The FX series Justified, which is in its sixth and final season, is based on the novella Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was an executive producer of the series until his death in 2013. The show's creator and showrunner, Graham Yost, says he has made it his mission to stay as true as he can to Leonard's vision and storytelling style.
"Ultimately I look at this show as Elmore Leonard's show, and we're all in service of him and his view and his way of writing and creating these characters," Yost tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So whatever feels like it works within that world is something we're open to."
Set in Harlan County, Ky., which is coal mining country, the story revolves around two men who have known each other since they were in the mines together as teens: Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, and Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. Raylan is now a deputy U.S. marshal and Boyd is an outlaw whose criminal activities include robbing banks. Raylan wants to move to Florida to reconnect with his ex-wife and their 5-month-old child, but first he wants to bring Boyd down, which means catching him when he pulls off his next heist.
The show is violent, but Yost says he and the writers have to walk a line to keep the network happy.
"Elmore's world is a violent world," he says. "In the best Elmore scenes, you think that something is either going to take a hard turn into romance and some kind of liaison, or it's going to take it the other way and go into violence. There's often something oddly humorous about the violence in Elmore's movies and in his books."
The show relies so heavily on Leonard's vision that Yost says fans who want a peek into how the show might end should read Leonard's works.
"Not because that will tell you how the series will end," he says, "but because it's always a good idea to read some Elmore Leonard. But there is, in his world, a certain way of ending things, and we aim for that."
Yost is also a producer of the FX series The Americans.
On the character of Boyd, who starts the show as a white supremacist
It's more interesting to me if [Boyd] is using the skinheads as cannon fodder in his desire to rob banks. And ... in the pilot, Boyd doesn't go into the bank, he sends two other guys in. He blows up a car first to distract the law enforcement and then drives up to the bank [while] two other guys go in and do the dirty work and come out with the money. I just liked him as this character who was manipulating other people.
When we decided to keep Boyd alive, that was a big decision. When we shot the pilot, Boyd was dead at the end of [it]. And then we tested the show and we had all just fallen in love with Walton [Goggins] and the chemistry between Walton and Tim [Olyphant], so we decided to keep him alive.
So what emerged was the notion of this character, Boyd, as being someone who will come up with a new scheme, a new way of looking at the world, and he'll seem to totally believe it. But it can be very different from what he had been doing in the past.
On creating authentic bad guys
We didn't do any research down in Harlan before we started writing the first season. But between the first and second season, a group of us — I think five or six of the writers and [the producers] — we all went down to Lexington and met the marshals. And then we went down and spent a few days in Harlan.
And one of the first things we heard — I remember [we] were out on an ATV tour up in the hills, and one of the guys [said] that he recognized a lot of the characters that we had created in the first season, and that gave us a big collective sense of relief that we weren't so far off the mark.
Again, we were always trying to apply Elmore's rules of making characters interesting and having them speak well and be smart and clever. Yes, we've filled that part of the world with a lot of bad guys, far more than there actually are, but I was always hoping that people in Harlan would view our show in the same way that people in New Jersey view The Sopranos, which is, "OK, it's not reality, but it's fun." We didn't want to ever insult people so we always tried to keep our bad guys pretty clever. I think if you create a lot of stupid characters, that's insulting, but if they're interesting bad guys, I think that's sort of fun.
On the "verbal fireworks" of the show's dialogue
I think to a degree over the course of the seasons we've kind of gone farther even than Elmore might have into the colorful nature of the language. But I have to say, we just had so much fun doing it. [The] particular line, "You're a card in fate's right hand," that's [writer] Chris Provenzano — I can see his fingerprints on that one. ...
There are certain characters, specifically Boyd — Boyd is just a blast to write. There was a line, in fact, that I wrote in season four where a character says to Boyd, "Man, you'll use 40 words when four would do." It can be a bit of a trap for writers — we can kind of get into it almost too much and have to peel it back a little because we don't want to go way over the top, although I'm sure at times we have. But it's a great freedom.
On working with Elmore Leonard
[Leonard] had spent probably 10 years in the '60s and '70s writing screenplays for Hollywood and he got out of that business because he didn't like getting notes: ... change this character, move this scene around, do this, do that. ... So he lived by that: He didn't give us notes. The only tussle ... we had over the pilot was the hat — that he saw much more of what's called a "businessman's Stetson" on Raylan, basically the kind of hat that the troopers were wearing escorting Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him. We tried that hat on Tim and it just didn't look great — it didn't look as [good as] a more regular cowboy hat did. That was about the only big fight we had with Elmore on the whole thing.
I joked with him after he had seen the pilot and he really liked it, and I said, "Of course you really like it, 90 percent of the dialogue is from you." Because I felt if you're going to adapt Elmore Leonard, [you should] use as much as you can of him.
On how Justified will end
I was on a showrunner's panel several seasons ago and [Terence] Winters [of Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos] was talking about Boardwalk [and] said he wanted Nucky to live long enough that he could go into a New Jersey diner and kill Tony Soprano. I said, "I don't know how Justified is going to end, but I think I know what song is going to be playing somewhere toward the end." ... We got hooked on playing this great country song "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" — we used it at the end of the first season and the second season, I think we skipped the third season, but we know that will play a part of it. ... It's just the question of who will live and who will die.
Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter in her late twenties who's just released her first full album. It's called Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Barnett fills her songs with details about things she observes around her, everyday details that Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says she somehow manages to infuse with a freshness rare in any songwriter, let along one this young.
Who doesn't love a good ghost story? The unseen hand moving a cup or the shadow climbing a staircase promises an existence beyond our mundane realities. Hannah Nordhaus's new book American Ghost is an offbeat mish-mosh of memoir, cultural history, genealogical detective story and paranormal investigation, but it opens in the classic manner of spooky tales — with a sighting.
Late one night in the 1970s, a janitor was mopping the floor in a grand Victorian mansion in Santa Fe that had been turned into a hotel called "La Posada," or "place of rest." He looked up and saw a white-haired woman standing near the fireplace. She was dressed in a black gown; she was also translucent. Soon the white-haired woman was spotted everywhere in the hotel, along with attendant eerie phenomena like cold spots, swaying chandeliers and disembodied voices. Disturbances, though, were centered in one room — the bedroom of the former mistress of the house, a woman named Julia Schuster Staab. To this day, Nordhaus says, Julia Staab is Santa Fe's most famous ghost; she also happens to be Nordhaus's great-great-grandmother.
Ever since she was a child, Nordhaus says, she's been fascinated with her restless ancestor. The enigmatic figure of Julia Staab has materialized, not only within the confines of La Posada, but also in novels, histories of the Southwest and as a star attraction on "ghost tours" of Santa Fe. Rumors about Julia's life abound: in some versions, she's a Gothic madwoman tortured by the loss of a child; in others, she's a feminist icon, protesting her fate as a bride in an arranged marriage shackled to a tyrannical husband. As Nordhaus points out, Julia's ghost story, like the mansion that once was her home, has been remodeled over and over to suit changing fashions.
Nordhaus, who (skeptically, sort of, maybe) believes in ghosts, sets out on what she calls "a metaphorical and literal" ghost hunt. She wants to "disentangle ... the flesh-and-blood" [figure of her great-great-grandmother] from the ghost." In order to do so, she employs the tools of the historian (such as immigration rolls and journals), the tools of genealogy and the more woo-woo services of psychics, tarot card readers and dowsers. In her introduction, Nordhaus promises that, once she's fortified herself with as much knowledge of Julia as she can glean, in order to figure out why she might be sticking around, she'll spend a night alone in that bedroom in La Posada — a narrative teaser if there ever was one.
I said that American Ghost is an offbeat mish-mosh of a book: that's part criticism; part compliment. The book is stuffed with background digressions — some (like the history of the Fox sisters and the Spiritualist movement that swept America after the Civil War) read like filler that should have been trimmed. The most compelling sections of Nordhaus's book, however, are the moments when she unearths traces of Julia Staab's life. Staab was 21 — a daughter of a well-off German Jewish family — when she left the Old World and traveled with her bridegroom, Abraham (a dry-goods merchant), to her new home. Here's how Nordhaus evokes her great-great-grandmother's journey via stagecoach on the Sante Fe trail:
"The seats were stuffed with hay to keep contusions to a minimum, but it wasn't much help, with the wheels jolting over ruts and pits and stones. ... Hay lined the floor to warm Julia's feet, and buffalo robes warmed her lap. To keep out the cold air, the side flaps were fastened. Julia rode in the dark."
An adobe hut welcomed Julia at the end of the trail, eventually to be replaced by that grand mansion, which would be filled with seven children. Nordhaus vividly summons up the larger world of German Jewish merchant families in the Southwest and delves into Julia's particular friendship — or, possibly, love affair — with the Catholic Archbishop in Santa Fe, who would later be memorialized in Willa Cather's famous novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Fortunately for Nordhaus, she obviously hails from a family of packrats: her book is graced by excerpts from a diary kept by one of Julia's daughters, family letters and several atmospheric photos of Julia herself.
At the end of Nordhaus's own trail awaits that night of reckoning in Julia's bedroom. Something does happen there, but my lips are sealed. Whether you believe in ghosts or are just intrigued by their persistence in popular culture, American Ghost is itself a haunting story about the long reach of the past.