Metro-East Living

‘He was always writing’: Belleville native now a writer on FX’s ‘Justified’

Growing up, Keith Schreier liked reading, writing, baseball and anything related to Star Wars.

But he liked writing best.

“He was always writing,” said mom Sandy, “always drawing pictures to go along with his writing.”

When Cathedral Grade School teacher Sharon McCormack asked students what they would grow up to be, Keith wrote that he would be a movie writer living in Los Angeles with five kids, two mansions — one for his parents — and a limo.

“I still have that paper,” said Sharon, pulling out a looseleaf copy from 1983. “There are certain kids that stand out. He was an excellent student, so well-behaved. You have an idea this might happen.”

Keith got his prediction partly right.

The Belleville East grad, who now lives in the L.A. suburb of El Segundo, is one of the writers for FX cable’s “Justified,” a critically-acclaimed show created by Graham Yost and based on crime writer Elmore Leonard’s character, Raylan Givens.

Raylan (Timothy Olyphant) is an old-school U.S. marshal in the poor, rural coal-mining area of eastern Kentucky where he grew up. He has his own Wild West-style of upholding justice, putting him at odds with criminals he hunts and his bosses in the U.S. Marshals’ Service. The show is in its sixth and final season.

Keith co-wrote the episode “Fugitive Number One” that airs Tuesday, March 31. He’s been a writer assistant three seasons and a staff writer this season.

“I’ve been (with) ‘Justified’ for four seasons. It’s a well-respected show.”

“Does the character Boyd die?” his mom asked when Keith was home recently.

“He knows how it ends,” said Dad Tom. “He’s not going to tell us.”

The Schreiers do know that Keith, the oldest of their four children, is doing just what he wants to do.

“When you say you want to be a writer and go off to Hollywood, are the odds going to be with him or against him?” Tom said he wondered when Keith left.

He beat the odds.

“I only planned on staying two months,” said Keith. “Now, it turned out to be 20 years.”

To get a feeling for “Justified,” Keith has read 32 of Elmore’s 40 novels.

Getting started

Keith has come a long way since “The Tiny Bear Goes to the Fair.”

The handwritten grade-school story was in a scrapbook, opened on a coffee table at the Schreiers’ East End home.

A story he wrote in high school impressed Belleville East creative writing teacher Joann Hoffman.

“She would show it to her students,” Keith said of “Indiana Jones and Sword of the Ninja.” “If you want to be a writer, it gives you a nice little push.”

Keith emceed a high school variety show and acted in college plays and always knew he wanted to work in the entertainment industry.

“It took a little bit of time,” said Keith. “I went to BAC (Belleville Area College). From there, I went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. I applied to NYU and UCLA, but didn’t get in. I thought you needed a fancy degree to work in movies or TV.”

A college teacher recommended him for an internship soon after he graduated.

“I moved out to Los Angeles with a group of 30 students,” Keith said. “I was an intern on ‘The Young and the Restless.’ From there, I worked a number of temp jobs.”

Keith’s original aim was to write for movies because that’s what he adored. He learned he would have more say as a TV writer, that he would be on the set as scenes were shot and he would be able to give input. “Movies sell scripts and directors take over,” he said.

“I was a good writer in grade school through college. I came to L.A. and realized there are a lot of good writers. I wasn’t a great TV writer, but I had the core talent to do it.”

As a member of the Writers Guild of America, he’s among thousands who do what he does.

As a writer assistant, he takes notes that writers refer to for ideas and dialogue.

“It’s a difficult job, but because of that, I got to know exactly what the job was all about. It’s like being in the minor leagues.”

Like a minor league player, Keith also needed an agent.

“It’s hard to get a job without an agent and hard to get an agent without a job,” he said. “Working as an assistant for Paramount, I got to know a lot of assistants.”

Paramount gave him his first TV gig in 2006 on “South Beach.” His first writing credit came in 2009 when he got co-story credit for Episode No. 110 of “Tilt,” of the A&E show “The Beast.” Keith also worked on the first season of “Breaking Bad’ and was script coordinator for the first season of “The Good Wife.”

The process

“When you start out — our first season was 13 episodes — you break down what’s going on in each individual episode on a big white board,” said Keith. “It takes a month.”

Sometimes, he adds personal connections.

“They’re fun little Easter eggs we put in there, hidden inside jokes.”

Look for a sign above a door on the “Justified” set that reads “Schreier Real Estate Office.”

“The show has Western overtones,” said Keith. “The bad guy this season, who carries a gun all the time, imagines himself like a gunslinger. We named the gun Jenny.”

After Keith’s girlfriend, Jen Goaring, who visited the set earlier this year.

“I was very excited,” she said. “When I was out watching him work in January, I got to watch them shoot the scene where the gun came into play.”

She also got to meet and have a photo taken with Sam Elliott, who plays gangster Markham.

“He really is scary,” said Tom Schreier, Keith’s dad.

Keith collaborates with nine other writers.

“If you have an idea for an episode, you pitch it out. If it gets traction, it will become an episode.

“When I start a scene, OK, I don’t know what I am going to do. Everyone has his own writing process. I write out a scene without thinking about it.”

He then reworks it, comparing the process to that of a sculptor.

“It will start as a big block of concrete. I start chipping away, and make a statue out of it.”

Among Keith’s favorite shows are “Breaking Bad,” and “The Good Wife.”

“They’re the best of the best. ... There are very few I will watch week after week. ‘Walking Dead,’ ‘Madmen’ and ‘Game of Thrones.’”

He tries to watch one episode of every single drama that comes out.

“You have to keep up,” he said. “You have to be able to say, ‘I have seen that’ or have an opinion about it.”

Keith was in town because he had just finished “Justified.”

“Right now, I’m technically unemployed,” he said. “I’m between shows ... Then, I find another job, go onto another show, and hope it lasts.

“Friends of friends will recommend you. You develop a virtual rolodex of people. The more you work, the easier it gets.”