Elmore Leonard, who died today at 87, was not only one of the great crime writers of the day, whose work was the basis of TV and movie scripts from “Justified” to “Get Shorty,” was also one of his home city, Detroit.
“There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs,” he once said.
“Detroit has its natural attractions: lakes all over the place, an abundance of trees and four distinct seasons for those who like variety in their weather, everything but hurricanes and earth-quakes. But it’s never been the kind of city people visit and fall in love with because of its charm or think, gee, wouldn’t this be a nice place to live.”
Once he said if he lived in Buffalo, he’d write about Buffalo, but his love for the city and its Tigers were evident in his spare, sparkling prose that crackled with a dry humor.
He brought that sensibility to “Justified,” as well, a saga that may be set in Kentucky but had its roots in the Motor City as well.
Leonard told reporters at the TV critics press tour in 2010 that the approach came from riding around with cops in the city.
“I spent about 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, well, perhaps they developed this as protection against the things that were going on in their lives all the time,” Leonard said. ” I’ve always wanted to use humor as much as I can because, well, it’s funny, but it’s dry.”
Subtlety is important, he added. “It doesn’t go for belly laughs.”
He recalled a time when director Barry Sonnenfeld was getting ready to do perhaps the most successful Leonard adaptation to date, “Get Shorty” in 1995, “and I said, ‘Whenever anyone delivers a line, a funny line, don’t wait and get somebody’s reaction to it, a laugh or a wink or whatever it might be. Don’t because these guys are all serious.’ And I think it worked because of that.”
The 2005 sequel “Be Cool” was another story. “It didn’t work because they went for laughs all the way through it. It was a dumb movie.”
In adapting the Leonard story “Fire in the Hole” into “Justified,” producer Graham Yost said, “early on, I got these little bracelets for everyone and the writing staff, and it says ‘WWED’ – ‘What Would Elmore Do?’”
Of the “Justified” adaptation, Leonard said, “The best thing about it is that when you write the line and you hear a line and you hear the way it’s supposed to be delivered and then when you see it on the screen and you hear it on the screen and it is the same as when you wrote it, then you know you are in good hands. And that’s happened with this one.”
Leonard said he picked up the name of the central character, Raylan Givens, when he was visiting a book distribution company luncheon in Amarillo in the 1980s where he signed books with a Ninja Turtle and a former Miss Texas. “The Ninjas were doing all the signing, and Miss Texas,” he recalled.