Elmore Leonard has been writing novels for nearly 60 years, and has been having his work adapted for nearly as long. Yet it wasn’t until his latest project that the grand master of American crime fiction felt the screenwriters cared what the thought.
Led by Graham Yost (Boomtown), the team of writers for Justified (premiering March 16 on FX) are so committed to capturing Leonard’s signature dry wit, spot-on dialogue and colorful characters that they have taken to wearing bracelets inscribed with the initials “WWED” — What Would Elmore Do? Leonard even gets an executive producer credit, which he has said is more an honorary title, but one he appreciates.
“I like the way they seem to get the tone of my writing, and that doesn’t happen often,” Leonard says. “They took their time, and I think they’ve got him down.”
“Him” would be Raylan Givens, a US Marshal with a clear sense of justice. He’s a bit of a throwback to the Wild West days, with the wide-brimmed white hat to prove it. Givens never draws his gun unless he intends to use it, and is upfront with bad guys about how he plans to take them down. His way of doing things leads to a messy shootout in Miami, after which he’s shipped out to a more low-profile area — his old hometown in Kentucky. Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) brings a laconic charm to Givens, making him charming and friendly but never without that dangerous side that can be unleashed at a moment’s notice.
Givens has appeared in two Leonard novels — Pronto and Riding the Rap — but it was a short story (“Fire in the Hole” from When the Women Come Out to Dance) that served as the basis for Justified‘s first episode. It follows Givens as he goes up against Boyd Crowder (Walt Goggins, The Shield), an old friend from his coal-mining days who has resurfaced as a vicious white-power leader.
Leonard took some time to chat with me recently about the new series, his history with Hollywood and the trouble with screenwriters:
You certainly have had many adaptations done of your work, in both TV and film, yet you really seem to be involved with this one. Is there something special about Justified?
I haven’t been involved in any before. There were only two [on TV], and they went for six episodes. One was Karen Sisco, and I thought that had a chance. But they didn’t quite develop her character in an interesting way. They tried her different ways. They couldn’t decide who she should be. She would be fairly normal in one, and then she would be a little more violent. Or you’d see her sitting around with those guys playing poker. I don’t think that worked. The other one was [Maximum Bob] by Barry Sonnenfeld, who did it as kind of a Hee Haw story, and it didn’t work at all.
Raylan Givens has actually been onscreen once before, in a 1997 TV movie of Pronto, where he was played by James LeGros. What did you think of that?
It was pretty weak, I thought. But the books are coming out again, Pronto, and Riding the Rap, with Timothy Olyphant on the cover. It looks good. It says, “featuring Raylan Givens from the new FX series Justified.”
So what is it about Justified that has you so involved in the process?
I like the way they seem to get the tone of my writing, and that doesn’t happen often. They took their time. Timothy Olyphant is perfect for the part, because that’s kind of the way I pictured him. You know, he’s not too much in a hurry but very definite in his moves. I think it works. I’m just hoping that they go into another year. I’m writing a situation now for a short story that won’t have anything to do with what the writers are doing. I don’t want to get in the way of their plot. I’m going to do something completely different, and if they like it, then they can work on it and use it for the following year.
Are you working with the writers on the show at all?
I met the writers, Graham Yost. He’s the main writer. Twice I’ve met with them. It was more social than anything else. We talked about the plot, and how Raylan does things. I think they’ve got him down. I think there’s seven or eight other writers. I’ve never seen that many people working together, you know. I always do it on my own. To see them sitting around and thinking up ideas and one of them will throw out an idea and then somebody will kind of pick it up and see if it goes anywhere. It’s interesting, but that would not be for me. I couldn’t do that.
They’re so committed to capturing you’re style that they’ve taken to wearing the What Would Elmore Do? bracelets. What do you think of that?
I told my daughter, and she said, “See if they can get a couple for us.” It’s just the initials, WWED?. I think it’s a great idea. I like the idea that the writers like my style, that they’re on my side and they want to continue it.
Have other adapters shown that kind of commitment?
Never. I remember Freaky Deaky, which was going to be adapted, then wasn’t. Twice over a period of two or three years, two different screenwriters came to see me. They said, “Now, I want to know everything I can about this character,” who was a bomb squad guy. I said, “If you read the first chapter, you’ll know all about him.” In the first chapter, there’s a dope dealer sitting in a chair, and someone calls him up and says, “If you get out of that chair, it’s going to blow up. It’s triggered to explode.” … The two bomb squad guys come in and they’re talking to him and they see it’s a real problem, how are they going to get under the chair and take out the dynamite with the guy still sitting in it? So they go out to the backyard and start talking about something else. While they’re talking about whatever it is, the bomb explodes inside the house, and they continue talking and they walk out to the front where fire and rescue and everybody else is. I said, “That’s who the guy is. He’s a cop. It’s to their advantage if this guy is put away.” And the screenwriters, both of them, said, “Well, I can’t do that.” I said, “Why not? Any cop in the world would.” Well, that was it. They didn’t make the picture.
Why do you think the adaptation process is such a thorny one?
In screenplays, outside of the three that were good — Out of Sight, Get Shorty and the one Tarantino did (Jackie Brown), and there were some good ones earlier on — I think when the screenwriter gets the assignment, he wants to show how good he is. He’s not really adapting as much as he’s doing his own thing, and then you wander away from the character.
Raylan Givens is a secondary character in most of the works where you feature him. How is it to see him come front and center?
In Riding the Rap, I remember when I was writing the book, I thought, “Gee, I’ve got to get him into this story quicker.” Because he didn’t enter the plot until about page 40 or so, so I wrote a short story that would be the first chapter of Riding the Rap, and I sold it to The New Yorker, which was surprising. But then he was battling. He was the guy.
Is it more gratifying to see your work done as a TV show, where the story can continue and go beyond what you wrote than it is to just adapt one of your books?
It’s great to see how they can come up with new situations. Especially with [Walt] Goggins, who plays the bad guy in the first one, who was going to die but didn’t because they like him.
Your novels feature a lot of characters who cross over from book to book. Is there any possibility of other Elmore Leonard characters popping up on Justified? Mr. Majestyk lives right around there, right?
I don’t know, I hadn’t thought of that. They can pick up parts of Riding the Rap and Pronto, scenes at least. Maybe they would be thinly disguised, that you wouldn’t know are from those books, but they’re situations that Raylan’s had. I think that would work pretty well.
What did you think of the title change, from Lawman to Justified?
[Lawman] It sounds like a 1950s story to me, and then what’s-his-name, Steven Seagal, came along [with his A&E reality show Steven Seagal Lawman]. Looks like he’s put on some weight, but he’s fun to watch, though. … Every time I hear “Justified,” I like it better. I wasn’t sure what it meant at first, but it’ll show up as they continue. All the writers are excited about it. They like it.
Why do you think so many of your books are targeted for the movies?
The way I started writing, I was aiming for the movies. Now it’s just a natural style of mine that I write in scenes and I use a lot of dialogue, so that anyone in Hollywood can read it. I try to include the humor, because I see the characters as very natural in the way they respond, and sometimes of course it’s in ironic ways. But when they go into action, they do it, they slow way down and do it. But they’re not buying movies in Hollywood the way they used to. … Now movies have to be developed before they go to the studio. One like The Hurt Locker doesn’t even have a big studio behind it, and I think it’s the best picture of the year. By far.
Other than the Raylan Givens story you’re working on, what’s next for you?
I finished a book called Djibouti. It takes place off the east coast of Africa, dealing with the Somali pirates. They’re making an awful lot of money. I have a female. They get involved with the pirates and have a good time with them. Then al-Qaida gets involved and it becomes something different. I handed it in two weeks ago, and they want to publish it in October. I said, “Gee, I’d like to see it earlier, because these pirates might be out of business by then.” This is the most topical I’ve ever been.