Jennifer Coté Talks Eyewitness Scripting, Casting, Characters, and More [Exclusive]
If y’all have been reading us this fall (thank you!), you know we’re well down the rabbit hole about USA Network’s Eyewitness. If you find yourself housebound, or hiding out from friends and family over the long weekend, or waiting forever for someone to emerge from their Black Friday mall scouring while you’re tasked with minding the bags, we suggest you immediately partake of the first six episodes.
So, what is Eyewitness, you ask? It’s a scripted dramatic series that starts out as murder without the mystery and an exploration of the raw fear that grips the two teenage boys who witness it. Over the first six hours, it evolves into a gorgeously rendered multi-arced story–the complicated first love between the boys, a new love between a recently-married couple in their 40s (one of whom is the local sheriff investigating the murder), and the love between two sisters on opposite sides of the law. And then there’s the crime, and the murderer, who’s hiding in plain sight as a terrifyingly and deceptively charming Feeb. There’s something for everyone. Please watch this show.
This week, I jumped on the phone to chat with Jennifer Coté, a writer and producer on the series and between now and the end of the season, I’ll roll out pieces of our conversation. First up, she talked about adapting the show from its Norwegian original, landing the perfect cast, and how that brought their vision of the American version of the series to life.
Coté came to the project through her staff position with executive producer Adi Hasak‘s production company. “I’ve worked with Adi Hasak since before Shades of Blue. I started out as his assistant and worked on lots of projects with him. When we were working on Shades of Blue, he met the people who had the rights to the Norwegian Eyewitness [Øyevitne]. On a handshake, he got the rights for two weeks and [during that window], he sold it to USA,” she explains. “He moved from Shades of Blue to Eyewitness and I moved over to that as a writer/producer.”
Coté wasn’t wholly surprised when she crossed paths with the Americanization. “I saw the original back in January of 2015 and I fell in love. I kind of knew then that I would be working on it somehow and then it came to be,” she says. “I’m not a superstitious person, but I knew there was something special about it.”
Once the show was greenlit, Hasak and Coté got to work breaking down how to convert it for American audiences. “There was a window before the writers room opened where Adi and I holed up in his office and [story]boarded out the original, which was only six episodes, to see what it looked like in raw story beats. We broke out all the beats we knew we needed to include and then began filling in all the gaps,” she says.
“We did a huge amount of that before the writers room opened. We had two to three writers working on the show, and we [had] seven of our scripts written before we went into production. There were rewrites going on at the same time. Getting those episodes under our belt helped, so Adi could sink his teeth in and rewrite to the extent that you feel like every episode has one solid voice.”
Part of that conversion process was taking something symbolic from the original and turning it into a larger scene and fleshing out the context. “The original was made by a writer-director [Jarl Emsell Larsen, who did all six episodes]. There’s a really signature style of sprawling landscapes and really moody shots….very music-driven,” Coté points out. “Sometimes [we would spark to] an image from the original and translate that to the American version.”
“Lukas holding the gun at the end of our episode five [“The Lilies“]….we knew we had to have that moment. We wrote down on note cards everything possible that we thought was iconic from the original and tried to find a way to make sure it was incorporated or translated into the American version, because we loved the original. Sita is a composite of two characters–a badass bald biker due and Kamilah’s sister…and that necessitated a lot of change from the original.”
It’s been well-documented that Tyler Young and James Paxton were cast through chemistry reads held by Catherine Hardwicke, who also directed the first two episodes. That casting process was also integral to other roles, like Sita [Amanda Brugel] and Kamilah [Tattiawna Jones], but surprisingly, not all of them.
Landing Julianne Nicholson as Helen Torrance was a dream for the creative team. “Julianne was someone we had our eye from early on. It was whispered around from our writers office to the studio to the execs…saying, ‘We’d love to get a Julianne Nicholson type for this role. Lo and behold, she actually ended up reading the script and loving it,” Coté recalls.
“Once we had her, we did a lot of chemistry reads. Gil Bellows and Julianne just had amazing chemistry off the bat. I think I knew the second I saw them onscreen together in a test they were the right husband and wife for the role and everybody had that reaction. That was an instant click. [Matt Murray] amazingly enough, did not have a chemistry read with Julianne. That goes to show the insanely talented casting directors who found him. That was amazing good luck that they have the chemistry they have onscreen.”
“Warren Christie did not have chemistry reads. He had very, very challenging audition material…the scene with Bella at the cabin [from “Bella, Bella, Bella“]. He brought life into the scene [just] reading that one-on-one with the camera. It was spellbinding. And he added this level of charisma [that you see in the show].”
Finding such pitch-perfect actors was revelatory for Coté as she watched them inhabit their characters. “What they bring to the role in the moment…they were discovering things about lines and subtext that I hadn’t even thought about,” she says. “It opened up my eyes to this whole other level of the characters…something that may not be on the page in the script.
Once we cast the boys…James [Paxton] added this whole other level of kindness [to Lukas]. Played by someone else, he could have come off more harsh. He added a layer of sensitivity…and any opportunity to be kind toward Philip, he adds that level of niceness.”
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