On the hit USA Network drama series White Collar, the unique partnership between slick con man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) and FBI Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) was upended in the highly buzzed about season three finale when Neal fled the country with Mozzie (Willie Garson). The critically acclaimed series returns for a dramatic fourth season, exploring Burke’s fate with the FBI, the whereabouts of Caffrey, and whether or not their relationship will ever be the same again. This will also be the season that Caffrey finally digs deeper into his family, in his search for answers about who he really is and where he comes from.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, show creator/executive producer/writer Jeff Eastin talked about figuring out how to get out of what they set up in the Season 3 finale, shooting on location in Puerto Rico, the direction they’re going in Season 4, the addition of Treat Williams for an arc on the show, how tricky it is to dive into the past of a character (Neal Caffrey) that’s been set up for three seasons now, and whether viewers might ever get to see a cross-over episode with White Collar and one of the other USA Network shows. He also talked about how his newest TV series Graceland (which follows a group of DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs agents, whose worlds collide when they are forced to live together in an undercover beach house in Southern California) is going, what it will be like to juggle two USA shows that will shoot on opposite coasts, and what exactly happened to the unused True Lies sequel script that he wrote. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: When you set up the events of the Season 3 finale, did you know how you would write your way out of that?
JEFF EASTIN: We were a little concerned there, for awhile. When we pitched that big ending, the head of the studio pulled me aside and said, “You better not have just destroyed the series.” I said, “We’ll crawl our way out somehow.” I figured that we’d figure it out. We write it about a month before, so by the time it was actually filmed, we had a pretty good idea. The biggest question was, “Are we going to be able to go film on an island?” If we weren’t, there was going to be a joke that they were going to come on an announce that the plane was being re-routed back to JFK, and that would be the end of it. But thankfully, the studio network got together and we were able to go do two episodes on an island, which was awesome.
What was it like to shoot on location in Puerto Rico?
EASTIN: It was great! One of my biggest regrets is that I happened to be shooting my other pilot (Graceland) at exactly the same time in L.A., so I did not get to go to the island. I did not get to go shoot with them. I regretted that. I regretted seeing all of the photos that Willie Garson would send me from Puerto Rico saying, “Too bad you’re not here!” Neal’s house was just gorgeous. It was absolutely stunning! We shot in Puerto Rico for the island of Cape Verde, which was one that we’d researched quite a bit. In that first episode, when they’re trying to track where Neal is, using the church bells, all that was accurate, in terms of time zones and non-extradition. That was a difficult place to find, but ultimately it was wonderful to be able to go somewhere else for a little bit. We love Manhattan, but it was nice to jump out of that for a couple episodes.
Now you can even cash in on the success of Magic Mike with some shirtless Matt Bomer.
EASTIN: We’re always in the business of getting Matt shirtless. We’re even doing shirtless Tim DeKay this year, which is pretty impressive. The funny thing is that Tim is in fantastic shape. Nobody remembers this, but he was actually shirtless in the pilot, for a minute, and he looks just as good now as he did then, so it didn’t take a lot of convincing.
What can fans can expect from Season 4 and where the characters when things pick back up?
EASTIN: The real challenge for us was how not to destroy the entire series. What it really came down to, if you go back to the finale, which is probably my favorite episode that we’ve done, to date, there were two things that really happened there. We didn’t know, necessarily, that Neal was going to run. That happened organically. We tightened the vice, episode after episode, with Kramer (Beau Bridges) and everything else.
We came up with this idea that Neal would get this commutation hearing, and we liked how the beginning of each act was going to be somebody testifying for or against, and then the big decision was Peter’s. As more things tightened on Neal with Kramer, we finally reached a place where we realized that Peter had to realize that whether or not he believes Neal deserves to be free, what Peter believes is that he doesn’t deserve what Kramer has in store for him. Kramer wants to keep him as his pet C.I. in D.C. for the remainder of his life, and Peter can’t agree to that, so he gives him that final nod. That final nod became the key to everything. Once he’d given that, Neal ran and the question became, “Once Neal runs, now what?”
That took a lot of discussion with Matt Bomer and diving into my thoughts about the character. The thing that people will probably be most surprised about is that, when we meet him on the island, he’s actually having an okay time. Neal is one of these guys who has always run, his entire life. Almost everything that he loves and enjoys is temporary. As much as he’s going to miss Peter and Elizabeth and his life in Manhattan, it’s temporary. For Neal, this is the evolution. He’s like, “I love that place. I’ll make do here. Eventually, the memories will fade and I’ll find a new life.” I think he believes that because he doesn’t think he has a choice.
On Peter’s side, it’s a little bit different. Peter feels guilt over having given him the nod and sending him off on this thing. And then, once he realizes that Collins, Mekhi Phifer’s character, is coming after Neal and Peter finds a way to find him also, he can’t resist it and shows up. For Neal, it’s almost like a cosmic pinball machine of destiny, the way things are going to happen to him. And Peter ends up paying quite a bit for that nod. He gets beat up a little bit by the bureau for giving Neal that chance.
Will Kramer (Beau Bridges) and Collins (Mekhi Phifer) re-appear this season, or are those storylines resolved now?
EASTIN: At this point, we don’t have any plans for Collins to come back, but we thought Mekhi did an excellent job, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he maybe showed up in the second half of the season, or something. Whether Beau Bridges will be back probably depends on his schedule. We’d love to have him back. He did such a great job for us. This year, we’ve got Treat Williams coming in, who becomes a big part of this season. This season has been moving very fast. A lot of the players last year have been replaced with the new players this year, as things move quickly and the mythology changes from what it was last year to this new stuff.
How will Treat Williams come into play?
EASTIN: I think this show works the best when Neal and Peter have secrets from each other. I love the scenes when they’re having a great time together, and then Neal leaves the room and Peter’s eyes narrow because he knows Neal is up to something. That is really what’s made the show work for this long. So, this year is a little bit different. Peter has gone out on such a limb and he so gets slapped down for doing what he did to protect Neal that we had to come up with something that was really, really important for Neal to go behind Peter’s back for. For him to do that, with everything that Peter has done for him, the last thing we wanted was for people to dislike Neal, so the real challenge was to find something that was so important to Neal that he feels he has to go behind Peter’s back, partly for Peter’s protection and partly because it’s been this life-long pursuit of his. That was something we really wanted to get into.
One of the things that we’ve set up, and that I’ve set up since Season 1, is that idea that Neal wants to be good, but he was born bad. It’s this interesting dichotomy with his character where, as much as he wants to be Peter, there’s something in his DNA that just makes him a criminal. A lot of that has been hinted at, as the seasons have gone on, that being in his father. He’s trying to figure out who his dad was, which is not a spoiler because we said it last year. Up until the age of 18, Neal thought his dad was a hero. His mom had told him this story that his dad was a cop and he died in a shoot-out with these bad guys, going out in a blaze of glory as a hero, and Neal believed that. And then, on his 18th birthday, he announces that he’s going to go join the police force, and Ellen (Judith Ivey) gets into an argument with Neal’s mom and says, “He’s gotta know the truth. If he walks into the Academy and they know who he is, he’s done for.” So, Ellen sat him down and said, “Neal, this is the truth. Your dad was not a good cop. He was a bad guy, and he is still alive.”
That rocked his entire existence and remade, in his own mind, who he is and what he’s been, and sent him running. This season, we’re going to go back and explore prior to that and actually see some flashbacks with very young Neal in them, and some flashbacks with his father in them. Young Ellen is actually being played by Sprague Grayden. So, we’re going to go back and explore that, a little bit, which I think is gonna be fun. It’s that longing to know, “Who am I? Who is my father? Who are my parents? Is being bad just built in my DNA? Do I have no hope?” Neal’s pursuit of it really gets in the way of his good judgement, this year.
How tricky is it to dive into the past of a character that you’ve set up for three seasons, and how quickly will you start giving some of those answers?
EASTIN: That’s always the question. Since the beginning, when I first came up with the show, I had a pretty good backstory laid out for Neal. When [Matt] Bomer came in and we tested at the network, I had already given him a lot of this information. It was more generic, but his dad being a cop was something that was laid in, at the very beginning. So, what we’re doing now is really just flushing it out and trying to do that very carefully. If you look back, I think the writers and myself have done a pretty good job. It’s hard to pick holes in the long mythology of this thing, since we have had it laid out on paper for a long, long time. The tougher part is what you said, which is how you know what to lay out when and not give too much away. There’s always the chance that the audience will get ahead of you, and then it’s boring. Of course, those are always things that we’re wrestling with.
Will viewers ever get to see a White Collar cross-over episode with any of the other USA Network shows? With Suits taking place in NYC, maybe you could have an Easter egg or two, with one of them walking by, or someone talking about the law firm?
EASTIN: Look, I’d love to do that with those guys. For the most part, the showrunners on USA are all pretty good friends. The real tough thing is the shooting schedules. Suits shoots a lot of the time in Toronto, and all our shows are on the same shooting schedule, so for us to try to send Matt [Bomer] up to shoot with them would be tough because I don’t know if we could afford a week without him. That’s the tough thing. (Burn Notice showrunner) Matt Nix and I are very good friends, and I keep proposing that we send Willie Garson down, so that Mozzie could turn out to be a long lost nephew or something. We would love to do one. It’s just a matter, really, of trying to figure out the schedules. We have different studios, which always makes it a little more complicated. But yeah, we definitely think about it and we’d love to pull a cross-over, if we could. There are several shows that I think would be fun. Burn Notice would be fun. Actually, just about any of the USA shows, I think we could do it and have fun with.
How have things been going with Graceland? What can you say about that show and how it fits into the USA Network line-up of shows?
EASTIN: That was the interesting thing. Graceland is a much different show than White Collar. It’s definitely on the darker side, and that’s really what USA wanted. They said they were going for the younger demographic, and I said, “Are you guys sure about this?,” but they said they liked that it was darker. So, we did it. It’s always a real challenge, but we got a really great cast. We just got the testing back, and the testing was phenomenal, so that gave me a lot of encouragement ‘cause you never quite know how an audience is going to react to something. The network really liked it, but to see a test audience really, really react well was fantastic.
One of the interesting things will be how it does fit in. Every show that USA has done lately has pushed a little further. Burn Notice started the trend. They were a little darker than Monk had been. Suits has pushed that even further. White Collar, not by choice, has become almost a family show. A lot of parents tell me that they watch it with their kids. That wasn’t a choice. That was just the nature of the show, I think. With white collar crime, you don’t have a lot of blood and guts, and things like that. Just by our nature, White Collar is a little safer. Graceland is really designed to be darker. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the opening is a guy getting shot on the San Pedro docks and it’s pretty graphic. We’ve got a lot of White Collar fans and I hope they like Graceland. That will be a real interesting thing for me to see.
How are you going to split your time between the two shows, especially with one shooting in New York and one shooting in L.A.?
EASTIN: I don’t know. That’s going to be very difficult. So far, I’ve had many, many people giving me a great deal of advice about how to run two shows at once, but of course, none of the people who have given me that advice have ever run two shows at once. I’d love to sit down and talk to some of the folks out there who actually do it. It’s going to be a challenge. I’m scratching my head, right now. Literally, since we just got the official pick-up last week, we’re just sitting down to figure it out. If things work out, I will not have a vacation for at least the next five years. Hopefully, I can figure it out.
Out of curiosity, whatever happened to the unused True Lies sequel script that you wrote? Is that something you’re still hoping could get made someday, or is it something you’ve filed away and moved on from?
EASTIN: I filed it away. Once in awhile, I’ll hear something about it. I guess Tom Arnold brought it up again the other day on Howard Stern. For me, it was a fantastic experience. James Cameron and [Steven] Spielberg were my two biggest heroes, growing up. Those were the guys I wanted to emulate. If you wanted to make movies, Spielberg and Cameron were the guys. So, to have an opportunity to work for about a year and a half with Jim on it was fantastic. I learned a great deal from him. He wasn’t a guy who stuck to ideas. He would get an idea, but he would easily toss it out for a better idea. That taught me to have the confidence to just say, “If this doesn’t work, we’ll find something better.”
The experience was really great. And then, obviously, 9/11 crashed the project, at the time, which was completely understandable. It was disappointing, but considering what else came out of that day, it was pretty minor. I had some hope that something might happen, and then Arnold [Schwarzenegger] got elected and that pretty much sealed its fate, in my mind. I would love to do it, but at this point, I just chalk it up to a really great experience.
I also worked on an early draft of Rush Hour 3, and I had a great experience working with Brett Ratner. But, you’ll go months to years on those projects and there’s always that question mark. In TV, I can write something today, see the dailies tomorrow, and in three days I’ll see it cut together. Nothing really beats actually seeing your words come to life, especially with great actors, on screen.
White Collar airs on Tuesday nights on the USA Network.