This is how I discover the existence of Graham Yost.
My BFF’s daughter is hanging out with a boy, in the way that boys and girls in their mid teens who aren’t quite dating hang out with each other. I ask the BFF what her kid, who will not appear in this story again, is up to. The BFF tells me, “There’s a boy.” The boy will appear in this story again, twice, as a momentary plot device.
“Nice kid?” I ask, because it’s what mothers always ask.
“Nice kid,” she says. “Nice family. The father wrote the script for Speed.”
“That’s random,” I say, ready to move on.
“Yeah,” she adds, “and now he’s working on a show about a U.S. Marshal and it’s based on an Elmore Leonard book and… ”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “You know someone who’s involved with Justified?”
“Is that what it’s called? Yeah. I think he’s in charge of it,” she says.
Call me Ahab. In that moment about three and a half years ago, Graham Yost becomes my white whale. Because in an era loaded with craptastic reality TV, when true storytelling has been replaced by real housewives catfighting and pretty people feigning love during rose ceremonies, Justified is pure. Pure acting, pure storytelling. Just pure. It has plotlines that flow like melted butter. It has well-established character actors playing the parts of bad guys (and girls – Justified is equal opportunity about its anti-heroes) who are bad on Shakespearean levels. It has murky morality tales, of drug dealers and money launderers and hookers and johns and cops and judges. And it’s all focused around a lead character, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, sprung from the mind of the late, great Elmore Leonard, whose cops-and-criminals fiction was a fixture in my book-loving mother’s house. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Givens is played by the smoking-hot Timothy Olyphant, who in all his lanky, smirky charm could just stand there and most women (and some men) would pay to watch.
Yost flies back and forth to his job in Los Angeles and his family home in Monterey County. And thanks to the BFF, I might just have an in.
“Um,” I ask the BFF. “You think you can hook me up with an interview?” A day or so later, an email is proffered. I use it. Soon after that, I get a phone call. He is congenial. He is charming. He is funny. And he is, at least while his son is still attending a local high school with peers who are old enough to read newspapers (or at least newspaper websites), highly reluctant.
“You know,” Yost tells me, “I just don’t want him to be known as the kid whose dad is that Hollywood asshole. Can you wait until he goes to college?”
I can wait. I will wait. In the ensuing years, I email him my amazement at Justified’s plot turns. “Really with the foot thing? Really?” I write in February 2013, after the foot of a character played by Gerald McRaney is chopped off in the Season 4 episode, “Foot Chase.” He writes back: “We are the dismemberment show.”
In March 2013 I write, “Really with the arterial spray?” He responds: “That’s the way we roll on Justified.” In April 2013, I email him about a dream I had in which I was trapped in a mashup ofJustified and The Walking Dead.
“You have to stop watching so much TV,” he tells me. I am chastened, but he’s not wrong.
Then in December 2013, I email one more time, to confirm that while the next season of Justified would be airing shortly, he still didn’t want to talk to me. In a year, he says. In a year his son will be in college and then he will talk.
That year has come. Good thing, too. Justified begins its final season on FX on Jan. 20.
He was born to it. His father, the late Elwy Yost, was a famed television host, of Canada’s Saturday Night at the Movies, bringing in a whopping audience of his own, an estimated 250,000 viewers a week at the show’s peak, according to The Toronto Star. His father planted the idea for Speed in his head, as legend has it, by telling his son about the Akira Kurosawa script Runaway Train.
Yost, a Canadian by birth, is at the top level of showrunners, responsible for the day-to-day operations for the series. He’s also an executive producer on The Americans, a period drama about two KGB spies posing as an American couple living in Virginia. That one premieres its third season Jan. 28. He’s also written or produced some of the best television of the past two decades – episodes of HBO’s Band of Brothers, The Pacific and From the Earth to the Moon. And let’s not forget Speed.
I ask for two 20-minute phone interviews, and his assistant, Sonja Blume, sets them up. When I call, she answers, “writers room” and gets Yost on the line. Graham Yost: At long last!
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Weekly: I know. Get ready for 20 minutes of your life that are never coming back.
Let’s do it.
I was reading a recent Vanity Fair interview in which you said, “You can’t write scared.” What does writing scared look like?
Ah, I haven’t read that one yet. The context of the Vanity Fair interview, though, was that people hadn’t loved season five of Justified. I honestly don’t read that many reviews. Some of them are sent to me, and the other writers in the writers room keep abreast of Television Without Pity (editor’s note: It’s a television review website with the tagline, “Spare the Snark, Spoil the Networks”) or AV Club, and glean what people are saying.
There’s an old rule, that if you’re going to believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones. And 10 good reviews don’t make up for one bad one. On one hand, it’s important to know how people are responding, and on the other hand, you have to focus on what you’re doing, one script at a time, one scene at a time and one line at a time.
So do you write the show to please yourself?
It’s going to sound sentimental, but it’s, “What would have made Elmore happy?” That’s the whole reason we’re here, because of him and his work. That’s first, and then it’s internal – what do we get a kick out of and what are we responding to. That’s a big guiding force in story breaking and script writing. And then it’s FX (the network that airs Justified). They have notes on each script and they want to know the big moves, but after the start of the season, they leave us alone and trust us. They’ll have questions or comments along the lines of, “Are you sure about this?” or “We’re not making the connection to that.” And we pay attention not only because they’re our bosses, but because [FX executives] Jon Landgraf, Nick Grad and Eric Schrier are all smart, and if they have questions we want to hear them.
Did you get to spend much time with Elmore before he died in 2013?
I didn’t get to spend enough time with him, although I talked to him on the phone a bit. I really liked spending time with him.
You’re in production right now and moving toward the start of the final season. What’s the process you go through at this point with the show?
Right now, as we speak, we’re shooting six episodes of the final 13. Eight is written, nine is outlined and then we’re starting to break the story of 10 now. By the time we go on Christmas break, episodes 10 and 11 will be written in the next few weeks and we’ll shoot through episode eight. We had some scheduling issues due to actor availability, so we moved the start date up by an episode. To give us a little leeway, we pushed the premiere date to Jan. 20.
What’s life like in the writers room?
It’s a conference room with one big table, and three white boards, dry erase boards, and we give one big board to the grid, a square foot for each episode with the target of where we want to go. And about halfway through the season, we ignore the grid. We’ll look at it and say, “Remember that 10th episode where we were going to do that?”
There’s anywhere from five to 11 of us in the room, and there’s the writers’ assistant and he records everything we say, edits it down to, say, 12 pages, and we get it back the next day to get a sense of what happened.
I will say, there is stuff that happens… I just hope the Sony hack didn’t get that far. Let’s just say we have fun. There is a lot of joking around. My brother sat in on Boomtown [a 2002 Yost creation starring Donnie Wahlberg] and he couldn’t believe how much time we waste. We might spend a half hour talking about the latest episode of Homeland, but I think it’s time well spent, because we get the work done anyway. You just sort of get it done.
The two greatest times of the day are when we order lunch and when lunch arrives.
This sounds like a fun atmosphere.
There’s cake. If it’s someone’s birthday, we order cake. We do cake for everyone. And I don’t know if I told you this, but one of the greatest things is that Mel Brooks has his office upstairs from ours, and he’s become such a friend of the show. He is the sweetest, funniest guy, the sharpest dresser. And you can talk to him about anything in terms of popular culture. He probably won’t give a long dissertation on the lyrics of Kanye West, but he knows who Kanye is. We were introduced, and I said, “Mr. Brooks, pleasure to meet you, we’re doing a show called Justified,” and he said, “Oh, Carl and I have watched that.”
Carl Reiner. (Editor’s note: For those too young to know, Carl Reiner is one of the fathers of the television sitcom.)
Not that you have a ton of free time, but what do you watch, read or listen to when you do have the time?
A lot of Jon Stewart and Colbert. I love Married on FX, and Archer, and like the rest of the world, I watch Game of Thrones. I’d been a big sci-fi and fantasy reader and I picked up the first volume and thought, “I don’t know if I have it in me to keep track of this family and this world.” But my nephew Chase, who works on Justified, he got my son to watch it and my son got me to watch it. And when Jaime Lannister pushes Bran out the window in that first episode, I said, “I’m in, I’m in. I have to watch what’s next.”
I’m just finishing up reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, and I’m reading a novel my brother has written, The Sparking, which is a supernaturally oriented horror/mystery thriller.
I’m fascinated by the concept of Amazon or Netflix releasing an entire series in one fell swoop. For whatever you’re going to do next, does that interest you?
It absolutely interests me, but I think there’s some fun to drawing it out over months and creating expectations and hunger. I’m hooked on the Serial podcast – I have my theories, and I’m not sharing them.
When we’re doing our show, we’re doing it on a week-by-week basis ourselves. We don’t write the whole season, but there is an attraction to doing a whole season at once. We finish everything before the first show airs and the whole thing is complete. There’s something fun about handing it over to an audience and saying, “Here’s a whole 10-hour story.”
I watched a documentary about a week ago called Showrunners. Have you seen it? There’s a line from one showrunner that stuck with me: “I feel as if I’ve done my job if everyone is just a little irritated with me.” Does that ring true to you?
[Laughs] For whatever reason, that’s not the way it goes on this show. The reality is, if people are irritated with me, they’re kind enough not to express it. You know, the long truth at the end of this all is that we’re going to have a boxed set on DVD and soon they will be meaningless. The show has some cache now, not as much as others and more than some. It’s well done for everyone involved, but it will fade from memory. I think what I’ll take away from it are the relationships, and the moments of laughing in the writers room harder than I thought I could ever laugh.
Ultimately, it’s the experience that counts. You try to do something that counts. Our job is to entertain people for an hour. Did we do that? Yes? Then we’ve fulfilled our purpose.