Co.Create

Tips For Leaving Your Creative Comfort Zone, From A TV Creator Who Went From Blue-Sky To Gritty

Jeff Eastin has had a huge hit with USA’s White Collar and now he’s spearheading a much darker new drama, Graceland. He talks to us about the importance of branching out and how to balance two very different creative projects.

Like his best-known characters, TV show creator and executive producer Jeff Eastin has a double life. For the last four seasons, Eastin has been show runner and executive producer of the show he created, the immensely popular White Collar, a Catch Me If You Can derivative that picks up after charming con man Neal Caffrey is apprehended by FBI special agent Peter Burke. The fraudster and federal rival then team up to help solve New York’s most complex cases of forgery and other cons. By sticking closely to USA’s so-called "blue sky" formula for storytelling— that’s lots of hijinks but generally happy resolutions—the show became the most-watched scripted series in its time slot last year.

White Collar season five is set to premiere this fall. But on June 6, Eastin will debut something darker. Graceland, also on USA, is a gritty cop drama that breaks the blue-sky mold. Based on a true story, it chronicles the complex lives of undercover agents from the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Customs living together in a seized Southern California beach house as their cases and ulterior motives overlap. That’s like having the guy who wrote Starsky & Hutch take a crack at 21 Jump Street. It forced Eastin to reinvent his formula for mystery-cop procedural in a new way, one that won’t hurt either brand. Here, the four biggest lessons he’s learned while making a prime-time shift.

Avoid Shortcuts.

Sure, Eastin could have tried another feel-good cop show—USA was even up for it. But he took a look at his track record and realized it likely wasn’t the smartest move. The last time Eastin worked on two similar projects, it was for an early draft of the movie Rush Hour 3 while developing the NBC drama Hawaii. "What I found back then was that the character and the tone were similar enough that I could treat Rush Hour like my TV show, Hawaii—mentally I didn’t have to make such a jump," he says.
Except the result was, well, Rush Hour 3. Hawaii was cancelled after its first season. "The stuff I write usually works best if my mind is in there to really dive in and sink my teeth into that world. But, mentally, I have to be there."

He’s since learned to be specific. "Probably the biggest mistake I see people make when writing a script for me is that there’s nothing in the dialogue or scene that pulls me in or gives me a good sense of the world. Being able to mentally separate the two shows is important. White Collar exists in its own hyper reality; very fun, upscale, and blue sky. Graceland is a much more gritty, realistic portrayal."

Focus Your Attention.

While working on a never-produced True Lies sequel earlier in his career, Eastin picked up a tip from director James Cameron: While working simultaneously on scripts for Terminator and Aliens, the movie master liked to physically separate his creative processes: "He had two computers and put one on one side of the house and the other on the other side of the house to keep them separated in his head," Eastin says. "I thought that was overkill, but once I got going, I realized there was a necessity to something like that."

Why? Graceland is intensely personal to Eastin. "For example, somebody who I was very close to died of a drug overdose last year. A lot of actual conversations I had with that person ended up in some of the scripts." Switching from what he calls the "deeply emotional," almost method-style of writing for Graceland to the "fanciful" upbeat caper planning of White Collar seemed tough. "Let’s put it this way, I was very surprised at how hard it has been to go from one world to another."

At first, Eastin tried the Cameron move. But keeping his work in two different places—even if they were on laptops—felt impractical, especially with the need for on-the-fly rewrites and on-location travel. Instead, he learned to build in time for mental breaks. "I’m a real avid photographer. I like to fly kites that I strap a camera onto to try to do something creative in between [writing] to cleanse my mental palate, so I can come back and say, ‘Now I’m in the Graceland world’ or ‘Now I’m in the White Collar world.’ "

Not that it leaves much time for sleep. "My first company, I jokingly called 3AM Productions. Last night I was up until 5:30 in the morning. Part of that is because that’s when the phone doesn’t ring. For some reason, I do my best writing between one and three in the morning because there’s no other excuses. There’s nothing on TV to watch and I can really dive into it."

Let Genre Drive Plot.

White Collar is essentially an action show. Each episode involves a crime that drives Caffrey and Burke to react. So Eastin runs his script meetings that way. "We really will start from what the crime is and work outward," he says.
But Graceland is more like a mental thriller—everyone’s job and loyalties are intentionally murky—so it’s more about how their personalities interact. To script that, Eastin created a new template. "The ultimate goal of the show really is to dive into these character’s heads, so we start with their head first. Once you know what needs to happen with the characters, you can drop a story on top of it. We try to make the goal of each scene be [to show] where the characters heads are at."

For instance, in one upcoming show, housemates Mike Warren and Paul Briggs join forces to deal with an illegal weapons ring. "At this point, Mike doesn’t trust Briggs. Briggs has done a bunch of things to make him uneasy and he doesn’t know if he can trust him, and now they are about to walk into a room with a whole bunch of bad guys." The broader theme isn’t about cracking the case; it’s whether the duo can establish some trust.

To script both shows, Eastin gathers his writers together to pace out how each episode’s plot might unfold. He records those conversations to capture a loose outline that writers can help fill in with more detail later. More important, he hopes the tone of those discussions—any humor or seriousness that comes through during playback—will audibly reinforce the tone they want for each scene. "It’s all about the subtext," he adds.

Settings Make Great Metaphors.

One of White Collar’s best assets is that it’s actually shot in New York. "No matter what we do, if we stick the camera outside, it looks like New York. There is gorgeous architecture everywhere," Eastin says.

Graceland is more of a challenge because it’s actually shot in Florida, not California. "So far, production has done a pretty good job of hiding it," he says. That includes toting around several portable palm trees, making up fake street signs, and using buckets of sand to cover up the region’s unrealistically lush underbrush. "Another big one is there are almost no broken-down cars in Florida, so we rent and carry around a bunch of cars that have primer showing and dents in them, stuff like that."

But one Eastin hallmark in both series is the producer’s ability to use settings themselves as storytelling metaphors. For instance, during the finale of White Collar’s season four, Caffrey heads to the top of the Empire State Building while investigating a lead that could clear his estranged father’s name. Without spoiling it, what happens on top surprises him. "Having to rush back to the bottom, it’s a metaphor for the collapse of the relationship."

Absent similar iconography in Florida, Eastin opted for the bizarre instead. In one episode this season, the housemates will host a surprise party that includes placing a bouncy house that resembles a king’s castle inside Graceland. "The house gets destroyed. We did it as a metaphor that the house at this point is becoming unhinged," he says. Maybe, but both shows seem poised to coexist perfectly.

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