Jeff Eastin, the creator of USA’s con-man drama White Collar, which returns Tuesday, discusses his real-life con: pretending to be happy, even in the face of crushing depression.
It’s a night a writer dreams about. My show, White Collar, has just screened at PaleyFest to a packed house. David E. Kelley mediated because he’s a fan of the show. And it’s my birthday. The crowd sang to me.
If E! ever does my True Hollywood Story, this will be the part right before the commercial and it all goes to shit.
Walking the red carpet later that night, a blogger tugs my shoulder and pushes a recorder at me. “I love Neal Caffrey,” he says. Neal is the charming and debonair criminal I created for the show, played brilliantly by Matt Bomer. “What’s the secret to writing a good con man?”
“It comes naturally,” I say, offering him a big grin. It’s contagious. He thinks I’m being clever, but I’m not. My grin is the con.
Willie shoots me a wink. I smile, playing the confident showrunner. I’m conning them all and it’s working.
Three months earlier.
I’m lying in bed. The clock says it’s 1 a.m. PST, but I don't trust it. My assistant, Eddie, has taken to setting my clocks ahead, and this could be his doing. I check my iPhone. The clock isn’t lying. In a couple of hours, the actors will show up on set in New York expecting script revisions.
I’m in a depression, and the weight of it lays on me like a sackcloth. In the days ahead I’ll realize that this was the shallow end of it; tonight will be my breakthrough.
This began a year ago, one of those personal things that claws into your soul and roosts there, eating away at the tendons of a healthy life. The specifics aren’t important. It could be a divorce or a death or a hundred other things. Warren Zevon advised, “Bring lawyers, guns, and money.” It’s L.A. Lawyers and money will have to do.
I don't want to get up. I toss a treat to my chihuahua, Cindy. Cindy is getting fat and the revisions are no closer to getting done.
Also, I have another pilot—Graceland—that’s just been greenlit. Casting is moving forward fast. I should be happy about this. The rewrite was due last week. Instead, the studio got a half-assed explanation: “No points for early,” I argue. “Just points for being good.” I’ve used this on them before with good effect. They grumble that they would give me major points for just getting it in this month. Even I can laugh at that.
I half expect the head of business affairs to burst in behind a SWAT unit demanding my script bonus back. I should be feeling tremendous anxiety over this, but I’m not.
I’m not normally a mopey guy. I don’t like this feeling. Showrunners are by definition control freaks. I feel impotent.
I pull up Braveheart on my iPad and watch the battle speech. This usually makes me want to do great things—or at least write a few pages. We define our heroes by the adversity they overcome. I picture William Wallace on his horse. I imagine Ned Stark on his horse. They are two guys who wouldn’t lie here like a pair of pussies. They’d get out of bed and kick some ass—or at least do the revisions and stop feeding the dog. That thing in my soul reminds me that William and Ned are both dead. And I don’t have a horse.
I crawl out of bed and open my MacBook. The blank page stares at me and I don’t know what to write.
My phone rings. It’s Matt Loze, Fox Studio executive and my friend. One of the few people who knows I’m in this particular death spiral.
“How’s it going?” he asks.
“It’s not,” I say. “We’re doomed.”
“Did you try that positive visualization your shrink suggested?”
“Yeah. I’ve tried it all,” I say, “But I don’t have a horse. How’s the network holding up?”
“They’re pretty freaked out.”
“Yeah. I figured. I’m stuck in my own head.”
“Then screw all of this. Cash your last residual check and we’ll buy an old convertible. A Lincoln or something. We’ll go to Mexico.”
I can do none of these things but it makes me feel better.
“How much time do I have?” I ask.
“Not much,” he says. “Things are falling apart.”
We hang up.
I turn back to my MacBook. One of my old tricks, when I’m stuck, is to start without thinking. I put my hands on the keyboard like on the planchette of a Ouija Board hoping to conjure something. No thought, just type. The infinite possibilities of that page collapse like a courier wave function, revealing the scene: Neal, my con man, finds himself in a depression. Peter, his FBI handler and friend, enters and asks him what’s wrong.
No, that’s not right. I push myself into Neal’s head. He’s sad, sure, but he’s not going to share that with anyone. He’s my hero, not a pussy.
I change the scene. Neal’s depressed. Peter knocks. Neal takes a moment and pulls himself together. He opens the door with a big grin. “What are you smiling about?” Peter asks. “Life is good.” Neal replies.
The words start coming and the revisions go out. No points for early, but they’re good.
I’m still stuck in Neal’s head space and a sudden thought strikes me: I’ve been trying to convince myself I’m happy when I’m not. That hasn’t worked. What if I borrow from my con-man creation and convince the rest of the world that I’m happy? It shouldn’t be that hard. Turning 30 cents’ worth of ink and paper into a machine that employs hundreds of people and generates Fortune 500 profits, now that’s a real con.
The next day I try it out. I join my writers’ room for the first time in weeks. They’re cautious. Fearing the worst. In truth, I don’t feel happy. I can feel the depression lurking. I get out of my own head and into Neal’s. I try on a big shit-eating grin. “You’re smiling,” one of the writers says. “That’s new.”
“Life is good,” I reply.
The con works. The happier I pretend to be, the happier they are and, oddly enough, the happier I am.
The real test: I arrive home. Normally I’d crash on the bed. Cindy is already there, waiting for a treat.
The dark spiral threatens. I push back into Neal’s head—after all, his head is my head. Today the con is to convince myself that I’m a writer.
I pull up the blank page and let Neal take a stab at the revisions. He does a decent job and I keep typing. Painful, but I keep at it.
Cindy scratches my leg. I break a treat in half and toss it to her. No full treats from now on I tell her. She needs to lose weight.
Things are going to change.