Written By Summer 2012 : Page 38
Sleight of Hand Jeff Eastin employs all of his players to craft White Collar crime. 38 • WG A W Written By SUMMER 20 12
Sleight Of Hand
Jeff Eastin employs all of his players to craft White Collar crime.
Here’s the hustle: Neal Caffrey, brilliant forger, thief, and con artist, is caught by intrepid FBI agent Peter Burke after years of pursuit. In a work-release program from prison, Neal is given a tracking anklet and uses his criminal mind to help Peter solve crimes. Not gritty crimes that require initials in the show’s title—fancy crimes, complete with bon mots and ascots and scandals of the louche leisure class.
As Neal and Peter work together, their mutual respect blossoms into an uneasy friendship. Both are aware that at any moment one might betray the other. Far-fetched? Sure, until you recall that the cat-and-mouse caper Catch Me If You Can was based on the true tale of con man–turned– FBI consultant Frank Abagnale Jr. “I always imagined White Collar starts where that movie ended,” says co-producer Jim Campolongo. “There’s so much more story to tell.”
None of that was part of creator/executive producer/show runner Jeff Eastin’s original pitch however. He envisioned a darker story. “Everyone wants to do The Shield; they want that grit,” he says, seated in his office. He points to a Shield poster leaning against a wall behind him. (Shawn Ryan broke in and left it there, one of a series of exchanged pranks.) Eastin first thought of a Vic Mackey–type cop convicted of killing his partner and then released on a tracking anklet to solve crimes.
Fox Television Studio (FTVS) wanted to take the pitch to USA, a network built around shows with beautiful people excelling at what they do. Eastin realized his pitch didn’t fit their bill. “So FTVS said, ‘Why don’t you run it through the USA ‘Blue Sky’ filter?’” He did, and it came out looking like a million bucks. Or bearer bonds, as the case may be.
Worried that Neal would still come off as too dangerous, at the last minute he added Kate, Neal’s star-crossed lover, “to humanize him by making him a romantic, which helped the series quite a bit,” says Eastin. “Even though we’ve moved on from that mythology, it gave him a passion outside of being a crook.”
On the Make
In a sea of crime procedurals, it’s unusual to find one that can revolve around a Degas instead of a dead body. “The cool thing about white-collar crime, especially art crime, is that it’s the one place where the crime itself is beautiful,” Eastin says.That concept informed the setting. “I said at the beginning, ‘This isn’t down-in-the-gutter New York. We’re going to show it like they shoot Sex and the City and make it gorgeous.’ ” Neal’s quite debonair himself, calling up Cary Grant from To Catch a Thief, which, remarkably, Eastin has yet to see.
Also remarkably, Eastin had never been to Manhattan before he shot the pilot. He and his writers work out of Woodland Hills, California, and travel to New York for their episodes.Says Campolongo, “Sometimes I’ll call a good friend who lives in New York, and say, ‘I need to rob a bank in Harlem—what would you suggest?’”
They rely on FBI consultant Tom Barden and alleged con artist Simon Lovell for technical assistance. “Simon is great with particular beats, like how to make picking a lock for the 17th time interesting,” says executive story editor Channing Powell.
As entertaining as the cons and heists are, they’re secondary to the conflicted relationship at the show’s core. “The A-case is so hard, in part, because it has to be simple,” says story editor Dan Shattuck. “We’re not trying to do CSIs, where every act is a different suspect. As a rule, we try to know our bad guy and the crime up front, and then it’s all a matter of what we do to take him down and how do we have fun in the interim.”
That includes everything from base-jumping off skyscrapers to sunken U-boats filled with stolen treasure. It’s laced with the kind of snappy banter that fills Howard Hawks movies. It all, improbably, works. The show’s fourth season premieres July 10.
What’s more improbable than the show itself is how the writers ended up working on it—starting with Eastin. A small town boy in Colorado who discovered Super 8 cameras about the same time Star Wars came out, he spent his childhood alternately saving up to buy film and shooting it. “My dad’s an art teacher,” he notes—Aha! The art connection!—“and probably unlike most parents, they encouraged this. They’d hold the pole that held the flying saucer on the string.”
Attending Colorado State University–Fort Collins with a major in Computer Science, back when that meant programming and punch cards, he walked into the lab one day and surveyed his surroundings as if for the first time. “There were all these heavy guys with beards and pasty white skin, never getting any sun, and I thought, I can’t do this.” Switching to broadcast journalism, he found a sympathetic professor who unearthed equipment from a Defunct film program and taught him how to tell a story. While other students learned how to report the news, he made films.
After graduation, he landed an assistant camera job on a couple of Roger Corman movies being filmed in Colorado. When the DP didn’t show up on Eastin’s second day, he was promoted.Soon he was heading west in an old VW camper van. “A friend of mine had told me that everybody wants to be a director, which is what I wanted to do, but people need scripts,” he recalls.So he wrote one, longhand, on the way. When he arrived, in September 1990, he had a completed draft of Shadow Dancer.
He headed straight for USC, where his idols Spielberg and Lucas had trained. He walked around the campus, the script in his backpack, and circled eventually back to his parking spot. The van was gone.
After spending the night sleeping in the Staples on Figueroa, Eastin met a kind manager who simultaneously kicked him out and gave him a job. Walking around the area, he found an old German man with a mansion/flophouse filled with actors and artists. The man gave him a free room, not unlike June on White Collar, a con artist’s widow who offers Neal free residence in her mansion. Eastin’s bed fit into a closet; the rest of his furniture sat out on a deck with a great view of the city.
“I wasn’t sure how to get a directing job,” he says. “I figured you went to Warner Bros. And filled out an application, and they’d assign you to your movie. I realized pretty quickly that was not the case.”
Unbeknownst to Eastin, a friend took his script and left it on the desk of producer/director Zalman King (9 1/2 Weeks).Eastin thought it was a prank when King called to buy it a week later. Newly acquired agents managed to broker the deal,But by Eastin’s count, he’s sold the script seven times since.
From there, he wrote films that got somewhere and television shows that went nowhere. A high point was the year he spent developing True Lies 2 with another hero, James Cameron.Once the men were debating two possible opening scenes.“All of a sudden it hit me: I’m arguing an action scene with James Cameron,” Eastin remembers. “And then he said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ That taught me quite a bit. If this idea didn’t work, the next one would. If it’s not perfect, let it go.”
The 9/11 attacks put an end to that project. He wrote other screenplays, including an early draft of Rush Hour 3, but as much as he loved feature work, he knew he would never be the boss he was in TV. “Some [film] meetings I wasn’t even allowed to speak; I was more of a stenographer.” But after yet another show, Hawaii, was cancelled a few episodes in, he experienced a crisis of confidence. He had fans among his peers but couldn’t connect with audiences. Then he conjured up White Collar.
When Eastin went to New York to shoot the pilot, Channing Powell entered the picture in her own unlikely way. After eight years of trying to make it as a writer in New York, she decided to pack it in and head to Boston. While on the bus, she got called for a job interview at White Collar, so she got off the bus and boarded the next one back to New York. She was hired as assistant to the producer, director, and Eastin. When the show was picked up, Eastin hired her as his own assistant.
She offered to write anything, including a little dialogue between two French girls in the background of a scene. “She gave them an arc,” co-producer Joe Henderson says. “That impressed Jeff. He said, ‘You didn’t need to do that, but the fact that you did shows that you give a shit.’” Later in the season, Eastin assigned her a freelance script.
Henderson and Jim Campolongo had been friends for years, when each learned that the other was up for a spot on White Collar. Out of nowhere, Henderson had a premonition that another writer was about to get the job and called Fox to learn that this was indeed the case. In a clever sleight of hand, he offered them up as a two-forone deal, even though they had never written together.
They had their contract the next day.
Dan Shattuck claims the dumbest luck story. Moving to L.A. from Indiana, he sent out résumés that were “85 percent lies.” FTVS physical production called, and he took the job without knowing what it entailed.Turned out he was furnishing the White Collar offices before anyone else knew where they were. He had read the pilot and loved it. “I went into Jeff’s office and said, ‘In whatever capacity you’ll take me, I’d love to be on the show.’” Two days later he was PA.
The first season was more chaotic than usual, Eastin recollects. “It’s a little crazy, but my dog had died and I was devastated. I let the show go for a couple weeks, and unfortunately we got really backed up. The first time in a room, you kind of feel everybody out. There are some people you click with and some you don’t. Nothing against my other writers, but Jim, Joe, Channing, and Dan became my core group. I let everybody else generate stories, the actual construction, and moved those people over to my house. We’d sit outside by the fire pit and just break story. We got to be very tight with each other.”
A year after that, Powell was promoted to story editor and Shattuck to writers’ assistant; Henderson and Campolongo were each given separate deals. By Season 3, Shattuck was on staff.
Other writers came on for Season 2 by more traditional routes. Co-producer Alexandra McNally had met Henderson and Campolongo at the Warner Bros.’ workshop before landing at Gossip Girl and Melrose Place. When Melrose went down, they invited her over.Executive story editor Matt Negrete came in with 10 years of experience in children’s television animation and no knowledge about writing procedurals. “Everyone thought I was mute for the first few months,” he says. “My strategy was just to shut up and listen and learn.”
Executive producer Mark Goffman, Eastin’s No.2, had the most experience coming in, with credits including West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and Law & Order: SVU. But that didn’t keep him from an early swing and a miss. “My first week here, I was still getting to know the tone of the show. I made a pitch about finding a severed head in a freezer.” The room fell silent—and then never let him forget it. Office fridges bear warnings: reserved for mark goffman’s frozen head collection.
The majority of the group hadn’t worked on a show before White Collar. “We’ve cast the room just as you cast a show,” Goffman explains. “You want somebody who’s bringing the funny, someone who has the heart, someone who’s looking at structure, so having that mix in the room is incredibly important.”
As is a welcoming spirit. Even while a PA, Shattuck was allowed in the writers’ room, not just to sit down but to speak up. “There’s an openness Jeff supports that allows everybody to shine,” he says. “If there are good ideas, he doesn’t care where they’re coming from.”
A recent visit found the group discussing ideas for episode 12. Eastin was at a production meeting, Negrete and Powell were on set, new hire Bob DeRosa was out writing his script, so Goffman ran the writers’ room with Henderson, Campolongo, McNally, and Shattuck on hand. Writers’ assistant Sara Wright, PA Chris Masi, and Eastin’s assistant Eddie Serrano sat in.
Along with the requisite boards loaded with information about schedules, crimes, character timelines, and story ideas, the room was festooned with photoshopped images. Bald versions of everyone, with captions like space fromagiere, lined one wall; altered Game of Thrones characters adorned another. On couches in the middle, the writers tossed ideas around in a collegial fashion. “What I like about our room is that nobody shoots down ideas,” says Henderson afterward and McNally agrees: “It’s very collaborative. That starts from Jeff wanting everyone to feel involved in every episode, not just the ones that they wrote. It’s a safe place to pitch.”
Eastin introduced some unorthodox methods to the writers’ room. He doesn’t start out by discussing act breaks, instead mentioning big moments he’d like to see, like ending Season 3 with Neal and his sidekick Mozzie escaping on a plane.
“Then I’ll leave, and the room will take over and fill in the blanks,” says Eastin. “They do an incredibly good job of that.I’ll come back, and they’ll pitch me scenes.” After he gives notes, they go through the entire episode with a tape recorder.“Episode 406, Interior Neal’s apartment, Day, Mozzie walks in. I turn off the recorder, and we talk through the scene.We’ll do that the entire episode. It usually takes us two days, and 1 1/2 hours of tape. Who ever’s writing that episode will take the tape and go write it. For me, it was a great way to keep my voice in it through the whole process.”
The new writers thought that was how every writers’ room worked, but McNally was a little thrown. “It’s like a campfire story: We gather around, and Jeff holds the recorder,” she says. “That was a weird way for me to work at first. You’ve got headphones in, and Jeff’s voice coming in to your brain.” But she warmed up to it.“It helps in terms of tone. You can hear exactly the way the scene should arc out and what made people laugh in the room.”
By the time they go out to write, “The beats and the Astory are so well fleshed out that all the writer is doing is figuring out how to add that life to it,” notes Shattuck.
“The hardest part for me is actually the writing, staring At a blank screen,” East in admits. “I enjoy the process of show running, being a producer, the day-to-day emergencies.” He recently had another pilot, Graceland, picked up, and shot it while working on White Collar. When it comes time for him to write a script, “We call it Frankensteining. They don’t want to pull me out of the process for a week. So after I lay in the foundation with the recorder, we’ll assign an act per writer, I’ll take one writer that I like for that particular episode to glue it together, smooth out any inconsistencies, and hand it over to me.”
He writes at home after 11 p.m., when the phone stops ringing. “I’m a very slow writer,” he says. “I’ll start by free writing.I’ll write it as badly as I can, no subtext, have the characters say exactly what they mean. As I do it, I’ll find a hook.”
Similarly, Campolongo works at home, writing free form, letting the lead characters talk. “This may be a weird analogy, but to me, the way Neal and Peter talk to each other when things are best between them is a lot like Rory and Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. I love the banter on that show.” Writing that dialogue is pretty much everyone’s favorite activity. “It’s great when you look at a script and you think, I have some room here, I can play for a few pages,” says Goffman.
Negrete enjoys the challenge of having to think visually when mapping out the heists. He also prefers seclusion when he writes, because “I’m paranoid that someone’s reading over my shoulder and thinking, Oh my god, that sucks.”
Henderson is the only one who relishes working around other people. “I love stealing fellow writers and brainstorming.”
The room goes over every script.“We’re always encouraged to submit line pitches,” says McNally. “At the end of a session, I’ll get back however many scripts, and I’ll find little gems buried within the lines.” After the writer incorporates the room notes, the draft goes to Jeff for his notes pass. “They’ll do it, give it back to me, and that’s usually where I take over for my final. It’s usually pretty darn close at that point.”
The group isn’t afraid to blow stuff up, either physically—planes, warehouses—or figuratively. By the end of Season 3, Neal had chafed against his anklet for two years.With a possible commutation dangled in front of him, he came to the realization that he finally felt at home in his bizarre role. Unfortunately, an adversarial FBI agent’s machinations forced him to cut his anklet, grab forged papers, and run, apparently betraying everyone who put their faith in him. “What happens when you get what you want, when the dog catches the car?” says Henderson of the predicament.The first two episodes will find Neal and his Mozzie living in an island paradise.
“We start in such a cool place with Neal running,” says Goffman. “And then ask the question, How the hell do we bring him back?” It provided them a unique opportunity to reset the show and create an A-case centered on Peter trying to catch Neal. But when Eastin pitched the season ending to FTVS, he recalls, “[Fox TV president] David Madden said, ‘You swear to me you haven’t just destroyed the series.’ We spend a lot of time recovering.Hopefully we’ll pull it off.”
An early USA request was that viewers be able to drop in without having seen every episode. Eastin and his friend Matt Nix, creator of Burn Notice, had discussed changing mythologies from season to season.“I thought that was a good idea, so it doesn’t get completely boring,” Eastin says. “If you don’t like this year, wait till next year.” The first season centered on Neal’s search for Kate, ending with her death. Season 2 encompassed the search for her killer, and 3 involved the billion dollar reason behind it all. That money funds the island getaway in Season 4. The rest of the new season will focus on Neal’s search for his identity—his absent father was a dirty cop. (Vic Mackey, is that you?)
Eastin then looks further afield. Will the show end with a free Neal disappearing into a life of crime? “Or will he walk in with a badge, slap it down, and say, ‘Let’s get to work on my first day as a real FBI agent’? That’s the real split in the series,” he decides. Ultimately, it all comes down to the pros and cons of going pro or con.
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