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Last week, I was chatting with comics writer Jim McCann, trying to pick his brain for interview ideas (my view of comics can sometimes be myopic, so I try expand the view where I can in a variety of ways). He mentioned to me that Joe Henderson, one of the writers/story editors on the USA Network series, White Collar, is a huge comic book fan. Normally, of course, I interview creators regarding upcoming projects here at Talking Comics with Tim. But with White Collar airing its midseason finale tomorrow night (September 7; 9 PM [for the East Coast]/8 PM [Central]), I thought I’d try something different and interview Henderson, partially about his comic book fan credentials, as well as what it’s like to work on White Collar. My thanks to McCann for helping arrange this, and Henderson, for his willingness to be interviewed, as he’s clearly a fan of comics (plus it was a blast to discuss White Collar with him).
Tim O’Shea: This interview originated with a suggestion from Jim McCann, who described you as a “huge comic book fan” (a characterization backed up by this GeekWeek article from January and your 2009 Witchblade story). Just to give folks an idea of your comic book affinity, can you single out some of your favorite creators and or characters?
Joe Henderson: First, a big thank you to Jim McCann, who is writing the awesome Hawkeye and Mockingbird that everyone should be reading.
The first name I have to mention is Mike Costa, who is doing an amazing job with GI Joe Cobra (IDW) and is a very good friend of mine. If you haven’t read Cobra, do yourself a favor a pick it up. Jason Aaron [O’Shea aside: Aaron’s new column for CBR, Where the Hell Am I?, starts this Wednesday] and Jonathan Hickman are writing the most compelling comics I’ve read in a long time. Aaron’s grasp of Wolverine is fantastic—as far as I’m concerned he’s writing the definitive take on Logan. Hickman’s firing on all cylinders on FF and SHIELD is just crazy idea porn at its finest. Joe Kelly was wonderful on Amazing Spider-man—really, the whole writing team has been great since BND. Having said that, really excited to see Dan Slott take over and give it a more unified voice. Bendis‘ Ultimate Spider-man is the most consistently entertaining read out there. Can’t wait for [Matt] Fraction‘s Thor and [Ed] Brubaker‘s Super Soldier has been wonderful. At DC, [Geoff] Johns and [Peter] Tomasi have blown me away with what they’ve done with the Green Lantern universe and I thought Blackest Night was one of the most successful crossovers in a long time. I also loved all of Johns and Gary Frank‘s Superman stuff. [Paul] Cornell‘s work on Action Comics so far has been awesome—love what he’s doing with Lex Luthor. Fables [Bill Willingham] is always a great read…I’m forgetting tons of books I’m sure.
Also want to give a shout out to the Bendis Board, where I spend way too much time. And as for my favorite character, it’s Darkhawk. I can’t help it, he’s the first character I read growing up—judge me, I deserve it.
O’Shea: Beyond the fact he was the first character you read growing up, what is the appeal to the Darkhawk character–and have you kept up with the character, as he’s had a supporting role in the most recent Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning (DnA) Nova series?
Henderson: I’m mad I forgot all the great work DnA has done on the Marvel cosmic world–I’ve loved Nova, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now The Thanos Imperative. I’m happy they brought Darkhawk back into the fold and used his previous relationship with Nova. As for appeal, Darkhawk was the Spider-man of the 90’s–the young kid who stumbled onto power he didn’t understand and had to decide how to wield it. Plus, he fought Hobgoblin, Tombstone, Venom…sure it was all Spider-man villains, but at the time, it was really cool to see Darkhawk up against them. DnA did a great job giving him a new hook and a new purpose–I hope they do more with him.
O’Shea: Any fellow comic book fans or creators work on White Collar with you?
Henderson: Jim Campolongo, who I co-wrote a couple episodes in season 1 with, is a huge comic book fan. And ever since the iPad came out, Jeff Eastin (the show creator) has started reading comics. Yay technology bringing in new readers!
O’Shea: Any chance one of the comic book companies could convince you to write for comic books again, or are you too busy? Any interest that (much like Chuck), there could be a comics adaptation of White Collar?
Henderson: I’d love to write more comics. I’d do it in a heartbeat, just haven’t had the chance. To me the appeal is getting to play with these wonderful characters in a rich world. As for a White Collar comic book, I haven’t heard anything about one, but it’d sure be fun to see Neal Caffrey pull a huge heist that we couldn’t afford on a TV budget.
O’Shea: In a White Collar episode from season 1, episode 8 (Hard Sell) one of the four you have written, the bad guy has a special room for his comics (some of which are shown on display)–did you pick out the comics to be collected by the character?
Henderson: I really wanted to be involved in picking out the comics, but we couldn’t get clearance on real comics in time. So our amazing production team picked up the ball and ran with it in a pretty amazing way. They replicated old comic book covers and threw new spins on them—Detective Comics became Action Detective Comics, for example. They’re all dead-on homages and really fun.
O’Shea: Diahann Carroll is a classic actress with a rich history in TV and film, how did she come to be part of White Collar–and how much do the show’s writers enjoy writing for her character?
Henderson: Diahann is awesome. I don’t know the exact story of her casting—I believe Jeff wanted someone classy who tied Neal to the Rat Pack kind of world and we were lucky enough to get her. We have an upcoming episode with her and Billy Dee Williams that plays with that world. It’s fantastic, and has a wonderfully charming scene where she and [series lead Matt] Bomer [who plays Neal Caffrey] sing a duet. Plus, BILLY DEE WILLIAMS! I mean, how cool is that?
O’Shea: Were you involved with developing the show bible? Did Fowler always play such a prominent role in the show’s plot from the start?
Henderson: I was involved with developing the show’s mythology. On the first day of work, Jeff Eastin told us what he wanted the arc of the season to be—the man with the ring, Kate, all of that. Even stuff we’ll get to in season 3 and 4. He had stop-points he wanted to get to and we started fleshing them out. It’s exciting to be involved in building a show’s mythology, and also fascinating how it changes as the story progresses. You get to know characters and realize they might zig where you originally thought they’d zag.
Fowler was always a big character, and his backstory has actually remained the same. You’ll learn a lot about it in Tuesday’s episode–it’s really cool to (almost) have his full story out there finally.
O’Shea: How long does it take to write a typical script–and how much revision (if at all) occurs once filming begins?
Henderson: It depends—for example, on my first episode this season, I had a bunch of lead time because we hadn’t started production yet. I took a week and a half and submitted my draft to the writer’s room for notes. I took a day or two on those, then got notes from Jeff Eastin. After applying those, I got notes from studio, then on the next pass from network. And on set revisions definitely happen—especially when it comes to locations. You write a location in your head, but when you show up, the location can be very different than you pictured—usually for the better, because we get all of these amazing New York buildings and exteriors. But the staging of the characters often requires changes in the dialogue between them. Also, the actors love to riff at the ends of scenes and add improv. A lot of times that stuff makes it into the episode because we have some genuinely funny actors.
On my second episode of the season we had a little less time, so I leaned on the writer’s room to help brainstorm fixes, pitch lines, polish, etc. That’s the beauty of TV—you have a roomful of smart people that can help you when you’re stuck.
Our show works a little differently from most, though. In fact, I don’t think any two writers rooms work the same. For us, as a writer, you don’t come in with a pitch for your episode. We as a room break every story. We all sit down and Eastin will either know what kind of story he wants to tell, or want to brainstorm one. When the room settles on something—let’s say politics, like in my episode this season—we all talk about what’s interesting about politics as told through the White Collar lens. What’s fun to do with our characters, a new angle, etc. That’s where the Neal as a political fixer came in—Neal doing political spin is too much fun not to do. We wanted to see [FBI Agent] Diana [Barrigan, played by Marsha Thomason] and Neal together, and thought it’d be fun to have the one woman who isn’t interested in Neal have to pretend to be. [FBI Agent] Peter [Burke, played by Tim DeKay] and Mozzie [Willie Garson‘s character] hadn’t been paired up yet, and Eastin had wanted to have Mozzie on a scavenger hunt since day 1. Peter being forced on a scavenger hunt with Mozzie felt like gold, so we combined them.
O’Shea: Series creator Jeff Eastin is a big history buff and researcher. As a writer for the show, how much research do you typically end up doing for some episodes?
Henderson: We do a lot, and our awesome writer assistant, producer assistant and PA also do a lot as well. It’s fun stuff—reading about crimes, about conmen, about ways to break into a building and the like. And information can come from unlikely sources—our script coordinator plays a lot of poker, so he was hugely helpful for our poker episode. We also have an FBI consultant and a conman consultant, both of whom are invaluable.
O’Shea: You’ve served as a story editor on some episodes, rather than a writer. Can you explain what your duty is when serving as the story editor?
Henderson: Story editor is a title thing; in high school terms, you’re a Sophomore. Staff writer is a beginning level writer, then story editor, then executive story editor, then you get into the producer-level stuff. The higher up you go, the more involvement you get with your episode—going to set, being in the editing room, doing the sound mix, etc. Eastin has been very open to letting lower level writers be as involved as they want to be—not a lot of show creators do that, so I’m very lucky in that regard.
O’Shea: As one of the writer’s of episode 7 from season 1 (Free Fall), can you walk folks through the development of Neal’s bakery-based escape? (It’s one of my favorite scenes from season 1)
Henderson: Jeff wanted a couple things—the ending with Peter having the ring on, and he wanted Neal to jump out of a courthouse window and bounce off an awning. We built everything around those two things. With the bakery, Jeff wanted a store that sounded completely innocent. Something you’d hear and wonder “why would Neal buy that?” and build up to that moment where Peter sees the bakery and it all clicks. He also really wanted that look between Peter and Neal when Neal escapes, the look that cuts to the heart of their relationship. Peter sees Neal and, despite himself…he smiles. The mutual respect between the two is what fuels the show.
Jeff’s an amazing writer and loves to work around big ideas—find a fun scene and figure out the most interesting way to get there. I’ve learned more in the year and a half working with him that I probably have in the ten years prior.
Also, Judge Hickman from that scene is named after Jonathan Hickman. In the White Collar universe, Jonathan Hickman is a large black man.
O’Shea: Back around the time of season 2 premiere, you tweeted “@Tim_Matheson did an amazing job directing tonight’s White Collar! Learned a lot from him on set–great guy, hope he comes back! (hint hint)” As much as I want to ask about the hint, I’m more curious to find out what kind of lessons you learned from Matheson?
Henderson: The hint hint was me giving Tim a nudge to come back. I hope he does—wonderful director and a great guy.
Tim was invaluable in teaching me about the writer/director relationship on set. It was my first time on set as a writer and it’s a weird dynamic. On set, the director is the leader, the main voice. Even though the writer wrote the script, it’s the director’s vision of that script that’s being executed. If the cast has a question about how a scene plays or how to deliver a line, it’s not the writer’s place to answer it—it’s the director’s, and you need to respect that. However, as the writer, you can talk to the director about tweaks to the scene, suggest alternate ways of playing moments, stuff like that. But everything has to be filtered through him/her and they can decide whether to listen to you or not.
O’Shea: Would you agree that equal parts trust and deception are at the core of this series? As a viewer, I appreciate that even though Peter and Neal have often deceived each other, only to be caught in their lies, the show does not derail the story by having the bond of trust between the two characters derailed (even in last week’s episode where Peter finally revealed he had the music box and that Neal confessed he had the key). In story planning is there ever a push to have the two characters endure a more permanent falling out, or does the writing staff intentionally avoid that classic plot device?
Henderson: The trust between Neal and Peter is a fine line we are constantly exploring and playing with. We’ve seen in season 2 that Peter is willing to lie to Neal to protect Neal from himself. We’ve avoided a long-term falling out because their relationship is so central to the show, but we can shift the amount of trust between them in mini-arcs. I will say that in the mid-season finale, something will happen that will create a very serious rift between them and be hard to heal.
O’Shea: In terms of the midseason finale, I find it interesting that (back to the trust theme), judging by the teasers, Mozzie and Peter have formed a level of trust–based on protecting Neal from himself. Am I right in thinking Mozzie played a more prominent role this year?
Henderson: Bringing our supporting cast to the forefront in general has been a goal of season 2. And one of the great things about Mozzie is he sparks off just about everyone. He has an odd warmth with Elizabeth [Burke, Peter’s wife, played by Tiffani Thiessen], an odd respect with Peter, an entertaining antagonism with Diana. His character by its very nature creates a dynamic with the other characters in the world. Our entire cast is amazing—we’re very lucky in that regard. We’re shooting a scene this week with almost all the cast in the same room together—a pretty awesome first that I’m really excited to see filmed.
The last thing I’d like to say is I hope everyone checks out Tuesday’s midseason finale–I think it’s our best finale yet and I’m incredibly proud of how it turned out. The last minute is…well, you’ll have to see.