Graham Yost had an uphill battle when he created Justified. He set out to translate Elmore Leonard's stylish prose, dazzling dialogue, and knotty plotting into a weekly TV series—one that might exceed and outlast Leonard-based predecessors Karen Cisco and Maximum Bob, both swiftly canceled. Unlike those other shows, Justified was not based on a novel, but rather the short story, "Fire in the Hole." And also unlike them, Yost's show succeeded for five critically beloved seasons. In order to get this far, however, he and his writers had to go rogue, venturing well outside the margins of the late, great author's work.
Justified is the story of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal with a very swift and accurate trigger finger. Yost had more than "Fire In the Hole" at his disposal for telling Raylan's story, though. The filmmaker also seeded in elements of Pronto and Riding the Rap, the novels which spawned Raylan as a side character, but only sparingly. "At this point, we’re pretty much tapped out," Yost says. Fortunately, the series has achieved the curious feat of faithfully architecting an Elmore Leonard universe from the author's blueprints, but populating it with many new characters. (For his part, Leonard eventually returned the favor by writing a new Raylan novel and borrowing liberally from Justified.) As the series concludes its fifth season—already renewed for a sixth and purportedly final one—Yost spoke to Co.Create about how he's managed to create an adaptation this expansive while sticking to the script.
I can’t remember how many bad Elmore Leonard adaptations I actually saw—I would sort of get wind of most of them and stay away. I remember finishing some and thinking that they’ve taken the plot, but they haven’t really gotten the characters. They haven’t gotten the humor. When I saw Get Shorty, I remember thinking, "Well, that’s how you do Elmore Leonard." I took note of the writer’s name. Scott Frank. "Oh, he understands—you use as much of the dialogue as you can." So that was really my goal.
When I spoke to Elmore for the first time, he said he really liked the pilot. I joked with him, I said, "Of course you do, Leonard—I barely changed a word." From the beginning, he saw that we were taking this seriously. That we were trying to do a TV show that he would enjoy.
The idea was that "Fire In the Hole" would be the pilot and so adapting that was pretty straightforward. But there were big changes right off the bat that we needed to make so we could keep the story going. There were some changes in terms of who Raylan’s ex-wife Winona was and where she lived. In the story, his dad is a coal miner who dies of black lung, but we made him a criminal who is still alive. Then we added another marshal.
The only thing we’re trying to do is create an Elmore Leonard show. At no point do we say, "Now we’re Justified," and "We’re not Elmore Leonard" Then we’d feel like we failed. Because of the nature of doing a television show, though, especially one that’s been on five years now, we have to have more character development than Elmore would. One of Elmore's rules is that character is destiny and people don’t change that much, but we need to evolve things to a certain degree or the audience will get bored.
We went to bookstores and bought as many of his books as we could. Westerns, crime fiction, everything. We laid them all out on the table and all the writers took a couple and read them. Also we maintained this Elmore Leonard library at the writers' office ever since. And people at the beginning of a season will go and grab one and read it. Fred Golan, the number two writer on the show, loves the story Elmore would tell which is that before he’d start a new book, he’d read one of his old ones to remember how he writes. How to write like Elmore Leonard. I still do it too. This past year, I read Gold Coast and City Primeval.
I made wristbands that said WWED [What Would Elmore Do] for the writers, but ended up getting them for the whole crew. You can’t just order 10. I’m still wearing mine, but no one else is, because they’re all wimps.
We’re going for believable, if not entirely factual. We’re The Elmore Leonard Show, not a true blue marshal show. The reality of the number of shootings Raylan has been involved in, he would have either been exiled to Glen Cove to teach firearms safety for the rest of his career, or let go. Our show is about a foot off the ground. It’s close to real, but a lot of things we do are not exactly real. I’ve heard that marshals really enjoy the show, though.
It’s like building a bridge. You start at both ends—always thinking of where you’re trying to get and what you need to build to support that. But at the same time, because you’re doing a television show, you need to deal with the episode right in front of you. So we have three dry erase boards in the writers’ office. On one board we put up a grid with a box for each episode in the season. As we start to get ideas, we’ll put things up in the grid. So, okay, by episode 10 we need this, by episode six we need for this to happen, could all these things come together in episode 5?, that kind of thing.
Then, you just start putting the pieces in. What do we need to hear in this episode? And that will move back and forth—sometimes in the process of writing, sometimes even in the process of shooting. Sometimes, it’s even into editing, where we need this episode to have an additional scene because we have to support something we’re developing in two episodes. So it’s sort of both a plan and a real sort of improvisation as we go and an alteration of the plan. Not to compare a TV show to landing in Normandy in WWII, but as Eisenhower once quoted: "Plans are worthless, planning is everything."