–How did you come to write for Justified?
I guess it was pretty standard in that I was sent the script by my agent and I read the [pilot] script, thought it was great, and my agent said, “we’ll try to get you in as soon as possible.” I had just come back from my honeymoon, I think in fact the day before. It was something like I got the call from my agent on Thursday and I met on Friday. I met [producer] Sarah Timberman, I watched the pilot, and I got on a phone call with Graham [Yost]. We just sorta talked about what I liked.
–What had you done up to that point?
I had been on three shows prior. The first show was called Heist. It was on NBC. I was on the first season of Mad Men. And then I was on a show called Defying Gravity. Graham and I just chatted and I know that he said I was the last writer on the list. He had done all the other writer interviews. My agent had sort of slid me in at the last moment. I guess we just hit it off. I don’t know, it’s weird. I didn’t meet him face to face. It was hard to tell what kind of impression I made. I do remember I said something about Winona’s comment about [Raylan being] “the angriest man I’ve ever known,” and I said to him, “I thought it was interesting how they were divorced and that was the first time Raylan had ever heard her say that,” which just made me think about what their marriage had been like and what had led them to this point and how come she had never said it, all these things. Graham said something to me – I don’t remember if he said it right there on the phone or if he told me about it later – but he basically said, “I never thought of that.” So between that and a very nice recommendation from Andre and Marie Jacquematton, who knew Graham and who I had known from Mad Men, I ended up here.
–You also wrote an episode of Archer this season.
I wrote two episodes of Archer, one [during] the season I was not on [Justified], season three, and Graham was actually instrumental in helping me get that job through FX. I think Adam Reed had approached him to potentially have him do an episode and Graham was committed in far too many other ways, so he was like, “Well, Chris is funny and he’s a fan of the show so give him a shot.” That’s how that came about. And then I was asked to do another Archer and I was also asked to come back to season four, so I was sort of finishing that out. It all happened in between season two and season four, and the second script just aired.
–What does it take to successfully write in both TV comedy and TV drama?
I guess I’ve been fortunate in that every show that I’ve done has really looked for a sense of humor. Even Mad Men, which is a pretty straight-ahead show, there’s an element of comedy to it. I feel like being a good drama writer is being able to find comedy in things. I will say that writing both of those Archer scripts was incredibly hard because it’s not what I have the most experience doing. There was definitely a learning curve.
–What were some of the challenges?
Part of it was simple logistics, the fact that the entirety of their operation is in Atlanta so I couldn’t really interface with those guys so I was coming to it as a professional writer but as a fan, and trying to figure out, “Does this work, does that work?” I felt a little bit like I was doing it in a vacuum, so even though I had a pretty good hold on the voices of the characters, it was still a little bit like sending a message in a bottle. And frankly I was not given an episode straight out of the gate, I more or less auditioned. I wrote an episode not knowing whether they would like it or use it. I very much felt like I was auditioning for the job. It was very hard and I was incredibly fortunate to get it because a lot of writers have tried to contribute to the show and not a lot of people have succeeded.
–In “Money Trap,” Elmore Leonard gets a “Story by” credit. What were the challenges of adapting the character of Jackie Nevada, who comes from the novel “Raylan”? When did the writers room decide to incorporate her this season?
We had heard early on that Tim [Olyphant] really loved that character so we always had her on our radar and we were trying to figure out how we could incorporate her organically into the stories that were taking shape in the early part of the season. And we tried to find a story thread that might incorporate her into a couple of episodes, like a small part, the way Lindsay functions in the first quarter of the season. But what was challenging was that in the book she’s not the character she ended up being on the screen, almost specifically because of the Lindsay storyline. We didn’t feel comfortable having two duplicitous women get Raylan in some sort of trouble. So we had to figure out a way to incorporate her that felt fresh and different than Lindsay but that also true to the character in the book. What that started to suggest was that we couldn’t really make an ongoing storyline out of her, that she should just be what we call the client of the week, this person that Raylan walks through the world with for one episode and protects. So when we knew that we also wanted to also bring back the character of Jody, what seemed to happen was, we had the character we knew we wanted to bring back and a character we knew we wanted but didn’t know where. It started to feel like, “Well, those characters should probably live in the same episode because we can get everything we want in one place.” So in a lot of ways it becomes a standalone episode.
–When did all of you writers know that you were going to bring Jody back? Was that something that came up when the season four premiere was being planned or was that later on?
I don’t recall. I feel like it was around the time that the first episode was shot, so probably October.
–Was that a reaction to seeing the dailies with that actor?
I think so. I think it was Tim’s reaction to playing off of Chris Chalk who played Jody, ultimately how interesting he was as a bad guy, all that stuff. He’s incredible, and he was a lot of fun to work with and to watch work. It’s one of those things again we started to hear rumblings of, “Well, we should think about how we can bring him back and how he functions with Raylan.” We just didn’t know if he would play a larger role or if he would be a one-off, or two-off. This was all back when a lot of things about the season were up in the air, where we half of the season started to gel but had big open spaces towards the end of the year. We put them together and figured out a way to make it interesting, and really figured out a way to platform Elmore’s writing and the character, really just essentially copy, cut and paste chunks of the character and passages from the book. It would have been more helpful if I’d had [“Raylan”] in a Word document – then I really could have just cut and pasted it. There are some elements at the beginning [of “Money Trap”] for Raylan that tie to the larger part of the season. For Raylan it’s very much a bit of a putting the brakes on the larger story and dealing with the crisis that comes up. For Boyd and Ava and that side of the show, it very much continues down the road of their larger goal for the season. And we wanted it to feel as though Boyd perhaps gains a little ground on Raylan because at the end of [“Kin,” Episode 4.05], more or less, there’s this sense that, “May the best man win.” They’re both looking for the same thing, same person, for different reasons. Originally this episode was written as [Episode 4.06], and for reasons that I don’t completely remember – because I was in the middle of either writing or pre-production – they ended up switching. So nevertheless, we always knew this was going to stall the larger story for one episode. The character motivation we found was that Raylan and Art and the marshals in general have hit a bit of a brick wall in the larger pursuit of Drew Thompson, and the one good idea they have is for Raylan to go talk to Arlo. This episode is a bit of him dragging his feet and as luck would have it, something comes up that he needs to take care of.
–Can you talk about the evolution of the swingers party on Clover Hill?
I went to Harlan with Ingrid over the summer before the show started because I’d never been. And one of things we’d heard about was this party barn or swingers barn, where swinging and wife swapping was what people did because there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Just to back up even further, between seasons one and two, most of the writing staff went to Harlan. Sometime, I think it was toward the end of season two, apparently these pictures surfaced of some of our hosts in Harlan kind of swinging, and it was then that we realized this wasn’t a scandal, this was just normal. Some of these people who moved through the somewhat upper crust of Harlan took pictures and all kinds of crazy stuff. It started out as a punchline in the room in season two, and it got some traction in season three when I wasn’t here apparently, but nobody really had a clear idea of what to do with it other than just to be kind of a goof. They didn’t want to do that. Now jumping back to my time, when we were in Harlan, we started to realize that it was more than just bored older people with money who got together to do this, that there was a social structure to it, or at least it suggested [an occasion] where the rules were off the books but the more wealthy, more interesting, more powerful people of Harlan potentially seemed to get a little bit of business done. Now I don’t know if that was ever said to us out and out, but it was sort of suggested, so Ingrid and I took the ball and ran with that, because it gave an interesting edge to something that in some ways could be very corny and a spectacle that just was there for silliness sake, but when you added the element of there’s a purpose there beyond just people getting crazy, that there’s a transactional nature to these parties, then it became about power, like everything else in our world. It’s about someone trying to get something over somebody else and so we knew we wanted it somewhere in the season and it just turned out to be my episode.
–Were you intimidated by the challenge of making that work?
Yes and no. Again, because [Episodes 4.06 and 4.07] swapped, I actually didn’t write the original versions of those scenes, Ingrid wrote them. And so I had the particularly cakewalk job of rewriting another writer. Once we knew what we wanted to happen, I just had to adjust it to the locations. The real parties happen in basically a glorified barn and Dave Blass our production designer had actually gone to this barn and seen it so he knew what it was and it was pretty low-fi.
–The parties aren’t a big secret then?
I don’t think so. What we had heard in Harlan was that everyone knew about them [but] not everybody went. He got to the guy himself and said, “We hear you do these things, can you do one while we’re here?” And the guy said, “All right. I’ll see what I can do.” The guy called together an impromptu [party]: “Hey, we got some Hollywood people here.” So [Dave] got a feel for the real thing. We had just heard about it when we were there and Dave was there at a different time so we never crossed paths. But what is in real life a “Road House”-y honkytonk sort of place, in our show – partly because of the location, partly because of the difficulty of finding something that would pass for that – we were able to punctuate the divide between wealthy and low-class/middle-class better in the location that we found, kind of a hillbilly “Eyes Wide Shut,” so it really felt like it was another world, not just a down-and-dirty sex party. It had a little more menace to it, because it became less about debauchery. Taboos were being broken not because people were swapping wives but also [their attitude toward Boyd and Ava was], “Your kind don’t belong here.”
–On a show like Justified where stories are broken in the room and everything is very much a group effort, how do you maintain a sense of authorship when you go off to write the episode?
This is not the type of show where every last detail is pre-ordained. We go off to script with a detailed outline of eight or ten pages but we get a lot of leeway in terms of what the shape of the scene is or how it literally plays out. We are more or less given beats to work with and it’s just making sure we hit those beats. I think for me personally, I try not to think about ownership or “my stuff” versus “your stuff” or “his stuff.” I try to think about what’s best for the episode, what’s best for the series. I was interrupted during [this interview] because I was asked to write a scene for the final episode. I don’t know if anything I write will make it. It would be nice if it did, but it may not. As I said, I wrote what was [Episode 4.06] and Ingrid wrote most of what was [Episode 4.07] but then because those changed, some of those scenes I wrote for [Episode 4.06] went into [Episode 4.07] and vice versa. There’s part of me that feels, “Ooh, that’s mine! I wrote that. That’s mine too.” The process is sort of never-ending so I just feel like, given the material, here’s the scene. I try to do that as well as I can and then let it go into the process. It’s not as though once you do it it’s done [and that’s the nature of] TV in particular. And this show, especially every scene, every episode, everything you write and contribute is an ongoing thing. So in some ways it’s great because in a lot of ways I feel like I’ve contributed more to this season than just this particular episode or just this particular story idea. There’s sort of little pieces of me scattered everywhere which is kind of a weird metaphor but you know what I’m saying. So I take the outline, I do as best a job I can. If I need to rewrite it twenty times, I try to do it as best I can and always make it as best I can for the show but not worry about, “Yeah, but I like my version better.” You just have to have a certain confidence in the process, in the fact that everyone wants to make a good show, that your line or your idea may not work. And there are also logistical things, there are technical things, there are locations that don’t work, there are props that don’t look right, there are any kind of number of things that force you to re-envision it so you can’t be precious about it, and you just have to be generous with everything you do.
–What do you enjoy most about writing? Is there a step in the process that you’re most excited to get to? Is there a character on the show you like to write for the most?
They’re all such good characters. As writers we get to have a lot of fun, a lot of great opportunities. We get to do humor, we get to do badassery, we get to do straight-up drama, we get to do action, shoot-em-up stuff. And it’s very rare that you can check every box in the toolkit. I love writing Raylan, I love writing Boyd, I love writing weaselly Johnny and weaselly Wynn Duffy although actually now that I think about it, I’ve written Wynn Duffy but I’ve never actually shot with him. But anyway, I think the point is that they’re all a lot of fun to write for. But in a way the most fun is just seeing it up on its feet, shooting it, getting it out there in one version or another, whatever you’ve written. The turnaround is so quick that you write it and a few weeks later you’re out there and the guys are walking around the set doing it, and you’re just like, “This is amazing. We have a scene. There it is.” That speed and that process is just thrilling because as a writer you can write things and sit on them and they’ll never go anywhere, especially if you write spec screenplays. It’s always a thrill when you have an idea and you try to articulate it, write it down, and then they sit in a room and do it, like, “Holy shit, that kind of plays!” Because you never really know when it’s just you and a blank screen. And sometimes you know what it is but you have not written it clearly enough. Sometimes you have to try to heighten it or bring it out more. I love on this show in particular that the actors are so deeply invested in their characters. They always have an attitude to the characters and to the scene you’ve presented them. They’re always modulating this way or that way, “The character would probably not say this, he would say that.” I find that stuff invaluable because I’m like, “Great. You know in some ways the character better than I do because you’ve carried the thread of that character through the whole show.” Often times we have to hyper-focus on the episode or episodes that we write but then we can kind of drop back and not have every little thing in our head for the season so it does us a great service to have [the actors] totally on track. I think [the reason] Tim and Walton are so good is because on some level they have to really live those characters. They have to inhabit and internalize those characters.
–Is there any one thing in “Money Trap” that you’re the most proud of?
I guess I’m really proud of the Kenneth and Jody relationship. There is a Kenneth character in Elmore’s book but really we just used the name because we did what Elmore has often advised us to do, which is to hang up the story and strip it for parts. In some ways I feel like Kenneth is my creation, just because all we really wanted was the credit roll that said, “A Film by Kenny Flix,” which was in the book and was hilarious. And we knew we wanted that, but we had to build Kenneth backwards a little bit and figure out how he would work with the character of Jody who we had established in the first episode [of season four]. I don’t know that all the hilarious banter and cool stuff between them made it into the final cut of the episode, but I do know that those two actors [playing] two characters when we were shooting were just such a joy. Those guys had known each other prior – I think they had worked on stage together in New York years ago – but just really had an affinity for one another and their chemistry was fabulous. It was a lot of fun to watch them work. It just felt like, “Wow, these guys need their own prequel,” where you see them in action before they meet Raylan because it was a lot of fun. I was happy with a lot of it. There are elements in this episode that are the most Western that we’ve done in a while: there’s a showdown in a saloon where Raylan clears out the bar and has a showdown. That was like, “Oh yeah, they do that in the Westerns all the time,” so that was fun to play that out.
–Was there any discussion of not killing off Jody?
No, we knew pretty much from the get-go that he was going to function in this episode as someone who publicly called out Raylan and said, “I’m coming to get you.” When you go to that extreme, there’s really no way for it to be satisfying to send the guy to jail. And Raylan hadn’t been in a shootout at all this year. Basically we felt like we’ve earned him shooting somebody, this is a guy who publicly says, “I’m going to come kill you.” Also the character of Jody [on the show] is not Jody in the book. He’s a different guy. I think he’s named Delroy but the same shootout in a bar happens in the “Raylan” book. We always knew that was the endpoint we were driving to. How it functions in the book is it arouses Jackie Nevada because she witnesses what happens so we always knew it had to do that in order to get to some sort of love affair.
–There was some back-and-forth about whether or not Raylan and Jackie were actually going to wind up in the episode.
In the book there’s a scene where they shower together in the aftermath of the shootout. We shot that scene and we’re not ultimately going to air it because it’s stronger if it’s left unsaid. The shower scene just felt too much, it felt gratuitous. You don’t have to see him get into the shower to know what’s going happen.