Showrunner Michael Dinner on “Justified: City Primeval” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, June 19th, 2024  

Showrunner Michael Dinner on “Justified: City Primeval”

With Composer Mark Isham and Music Supervisor Sarah Bromberg

Aug 30, 2023 Web Exclusive Photography by Jeff Daly/FX Bookmark and Share

Justified: City Primeval is a sequel to Justified, one of television’s most beloved crime sagas. The limited series centers on an older, but still spry, pistol-toting Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), the Kentucky Marshal created by crime writer Elmore Leonard. The eight-episode series combines plotlines from Leonard’s Givens novels with a separate book, City Primeval, which the Marshal did not appear in, but which showrunners Michael Dinner and Dave Andron draw upon to give their protagonist a fresh setting and foe.

Also a writer and director on City Primeval, Dinner had a country music career before pivoting to television. As such, Dinner was well equipped to be a hands-on collaborator with composer Mark Isham and music supervisor Sarah Bromberg (P-Valley) for the song-heavy series.

City Primeval’s Detroit backdrop is grittier than the Deep South-set original Justified. Detroit’s musical legacy becomes a character all its own, as the soundtrack features Motown, The White Stripes and more. Dinner loved bringing music to the fore with Isham and Bromberg. He shared a shorthand with them that drew from two albums he released in the ‘70s: The Great Pretender and Tom Thumb the Dreamer. For his part, Isham is a keyboardist and trumpeter who has released a number of his own albums, along with contributing to a range of films and series from Point Break to Dolphin Tale and A River Runs Through It, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

Clement Mansell aka “the Oklahoma Wildman” is City Primeval’s villain and an aspiring musician. Played with menacing charisma by Boyd Holbrook, Mansell fancies himself a bluesy indie rock star in the making. So much so that after jacking a car in the premiere episode, he pops a demo of his raggedy “Seven Nation Army” cover in the tape deck and begins howling along. Later, in his underwear and a stolen kimono, Holbrook singsthe Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”— instantly making him one of TV’s most memorable villains.

With the series recently concluding in a suspenseful finale, Dinner (joined by Isham and Bromberg) is eager to speak to Under the Radar about spoilers and the potential for yet another Justified follow up. They discuss needle drops in our current age of viral TV music moments, how songs and score spur along character development and world building, and how the music business compares with the television racket.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): In the ‘70s, at the time of you releasing your albums, was it common for musicians to sing along to their own demo tapes, like Clement does?

Michael Dinner: No [laughs]. He’s a particular type of cat. Of course Detroit is not just the Motor City, but also a music city. So music became important to the story, especially through [bartender, ex-jazz musician and Clement affiliate] Sweety [played by veteran character actor Vondie Curtis-Hall]. That led us to the notion of Clement being a wannabe. So my first instinct, which was wrong, was to make him a Roy Orbison wannabe. Which doesn’t make any sense generationally. Also, it’s been done before. But Jack White, being from Detroit, was perfect. Boyd had fun with it.

Clement ends up choosing a life of crime over music. How did you choose a life in television over music?

Dinner: When I was a teenager I’d joke about the three things I wanted to do. One was to be a pitcher for the Yankees. The other was to be John Ford. And the third was to be Keith Richards and jump up and down onstage. When you’re 17, if you’re not the starting quarterback, you’ll try being a rock n’ roller, or singer-songwriter. It was a good way to meet girls. That’s how I started out. I played in bands in high school. Then I started writing stuff, both where I grew up in Denver, and then when I went to college. In my freshman year I played clubs and small concerts up and down the East Coast. I ended up quitting school and moving to California. Eventually, for about six or seven years, I was a staff songwriter at MCA. Then I started recording. It’s actually a really complicated story. But basically after a couple albums, in the middle of recording the third album, I got in a fight with the record company. So I decided to go back to college. And the label didn’t believe I’d do it.

I ended up in film school. That’s the short version of the story. But what’s interesting: working in recording studios is not dissimilar to what I do now. Directing and being a musician work the same mathematical side of your brain. I also learned at a young age how to be a professional, how to perform, how to collaborate. That was kind of invaluable, stuff that I couldn’t really learn early on in film school, but learned as a musician. So, in a weird way, I think that my journey and how I began informed what I do professionally now. It seems like an extension.

What are some examples of how both work the same side of the brain?

Dinner: Not so much in jazz, but in rock and pop, I would say there’s such a structure. There’s a certain rhythm to it. And as a director, part of your job is to find the rhythm of the piece. You have to earn the right to be lyrical. Earn the right to be aggressive. If every shot has a deliberate pace, it’ll be a snooze. You also can’t rat-a-tat-tat all the time. You have to kind of put it in a structural box. That’s the mathematical part of your brain that I’m talking about.

How has that mathematical part of your brain evolved over the years? The first episode of Justified, which you directed, has the famous rooftop confrontation. Then, in the second episode of City Primeval, there’s a great showdown between Raylan and Clement at the hotel. Those scenes bookend each other in some ways.

Dinner: It’s a journey. I’ve done all kinds of material as a director. I always think it looks like it’s made by the same director. But I’ve had people say “You’ve done so much, stylistically.” Hopefully you evolve as a director, if you’re lucky enough to keep working for years. And the way you learn is by trying stuff. You’re influenced by the movies and TV that you’re aware of at the time.

Then there’s just the act of making TV, and the collaboration you have with other people. Hopefully you’re a little bit of a sponge and you’re learning with every project you do. Because when you stop learning, it’s time to stop. And I’m still learning. I mean, I’ll still try stuff and when you do something that you don’t like, then next time around you’ll do something different. When you sometimes do something that you like, you’ll be eager to try it again, and put a new twist on it. It keeps evolving.

And the one thing I love about doing Justified is it’s such an opportunity for a writer or a director or an actor to mix tones. It can be emotional. It can be funny. It can be dark. It can be violent. Sometimes all in the same scene. When you look at that confrontation on that rooftop in Miami, it’s a little bit of all that. The scene with Clement at the end of episode two of City Primeval has less twists and turns, because Raylan’s in a certain place at this point in his life. There’s pure age working on him.

Drama’s about conflict. Whether it’s a guy pulling a gun on a rooftop and counting down, or whether it’s a guy saying, “Get your hands off my daughter.”

It seems like you and the other directors had more toys to play with on City Primeval. There are some great shots, like Raylan hauling Clement into a revolving door, and seeing his head hit the glass from an angle in the door’s center. That rooftop scene on the original Justified was also well directed. But City Primeval looks next level. You have cameras mounted on speeding motorbikes’ wheels. Or even just in cars when the characters have heavy dialogue, and the camera pans from outside. The camera technology has come a very long way.

Dinner: In some ways this show has its own look, rather than being the same as Justified. This really is City Primeval that we catapult Raylan into. Justified was, you could argue, the first chapter of this guy’s life and it takes place in Kentucky. It was a story about how you can’t go home again. This is a different story. It takes place in a more urban environment. I think we let the story grow up. Raylan’s 10 years older. And one thing you find about Elmore Leonard’s stuff is the characters change incrementally. It’s also more grown up stylistically. And there’s more at stake in some ways. I don’t know if it’s more toys to play with, but we made the first Justified pilot more than ten years ago. So the way we shoot, and the cameras we use, are different. The lenses are different. It all has grown.

What about your own growth? On the original Justified you were mostly a director, and occasional screenwriter. Now you and Dave Andron are the showrunners, primary writers, and you directed three of the eight episodes.

Dinner It’s been great for me, and it was a great partnership with Dave. Graham Yost [original Justified developer] was in a deal at Apple so he was like the uncle on this. We would send him outlines, just so we’d know how he felt about them. When I started at film school, I wrote and directed small projects. Then I started working on series and said: “Oh, I don’t have to have this lonely job of sitting in a room and writing. I can work with another writer. When I stumbled into TV as a director on The Wonder Years, I would often write behind the scenes, or rewrite with my partner, who was the head writer and showrunner on that.

Over the years, I’d sometimes write and sometimes I’d supervise another writer. Graham wrote the original Justified pilot. We had a very close relationship. I would be in the room with him as much as I could until we started production. Over the course of the series I would rewrite stuff, and then I ended up writing some scripts, just to have some fun. I like using that part of my brain.

Would that be a different part of the brain than the mathematical part you mentioned earlier?

Dinner: Yeah, I think it is. I think the job of a director is to somehow put everything in a box. And the job of a writer would be more expansive. But I think writers should direct sometimes, so they know what it’s like. And directors should try writing.

It couldn’t have been easy developing City Primeval. Because you’re writing a new chapter, and a lot of the fans’ favorite characters aren’t there this go around. But viewers and critics really enjoy Clement as the villain, even though he had big shoes to fill after Walton Goggins was so masterful as Boyd Crowder on the original Justified. Can you tell me about that?

Dinner: We’re basing this on a book that–even though it’s set in the 80s–is Elmore Leonard’s crown jewel. With City Primeval, he segwayed from Westerns into American crime fiction. People loved it. Sam Peckinpah was going to direct it at one point. So was Quentin Tarantino. There’s great stuff in the book, though it’s dated. This notion of dropping Raylan into it was interesting. Because there’s a character in the book, Raymond Cruz, who is kind of the literary granddaddy to Raylan. So it’s not easy to adapt it and put Raylan into it. But I thought we made the right decisions. There’s great stuff in the book, some of which could be adapted easily, and some we had to to work on and had to be inventive. Some of the stuff in these eight episodes is not from the book at all. It’s our own notions of the story we want to tell.

It started with my first instinct to not have anyone else from the original show. Then Dave and I start talking. We talked about involving Wynn Duffy, because he was from Detroit originally, and came down [to Kentucky in the original Justified] as part of the Dixie Mafia. We talked about Loretta, because she’s such a fan favorite. Every time, it felt forced. Because we wanted to create a world in Detroit. It’s its own story.

But we did keep an open mind to it. Except of course Willa, though she was a baby in the Justified finale. But certainly there are a few characters that appear at the end.

Saving the big cameo for the end makes it feel earned.

Dinner: Dave’s first instinct was to have Walton come back. I had some trepidation. The hackneyed idea would’ve been Raylan struggling to figure out Clement, and visiting Boyd in jail as if he were Hannibal Lecter. Dave agreed that was bad, but he pitched bringing him back at the end, which got me excited. Then we had to see what Tim thought. And more importantly, how Walton felt about it. You know, Walton was originally in the pilot. Some people know, some don’t, but he died in the pilot. They loved him when they tested it, and we kept him alive. And it was a good thing we did. But you know, I think that he felt his character was done. That’s what I thought, too. We approached him though, and he had an open mind. And he just freaked out and loved the scene we wrote so much.

I love Walton, man. It was so much fun to have him back. Our intention isn’t what you think— throw out a cliffhanger so there could be another season. Honest to God, our intention was to have a good time, and we thought: “Well, what if we did this.” But after reading it, Walton was the first to say: “There could be another chapter, couldn’t there?” We’ll see what the network eventually thinks. But yeah, it was a lot of fun doing that.

And yes, it was hard in the adaptation because we didn’t have the characters to rely on from the past. We wanted to make these characters pop. I think the differences between Boyd Crowder and Clement Mansell are interesting, though. Boyd and Raylan mined coal together. They had a familiarity, and even though they got separated, they remained in the same orbit. But for the grace of God, they could have switched places.

Clement, though, is a nihilist. He’s dangerous for Raylan, because Raylan’s a little bit older. I won’t say that he’s slowed down. He’s still good at what he does. But unlike Boyd, he doesn’t understand Clement. So the core of this, I thought, was a really cool story between Clement and Raylan and this lawyer, Carolyn. And then it was all about expanding this world. With characters like Sweety, who I love but who was a minor character in the book. We wanted to really make him the face of Detroit. We had a great time populating this world. Then it eventually made sense for someone to come back, and tell the story of Raylan’s journey. But if we didn’t, also great. Why force the issue?

Especially because you have a deep bench of new supporting players, like Aunjanue Ellis as prosecutor Carolyn Wilder.

Dinner: I love how she’s really formidable. Raylan has met his match the first time he sees her. She dismantles him on the witness stand. And there’s something very real about her. Without hanging a flag on it, this is a story about race. We didn’t want to diatribe. But it is Detroit. It is what it is. And I think there’s interesting stuff between the two of them. I like the relationship between her and her ex-husband too, and her and Sweety, but especially with Raylan. Toward the end, there’s that scene in the bathtub where she’s talking about how she never wanted her house, that was her ex-husband’s dream. There’s interesting stuff there, some of which is talked about and some that’s left as is.

Both her performance and the dialogue that’s written for her do a good job of scrutinizing Raylan and the gunslinger archetype as someone that might have been more glorified in 2010, when Justified started, versus now. What inspired that?

Dinner: It’s not that the world’s changed, but our perception is a little more enlightened. We were concerned about Raylan being a walking anachronism. In some ways he always was, but now especially because of what we’ve seen with police brutality, we wanted the script to be true. But we also wanted to be true to the source material. I think we dealt with what it means to be packing a gun and to be a White guy in law enforcement without making the show about that.

As you said, City Primeval the book is dated.

Dinner: Yeah. In the book Carolyn is White, and it has one of the most brutal endings of Elmore’s novels. In the dialogue between Raylan and and Ray Cruz, we talk about what happened at the end of the book, where he ended up killing this guy. Our story exists in the world that we live in now, though, and we always have to be aware of it. We want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing, but also being true to Raylan and the story we’re trying to tell.

Referring back to Sweety as the face of Detroit on the show. What was it like to collaborate on a character like this, who’s such a gifted bassist?

Dinner: I’d like to tee things up by saying: I think the music is pretty awesome in this. Both Mark’s score and the job Sarah did. It’s funny how it works. Sometimes I would make a temp score, by pulling stuff from scores that I like, some of which will work and some of which won’t. Then Mark and Sarah do their thing. I had songs in mind, like ending with Dwight Yoakam’s “In Another World.” I think Sarah wanted to kill me because of that one.

Then for Mark, the difficulty was that this was a new show. But to a certain extent you have to understand what came before, because some of Raylan’s color existed in the first series’ score. Mark reflected Raylan’s colors, and Sweety’s.

Isham: Michael is one of the greatest people to work with because he loves music and he respects music and he knows a lot about it. Even though he may not admit it, he’s a pretty good musician himself so he can give you really educated, heartfelt, smart notes. They’re not just wild fantasy stuff. It’s realistic, but it’s very driven by story and emotion and all the right things to talk about.

I wrote some music just as the first dailies of the first pilot were coming across. I called the first piece I wrote “A Banjo in Detroit,” because that was the whole idea. How do you take the quintessential instrument that defines the bluegrass, Kentucky world that Raylan has one foot in, but put him in a really rough, tough urban environment? I wrote several pieces that tried to do that. We were pretty successful in finding that tone long before we had to worry about how it fit into particular scenes.

Later, I saw enough scripts to know that Sweety is one badass bass player. What do you do with that? How do you set that up? I tried to make the bass always have a role in the score. Then there were certain cues like the one you mentioned in the club where he’s soloing. Fortunately, I am old enough to remember a lot of the bass players of that generation, like Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller. There are probably five or six of those guys who redefined what bass could do in that world of crossover jazz into funk, soul and even rock. Jaco loved to hit the bass hard and explode the amps and all that stuff. So I wrote a preliminary piece for Sweety so we could get a sense of how he would play and what he could do. I made him play some serious bass, which Michael kept referring to in the script. The kind of guy who almost made it as a musician.

As far as the score goes, I had a leg up because there were colors of Raylan in the original show’s score. We always talked about this as a mashup not only in terms of Elmore’s stories and tones, but also the music.

Dinner: For Sweety, I kept talking about James Jamerson, the guy that played on so many Motown hits. And then you have Clement, who wants to be Jack White, who’s from Detroit. We took all that and put it in the blender.

Bromberg: I had a similar situation. It was clear from our early conversations that music was going to be really important to the show, to the characters, to the storytelling. Detroit, which is obviously known for its rich history when it comes to music, was our backdrop. Aside from Clement and Sweety, we also had Albanian EDM because of the crime family secondary characters. And the casino where [Clement’s girlfriend] Sandy works had a classic rock vibe. It allowed us to paint with a lot of different colors. I love seeing the way it came together. It somehow all works. Even though we’re coming from these different worlds, they’re all tied together as we weave through the story.

Michael is such a great guide. He has strong musicianship, and he’s open. We couldn’t put all of the bigger songs that he wanted in there, but we found some really dope classic soul deep cuts from Detroit. The fact that he was open to placing those songs, not every show runner is like that. That made it more fun and easier to come up with different types of music for the show.

Dinner: Practically, we couldn’t afford a million dollars an episode for music. Some of the stuff Sarah found was obscure, but was the real deal, and I wish I’d heard it long ago. It can make you realize how limited your repertoire is. That’s what was done so well. It’s not only great stuff, but it should’ve already been on your playlist.

That problem solving and researching is a big part of your job, isn’t it Sarah?

Bromberg: Absolutely. We’re always encountering songs we can’t afford or that aren’t clearable for one reason or another.

What was it like trying to clear White Stripes songs? Jack White seems like a pretty particular guy.

Bromberg: It was a challenge. I was very nervous about that one. It’s in the script. I saw it right away. Then it comes back in a later episode. Clement also sings a different White Stripes song when he’s being interrogated. So we had to get both of those cleared up front to make sure, because they tie together throughout the show’s arc. We approached Jack’s camp with all our requests. We sent the scripts, we let him know the whole context. But he was on tour. So it was very stressful getting it all done in time. I was super grateful that our partners at Universal Publishing, his publisher, were able to help us get it over the line. I knew how important it was. That one, and “Kokomo” as well, was challenging. It was also scripted and important to the show.

Needle drops have become such a powerful part of television shows these days, and something that fans really respond to. Were you all thinking about that while working on the show?

Dinner: Not really. I mean you have Sweety with the bar and his monologue about opening a place where he only played the music he wanted to play. The music is important for the characters. Same with Clement.

Bromberg: I agree. The original Justified was certainly not full of needle drops. It was a different story in a different location. There was already so much music just written into the script for City Primeval. But I didn’t think it was going to be like The Bear where we were going to have needle drop after needle drop. I knew it would still be limited. It was interesting to see all the producers accept how much music was in this iteration of the show. I think it was a little tough at first, and there were some moments where we pulled back because it was getting a little bit cue to cue to cue. But I love the way this new version takes it on and still respects the original iteration of the show.

Michael mentioned the Dwight Yoakam song. I thought it fit lyrically, because it speaks to how torn Raylan feels. Did you guys have some interesting conversations about using it? It’s significant, because it plays over the finale’s closing credits.

Dinner: Dwight’s the king of Kentucky. So it made sense to me to use it. I had a meeting with him a couple years ago about doing a project together. I’m just a big fan. We could’ve ended with score, like we always do, but I loved the propulsive feeling of putting it in at the end.

Bromberg: It felt like a full circle moment to have it in there. It tied not only this whole show up, but also to the original version of the show, and the Kentucky-ness of that.

Dinner: It’s also a mashup of a song, just like the show. Not quite rockabilly, not quite country, not quite rock, but all of that.

Do you and Mark have a shorthand, because you both had professional music backgrounds before getting into TV and film?

Dinner: I know enough to make me dangerous [Laughs]. I can at least kind of speak the language, when I give him notes and stuff like that, so that we can really discuss it creatively. It was fun to see the score evolve.

We had a piece of score over Carolyn in Episode Three. She’s sitting outside by her pool, and what we had for a temp score didn’t work. And I said: “I dunno, why don’t you try putting in some jazz?” It turned out to be a marvelous choice, because it gives Carolyn this sophistication, and highlights how she’s this tough chick fighting her demons. Sweety passed that on to her, as her pseudo-Dad. He loves jazz and funk, and he tells a story at one point in the series of meeting Miles Davis, and Miles telling him he has “big ears.”

Bromberg: Both score and sourced music are such effective tools. When you hear the funk, you know you’re in Sweety’s world.

Isham: When I first saw that poolside scene with the temp score, I thought “Holy shit, these guys have lost their minds. They’ve got a Miles Davis song in there where he used a wah-wah pedal with his trumpet! You’re dipping into my world now, I love it. But how is this going to work?” So I just decided I would dive in with both feet and make Carolyn the jazz lover. She would be at that end of the spectrum. And when she has her final moment with her ex-husband, and decides to truly move forward, we bring back the trumpet, which of course is a great instrument for that sort of emotional moment.

Isham: Then we had Sarah’s choices for the rock songs, which were very inspiring. I was wondering about how to incorporate Jack White. A lot of those choices were really great models for me to use rough guitars on the score.

It requires a lot of communication between the three of us, though. We need to know the songs are approved, then we have to make sure the tempo of certain songs are right, so that you don’t over shadow the incoming song or feel squashed by the outgoing song. You have to pick certain things technically and then still be mindful of the scene and the style that you’re working in. But we’ve been great as a team. Everybody communicates really well and that’s the main thing.


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