It is the 10 year anniversary of the premiere of White Collar, which debuted in 2009 on USA Network. I spoke with Jessica Grasl, a writer on White Collar during seasons five and six, where she gave a view inside the writers room.
Music In the Dark: As producer can mean different things, can you describe a typical day for you on White Collar?
Jessica Grasl: Even though my title was Producer, the majority of my job still involved writing. Part of the fun of the job is that there really isn’t a “typical” day. Every day looks a little different. Some days I would be in the writers’ room with the rest of the writers, discussing whichever episode we were working on at that time. Being on a TV writing staff (especially on a show like White Collar) is a very cooperative process. We all worked as a team, pitching ideas for each other’s episodes.
Although once you’re writing the outline or script for your assigned episode(s), the work becomes much more solitary. It’s a lot of time spent alone in your office staring at a screen. Often wishing you’d chosen a different profession…
When my episode was in production, I would go to set in New York to “produce” that episode – which meant working alongside the director, actors and department heads to make sure the vision of the episode comes to life. Sometimes that means scouting locations, weighing in on costumes, approving props. It can also mean rewriting dialogue on set or reworking the staging of a scene. This part of the process is very collaborative and it’s really fun. Especially when you have a cast and crew as amazing as the one we had on White Collar.
MItD: Coming into White Collar during season 5, with a show that probably had an established routine, what were the biggest challenges to jumping in?
JG: The biggest challenge was trying to figure out what my boss’ (the Showrunner’s) tastes and preferences were. A lot of the people on staff had been there for years and had a really good sense of what was going to work and what wasn’t. When you’re new to a show you have to learn on the fly. Plus, there are dozens of story ideas that have already been done in previous episodes and it’s hard to keep them all straight. Often I would pitch something and get the response – We did that in Season Two… Or Three… Etc.
MItD: What level of input do the actors have regarding their characters and storyline?
JG: I mean this completely sincerely when I say we had the most incredible cast on White Collar. They were a joy to work with and had incredible instincts and insights about their characters. There was a lot of trust between the writing staff and the actors. A big part of our job as writers is to internalize the voices of each of the characters, but the actors were the ones who brought them to life and were always on target when they thought a line of dialogue didn’t sound quite like the character. The on-set experience was very collaborative; some of my favorite lines are ones the actor’s pitched me – and I’m happy to take the credit for their genius. The cast didn’t weigh in much on individual episodes, but when it came to larger character arcs – especially in the final season – many of them had valuable perspectives on how they’d like their stories to come to a close.
MItD: Do you have any favorite stories about working with any of the cast members? Favorite stories about writing for any of the characters?
JG: One of my favorite memories was during my second episode of Season 5 (I think it was 5.11) – we were shooting late at night in an old, abandoned building somewhere in New York (sadly, I can’t remember the neighborhood). It was a scene between Neal (Matt Bomer) and Rebecca (Bridget Regan) – probably my favorite scene I ever got to write for the show – and Matt and Bridget were just killing it. It had been such a long day, it was the middle of the night… and I looked around at the cast and crew and felt so grateful to get to do that job, with that amazing team, in that amazing city.
MItD: What was your favorite episode to work on and why? What was your least favorite, due to logistical challenges or whatever may have occurred, and why?
JG: My favorite was probably 5.11. I loved the story of that episode – it was a very exciting and emotional culmination of an arc we’d been building the whole season. And I got to write it with Matt Whitney – whom I love (although I legitimately love all the writers on that show and enjoyed every minute of working with them.)
The hardest episode for me was my first. I was still getting to know the character’s voices and getting the hang of what worked for the show and what didn’t. I’m happy with the way it turned out, but I was definitely still on the steep side of the leaning curve.
MItD: You’re credited with “written by” for 3 episodes according to IMDB, one by yourself and 2 with other people. Is it a greater challenge to be the credited writer as well as producer, particularly if you’re working with other writers, or is the collaboration helpful?
JG: I love collaborating with other writers. When I started my TV writing career, I had a writing partner so I’m very comfortable with that process. The process of bringing an episode from a germ of an idea to a fully produced episode is a long, and often grueling, one. It’s nice to have someone in the trenches with you.
MItD: Since studios are rebooting everything, and as it’s ten years since White Collar began, and almost five years since it ended, if it were to be brought back, where do you think Neal, Peter, and Mozzie would be? What would they be doing?
JG: Good question! I like to think that Neal, Mozzie, Peter, and Elizabeth all found their way back to each other. I know we ended with Neal in Paris, and that was the right way to go, but they’re a family. Neal and Mozzie couldn’t stay away forever – and Peter would never have let them. Also, I advocated hard for Neal and Sara (Hilarie Burton) to end up together. I always loved their chemistry. I didn’t win that fight but in the story that lived on in my mind, they found each other in Paris and lived happily ever after.
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