Born in Etobicoke, Ontario in 1959, Graham Yost is the son of Canadian television personality Elwy Yost. He attended the University of Toronto Schools and Trinity College at the University of Toronto. He received his first screenwriting credit on the horror film The Chair. He found work as a screenwriter and script consultant for two years on the television series Hey Dude. After that, he knocked around penning episodes for several series, but his real breakthrough came when he wrote the Jan de Bont thriller Speed, which became a smash hit.
He then wrote the John Woo actioner Broken Arrow, which was also a tremendous hit. In 1998, Yost worked as executive producer, screenwriter (of two episodes), and director (one episode) on the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard-produced mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. He then worked with Hanks a second time, writing two episodes for Hanks’ and Stephen Spielberg’s mini-series Band of Brothers. He would then reunite with Hanks and Spielberg, working as a writer and director on the mini-series The Pacific.
Yost created and executive produced two series, Boomtown and Raines, before creating the popular series Justified, which was based on Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole.” (Raylan Givens, the series’ protagonist, is also featured in the Leonard novels Pronto, Riding the Rap, and Raylan.) Subsequently, Yost has served as executive producer on the series Falling Skies, The Americans, and Sneaky Pete).
This interview was conducted before the Justified revival (Justified: City Primeval) was announced, so unfortunately, that is not discussed here. This is an excerpt from the new book, Perspectives on Elmore Leonard: Conversations with Authors, Experts, and Collaborators (McFarland & Company).
Warning: Spoilers to the series follow.
ANDREW J. RAUSCH: You ended up adapting the story “Fire in the Hole.” What was it about that story in particular that inspired you to create Justified?
GRAHAM YOST:It was a bunch of things. First of all, there was a little bit of desperation that I needed something to do. I had a deal to write something for Sony, and the time was running out in the TV season when you could go out and pitch something. They sent me the story. Sarah Timberman and her partner, Carl Beverly, had optioned it. Or, Sony had optioned it for them, and they had gotten Michael Dinner to agree to direct it. So, there was already something in motion. They said, “Do you like Elmore Leonard?” And I said, “I love Elmore Leonard!” I’d never thought I would ever get a chance to adapt Elmore Leonard. They said, “We’ll send you this story.”
I read it and there were three things that got me. The big thing that it was Elmore Leonard. But then the fact that it wasn’t set in Elmore’s usual Miami or Detroit. I went, huh. Listen, Miami and Detroit are at least different enough. But more to the point, it wasn’t set in L.A. or New York. But even more than that, it was not set in a major metropolitan area. Kentucky is a different part of the country. This is a different kind of world, and I don’t know anything about this world, but he gets into it in this story and you get a feel for it and that’s an interesting world.
Lastly, and the most important, I thought Raylan Givens could be the coolest character on television. It all came down to the scene in Fire in the Hole when he’s at Ava’s house and Dewey Crowe shows up and Raylan says, “You don’t just walk into someone’s house without being invited. You go out and we’ll see.” And Dewey says, “I’ll go out and then I’m going to come right back in.” And Raylan goes out and Dewey’s got a shotgun pointed at him. Raylan says, “Can you rack a load before I put a hole in you?” He doesn’t yell. There’s no cop stuff; no “stop right there!” He’s just got his hand on his gun and he just faces him down. I loved that guy. He’s not freaking out, he’s in control, but he’s taking a gamble. But that’s the way he does it. And then he says, “Because if I shoot you, I shoot to kill. There’s no point in doing it otherwise.” He just lays it out. And I thought, that’s a character I’d love to write.
Just a little side note: when it came to writing that scene in the script for the pilot, I basically just wrote it exactly as Elmore did. I used as much of him as I could, word for word. Because why mess with the best?
And then lastly, if there’s sort of an addendum to why I wanted to do it, it was because I had seen Elmore done right twice. I liked 52 Pick-Up. I know Elmore was not a big fan of it. But I think that was about a fifty to sixty-percent good Elmore movie. But the best were Out of Sight and Get Shorty. Scott Frank, who adapted those, just let Elmore be Elmore. So that’s what I did. Don’t think you’re going to write better dialogue than him. But if you are going to write dialogue that he didn’t have, you’d better try to do it like him. Channel that, just as Elmore did when he was beginning as a writer and would try to channel [Ernest] Hemingway.
How did you end up with the title Justified?
GY: Absolutely no idea. It came from FX. We submitted a list of maybe twenty to thirty titles, none of which we were crazy about. We thought of calling the show Raylan, and we actually made a run at Lawman. We were headed towards that, and I don’t know if a poster had been designed or any artwork, but then we started seeing billboards around town for a reality show starring Steven Seagal called Lawman. Well we can’t use that. Even though we knew that show was going to disappear in a minute, they had it first. FX just came back, “What about Justified?” because there’s a couple lines in the pilot where Raylan is asked, “Was that shooting justified?”
Fred Golan, who I had been working with for a long time, was one of the writers on Justified. He was the number two. He and I worked together on a show called Boomtown and another one called Raines. We’re big fans of certain old Westerns. There’s a great line in Ride the High Country—Sam Peckinpah’s film—where there’s talk about a man wanting to enter his father’s house “justified.” It’s talking about when you die and you go to heaven, you want to enter God’s house justified. So we said, “That’s fine, because we’re doing, in a way, a modern Western.” Although Elmore said it wasn’t.
Let’s talk about the character Boyd Crowder. Boyd dies at the end of Elmore’s original story, but you decided to keep him alive in the series. What factors led to that?
GY: We actually shot him dying. If you watch that scene, Raylan’s looking down at him and Boyd says, “You shot me.” And Raylan says, “Sorry.” And Ava says, “Why did you say you were sorry?” And he says, “Well, we dug coal together.” And Boyd dies! But when we tested it, the audience said, “Boy, that’s a great character. It’s too bad he’s dead.”
The other thing was we just loved the chemistry between the two of them (Tim and Walton) and felt that Boyd could be this dark mirror to Raylan. Boyd chose a different path, but that they were very similar growing up. Boyd went one way and Raylan went the other. And Boyd could always call Raylan on his bullshit. We felt that there were three people who could call Raylan on his bullshit—Boyd, Ava, and Winona. (and Art, to a degree, because he knew him from before). Boyd perhaps most of all.
And lastly, and most importantly, it’s Walton Goggins. He’s just an amazing actor. Just to know that you’re going to have that guy around… Walton and I remember the moment well—I can remember where I was, and he can remember where he was—when I called him and said, “Hey, do you want to be part of the show?”
How difficult was it to justify—no pun intended—or find reasons to continue Raylan’s and Boyd’s relationship over six seasons without Raylan taking Boyd down?
GY: It was difficult. We would plan it season by season. So in the first season, Boyd is in custody and then he’s out of custody. I said to the writer’s room, “I’d love to end the season with Raylan and Boyd on the same side of a gun fight.” So that’s what we headed towards. So now they had a different kind of relationship.
In the second season, Boyd’s not doing a lot of bad stuff. He’s not back on Raylan’s radar, although Raylan says, “You will be eventually because that’s who you are.” By the end of the season, Boyd is back.
But then in season three, Raylan’s got bigger fish to fry. And the same with season four, and season five. We built season five to set up season six, so that the story would all came back to Raylan, Boyd, and Ava. That became our design once we decided the sixth season would be it. One of the big reasons we decided the sixth season would be it is because we knew that we were already right at the edge of repeating ourselves with Raylan and Boyd and that we would absolutely run out of real estate for the two of them. Seven seasons would’ve been too much. Five seasons might’ve been perfect, but six seasons worked.
Another magnificent decision you made was to keep Raylan’s father alive and to actually put him in the story.
GY: There were a few other big decisions that we made in the pilot—decisions I made in the initial writing of the pilotand then that we made afterwards related to that. One was, I looked at Raylan and thought, if, in this modern world, he’s wearing a cowboy hat and he’s got his weapon on his hip and he’s wearing cowboy boots, he’s making a choice. How did he make that choice? Well, in the story, it talks about him watching movies; Gary Cooper, something like that. I decided, since we had to shift the timeline a little bit for Raylan’s age and when Elmore wrote the story versus when we were set, it became him watching reruns of Gunsmoke on TV,with Marshal Dillon. Now Raylan’s a marshal, so that works—he watched TV and made that choice. So I thought, why would somebody become so enamored of a fictional TV lawman? Well, he might if his father was a criminal. You go into law enforcement either because you come from a family of cops or because you’re reacting against something. That’s a truism, but it holds a certain amount of water. Okay, so his dad was a crook. What kind of crook? Then it just went from there.
There was a draft of the pilot where we had him have a scene with his father. Then I quickly decided no—if we’re doing the series, we’ll build to him. We’ll create a legend. So that it’s like King Kong where you don’t see Kong for the first half hour of the movie. And that was that. That was the decision about the dad.
Another big decision was that he and Winona had not had children. We were making Raylan younger than Elmore had him. Elmore had him more forties, fifty. We’re doing thirties and they hadn’t had kids. That sort of changed the dynamic of Winona and her new husband. Went for something a little more upscale than the Winona and her new husband in the story. And also, have her in Lexington, so that they would see each other. That was a big choice.
And then the biggest thing, in many respects, was making it right for FX. FX, my joke with them was, “Oh, you guys won’t be satisfied until the end of the pilot when Raylan goes into his basement and there’s a 19-year-old boy chained to the wall.” I mean, they love the dark turns and “oh my god, this person’s a monster.” So I said, “We’re not going to do that.” But I came up with the idea of him going to see Winona and scaring the shit out of Gary, and her saying, “Oh, honestly, Raylan, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.” And that look on his face of… he knows it, but he doesn’t know it, and he’s surprised. The idea that this guy who’s so cool and so in control has an underlying rage that could snap out—jFX loved that. And Tim was able to play it for six years.
Raylan’s character was much angrier on the show than he was in the novels. What made you decide to go that route?
GY: We needed somewhere to go for six seasons. The thing about writing a novel… Elmore had a few characters come back, so he could dig into them some, but they really didn’t change that much. Foley kind of does between Out of Sight and Road Dogs, but they kind of stay the same. Elmore’s view of characters is people are who they are. They aren’t going to change that much. Tim and I agreed early on that Raylan would change over the course of the entire series maybe a millimeter, but it would be a critical millimeter. That was the long term arc of Raylan. Him having to, without ever saying it, but having to look at and confront his anger was something we felt would sort of ground the character and give us someplace to go.
Elmore himself had some involvement with the show. What did his involvement entail?
GY:Elmore was a pro. He had been down this road before. He felt if he got paid, he didn’t have to have any input. I’ve told this story many times, and it’s true, is the only thing he objected to in the pilot was the hat. He didn’t want a regukar cowboy hat, he wanted what he called a Businessman’s Stetson. But the hat we used looked good on Tim so that’s how we went. But that’s the reason why, at the very end of the series, Raylan’s trademark hat gets a hole in it and he gets a new hat that’s a little bit like the hat worn by the young gunfighter Boon. That’s his new hat, and that hat is much closer to the hat that Elmore always wanted. So that was our little Elmore nod at the very end of the run.
The big thing Elmore did was write another book. Elmore came to visit in the first season and Tim was sitting with him on the set, and he said, “Elmore, have you thought of writing another Raylan story?” And Elmore said, “Ah! Maybe I will.” So he wrote one, enjoyed himself, wrote another and then another, and then tied them together into his final book [Raylan]. The dedication page is probably one of the highlights for both Tim and me in our lives. We didn’t know about it until we opened the book.
The novel is more of a sequel to the show than it is the other novels.
GY: [Laughs.] I mean, Boyd’s alive!
Not many people can say they directly influenced the writing of Elmore Leonard. What is that like?
GY:If you don’t mind profanity, it’s fucking awesome! It’s the coolest thing in the world. The fact that he liked the show was absolutely the highest compliment. He liked Out of Sight and he liked Get Shorty and he loved Jackie Brown. But when he would say that Tim was the best embodiment of any of his characters in film or television, that was pretty much the highest praise I think Tim could get.
I think it’s an accurate statement, too.
GY: Yeah, I do too. Even though our Raylan is somewhat different from his Raylan, it felt like him. It was the spirit. You’ve probably heard the story of the rubber bracelets I got for the writers saying “WWED?” It was a joke, but that was our mantra: “What would Elmore do?” Honestly, we’d be in the room and we’d be banging against an idea, and we couldn’t make something work, and we’d just stop and say, “Well, what would Elmore do?” After a certain point we didn’t need to say it. We were all sort of thinking it. When we started the writers room, we bought as many of Elmore’s books as we could get our hands on and handed them out to all the writers.
One of the hardest things was episode two. Now what do we do? Now I’m not adapting. Now we’ve got to create something that feels like Elmore Leonard. “Well, we’ll steal one scene.” [Laughs.] We’ll steal one scene from Riding the Rap where he’s driving Dewey Crowe. We’ll steal that. And Elmore says fine. But then we had to construct something with some wild characters, some who are stupid but some who have heart to them. We’ll do something like that, and that became “Riverbrook.”
Okay, at that point, that’s me. I’ve written the pilot and the second episode. What happens when someone else writes it? One of the biggest growing pains in that first season was finding…. I knew Fred Golan could write it because he’s just an incredibly talented, versatile writer. But I wasn’t sure about anyone else, and it was a struggle. I had to do a lot of rewriting. One night, I had just finished rewriting one script, and I was looking at having to do a big rewrite on the next script, and I was up late and saying, “This is not sustainable.” The next day I read an outline that Ben Cavell had sent in. He was one of the writers on staff. I read it and I got Fred in and I said, “Is this as good as I think it is?” And he said, “Yeah, it is.” So immediately we put Ben on rewriting another script, and off we went. Now we had Ben, and we had Fred, and we had me. And then people got better at it. Wendy [Calhoun] got stronger. [Chris] Provenzano got better, so did Gary [Lennon]. Soon everyone on that staff just started to figure out what the show was. Even then, we made changes over the years and the writing staff changed.
The other big thing that happened that first year was, we couldn’t get Dave Andron on staff. He was a writer Fred and I knew from Raines. He was on another show, but he was allowed to freelance two scripts for us. One of those was one of our best episodes that first year, “Hatless.” That’s the one where Raylan is suspended for a week, and Winona asks him to find out what’s going on in her husband Gary’s life. Dave was just fantastic with that script, and we ended up getting him on staff in the second season.
There was another writer, Taylor Elmore, that we knew from Raines who we thought might be right. He joined us in season 2 nd he ended up being spectacular. Over the years, we assembled what we called the senior staff, which were the five guys who could really produce an episode and would help the younger writers along.
You’ve said in the past that you think at some points you guys might have actually gone beyond what Elmore would have in terms of dialogue.
GY: Well,I don’t know if we ever went beyond, but we would try different things. If you watch the whole series and you’re really paying attention to the dialogue, and you see who wrote it, you can tell a Ben Cavell episode from an Andron or Taylor Elmore or Provenzano or me or Fred or any number of the other writers. Especially Taylor Elmore. He really caught how poetic the dialogue could be. We all strove for that; he was really one of the best. There was some stuff that he would do, and maybe that’s the closest to… I would never say better than Elmore, but different in a really poetic way. And there was a point where we had to say, “Taylor, you have to reign that in. It’s too much. We don’t want to piss off Elmore.” In our imagination Elmore was thinking, yeah guys, you’ve gone over the top. But we never seemed to have. He was always incredibly supportive.
He was extremely complimentary of the show. Beyond the hat, were there ever any instances where he gave you any sort of criticism?
GY:No. I honestly don’t remember anything. I do remember the opposite of that, which is him sometimes saying, “I think you guys have done this better than I could’ve done it.” There was a scene in the first season that he would always come back to. It was an episode that Wendy Calhoun wrote. It was a really fun episode—Ava gets kidnapped by the bad guys. There’s a bit between Winona and Ava, the two women who’ve been romantically involved with Raylan. They run into each other and they sit on a bench in the courthouse. Winona knows who Ava is and Ava knows who Winona is. Elmore loved that scene. He loved the fact that they weren’t sniping at each other. There was no sort of bitchiness. They were just two people who loved and had troubles with the same man. And they were just adults and they liked each other. They respected each other. He loved that scene. Wendy nailed that.
Let’s talk about doing the show after he died. Did his death have any effect on the way you approached things?
GY:People have said the fifth season was the weakest and have asked me if that was because it was the year that he died. No. I think there were other reasons that season didn’t work as well. Interestingly enough, we were doing things in that season that were directly paying tribute to Elmore. We actually sent a crew to Florida to shoot for a few days for the opening episode where we meet the rest of the Crowe family. The fact that it focused on the Crowe family was a very Elmore thing because he loved that name and he loved that family. The fact that we had scenes in Detroit, we were paying tribute to the Detroit stories. Five had its ups and downs, and we were saddened by his death, but the man lived a great life.
When the family showed me the final page he was working on, I just lost it. They allowed me to take a picture of it and I’ve got it in my phone. I don’t show it to anyone except on my phone. It was Blue Dreams, the novel he was working on about weed and Slab City and California. He was working on a scene where Raylan comes in to talk to Art Mullen and Art says, “Maybe you should go to California and check into this thing.” That was the last thing Elmore wrote. He was bringing Raylan into the story.
There were times when we thought about ending the whole series with Raylan being posted to California. The closest we came to that was having Raylan find Ava in California.
One last thing about Elmore’s death—Tim and I, and Tim’s wife, Alexis, went to the funeral outside of Detroit. Mike Lupica was there. He was one of Elmore’s best friends, and he told this great story about calling up Elmore and asking, “So Elmore, what were you doing right now? Were you writing or were you thinking about girls?” And Elmore said, “Can’t it be both?”
The first time I met Mike Lupica was in New York. Fred Golan and I were there with Elmore when Justified won a Peabody Award. We went out that night and we had dinner with Elmore, Mike Lupica, Greg Sutter, and William Goldman. As Hollywood writers who loved to hear stories about Hollywood writers, that was one of the highlights of the whole deal for Fred and me.
You mentioned the end of the show. I know that Raylan and Winona not ending up together made some fans mad, but I think that’s very true to the spirit of Elmore’s work.
GY: There’s a wistfulness and a sadness often to the ends of his books. People don’t get everything, but they get something. They’re alive. There were a bunch of things we needed. The whole crutch was who was gonna live and who was gonna die. We didn’t check it out with Greg Sutter. He knew Elmore and Elmore’s work better than anyone. But when he saw the final episode he said Elmore would’ve loved it.
We just realized, first of all, the hero is not going to die. We’re not going to kill Raylan. We’re not going to kill Ava. The question was what’s going to happen to Boyd? We thought, you know what, sometimes bad guys in his stories live. Especially if they’re not horribly bad. The really sadistic guys? They die. But let’s let Boyd live. And that just sort of led to “well, okay, what is the final season about?” It answers the question Raylan asks himself with Winona, at the end of the pilot, which is “if Tommy Bucks hadn’t had a gun, would I still have shot him?”
So there he is in the barn with Boyd, and Boyd will not pick up the gun, and he basically says, “Shoot me.” And Raylan doesn’t shoot him. Raylan has every reason in the world to just fucking kill that guy because Boyd has done some awful, awful things. He transgressed the greatest thing you could do on Justified, which is he killed Dewey Crowe, for God’s sake. Anyone who kills Dewey Crowe deserves to die! But Raylan doesn’t kill him. That was the big thing.
Then I knew I wanted to do a time jump. I wanted to see where Raylan was. I wanted to pull a twist on the Winona thing. I wanted it to be sadder. I wanted it to be more bittersweet. You don’t always get everything in life. But I wanted to see that she was okay and the daughter, little Willa, was okay. Jason Gedrick was nice enough to come in and play the new husband. We tried to get as many people from Boomtown on the show as we could over the years.
The other thing in Elmore’s stories is that the women often get away with the money. I wanted Ava to be alive and well. And then there’s the ending with Raylan and Boyd. It was Walton who said, “Hey, what if we came back to ‘we dug coal together’?” I said, “That’s the ticket. That’s it.”
I understand several of you went to Harlan before season two to research the area.
GY: That became a tradition. So every year after that, some writers would go. I only went that first time.
What were some of the things on the show that you think directly resulted from that?
GY: The big one was Mags Bennett. That was a game changer for us. That changed the whole series. That was a story about Mags Bailey, I believe her name was, and she was a criminal matriarch in Harlan and everybody loved her. She did some gnarly things, some bad shit, but people loved her. That, combined with the fact Elmore had written his Raylan book and we had read the advanced copy. In the book there was Purvis Crowe, and he was a weed farmer, and Raylan goes up against him and his boys. We immediately optioned the book, and Elmore said, “Just hang it up and strip it for parts.” That understanding of how it works and what we need was one of his greatest gifts to the show. We plundered that book through season five. There were little bits that we would take, but we went at it big in season two and season three. The biggest thing was just taking Purvis Crowe and turning him into Mags Bennett.
Raylan, as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, is a very iconic character. At this point it’s difficult to imagine any other actor playing him. Was Timothy your first choice, or were there other people you looked at?
GY: One little side note: Raylan was played by another actor, and that was James Le Gros in a Showtime version of Pronto. He wore a hat that Elmore hated because it was such a big cowboy hat. James Le Gros ended up playing a character for us, Wade Messer, who survived through seasons two, three, four, and died in five.
There were a couple of movie star type people we had thought of as Raylan. Woody Harrelson was a good idea. Woody Harrelson would’ve been a good Raylan. He wouldn’t have been Tim. It would’ve been different. It would’ve been good. But he was going to be way too expensive, so we couldn’t go that route.
Tim’s name came up almost immediately because we knew he could wear a cowboy hat, we knew he could be scary, we knew he could be violent, we knew he could be funny, and we knew he could be romantic. He was the whole package. The middle one there was the most important one—he could be funny without being jokey. All of Elmore’s characters have a sense of humor, the ones that work. If they don’t, he either kills them off or they wander out of the story. So we always cast people who had a comic sensibility. And Tim was very much that.
He has a great smirk that really lends itself to that character.
GY: Yep. But the other thing was that he wasn’t available. So that’s why we were looking at other people. He was shooting a movie and wasn’t going to be available until Memorial Day. And then finally, we just looked at ourselves, and said, “Let’s wait.” And we got Tim. It meant the show wouldn’t come on until March, but that was okay. We were fine with that. We had our Raylan.