Hollywood taps Elmore Leonard again
It’s just a few blocks from some of Los Angeles’ best regional Mexican food, but thanks to the magic of television, we’re not in Highland Park but Kentucky coal country. Or rather, in a tiny, cramped hardware store, stuffed with bags of powdered stucco, countless screws and what may be every cleaner known to man.
The magic, though, is starting to fray during a tense morning in which a few dozen chilly people have been standing around since 5 a.m. “Do you need a one-hold strap?” snaps director Michael Watkins, an intense, red-faced man with a crown of white hair who is clearly tired of waiting around. “I can get you a ground clamp!”
The cast and crew rubbing their hands together from the cold and wearing headsets, earpieces and North Face jackets have gathered to shoot a drama based on the work of Elmore Leonard, now called “Justified,” after at least one name change.
The show is a cops-and-robbers drama to debut on FX in March, with an unusual setting and promising pedigree.
After a little more tension and a tussle over set dressing, cameras roll: A man in flannel walks into the store, describing a deer hunt in which he will need the usual stuff plus . . . a shovel that can dig in rocky ground, a chain saw and a map of the state. Before he can complete his order, a woman has rushed in and pulled a shotgun on him, and the scene ends with several tensions resolved and others heightened. Nobody got killed -- this time.
“Cut!” Watkins shouts. “Let me tell you how many good things happened there!”
Soon the cast and crew have relocated in front of an old police station down the street. Before long the show’s star, a lanky, blue-jeaned Timothy Olyphant, 41, shows up. And after he has been prepped for his role as federal marshal Raylan Givens -- a guy who grew up digging coal and is now back in town to bring some order to the place -- shooting starts again.
“What really appealed to me,” says show creator Graham Yost, who wrote for “Band of Brothers,” and created “Boomtown,” “is the combination of Raylan Givens and Elmore Leonard. He’s a kind of no-nonsense hero: He’s got some stuff in his past; he shoots people and gets into trouble. But he’s not -- as we’re getting a lot in TV these days -- a tortured antihero. He’s a hero. Who is cool. He walks the walk.”
The Leonard mystique
“Justified” was conceived when two producers brought the Leonard story “Fire in the Hole” to Yost, who’d admired the novelist’s work for 20 years. It didn’t take him long to jump. (Yost explains the title, which used to be “Lawman,” with a reference to a Sam Peckinpah film.)
The story itself -- two earlier novels also feature the Raylan character -- begins with Leonard’s typical straightforward boldness. “They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.”
And less than two pages later, after chronicling Crowder’s descent into white supremacy, Leonard ends his chapter: “The day the Marshals Service assigned Raylan to a Special Operations Group and transferred him from Florida to Harlan County, Kentucky, Boyd Crowder was on his way to Cincinnati to blow up the IRS office in the federal building.”
Even after reading more than a dozen Leonard novels, Yost found the premise fresh. “There’s the westerns, the Detroit crime stuff, and the Florida stuff. What intrigued me here is that it was Kentucky; there’s not a lot of shows set in that part of the country.”
For Joelle Carter, 37, who grew up in Georgia and plays the female lead, Ava -- the wife of a dangerous redneck she shoots in the pilot -- Leonard was also the main draw. She knew his work mostly from films and was excited by the “saucy free spirit” he’d created. Carter responded to a character who, she says, “has tried to get out of town for a long time, like a lot of people in small towns do. And now she has to deal with her own demons.”
The show’s star concurs on Leonard’s centrality. “It’s very difficult to get your hands on really good material,” says Olyphant, who, found that the sheer number of bad scripts sent his way only increased after his role in “Deadwood.” “For a long time I’ve thought, ‘If I could get my hands on an Elmore Leonard. . . . There’s a twinkle in your eye when you read him.”
Meeting Olyphant -- whose Seth Bullock character on the HBO series was a heavy-hearted, moralistic, upright and conflicted Wild West sheriff -- is to see how drastic acting’s transformation can be. He’s good-humored and wiry, almost boyish despite a few lines of gray in his hair.
The marshal in “Justified” has a significantly lighter temperament than Bullock, whom the actor describes, with a laugh, as being “angry a lot.” But don’t these lawmen have something in common? “Both of ‘em,” Olyphant says blithely, “wear hats.”
The Leonard catalog
Leonard, the 84-year-old titan in suspense- and crime-fiction circles, has become Hollywood royalty for the large number of successful adaptations made from his work.
While as long and honored a career as Donald Westlake’s produced only one clearly great movie, “Point Blank,” and the prolific California noir novelist Ross Macdonald has never been effectively adapted, Leonard has hit the jackpot -- repeatedly. Good to great adapts of his work go back as far as the 1957 western “3:10 to Yuma” (remade 50 years later). They include the 1974 Charles Bronson-starring “Mr. Majestyk” and, starting in the ‘90s, “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight” and “Jackie Brown.”
Of course, not all the films made from his work have been winners, and the series “Karen Sisco” lasted less than a season. But Leonard says he’s always pleased to hear that one of his stories or novels has been adapted. “I’m optimistic,” he says by phone from his Detroit-area home. “When I hear one of mine will go to the screen, I’m glad -- I couldn’t be happier.”
The author, who is an executive producer on the show and praises Olyphant’s performance, says he doesn’t feel the need to fiercely protect the transition to the screen.
“They’re always a little different -- that’s all right, sometimes it’s necessary. You’re dealing with another writer, and he’s got things to say too. I think Tarantino was as close to the book as any have been made,” he says of the novel “Rum Punch” that became “Jackie Brown.”
“Fire in the Hole” (2001), like much of Leonard’s work, is heavy on the kind of convincing lowlife dialogue that’s drawn praise from the likes of Saul Bellow and Martin Amis: He’s especially good on the conspiracy theory-driven assertions of the neo-Nazi characters, which he picked up in research with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I’ve been very strong about using my dialogue for moving the story,” the author says. “That’s been my trademark for 50 years. So I’ve got my ear cocked to the way people talk,” including regional and class differences. “I don’t use a lot of narrative, just dialogue. I’m not an entity in the book, so that you hear me writing.”
Getting it right
Back on the set, cast and crew are pacing up and down York Boulevard, while actor Ray McKinnon, who looks like a hipper Michael Bay, stews in a polished black car, planning to hit Givens by order of a Florida drug cartel.
Yost made a few changes to the original Raylan character to add conflict: On the show, his father is a criminal, not a coal miner who died of black lung disease. The on-screen lawman doesn’t have children, and his ex-wife has returned to Kentucky, so he’s always in danger of stumbling into her.
The pilot, Yost says, was especially close to the original story: “There were scenes where I would literally retype Elmore Leonard. You let Elmore be Elmore: He’s one of the great dialogue writers of our time.”
FX has high hopes for the new show and needs another signature hit to join “Damages” now that “The Shield” is over and “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me” are winding down.
What is likely to make or break the show is the audience’s response to Olyphant, who’s appeared in several films and TV shows, including “Damages,” and until the station went off the air served as a sports reporter on Indie 103. But he’s not had a leading role in television since the 2006 cancellation of “Deadwood.”
Yost was drawn to Olyphant for his lighter roles -- “Live Free or Die Hard,” for instance -- rather than the weightier western epic. “He showed a great sense of humor in that. And Raylan is funny, in a dry, unassuming way. I thought Tim would be perfect for that. He fits the hat.” (In “Justified,” the old-school Raylan wears a Stetson.)
Seth Bullock fans may compare Olyphant’s characters, but to the actor his old show can’t be likened to anything else. “ ‘Deadwood’ was an incredible experience in every sense of the word. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t ask myself, ‘What would David do?’ ”
But when HBO canceled the David Milch series rather abruptly after three seasons, this father of three’s main ambition was “to make some money.”
“My calendar just freed up -- I needed to go to work. The reason I went into this line of work is that I thought it’d be a fun way to make a living. You want an opportunity to play your game.”
Timberg blogs about West Coast culture at TheMisreadCity.com.