Exclusive Interview: Graham Yost on ‘Justified’ Season 5
Last month, FX announced to the Television Critics Association that “Justified” would end its run after its sixth season. They were also presenting a fifth season “Justified” panel that day, after which we got an exclusive interview with “Justified” creator Graham Yost.
Yost was the high concept screenwriter of ‘90s action movies Speed, Broken Arrow and <Hard Rain, Yost also created "Justified" based on Elmore Leonard’s character Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). This season sees Raylan facing the extended Crowe family, who have come to set up shop in Harlan County.
CraveOnline: I’m grateful that Elmore Leonard was here and I had the chance to meet him in these sessions. How hard was it to continue after he passed away?
Graham Yost: It was a real body blow. We all took it hard, but Tim said it very early on after Elmore died that his overwhelming feeling is one of gratitude. Gratitude that we got to know him, that we got to adapt his stuff and that we did a show that he got a kick out of. He was 87 years old. It’s not unexpected, but never welcome. It was tough, but as I say, we’re just really grateful that we got to work with him.
He still seemed so vibrant. He went as far as to write further books based on the series. What was his last involvement directly in the series?
That was his last big involvement in the series, but he was working on a novel that was going to be set in sort of border area California, ICE agents, bullfighters, sexy women, medical marijuana, slab city, salty, all this stuff and he was going to bring Raylan into the story. The last page he was writing on the day he had his stroke he was writing about Raylan Givens.
How long should we expect Ava Crowder to stay in prison?
That one I don’t want to tip. I don’t want to tip that.
Is that fun stuff to write?
It is. The challenge there was everyone raising the “Orange is the New Black” flag. When we were in the writer’s room, it’s like, “Have you seen this show?” Well, I saw a little bit. “Watch more of this show.” So I watched more of the show and it’s a great show. We’re doing a different kind of prison story and I know “Sons” have done some stuff with women in prison. There’s a certain point there, this is where our story’s going, we’ve got to do it. We just hope we don’t look bad in comparison. I’ll tell you the fun thing, and Joelle [Carter] commented on it in the panel, is writing stuff just for her. Tim has a line, “You can tell a character when you put ‘em up a tree and throw rocks at them.” So when you test a character, you see what kind of people they are.
How is Boyd going to do with the Mexicans?
That is a big part of the story. You will see. That’s a big thing in the middle of the season and there might be effects of it lingering on.
Is Boyd finally in over his head?
I think Boyd is in the water up to his chin and the water’s still rising. He can still breathe but it’s pretty touch and go. I think that there’s so much competing for his attention. He wants to focus on getting Ava out but he needs to make money and he’s made this deal with Duffy so it’s just a lot of plates for him to keep spinning.
How long into the run of Dewey Crowe did you think there could be more of these people, they could be a big storyline?
What it was is that we just decided we wanted more Dewey this season. We’d had him sit out last season. We wanted to keep him special and keep him in reserve and when we’re going to go to Dewey, we’re going to go big. So when we made that decision, what came from that was what about other Crowes? Crowes are a big part of Elmore’s books. Let’s think about bringing a real big clan of Crowes in.
Are any of the new characters also from the Raylan books?
No, but there sometimes will be little bits of dialogue or a little idea for a scene that Tim will say, “Hey, what about that bit between Purvis and Rita? How about that? Can we use that in the scene? How about this exchange?” So we’re always looking for stuff.
So all the Crowes who have joined the family this year are original to the series?
Yes, I mean we originally thought of making it Dale Crowe Jr. who was in Riding the Rap, but we don’t own the rights to that, and Dale wasn’t that specific of a character that we had to have that so we came up with Daryl. And a lot of it just became what Rapp [Michael Rappaport] was doing. Okay, then that’s it. He’s funny and he’s big and he’s charming and he’s scary, so let’s go that way.
Is “Justified” still a western with all the standoffs?
John Landgraf asked me in the first season, he said, “I’d like to see a showdown every episode.” So we’d done that and we still keep that in mind, but that can take many different forms.
By the fifth season, does the location give you new formats for those confrontations?
Well, it can. That’s part of the reason why we feel like six years is just about right, in that we don’t want to repeat ourselves. We will. There’s no question. We will just repeat ourselves and be unaware of it or kind of aware of it, but we’re really trying not to.
If you’d had access to Kaitlyn Dever longer, would you have liked to continue that storyline this season?
Listen, she’s just so wonderful that it’s hard to ever say no, but at the same time, it became a special episode. It’s like oh, when she appears, that’s fun and if she was in every fourth episode, it would start to be less fun. The same thing with Dewey, that’s why we had him sit out last year and that’s why you won’t see Constable Bob this season. As much as we love Patton Oswalt and Constable Bob and that’s one of the things we’re most proud of, he’ll sit out this season and if he’s available next year, I can’t imagine the series ending without a significant presence of Constable Bob.
That episode was so special it made me want to know what happens to Loretta. Do you have a plan for one last special episode with her?
I would be surprised if we didn’t see her again.
How many more times are we going to see Natalie Zea on Skype?
I gotta tell you, it comes into the writers room and then it leaves. We think about it and then no. Just playing with that, how much contact is Raylan going to have? What is his problem? Figuring that out and how he’ll figure that out is one of the big things we’re working on.
When it was clear that those characters were not going to last as a couple, were you already thinking ahead to other love interests Raylan might have?
Well, yeah. That’s one of the things of Raylan in the book is that, even though it’s not Tim Olyphant in the book, is still a guy who likes women, and Elmore liked women. You could read it in his books. There was always some smart talking tough woman in one of his stories. So we wanted to have that possibility. That was one of the reasons. We also just thought there’s a reason that Raylan and Winona didn’t work out the first time around. Let’s not just be too glib and have them get back together and live happily ever after. There’s also a sense you don’t want to domesticate a wild animal like Raylan, not too easily.
You had a great run as a screenwriter in high concept blockbuster scripts. Was there anything high concept about developing “Justified?”
No. The simple premise is let’s just do an Elmore Leonard show but there will be episodes that speak to my love of a tension script, a suspense script, what’s going to happen. In the second season it’s Winona takes the money out of evidence and Raylan’s got to get it back in. Last year it was the 11th episode, “Decoy,” that I wrote with Chris Provenzano and it’s “Let’s get Drew Thompson out of Harlan” and that became a suspense episode. Whether or not those are high concept, they do sort of speak to that part of my writing brain which likes those almost mechanized constructions of suspense.
When you wrote Hard Rain, was that pitch “Die Hard in a flood?”
No, it wasn’t. Hard Rain came after Speed so at that point people were switching. A friend of mine said she was actually pitched an action script and someone said it was Speed in a building. We said, “Wouldn’t that just be Die Hard?” No, that was just supposed to be a western. It was basically a modern day western and it was just so expensive to do that it kind of lost its focus in a way, although Mikael [Salomon] did a great job.
I’m still championing Hard Rain 15 years later, especially the shifting of heroes and villains.
Thank you, thank you. That was the fun central conceit of the thing. I loved writing that.
Was Speed really Die Hard on a bus?
No, it was just a contained action film. In a sense, Speed is much more of a disaster film than a straight action film.
Whatever gets people in the theater I guess, but my contention was it’s not Die Hard because there’s only one terrorist. A Die Hard movie has one hero against at least a dozen bad guys.
He has to be against an army, yeah.
Do you still work in features?
Occasionally. I write with my brother mostly when I’m doing features and we’ve got one with Mark Gordon. We’ll see if it takes flight.
We haven’t seen one from you in a while though.
Once I got back into TV, that was basically it. “The Pacific” was TV too, but that took me out of series television for a couple years. TV is very addictive. It’s just a wonderful place to work.