Interview with Elmore Leonard and Graham Yost, Master Screenwriters (2010)
Raylan has his dark side… But the guy is a hero. I thought, ‘Man, it would be fun to do a show which has a true-blue hero.’
Justified is based on the Elmore Leonard short story “Fire in the Hole” (read it here) which provides the story for the pilot episode, in which U.S. Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens returns to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky, to track his old coal-mining buddy Boyd Crowder, an ex-con now leading a Neo-Nazi terrorist group, after Boyd blows up a black church with an RPG. Raylan meets Boyd at the home of Boyd’s sister-in-law Ava Crowder; [SPOILERS AHEAD] firearms are brandished and Boyd comes out on the wrong end of Raylan’s six-shooter. Boyd dies at the end of the Leonard story, but not in the Justified pilot. Which means veteran actor Walton Goggins will continue to appear (fun link: Walton Goggins’ blog from India in 2009).
Graham Yost is the series creator/Executive Producer of Justified and a veteran writer/director in film and television with an impressive list of credits that includes Band of Brothers, Boomtown, Raines and The Pacific and the feature films Speed, Broken Arrow and Mission to Mars. He won an Emmy for his work on the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.
Elmore Leonard is an Executive Producer of Justified and the legendary novelist and short story writer whose works have spawned several feature films, including Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Stick, Mr. Majestyk and 3:10 to Yuma. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana but has lived in Michigan since 1934. He is also well-known for his “10 Rules of Writing.”
I sat in on a conference call interview with Mr. Yost and Mr. Leonard on April 28, 2010…
Q: Graham, how did you go about assembling the writing staff — because Elmore’s voice is so distinct and he has so many fans out there — so they have that same voice?
Graham Yost: You know, 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 and sort of quirky character that, you know, I was looking for to try and, you know, keep Elmore’s voice alive in the show. You know, 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, off of “Raines,” who I also felt could do pretty much anything, had a great sense of humor and good sense of, you know, odd and interesting characters that we would like. But the big thing we did is when we started the writing room, we bought as many of Elmore’s books as we could find and, you know, divided them up so everyone, well, took a couple on and read them so they would get into the rhythms and get the style. You know, one of the great things that I got to do in writing the pilot was actually retype a lot of Elmore’s style on I can just put it in the script. I mean, it was interesting. Just the act of retyping it sort of let me, you know, get into the language a little bit more, what he leaves out, what he puts in, that kind of thing.
Q: Okay. And Mr. Leonard, how did it feel to see your characters come to life on a weekly television series? I know a lot of your, you know, characters have been movies, but how about TV series?
Elmore Leonard: 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 thought the one last night was terrific (in the styling)… there was action all the way. Good story and suspense. I’m not kidding. It’s so – it’s passed me by.
Graham Yost: And I will just say very simply we’ve gotten a lot of great reviews, but that there is the best review we’ve gotten on the show. And Elmore has been the most gratifying thing, the fact that he’s enjoyed this process.
Q: In the opening credits, what is the town we see? Where was that picture actually taken?
Graham Yost: I believe that’s Harlan. FX sent a team down to Kentucky to shoot some promotional footage and just get background stuff that we could use in the main title and for ads and that kind of thing. And I believe it’s Harlan. I didn’t get to go on that shoot because we were busy in the writing room… a lot of that footage was shot in Kentucky.
Q: Presuming there will be a second season [ed: it’s been renewed], which I don’t think is too presumptuous, do you think you’ll be able to have that ease to do any location shooting or not?
Graham Yost: We were thinking about it. There are certain – there’s plusses and minuses. One of the plusses is obviously 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 and the roads and just the feel.
Elmore Leonard: Right.
Graham Yost: The – part of the problem would be is if we actually shot an episode, let’s say 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. So we’ve got to really figure this out. There’s also a time of year issue. You know, once the leaves start to fall, it looks very barren and it doesn’t look green. And, you know, we have to sort of gauge when the episodes are airing and what feels right. So there’s a lot to be thought of in that regard.
Q: I wanted to ask you about Raylan and his anger. How important is his anger to his character and why is he so angry?
Graham Yost: Well, you know, it’s interesting because the way Elmore wrote Raylan, he wasn’t – there wasn’t really any anger issue. But it’s interesting. When you have to do a television series week in, week out, and, you know, we’ve got to do, you know, a total of 13 stories for this season and, hopefully, we’ll get to do many more, we needed to have something that we could explore further with Raylan. And that’s why in Elmore’s story, “Fire in the Hole,” Raylan’s father is dead and he died of black lung. He was a miner. And I just decided, “Well, let’s keep him alive and let’s have him be a criminal.” And that’s what Raylan rebelled against, and that’s why he became a US Marshal. So right there, that dynamic gave us something to explore. And you’ll see as the season goes that Raylan’s relationship with his father plays a key role especially as you get into the last round of episodes. And it was basically that. It was to give us somewhere to go with the character.
Q: Mr. Leonard, what do you think of that change?
Elmore Leonard: Oh, I think it’s – I think it really works. It gives us some material – alot of material. And I would normally think of something like that as usually in a movie; it involves a girl. And you’re waiting for whatever the story or back story is. You’re waiting for it to be fulfilled on the screen. And you know it’s coming, and – so that I never look forward to that kind of a scene. But this works. This really works because the whole thing moves so fast. And I think the lines are terrific. I really enjoyed watching it, last night especially. Number 7 [Ep. 1.7: “Blind Spot”]. I think Wendy Calhoun (delivered). And its dialogue is – it just crackled off the [screen]. It’s really perfect.
Raylan [Olyphant] is 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, you know, and Tarantino (was faithful).
Q: Where does the name Raylan come from?
Elmore Leonard: It came from a man who introduced me at a luncheon, some kind of book (sellers). And his name was Raylan. I was going to give a talk. I said, “Raylan, got” – I said, “You’ve got to be in a book. You’ve got to be in a book.” And so he’s been in two books and…I’m working on him. I’m still working on him. I’ve got some Raylan ideas and scenes that I think that he would be (adapting).
Q: Could that mean another book?
Elmore Leonard: Yes. Well, I think eventually I would make it a book. Another Raylan book.
Graham Yost: …speaking from my point of view, if, you know, when we get that, we will just strip it bare [laughs] … both because it’s fun to read anything Elmore writes and also because, man, if someone gives me a few stories to do, then…I’m good for a few weeks of airtime [laughs].
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 Yost: Well, it – the title came about because you have to finally choose a title and then you sort of, you know, backwards-engineer your like of it, because we didn’t at first. But when I say we, I mean the other producer isn’t – I think Tim wasn’t really on board with it either. Our first title was – we – I even started a contest. Anyone who comes up with a title for the show gets, you know, $1000 or something. And I, you know, of course never followed through on that because I know – I have no idea who came up with this title. But we did sort of weigh in on “Lawman,” and we were with that for a while. And then Steven Seagal’s reality show came out and we felt that there would be too much confusion and it’d be better to come up with something else. And someone at FX came up with “Justified” because it was used as a line in the pilot. And it – the – my rationalization for it actually of why I came on board for it goes back to one of my favorite Sam Peckinpah films, which is “Ride the High Country.” And I think it’s Joel McCrea who says, “A man wants to enter his father’s home justified.” And that, you know, in sort of a biblical, religious sense, the father being God. But I just like that notion of that, you know, we’re doing the best we can in this life, and we want to, you know, enter our father’s home justified. You know, at the end of the day, we want to have lived a just life. And so that appealed to me. And also the fact that if there’s a question, you know? Is it justified? Are all these shootings justified? They are to a degree. They push the envelope in terms of the legal system, but it certainly is justified in terms of his own code. And I think that Raylan, like the great cowboy heroes of the past and even the, you know, private detective heroes of pulp fiction, has a very strong moral code and he lives by that. And so – but it gets him into trouble, you know? It’s not without its complications. And so I – in that respect, I think it works. And the FX people, you know, put me at ease. They said that they hated the title, “The Shield,” at first, and then that came to be the show, and so – because I think “The Shield” is a great title. So, it’s something that the show grows into, and the title sort of grows around the show. And now it is what it is and, you know, I love it now.
Q: And for Mr. Leonard, who is your favorite character on “Justified?” And who would you like the writers to develop further?
Elmore Leonard: Well, Raylan. Raylan’s [Timothy Olyphant] perfect because there are not many actors who have delivered the lines the way I heard them when I was writing them, when I was writing Raylan’s lines. And before this – well, there are some that have been (awful). George Clooney was close, you know, and Tarantino (was faithful). But there was the guy that goes way back who was in “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Richard Boone. Richard Boone was in two movies of mine, and he – and every word he said was the way I heard it when I wrote it. So I think it’s great. I think “Justified” to – of course to Raylan means he drew first. And that’s the way he is. Okay?
Q: Hi, gentlemen. I just wanted to touch on stuff like “Have Gun – Will Travel.” In 1958… six of the Top 7 shows on TV were Westerns. “Gunsmoke,” “Wagon Train”, well, “Have Gun – Will Travel,” (“The Rifleman”)… And Elmore, you were writing Western short stories then. And I just want to know, what did people like about Westerns then, and why did – why do you think America lost its obsessive passion for the Old West?
Elmore Leonard: Well, they must have got tired of Westerns…there were actually 32 on in the evening every week. And I didn’t like any of them. But that wasn’t my idea… the first year almost all the Westerns ended…with a gunfight in the street. And 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: You’re famous for one of your rules of writing, which is try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Elmore Leonard: I’ll tell you, I just wrote a line where he looks at a body in a bathtub, and he lets the water out and the water is pinkish. And as the water recedes, he thinks that it looks like an island in the Arctic Ocean. I crossed that out the next day because who was thinking it? Who’s saying it? It‘s not something that any of my characters would think… So, it went out. I was…writing then instead of getting into the mood and the rhythm of my story.
Q: Do you [both] have an affection for the Western? I look at Timothy Olyphant and he reminds me so much of Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in “My Darling Clementine.” It seems like there’s a lot of the Old West in this series.
Elmore Leonard: I think “My Darling Clementine” is the best Western ever done outside of – oh, what was it? The – about the doves. “Lonesome Dove?”
Graham Yost: Yes. Yes.
Elmore Leonard: That was really a good Western.
Graham Yost: Yes. You know, I would say that when we were developing the series and shooting the pilot and after, we never used the W word. We never wanted to say that this was a Western or a modern Western. But once, you know, (a few) were – started mentioning it, the cat got out of the bag. And we’re okay with that now because that’s the reality. It really is a modern Western. And I’ve always felt that, you know, this was a chance to kind of meld the two halves of Elmore’s career starting with Westerns and then going into crime fiction. Although even in the Westerns, it was always known if, you know, somebody did something, and there’s a good guy and a bad guy or there’s something going on that is sort of a crime story. So, you know, all becomes part of the piece, and it’s a nice mixture of the two.
Elmore Leonard: I’ve never – I never once thought of “Justified” as a Western. And I was surprised to see that reviewers were talking about it.
Q: Maybe it’s the big hat.
Graham Yost: I think it’s the hat and the badge and the gun. But…
Elmore Leonard: I’m sure it’s in the hat.
Graham Yost: …you know…
Elmore Leonard: He didn’t wear it in 7.
Graham Yost: No, no. Tim likes to [put it on and take it off].
Elmore Leonard: …But he does look good in it. So…
Graham Yost: He does look good in it. He wears it well.
Elmore Leonard: Yes.
Q: What is it about crime? You mentioned crime and putting those two stories together. Mr. Leonard, what is it about the crime story that [gets] you to kick-start your creative energy?
Elmore Leonard: Well, you know you’ve got a story. You’ve got a real story about real people or, you know, real to you that – and somebody does something wrong. And what happens? Does he get away with it or not, you know? I mean, I was surprised (at) – oh, what was his name? The guy just died a couple of years ago. A crime writer. He and I were on, I think, The Today Show and they said, “Why all this increase in the popularity in crime fiction?” And we looked at each other because we thought it’s always been good. We were – we’ve never been aware of any sag in the (pile) of crime fiction. It’s changed. Boy, has it 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 Leonard: I haven’t read a book in over a year because I was working on a book that’s coming out in October, “Djibouti.” …I didn’t even go in a swimming pool. So, I haven’t read anything lately. Oh, yes. 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.”
Q: Too much writing?
Elmore Leonard: Way too much writing.
Q: Graham….You had WWED or tags or something, “What Would Elmore Do?” Did you hand that note to the writers or something?
Graham Yost: Yes, I gave them out to the writers.
Q: Yes. And beyond it, was there any – was there anything beyond that and giving them out the books at the beginning of the process that…
Graham Yost: Well, also watching the good movies. You know, “Out of Sight,” “Get Shorty,” and “Jackie Brown” …and two of those were adapted by Scott Frank. And he really got it right; let Elmore be Elmore, and didn’t try to improve on it or, you know, just…do it the way it should be done. And that became our goal.
Q: If I could ask you a follow-up question, a Canadian question… Your father famously hosted several movie shows over his 50-some-year TV career. And I couldn’t help but wonder if you have a separate WWED [for your father Elwy Yost]…
Graham Yost: What Would Elwy Do? You know, I don’t have separate bracelets for What Would Elwy Do, but that – it’s with me every day, you know, writing. My dad raised us to think about movies and books, and we would always discuss what worked and what didn’t. But never in a critical fashion; much more of an appreciative fashion, you know? Oh-I-like-that-bit-when. And we would sort of break it down. You know, why did that work so well? What was so much fun about that? So that has really guided me in my writing career from the beginning.
Elmore Leonard: All of my kids are wearing that bracelet, too. And my [grandkids]…
Q: How important was the music? …Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” and Freddie Fender. A lot of that stuff has sort of a sweaty Southern feel. How involved were you in that process?
Graham Yost: Well, we just got a fantastic music supervisor, Greg Sill, who has been in the music business for a long time. And his father was there at the beginning of rock and roll and managed The Coasters and that kind of thing. So, he – Greg has just an encyclopedic knowledge of music. And then, he’s got the talent being able to strike a deal so we can afford the songs, and then find replacements if we can’t afford it. So, he’s really been, you know, on it.
And…we’ve all been listening and… thumbs up and thumbs down depending on what the scene is and what the cue is…it’s been a big, important part of the show.
Elmore Leonard: And, oh, the music over the credits is terrific. It’s just gets you going.
Graham Yost: Yes. And that was just someone at FX snooping around on the Internet, found Rench’s work, and listened to that. It was to, you know, a mixture of hip hop and bluegrass, and it just… it has really become iconic for the show.
Q: And the casting… one of the great things about reading Elmore Leonard’s books… the characters come fully realized…choosing Peter Greene [in the opening scene of the pilot]… that guy has a face that stays with you. And all through it, you seemed to have a – either locked into or searched hard for the right character. How long does that process take?
Graham Yost: You know, it takes longer in the pilot because you’re, you know, 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…
Elmore Leonard: Right.
Graham Yost: …I’ve worked with him on “From The Earth to the Moon” and he just, you know, he’s from the South and he has that sort of avuncular, you know, good sense of humor and yet is believable as a boss. And everyone else we found – Walton was – initially resistant to the part of playing – the idea of playing Boyd. But Tim called him and then I called him and we talked him into it. And that became a huge get for the show because he really is, you know, he made Boyd come alive and became someone that, you know, initially in Elmore’s story and then in the pilot as we shot it, he dies, and the decision was made to keep him alive.
Q: What was it about “Fire in the Hole” that made you think that Raylan Givens would be a strong enough character to support an ongoing series?
Graham Yost: Well, the first thing is, you know, I’ve been reading Elmore’s fiction since “LaBrava,” which was the early 80s, and then I went back and read a bunch from before that. And, you know, I love the sun-soaked Miami stuff, I love the Detroit stuff. But what got me about “Fire in the Hole” initially was that it was set in a part of the country that television shows usually aren’t set. So that appealed to me, that it was something new. But the big thing, the reason I wanted to do this show…was I thought 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. And so many of television shows have – especially with the, you know, the liberal attitude that we’re given in cable, people have sort of skewed towards anti-heroes, and I thought, “Man, it would be fun to do a show which has a true-blue hero.” And so that, you know, I just love the fact that he’s not a shouter, you know? I love the fact that he goes into dangerous situations and he’s not yelling at people to put their guns down. To me, the quintessential scene is in the pilot, and it’s when Dewey’s got the shotgun on him, the scattergun, and [Raylan] says… “Can you rack a load before I put a hole through you?” That sums up Raylan Givens, and I thought, “I want to see that guy every week.”
Elmore Leonard: …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. I had this type of a picture once before, “The Moonshine War,” Martin Ransohoff. And all the actors talked with this soft Hollywood Virginia accent, and it didn’t work. Well, that wasn’t the only reason.
Graham Yost: Oh, well…
Note: This article was originally published on May 14, 2010. R.I.P Elmore Leonard.
“…as much as an analysis of Nolan the filmmaker as it is an analysis of story structure within his films.”