Set Ways

A couple months ago, I had the good fortune of being invited onto the Justified set. I got several stories out of it for my employer, but haven’t been able to really express what I got out of the experience. This was what I wrote on the plane ride from LA to Chicago (with a few minor edits and additions from subsequent interviews), basically a straight account of my day so I wouldn’t forget anything, but it approximates what I wanted to get out there.

I follow my guide for the day up onto the hill Santa Clarita Studios sits on. We slowly wind through a parking lot containing some strangely old cars and flimsy-looking half-buildings covered in blinking bulbs, and it hits me: We’re driving through the Vegas set.

“HOLD!” a PA or somesuch barks at us. A parade of ’60s-era cars slowly files past us while various extras —chorus girls, casino dealers, and the like—wander around. We park, and while walking to the production office spy a well-built bald man in a suit crossing our path. My guide laughs. “Michael Fucking Chiklis,” he yells.

“No fucking way,” Michael Fucking Chiklis calls back, and the two embrace. Chiklis greets me warmly and recounts how he messed up a take for Walton Goggins just the other day by marching up to the car that contained Goggins and yelling at him to move it. (Goggins confirms the encounter later via phone: “All of a sudden I’ve got Michael Chiklis as a mobster from Vegas inside the car with Boyd Crowder. That is a good conversation. We had more in common than we ever had on The Shield.”)

After a brief stop at the production office, where I’m delighted to find that cutouts of Goggins’ transgender Sons of Anarchy character festoon multiple windows, we’re led onto the stage by the director’s assistant, Eleonore, who is overly accommodating considering I’m The Enemy; she hands me a set of headphones so I can hear what’s occurring on the set, which is obscured by the back wall of a hastily-constructed apartment— not that you would know it was hastily constructed from the set dressing, which is perfect for a grubby small-city apartment. I meet Chris Provenzano, the episode’s writer, and Don Kurt, the director (who’s also been the line producer since day one). I quiz Provenzano about what exactly is happening in this scene and episode (407, titled “Money Trap”). He’s clearly tired; they were shooting until 1 a.m. last night, and on Justified the rule is that the episode’s writer has to stay on set for the duration of shooting. “My two-year-old woke me up at 7 a.m., too,” Provenzano says. “I need more coffee.”

Raylan Givens himself appears suddenly, so quietly I don’t notice until I happen to glance to my left. Olyphant immediately starts talking with Provenzano about the scene unfolding on the monitors before us. He sees my guide and extends a hand, then turns to me. “Pleasure,” he says, and the old-school word choice rings in my ears. He’s got a good grip. His mind is clearly on something else, though, and he quickly turns his attention back to Provenzano and the monitors. He makes a suggestion about something he thinks the actress in the scene— which he’s not in —should do. “That was in the script,” Provenzano offers. “God, when the fucking actor has to back up the writer…” Olyphant snarks. “I thought you had all the power, man.” Most sentences contain at least one of the seven words you can’t say on television, which makes him instantly likeable.

At one point, Olyphant goes into the apartment set to confer with the other actors. He laughs often, long and loud, and jokes around with the director, with the crew, with anybody within reach. When he returns, he carefully watches the monitors, grimacing or nodding at what’s in front of him. “It’s not working,” he mutters before going once more unto the breach and continuing to “earn that producer money” as exec producer Graham Yost puts it later.

In the meantime I talk with Provenzano and Eleonore and Charlie Almanza, the retired Chief of the LA Marshals who consults on the show. Almanza is a font of stories from his 30-year stint; he tells me he and Olyphant talk every day. If Almanza’s not on set, Olyphant calls him, day or night, and he answers. Sometimes it’s little questions, like what Almanza would do before entering a particular situation. Other times Almanza gives them story ideas: In season one’s “The Lord of War and Thunder,” Raylan pretends to be a down-on-his-luck yard worker in order to get a look inside a house that might be hiding a fugitive. “I actually did that,” Almanza says. “I got my guy, too.” Other times Almanza will bring former colleagues to the set. The last one he brought, one of his deputies he admits reminds him of Raylan, had such an interesting story the writing team’s thinking of centering an episode around it.

It takes less time than anticipated to wrangle Olyphant for a real interview. We walk through the soundstage and out back to where the trailers are; he holds doors open like the gentleman he apparently is (at least to overeager reporters). We talk about Raylan’s tough year, how his ex-wife left him again– this time for an alcoholic former FBI agent on The Following.

We reach his trailer. I don’t know where to look: at the unfamiliar mountain vista that draws my gaze, or at my admittedly handsome subject, the one with eyes whose color you can’t quite be certain of, you only know they gleam gold in the late-afternoon light. He senses my dilemma. “It’s my first time out here,” I explain. “Enjoy the view!” he says. “It’s gorgeous today.” It really is, too: high 60s, maybe, not a cloud in the sky.

We stand in front of his trailer, taking in the arid yellow mountains that seem almost close enough to touch. He’s even leaner than he appears on screen, pure California in torn jeans— aviator shades hanging on his left pocket —and a royal blue and white long-sleeve tee that says “Sweet!” on the front in cursive. A light breeze sweeps his slightly too-long hair in the exact direction he doesn’t want it going, so he frequently runs his hands through it. When he’s not doing that, his hands find themselves in his pockets, unless he’s trying to make a point. Then his fingers curl and uncurl, wave and pierce the sky; he’s particularly fond of the index-and-middle-finger jab. He wears his wedding ring on his right hand. I ask him if, given how hands-on he is with the production, he’d like to direct an episode of the show. “Psh,” he says mock-dismissively. “Who would I say, ‘That’s not the way to do it’ to? Why would I take that away from myself?!” Getting a little more serious, he says the hours would be too much for him.

At one point he stretches out languidly on the steps of his trailer, and it comes to me that there’s an innate confidence in his every gesture, a sureness in the way he holds himself, that is at the same time not the least bit intimidating. He’s the first to admit not all of his ideas work, and expresses incredulity at the fact the producers listen to his input at all. It’s not self-deprecation, exactly, but close enough to dispel any idea that this guy buys into his own hype. We talk for nearly half an hour, about the show, a couple other projects, his kids. I point out that Raylan tends to run all the women in his life off; maybe he’s got a Taylor Swift problem. This observation is met with a blank stare, followed by a frank, but not unkind, “I don’t know what that means.” I explain that she dates a slew of men, then writes break-up songs about them doing her wrong; maybe the common denominator there is her, not them. He laughs and concedes that might well be the case with Raylan.

Eventually, he realizes that he has to get into costume, and I take my leave. He smiles and says he can’t wait to read the story, then catches sight of someone walking our way. “Don’t hurt yourself, Jerry,” he calls out. It’s the stunt guy he’ll be chasing through a window later.

After a brief tour of the Lexington Marshals office, I head back to the soundstage. Olyphant reappears maybe half an hour later; it’s hard to keep track of time on the stage. But whereas before he was just another California native, if an unduly attractive one, now he’s been transformed: hair slicked back; the dark non-designer jeans, shirt, tie— clean but clearly worn —and brown boots that mark no character but Raylan Givens. Someone brings him The Hat; he settles it onto his head in a practiced motion, and the transformation is complete.

I talk some more with Almanza, who gives me a few more examples of stories of his that have made it into the show. Another first-season episode featured a convict (played by Olyphant’s fellow Deadwood alum W. Earl Brown) who takes a hostage and holes up in the Marshals’ office; Raylan defuses the situation by offering the prisoner the best fried chicken and bourbon in Lexington once a day for the duration of his appeal. “In my case, it was burritos,” Almanza says.

Olyphant, in between takes, comes over to the monitors and notices us talking. “Did you tell her about the burritos?” he asks, tipping his hat back. The two banter about the burritos, if they’re worth it, etc. We shoot the shit for several minutes; he has to be reminded by the director that, though he’s not on camera for the shot they’re trying to get, his costars would appreciate his presence on the set. “Fine, fine,” he grumbles good-naturedly before ambling off. He returns in less than a minute. “Forgot my fucking gun,” he sighs. Almanza clucks his tongue at Olyphant: “A Marshal never forgets his gun,” he chides, though he’s smiling. Olyphant just smiles back, claps him on the shoulder, and drops a few more f-bombs.

In the scene, Raylan bursts into the apartment, gun drawn, to defuse another hostage situation. Olyphant is tireless in his zeal to get everything just right, moving cameramen to and fro, asking the actress to run towards the camera in a certain way, suggesting a different angle. I see now why he doesn’t want to direct: he already does, in a fashion, but this way he doesn’t have to deal with the same intense workload.

While they’re setting up the big window-shattering stunt Olyphant hinted at earlier, he meets with Provenzano and a couple other producers to chat about a scene in an upcoming episode. Elmore Leonard‘s dark, wry humor is something Olyphant and the writers spend a lot of time thinking about, trying to inject a little of it into every scene. He tosses out a variety of story suggestions, and when Provenzano offers up a punchline for one of them, he cracks up so thoroughly his eyes are reduced to slits, with one hand extended in that double-finger point. He repeats it several times, until he can barely speak. But when he’s called back into the apartment a minute or two later, he’s back in Raylan mode.

Six o’clock comes; time for the union-mandated lunch. And just as suddenly as he came in, he’s gone again.


2 responses to “Set Ways

  1. Joey Jo Jo Jr. Shabadoo

    What did he have to say about Raylan being left by Winona? And will he ever get a hair cut?

    You have the coolest job by the way.

    • It really is the coolest job; I go in with a smile on my face every day. Olyphant called Winona the love of Raylan’s life and said her leaving is a big motivating factor for him to solve the Drew Thompson mystery. (But slightly more eloquently than that.)

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