–How did you come to write on Justified?
I got hired on a show that Graham was doing on NBC called Raines with Jeff Goldblum. The show didn’t last more than about seven episodes but afterwards he said, “let’s stay in touch and see what comes along.” I went to work on a show called Cold Case after that and in the meantime he started up Justified and he asked me to join the first season, but I couldn’t do it because I was still under contract at Cold Case. When Cold Case was done I came up for the second season and I’ve been here ever since.
–What challenges came with jumping into a show in its second season as opposed to being there from the beginning. Were you playing catch up?
A little bit, yeah… When we started up the second season, there was still a little bit of trying to figure out the balance between standalones and the serialized arc and we didn’t really know what the serialized arc was going to be yet. We took a trip out to Harlan County; Graham [Yost] and Fred [Golan] and Wendy Calhoun who was on staff that year and Don Kurt and a couple of other people from the show. So we came back with a lot of ideas from Harlan and started rolling that stuff in right away… We were taken around by the marshal service there and shown what they wind up doing. We just talked to so many people there and a lot of people have really crazy stories. Things that we haven’t really even gotten to touch on in the show.
–Anything that might crop up in season 5?
There’s always stuff. We talked with the Kentucky State Police representative that we met there, and his wife Shern – well, Sharon, but everybody calls her “Shern” – did bail bonds, so the two of them would go out. They have a daughter I believe, and they would go out on runs together. They would pick up criminals and they would take their kid with them because there was no one else to stay with her. She would sit in the backseat singing the theme from Cops when they were riding up on people. They have a lot of interesting stories that we’ve morphed into Justified territory. People just bootlegging and shootin’ each other and just raising hell. There’s a lot of raw material.
–It’s surprising that there wasn’t already a show with this kind of a setting.
I think one of the things [we did right was] rooting our main character, well our two main characters really, in Harlan County and tying them to the landscape. It gave us a chance to look at Harlan County through a lens that wasn’t from 30,000 feet… Even though we’re talking about oxy abuse and hookers and crime and stuff like that, the people still see the reality of their day-to-day lives and they’re represented not in a patronising way, hopefully. That’s what we’re trying to do.
It’s an insular world. It’s a powder keg. We don’t try and do too much of the “Modern Day Western” because it’s so built into it with the hat and everything else, but there is a certain extent of that. There’s a lawlessness to it. When we were there, for example, the Harlan County sheriff was running the sheriff’s office from a prison cell. Literally while we were there, so we didn’t get to meet with the Harlan County sheriff.
–Why was Raylan so trusting with Lindsey? Was it trust or cockiness?
I think he was sort of reeling a little more from the falling-out with Winona than even he realized he was. I think he was looking for a soft place to fall. She seemed like the right thing at the right time. And I think there was something we touched on in episode 3 of this season where it’s sort of like– he kind of likes her bad side. There’s an attraction to that, and he’s grown up around people who are generally not trustworthy and there’s something about him putting his money in the drawer that was sort of childlike and oldschool. He didn’t want anybody knowing about it but she knew about it… She was his partner in crime a little bit… I guess he did trust her, but was almost setting himself up for failure.
–It seems like Raylan sometimes relates more to criminals than to lawmen.
It’s certainly a line that we try to walk with him. Y’know, how comfortable is he talking to Boyd versus talking to his marshals? And I think part of [the Lindsey storyline was engineered] to propel him back to his marshal family and the law enforcement side of who he is. There’s sort of a fatalistic approach he has where once he realizes that the money is gone he kind of lets it go.
Initially this was going to be a much bigger exploration. He was going to chase the money down in five and he was going to get into the cockfighting world… We wanted to get the story moving on other fronts, so we moved it a little quicker than we had intended but still hopefully in a really satisfying way.
–Do you go online after your episodes air and read the buzz from critics and fans or do you try to keep your distance?
I’ve been lucky because I’ve managed to get on episodes that most people seem to have liked. Last season I got dinged a little bit because in episode 312 last year there was a huge shakeup in how we were doing the episodes. We shot them out of order. One moment along the way [found] Quarles tied up by Boyd, escaping in a fairly easy way. I remember reading comments like, “how lazy is this?… Boyd is a master criminal.” I remember reading that and [wanting to respond because] I never saw Boyd as a master criminal and neither did Graham. That’s why we did it: because he is capable of doing dumb things just like Raylan is capable of doing dumb things: They screw up.
I like reading the A.V. Club a lot. They’re great and they seem to really like the show. The people who post on there post from a position of liking the show. Even if they’re like, “that was bullshit,” it usually comes from a place of, “I like the show so much, why did they do that? That didn’t feel right to me,” and I get that. That’s fair. That’s the same kind of noting process we do to each other here and that we get from the studio and the network. So we read that stuff… [On the subject of] Limehouse’s obsession with cutting meat last season: We wound up shooting every scene we did with Limehouse carving meat or cooking meat or dealing with meat in some way and by episode 8 or 9 people were like “seriously?” and by then we were already shooting 12 and 13 and it was too late to do anything about it so we were just like, “oh God… wait till you see where this all winds up.”
–Rachel (Erica Tazel) is going through a divorce this season. She’s kind of the audience surrogate when she tags along with Raylan, making the comments we’re also thinking. Is her divorce influencing the way the character is being written this season?
We’ve always seen Rachel as the good marshal who’s doing the right thing and keeping Raylan in line. This year we wanted to play with breaking her out of that a little bit and letting her be a little more complicit in Raylan’s extracurricular fun. She’s just a little bit less rooted in being the perfect marshal all the time based on her turmoil at home.
–You grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. Can you talk about how that informs your writing?
A lot of the smaller, ancillary characters that I put in my scripts that aren’t boarded out in the room are versions of people I grew up with. One of my best friends growing up had father who was a scoutmaster and he made him become an eagle scout… and part of the way he did it was he said, “if you get your eagle scout badge I’ll buy you a Marshall stack,” and he worked his way through and his dad came through and got him a Marshall stack. I wound up using that as a story in 205 that a badguy tells… A lot of the little stories that we wind up using are just people that I knew. Florida is not considered “southern” a lot of ways but Jacksonville’s very much more akin to Georgia and Alabama than the lower parts of the Florida. And there are just a lot of Florida versions of hillbillies and you wind up banging off these people growing up and you just hear some crazy stories.
–It seems like anecdotes are to Justified what jokes with morals were to The West Wing. They’ll tell a joke in The West Wing and by the time they get to the punchline there’s a lesson to be learned. I feel like you guys do a similar thing in Justified with long, suspenseful anecdotes that circle around a point for a while.
I remember that in The West Wing. Bartlet was very prone to that. Like, “post hoc ergo propter hoc really means blah blah blah and my point to this long story is pertaining to the scene.”
That’s something we do with Raylan particularly. Tim Olyphant likes to do that a lot too. Raylan will go in to see Boyd and he won’t just go, “here’s what I want.” It’s fun to have these colorful stories told when everybody has their hands on their guns.
–Where did Colt come from in the writer’s room?
One of the things we wrestled with in season 3 was that Boyd’s crew was just so sad. Like an old man and a guy in a wheelchair. He didn’t really have the meaty kind of crew that you’d feel like great things could come from. So in season 4 when we got back in the room we realized we wanted to flesh Boyd’s crew out and we wanted to distinguish somebody. We didn’t want to bring in another “hillbilly of the week” so I think very early on we knew he would be ex-military. Boyd was ex-military, so what if it was somebody he knew then? So that kind of morphed into being this guy from Maryland who was not part of the crew and didn’t know any of this hillbilly shit, and Colt evolved out of that.
–What writers and filmmakers are you biggest inspiration?
I grew up reading a lot and then really got into films later. I grew up reading a lot of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Hemmingway. Y’now sort of the big masculine voices of fiction. Mailer. And once I started getting into films I really got more into the indie end of things. I liked Soderbergh and Spike Lee and guys like that, and that informed my writing before I got into TV. And the Coen Brothers. I’m a big fan and I definitely steal from them here and there. But I liked all the big movies most folks liked. I saw E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the movies that I liked the most were ones that had the most fun in them. I try to remember what made those movies fun and then morph that into the writing and the producing of the episodes. That’s the big thing.
–If you could write one installment of any movie franchise, what would it be?
I tell you what: I would love to adapt Tim O’Brien’s stuff… Or I’d love to get a hand in the Band of Brothers/Pacific stuff. I love anything to do with WWII. Or Viet Nam. Just war.
–One of our readers pointed out that Raylan hasn’t shot anyone yet this season. Can we have your permission to count the beanbag shotgun as his first casualty for the season?
I’d like to think so. The beanbag gag was fun because we were trying to figure out how he could fight this guy who we’ve set up as being completely undefeatable. I was watching some reality TV thing where they were using beanbag rounds on some guy who had a gun… and it was just like, “wow that’s fun.” So yeah I think it qualifies. He shoots him at least twice, and I think Lindsey shoots him three times. It gets a little ridiculous… It’s a little cheap. It’s a little dirty. And we had fun with it.