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How the writers on 'Justified' kept Elmore Leonard's spirit alive




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On location for "Justified" (L-R): Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter, Graham Yost and Timothy Olyphant.
Prashant Gupta/ FX Network

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FX's "Justified" launched in 2010 with U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, played by Tim Olyphant, as a trigger-happy lawman who is re-assigned from Miami to his home state of Kentucky. Over the past six seasons he has come across a stream of ne'er-do-wells who alternately offer an aura of danger and comic relief. 

The series comes to a close next month. It hasn’t been a huge ratings success, but it has a devoted following of fans who are drawn to the show’s twisting storylines, colorful characters and crisp dialogue.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Cnl-xa_nFU

Graham Yost, "Justified" creator and executive producer, adapted the Elmore Leonard novella, “Fire In the Hole,” as the basis for the show. When we sat down with Yost to talk about bringing “Justified” to an end on April 14, we found ourselves going back to the beginning. 

Interview highlights

What was Elmore Leonard's involvement in the series before his death in 2013? We know the central character was created by him, but how much more was he involved?

Elmore had done his time in Hollywood, writing screenplays back in the '60s and '70s. One reason he gave that up was he didn't like getting notes [from executives], so he was good about not giving us notes. He was excited to see his world come to life on television in a way that — I think — he'd always hoped it might. 

And he trusted that you would take it and run with it?

Yeah. The thing about Elmore is that if he didn't like it, he would've let us know, or there just would've been little contact with him. But he got a kick out of it and we stayed in pretty close contact through the years he was alive while we were doing the show. 

Somewhere along the line, the phrase, What Would Elmore Do?, became part of the driving spirit of the show. Tell us about that.  

I'm looking at my right wrist, I've got the blue wristband that says WWED, [which stands for] What Would Elmore Do? It's honestly something that served us well right to the end. If we got stuck in the writers room, we would stop and say, Whoa, let's just take a moment, take a breath and think about this and really [ask], What Would Elmore Do? It was often looking for the unexpected, looking for something to track with what we knew about the character, but also could give us more information about the character. Tim Olyphant always put it that you were hoping of the moment of, of course — that something wild would happen, but at the same time it would make sense within that world in that character's story. 

How much of a collaborator was Tim Olyphant on the series and how would you categorize your relationship at the beginning of the show and now at the end?

There were moments of great contention, where we would really struggle over things — how to play a scene, how to write a scene, a storyline, how an episode should end or a season. And it was not always easy. The thing about Tim is that he was never less than fully committed to making the best show possible. He would always ask for more and that could be difficult at times, but it always made it better. We certainly found the best way to work together to accomplish that. I think the thing that kept the whole enterprise running was that we had a lot of people involved, a lot of voices, a lot of ideas, but everyone was pulling in one direction and that direction was Elmore. 

Have you paid attention to other series' finales and thought about what worked or didn't, and what you might want to avoid?

We talked about how series are ending these days and how much focus there is on that and what are the good endings and the not-so-good endings. One of the ones that everyone holds up — at least in our writers room — as perhaps the best ending to a series was "The Shield." It felt like it just made sense in terms of Vic Mackey's character. That was something we really looked at as a model. The other thing we did was just look at Elmore and how he ends his books and how he would wrap up the story. And that became a big part of our decision making. 

What will you miss the most about making this show?

That's something that came into my mind about a month-and-a-half ago, when I realized that I wasn't going to have full license to write like Elmore Leonard anymore. He has a certain approach to character and dialogue that's very distinctive [that] we've done our best to mimic and play with. 

Do you worry that you won't be able to stop writing like him?

There's that threat that I won't be able to stop writing like Elmore. What I hope to carry from it is his approach to character and surprise, and having these characters be as smart as possible. I'll miss that, I'll miss the writers' room. It's one of those things that I hope every show runner says, which is that they have the best writing staff in television. But that room we had for "Justified" was pretty special. A lot of great work was done in the room and it was also one of the funniest places I'd ever been. I laughed harder in that room than I've laughed in my life. 

The series finale of "Justified" is airing April 14. Have you turned in the last episode? 

It went in last Thursday night. We got our notes on Friday and we'll be in the editing room this afternoon cleaning it up. It's all done.

What's it feel like to wake up and not have this show looming over you? Will you be a little lonely when this is over?

Now that you put it that way, I feel suddenly bereft... I was talking to Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, and he's been on "The Shield." He has the experience of doing a show for seven years and then being done. He said — and this has proved true so far — "You actually feel a great deal of relief when you get to the end because you actually did it and you're all still standing, one way or another.But the sadness set in when they weren't gathering again a few months later to do the next season. So in July, when the writers' room is not forming on "Justified," it will hit me, maybe the hardest then. 

There is secrecy that surrounds the end of a series. How do you control that? How many people know what happens in the last episode?

I would say there are about 200 that know. We were not a big secrecy show, I also work on "The Americans" and every script that comes to me is watermarked with my name on it. They had everyone sign nondisclosure agreements from the very beginning of the series because it's a spy show and it just has that requirement. With "Justified" we did it on the final episode — we had everyone sign a nondisclosure agreement. It's funny, I don't want the finale to get out there before it airs, but it's not that kind of show. We've been lucky enough that a lot of our surprises have come out when they're supposed to, when episodes have aired.

There are things that happened in this week's episode that are going to surprise a lot of people. Most people are pretty good about not blabbing about that. It helps that we're not the highest profile show on television. I think we're a show that people who have watched really enjoyed, but I think there's quite the clamor to find out what happens to our people as it was to find out who killed J.R. [on "Dallas"], which is a call back to an old show. But I can tell you how it ends: everybody dies in a horrible, horrible way because we're that kind of show. [Laughs]



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