We’ve talked about the violence and crime and drugs and action on JUSTIFIED, but any successful story always comes down to one factor: character. We sat down in the room recently with Consulting Producer — and seasoned NY theater vet — Gary Lennon to talk about his experience writing for both stage and screen, and the art of creating dynamic flesh-and-blood characters.
Our conversation (slightly edited) went like this:
Besides the format, what do you think the real differences are between stage plays, teleplays, and screenplays?
Well, the forms are all different, obviously, but in a film, you need to show instead of tell. So there are amazing openings of films that are ten to fifteen minutes without any dialogue at all, because there are actual moving pictures telling the story. On stage, because you have a limited amount of space, it’s often through dialogue that stories are told. So, for me, the main difference is that on stage it’s always about the word and the character. And it’s very similar in TV. You can’t just have a stationary scene, so it has to be driven by dialogue. And that’s why I think TV is so great and why you have so much good writing going on right now, because a lot of the writers who are writing for TV are from the theater — are playwrights.
Do you find that writing for TV comes with more or less freedom, in that sense?
I think you probably have more freedom in TV, because you can do anything you want, depending on where you do it. If you’re working on a network television show, you have less freedom, because it’s incredibly restrictive on the kinds of stories you can tell, the kind of language you can use, the kind of characters you can portray.
If you look at the landscape of network TV in particular, they don’t explore blue collar lives very well. It’s always ‘blue sky,’ people with jobs and careers and shit like that. (laughs). They don’t really deal with the lower ranks, which really interest me actually. And that’s why I continue writing plays. I like to explore characters that are broken. I like to explore characters who are on the fringe. I like to reflect on stage pieces of humanity that we don’t normally get to see portrayed in film and TV – particularly on TV.
So, because a play can delve deeper into a character’s dark side, do you feel that TV is only interested in exploring gritty violence as opposed to gritty character?
It depends on the show really. I’d have to say it’s from show to show. Because when I think of some of the best characters on TV right now, they’re on “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” And “The Shield,” which I worked on during the last season, was an incredible exploration of a character who was completely flawed, an antihero. I think that did it really well. But if you’re asking if network TV just wants violence, I would say that you’d probably see more of that — action and plot-driven things happening. With a lot of those procedural shows, which are huge phenomenal hits, [the audiences] are watching stories being told that are very formulaic, and that’s what network TV is usually about.
What do you think is the perfect balance between character and plot momentum?
I think everything comes from character. I think your plot comes from a character. I don’t usually work with outlines — except [on this show], of course, we certainly do. But if I’m writing a feature or a play, I usually come to writing that from a character. It’s almost a sense of purity. I have to find out: who is that person? What does that person want? Then of course, the structure starts revealing itself. So the balance, I would say, is 100% character first. Know your character. Know what toothpaste he uses. Know how he ties his shoes, and how he ties them differently from you. How does he walk? Does he strut? Does he have a bop? Does he talk quickly? Does he talk slowly? Know your character, and then his behavior will come to you because you know him so well.
So do you think you’re in the majority or the minority of TV writers who advocate focusing on 100% character first?
I’m in the minority.
So how do you bring your theater experience into the structure of pounding out four acts and shaping a story into TV format every day?
I think that a lot of shows need writers like me. Because, if they want interested flawed characters who have different life experiences, you’re going to want to bring somebody in who’s really good with character and has these life experiences, so you can make your standard cop who solves a crime each week more interesting. We already know where that story’s going, right? Cop gets up in the morning, he gets dressed, has something bad happen, solves the crime. That gets really boring to watch unless that cop has a demon or a flaw or is conflicted in some way, or has a relationship that seems tortured to him…
So, at the end of the day, I think I’m in the minority, but I think that shows need people like us because we make ordinary things seem extraordinary, I think.
Right. And you, personally, have had a very interesting and colored past. Do you think you need that to write dark characters, or do you feel that everyone has that dark quality in them, and a good writer just finds a way to tap into that?
I feel really fortunate and blessed that I’ve had such a weird upbringing, because it’s actually given me a livelihood. I’m made a living out of my mess, if you will. Sort of like James Ellroy says he feels he’s exploited his life. In the things I’ve sold, I’ve been really fortunate to be able to make sense of my chaos through the things that have happened to me.
And I don’t feel that you need to be a murderer to write a murderer… But I do think that having a life fully lived gives you an expanse to tell many different stories. Like John Huston, the director: the famous story he told is that he went around to all these writing schools and they said to him “oh my god, you’re so amazing and you made so many great films… what should we do?” And he said, “Go to Mexico. Get drunk. And fuck some whores.” (laughs.) Which is amazing, because he was basically saying, “Go live life.”
Because if you come to a writing room, and all you have is a very limited experience that is textbook driven, what do you have to say? … I personally don’t often like when I hear pitches that derive from other movies. “That’s like in this movie, etc.” I’d like to hear about what actually happened to someone. But that’s just the way that I work. It’s different for everybody.
To clarify, though, I don’t think you’ve had to have a terrible life or a dark and mysterious past to write really incredible, dark, conflicted characters. I think everyone has an imagination. I do think, though, that the more experiences you have, the more tools you have to draw from.
Which character on JUSTIFIED do you feel you are most like?
I would say Boyd Crowder. (laughs). Having known me, you may not think that, because we are obviously very different people. But I think I identify with his conflicted spirit. I think he’s someone who comes from a humble background, with a very screwed up family dynamic, and has struggled with many, many demons. And I have as well, in my life – I come from screwed up parents, I’m sober twenty-something years. So I would say Boyd – I find his journey most interesting to me.
What are some of the most remarkable plays you’ve ever seen or read?
For me, one of the most incredible plays I’ve ever read – I saw it, then read it – was a play called Balm in Gilead by the Steppenwolf Theater Co., written by Lanford Wilson. I saw it in NY when I was a young actor. And, as I mentioned, I came from a really poor background, so when I went to go see plays originally, I only saw rich white people on stage with homes, and horses, and estates. And it was very hard for me to see myself reflected in those stories being told. Then I went to see this play called Balm in Gilead, and it took place in this diner (or donut shop), and there were pimps and whores and drug addicts – damaged souls. And when I saw that, it blew me away, because I thought “whoa, you can write about those people on stage?” I could write about that. I know those people. And it really gave me a sense of permission to write about my life experience.