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In many ways FX’s Justified is a television series created with uncommon respect for the source material. In fact, Elmore Leonard, who died on Tuesday, was such a guiding force for those who worked on the series that the very notion they could produce something Leonard would disapprove of drove them to create — and sustain — one of the very best dramas on television.
I immediately thought of series creator Graham Yost after hearing about Leonard’s death. Yost had given the staff little blue rubber wrist bands that had WWED on them. “What Would Elmore Do?” It was, in times of doubt, their guiding principle. I’ve seen Yost at a few events long since he handed them out and joked that he forgot something — only have him slide up his shirt sleeve to reveal the band.
It’s not everyday, in a medium like television that is absolutely a writer’s medium, where you find such abiding love for the person who wrote the source material. I think that’s partly what has made Justified, which was based on a Leonard short story called “Fire In the Hole,” such a fully-formed, fully-realized depiction of character. Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens is superb, and Leonard so loved what Yost and his writers churned out that he kept giving his unabashed stamp of approval. (And beyond that, the show spurred Leonard to write another book — Raylan — based on how much Justified had ignited the character; Olyphant’s image, as Raylan, adorned the cover).
Obviously there have been and will continue to be plenty of appreciation pieces for the talent that Leonard possessed. A lot of films have been made from his work — and not all of them up to his standards or even the expectations of his ardent book fans. But Justified was a true exception.
In January of 2012, FX was presenting a Justified panel at the Television Critics Association press tour, and joining Yost and the cast on stage was Leonard (who had graciously signed copies of his book and had them sitting in front of critics). What came out of that memorable panel was Leonard’s very real and very touching appreciation for the series and those behind it. When he spoke of how great the show was and how astonished he was at what Yost and the writers did to expand the Raylan character’s world view, he wasn’t blowing smoke.
Here are a few telling snippets as we recall not only the man, but how deeply he felt about a project of his that is likely to be long and ongoing at FX:
Leonard on Justified: “I think it’s a terrific show. I love all of the writing, and I’m amazed sometimes that they’ve got the characters better than I put them on paper. They are doing a good job, really a good job … Well, they’re pros, to begin? with. They know what they’re doing. Good ?writing. I think, the writing, I can’t believe it ?sometimes. My god, it’s a lot better than what I? would have written in the scene, you know.”
Leonard on adaptations of his work (and groaning when Yost brought up the movie The Big Bounce): “Oh, god. And they made it twice. ?It wasn’t bad enough the first time … Well, I don’t really remember all? the bad ones. I know The Big Bounce was bad. I? don’t think anybody in the picture knew what it ?was about. The second time it was made they shot it in Hawaii? and they would cut to surfers when they’d run out? of ideas. But when I wrote screenplays, and I haven’t ?written a screenplay since ’93, that’s when I ?said, I’m not writing any more of these. It’s just? work, because you’re working with a studio? executive who really doesn’t know much, if? anything, about writing what works and what? doesn’t. So why put yourself in that position ?when you have to do that?”
Leonard on writing that will be taken from the page and put on the screen: “But? from the very beginning I wanted to sell to the? movies when I started. And so I made it very? visual, as visual as I could, with always from a? character’s point of view, always, and use all the ?characters and find out who they are. And I ?think that’s helped. And I’ve sold, I think, about ?20 to Hollywood. Because from the very beginning ?I’ve been in it to make money. And that’s the way to do it.”
And whether he cared how the adaptation turned out: “Well, of course. I’m writing as ?well as I can. I’m not just turning something in.? No. Why not write for money? I think any writer ?is a fool if he doesn’t write for money. There’s ?got to be some kind of an incentive, in addition? to the product. It all goes together. And it’s ?fun to sit there alone and think of characters and ?get them into action, and then get paid for it. I? can’t believe when writers tell me, ‘Well, I don’t ?want to show my work to anybody.’ Well, what are ?you doing it for? You want people to like it. ?And therefore, you want to get paid for it. Maybe ?I shouldn’t ever say that again.”
Everybody laughed. Long and hard.
And finally, one quick tidbit of a quote that explains a lot about Leonard and a lot about Justified. Yost wrote a line in the pilot where Raylan’s ex says to him: “You’re the angriest man I’ve known.” This prompted Leonard to turn to Yost and say this: “I didn’t understand that, because ?I thought he was very happy with what he was ?doing, shooting a number of people.”
Elmore Leonard will be missed. And the next season of Justified will be anticipated, if for nothing more than a hint of the inspiration the master gave the writers.
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