What Would Elmore Do?
Final Draft contributor John Evans interviews Dave Andron, who co-wrote the recent series finale of the acclaimed FX drama Justified and was a producer on the show from the beginning of its six-season run.
John: What was the catalyst for this career path?
Dave Andron: When I was a junior in high school, we had a substitute teacher in English class and my assignment was to read a story. It’s first period, around 7:30 a.m., and I’m kind of out of it. The story was The Swimmer, by John Cheever. So I started reading it. It’s only a nine-page story and it’s very simple and short, but I couldn’t believe what he had done in only nine pages. I hadn’t had anything at that point in my life affect me the way this story did, for some reason. At that point I was like, “THAT is what I want to do. I want to be able to do that in nine pages.”
John: When did you first read Elmore Leonard?
Dave Andron: I have to admit it came about because of seeing something on the screen, which I guess is fitting because I ended up writing for the screen. I think it was seeing Get Shorty or Out of Sight and I remember thinking, “Who is this guy?” I started reading Elmore’s stuff after seeing one of those movies.
John: What were the movies and TV shows that influenced you growing up, or as a young adult?
Dave Andron: I was a child of the ’80s so for me it wasn’t TV, it was movies. I came of age in that blockbuster era of Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop. Then, in the ‘90s I started to notice the Coen brothers and the indie movement ramping up. I started to backtrack and realized there were things out there like The Godfather, these incredible, epic sagas, but I didn’t get into the auteurs of the ’70s until late in my teens.
Even coming out [to L.A.], I intended to write movies. But looking at the opportunities that were available, TV was a really good option for a writer who wanted to be involved in the process. It was fitting that [Justified executive producer] Graham Yost read my film script and then got a show called Raines [starring Jeff Goldblum] on the air, not long after. He was actually willing to give me a job in TV based on a film script.
John: How did the script find its way to Graham Yost?
Dave Andron: One of the things that’s great about being a writer is that if you have the material and you move to L.A., things will work out. It might take some time to get the first job, but there are people here who are looking for you. I was willing to give the one movie I’d written to anyone who would read it. The script that was given to Adam [Kolbrenner, co-founder of Madhouse Entertainment and Dave’s lit manager] was given to him through a family friend who had gone to NYU with Graham. He read it and gave it to Graham.
Graham, being as sweet as he is, took the time to actually sit down and start reading it. I don’t know if he would have finished it if he’d hated it, but he took to it, for whatever reason. I remember the day that he called and was like, “Hey, it’s Graham Yost.” What a great day that was! Still, I never could have imagined then what it would become. We’ve written a bunch of pilots together, collaborated on a couple of shows. He’s a total mensch and an amazing guy. I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve been surrounded by.
John: So your first job in the entertainment industry was working on the writing staff of Raines?
Dave Andron: Yes, it was a show that didn’t last very long, which was a difficult thing for all of us, but other than the longevity of the first job it was wonderful. I was fully embraced in the room and allowed to get my thoughts and opinions out there. Being a staff writer I was able to get an episode produced, even in a season where we only did six episodes in addition to the pilot. That was my first job and things just kinda kept going from there.
John: What did you do to acclimate yourself to writing for TV, a very different creative process than writing features?
Dave Andron: The arcs for the characters are different, and in a feature you have only two hours to get someone from A to Z. In TV, you just want to incrementally move them along. I read a bunch of TV scripts going in. Obviously watching TV isn’t a huge chore, and I did that as well. I just went into the writers’ room thinking it would be kind of like the writers’ workshops I had gone through in college. I was hoping that my baseline knowledge of story, character and theme would work, and it did. I still had a tendency to over-plot things at that point in my career, but it felt very natural just sitting in the room and talking about characters and story.
John: Sounds like you immediately thrived in the writers’ room atmosphere!
Dave Andron: I love being in the collaborative environment. Part of what turned me off from writing fiction—which all the way through college I had intended to do—was just the idea of being alone in the room with it my whole life. With movies, at a certain point it hopefully becomes a little more collaborative if you are allowed to become a part of the process. But TV is like being part of a really interesting think-tank, with really smart people.
Of course, after eight or nine months of that, when you’re so tired of the checks and balances involved, it’s great to go off for a few months and write a movie and be alone on that island. Though there are still those moments where you’re like, “Boy, I wish I had a room with eight smart people to help me solve this problem, because I don’t know what to do right now.” In that regard it’s like anything else, where you get tired of one thing and then it’s really nice to have the other.
John: How did you come to be involved with NBC’s reboot of the ’80s TV show Knight Rider?
Dave Andron: NBC had been very kind, reading my material and some contributions I had made to Raines. They offered me a blind script deal. The first year Graham Yost and I wrote something together. It was a spy thriller that they did not make, but they liked it enough to do another blind script deal the next year. I had been hooked up through my agents with [producer] Dave Bartis and Doug Liman. Doug Liman, of course, had directed Swingers and Bourne Identity, among other things. I had wanted to do an Iraq hospital show, something like Grey’s Anatomy meets M.A.S.H. Dave and Doug loved it. We went into NBC and Katherine Pope, who was the head of the studio at that time, to pitch this thing very passionately. She said, “Look, Ben Silverman just took over the network and there’s no chance he’s making an Iraq hospital show. Go back and think about something else.”
So I was kind of disillusioned and didn’t know what to do. They called a couple days later and said, “He wants to redo Knight Rider, do you want to take a crack at it?” Doug and Dave and I discussed it, and we decided we could try to do something cool with it. It really came about with NBC putting it out there. At that point I wanted to get a pilot made, go through that process, and get a series on the air. I also thought that there would be a way to pay tribute to something that I did love when I was a kid.
At the last minute we realized it was going to need to be a two-hour pilot, which changed everything. Then the Writers’ Strike happened  and we shot it during the strike, so I couldn’t rewrite any of it. It was an extremely difficult process, frankly. Then when it got on the air, they brought in someone else to run it because I had only been on one show for one year. If it was ever mine it definitely wasn’t after that, but it was a great learning experience.
John: As a writer, what did you learn from the work of Elmore Leonard?
Dave Andron: Graham made up bracelets with “WWED” on them [“What Would Elmore Do?”], and we always went back to that. There were a few guiding principles. One was something in his “10 Rules of Writing,” which was “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” So, if you watch Justified, you’ll see that there’s very little exposition or explaining. We didn’t feel like we were roped into being a traditional procedural in that way. Going forward, I hope I can avoid ever having to write another line of expositional dialogue again.
Another thing was his approach to character. Elmore’s characters were always so unique and idiosyncratic. They pop off the page. And finally, we took the approach to every scene that if you’re going into something really funny, or really sexy, or really violent, you’re probably about to write a pretty good scene.
John: The writing process is a little different on every show. Can you share anything about how the Justified staff broke stories and wrote episodes?
Dave Andron: We did it in a fairly traditional way. Up until we started shooting we broke them in the room, as a group. We didn’t break them with incredible specificity. We were a little more general with regards to the content of a scene. You knew what a scene generally had to accomplish, but we were very rarely writing dialogue on the whiteboard. Then you would go off and have however much time [to write the episode]…
In the last season, we co-wrote everything just because it made the process go along more quickly and it also helped to be able to tag team on set, so we didn’t lose certain people in the writers’ room for long chunks of time.
The thing where we would really diverge compared to most shows is that we would change more stuff “on the day,” or leading up to the day. I think with most shows you get on set and say, “This is the bible, word for word, do it.” We were blessed to have a number of world-class actors who were not only great from their side of the craft, but also knew story and had earned the right to chime in. We didn’t ever blow up episodes once we started shooting, because you can’t, but we rewrote days before or on the day, often, and in a very collaborative process with the actors, which I think is rare in the TV world, mostly because you don’t usually have actors who can do that.
John: This is a show marked by its marvelous dialogue. Which of the characters were easiest to write for, or most challenging?
Dave Andron: I loved writing Dewey Crowe. I loved writing Boyd because of the amount of language and the flourishes you get to use. I loved Wynn Duffy as well, with his wry sense of humor. But I got a real kick out of writing all of these characters. It’s kind of a cop out but I would say that it was always a challenge to make the characters sound unique and special. Every time you sit down to write them, you want to do the show justice, and do justice to its characters. But there was no particular character for whom I would ever sit down and think, “I have no idea what’s going on with this person.”
I think that if you really challenge yourself, it’s always difficult to give every character a point-of-view in a scene and make sure that everybody is saying something very interesting or funny or original.
John: Did Walton Goggins ever look at some incredibly loquacious piece of dialogue and say, “Even I can’t pull this off?”
Dave Andron: Not even close. He and Tim [Olyphant] both — they were capable of jumping in and handling anything. Walton was always pushing us to make Boyd more poetic. He really enjoyed that part of the character. And I did too. I don’t know when I’m ever going to be able to write a character who uses language in that way and is this great hillbilly poet. I’m going to miss it.
John: How long ago was the endpoint of the show decided on, and in how much detail?
Dave Andron: I don’t think we really decided how it was going to go down, specifically, until maybe a month before we started writing that final episode. We had been talking about the end since the end of Season Five and all through the beginning of Six. The goal was to do something that feels unexpected and yet totally true. And I think with all the conversations we had about it, and the place where we landed, we achieved that. There were definitely versions that were pitched months and months before.
John: If Marshal Tim Gutterson was to get a spinoff, what setting would you want him to operate in?
Dave Andron: Gosh, that is a fantastic question. I don’t think I would want him to stay in Kentucky; I feel like we’ve done that story. I would want it to be a world that was very rich with history. Something that meant something to Tim and would tie him into it. Maybe a Texas border town, with the cartels… Maybe we learn he was really a Texas guy?
John: Do you have any suggestions for how writers should approach breaking into television?
The key to the whole thing is just having the material done. When I started out it was still writing spec scripts but from what I gather from my own representation, now that’s not as important as having original material. Write original pilots. If you showcase that you have a voice and can create characters that pop off the page, there are people around here looking for you. With the amount of TV shows that are now on the air, there are a lot of available jobs. Until the business model crumbles, it’s a good time to be a TV writer.
John: How can writers step up their game through study or practice?
Dave Andron: Be hard on yourself as far as the content of a scene, and try to make sure that every scene has as much going on as possible. Your prose is your prose. Nobody is going to hire you because you’re such a beautiful writer if your scenes don’t have tension and drive and propulsion. I do think that twisty-turny story stuff, the cheap stuff, is not really that important. But even if your dialogue isn’t Aaron Sorkin level, world-class, make sure that every line has something specific going on that’s important. And every scene has real subtext happening, where the characters are talking about one thing but something else is happening. That’s what makes a great scene! If you can put together 25 great scenes, you’ll have a pretty good episode of television.
It’s also just being diligent and not afraid to rewrite. Don’t be precious about your stuff. Try to acknowledge when you’ve written something really solid, and try to acknowledge when you’ve written a scene that isn’t as fraught or interesting or driving as it could be. Ask all the hard questions. What does every character in the scene want, and what is making it hard for them to get it? What happens if you take this scene out of your script? Does the script fall apart? Is it super-confusing?
It’s hard to do the work in the first place, but it’s really hard to scrap half the work and go back and make it better. It’s just the process. You just have to work hard and trust the process. Hopefully you enjoy the process enough that it keeps you coming back.
John: What’s your approach to adapting a novel, as you are now doing with Stone Rider?
Dave Andron: It’s funny, you could kind of say we were adapting Elmore Leonard with Justified, but this movie was the first time I was truly adapting a book. I was blessed to have a book that was spare in the best possible way. [Author David Hofmeyr] told a very simple and beautiful story, which is one of the things that attracted me to the book. I immediately saw who these characters were and what was at stake for them. It was mostly just a question of taking all the amazing scenes and work that had been done, and making sure I preserved that. It was very important to recreate the scope of the world and the time and place. Then maybe tweaking some things to make them more cinematic. Obviously part of the challenge [with an adaptation] is losing all the inner monologue, so you have to find ways to dramatize those thoughts for the characters, which dictates some of the work you have to do.
But really, with any adaptation it’s just going in knowing what story you are telling. What are the important themes, what are the things you don’t want to lose? They bought a book for a reason — you want to be sure you keep the tone of it alive.
John: Now that this phase of your career is complete, what would be your dream job, and why?
Dave Andron: Justified has been as close to a dream job as I’ve had. I would like to have my own show on the air. Although everybody says that until you’re in the number-one chair and running your own show, you can’t understand how hectic that is. But to have my own show and be able to pick the people I want in my room, that would be the biggest thing. If I could pluck the writers from Justified and the writers I’ve worked with over the years, I could have a great time doing anything. Ultimately it comes down to the people.
I’d love to do something that had stakes but was funny. I’ve never loved the things that took themselves incredibly seriously. Justified had a lot of humor, in the way that The Sopranos did. Whatever I’m doing, I would always like humor to be a part of it.
Screenwriter and Script Analyst
Based in Los Angeles, John Evans is a freelance script analyst, writer and journalist with 15 years of entertainment industry experience. He is also a podcaster and fantasy football expert. Hailing from a small town in Iowa, John had jobs ranging from grill jockey at McDonald’s to telephone survey-taker and video store clerk before becoming a sports reporter for a Gannett newspaper and event planner for surgeons’ associations. After studying screenwriting at Boston University he moved to Los Angeles and quickly became a trusted asset in the development of feature films and television shows, with stops at The Donners’ Company, Kopelson Entertainment, ABC’s Current Series department, Atchity Editorial International (AEI) and Amazon Studios.