–You’re the master of writing finales as you’ve now closed out every season of “Justified” to date. In particular, what was difficult about the breaking and writing of “Ghosts”?
The finale usually builds to a big confrontation between Raylan and the season’s prime bad-guy. This one didn’t. Raylan walks away from the final confrontation, and that’s only at the end of the 3rd act! We knew it was the right way to go; but would the audience go with us? I’d be lying if I said we weren’t concerned.
–How were writing duties split between you and co-writer Ben Cavell?
We collaborated on the outline, then I divided up the scenes according to what I thought were our respective strengths. Ben writes great showdowns. This episode had a few. Ben knocked them out of the park. I had fun with the quest for Delroy’s body, as well as the more emotional Raylan-Winona and Boyd-Ava threads.
–Do you have a favorite character to write for?
Nope. They’re all a blast.
–This season, several characters – most memorably Boyd in “Ghosts” – have voiced criticism about Raylan’s unorthodox methods. Do you think all of it will lead Raylan to change his ways?
Raylan will emerge from these encounters a chastened man. Unless he doesn’t.
–Did you and the other writers expect Delroy’s death to have such significant consequences when you planned it in season three?
Never. But if we’ve learned one thing on this show, it’s that you never know what opportunities an incident might present, down the pike. Actions have consequences.
–Was there any scene in “Ghosts” that required a lot of rewrites? Also, was there any scene or character that was painful to take out?
Some scenes required revision, some were shot pretty much as written. About par for the course. The cast of characters didn’t change in this episode. We’d hoped to bring Constable Bob on for a final bow, but it just didn’t feel right.
–Raylan’s film IQ is quite impressive. Is there a particular movie character that he models himself after?
I think all the western lawmen he used to watch on TV as a kid inform the way he carries himself, and does his job. But Raylan’s an original: as much a product of witnessing the coal company’s war on miners, when he was a boy, as anything he’s watched or read.
–Ava’s arrest puts Boyd in an emotionally vulnerable state. Is his love for her the real deal or is it, as Raylan suggests, just another one of his fleeting fancies?
He loves her.
–”Justified” is often praised for showcasing unique characters that appear for only a few scenes. Are the characters’ idiosyncrasies products of the daily writers room discussions or is the writer of the episode given the freedom to create them?
Some of both, I think. And don’t underestimate the importance of casting the right actor.
–What advice can you offer aspiring TV writers?
Live a life, and write as much as you can.
–Can you give the fans a hint of what to expect in season five?
–Did you and co-writer Taylor Elmore collaborate on this episode in the same way you did on “The Hatchet Tour”?
Pretty much. We found we worked really well together on 409, so it was a natural and easy transition to a new script. Plus there were some suspicious fans who looked at our names and wondered aloud if we weren’t a pseudonym for Elmore Leonard — of course we had to keep stoking that fire.
–Are there challenges to about following an episode like “Decoy,” which was very action-heavy, with one that is quieter yet still having to sustain that lead-in momentum?
Not at all. In fact, we liked the fact that we could modulate the pace of the show, that a good story isn’t all rapids and white water; it also involves quiet eddies and deep switchbacks. We were contributing to a larger narrative and were tasked with taking the momentum, deepening the characters, and moving the story toward the big finish. Plus, thematically, we wanted to address some of the moral issues raised by Ava’s pursuit of Ellen May and the consequences of that.
–When did it become clear to you and the writers that Ellen May was going to play such an important role in this current season?
That was such an organic and evolving discussion that I can’t actually remember. I recall early on we were discussing Ellen May’s death, but all of us were hesitant to pull that trigger, which was significant — it reflected a deeper, perhaps even unconscious, understanding of her role in Boyd and especially Ava’s lives, so we trusted our instincts. Then each writer who wrote about Ellen May kept digging deeper, and in 408 Ben Cavell and Keith Schreier revealed Shelby and Ellen May in a quiet, reflective moment that crystallized her importance. She was an innocent victim that catalyzed the characters in different ways. Taylor and I were given the privilege of closing her chapter, and we were honored.
–An episode like “Peace of Mind” highlights how the writers find ways to involve a variety of different characters. What are some of the difficulties in pulling that off?
We had an hour to thread quite a few stories that everyone had been working hard on all season, so it was definitely a challenge. This was a difficult story to break for that reason: we had to do justice to the characters and their journeys. Not only is it an intricate puzzle, but we could never forget that everyone is the hero of their own stories, so even though Ellen May was a pawn for powerful forces she had an arduous awakening that was tied into Ava’s journey as well. They all had to connect and play off each other seamlessly. Yes, it was very, very hard.
–Giving Limehouse a moment of conscience and releasing Ellen May has deepened what is already a fascinating, complex character. Is he prepared to face the ramifications of further angering Boyd and also losing out on the $300,000 that Ava offered?
Absolutely. Dave Andron and VJ Boyd did a wonderful job of reintroducing Limehouse in 410, and they set up his journey, one of a leader burdened with responsibilities that kept him up at night, and his actions grew from that, but so did his reappraisals — thus, when faced with the visceral consequences of his choices — the fate of peoples’ lives in his hands — he had to reevaluate why he was doing what he was doing, and if it was it for the greater good. He is definitely prepared for what may come in the wake if his actions. Why? Because he answered his conscience.
–What were the decisions that led to making Nicky Cush a paranoid, anti-government type?
That was again VJ and Dave who turned Cush loose with his wild conspiracies in 410. We just took what they established and ran with it. Dan Buran, the actor playing Cush, embodied the character completely, so after watching him in 410 it was pretty easy writing for him. Dave Blass as the production team did an amazing job with Cush’s house, and that helped all of us envision the character.
–Every episode’s script goes through a lot of changes before arriving at what’s ultimately filmed. Can you tell us about any alternate versions of certain scenes or sequences?
So many. The Assistant Director Robert Scott jokingly called Taylor and I the head members of the Rewriters Guild of America. We actually put out a full new second draft that had the production team scrambling. We were terribly apologetic but as I mentioned earlier, this was a hard script to write, making sure all the stories and characters were coming together. One example of a big change? Boyd and Jimmy were going to rob a bank. For various reasons we found a different way into the story.
–Is there a moment that you’re most proud of in this episode?
I guess the moments when we see into the hearts of the characters, whether it’s the big church scene or the quiet scenes with Boyd and Ava. Even the scene with Raylan in the office during the Shelby/Ellen May reunion: if you watch closely we’re glimpsing into Raylan at that moment, a sense of his being cut off from that kind of intimacy going on right next to him, and he’s burying himself in paperwork for the same reason he chose to take this assignment when he didn’t have to, when Art didn’t want him to. Raylan is grappling with quite a few demons this season, but refusing to look at them.
–Are there attributes of novel writing that you miss in TV writing? And conversely, are there strengths in the television format that are hard to replicate in the other formats of writing that you’ve done?
For me, writing is writing. TV is more collaborative, which can be great fun, and I enjoy the Justified team very much. I really don’t miss anything so long as I’m writing *something*. And let’s be honest: Justified is a special kind of TV show. Where else can we have long speeches about the meaning of faith, redemption and forgiveness? And then, in the next moment, someone gets shot to death in a moment filled with all kinds of multilayered meanings? Yes, I can do this in a novel, but I’m also grateful that we can do this on TV with some amazing actors, directors, production people and editors.
–Do you work concurrently on all the various projects you have on your plate? And if so, do you spend a certain amount of time on each one before toggling to the next? Or is it based more on what you feel like writing on a given day?
I’m always writing something, and sometimes I work on multiple projects, usually divided up not by time but by sections or segments. Often I’ll give myself a page quota for the day for the projects. However, I *never* write based on how I feel — that’s the beginning of slippery slope to not writing at all. I’ve adopted my routines from writers I admire, like Hemingway, who wrote every morning, and found a kind of peace in the process, when, as he once said in an interview, “Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.” It’s a way of life, really, and offers a sustenance that’s as important as food and water. It’s a creative sustenance.
–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.
–We talked a little bit about how you became a writer on Justified in your video interview with Fred Golan, but how did you first begin to write? At what age did you start and how did you first get hooked?
I wrote my first story when I was 11, because I heard about a girl who got a book published at the age of 12 and was determined to best her. This did not happen, but I did end up with a 23 page rip-off of the Chronicles of Narnia. I kept writing short stories after that, and eventually combined that with my desire to make movies and wrote a screenplay when I was 16.
–What comics are you reading right now? What are some of your all time favorites?
I’m reading some of my friends’ comics like “Seven Percent” and “Killing Machine,” and I’m catching up on Walking Dead and Powers. My favorites are pretty typical, “Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen.” Also most of what Grant Morrison writes, like “All-Star Superman” and his runs on X-Men and Justice League.
–How would you say your affinity for comics influences your writing for Harlan and the cast of Justified? Which character would you most like to see in his/her own comic book?
I often see things through a genre prism, for instance viewing 310, “Guy Walks Into A Bar” as a super-villain origin story. Wynn Duffy could have a comic, for sure.
–What are some lessons that you’ve learned while shooting? What should a writer know before their first time on the set of their episode?
Make sure you understand the big picture, why each person is saying/doing what they are doing in that particular scene, because people will ask. Other than that just stay out of people’s way, but don’t be afraid to point stuff out to the director if you think they missed something. Just common sense.
–This episode takes place after everyone gets on the same page about Drew Thompson, but before he’s apprehended. What were the challenges of breaking this episode and stalling that get?
Mostly just keeping it from feeling like stalling for the viewer. Figuring out what we wanted to say about the various characters with this hunt.
–What’s your writing routine like? Are you a morning person? How do you balance family, writing, and hobbies?
I don’t have a routine. I write every weekday during hiatus, just normal 10-6 hours, but when the show is up and running I write at night, early mornings, whenever. Caffeine makes this possible. I don’t know that there’s a trick to balancing things, I just prioritize and do what has to be done at that moment, then figure out what has to be done the next moment, etc.
–What advice do you have for a person about to write a spec script in the hopes of getting staffed?
Make sure you fill out your portfolio. You can use the spec to try and get in fellowships, but you should have a couple of pilots as well. Prospective employers want to know you have more than one script in you and that you actually enjoy writing.
–When did you first begin writing and what was your path to Justified?
I began writing at a pretty young age, starting with letters to camp friends, to short stories, to trying a novel in high school. I began writing fiction seriously in college, and haven’t stopped.
My path to Justified began with a satisfying career as a novelist, but wanting to move into TV. I watched shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Yost’s Boomtown and began seeing the possibilities in this form. Then I read Graham’s pilot of Justified early on, knew Elmore Leonard’s and Graham’s work, and saw it meshing very well with my own. When I watched it I knew I had to write for Graham. It took three seasons but I finally joined the team.
–As the new voice in the room this season, how do you figure out on the fly how you fit into the larger mosaic of the group?
Every show is different, every writers’ room unique, but I had the advantage of being a tremendous fan of the show, so felt very comfortable with the language of Justified. I saw very quickly that everyone wanted to make a great show, no matter who was new or a veteran, and they all made me feel very welcome. I pitched in however I could, whether it was research, story ideas, even writing on the white boards despite my messy handwriting. I began to see that my background in crime novels and fiction writing was an asset, and contributed with that perspective when I could.
–How did you find out that you’d be writing an episode this season?
Graham took me aside and said said it was time. Dave Andron had advocated for me to get a script. Then Graham told the room and they applauded, which was actually touching. I felt like I was a true part of the team then. Taylor Elmore welcomed me as a co-writer, and we were off.
–Did you feel any extra pressure since you were following an episode that killed off a major character?
Not especially. Of course I wanted to do a good job, and Taylor and I both felt a responsibility to Raylan, to make his response true to his character, but I feel like I was given a tremendous gift: I was empowered to co-write an episode of my favorite show. Not many people get the chance to do that. So, honestly, I had fun.
–There was a version of ‘The Hatchet Tour’ where Raylan carted Arlo around rather than Hunter. When that switch occurred, how did your approach to the episode have to shift?
That was before the decision to kill Arlo was cemented. Quite frankly the relationship between Raylan and Arlo mirrors the relationship with my father, so that version was extremely cathartic to write. Kafka once said that writing is the axe to break the frozen sea within us, and I did a lot of ice breaking. When we decided that Arlo was going to die we just filed that old version away, Taylor and I hunkered down and we re-envisioned the story from the new perspective. Again, you must remember how much I enjoy this show as a viewer, so all that it meant was we got to write a new version of the episode, and I relished that.
–What was the division of labor like between you and Taylor Elmore? Was it an easy collaboration?
Taylor and I write very similarly. I think he could’ve been a novelist in another life because he liked pondering and mulling character and story as much as I did. Basically we talked, emailed and kicked ideas back and forth, then just started writing. The most telling moment for me was when we unintentionally overlapped, and unbeknownst to us we ended up writing a line almost exactly the same way. That’s when we knew it was a good collaboration.
–How did the reveal of Shelby as Drew evolve? As a novelist with plenty of experience in the crime/mystery genre, what were your instincts telling you about this reveal?
This was a point discussed quite a bit in the writers’ room, and there were more dramatic and violent versions bandied about, but in the end we all thought that a quieter revelation in the aftermath of chaos would have the most weight. I guess my instincts were pretty in tune with the other writers — we all didn’t want to wait too long because that kind of trickery gets tiresome, but we wanted to do it justice, with an eye toward who Drew was and who Shelby is now, authentic and organic to the story.
–Can you talk about your experiences working on the set? What were some learning curves that were specific to this show?
I liked set, especially in the more remote areas because I missed being outside. I also marveled at the collaborative nature of the shoot, since everyone from sound, props, wardrobe, to the actors themselves, wanted the very best for the show. The only thing specific for this show that I wasn’t used to were the long commutes. One night I got caught in traffic and spent over three hours getting home.
–Which character’s voice is your favorite one to write?
They all have their fun aspects. Whether it’s Raylan’s wryness laced with his uniquely complicated undercurrents, or Ava’s intelligent yearning. But I do especially enjoy Boyd’s cadences and lyricism. He has a neo-Biblical lilt that comes for his wild upbringing and background, shaded with his father’s rawness, his own criminal past, the regionalism, the eclectic reading, and the fact that he’s a fascinating character.
–Why did you decide to make the jump from writing novels to writing for TV? Can you talk about the pros and cons of the switch?
I’ve written a lot about social and cultural issues as they relate to crime, family and community, and saw that this was being done so well on TV that I had to be a part of it. The Wire, Breaking Bad and of course Justified are not just great TV — they’re great literature. The forms — TV and novels — are not that different for me. It comes down to telling stories about compelling characters in unique and moving situations. It’s focusing a lens on a community and seeing what that reveals about all of us.
–You were here every day before Jeff and myself and from what I understand you are pretty prolific. Can you describe your routine and the habits you try to keep in order to be such a productive writer?
Writing is an integral part of my life. I love to write. I can’t imagine not writing. So it’s very simple for me to wake up and think about what I’m writing that day. I wonder if what makes it difficult for many people is that they’re thinking about the product: the story, the novel, the script, or whatever they’re working on and what the final product will be and what it will get them — writing as a means to an end.
However, I tend to think about the process — what I will learn about the characters, the world, the stories, and, ultimately, about myself in the journey of whatever I’m working on. When you relish the journey, it’s very, very easy to get up at dawn eager to see what happens next in the story. You can’t wait to get out of bed. Seriously.
–What advice do you have for a person about to write their first spec script with the hope of writing for TV?
Well, consider my previous answer. If you’re writing a script as a means to get somewhere else, you’re not writing a script — you’re writing a vehicle for another goal. My advice is to change your mindset. You’re writing a story that’s meaningful to you and hopefully to others, and you’re infusing it with something no one else can do or even approach; you’re writing with your unique voice and perspective. No one else has had your experiences and perspectives. What do you want to see out there that you can’t find? How is it uniquely yours, and I don’t necessarily mean autobiographical, but singularly your voice. Learn how to capture that in your writing, your characters, your stories, and enjoy the process. Embrace the journey and everything else will eventually fall into place.
–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.
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.
–How did you become a television writer and how did you come to write on Justified?
I went to film school after much pondering over what I was going to do with my life. I thought I was going to be a doctor, thought I was going to be a lawyer… but when I was in undergrad I took a class on comedy and I took a writing class and sort of remembered that I used to win awards when I was a kid – writing short stories and whatnot – and I had sort of gotten away from that.
–What age was that?
All through elementary school, actually even into junior high I dare say. But then I hit the antics of high school and just sort of forgot. And then when I took the MCAT, I did pretty well on everything but I got a point away from perfect on my writing sample. I was like, “oh yeah, I used to write stories and stuff.” It was all the typical early 20s “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I don’t know what I want to commit to…” So I ended up taking a few years off. Decided I didn’t want to go to medical school… applied and got into law school, then didn’t go to law school… my mother was ready to disown me. I finally came to terms with the fact that I wanted to be in entertainment, so I applied to film school and got into USC.
–Were you in the writing program at USC?
I was actually in the graduate production program. Everybody wants to be a director in film school, but I saw all of my classmates sinking thousands and thousands of dollars into thesis films that would go nowhere. I took the “prep for thesis film” class taught by Brenda Goodman, and I remember Brenda looking around and saying, “this is a learning project. It’s not going to get you a 10-picture deal at Dreamworks. You’re no different and you’re no different and you’re no different.” It was super harsh but I took it to heart. I decided that I wasn’t going to make a thesis film: I was going to write a script for free, and then have something that I could possibly sell.
I ended up writing a couple of features with a partner . After graduation, we got little bites here and there… My friend Dana, who I had worked with, is now an executive over at 20th, and she’s the one who said, “I want you to write a couple TV samples. I can help you and I think you have a really good voice for TV.” At the time, I was writing comedy, so on my own, I wrote a Scrubs spec and a Curb Your Enthusiasm spec and long story short, Dana gave it to her friend who was a manager and he ended up signing me and then he got me my agents and my agents got me my first job on Hannah Montana…although, that took several years to all happen. After Hannah, I went on to ABC’s Better Off Ted and I realized I loved comedy but there was something missing for me. And I also came to realize that I was not the quick joke-maker like everybody else in the room and that bothered me considerably – to not be good at all parts of my job. So I talked to my manager about moving into drama and I ended up writing this pilot about the LAPD bomb squad… that was what Graham and Fred read. They gave me my first shot in drama. Really changed my life.
–You were able to brand yourself three times: From writing for kids, to writing adult comedy, to writing for drama. Was that a challenge?
Y’know the nice thing about Hannah Montana was that it was actually pretty funny and it’s not quite as silly as a lot of these kids’ comedies can be. It was a year after Hannah Montana that I got a job on Better Off Ted, which was a 20th show, so my friend Dana helped. The whole “who you know” thing is definitely important. I think that was a part of why, growing up, I never really thought of working in Entertainment as a real possibility. When I was a kid and watching all my John Hughes movies and 80s comedies over and over… I thought the idea of “who you know” meant like you had to know a network president or it was certain families that ran all this. I never realized that that meant that you knew an executive because you were assistants together and moved up together. For some reason that networking never occurred to me. It always seemed like this bigger, “you need to know the king,” thing.
–You’re the only female writer on the show this year. How’s that working for you?
You want the honest answer?
Uh, I don’t think I can give you the honest answer. [Laughs] No, really. I love these guys like they’re family. Every one of them is like a brother …or a second cousin. But it’s most definitely a challenge. You have to have a thick skin and you have to speak up for yourself. I do think unfortunately there’s a double standard in general for women, that if they speak up for themselves it’s not necessarily seen positively. They get branded a bitch or a nag or whatever. Whereas- [At this moment, “Foot Chase” co-writer Dave Andron is spotted poking his head in the room to eavesdrop on the interview.]
Dave: [feigning outrage] Oh is that how it is? [Dave tries to wedge the door off its doorstop, but it’s stuck.]
Ingrid: You know what he asked me? How it was being the only girl in the room.
Dave: Yeah. What’d you say? “It’s terrible. They’re awful to me.”
Ingrid: I would like to have the record reflect that Dave Andron came in and [tried to] slam my door and is having trouble figuring out how to do it. [Laughs]
Dave: Yeah I was going to but I can’t get it to—[Tries playing with lock]
Ingrid: Dude, it’s not like we’re going to be locked in here.
[Dave mimics Ingrid’s words back to her. Ingrid reciprocates with her own mimicking tone.]
Dave: I just wanted to do it for effect.
Ingrid: [to me] You have to put this in the interview.
–That leg stump in “Foot Chase” was pretty grisly. Were you a little shocked the first time you got to see that? At what point did you know you were cutting a foot off this season?
That was grisly even on set, it was like, “oh my god,” and then he took the torch to it… yeah that was brutal.I think [in the writers’ room]Taylor Elmore may have pitched it as a joke, and we were like, “let’s do it!” As soon as we knew we wanted to involve Josiah and that he had a tether, that foot was coming off.
–Ava has a great blackmailing scene in this episode, and the callback to the bear suit is perfect.
Yeah the Arnold stuff. I was actually really proud of the way that turned out… I can tell you this: those pictures that they had were actually the actress that was playing April. Those were her pictures from high school. [Prop Master] John Harrington was so excited to show me that mascot picture. It was some serious kismet.
–How is the room approaching Ava this season? What do you think her arc is?
She’s a full-blown member of Boyd’s crew and her arc is all about really learning and seeing in stark reality what it means to be a criminal, and the price you need to pay and the steps that you have to take and it really hits with the Ellen May stuff… At first she thinks that she can handle them until she’s faced with them… She didn’t think twice about killing Delroy. He killed two women. And Bowman used to beat the hell out of her, but Ellen May was an innocent. She was her charge. She saved Ellen May’s life… To have this come back on her in the way it has is brutal.
–I understand you took a trip to Harlan before you began this season. Did you get any new material from that trip?
This is the second time that I’d gone to Harlan and I went out there wondering what else we’d be able to get because we had gotten so much material from our original trip. I love it out there, man. The people out there are so real and so genuine… And their stories. I mean you couldn’t even write this stuff. It’s incredible. Constable Bob for example… I was driving along with a KSP trooper, doing a ride-along, and I kept seeing this car that had bar lights on it, but it was just white. I was like, “who is that?” and the officer I was with grinned at me and said, “oh, Ingrid… that would be the town constable,” and I got the whole rundown of how the Harlan constable operates…Obviously we took creative license with our constable, but that’s where it came from.
–Is there any one meal you have to get when you’re down there?
I always have to get chicken and dumplings… Imagine the inside of a pot pie but with clumps of dough that’s been boiled almost like gnocchi. It’s heavy as hell but it’s fantastic.
The whole reason for the timing when Chris Provenzano and I went up there this year was for the Polk Sallet Festival. Polk sallet is a weed that grows in the mountains up there that you can cook and eat. It’s a regional thing. If you eat too much of it… I don’t know if it can actually kill you but it can make you very sick. But if you cook it in small doses it’s okay… People had been warning us: “it’s an acquired taste, it’s an acquired taste,” but I thought it was delicious.
–Are there rides at the Festival?
Yeah it’s like a full on town festival. Rides and a big stage with musical guests. They actually had one big stage and then two smaller stages… I would say it was maybe eight city blocks. It’s huge.
–Have you ever pitched setting a season finale set at the Polk Sallet Festival?
I’d love to but I think [our producers] Don Kurt and John Vohlers would have heart attacks.