10 Years Later: John T Kretchmer Talks Directing White Collar

Image Credit: Fox Television Studios

In the second interview for the 10-year anniversary of White Collar, I spoke to John T. Kretchmer, the director of 12 episodes of White Collar, including “Book of Hours”, “Hard Sell”, “Forging Bonds”, “Under the Radar”, “Checkmate,” and “Borrowed Time.” He has previously directed episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“School Hard”), Veronica Mars, Burn Notice, and iZombie.


Music In the Dark: How did you approach the look of a White Collar episode to begin your planning process?


John T. Kretchmer: The look of White Collar was devised and maintained by its brilliant director of photography, Russell Fine, and then carried on by Jamie Silverstein when Russell moved on to directing television.  I cannot overemphasize Russell’s contribution to the show, and I learned a great deal from working with him.  We would often shoot a wide master shot on an extremely wide lens, 18mm or wider, which, contrary to all the usual rules of filmmaking, we might not use until the middle of the scene.  It was thrilling and invigorating.  So, when I planned my episode, I kept the style of the show, which had been well-established by someone else, in mind.


MItD: How much input do the actors get when filming the scene? What was the collaborative process between director and actor on White Collar?


JK: Working with actors is always a collaboration.  I had the advantage of having reviewed the script with the writers and the producers, so I had a very clear vision of what the intention of every scene was; however, actors have their own view of a scene, filtered through their characters, which they know better than I do.  And so it behooves me to listen to them and take their suggestions whenever possible, as long as it doesn’t conflict with what the writers have instructed me to do.  The great thing about working with Matt, Tim, Sharif, Marsha, Willie, and Tiffany is that they were all smart and cared about the work.  So collaboration was easy—I cannot remember a time in which I had a conflict with any of them.


MItD: You directed some big episodes, including 3 where at least one main character is kidnapped. Is that coincidence or is there a story behind that?


JK: It is merely a coincidence that I directed a few kidnapping episodes.  In fact, I never thought about it until you mentioned it.  I was assigned my scripts by the executive producers, and had no say as to which ones I would do.  Tim DeKay once told me that they gave me all the difficult ones; I cannot attest to that, all I know is that I was incredibly happy whenever I directed the show.


MItD: Do you have any stories about crazy moments on set where things went wrong or something unexpected happened and it turned out well for the episode?


JK: Honestly, nothing comes to mind.  Every episode had to be meticulously planned, because we only had seven days to shoot it, and so there wasn’t a lot of room for error or even improvisation.  The moments of unexpected pleasure usually had to do with performance.  For example, Tim DeKay bumping into a chair when he was distracted by a nude art model; or Willie Garson delivering a line in a completely unexpected manner which always made it funnier.


MItD: Did you have a favorite episode to work on? If so, why? What was your least favorite, due to logistical challenges or whatever may have occurred, and why?


JK: I had many favorite episodes in which I was happy with everyone’s work, but I particularly liked both “Under the Radar,” from Season 2, because we were able to create a CGI submarine, and I started a professional association with Andrew McCarthy, which continues to this day; and “Live Feed” from season 5 because we shot in the spectacular abandoned Cunard departure terminal, one of the most incredible spaces I’ve ever seen.  No least favorite comes to mind—I had a wonderful time on every episode.  I do remember shooting an exterior fight sequence on the hottest day of the summer, and that was a challenge.  But Matt, who played football in Texas, said, “Heck, this is an ordinary day for me…”. I should also mention that if you look very carefully at the end of (I think) “Bad Judgement” from season 1, when Neal discovers the treasure, you can see the Ark of the Covenant from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  I was particularly tickled that the art department had recreated it at my request.


MItD: Is there a particular scene you’re especially proud of? Conversely, was there an episode or scene that was particularly challenging to film?


JK: I was really happy with the way we shot the Cunard departure terminal in “Live Feed.”  There wasn’t a bad angle in the entire sequence.  And I think that the rooftop sequences in “Borrowed Time” in season 6 were very challenging, logistically, because we were shooting on three different skyscraper rooftops, and shooting visual effects that turned out pretty well.  I should also mention the cheesy chopsocky film within a film we shot for “All In” in season 1 – Russell and I had more fun shooting that than almost anything else we did.  I am proud of the fact that we have a character appear to laugh, and then the dubbed soundtrack starts laughing a beat later.  It amused the heck out of me.


MItD: Do you have any favorite stories about working with any of the cast members?


JK: I loved every single member of the cast.  I am still in touch with most of them (Willie and I get barbecue once a year, Tim and I often get coffee to catch up).  They were professional, prepared, talented, and genuinely nice people.  They were very supportive of what I was trying to do, and they always approached the work with enthusiasm.  How could they not?  It was such a great show!  I looked forward to working with the new every single day on the show.  And that goes for all the guest stars, many of whom were or have become my friends:  Anna Chlumsky, Ross McCall, Beau Bridges, Bridget Regan, Callie Thorne, Natalie Morales, the late, great James Rebhorn, Jonathan Tucker, Alexandra Daddario, Erik Palladino, Patch Darragh, Cotter Smith, Hilarie Burton, Pablo Schreiber, Kerry Butler, and Treat Williams—I have had the good fortune to work with many of these actors before and since, often repeatably.


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?


JK: I’m going to avoid answering this question, because it is better answered by the creator, Jeff Easton, or by Matt, Tim, and Willie.  All I know is that if they bring them back, I want to be part of the process.

Finally, I must mention the high quality of the scripts I worked on—the writers were among the cleverest and most talented I’ve worked with.  Every script was a gift to me, and inspired me to push myself to do better work.


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