Nothing can top FX’s Justified, which is the best show currently on television – except for the chance to see how the near-perfect drama series comes together.
It’s Monday morning in Newhall, CA – the oldest district of the city of Santa Clarita, and less than two miles from the California Institute of the Arts, where I went to school a decade ago. The call sheet I’m handed when I arrive at the shooting location tells me that everyone else has been here – a nondescript suburban block that could be anywhere – since 6:30 at the latest. Suddenly, my 8 AM wake-up call doesn’t seem so bad.
On this particular day, we’re shooting scenes from the season finale (episode 213), entitled “Bloody Harlan.” I’m cautioned not to reveal any spoilers for unaired episodes, but I couldn’t even if I wanted to. There are only five scenes scheduled for the first unit today, a sixth if time permits. Shooting call was at 7 AM, and things can run as late as 10 PM. That’s fifteen hours, typical for a production day on a one-hour drama series. It’s quite humbling to be reminded that what ends up being minutes on film to you and I is the result of several hours of hard labor for the dozens of people around me, from the director to the guy who’s walking around with eight different colored rolls of tape so he can lay down appropriate marks where necessary.
And there are literally dozens of people. While there are at least a dozen of them trying to set up the next shot, I’m encamped with at least ten other crewmembers, all of whom I’ll get to know by the end of my afternoon. All of them are hard-working, good-natured people who don’t mind that there’s a reporter in their midst geeking out over all the details. They’re incredibly welcoming, finding me the best place to observe every shot, erecting a sun shade to keep me from glare and sunburn (although I don’t so much tan as reflect, to steal a phrase from one of them), and making small talk with me about whatever crosses our minds. It’s clear that I’m a welcome guest amongst their organized chaos.
It’s obvious how they’ve crafted Justified into such an amazing series; the attention to detail is impressive, even by the high standards of most TV crews. I watch them have to reset a minivan at least five times to get the appropriate coverage – and when I say “reset,” I mean that they actually check to make sure it’s back in the appropriate spot, down to the millimeter. Later on, there are other discussions about appropriately timing the closing of a car door so it doesn’t ruin the recording of dialogue, and which direction said car should exit the scene. These are all little details that probably don’t even cross the mind of the average viewer, but the crew has to consider them. By the time I’ve been there fifteen minutes, they’ve brought up at least five things I would have overlooked.
As she finishes for the morning, I’m able to get a few minutes with actress Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Loretta McCready. She’s among the most well-spoken child actors I’ve ever worked with. How was spending all that time in the trunk of a car in the season premiere? “It wasn’t too bad. They’d do one take and I’d be in there for like five seconds,” she reveals. “And then they’d take me out and get me out of the tape and everything.”
She has nothing but praise for the series, which has turned her into a fan. “It’s amazing. I’ve said to everybody that this is my favorite show that I’ve ever been on. This is like one of my favorite shows to watch now.”
Next on the to-do list is shooting one side of a phone call between a Lexington police officer (played by Mark Atteberry) and Raylan. With Timothy Olyphant needed elsewhere, it’s up to a member of the crew to read his side of the conversation. Needless to say, it lacks the same gravitas, but it gets the job done. I’m more fascinated with how the sequence has to be shot at least a half-dozen times, as cameras get coverage from at least four different angles, plus there are discussions about how the actor and the people in the background should move and when they should move. As a viewer, you think this is the kind of stuff that no one will notice or care about, but to the crew and director Michael Dinner, even the smallest choices are important. After the third take, even I start to realize the difference, able to hear the sound and emphasis in each run-through of the officer’s lines. There’s a pause there that wasn’t there before. There’s a different inflection to that word that he didn’t use last time. If they go with that take, it’s going to come across like this, as opposed to the one before it. It all starts to make sense.
Timothy Olyphant and Natalie Zea join us after lunch. Given how many superlatives I go through in trying to describe Olyphant’s performance every week, I’m particularly interested in seeing him work up close and personal. How does he do it? He shows up on set, takes a quick look at his lines, and he’s good to go. The secret of his success is that he’s far from passive: he’s there and you know he’s there. He’s not afraid to change a word, add a pause, or otherwise manipulate his dialogue. He has discussions with the crew about blocking the scene appropriately and what they expect of him. I never get the sense that he’s just going through the motions, even as we do so many takes for coverage that I’ve memorized the lines and am now repeating them in my head alongside him. This is a perfect example of why he’s a producer as well as the star – because he’s completely present and invested.
Natalie gets the less exciting assignment: spending most of her time in the passenger seat of Raylan’s car (which at least allows her to have lunch between takes). When she has a few minutes, she’s more than willing to come over and chat with me about everything from Winona’s character arc to her guest role in the “Hondo Field” episode of Law & Order: Los Angeles. How did that come about? “They needed somebody immediately to do it.”
As far as Winona, she tells me that you’ll see a lot more of her coming up. “[Episodes] 206 and 207 are my episodes,” she tells me. Talk naturally turns to Winona’s affair with Raylan, for which she offers an explanation that makes perfect sense, despite my dislike for the plot. “Otherwise, I think it would have been really difficult how to organically make the character work in the world, without having a major connection to him. I think that was kind of the only way to go.”
Where would she like to see Winona go from here? “That’s a tough one,” she admits. “I’m so close to the character and the project that it’s so hard to see the big picture.”
I’m also pleasantly surprised that she remembers me from a brief meeting three years earlier, when she was on the Dirty Sexy Money panel at PaleyFest. She knows exactly what I said and compliments me on what had to have been the geekiest moment of my life. It makes me feel a lot better about myself. And as much as I may dislike the character of Winona at the moment, I have nothing but love and respect for Natalie, who is a true class act.
By 2 PM, I’m sitting behind a monitor with cinematographer Francis Kenny, talking about how most of this will go over the heads of the general audience. He’s happy to share space with me and ensure I can see just as well as he can. I’ve got a set of headphones that allow me to listen in to everyone else’s chatter – including how someone finally figured out how to program their DVR from their iPhone. This is the kind of stuff that makes it all worthwhile, what you remember long after you’ve moved on to the next episode or next TV series – the anecdotes, the jokes, the monitor that dies. As one crewmember tells me, he had offers to work on other series, but he chose Justified because he loves the show. And that’s a sentiment that I’m sure is shared by many of his colleagues.
Spending time with the crew gives me even more appreciation for a show I already love; I share their passion and appreciate their talents. That’s the real story to me, not the plot, not the spoilers, but how all these people come together to make something so awesome. When you’re watching tonight’s episode – or any episode, for that matter – take a moment to think of the hundreds if not thousands of crew members who make it possible. To you, they might be just names on an ever-shrinking credit crawl, but without them, we wouldn’t have such a great show every Wednesday. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to think of a TV landscape without Justified.
Catch a new episode of Justified tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.