INTERVIEW: Graham Yost (Justified Creator)

Published in The Music (NSW, QLD, VIC) and on, Jul 2015

tv-justified26IT WAS JUSTIFIED 

Chemistry is key when it comes to long-running TV, and Justified creator Graham Yost tells Daniel Cribb how he sculpted the hit show to last six seasons.

After five years on the air, the final episode of Justified aired in April this year, and although famed director, producer and the show’s creator, Graham Yost, went through the motions in terms of putting together the final scenes, it doesn’t quite feel like a reality yet. “Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder, has been on The Shield for FX and that ran seven years, and he said the odd part was not so much the end of the show, but when you didn’t get back together the following season,” Yost begins, on the line from San Francisco, where he’s splitting his time between family and scoping out his next project.

“We do feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, and it’s nice to have done a complete thing. Most people in this business have a lot of experience working on shows that get cancelled, so it’s nice to be able to walk through ‘til the end. Now I’m sort of looking for what might come next, so meeting up with other producers and performers and studio people and reading things and watching things.”

It was while reading Elmore Leonard’s classic short story, Fire In The Hole, on which the show is based, that something sparked. “It was a couple things, but first and foremost it was Raylan Givens,” Yost recalls. “I loved the way Raylan would resolve things in the coolest possible manner. And there was one scene in the first episode, in the pilot where Dewey Crowe is outside of Ava’s house and he’s got a shotgun pointed at Raylan. And most cops and marshals you’d see on television or in a movie would yell at him to put the gun down or they would kill him, and then draw their gun.

“But there’s Raylan with his hand on his gun, saying, ‘Here’s how it’s gonna go: I pull my gun to shoot and I shoot to kill ‘cause that’s its purpose,’ and he just lays it out and he talks Dewey down. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s just about the coolest thing I’ve ever read, so if we can put that kind of cool character on television we might really have something.’”

Timothy Olyphant fitted the bill perfectly for deputy Raylan Givens. “He was very funny, and is a gifted comic actor – but again, not someone who’s making jokes, but just has that timing and that approach. He’s also undeniably, incredibly sexy and romantic, and works very well on camera with the women in Justified. And so we felt that he had all these things that were required for Raylan to work – and not every actor has that.

“We were blessed to get him. It was a hard part to cast. We thought of him very early on, but he was initially unavailable, and then we just decided to shift our production schedule on the pilot to just wait for him to be available.”

It’s one thing to see potential in a piece of written work and another to develop the characters and storyline for screen, but that’s where Yost shines – as evident in his work on Speed (don’t worry, he had little to do with its questionable sequel) and Broken Arrow. “Really, it’s hiring a lot of really great writers and spending a lot of time talking about things, and trying to come up with things that feel right for that character and are also very interesting and surprising. Elmore had a very specific approach to dialogue; his dialogue was often very funny, but the characters were never telling jokes – that’s just the way they spoke; it was entertaining.”

The aforementioned character Dewey Crow was played by Aussie actor Damon Herriman and was only intended to be a short-lived asset, but the crew and audience fell in love with both the actor and character and that saw his tenure extend until season six. “Man, I can’t believe I talked to another Australian reporter and we didn’t talk about Damon. So let’s just talk about Damon from here on out. I love Damon.

“Damon is just a terrific human being and so much fun to just hang around with. We brought him into the writers’ room at the beginning of season three and put a bunch of story ideas up on the board, just to see if he’d notice – ‘Dewey gets abducted by aliens,’ ‘Dewey goes to hell,’ and he laughed when he saw that. We just had so much fun working with him and it was very difficult to kill off that character. That was one of the hardest choices we ever had to make on the show.”

Five years and six seasons on air is proof that Yost’s instinct was on point when it came to putting Leonard’s work on screen, and so it was important the final season went out in style, to honour the memory of the writer who passed away in 2013 aged 87. “He got a kick out of Justified, and that was pretty much the best review we ever got – the fact that Elmore Leonard liked the show.”

“Every character dies,” Yost jokes about the finale. “Our whole goal was to really bring the story back to the way it started, and focus down in the final season on Raylan and Boyd and Ava… I feel like we resolved it well. And we resolved it in the way that we felt was in keeping with the spirit of the show, and was in keeping with how we believe Elmore would’ve ended it.”