Before The Bullets: An Oral History Of The Creation Of ‘Justified’

The pilot episode of FX’s Justified debuted on March 16, 2010. Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard titled “Fire in the Hole,” it introduced viewers to a shoot-first U.S. Marshal named Raylan Givens, a charismatic and eloquent crime boss named Boyd Crowder, and a collection of other characters from both sides of the law in Harlan, Kentucky. Over the course of its five seasons to date, the show has accumulated critical acclaim and a loyal following, as well as eight Emmy nominations (with two wins) and a Peabody Award. It begins its sixth and final season this week.

With that end in sight, we thought it would be fun to go back to the beginning and look at the show’s journey to the screen from the perspective of the people involved. We talked to some of the key players in the development of the series and the result is this account of how Justified came to be.

The Script

The first time I spoke to Elmore Leonard was after he read the script, and he said he really liked it. And I joked with him “Of course you do, I just totally stole from your writing.”

Written under the placeholder “Untitled Elmore Leonard Project,” the pilot script by Graham Yost, a veteran of film and television whose writing credits include Speed and Boomtown, sought to bring Elmore Leonard’s world of conflicted good guys and smooth-talking bad guys to the small screen. All he needed was a bite from a network, preferably from a fellow fan of Leonard’s work who might share his vision. He found that kindred spirit in FX President John Landgraf.

GRAHAM YOST (Creator and showrunner): I’ve been a long time Elmore Leonard reader. I had read Fire in the Hole, I had read Riding the Rap, so I was familiar with Raylan. I loved Elmore’s world and I’ve always thought it could be a television show, but it needed the right story. And more than that it needed the right character.

JOHN LANDGRAF (FX Networks President): Graham came in with a short story called Fire in the Hole about a character named Raylan Givens who is sent back to Kentucky where he’s from because he has some insider’s knowledge to try to hunt down a character named Boyd Crowder. It’s really about his homecoming. And to me I was really excited about getting back to the Elmore Leonard world because I love it. I love those movies and I love his writing.

YOST: The first time I spoke to Elmore Leonard was after he read the script, and he said he really liked it. And I joked with him “Of course you do, I just totally stole from your writing.”

LANDGRAF: We developed a series called Karen Sisco that was based on the character from Out of Sight, the Jennifer Lopez movie. Carla Gugino played Karen Sisco in the series. Terrific pilot, just a beautiful pilot, directed by the same director who directed Justified, Michael Dinner. So I worked with him on that and as a producer on that show. But what we found was once you got past the pilot, which you could really lavish attention to and really work very hard to attach the view of Elmore Leonard’s unique tone and dialogue and approach to story and character, it really was very difficult to sustain the quality of the scripts thereafter. At least I don’t think we were able to with Karen Sisco.

YOST: When I read Fire in the Hole, there was just this one scene where Raylan’s at Ava’s house. Ava’s upstairs taking a shower and Dewey comes in and Raylan says, “You go outside, you don’t just go into someone’s house without them saying it’s okay.” And Dewey says, “Fine, I’m going to go out then come back in,” and he goes out and gets a shotgun. Raylan goes out and talks him down without even pulling his own gun. He just tells him how his world works and what he does and when and how and why, and he’s able to get Dewey to give up the gun. I just thought that we would have a shot at putting pretty much the coolest character on television out there and that just got me. Okay, I see this Raylan Givens. I think he would be a really fun person to watch.