WARNING! Major spoilers ahead for this week’s episode!
–How did you find yourself on the staff of Justified?
I was a novelist and in doing research for my next book, I came across this thing that didn’t fit into my book but I thought would make a wonderful subject for a TV show and I had become a huge fan of television since the proliferation of really good TV. There were some shows I loved back in the day like Homicide: Life on the Street – that was a real favorite of mine – but then all of a sudden in the late 90s, with the explosion of HBO, TV started to become what it’s now become, as a place for really serious writers. I didn’t know anything about TV, I just sort of knew that I loved it and so I wrote this pilot, not knowing anything about what it would take to make it or what all was involved and I sent it to my book agent and she sent it on to her Hollywood office. As it turned out, the pilot was completely unproduceable. It was set in 1846 in Boston and it would be the most expensive television show ever made. But it started to make the rounds. People were interested in it and it came to the attention of Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly who developed Justified and they gave it to Graham, our showrunner, and Michael Dinner, another of our executive producers, and I was back and forth to LA. I was living in New York then, but they had me in for a meeting and we really hit it off. They showed me the pilot [of Justified] and I loved it and there I was. They called up the next week and said, “We’d love to have you here,” so I’ve been here since day one.
–Do you ever miss New York?
No, I don’t. My wife is from New York and I’m from Boston so I guess I’m supposed to dislike New York. Living in New York is fine [but] it’s a difficult life. It’s fine if you’re a single person or a young couple but living in New York and having a family in New York is a difficult proposition these days. I much prefer Los Angeles. I don’t know if Los Angeles is a better environment for a writer but it’s certainly a better environment for a father.
–This is a big episode for Billy. Is he completely out of the picture now? How did you approach writing that scene?
It’s obviously a hugely important scene and it has to be done just right and it has to be done without disrespecting Billy’s beliefs and also without having a very pious vision of it that wouldn’t fit in our show. It was hard to strike the balance of allowing us as viewers to respect him and his faith without necessarily sharing it, and to understand him without necessarily rooting for him because Boyd is our dog in the fight. That scene was difficult to write for lots of reasons, in part because none of us – and really not many people – have a lot of experience with this strain of Pentecostal Christianity in which snake handling is part of the worship and they call themselves signs followers. There aren’t that many Pentecostals and this is a very small group within that. I don’t have a lot of experience of church, period, so I was at great pains to get the language right and for that reason I’m proud of those scenes with Billy because I do think that he and Walton sound authentic. Spoiler alert, but killing Billy in episode three was something we talked a lot about and hopefully part of the power of it is that it’s very unexpected. You set Billy up to appear to be Boyd’s antagonist going forward for the entire season – that’s what we’ve done and that’s what lots of shows do – and he has this big entrance in episode one and he’s got [big scenes] in episode two. It’s like, “Okay, this is who this guy’s going to be. This is what this church is going to be.” It’s going to take up all this real estate so that his getting bitten has to feel abrupt in some way but you want it to feel, at least retroactively, satisfyingly abrupt. The fear is that it just sort of leaves people cold. The hope is that it’s unexpected but because it’s so unexpected [that] it lands more than it might otherwise.
–Was there any talk in the writers’ room of actually making Billy a crooked character?
We wrestled with this question because in the world of Elmore Leonard, almost nobody is on the level. We came to the conclusion with Billy that the way for him to not be on the level was to actually be on the level. Because it’s so unexpected, because I think whenever you see a religious character or certainly a religious leader on television, that the guy’s going to turn out to be a charlatan and he’s going to turn out to be hiding these very dark impulses under this veneer of religious conviction and just using it to further his own ends, whatever they may be. So I think we knew pretty early on that we didn’t want Billy to be crooked, that the odd thing about Billy was going to be, “No, he actually means it.” We came to this idea that the other person involved, whether it was a mother or a sister, that somebody was sort of running Billy [and] pulling his strings. And we talked about the possibility of it being a mother, in part because of what we had done with Mags and her boys in season two [but] we landed on the idea that his strings would be pulled by his sister. The thing we talked about for a long time was how on the level she was. We were going back and forth on it but there was a moment very late when she really was a con woman, which I suppose she is in the final iteration. That’s a very long-winded answer to your question but all I was going to say was that maybe even through the outline of the episode, it was going to turn out that she was really cynically in it for the money and where we landed – and I’m happy we did – is that it’s not cynical. She is in some way in it for the money but it’s for the money in furtherance of what she feels is her or her brother’s calling, and also out of a desire to protect him from the fate that had befallen their father and grandfather, which is very true to the world of these snake-handling preachers. We watched some documentaries about snake-handling in Appalachia and a number of the guys who are current snake-handling preachers have had it in the family line, handed down to them, and have had fathers and grandfathers and uncles who have been bitten and died in the course of their ministry. It’s very old world, and it’s also very particular. The main reason it really appealed to us, to the extent that this kind of thing exists at all in the modern United States, [is that] it almost is exclusively in Appalachia, and in Kentucky and West Virginia in particular. Since there really aren’t many, or any, other shows on TV that take place where ours does, it’s important to us when we can to do things that are quite specific to that place and those people that you’re not going to see anywhere else.
–Is milking the snakes a practice that they do?
The short answer is yes. We played it as something that the sister was doing and the reality of it as far as we could find out was that it was, for a while, common practice for these snake-handling churches to milk their snakes, which by the way does not make them venomless, it just makes them have less venom, but not none. You can still get really messed up by a bite, but they’re not as deadly, and certainly not deadly as quickly when they’ve been milked. What we discovered mostly was that it’s actually the younger generation that is starting to turn against the process of milking and feeling like that’s dishonest and not part of the sacrament, that that isn’t the demonstration of faith that is called for. We certainly had to walk a line. We didn’t want it to be obvious that the snakes would be milked and we were worried at a certain point that as soon as you see snakes on a TV show, you’re going to assume that something’s been done to them.
–Were those real snakes?
Oh, they were very real. Not only were they real snakes but they were real poisonous rattlesnakes as well as snakes that looked like rattlesnakes but aren’t poisonous and don’t have rattles, like a gopher snake. It’s funny, I ended up having to cast some of our snakes. The way I was made to do it was that the snake handler, who’s this wonderful Australian guy who had these buckets of snakes, had me over to his snake area and showed me his various rattlesnakes and then my task was to find a non-poisonous snake who could double one of the rattlesnakes. Basically you wanted a rattlesnake that had a non-poisonous stand-in. The other thing was that for the snake that actually ends up biting Preacher Billy, we needed a non-poisonous version for Joe Mazzello the actor to handle – which he was doing in the scene, that’s a real snake he’s holding, just not a real snake with a poison sac. The actual snake that does the biting is biting a prop arm and [it] is a genuine rattlesnake and the handler recommended to me that we find a non-poisonous double for his most aggressive rattlesnake because that was the one he could guarantee would bite the prop arm. And it did. No actor’s allowed to hold the actual poisonous snake, so the snake that Joe holds is the double and then you film an insert of the snake biting the prop arm and that was just a comedy routine because everyone had to stand behind this Plexiglass but the snake handler is there holding the poisonous rattlesnake which has been milked but is still very poisonous. He’s just holding that in his hands and basically when the camera starts rolling, he’s got to take his hands away, because his hands can’t be in the shot. So all of a sudden, this rattlesnake is free in the middle of everybody. It was insane, although he seemed quite sanguine about the whole thing. I was a little nervous because I expected the snake handler to have these sort of pieces of snake wisdom – “This is how you ensure it never bites you” – and for the rattlesnakes who, by the way, the other snakes, you can have a bunch of snakes in the scene with the non-poisonous snakes, like they crawl all over each other and they do their thing. But the rattlesnakes you can’t have them around any of the other snakes because there is the possibility that they just decide they don’t like one of them and will just kill them. That’s not good. And when he would take the lids off the buckets of the non-poisonous snakes, he would unscrew the lids. But with the rattlesnake buckets, he would unscrew the top almost all the way and then he would do the last little turn and jerk his hand away with the lid, and my reaction was, “This is the guy who’s protecting me, [who’s] here to see that I don’t get bitten and his big strategy is, ‘Move away real fast.’” That did not fill me with confidence.
–We see Wynn Duffy make the deal with Johnny in this episode. Duffy first appeared in your episode “Blowback” from season one.
He did, and my task in “Blowback” was just to tee him up to play a big role in the next episode, which was “Hatless,” and you know, Jere Burns was so terrific in that role and just sort of made it his own so much that all of us felt ashamed to burn him off in “Hatless” and have him dead by the end. This was clearly a guy we wanted to see again.
–So because you got a preview of his talents in your episode, his one-off turned into a recurring role?
I suppose that’s right. We saw what he did in [my episode] and in “Hatless.” And by coincidence, they ended up shooting the climax of “Hatless” on the last day, so they had seen all the work they had done in that episode to that point and it felt like, “Well, we really don’t want this guy to die in this moment. He’s been so terrific in anything we’ve asked him to do up to this point,” so yes, you’ll have to ask Dave Andron about that. I know that getting that climax of “Hatless” together was a saga unto itself but yeah, it’s awfully nice that he’s still a person we’re allowed to play with. It’s hard to imagine the show without him, really.
–How has your understanding of Duffy’s character deepened during your four seasons on the show? Has he evolved in your eyes?
The challenge with a character like that is to allow him to be quirky and without ever letting him get over the top, or becoming so focused on his quirks that they become the only thing that defines him. And I think in reality, although he’s quite slippery in terms of how he actually feels about anything, I think that he has stayed grounded in terms of [having] some very clear and understandable desires. He wants money and he wants to be in charge. But it’s a great question, and I do think that character rides a razor’s edge, because it’s not a James Bond movie [and] you don’t want your bad guys just to be bad because they want to twirl their mustache. Every bad guy in his own mind is a good guy. No one thinks of himself as a villain. Everybody is the hero of his own story.
–What’s the story that Wynn Duffy tells himself that justifies what he does?
I think that he acknowledges that he moves through a world of really sleazy characters and I’m sure that he would say that some of those people are evil, some of the people he associates with, but he himself is not sort of sowing wanton destruction and cruelty. If someone gets what they deserve or if he can give someone what they deserve, then great. But he’s not hurting anybody just to get pleasure from hurting them. He is hurting people who pose a threat to him or stand in his way. I would imagine that most of these people rationalize what they do in that way and then there are obviously just completely psychotic sadistic horrible people but I imagine that the number of people who are that crazy and that depraved is actually probably quite low. I would imagine that the vast majority of people who do horrible things have some rationale for why they do it that makes them not just a monster. It’s much more interesting. I’ve never been interested in serial killers and their motivation. To me, it’s a real sort of crutch or almost a cheat on the part of a writer [that] as soon as you say “serial killer,” it’s a shorthand for ongoing terrifying evil and you don’t have to explain anything because the guy is capable of anything you need him to be. He does it because he’s evil; a serial killer equals evil. So he’s basically some kind of incarnation of the devil and he’s going to do the most horrible thing you need because your hero needs a monster to pursue.
–Can you talk about the evolution of Drew Thompson’s ex-wife Eve? Was she always envisioned as a psychic?
No, and in fact it was Timothy Olyphant who had the idea that she should be a psychic and even in the face of a lot of worry – on my part primarily but also on the part of the powers-that-be in the show – insisted that we really consider the idea of her being a psychic. Ultimately, yes, the decision is ours as the writers and creators but if Tim hadn’t insisted on it so forcefully there’s no chance she would have been a psychic. We know at this point that Drew is a pilot and [Eve’s] story, which she told a little bit of in an early version of the script, was that she had met him in that context, that she used to be a flight attendant on these private planes that he would fly and he was a pilot and he sort of fell in with these drug dealers who were flying their drug planes. Tim [wanted her to be a psychic] for a couple of reasons, in part because he felt that the psychic angle would make her odd and specific and also because Elmore Leonard has in one of his Raylan books, and actually she appears again his book Road Dogs, a psychic named Dawn Navarro, who you’re never quite sure about. Maybe she’s psychic, maybe she’s not, she’s certainly involved in nefarious dealings, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have any gift. Listen, it took us a long time to find the tone of the Eve scenes and who knows whether we were successful. I guess that’s up to the audience. It was very important to me that you never be certain that she is in fact psychic, which seems perhaps obvious but there was an incarnation of the story in which she was supposed to say something that there was no way she could have known, and that really bothered me. I didn’t feel that was our show, so we ended up sort of hopefully landing her in a place where it’s an open question. I don’t particularly believe that the world contains people with psychic abilities, but if you do believe it, I don’t know that Eve does anything to tell you that she can’t be one of those people, and maybe she is. And there’s a question, even if you don’t believe that those people exist, whether she believes it herself, because even if those people don’t exist, she doesn’t have to be lying, and she may feel she’s getting these premonitions, and in fact she’s not, but there you go. I think the most Elmore Leonard way to do it is never to allow the audience or anyone to have enough evidence one way or another. Whether it’s compelling on its own and whether it’s the fun that we hope it is, that’s not a question I feel able to answer.
–Do you have a favorite character to write for? Someone whose voice you “get” more than any other?
I love writing for Raylan. I guess that’s such an obvious answer but I think in some way the character I most love writing for is Boyd because he can be so flamboyant and give these really lovely kind of erudite speeches and do his fire-and-brimstone preaching even if it’s about stuff that has nothing to do with religion. It’s the old cliché that it’s harder to play the white hat than the black hat for an actor. The villain is always the part that gives you the most leeway. For the good guy, you have to stay within certain lines and color within certain lines, and even though we do push at that envelope, I think the same holds true for writing the good guy versus the bad guy. You have to make sure that your guy doesn’t cross certain lines and that makes it still satisfying but more difficult and a little more constraining.