–I usually start these interviews by asking the writers how they wound up on Justified and how they got started writing, and we’ll get to that, but I have to address something else first… HOW COULD YOU KILL ARLO? HOW?!
[Laughs] That was something that went back and forth when the story was being broken. It was actually changed in a late draft where he wasn’t going to die. There was going to be an attack on him where he turns the tables on his attacker and he survives the attack at the end. But I believe it was Tim Olyphant who really wanted to have an emotional Raylan scene in the episode. He really wanted there to be something where Raylan basically breaks down, so the best way that we could do that was to have Arlo die. So even though it had been talked about, the final impulse seemed like it was Tim Olyphant, and it just seemed to really work out.
–So it sounds like having Arlo die was one of the only things left to do to Raylan to give us new insight to his emotional state?
It probably would have had the most impact. Raylan obviously doesn’t get along with his dad. They have had their differences in the past, but he is still his dad. So when his father dies, it’s going to hit him. The only person I could see hitting him more would be someone like Winona. Or maybe someone like Art. But yeah, having someone like Arlo die would really get him in a different emotional space for the final few episodes of the season.
–Was Arlo’s death something that had been in discussion since the start of the season or is it something that came up only once the room was breaking this episode?
There was always going to be an Arlo hit somewhere…when we did the big [start of season] grid. I think it bounced around to different episodes, but I think as far as him dying, I don’t believe we really talked about him dying until we got closer to the episode.
–Was there a debate?
For pretty much anything there are going to be two schools of thought and this was a huge decision to make… [Graham] called Raymond Barry. Typically on a show when a character is a major character and he’s been around for a couple of seasons, the showrunner will call the actor and say, “this is what’s happening to your character.” And typically it’s not that you’re not satisfied with the actor, it’s just this is what’s best for the show and what’s best for the story.
–Circling back, how did you become the writers’ assistant on Justified and how did you come to freelance for the show?
I worked on a show called Hellcats with [writer/executive producer] Fred Golan’s wife Anne Kenny. Hellcats was canceled and there was going to be an opening here starting in the third season. Anne recommended me… I had worked with Fred before on a show called Raines. I worked with Fred and Graham and Taylor Elmore and Dave Andron, so he knew who I was.
As far as getting a freelance, I gave Graham a spec pilot I wrote last year right before we were beginning to wrap and he read it and he liked it. He said it was very well-written, but I didn’t know what was going to come of that. I didn’t know if there were going to be enough spots open for a freelance. So we’re three or four months into the season, and Fred calls me and VJ Boyd into his office and he says, “I just want to let you guys know that if there’s a story we have broken that speaks to you and you want to write that script, let us know and we’ll have you write it.” And as soon as VJ and I were leaving the office, VJ says, “does this mean you’re writing a script? Why didn’t you tell me?” And I said, “I didn’t know!” So I went back to Fred and I asked him, “Am I writing a script?” and he goes, “Oh yeah, we were supposed to tell you at the beginning of the season.” And then later on, like the next day, I’m in the writers room and Graham comes in to get his soda, and I say, “Graham I just want to say thank you.” He’s all, “What’d I do? What’d I do?” I said that I wanted to thank him for the opportunity to write a script. And he said. “Oh… we were supposed to tell you at the beginning of the season.”
–What was the division of labor like with your co-writer Ben Cavell?
We split it up by storylines. I had a hand in the storyline that involved Colt killing the drug dealer, getting the money, and dropping the money off at the shed at the baseball diamond. Then I had a hand in the Boyd storyline, and Ben wrote all the Raylan stuff, the great Ellen May-Shelby scene and anything that had to do with the Deputy Hitman. I had a little bit in the first scene with Raylan and Hunter and then a little bit in the scene with Boyd talking to Frank Browning and then the Clover Hillers at the end, but that was mostly Ben, too.
–Raylan really rescues Ava and Boyd in this episode. Is there a begrudging symbiosis on the horizon for them?
There’s still bad blood. There will always be bad blood between those two, no doubt about it. There might be an uneasy alliance but not to the point where they’re ever going to be drinking buddies… They might always have to work together to a certain extent but we’re not going to see the Raylan and Boyd Buddy Show.
–Arlo’s fight scene in the teaser was a badass way to go. Can you talk about how that sequence was conceived and how it evolved?
When we were originally breaking it, there was going to be an attack on Arlo in the prison. He was going to get shivved. And we were trying to think of a different way to do it because Arlo’s in Administrative Segregation, “Ad Seg.” Pretty much just protective custody. He’s in a different area than everyone in general population, so how does somebody in general population go and get Arlo out of protective custody? There are ways you’ve seen in movies and TV shows before. They’ll get him in the dining hall or they’ll get him out in the exercise yard or something like that. So I called up a friend of mine who works for a sheriffs department and I asked him the same question: How’s a guy in general population get a guy in protective custody?” And he said, “Well he can get him in the barber’s.” And I was like, “Really? There are no guards in the barber’s?” and he said, “No. The guards will pick him up from protective custody, take him to the barbers, and they’re not going to sit there babysitting. They’ll just drop him off and come back fifteen minutes later. The barbers they have in jail are convicts, they’re just convicts with a certain skill set and they’re all vetted.” It seemed like a new awesome place to have somebody go after him because you don’t really think about convicts doing mundane ordinary things like getting their hair cut or going to the dentist. And plus, we’re going to a place that already has scissors. He doesn’t have to bring in any makeshift shivs, which we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows.
–It seems crazy to me that they allow inmates to wield sharp objects on one another without direct supervision.
It’s just one of those things where truth is stranger than fiction. That’s the way it works. One thing they don’t have that we kind of used poetic license with just because I thought it was a cool idea was that in the episode there’s a jar of barbicide; that blue sterilizing liquid. You won’t see that in a prison barber shop because it’s a glass jar with sterilizing liquid that can burn your eyes, so we took a little license with that.
What moment are you most proud of in this episode?
I like the scene where Colt goes to the drug dealer. I think the actor that played Tim Gutterson’s friend Mark did a fantastic job. You really felt for the guy. He’s just a guy who just got in over his head. He can’t beat this addiction and he gets killed because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time… It could have gone either way. Colt could have let him go. In my mind, I don’t think the guy would have said anything. He was just too scared.
–Boyd pulls a really savvy move this episode with his doublecross. Is he biting off more than he can chew? Is he ready to play at this level?
He’s not a master criminal. We’ve said that in the room plenty of times. He’s just not at that level. And these are powerful people, so for Boyd to go against them Boyd probably has to have the feeling that he can take care of his own, but he maybe didn’t quite think things through.
–What are your duties as the writers assistant?
Every day stories are broken by the writers in the conference room and I’m taking down notes of what people say. You don’t really want an official transcript or anything like that because if you did that it would just be a hundred pages and a lot of them would sound like gibberish. You have to distill what is important and what isn’t important and I try to highlight things that were landed on that might be used in an episode. I try to get dialogue if I can because that’s dialogue that may be used later on. There’s no one tried and true way. You just have to get a sense of what the room responds to… It’s basically just paying attention and having your brain on the entire time. You can’t give your brain a rest. It would also be extremely difficult to take notes and be trying to think and pitch ideas because you’re in note-taking mode. You’re trying to get everything down as fast as you can. That takes up pretty much all your brain space. So when I was breaking this episode I had to have you guys take over for me because I just wouldn’t have been able to pitch ideas.
[Editor’s note: While Keith was breaking this episode and writing it with Ben Cavell, Jeff Wang and myself traded off doing writers assistant duty so that Keith could participate in constructing the story.]
We’re lucky here because the hours aren’t that bad. The hours are about 10 to 6, but you’ll get on some dramas and the hours will go to 9 or 10 o’clock. On some shows writers assistants will do research. Not so much on this show because we have a technical advisor.
So after you have a full day of taking notes, then you have to stay another hour to clean up the notes because even if you’re trying to make sense of it when you’re in the room, you look at it afterwards and go, “oh, this could be written by a serial killer,” it’s just all over the place. I don’t like anybody to see the notes I take right after the room because it looks like another language.
–Did you study writing in college?
Yeah I went to Southern Illinois University to study screenwriting and originally came out here wanting to be a feature writer, but then I started watching TV and getting into that and realized that TV writing was better than 80-90% of the movies out there. Plus, if you’re going to be a feature writer, feature writers aren’t really the star of the script. They’ll bring in a number of different writers in for anything, but in TV the writers have significantly more power. Writers run the show and directors are brought in as hired guns.
I think if somebody wants to be a TV writer, they’re going to have to write a lot of specs as practice. I always heard experienced writers say that before they got their first job they had written ten TV specs and that’s not far from the truth. There are definitely exceptions but you have to write a lot, and getting in as a writers PA or as a writers assistant is a great way to break into it. Writing assistant jobs are some of the most coveted jobs in Hollywood, no doubt about it. You get to be in there and a lot of the time you get a freelance, so for anyone that has aspirations: try to do that. If you can somehow get on a staff without having to do that, good for you.
–You’ve been in the room for two seasons now, but was it nerve-wracking the first time you were pitching on your episode or sending pages out?
Yes. Very much so. Yeah. It’s hard going from being an assistant to being a guy who has to pitch out ideas or being the guy that’s writing pages. You’re not quite staff-writer level, but you’re a little bit more than a writers’ assistant level. You’re hoping your ideas are good and the only thing you can do is just do the best you can and hope other people like it. Fred Golan gave me some good advice for anyone writing a freelance which was to go through previous scripts and just read [a specific character’s] dialogue exclusively… It gives you a sense of who that character is and how that character speaks, as opposed to just reading each full episode because you don’t get as much of a flow as you would if you had just read one character’s parts.
In TV writing, not only do you have to bring out your own voice, but you have to write it within the confines of the show, so you almost have to be a copycat in a way. You have to write something that feels like the show and still have a little bit of your own writing style in there.
–What were some of your favorite shows and movies growing up?
Star Wars is my favorite movie. When I started watching TV I liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Shield. I like Breaking Bad a lot. That’s probably one of my all-time favorite shows. Mad Men, Sopranos, shows like that. A lot of stuff on cable. I have to catch up on The Wire. One of these days I’ll sit down and watch all five seasons of that. That’s what hiatuses are for.
–What advice do you have for someone who is trying to become a writers assistant?
It’s tough because they don’t advertise… And if they do, I’d say about two hundred résumés come in in about an hour. It’s mainly about hearing it from other people. If somebody is just coming out of college looking for a way to get in, coming in a PA is probably the best thing you can do. I would say try to get a job at an agency but don’t stay there for more than a year. Only do it for a year because you learn a lot about the business and they’re the information brokers. So a lot of times they’ll hear about a writers assistant position on a show and that means that you hear about it… If you want to be a TV writer make sure you work around an agent who reps TV writers.
I’d also try to get a job as an assistant – this is if you can’t get a job on a show – try to get a job as an assistant at a studio or a network. I worked for Paramount Studios – now CBS Studios – as an assistant and that’s how I got my first writers assistant job… Once you start to know more and more people then it gets easier. Getting your foot in the door the first time is tough, so do what you gotta do to get in there. If you can’t get a job as an assistant right away I would say go through temp agencies, but only temp agencies that do it for the entertainment industries. A lot of time that will lead to a full-time job. There are so many different ways. So many roundabout ways. And always be writing when you’re doing it. It’s tough when you’re working a job with hard hours but if you really want to be a writer you have to find the time to do it. It’ll take a few attempts to find your voice.