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Creative Minds: 'Justified' showrunner Graham Yost

February 27, 2012 |  8:30 am

Timothy Olyphant, Graham Yost, Walton Goggins
“Justified” executive producer Graham Yost talks about his Nickelodeon days, adapting Elmore Leonard for TV and the fear of repetition.

Everyone has a different path to becoming a show runner. How did you end up wrangling the folks on “Justified”?

I started out in television working for Nickelodeon. And then I worked on some half-hour comedies. I got into some features with “Speed.” Then I got back into television with [HBO miniseries] “From the Earth to the Moon.” My TV agent would ask me every year if I had anything to pitch. In 2001, right before Sept. 11, I said, “Yeah, I do.” I pitched “Boomtown,” and that sold, and because of my experience as a producer on “Earth to the Moon” and because of “Speed,” they just let me run that show. So I didn’t go up the ladder like most people do in this business.

Which Nickelodeon show did you start on?

“Hey Dude.” I always say that that show was writing boot camp. I mean, we were doing the episodes for like $1.98. You have to try things. Let’s see what it’s like for a bickering male-female couple to get handcuffed together and they can’t find the key. It was all goofy stuff, but we got to rewrite the classics....

And I’m sure these are the kind of shows you require the “Justified” writers to watch, yes?

Yes. All the writers come in and I say, “Don’t read the Elmore Leonard books. Just watch ‘Hey Dude.’”

Let’s talk about adapting Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” for TV.

I felt with Elmore that the really successful adaptations in the past — Scott Frank with “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” and Quentin Tarantino with “Jackie Brown” — that they really stayed close to Elmore and they didn’t try to reinvent it. I took that as my guiding principle when I was adapting “Fire in the Hole.” My thing was, let’s use as much Elmore as we can because the guy is just a brilliant dialogue writer and a great structuralist. He constructs a great story. Although, if you ask him, he has no idea where he’s going when he starts. We don’t really have that luxury in television. We have to outline the story. Elmore doesn’t outline.

Anyway, it was really just a matter of trying to stay true to him, his vision. We try to remind ourselves every day, every episode, every scene: “Is this something Elmore would write? Is this something Elmore would like?”

So how do you get into that mindset? Is it simply a matter of studying his writing?

Yeah, we all read his books and just become familiar with the style and the stories he’s told and the turns he’s made. And we really pay attention to the dialogue.

Well, he seems to think you’re on the right track. He’s incorporated some of your decisions for the show in his new book.

In his new book, “Raylan,” it’s this weird back-and-forth thing we’ve got going on where he’s using characters we’ve created for the show in his new stories. In “Fire in the Hole,” he killed off Boyd as we did when we first shot the pilot. We thank our lucky stars every day that we didn’t go through with that  — and that was suggested by FX, by research and by Elmore. He said, “Oh, you should keep that Boyd around.” And actually, in his new book, Boyd is alive even though he originally killed him off.

What’s your take on killing off characters? It’s become this new thing, to do the unexpected and kill off the folks that, in the past, would escape such a fate at the last minute.

Everyone wants to ask about Mags. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? My new, perhaps glib line, is: It wasn’t hard to kill off Mags, but it was hard to have Margo Martindale leave the show. We miss her. She’s just a great person and a wonderful presence and a brilliant performer. But Mags’ story had run its course and I didn’t want to just keep her around because we loved her. It’s hard. Listen, it was hard to kill Aunt Helen. It was hard to kill off Doyle. There’s some characters in this new season who don’t make it. It’s not easy because you grow to like the people playing the parts and you don’t want to lose that. At the same time, we need to surprise the audience and keep things moving. Sometimes death has to happen.

Is Dewey going to catch a break this season? I feel so bad for that guy.

Dewey does not catch a break. But I will say this: Dewey Crowe lives to see another day.

Is it just one more day?

Well, maybe more than that. That’s an instance of us just loving a character. Damon Herriman, who plays him, is just the greatest guy. He just does such a wonderful job. He’s truly a chameleon. Dewey is definitely the epitome of dumb but lovable. He’s such an idiot.

Can we talk about cars for a second? Lots of things unfold or are revealed during car rides—

Part of that, frankly, is just financial. We’ve got seven days to shoot the show, which is still a luxury by old TV standards. But what we do — and it’s more effective for night driving than it is day driving — but it’s just a car on a sound stage with green screen. Because we can’t afford the time to put a car on a trailer and tow it and all that stuff.... So we avoid that. It gives us another half-day on the stage. We save money when we’re on our stages rather than our on-locations. And we’ve got stories set in Harlan and in Lexington so Raylan is racking up a lot of miles on his marshal’s town car. It allows us to keep the story moving while getting him from A to B.

I thought you might say the car was a person’s sanctuary or something.

I would say that is part of it. Listen, it’s a private place where they can talk. It’s a different conversation than one you might have in a café or at the office or in a hallway. We’ll use the elevator occasionally; we’ll use the locker room. But it is a good place to have people in a more private area.

You mention a café. The third episode where we see Raylan and Winona out at a café really freaked me out. I felt like I was invading their privacy.

You’ll see where we’re going with them.

Were you hesitant about the pregnancy story line?

We were very worried. I wouldn’t say it’s a "jumping the shark"-type thing, but pregnancy is a familiar trope in television. It’s a little wince-inducing. We sucked it up and did it because we wanted to push that relationship and give them an obstacle and see how we can write our way out of it.

Can you talk about how this affects Raylan?

I’m not going to give it away. I will tell you this: What we wanted to see was a different side of Raylan and Winona. As much as we had fun with her taking the money and their bickering and all of it, we wanted to see a different side. We wanted to see more of what they’re like at their best. All I can say is, something will come out of that. I will also promise that neither Winona nor the bun in the oven are at risk.
 

What’s most challenging about running this show — is it finding enough plaid shirts?

I’ll have you know Tim Olyphant [who plays Raylan Givens] was best-dressed man of the year according to GQ! The most challenging thing is just doing any show in its third season. Even with the short orders of basic cable where we only do 13 episodes each year, it’s still that fear of “have we done this before? Have we done this episode? Have we done this scene?” and making sure we can keep finding new places to go.

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— Yvonne Villarreal

Photo: Left to right, Timothy Olyphant, Graham Yost and Walton Goggins at the premiere of "Justified" Season 3 at the Directors Guild on Jan. 10, 2012. Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

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