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Film and TV

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Life of Crime

Monday, May 03, 2010

Interview: Graham Yost & Elmore Leonard Talk Justified


During a recent interview, Graham Yost and executive producer Elmore Leonard – whose popular character US Marshal Raylan Givens (played by show star Timothy Olyphant) is featured in the novel the series is based on – talked to IESB about bringing such a complex and multi-layered character to life.


Graham Yost has wanted to be a filmmaker since he was a teenager. He began writing for television in 1989 on the Nickelodeon series Hey Dude, and then joined the writing staff of Full House, where he only lasted nine and a half weeks. The day after he quit, he learned that his script for Speed had been sold, and he went on to write Broken Arrow, Hard Rain, Mission to Mars and The Last Castle.

He then went on to produce the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon and he penned two installments of Band of Brothers, before creating the critically acclaimed TV series Boomtown. Most recently, he directed an episode and served as co-executive producer of The Pacific, and he is now the show-runner and executive producer of FX’s latest drama, Justified.

During a recent interview, Graham Yost and executive producer Elmore Leonard – whose popular character US Marshal Raylan Givens (played by show star Timothy Olyphant) is featured in the novel the series is based on – talked to IESB about bringing such a complex and multi-layered character to life.

Q: Graham, how did you go about assembling the writing staff. Elmore’s voice is so distinct and he has so many fans out there, so how did you go about kind of bringing the writing staff together to express that voice?

Graham: It was a lot of guesswork because there weren’t many writing samples that really showed the mixture of tension and humor and sudden violence that I was looking for, to try to keep Elmore’s voice alive in the show. The first writer I hired was Fred Golan because I’ve been working with him since Boomtown and I know he can do just about anything. And then, there was a writer, Wendy Calhoun, who worked on Raines and who I also felt could do pretty much anything. She has a great sense of humor and good sense of odd and interesting characters that we like. But, the big thing we did is that, when we started the writing room, we bought as many of Elmore’s books as we could find and divided them up. Everyone took a couple on and read them, so they would get into the rhythms and get the style. One of the great things that I got to do in writing the pilot was actually retype a lot of Elmore’s style and put it in the script. It was interesting. Just the act of retyping it let me get into the language a little bit more.

Q: Mr. Leonard, your characters have been in movies, but how did it feel to see your characters come to life on a weekly television series?
Elmore: Well, it is the first time it’s been successful, and it was great. I tune in every Tuesday night. I’ve seen a few of them before, but I still tune in. It has a good story and suspense.

Graham: We’ve gotten a lot of great reviews, but Elmore has given us the best review we’ve gotten on the show. The gratifying thing is the fact that he’s enjoyed this process.
Q: Graham, for your second season, presuming there will be a second season, do you think you’ll be able to do any location shooting or not?

Graham: We were thinking about it. There are plusses and minuses. One of the plusses is getting real rolling, green hills, like we got in Western Pennsylvania when we shot the pilot, or go to Kentucky and get similar terrain, and get the architecture, the roads and just the feel. Part of the problem would be, if we actually shot an episode in Western Pennsylvania, or even down in Kentucky, it would then maybe stand out too much from the other episodes that we wouldn’t be able to shoot there. We’ve got to really figure it out. There’s also a time of year issue. Once the leaves start to fall, it looks very barren and it doesn’t look green. We have to gauge when the episodes are airing and what feels right. There’s a lot to be thought of, in that regard.

Q: How important is Raylan’s anger to his character? Why is he so angry?
Graham: It’s interesting because the way Elmore wrote Raylan, there wasn’t really any anger issue. But, when you have to do a television series, week in and week out, and we’ve got to do a total of 13 stories for this season, which will hopefully turn into many more, we need to have something that we could explore further. In Elmore’s story, “Fire in the Hole,” Raylan’s father is dead and he died of black lung. He was a miner. I just decided, “Well, let’s keep him alive and let’s have him be a criminal.” That’s what Raylan rebelled against, and that’s why he became a U.S. Marshal. So, right there, that dynamic gave us something to explore. As the season goes on, you’ll see that Raylan’s relationship with his father plays a key role, especially as you get into the last round of episodes. It was to give us somewhere to go with the character.

Q: Mr. Leonard, what do you think of that change?
Elmore: Oh, I think it really works. It gives us a lot of material. I would normally think of something like that in a movie. It involves a girl, and you’re waiting for whatever the backstory is to be fulfilled on the screen. You know it’s coming, so I never look forward to that kind of a scene. But, this really works because the whole thing moves so fast. I think the lines are terrific. It’s really perfect.

Q: Where does the name Raylan come from?
Elmore: It came from a man whose name was Raylan. I said, “Raylan, you’ve got to be in a book.” So, he’s been in two books. I’m still working on him. I’ve got some Raylan ideas. I think, eventually, I will make another Raylan book.

Q: Graham, how did the title for the show come about, and how important is the concept of being justified to each episode and the series overall?

Graham: The title came about because you have to finally choose a title. I have no idea who came up with this title. We weighed in on Lawman, and we were with that for a while. And then, Steven Seagal’s reality show came on and we felt that there would be too much confusion, so we had to come up with something else. And, someone at FX came up with Justified because it was used as a line in the pilot. My rationalization for it goes back to one of my favorite Sam Peckinpah films, Ride the High Country. I think it’s Joel McCrea who says, “A man wants to enter his father’s home justified.” And that, in a biblical, religious sense, is about the father being God. But, I just like that notion that we’re doing the best we can in this life, and we want to enter our father’s home justified. At the end of the day, we want to have lived a just life. And so, that appealed to me. Also, the fact that all of these shootings are justified, to a degree. They push the envelope, in terms of the legal system, but it certainly is justified, in terms of his own code. I think that Raylan, like the great cowboy heroes of the past, and even private detective heroes of pulp fiction, has a very strong moral code and he lives by that, but it gets him into trouble. It’s not without its complications. And so, in that respect, I think it works. The FX people put me at ease when they said that they hated the title The Shield, at first, and then that came to be the show. I think that’s a great title. It’s something that the show grows into, and the title grows around the show. Now, it is what it is, and I love it.

Q: Mr. Leonard, who is your favorite character on Justified?

Elmore: My favorite character is Raylan. Raylan’s perfect because there are not many actors who have delivered the lines the way I heard them when I was writing them. George Clooney was close, and Tarantino was faithful. Richard Boone was in two movies of mine, and every word he said was the way I heard it when I wrote it. I think it’s great.

Q: Mr. Leonard, why do you think America lost its obsessive passion for the Old West?

Elmore: They must have got tired of Westerns. They were on in the evening, every week, and I didn’t like any of them. But, the first year almost all the Westerns ended with a gunfight in the street. I’ve written 32 stories and eight books, and I’ve never had a gunfight like that in the street because they didn’t do it.

Q: Do you guys have an affection for the Western?

Elmore: I think My Darling Clementine is the best Western ever done, outside of Lonesome Dove. That was really a good Western.

Graham: Yes. I would say that, when we were developing the series and shooting the pilot, and even after, we never used the W word. We never wanted to say that this was a modern Western. We’re okay with that now because that’s the reality. It really is a modern Western. I’ve always felt that this was a chance to meld the two halves of Elmore’s career, starting with Westerns and then going into crime fiction. It was always known that somebody did something, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, or there’s something going. It all becomes part of the piece, and it’s a nice mixture of the two.
Elmore: I never once thought of Justified as a Western, and I was surprised to see that reviewers were talking about it.

Graham: I think it’s the hat, the badge and the gun.

Elmore: I’m sure it’s the hat. I believe that you could get rid of it if you want, but he does look good in it.

Graham: He wears it well.

Q: Mr. Leonard, what is it about the crime story that kick-starts your creative energy?
Elmore: You know that you’ve got a real story about real people, and somebody does something wrong. Then what happens? Does he get away with it or not? Crime fiction has changed, but I think it always works. I don’t read crime stories anymore, though, because I got tired of them.

Q: What do you read?

Elmore: I haven’t read a book in over a year. I was working in a book that’s coming out in October, called Djibouti. I did read the one about the dragon tattoo and I thought, “My God, this thing is going to last forever before we get to any kind of a story.” It had way too much writing.

Q: How important is the music in this show?
Graham: We have a fantastic music supervisor, Greg Sill, who has been in the music business for a long time. His father was there at the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and managed The Coasters, so Greg has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. And then, he’s got the talent for being able to strike a deal so we can afford the songs, and then finds replacements if we can’t afford them. He’s really been on it. It’s been a big, important part of the show.

Q: How difficult was the casting process?

Graham: It takes longer in the pilot because you’re picking your regulars that are going to be with you for a long time. When I read Elmore’s story “Fire in the Hole,” and I got to the character of Art Mullen, I just knew that that would be Nick Searcy. I worked with him on “From the Earth to the Moon,” and he’s from the South and he has that avuncular, good sense of humor and yet is believable as a boss. Walton Goggins was initially resistant to the idea of playing Boyd, but we talked him into it, and that became a huge get for the show because he really made Boyd come alive and become someone that, in Elmore’s story and then in the pilot as we shot it, dies, but the decision was made to keep him alive.

Q: Graham, what was it about “Fire in the Hole” that made you think that Raylan Givens would be strong enough character to support an ongoing series?

Graham: You know, I’ve been reading Elmore’s fiction since “La Bravo,” which was the early ‘80s, and then I went back and read a bunch from before that. I love the sun-soaked Miami stuff, and I love the Detroit stuff, but what got me about “Fire in the Hole” was that it was set in a part of the country that television shows usually aren’t set. That appealed to me because it was something new. I’d always wanted to set something in Kentucky, doing a show that was just really entertaining, and I knew it’d be great to have a hero. Raylan has his dark side. He’s got his anger issues, and all that, but the guy is a hero. With the liberal attitude that we’re given in cable, people have skewed towards anti-heroes, and I thought, “Man, it would be fun to do a show which has a true-blue hero.” And, I just love the fact that he’s not a shouter. I love the fact that he goes into dangerous situations and he’s not yelling at people to put their guns down.

Q: Mr. Leonard, what do you think of the way the series is evolving, especially concerning the changes, like keeping Boyd alive?

Elmore: That was because, when he was shot, it was like, “Oh, god, we’re losing an awfully good character here.” So, we kept him alive. And, I think it’s gone great. All the characters play their parts and they’re right into it. They know who they are. And, the way they’re doing the accents is great.

Justified airs Tuesdays on FX.


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