes. The guys just really like each other. And I think that’s what’s factoring in with Neal and Peter that these guys are spending time in the office together and they’re getting to really like each other. They like each other as human beings. There will always be the trust issues, the moments when Neal steps out of the room and Peter may look at him sideways or tell Jones to run a fingerprint on somebody. But it’s two guys who can go out and have a beer together. They really, really enjoy each other. That will be the relationship we’re evolving. The trust issues will always be there. But it’s two guys who just really, really enjoy each other’s company. We’re moving that forward.

Q: Take us into the writer’s room for a minute. When you’re thinking about the crimes, how they’re committed, how they’re going to be solved to each episode, how do you guys—do you sit around and kind of like draw things out on a board? Do you act them out? Like what do you guys do?

Jeff: Yes. For anybody that is following. You’ve probably seen us put up a couple of the white boards. So you probably know I’m not much of an artist. Yes. We do sort of all of the above. Usually, what we start with—there’s a process we’re doing right now. We’ll start with an idea. Usually, from me it can really come from anywhere. I mean, we scour some of the Google feeds in terms of what white collar crimes are happening.

We have Tom Barden who’s our FBI consultant. He’ll mention some interesting crimes to us in certain cases. For example, going back to Bad Judgment, which ultimately ended up being one of my favorite episodes. That one started out really with us saying what’s the most boring crime we could possibly do? Let’s see if we can do it. Well, in that case, it was mortgage fraud. So that one was a little bit of a challenge, partly because that particular episode had what’s supposed to have been a bank heist and we were crashing into various things, not the least of which was a production problem, getting into a particular bank at that time.

And so the last minute we just kind of swung it around and said okay, we need a new idea. And literally, that was it. It was my desire. I just said I know. What’s the most boring crime we got? And we thought about it for about two seconds and I just said mortgage frauds. All right. Let’s come up with a mortgage fraud crime and try to make it interesting. And then off that, the way I like to do it is I do what I call, if anybody remembers the old Mad magazine’s Scenes We’d Like to See.

That’s what I’ll do. I usually start off with, and just start throwing things at the board and say okay, in this episode I’d really like to see a scene like—I happen to know in that particular episode that I wanted to see the upside down signature thing that we did. I really wanted to see that. I had a desire to see Peter blackmailed or the threat of blackmail. And we knew going in that we really wanted to have Elizabeth meet Mozzie in some context. And so usually, on the white board, I’ll just put those things up. It’s like we’ll say at some point, Mozzie meets Elizabeth. Peter gets blackmailed and Neal does an upside down signature. And then we’ll just try to start weaving those together. And throwing out scenarios, trying to figure out like well, how can we get that? What’s a good reason for Elizabeth to meet Mozzie? And we’ll riff on that for a few hours. They can meet this way. They can meet that way.

In this case, it was—usually, all the character work where we’ll say well, Peter’s not going to be particularly happy about introducing them. So maybe Mozzie sneaks into the house. And then we’ll bang our head against that for a while. And ultimately in that particular episode, we came up with the idea that Mozzie came in to sort of bug sweep the house for them, which led us backwards to saying ah, well, who bugged the house? Fowler. So we had a pretty good Fowler episode.

So it all—it’s really—what’s great about the writer’s room is if anybody is following the White Collar writers, we’ve put up some pictures there. We’ve got a pool table. We’ve got couches. It’s a lot like hanging out with a bunch of your friends. It’s like a coffeehouse. And just riffing. Which is great. They pay us fairly well to do it, which is kind of nice. We’ve got a really good group of people.

And again, they come from everywhere. I mean, for example, Free Fall started—I really didn’t have much idea what I was going to do for the mid season. I knew where it was going to end up. I knew the scene with Peter and Kate in the room. That’s about all I knew. Everything else came from my desire. I had this bizarre idea that Neal should buy a bakery and that Peter didn’t know why. And that was really the genesis of that particular episode, that if we do nothing else other than, hey, wouldn’t it be neat if Neal bought a bakery? Why? Because Peter would be like why’d the hell this guy buy a bakery? So a lot of times the best ideas I think we come up with are the ones that are usually the most unexpected or the most random.

But that’s pretty much the process. There really is no direct line ever from start to finish. But once we get on a line, we just break it down and get to a point where it all makes sense and we usually track it through or walk it through and say let’s walk through the story from Peter’s point of view and now Neal’s point of view and now Elizabeth’s. Now the bad guys. And just hopefully, make sure we’ve covered all the motivations, which is usually—If you walk away from the episode having watched it and it felt right or it felt good, it’s usually because we did our job right and didn’t have any weird motivations.

Usually, what ruins an episode for, I think somebody viewing it is saying wait a minute; I don’t think Peter would do that. Or wait, that doesn’t make any sense. Neal’s not that dumb. Or something like that. So that’s sort of the process, I guess, in a nutshell.

Q: Yesterday, I was part of the Burn Notice interview with Jeffrey Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar. And there was a question about would there be any kind of crossover that they wanted to do out of the USA Network shows. And they particularly mentioned specifically White Collar and talking about the potential of how the characters and the whole tone of the shows were so similar. And wondered what you thought about that.

Jeff: No, I completely agree. I mean, Matt Nix who created Burn Notice, and I are pretty good friends. Yes, if we’re going to do a crossover that seems like the one to do. It will be interesting to talk to USA about it. I know there’s been some joking about it, but I think in terms of a crossover that would be by far the most logical and the most fun. I guess the interesting thing would be would we send Michael to New York or would we send Neal to Florida?

So as they say, stay tuned. But that would be something that would be, I think, pretty awesome.

Q: In terms of as your writing, are you looking at particular guest stars that you want to plug in? Do they come in after the fact or before the fact?

Jeff: Almost never do we know beforehand. Usually, I mean, again for those people following on Twitter, I’ve been putting up some like script page sneak peeks. I’ll put them up for the episodes for—like I put one up for yesterday for Front Man, which is airing next week. I believe that was—I’d have to check the date, but I think we were filming that in late November. And if you want to back that up, it was a few weeks before that that we were writing the thing. And with that, we almost never know ahead of time who the guest star is.

Now, if it’s somebody like Noah Emmerich, who plays Fowler, we’ll know that because we’ve locked him down probably a month or two before because we’ve made a deal with him to do three or four episodes in the season. But somebody like Dan Neal, who’s coming up this next week or Ross McCall, who played Keller this last week.

Usually, we’ll write the character and then casting will go out and say what are you looking for? And what’s been really great is because the show’s doing pretty well, it’s definitely attracted a much higher class of actor who suddenly says, hey, yes, if I’m in New York I’ll spend a week and do a White Collar, which has been really nice.

Q: I think White Collar has definitely become one of my favorite shows on TV. A really smart show. One of the things I really love about it is Mozzie. I think Willie Garson adds so much to the show in terms of not only just being a really smart guy, but he brings a lot of humor. I’m wondering if we’re going to start seeing more of Mozzie’s connection to this underground world coming up in season two.

Jeff: Yes. Yes, we are. We’ve got that. We’ll also find out a little bit more about Mozzie. For example, why he’s called Mozzie, which I can’t tell you. And more of his back story, which definitely deals with that world. And yes, I mean, he’s really evolved as one of the most fun characters.

I mean, I think, as one of the executives told me we’d turned in a scene. This was last year at some point. We’d turned in a scene and a USA executive had called me and said you know what I love about these scripts? Every time I see the word Mozzie in a script is I know something fun is going to happen. And I think that’s really a huge part because of Willie Garson has really become the gauge, whenever it’s Neal and Mozzie get together and Mozzie or anybody together, it adds a certain special spark to that particular scene. And really, really pops.

By the way. To the Burn Notice/White Collar crossover. Some of the writers here were toying with the idea that Mozzie could be Sam’s nephew, which I think would be kind of interesting.

Q: Another fun thing that I think, more so in the last episode, was sort of starting to see Peter more traverse these gray areas with Neal. He’s not completely opposed to doing something that maybe a couple of episodes ago he would have thought was completely wrong. How much is that going to factor in in the future? I mean, might that eventually come back to bite Peter?

Jeff: Yes. Yes to all the above. I’m not going to give too much away for our season finale, but that actually, that particular aspect, Peter’s up to now, sort of unwavering belief in the system and in the Bureau gets shaken pretty good. And it allows Peter, or sort of pushes Peter, to the other side a little bit. I mean, again, we’re not doing a radical re-shifting of the show. Peter’s not suddenly going to become a master criminal. But like you said in this last episode, his willingness to sort of bend the rules more to achieve what he considers a good end, that will increase in season two. Actually, that factors in very heavily.

Q: We had a question about your Twitter account. We saw a few weeks ago that you posted something asking for people to come up with ideas for drinking games for White Collar. And we were wondering if you got any good suggestions.

Jeff: Yes. Actually, the question was a little bit duplicative. What I was actually curious about for myself was what people were perceiving as sort of the very repetitive moments of the show.

And what we usually got was—The two that I think made me laugh the hardest because they’re the most true were drink every time somebody says Kate. And take a double shot every time somebody says trust me.

Those were the two that kind of jumped out. But again, for me, it was sort of way to just see what people were perceiving as sort of maybe something a bit redundant on the show. And I think those two were pretty interesting. For the most part, we got a lot of drink every time Matt Bomer’s gorgeous which—

Q: That’d be a lot of drunk people.

Jeff: Exactly. So but yes, I would say probably Kate and trust me were the two big ones.

Q: We were thinking it should be every time someone mentions the ankle bracelets.

Jeff: Yes, that was a good one, too. That one was pretty popular.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for White Collar?

Jeff: Well, the short version was I had an idea that was called Redemption, which was a much darker idea. It was really from my desire and love—I really love The Shield. It was one of my favorite shows. And knowing it was heading off the air, I’d come up with an idea for a Vick Mackey type character, who gets put in prison for allegedly killing his partner and he has to be released. The DA’s daughter gets kidnapped and the only person that can sort of solve the crime is this Vick Mackey guy. So they let him out of prison and put an ankle bracelet on him and track him while he sort of tracks down this kidnapper. And to move forward with it. Again, I called it Redemption. I thought it was pretty good. And a friend of mine called and said hey, you might want to take a look at this show called Life. And when I saw it I went oh. Which it was exactly pretty much word for word that idea. So I kind of shelved that idea.

And then USA had contacted me and said hey, would you be interested in doing something for us? And so I was looking for different ideas. One of the things I’d wanted to do, always do, was sort of a buddy comedy in the vein of 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon. And I dusted off the Redemption idea and said what if I run this through, this dark story, what if I run this through USA’s blue sky filter? That was really the genesis of the show.

I’ve said before I was also going through a fairly painful divorce at the time, which I think, probably it was a good thing that it happened at the time because that became the Kate story for Neal. What I was really worried about going in was that I was going to have this very charming con man and I wanted to make sure that there was something that grounded him. Something that gave him a soul. And so what I was going through personally really became his search for Kate. That was about it. And I’m very, very glad people are actually watching it.

Q: Now Miss Carroll has a musical background. Is there any chance that you could make a musical number featuring June and Neal working an episode?

Jeff: That’s funny. We were breaking that particular idea yesterday. I don’t think we’ll do a musical number, but the idea of Neal and June singing together. Yes, that is actually up on our white board right now.

Q: [Would you share] insight about the story of casting Matt Bomer on this show? He kind of had a little bit of a following last season on Chuck and so he just kind of jumped right into this one.

Jeff: Yes. I can’t say enough how happy and lucky I am to have Matt on this thing. I give most of the credit to Gayle Pillsbury who was my casting director on the pilot. I’ve said this before, too, but Matt came in. We’d been casting lots and lots of really good looking guys. It’s L.A. A lot of good looking people. And I remember walking in that particular day. And Matt who is fairly unassuming normally. I remember he was looking through his ipod in the corner, had jeans on, and his glasses.

Gayle pulled me aside and said keep an eye on that guy. He’s a star. He came in and read and we liked him right away. We took him to the studio and he went up. He went to the network and they really liked him. We brought him back, I think, two or three times. USA tends to be really, really picky when it comes to casting, which at the time, it’s frustrating. But ultimately, I’m really glad we did take the time to get it right.

There was a moment in the room where—I remember it was the scene from the pilot where he’s explaining to Peter that he’s got the photo and when they … deduction he wants to go look for Kate. And that was the audition scene. And I remember, about halfway through that scene, I looked at a couple of the executives at USA and we kind of nodded at each other because we knew at that moment that we had the right guy.

Q: As you look across the board of shows like your show and Burn Notice. And these shows are actually beating a lot of other network shows out there. I mean, when the Jay Leno Show was still going pretty strong on NBC, I mean you guys had the same sort of numbers. And what do you think that says about cable TV in that is it the creative medium that’s allowing more fans to go over there than some of the more generalized network shows?

Jeff: Yes, I think so. I mean, it’s interesting because a lot of people—There was some rumors that when Leno was leaving that 10 o’clock slot that the USA 10 o’clock weekly slot with us in sight and Burn Notice would move over to NBC. And to be honest, I was kind of terrified. I don’t think there was any reality to that rumor, but just hearing it scared the heck out of me. I can’t speak for a lot of the other cable networks, but, I mean, USA’s a really good place.

And I mean, for me creatively, what’s wonderful about USA, is really two things. One is they know who they are. That’s really the biggest thing. The tough is having developed shows at networks before. The hardest is when you get a sense that the network themselves doesn’t quite know what their network identity is. Because then you get pulled in a lot of different directions. One day, they might tell you you’re a teen drama and then the next day, they say you know what? Instead, we want you to be a darker 10 o’clock show.

And it’s that sort of thing that’s very hard to develop any kind of coherency to a show. USA knows exactly who they are. If you tune into USA Network, you know what kind of show you’re going to see. And they embrace that.

And the other thing that’s wonderfully creatively is we don’t worry. I don’t have to worry that they’re going to can the show in two episodes if we don’t pull the numbers. I mean, they’ve always been right from the beginning, Bonnie Hammer and Jeff Wachtel have said to me don’t worry about it. We support this show. We believe in the show. If the numbers aren’t good, don’t worry about it. We’re not going to kneejerk. We’ll develop it. We’ll find the right spot for it. And luckily for us, we’ve been pretty successful off the top. But it was just that freedom of knowing we can sit down and develop the show we want to develop.

What ends up happening a lot of times, is it becomes this kind of weird pendulum effect where you’ll have one episode that the numbers are bad. And keep in mind, by the time an episode airs, we may be downstream six or seven episodes. And so if one set of numbers are bad a particular week, you may get the call that oh, no, we need more female appeal on the show. So suddenly, you’re reacting to it but your reaction is six episodes downstream and by the time you get to that episode, there’s probably a new issue. It’s like oh, we need more action or something like that. So if you really give into those, you end up sort of vacillating wildly. And if you’ve ever wondered why a certain show’s all of a sudden in the middle of the season starts getting weird and going all over the place, that’s usually why. It’s usually you’re reacting to something that happened previously in the season.

So I think probably right now the success of cable has a lot more to do with the fact that the networks, the cable networks themselves, really do have an identity. If you tune in to an FX show, you kind of know what you’re going to get. If you tune into HBO, you know what you’re going to get. And I think that’s probably been one of the greatest strengths. That and I think, just by virtue of having a smaller more targeted audience, I guess, not a lot smaller these days, but by doing that you’re also not trying to play the board and make everybody happy. You can really make your show about something. I mean, again, The Shield, like I said was one of my favorite shows and you couldn’t have done that show on NBC or CBS. It just couldn’t have been done.

And I think there’s sort of a generalizing effect that happens with the networks where you have to appeal to a broader base. And it kind of smoothes everything out and makes it a little less interesting. And I think, now, probably thanks to Monk and Burn Notice, USA is sort of cool to watch now. And that’s helped us a lot, too. That people—a couple of years ago, if you were talking about USA Network, I would see the word guilty pleasure attached to it a lot. And I got to say, I’ve only seen guilty pleasure attached to my show just a handful of times. So I think there’s been sort of that awakening where people look at it and say hey, it’s cool to watch cable.

Q: It seems like whatever the case is for the episode is almost like a little bit more on the back burner as far as Neal. Like when the show started, it was like you had to have Neal to do this case. And now, it’s sort of like this is the case we have and here’s Neal and we’ll see where he fits in. Is that kind of the way we’re going or are we going to get back to more like really super criminals? Does that make sense?

Jeff: A little bit of both. I mean, I think in terms of, I guess the first part of your question, which is the cases themselves. I think if Peter and Neal evolved as a team, initially we worked very hard to make sure that Peter was sort of the zone operation. He didn’t really need Neal. Neal happened to be a tool in his belt. And we sort of were—You didn’t have to be very picky to about the cases we would include Neal in. I mean, it wasn’t—Early on the season, you may have gotten the impression that Peter has other cases going and we’re only choosing to show you the ones Neal’s involved in because that’s the show.

As they’ve evolved together as partners, we’ve been able to say look, this guy is nearly as good a partner as I can have in anybody here that’s a full-fledged FBI agent. So how do we bring Neal into that? So we haven’t really shied away from that and we’ve decided to sort of embrace that.

The second part of your question is–One of the things we got into early on was I always said this show can’t be a whodunit. I mean, there’s way too many shows that have been done like that and Monk did it really well. Most of the CSIs and the Law and Orders do that really well, the whodunit. So mine has always been it’s got to be a how done it. Early on, we spent a little more time worrying about the case of the week. We spent a little more time worrying about the details. And somewhere in the middle, we changed over a little bit and became a little bit more about the characters where the case, as you said, was on the back burner, where it was a little more like the case itself didn’t matter. And we focused a lot more on the character. And I think All In, which was the Chinatown episode, was a good example of that which was much more about the Peter/Neal relationship and a lot less about the case. There was nothing particularly surprising in the case itself.

After a few episodes like that, we really sat down and did some soul searching and said we can actually do both of these. I think Bad Judgment was probably a good example of that where we decided to build more twists and turns into the case itself. Hard Sell is another good example as well as Free Fall, and next week’s episode is a little more like that, too. So I think it’s always been a real balancing act with us as to how much emphasis should we put on the case. I’m always sort of surprised when I see the reviews that attack us for not having a lot of twists and turns like CSI or like Law and Order. And it surprises me only because I don’t think we ever set out to be those shows. I mean, our shows, I think, were much more about the relationship between Peter and Neal and I think we function best when we play in that arena. I think, Free Fall probably being a good example of that where the case really took a back seat to the characters stuff.

But going forward into season two, one of the things we’re trying to do is add more elements like that. I think, again, looking back at Bad Judgment. There was some—the thing with the upside down signature. The thing where we had the cop leaving the tip in the tip that he leaves at the table. Things like that. We’re more aware of those. We’re trying to add some more interesting twists into the story, but at the same time we’re going to keep going with the Neal/Peter character stuff that I thinks’ been working.

Q: New York itself is kind of a character in the show. Are we going to like take any trips? Will we be leaving New York at all?

Jeff: No. We have a tax break we get from New York which is going to keep us in New York.

Which I’m very happy about actually. There was a little bit of discussion about that, but the great thing about New York is it’s a microcosm of the world, and we really don’t need to go anywhere. I mean, the only trip I could see in our future would maybe be to Miami.

Q: My first question is about the logistics of shooting in New York. Have you run into trouble shooting on the street?

Jeff: Surprisingly, no. It was one of my big fears going in that New York would be tough. My last show, which was Hawaii, which we shot in Oahu. I was shocked at the nightmare that traffic became. I had no idea that an island could experience gridlock the way it did. And I figured New York would be ten times that bad. But we got there and I think it’s a huge testament to how good the crews are and our crews especially. But no, it’s been really great. I think part of the reason is it’s a very compact city. You don’t have to go too far to change looks.

And the other thing is we’ve got very smart guys. Jeff King, who’s my co-executive producer in New York, is a very smart guy out there. And what we’ve come up with is we do what we call location groups where we’ll pick a big location. For example, Free Fall, the courthouse became a big location for us. And then what we’ll do is literally, sort of pick a compass point in that particular location and draw a big circle around it that’s maybe a quarter of a mile around and say okay, if this is our main anchor location, what do we have around here? And then our location people will come back and say we’ve got a diner we can use. There’s a great little park over here. And then in the writer’s room, we’ll sit there and say okay, if that’s a location then we had set that. We wanted that scene to take place in the FBI. Why don’t we move it out here to this little diner?

So by doing things like that, we’re able to really utilize our time in New York. So it’s like once we make the company move out to a place and set down there, all the other locations are within close proximity and we’ve had no issues at all.

Q: As the creator of the show, did you go in knowing how the show … and how it’s going to end? Or do you let the characters drive the storyline?

Jeff: A little bit of both. I mean, I knew the big points. Like I’d always known that Peter was going to confront Kate in that hotel room at the end of Free Fall. I knew that. I’d known some of the big mythology beats, I knew. There were a lot of scenes that I’d wanted to use throughout the season. For example, the hotel scene with the girl in the portrait, with the French girl, that scene was actually originally going to be in the pilot, but as I was breaking the pilot down, that particular—the pilot just got too long and so I dropped that scene out. And I knew I wanted to use it somewhere so I kept it in my back pocket.

In terms of the large mythology arcs through season one and a great deal into season two, I’ve known what’s going to happen in the big moments. I knew Peter was going to confront Kate in that hotel room. I knew the ring. I knew Fowler existed. I knew what his story was going to be.

The finale is coming up in two weeks, I’ve always known the ending to that. And planning into season two, I’d had a fairly good idea going into that.

Outside of that, that’s the stuff we’re working on now. I wish I’d had the foresight to say that I’d planned all out five seasons of the show, but I wasn’t quite that optimistic going in.

Q: One of the things that’s always impressed me about the show is you guys have such a great structure. Not only do we have a really compelling case, but you also manage to develop moments about the characters and you also continue the ongoing mythology that’s going on with Kate. I always come away feeling smarter about all of these things and I don’t feel anything’s ever missing. How do you guys pull that all together?

Jeff: Well, thank you. I’m glad you do. That’s probably the toughest thing. I don’t know. My background, I started as a feature writer. Probably one of my proudest moments was Jim Cameron hired me to do True Lies II, which ended up bumping into 911 and sort of folding up. But I spent almost a year and a half working with Cameron and he was a real stickler for structure. And I think where I got my just desire to really push the structure.

I’m somebody that approaches the story really from two things really. Structure and motivation, which is as long as the character motivation is true then usually things hold together pretty good. What you said earlier, it really is sort of the crux of it for us is trying to manage those things. We really do. We have the mythology elements. We have the character moments and we have the story elements. And all those things are always vying for time. I mean, it’s all about page count. Usually, it’s a 60 page script. And you can break it down pretty quickly. It’s like if there’s going to be a story with Elizabeth and Mozzie in this episode, you know it’s maybe 15 pages, which means suddenly you’re—You’ve got 45 pages to do everything else. So there’s always that balancing act. It’s a little tough.

I have to admit I’ve borrowed freely early on from Burn Notice. As I mentioned Matt Nixon and I are pretty good friends. I was very close, Nix was very close to hiring me as his number two on Burn Notice, and at the time, I would have loved the chance to go sit down in Florida and just sit on set and let him write all the scripts, but it didn’t work out. Now he’s getting in trouble for not hiring me over and over again.

But when I first came in and said I’m going to do a show for USA, I looked and said okay, Burn Notice is really successful. So I took a really long close look at a lot of those scripts to see how he’d handled the mythology element, as well as the story of the week and the character development stuff. And so I looked at that just in terms of how many pages on an A story, how many pages on mythology and sort of use that as my model going forward.

Again, it’s like for us it usually starts as an idea and we just move forward with it and then sort of start—Once we found the idea, we usually start just trying to layer in the characters and say what would motivate them? If Peter is going up against this particular case, what are his feelings going to be? How is he going to include Neal? How is Neal going to feel about this? And then sprinkling the mythology and see how that affects everything. It’s really like a big puzzle where you’ve got all these sliding pieces and moving pieces and if you change one up front, things move down to the end. But that’s really sort of at the heart of what TV and film writing is.

I think a lot of people—I get a lot of questions about how you become a writer for TV, how do you become a writer. And TV and film are a lot different than like writing for a novel. If you’re writing a novel it really is about the language. If I could list my one giant pet peeve. It’s whenever I post our script pages and somebody sends me a nasty email saying that there’s a typo. I’ve told many people. I said I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you can spot the typo on the screen. A lot of times, we’re moving very fast and when you’re writing it’s really, it is, it’s about the structure. It’s about the characters. It’s about how one scene follows another. It’s not about necessarily the words on the page. In a novel, you’ll spend a great deal of time getting somebody into a room. In TV, we just write Neal enters and that’s it.

So for us, the essence of what we do really is about the structure and making sure each scene has a hook and something interesting and there’s … character in each scene. That really, I think, is what I love about this process, too. As far as jobs go, there’s really not much better than sitting around all day and really just talking about what happens.

[Photo: © 2010 USA Network]

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