'Graceland' Boss on Creating a 'Darker Story,' Script Tweaks and Series' Big Twist

Graceland 6/6 Premiere Episodic Aaron Tveit Daniel Sunjata - H 2013
USA Network

[Warning: Some spoilers are ahead for the series premiere of Graceland.]

Welcome to Graceland.

Created by White Collar's Jeff Eastin and based on actual events, USA Network's Graceland revolves around a group of diverse law-enforcement agents from the DEA, FBI and Customs whose worlds collide when they're forced to live together in an undercover beach house in Southern California. Rookie FBI agent Mike Warren (Aaron Tveit) enters the fray after graduating top of his class at Quantico, when he is assigned to work undercover with seasoned vet Paul Briggs (Daniel Sunjata) and his motley crew.

For Eastin, it was years of struggle to get Graceland off the ground -- and he credited fellow USA mate Matt Nix (Burn Notice) for being instrumental. As he tells it, Graceland, written well before White Collar, fit exactly what USA was looking for as they sought a way to transition into deeper storytelling and darker arcs, evolving their tried-and-true "blue sky" brand. "My big concern was that it was too dark for USA, and it was a weird situation where it was me trying to talk them down," Eastin tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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And dark it is. Over the span of the first few episodes, Graceland unabashedly tackles drug cartels, torture, heroin use and questionable police ethics, just to name a few. Eastin, whose White Collar is family fare compared to Graceland, is well aware of the risk. "The big question for me is, will the audience embrace it as much?" Eastin ponders.

In a chat with THR, the creator/executive producer discusses the differences between Graceland and White Collar, the biggest changes he had to make and why the premiere's closing scene -- a twist setting up the entire series -- almost didn't happen.

The Hollywood Reporter: How far of a departure is Graceland from White Collar? Were there certain things you wanted to explore that you felt you couldn't on White Collar?

Jeff Eastin: I didn't in any way do this as an answer to White Collar. I didn't set out to do a darker show. This happened to be a script I wrote before I wrote White Collar. I did consider Graceland to be the best script I had written up to that point in terms of character interaction. Right before USA picked up White Collar, I met with Matt Nix on possibly being his number-two on Burn Notice, and the sample he read was Graceland. Even though he said no to me [about working on Burn Notice], I asked him, "So you read Graceland?" "Yeah, it was probably one of the best scripts I'd read." "Help me understand why nobody would make it." He goes, "I don't see what the week-to-week story is." I thought: interesting.

But after four years of White Collar, I have a really good relationship with USA. The story goes: [USA executive] Bill McGoldrick was out with some of the assistants and mentioned that he wanted a beach cops show. My assistant at the time said, "Have you read Jeff's Graceland?" They went back and reread it: "Hey, we love this thing!" My big concern was that it was too dark for USA, and it was a weird situation where it was me trying to talk them down. One of my demands was if we're going to do it, I want to do it right with a much darker story. It was less about telling something I'd never told on White Collar or couldn't tell, but rather telling a darker story because that, to me, was the point of Graceland.

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THR: It seems USA is headed in a darker direction in its scripted programming, and you even credited Suits as being a show that helped bridge the gap a little.

Eastin: Yeah, it's interesting. As far as progressing and pushing the boundaries, White Collar didn't really push that much. In a weird way, White Collar became its own family show for a lot of people. When this came up and the network was all for it, it was like great, I'm going to tell the story the way it's supposed to be told. We're doing murder and torture in Graceland, stuff we could never do over in White Collar. There's a freedom in doing that that I've never had before.

THR: In your discussions with USA, were there specific things that they wanted to add or tweak in the pilot or in the series?

Eastin: Not really. There were a couple of things I wanted to do to update it. One of the stories in the original script was Mike's in the airplane, and he's trying to call his girlfriend who lived on the East Coast, but he didn't have a cell phone. That obviously had to be updated. There was a whole runner about him trying to get a phone, and it became moot at this point. We got rid of Mike's girlfriend from back East. In the original draft I'd written, Mike had to kill a random DEA supervisor, and that was something I always wanted to change to make it Donnie (Clayne Crawford). But otherwise, we had surprisingly few meetings about how far we could take things. Graceland opens with a guy injecting heroin -- obviously he's faking it -- but it's a USA show and they're showing that. There were a lot of questions for me: Do you think this is going to work? Will the audience like it? Will the White Collar audience come to this? Those questions worried me more than them.

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THR: What sort of notes did you get from the network?

Eastin: What really stood out was how little stood out. [Laughs] The fact was the script was pretty close to what I had written. They really didn't push. We went through some periods on the ending. That was probably the biggest [discussion]. It pretty much ended up being what was originally scripted. There was a question at one point about killing Felix Arroyo and some of it got a little out of hand, but at the end of it, we all came back to the same place.

THR: There is a twist at the end of the premiere, which explains why Mike was sent to Graceland in the first place. How did you go about setting up that season-long arc?

Eastin: We put those teases in there during the episode. That probably changed the most. I give Matt Loze, at Fox Television Studios, credit for that. Originally, that scene where we reveal Mike's [true intentions], we set that a little earlier in the episode so it wasn't at the very end. Matt's idea to put it at the end would kickstart the next episode. It actually worked really well. I give him credit for finding that last moment.

THR: You've sat with this project for a few years. Why did it get the green light now?

Eastin: It was the right project at the right time. USA had done Suits, and I think they were itching to push to the next level. If I saw the Graceland trailer on FX, it wouldn't surprise me. USA fully embraced what this is, and I love that fact. The big question for me is will the audience embrace it as much?

THR: Will there be a procedural element encapsulated in each episode?

Eastin: For the most part. The real challenge on this show compared to White Collar is this is a mythology-heavy show. That was a big challenge. We did that a little with White Collar, but for the most part, it's episodic. Here, it's very close to The Shield in design. We've still got the episodic -- the traditional bad guys we're going after -- but the relationships between the characters take up just as much time on the show than the procedural elements and the cases. On White Collar, it's maybe 15 to 20 percent home life and the rest is the case of the week.

THR: Can you share any interesting casting stories when you were firming up the core group?

Eastin: Daniel [Sunjata] was the biggest surprise to me. When I had written the original pilot, I described Briggs' character as the main character Bodhi in 1991's Point Break, played by Patrick Swayze. I described him with long, flowing Comanche hair, and so it was a real shock to me when I got the call about Daniel Sunjata. I said, "Hm, he doesn't have long, flowing Comanche hair." He was completely the opposite. There were a lot of jokes at the beginning that relied on his hair. One of the visual gags was when Mike is doing the dishes, there's a photo of Briggs' graduation from Quantico -- and the joke is he's got short hair. That was a hard thing to come around to. When we actually got him out with several actors and read in the room, he came in and same thing with Vanessa [Ferlito, who plays Charlie], within 10 seconds of the audition, I couldn't imagine anybody else.

Aaron [Tveit] was interesting because he was on Broadway doing Catch Me If You Can at the time. He videotaped himself and emailed it to my casting director. I was like, "This kid's pretty good." We had it down to a couple [finalists], and when he came in for Mike, that was it. Manny [Montana] was the biggest surprise. His character, Johnny, is comical, but the other guys we brought in were full-on comedians. Manny looked real to me. He looks like a surfer. He looks like someone who lives that life; the other guys had a more actor-y feel. We resubmitted him, which they normally don't like, and that time, he walked away with [the part]. For Serinda [Swan, who plays Paige], we had an issue with timing. (Swan was a regular on A&E's Breakout Kings, which was canceled in 2012. She first appears in Graceland's second episode.) Do we wait? Do we not? Ultimately we decided to wait.

THR: How much will we see Donnie's partner Lauren (Scottie Thompson)?

Eastin: The third episode in, we part ways with her. There is a whole episode about it.

Graceland debuts at 10 p.m. June 6 following Burn Notice on USA Network.

Editor's note: This interview took place in January at the winter Television Critics Association press tour.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@thr.com
Twitter: @insidethetube