“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?”