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New TV drama set in Kentucky but not shot here — yet

Graham Yost hopes that his new television drama set in Kentucky, Justified, will be successful enough that there will be a season two and that some of it can be shot in the commonwealth.

"It was my dream for all of us to go to Lexington and Harlan and walk around and talk to people," Yost says. "Then what happens is, 'That's great, but we have to have the first script written in three weeks.' So time just evaporates. And there's a budgetary thing. It's not cheap to travel.

"But our hope is that in success, that would be one of the first things we would do, just go on a big road trip to Kentucky."

When local audiences watch Justified, which premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the FX cable network, they will certainly hear a lot of familiar names, including Tates Creek Road and Big Sandy Federal Penitentiary.

The show follows U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a character created by iconic author Elmore Leonard, as Givens is sent back to his old Kentucky home after he shoots a man in Miami under questionable circumstances. The pilot episode of Justified is based on Leonard's story Fire in the Hole, about Raylan facing down an old mining buddy who has turned to violent white supremacy.

There were previous Raylan Givens stories set in bigger, more exotic locales, but it was the Kentucky story that caught Yost's eye.

"Elmore had set it up that Raylan came from Harlan, Ky., and had this story where he said, wouldn't it be fun if Raylan went home?" Yost said. "That really appealed to us and FX, where it finally landed; just the notion of doing a series set somewhere other than Los Angeles, New York, Miami or Las Vegas. That's sort of been about it for current TV, and we thought it would give the show something special, something extra. It would be about a part of the country that doesn't get chronicled that much in television."

The promotions for the series have said, "Raylan Givens has a past he'd like to leave behind. Harlan, Kentucky, has a problem."

The pilot takes place in Harlan, although Raylan is based at the U.S. Marshals office in Lexington. The second episode runs around rural Kentucky as Raylan Givens tries to arrest a pair of escaped convicts from the Big Sandy prison.

"It will mostly be set in Lexington," Yost says of the show. "Toward the end of the season, we get back down to Harlan, and the last four episodes of the season are pretty much set in Harlan."

The producer is well aware that Harlan and Eastern Kentucky in general have had big problems with the region's portrayal in national media. A big part of avoiding that, he said, is having a story inspired by Leonard, who also is an executive producer of the series.

"He always treats his characters with respect," Yost says. "He told me he never wrote a character he didn't like, and if a character can't keep up, if they're not sharp enough to engage in dialogue with other interesting characters he's created, he kind of jettisons them along the way. We've tried to make sure our characters are as sharp and on the ball as Elmore's characters."

Yost says Raylan, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a classic Leonard character, along the lines of Get Shorty's Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta in the 1995 movie.

One scene in Justified's pilot where that really shows up is set in Harlan, when a bad guy has a rifle trained on Raylan and the marshal strides toward him, explaining that he pulls his gun only if he intends to shoot to kill. Raylan asks, "Think you can rack in a load before I put a hole through you?"

"His characters are smart and funny, but they're not jokesters," Yost says of Leonard, who also wrote Out of Sight, which established Kentucky native George Clooney as a film star. "They make wry observations of life, and they have an interesting way of saying things, and they go right at things. They don't beat around the bush."

Olyphant, specifically, had Leonard's stamp of approval.

"The joke around here is we cast him because we knew he could wear a hat after his time on Deadwood," Yost says of Olyphant, who has also starred in recent films The Perfect Getaway and The Crazies. "There's a twinkle to him, and he's really charming.

"There's always been this feeling he's a star waiting to pop, and we hope this will do it for him."

And maybe he'll come to Kentucky, too.

Justified's place names will be familiar to Kentuckians as the show begins, but most of the locations won't be. The show sent a crew to Kentucky to shoot some landscape shots for promotions and the main title sequence. But the show's 13-episode first season was shot mostly in California, and the pilot was filmed near Pittsburgh.

Yost, who visited Lexington once for an event at the Kentucky Horse Park, says he and the writers primarily got to know the area through books.

"And we used Google," he says sheepishly. "Tates Creek Road was frankly me looking at a map for a road between Lexington and Harlan.

"We're hoping to get down there or somewhere that looks a little bit more like there than here."