Elmore Leonard first found success as a writer when in 1951 Argosy Magazine published his short story Trail of the Apaches. He continued to write westerns throughout the 1950s and 60s, publishing over 30 short stories.
It was when his novel 3:10 to Yuma was made into a movie in 1957, that the writer became known to a wider audience. Other works of his that have been turned into motion pictures include Be Cool, Out of Sight, Hombre and The Big Bounce.
Now one of his short stories, Fire in the Hole, has been made into a TV series entitled Justified. It spotlights one of Leonard’s most vibrant characters, Marshall Raylan Givens, a tough, soft spoken modern day 19th century-type lawman who, after an incident that puts him at odds with his co-workers, is reassigned to cover the district in Kentucky where he grew up.
You’ve reportedly had some fairly exasperating experiences with Hollywood to the point where you had, I understand, said, ‘Let’s just make the deal, the movie will be the movie, and the book will be the book.’ What is it about Justified that made you feel comfortable in re-involving yourself with the filmmaking process?
Well, I saw the pilot, and I thought it was great. So that was it. I think the best thing about it is that when you write the line and you hear a line the way it’s supposed to be delivered when you see it on the screen, then you know you are in good hands. And that’s happened with this one.
What was the starting point for Raylan Givens? What first caused you to write that character?
It was at least 20 years ago, I was invited to Amarillo, Texas, to talk to a book distribution company. I was the luncheon speaker, and I was introduced by the head of the company, who introduced himself to me as Raylan Givens. I said, ‘Raylan Givens. You’re going to be in a book, probably more than one.’
You’re famous for the humor that you embed into your dramas. Are you able to deal with more serious subjects because you have the humor to balance it out?
Once I spent three or four months with a particular homicide squad in Detroit, Squad 7, and these guys were funny in a very dry way, and I wondered perhaps if they developed this as a protection against the things that were going on in their lives all the time. But I’ve always wanted to use humor as much as I can because it’s funny, but it’s dry. It doesn’t go for belly laughs.
Barry Sonnenfeld was getting ready to do Get Shorty, and I said, ‘Whenever anyone delivers a funny line, don’t wait and get somebody’s reaction to it, a laugh or a wink. Don’t because these (characters) are all serious.’ And I think it worked because of that. And it didn’t work the next time with the sequel. Be Cool, because they went for laughs all the way through it. It was a dumb movie.
Your dialogue is so unique
When you are writing a book and you have to have quite a number of scene-ender lines, a line that really hits hard that’s obviously a scene-ender line, sometimes you can’t think of a good line, but you go on because it’s going to take you at least six months.
Now, as I’m getting older, it takes me a year to write a book. So there’s time in there to come up with a line. So as sharp and quick as you think these characters are, they have to be fed, over months, their lines – but it works.
What exactly is your role with Justified? You are listed as executive producer. Are you giving notes on scripts? Do you ever pitch anything storywise?
I think it’s more honorary than not, but I’m game. I’m ready to come up with anything they want. I’m going to write another short story for sure. And I can see where there are parts of Raylan Givens books that can be used that they don’t have to buy the whole book, just use a little bit here and there.
I can write scenes, but I don’t want to write specifically for what they are shooting or possibly will shoot. I want just to come up with a new idea and give it to them, 20 pages, say, and if they like it, fine. If they don’t, well, don’t use it.