Graham Yost, showrunner of Justified
I sat in on a group interview with Mr. Yost. I’ve bolded my questions.
Reporter In the “Starvation” episode we get the full gravity of the change we saw in Raylan’s character. He’s so desperate to get Darryl Crowe, he’s willing to throw Ava under the bus and that adolescent kid. Is this ‘super hardcore Raylan’ that we’re seeing a temporary thing, or there for the rest of the series?
Graham You know, it’s interesting that you can see it as the hardcore Raylan who, as Winona called him in the pilot, the angriest man she’s ever known, and I think that is part of it. But it’s also Raylan’s struggle because he wants to get Darryl, but he can’t just kill him because then that would doom Kendal to a long stretch in prison.
But it’s also something that happened in the 11th episode, when after Art was shot and Raylan is talking to Tim Gutterson and Tim is basically saying do you want to go out and just find Daryl and kill him? And Raylan says, “I don’t think that’s what Art would want.”
And so Raylan has the struggle in him of the guy who wants to get revenge and yet can’t because of the kid, but he also wants to try and do things in a way that Art would respect. We’ve always seen Art as his good father and he’s, obviously, incredibly disappointed Art this season in a way that he never has before, so that’s the struggle. Okay?
Reporter Okay. So, in a sense he’s not actually going farther, hardcore; he’s actually coming back to being more professional and trying to kind of come back to being a good guy in a sense?
Graham Well, in a way. And yet, you know, you see what he does in those scenes with Ava and I think it tears him apart. I don’t think he wants to be the guy who says I’ll get the guards to look the other way, but he’s desperate. And I think that it’s more than him being hardcore Raylan as being desperate Raylan. And he is really just trying to figure a way out of this.
Reporter It seems like most of the members of the cast are being reduced to ‘every man for himself.’ They’re losing all their allies and all their support systems. Will we kind of see the results of that, of them reaching their breaking points and being on their own in the finale or is that something that’s going to kind of carry through the rest of the series?
Graham You’ll see a big shift in the finale. You’ll see what happens to the resolve of Ava this season, the resolve of the Crowes and also the Boyd story. And there is a big reset that happens in the finale. But, yes, the whole sort of point of this season was to strip away everyone from everyone so that Ava is alone in prison, Boyd is alone on the outside and Raylan is alone.
And yet with “Starvation” really the point of it, or one of the points of that episode was that when Boyd publicly confronts Raylan with the accusation, the truth, that he, Raylan, was implicated or involved in the death of Nicky Augustine at the end of last season. And he says it in front of Rachel and Tim. Rachel and Tim have Raylan’s back.
And so that is sort of the beginning of them coming together and I will say that that is one thing we’re headed towards in the final season.
Dan Switching gears for a second, to talk about writers in the industry; if a new screenwriter were to write a great pilot and get themselves in the room with a show runner for, basically, an intro and a meeting or an interview, what kinds of questions should they expect from a show runner?
Graham Do you have a story? Are you going to pitch it now on the call? [laughs] I’m just kidding. Listen, this is a very interesting time in the history of television. Never has the marketplace been as big, as fragmented; it allows for shows that are very much of themselves. It’s no longer just the franchises of police, law and medicine, especially in hour-long.
And so, I think that what any show runner is looking for, the scenario you’ve set is that happens, but it’s also young writers coming up with an idea and going to a network, going to a studio. And what are people looking for? Well, that changes minute by minute. Maybe they’re not looking for vampires or zombies now, but they’re looking for something and everyone is trying to guess.
But what people are really looking for is a vision, something that has legs, you know, what’s episode 17? And a compelling narrative — why do you want to get into this world? And it can be anything now. It’s so broad. The fact that Sam Shaw is doing a show on the Manhattan Project, that’s something that people would have only dreamed about 20 years ago and the fact that that can happen now is just wonderful.
Dan How important is having a show reel or footage? I hear that in the age of webisodes, building your own audience online or just having something that looks really cool, let’s say you’ve shot the pilot or you’ve shot a couple of scenes…is that important?
Graham I don’t think it can hurt. Except, and this is not good, I’ve seen some things that people have done, some webisodes, things that essentially turned into a pilot and the financial side of me, the first thing I asked was, how much did that cost? How much did you spend? Because that looks fantastic and that is part of the deal, too.
I will say that one of the problems is that if you’re doing those webisode things or trying to do an independent pilot, the big risk is are you going to get acting talent that can deliver? And also, can you make it look good? Can you make it look like a really professionally produced product?
So, those are all things you have to weigh, but that helps. I mean, if you don’t have a track record, if you don’t have a list of credits, showing what you can do, especially if you want to direct it, then that becomes critical.
Dan Okay, great. Thank you.
Reporter Why are you deciding to end the best show on television next season?
Graham Listen, I don’t think we are the best show on television, but I think we’re all just incredibly happy to be even thought of in the company of other great shows that are on right now. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we want to end it after six seasons is we want to make sure we don’t overstay our welcome.
We don’t want to run out of story. We don’t want to be treading water. We’ve already done a few things that to our mind are dangerously close to repeating ourselves. And sometimes we’ve repeated ourselves without knowing it. It’s like, wow, in retrospect that seems an awful lot like the one in season two or three or whatever.
The big thing is, we want to leave the party on a high note.
Reporter Okay. And do you have ideas of what you might want to do after Justified?
Graham I do have ideas. I generally don’t talk about anything until it’s actually shooting. But I have a lot of interests. And, listen, I’ve been an incredibly fortunate writer that I’ve gone from project to project that has interested me and I hope that that just gets to keep going on.
Reporter Congratulations to FX and the folks behind The Bridge for getting the Peabody Award yesterday.
Graham I love Elwood’s work and I think The Bridge is another wonderful show from FX and very deserving of a Peabody. We’ve been lucky to get one on Justified and there was another one for Boomtown years ago and the thing that validates it the most is to see Stephen Colbert hold up his proudly. And it’s like, okay, then it really does mean something if Colbert is bragging about it.
Reporter When you started Justified, FX was one of the few basic cable networks that did original scripted programming and now we have a marketplace where you have so many networks getting into the scripted game. We’ve already had this year Discovery get in, El Rey got in with Rob Rodriguez, WGN America gets in with Salem and Manhattan, which you mentioned earlier, WE gets in and we’re not even counting Netflix, Google, Amazon, maybe Microsoft, etc.
What do you make of this marketplace and how did it stimulate you folks to raise the bar in your final season?
Graham Well, I mean I think it’s fantastic that the marketplace is like this and we’ll see how it shakes out. Because it’s not as though the marketplace has expanded and everyone is doing the same show. It’s not as though there’s five new outlets and they’re all doing zombie shows or vampire shows or gritty cop shows or whatever. People are trying different things, like Manhattan.
My friend, Remi Aubuchon is working with Charlie Huston on Powers, which is going to be on PlayStation. And that’s just a wonderful, wonderful series idea. So, it’s all over the place and I think that’s really wonderful. The question is how it will shake out and then the other question is how does that raise the bar for us for the last season?
I think that the pressure has been mounting each year that we’ve done Justified. But we honestly try not to think about that too much. We really just are going to be thinking how can we end this series in the most exciting and heartbreaking and true to what we’ve done before way that we can?
Reporter With Elmore Leonard passing away last year, how is his spirit still being reflected in your scripts and in the show?
Graham His name comes up every day in the writer’s room and on set. You know, Tim, Walton, the other cast members talk about him and his work all the time. We really do take seriously the notion of what would Elmore do? And we think about it a lot and we refer to his texts almost as if they were scripture, you know. It’s like… in Tishomingo Blues he did this, and in Gold Coast he did that and, oh boy, City Primeval.
City Primeval was one of his earlier crime fiction books and we look to that for inspiration a lot this season. Our bad guy had that ability, a Daryl Crowe, Jr., like the bad guy in City Primeval to sort of always get out of the good guy’s traps.
Related: Interview with Elmore Leonard and Graham Yost (2010)
Reporter In the finale, it seems like the way things end is a more explicit flow from one season to the next than you’ve had in the past.
And I’m curious if you sort of approached, when you decided that you were going to have two more seasons, if you sort of approached those two as one big story as opposed to a discrete sort of season-by-season thing that you’ve done in the past?
Graham Yes. I mean, you’re absolutely right and very perceptive on that. That’s exactly what we did. Leonard Chang, one of the writers, called it pretty early last July when we were talking about Season 5. We found that we couldn’t help also talking about Season 6 and we knew by that point that that would be our final season.
And we started discussing, well, how do we want this whole thing to end? Where do we want to go? And Leonard said, you know, maybe we should just be thinking about this one big season that’s divided in two parts. That said, you’ve seen the finale.
You know that the Crowe story reaches a conclusion, but the story of Raylan, of Boyd, and of Ava and the office, particularly Rachel and David Vasquez, our U.S. Attorney, that everything, and that would involve Gutterson as well, everything is pointed in a certain direction for next year and that was our goal from pretty early on.
Reporter Do you have a sense of is it going to be a fairly condensed time frame, like you had this season where Raylan sort of gave himself a deadline there at the end?
Graham Yeah, I mean, it’s funny on our show, we’ve done the math and the whole thing is really taking place over two years, the five years have. And we also figured out at one point that our show, when it started was taking place in the future because we went on the air in 2010. If you do the math, by various dates that have been shown in the show, that it really should have started in 2012.
But, that aside, we do deal with a pretty condensed time frame. We don’t intend to do that. We just find that one story does lead into the next, one episode to the next. So, yes, it will be in that fashion. We imagine that the sixth season will take place over a fairly short period of time, certainly a few weeks, maybe a couple of months.
Reporter How much will we see of Art next season?
Graham We’ll see Art. I’ve tried right from the beginning, since Art was shot in the 11th episode of the season, I’ve tried to not be coy at all. We’re not playing that for suspense. Art lives and he will be a part of things. I will say this, that one of the themes of the final season, as it were, theme might be not exactly the right term for this, but is the notion of one more thing before I go.
And that is certainly the case for Raylan. It’ll also be the case for Boyd and we also think it’ll be a case for Art. In talking to our technical advisor, former Chief Deputy in L.A., Charlie Almanza, he said that it’s not uncommon for a chief deputy before he retires to say, you know, there’s one more case I want to handle, one more guy I want to get. And that will be part of Art’s story.
Reporter Will be there be little cases of the week or just the throughline set out in the final episode of this season?
Graham You know, it’s really our goal to make it more serialized than we have in the past and to make it more one big story. The marching orders I got at the beginning of this series from John Landgraf at FX was that you can do stand alone episodes in the first half of the first season and start really focusing on the serialized aspect and we’ve done fewer and fewer stand alone episodes as the series has progressed because, in general, we have the audience that we’re going to have and they’re relatively loyal, they’re very loyal and they know the stories.
And so, there was a certain frustration with some of the long-term fans with any stand alone stuff we did this season. And we’ve heard that, but we were already intending to go more serialized in the final season anyway, because that’s what we really have to serve is the stories of Raylan, Boyd, Ava and the Marshall.
Reporter I find Boyd Crowder such a compelling character and everyone I talk to the show about kind of loves him as well, ‘despite his faults,’ as they say. I really find myself rooting for him. Has your opinion or journey for Boyd changed from the beginning of the series?
Graham It has to a degree. I remember this phone call I had with Walton, I said, “Walton, we think that maybe Boyd Crowder should live,” because we were remembering that we killed him when we shot the pilot and then decided to bring him back to life.
And Walton was thrilled. And I remember him talking about other things that Boyd could get involved in. We came up with the idea of him finding religion in that first season. And we like the idea of Boyd getting sort of passionately attached to things.
You know he goes this way, he goes that way. And one of our guiding principles has been something that Elmore said to us when he was watching the episode through the first season, he said about Boyd, “I don’t believe a word he says, but I love to hear him say it.” But our thing is that Boyd believes it.
And Boyd is really, the one anchor he’s had, the one thing he’s had is that he loves Ava. That’s the most important thing in his life. And yet, he makes certain decisions at the end of this season that sort of makes you wonder how important that is. And you’ll see what happens at the end of the season.
If you haven’t watched the episode big questions are asked about Boyd and about Ava and that’s stuff that we want to explore next year…and we’ve evolved and our opinion of him has evolved, but there’s also a degree to which Boyd is always going to be Boyd.
Reporter Do you think Raylan will ever actually make it to Florida?
Graham That’s still up in the air. Tim was saying a friend of his in watching the show had said, “Man, I don’t know if Raylan’s going to live or die,” and Tim kind of rubbed his hands together and said, “Fantastic,” because we still don’t know and we’ll find out.
Allen What’s the difficulty there of, again, having Boyd be the “Big Bad,” the main antagonist, but on the other hand somebody that we root for?
Graham Well, I mean that’s been part of the DNA of the show, right from the beginning. You know, Boyd has always been the Big Bad. He’s always been essentially the white whale for Raylan. And I think Raylan has looked the other way because Boyd has served his purpose at times, but I think that as we see toward the end of this season, Raylan’s frustration with that and where Boyd’s life has taken him and brought him to do things that Raylan is just agog at.
And also the effect it’s had on Ava and I think that that’s one of the things we were going for in the penultimate episode. So, it’s not going to be easy. We can’t just, you know, Raylan is not just going to go shoot Boyd in the first episode of the final season. We have to figure a story.
And that’s one of the reasons we brought Mary Steenburgen in, to create and bring in another world and another thing that Boyd can be involved with for the final season.
Reporter Fans want to know if you’re thinking about making a movie once the series wraps?
Graham We’ve talked about it, but there’s absolutely nothing concrete. Our focus is just so entirely on trying to put together the final season that we haven’t really thought beyond that. At the same time, we always think about it.
Now, that would lead you to believe that then Raylan must live, but that is something that, again, because we haven’t decided, you know, listen, if he dies then there’s not going to be a movie. Unless it’s about Dewey. And we love our Dewey, but it really hasn’t been decided. But it also is something that we do talk about.
Reporter Hi, Graham. My question is with so much onus on the whole series finale thing, e.g., Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother… how much pressure is there to deliver that final moment, that final scene and is that something in the long-term planning you guys have already thought about?
Graham Yeah, it’s something we’ve thought about almost from the beginning, but it’s something that changes year-by-year. Ideas we had for the ending two years ago don’t really sort of work with what we’re thinking now. But at the same time over this past year I had an idea about, let’s say about a year ago or a little less than a year ago for how the series could end.
And then, kind of we moved on from that into another version. But a couple of weeks ago we all gathered the writers and we went back to the previous one, so we still don’t know what we’re going to do. And you just hope that you come up with something that works. I had the incredible pleasure of sitting at a table with Bob Newhart back in September and I asked him, because the end of Newhart is one of the best endings in the history of television and I said, “Who came up with that?” And he pointed to his wife. It was her idea.
And so, you hope, we just hope that we come up with something that really satisfies people. It’s funny, the ending for The Sopranos disappointed so many people and yet, in retrospect and over the years people have kind of started to nod and say, well, you know what, maybe that was just perfect for that show and those characters.
So, it’s hard to say. We don’t want to do a snow globe like St. Elsewhere, although I was one of the people who actually loved that ending because ultimately, what does it matter? The series is over. It doesn’t change all the episodes that came before. You try to come up with something that seems to hold the whole thing together. And, yeah, we’ll see what we do.
I’ve had ideas for the last show, but they’ve changed over the years and we’ll see what really works with the story that we come up with for next season. We always have targets, we have goals. Like early on in the first season we said, yeah, let’s get Boyd and Raylan on the same side of the gunfight. And that became our goal and we ended up with “Bulletville.”
With Season 2, once Mags poisoned the guy in the first episode I thought, well, that’s the way this season has to end, with Mags poisoning herself. So, we’ll come up with those targets and then like Kurt says, you just have to figure out how to get there. And at the same time have the flexibility to let the targets change.
We had a goal early on in this season. We wanted to see Boyd and Raylan working together again, and they did in the penultimate episode. But, boy, the take-away from that was very different than what we had first imagined. It became far more acrimonious and fraught than we had first thought.
Reporter When you’re not busy working, what, if anything, do you like to watch?
Graham You know, I only watch FX shows because that’s part of my deal. [laughs] No, but I do watch a lot of FX shows. I’m a big fan of the other dramas, but also their comedies. I’ve been watching Sunny for a long time and Archer, I love what Adam Reed did this year with the reboot of that show. A big show for my son is Game of Thrones, and at first I was resistant because I was a big science fiction fantasy reader back when I was younger, and I sort of didn’t want to get back into that again. But then he said, no, you’ve got to watch the first episode. And once Jaime Lannister tossed Bran out the window, I was in. And so I’m really looking forward to the fourth season of that. My wife and I watched True Detective and really got hooked by that. But I don’t watch everything. The writers room is big enough that between all the writers…everything gets watched. So, we have a sense of what’s going on out there.
Reporter And on FX do you watch The Americans and Louie?
Graham Well, The Americans I’m part of, so I maintain that I have one of the best jobs in television. I get to hear pitches from Joe Weisberg and Joel Field on episodes, I get to read first drafts of scripts and I get to see early cuts. So, that is the coolest thing because I love that show and I’m just so happy to have any relation to it.
I think that at times Louie is the best thing that’s ever been on television and that will sound hyperbolic, but there have been episodes where I’ve just been laughing and crying in the whole thing and just agog. I do think that looking back people will say, wow, that was maybe the best thing. It’s just such a tremendous show and that’s one of the great reasons to be at FX is the fact that Louis C.K. would say, you know, I’m tired, I want to take a year off and they kind of shrug and say, okay. What a wonderful place to be that there is that freedom.
Reporter Do you think there’s anything of interest on broadcast or could there be?
Graham I think there could be. Listen, it’s a weird world where there’s only, by the sort of the “commenter’s review,” there’s one good show on broadcast, which is The Good Wife. Although I’ve heard a lot of really good things about Crisis. I haven’t watched that. That is the kind of show that intrigues me. I like a really, good, smart action adventure thriller.
I’m really looking forward to Season 2 of Orphan Black, by the way. That’s another show I follow. But I think there could be. It’s interesting, I’ve been talking to Noah Wyle about some things and, listen, he was on ER and that was about as good as television gets at times, especially in the first seven, eight, nine, 10 seasons. And that’s a long run. And it went even longer than that.
And the thing was even by the end ER was still really strong. People just got used to it. That was the only problem. And there was a period when ER and West Wing were on at the same time. That was pretty great television. So, I think that networks can do that and find the big, broad appeal shows. It’s just except for Good Wife it hasn’t been done recently.
Dan I have a request, Graham. Can you tell your buddy John Landgraf to lock down Natalie Zea, pay her whatever she needs to quit her 50 other TV shows and just play Winona on Justified next season?
Graham You know, it’s so funny. Back in the first season and then for the second season there were camps. There was Team Ava and Team Winona. That was back in the days of the early Twilight movies and all that Second Day crap, but anyway, it’s so funny how it’s evolved because there were times when people always loved Natalie and just thought she was doing a brilliant job, but didn’t enjoy Winona entirely.
And it became truly one of our goals, because we like Winona. We thought Winona was speaking truth to this pretty messed up guy and loved him nonetheless. And so we made it our goal to rehabilitate Winona and really capping it with her and Raylan firing guns in the nursery in the last episode of Season 4.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a story thing, too. We just need to sort of figure out where we’re going and when, if Raylan gets to Florida and what the relationship is going to be. If you have not seen the last episode this season there’s a moment between them, another Skype call that I think sort of indicates at least down deep what their emotional connection is. Yeah, we love Natalie. So, we’ll see.
Dan Well, you know, you said you were thinking about that final image, what about Raylan walking onto South Beach and Winona is there in a tiny bikini and they just embrace and then you fade out?
Graham Really, that’s what it comes down to? There’s the other half of our audience who would want to make sure that Tim was shirtless at that point.
Dan Yeah, you can throw that in, too.
Graham Yeah, you know, listen this is the thing. And I think one of the realities is this is the question about the last image, the last scene, the last episode is that no matter what we do there are going to be a lot of people who are going to be disappointed. And our hope is that we do something that we think is good and right.
I had breakfast with Damon Lindelof a couple of months ago and actually I like the way Lost ended, but then again, I’m someone who really kind of goes with whatever the people doing the show are doing. It’s sort of like, well, I’ve entrusted you with this for a long time and I like what you’re doing, so if you choose to end it this way, then I think that that’s right and good.
That said, I didn’t like the end of Seinfeld.
Dan Okay. And, yeah, on a serious note I think you should just say screw all the Internet haters and the critics. End the show how you want to end it, and, who cares? It’s your show.
Graham Honestly, we never sort of say screw them, but we do say, okay, I hear what people are saying. What can we do? We don’t become obsessive about it, we don’t read a lot of stuff. But, for example, I was very concerned about the cigarette pack bomb in the 11th episode. That was my idea, there was a lot of hemming and hawing over that, whether it was ludicrous or wonderful.
And so, one of the other writers, V.J. Boyd texted me while that episode was airing and said, “Twitter likes the cigarette pack bomb.” And I honestly went, whew, fantastic because I really didn’t know how that was going to play. So, we are always like anyone in this business looking for approval. But was also really try to do stuff where we look at each other and go, that was cool.
Dan It must be different in the age of social media to be writing and producing these shows than the work you were doing.
Graham Oh, it’s completely different. Twenty years ago you didn’t get every episode reviewed. You got a review at the beginning of the season or the beginning of a series and maybe a couple of times from then on and that was about it.
Dan Has that changed at all how you write?
Graham It’s totally changed and people on our show follow that and say, you know, like I’ve heard this year that our fans are tired of the stand alones. They just want the serialized. So, we pay attention to that… [but] I think that some of our best episodes over the years have been stand alones. Mostly Raylan. I think that one of the things that we’ve always tried to do is that even if it’s a stand alone it advances something in terms of Raylan’s story or the larger story of the season or it’s something that we’ll bring back in later on and it will have an effect. So, nothing is completely a stand alone on this show.
Reporter One of the biggest themes in the show right from the get-go has been family.
Graham Yeah, it’s been a big part of the show, obviously, and I think that part of it comes from the region. Listen, I think family is important everywhere in the world and I think that that is one thing to always keep in mind that no region has a particular ownership of that story.
That said, the notion of family and clan is very important in Appalachia. And that’s something that we gravitated to, especially in the second season and the notion of a feud between Raylan’s family and the Bennett family. But then that also sort of brought up the notion of Raylan’s family and Boyd’s family and that there was a bond and a rivalry in that kind of thing.
And then, yes, the notion that Art has, from the beginning what I’ve mentioned earlier, Raylan’s good father and that his true family, his family of choice; so it’s his family of origin, that he had no choice over, but his family of choice has been the Marshal service. And so that’s the one that we could really see the fractures in and the problems of what it means to be Raylan and what it means to work with someone like Raylan.
Ernie Can you talk about being able to use the character Loretta McCready throughout these last couple of seasons and sprinkling her in, you know, any kind of other inspiration that that character is giving?
Graham For this season, because one of the issues has been Raylan and parenthood we thought, well, who better than Loretta to sort of shine a light on that? Whether or not we see her next year, we don’t know. But, yeah, I’m really glad you like to think about her and where she’s going and what she’s doing because we love her, too. Hello?
Reporter Has there ever been any idea or any story that had to be scrapped because of something that’s been done in another cop show?
Graham We get into things and the writers will say, oh, you know, they did that on Breaking Bad. And that’s what we heard a lot, damn that Breaking Bad, that Vince Gilligan and his team! So, I can’t think of any specifics.
But there were also real concerns at the beginning of this season about Ava in prison, in the world of Orange Is The New Black. But we had her in jail and then in prison and there was nothing that we could do about that. And so, we just had to do it anyway and just kind of put blinders on and pretend that the other show didn’t exist.
Thank you to Graham, FX and all of the creative talent behind Justified!
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
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