Said Olyphant of his new series: "For a long time I've thought,… (Craig Blankenhorn / Sony…)
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