–What are your main influences when it comes to storytelling?
My main influences are the TV shows and the writers and the movies that I admire. You spend such a long part of your early career trying to unlock the code of what makes the bigger thing so great. You just study things, consciously or not, over and over again. I found myself studying movies I love. Movies that I always go back to are “Unforgiven,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Ronin,” “The Verdict,” just off the top of my head. All the movies everyone loves, I love. And TV too, [like] “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” and things that really take your breath away with how good they are. You continually return to the building blocks of drama and of storytelling. I think on a very basic level, I try to subscribe to the Paddy Chayefsky mantra, which is, what is the scene about? Or the Neil Simon mantra, [which is,] what do the characters want? What are the obstacles that are in [the character’s] way? Those are the three things that I always try to think about.
–Did you and the writers spend time at the beginning of the season coming up with themes that would be interesting to explore? Or do the themes arise naturally from the storylines?
A little bit of both. In one sense, [showrunner/executive producer] Graham [Yost] comes in and relates to us some of the things that have been on his mind, things he wants to try to do differently or things he wants to do again but better or in an interesting new way. I don’t know that themes necessarily come up. I think ideas are there first. And as you discuss the ideas and build upon them and burnish them then you start to find outputs for them in the story. I think themes develop the deeper and deeper you get into the process. It feels like themes develop when you start seeing the idea represented over and over again in different places and different ways and different characters. Then you start saying, “Ah, so I guess our theme is starting to be this.” At least that’s how it is on this show.
–Has it been like that since season one?
I think so. To my recollection, we never really sat down and said, “This is the season that is about X.” In some ways the first season was a lot about fathers and sons but that didn’t really develop entirely until midway through that first season when we realized how important we wanted Arlo to be to Raylan’s life. And the second season, Graham knew that he wanted a strong matriarch but the deeper themes of the bond of community and the connection to the land developed [later on]. I think it’s particular to this show that we have notions and ideas that we chase down and as it all congeals, it starts to have thematic resonance throughout different aspects of the season.
–How did the story of “Decoy” come about?
Partly just because we are doing perhaps our most serialized season. The story came about because of where we were in that particular portion of the story. We had left the previous episode with the bad guys raiding against our heroes and our heroes needing to get from point A to point B. It was pretty clear right away that this was going to have to be a run-the-gauntlet kind of episode. And Graham had pretty strong feelings about it and had a very clear idea about how he wanted to do it. He was really excited to tackle a convoy/escape/shoot-em-up, so that was pretty much right there from the beginning and all we really knew in terms of the other half of the story, which was Raylan and Shelby and Rachel and Boyd, was that there was going to be a certain amount of down time and waiting. The trick was always to figure out how to make scenes of people waiting dramatic and interesting and about character. We knew we were going to have to balance an action-heavy big story with a quieter, more introspective side story.
–It was cool to see Tim and Colt try to outwit each other. When did the idea occur to have them face off using their war experiences in that way?
As soon as [Graham] decided that there was going to be a convoy that was looking to get Drew – you know, sort of a one-road-in-one-road-out kind of idea – Graham very quickly hit upon the idea of IEDs and how that situation might apply to the two characters in the show who are recent Iraq vets. It was pretty clear from the beginning that that was going to be a big way to get Tim and Colt to rachet up the animosity that’s been simmering throughout the season.
–What’s the origin of the astronaut story?
That story is true. That actually happened to me in grade school, almost exactly as vague as that, because I really don’t remember anything about what happened other than one day we had an astronaut come speak at the school. The way he came was by landing a helicopter in the middle of the baseball field. I don’t remember who the guy was, I don’t have any idea what he said, but I remember that it was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. [Graham] loved it, and it gave him an opportunity to riff a little bit on Dave Scott. I think [Graham] was interested in hinting that it was [Dave Scott] but it was left purposely ambiguous. Alan Sepinwall was the astute critic who hazarded to guess that that’s who Graham was referring to. But the original story was from yours truly.
–The plotting in “Decoy” is so great, particularly in how each of the storylines build individually yet work together. Did the placement of certain scenes have to be shuffled around in order to achieve that precision in pacing and tension?
As far as I recall, it was shot as written and it was cut as written. We always knew that tension and intercutting was part of what was going to make it work. This is where my boss excels, creating tension, structuring really knockout action sequences. He does many, many things well but that’s really his strongest muscle and I was just impressed to be part of that process. It’s not really what I can do.
–Several reviews of the episode have mentioned a Tarantino influence, particularly in some of the dialogue and during Bob’s beatdown, when the song “Love Train” is playing. Were you and the writers consciously thinking about Tarantino when you planned and wrote this episode?
Definitely. Tim Olyphant pretty early on lobbied for a scene where Bob proves his mettle by getting beaten to a pulp. As a frame of reference he spoke about the scene in “True Romance,” where James Gandolfini’s character beats up Patricia Arquette’s character so we pretty nakedly modeled that scene on “True Romance,” which Tarantino wrote. There was nothing in the script that suggested a music cue but when Graham and I saw the director’s cut – I don’t know if it was Michael Watkins, the director, or the editor or who did it – but somebody put in “Love Train,” and it was amazing. It was like, “Well, if you’re going to do an homage, you might as well do it all the way.” For me personally it was scary, because I was like, “Oh, for sure you’re going to see Bob die.” When they play happy music and somebody’s getting beaten up, it’s not going to go well. I remember talking to Graham afterwards and saying, “Wow. That’s amazing but do we really want to go that far?” And he basically said, “Yeah!” So it stayed but we were very conscious that it was a tip of the hat to Tarantino. It was shot to be very brutal and I really think that [with] the addition of that song, you’re expecting the worst. For whatever reason it sets the mood that this is just going to be awful.
–Constable Bob has evolved from comic relief to, as Raylan says, “a tough son of a bitch.” Was revealing that side of him always on the writers’ minds or did that come about from the strength of Patton’s performance?
If memory serves, we knew that the character of Constable Bob was a potential place for comic relief. When we cast Patton in that first episode [“Hole in the Wall”] he was just so great and we all loved him that we immediately knew that we needed to have him back in some way or another. And we’re a fairly jocular writing room so we were always thinking of funny stuff for him to do. At a certain point – and Tim [Olyphant] certainly weighed in on this as well – we didn’t want him to be a punchline, or a one-note character, so it was always in the air to figure out a way to show another side of him, to toughen him up. Tim was the one who ultimately came up with what we shot, which was to just beat the shit out of this character and really show what [he’s] made of. So I think it’s a combination of all those things: the character, the casting, the performance, our affection for Patton but also for the character, and just what it was able to say about Raylan because Raylan has very few warm and fuzzy friends in Harlan anymore.
–Was there any scene in particular that required a lot of rewrites?
All of them. Well, that’s not true: all of my scenes required a lot of rewrites. Graham’s convoy stuff was hardly touched to tell you the truth. All the stuff that I either wrote in the first pass or wrote during shooting – and that would be almost all of the Nicky-Boyd stuff, the Nicky-Ava stuff, the Shelby-Raylan stuff – went through at least two or three rounds of tweakage, which is not atypical.
–How did you and Graham split up the writing?
Right from the outset, he had written two-thirds, if not three-quarters, of the script, and said, “Just write this, this, and this,” which I did. And then we got our first round of notes from all parties involved and he asked me to do the majority of the rewrites but he took a few select scenes and sequences. Because again, he’s a master plotter and really had the idea for the convoy in his head, so pulling that apart and reassembling it was really his strength in this episode and came to him as second nature, whereas if I had tried to do that it would have required long division so I didn’t go anywhere near it. So he was involved in that sense, for I would say maybe two or three drafts after the initial draft. Once we started to get into pre-production and production, he essentially gave me the reins and I handled everything right up until it was shot.