Interview: Graham Yost on current season of 'Justified,' Elmore Leonard and the end game for next year's series finale
Submitted by Matthew Sheehan on Thu, 03/13/2014
Next month, FX's "Justified" wraps up it's fifth season, the finale before next year's sixth and final season of the television series inspired by the stories of Elmore Leonard, centered on the late author's deputy US Marshal protagonist Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, and his ties to his old stomping grounds of Harlan County and the criminals that run it, including Raylan's old friend Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. Series creator, executive producer and showrunner Graham Yost has taken Leonard's character of Raylan from two short stories and transformed him into one of TV's most dynamic personalities. Yesterday, Yost graciously spoke via phone from Los Angeles about this season's full-circle theme, the influence Leonard still has over the show and the show's niche ability to cast uniquely perfect guest stars, including a new one for next week's tenth episode of the current, fifth season.
Q: I've been a fan of the show since the beginning. However, my one issue with the first season was the lack of Raylan's everyday, policing activities tied directly into the business of Harlan County. That part was fixed in season two as many of the usual Marshal business Raylan is responsible for is woven into the Harlan side of things, and that has continued throughout the series' run. Yet, there was one episode of such a police procedural-type story this season that, tied with many of the characters going back to their old habits, my initial criticism of season one might be wrong. This fifth season seems like the show is going coming full-circle. Do you see it that way?
First of all, I and a lot of people on the show were critical of the criticisms of the first season. "It was a good season of television! C'mon!" But a lot of the first season was us finding the show. Some episodes are dramatically better than other episodes. There were a lot of lessons. THere were a lot the network and other producers said to me, "Here's a problem." I said, "No, no. Its not a problem." But then it became, "Yeah, you were right. It was a problem." The thing also about the first season was that we could use Walton until the eighth or ninth episode. We could use for bits here and there, but he was off in Hawaii and Texas doing "Predators." So we couldn't incorporate that much of Boyd into the story. Really, the first season is a tale of two seasons. The big story kicks in with Boyd's release from prison, and it became more again about Raylan and Boyd. We felt that the first season ended well, and there were good episodes in there. It was us finding our way, hour by hour, feeling our way in the dark. In the second season, we came up with what became the template for series, which is "What is the big story for the season? Whoa re the antagonists? What are the obstacles?" That's all part of my defense of the first season. But, yes, our plan--and you'll see how the rest of these season plays out, where it leaps off and what its tending toward in the sixth and final season--is there is a full-circle aspect to what we're playing with.
Q: Going into this season, were you aware that the sixth season would be the show's last?
About a year ago, someone at FX first pitched me of doing an extended season, say 20 episodes, and break it into two, thereby extending the life of the series into seven years of the release of shows. I talked it over with the other executive producers and Tim [Olyphant]. So much of it comes down to Tim, what we want to do and what we're feeling in terms of the show. There were some people more than willing to do that 20-episode plan, but there was a feeling of exhaustion. We did not know how we'd get through a 20-episode season. We're all pretty drained after 13. But the bigger point was the amount of story we had. In the fourth season, we delayed the first curve of Raylan and Boyd until the fifth episode. In this season, they don't see each other until the fourth, then ninth episode and you'll see in subsequent episodes. There is only so many Raylan and Boyd scenes we can do because the series, ultimately, boils down to Rayaln and Harlan and, by extension, Raylan and Boyd with Ava. There was that feeling that we can see our way until a sixth season, but anything beyond that, our fear is we would either run out of story or we would start treading water and repeating ourselves.
Q: Have you had an idea in place for the end game of "Justified" going into this season or even when the show started?
We always kick around ideas, and the momentum for that kicked in last year, more than any other seasons. Sure, we've always been thinking about how the series was going to end. The first thing is that it changes year-by-year and month-by-month. I had an idea earlier this season, about six months ago, but now I've got a very different idea. We keep playing around with that, and we do talk about that. We talk about it in the writers' room and writer-to-writer. We talk about it with Tim, Walton and Joelle [Carter, who plays Ava Crowder]. Not to sound very highfalutin, but there is the old line of Eisenhower: "Plans are useless, but planning is [indispensable]." Meaning, in this case, its important we have to be thinking about how the series ends but always know that might change. And that happens episode by episode, scene by scene. We have certain goals for the end of this season, and we've gotten there, but they're not exactly what were thinking four or five months ago.
Q: The one thing I love that "Justified" does is the unique choices made for casting guest stars. Ranging from Margo Martindale in season two Neal McDonough in season three to Eric Roberts this season. Even getting Dave Foley and Will Sasso to play Canadian drug dealers. I know Foley is, but is Sasso Canadian as well?
Yes, we insisted we cast real Canadians. We were under the misapprehension that Dave Coulier was Canadian because he had a relationship with Alanis Morrisette. It turns out he's not Canadian; he's a Michigander. So we had to take him off the list. We lucked out getting Will and Dave.
Q: What do you look for when casting there guest spots?
Honestly, more than anything else, it comes down to a sense of humor. It can be a wry, very dry sense of humor. It doesn't have to be as Will Sasso and Dave Foley, who are two very accomplished comic actors. With something like that, you just know the scene is going to work. As long as you give them something reasonable to say, it is going to be fun. Then you have Margo Martindale, who has an incredible sense of humor and comic timing. She can bring that to a very monstrous part--a monster with a huge heart, but nonetheless a monster. It's really humor because Elmore Leonard's stuff is sharp with humor. There's a likeness to it, even with the darkest characters. We're always looking for that int he actors.
Q: Is there a particular charter you like to write dialogue for?
So much of it boils down to Raylan and Boyd. Obviously, Boyd is fun to write for because he has a colorful way of speaking. And Walton brings a lot to that. He'll go through a script and say, "What if I said this here? What if I extended this line? What if I cut that line?" The biggest input is Tim. On one hand, writing stuff for Raylan can be tough because Tim will throw out and come up with other things. But there is something about Raylan's attitude towards the world that is fun to write. There is a real honesty to him. There is certainly a grouchiness, a grumpiness to Raylan, a 'no bulls**t' approach to the world. He sees things in a very simple and straightforward way, but he also enjoys to turn a phrase. He likes putting things the right way to get attention, to put the criminals back on their heels, to woo a woman. All of these things, he uses words in a very particular way. The truth is, it all falls under the umbrella of Elmore Leonard. All of his characters are fun, in one way or another. Character by character, book by book, there's something entertaining about each one of these characters. To that extent, their all fun to write.
Q: I did a conference call for season two with Timothy Olyphant. I shared my observation that Raylan struck me as an extension of Elmore Leonard. Leonard never dove right into Hollywood, always walking along the edge, and Raylan walks his own tightrope between the lawless aspect of Harlan and the side of law enforcement. In this season, we see more characters walking that tightrope between right and wrong.
That's very true. Everyone in the show this year makes a deal with someone that turns out to be a big mistake. They've got a goal, they're heading for something, but they are allying themselves with people who turn out to be bad actors doing bad things. There is a tightrope, particularly with Raylan, who crosses a huge line at the end of last season. So we knew there would have to be repercussions.
Q: That reminds me of the last shot in last season's finale, where Raylan is sitting at the Givens' home in silence, staring at the tombstones. For some reason, the scene from "The Untouchables," in which Kevin Coster laments out of frustration to Sean Connery that he's broken every law he's sworn to uphold, he's "become what I have beheld." And I kind of think that might've been going through Raylan's head in that final scene of season four. He crossed a line that forever alters him and those around him he cares for.
I think you're giving Raylan too much of a self-critical sense. I think Raylan would be sitting there not out of a huge sense of satisfaction but thinking, "Well, I did what I had to do." He called it the way he called it. Raylan isn't someone to arrange the death of [Detroit mob boss] Nicky Augustine and then gone to his boss and say, "I did it." He does have some self-critical aspects: "Was that the right choice?" From the pilot, he says, "I never thought of myself as an angry man." There is some self-awareness. I don't think he was thinking about what was going to transpire. He thought he'd taken care of the situation.
Q: I see Elmore Leonard gets an executive credit, and it got me thinking. Does the thought ever come up, "What would Elmore do?" especially now that he is no longer with us?
Absolutely. You probably heard the story about the bracelets that have the letters 'WWED'--"What Would Elmore Do?" That is something that is always on our mind. It's not so much when we're at a quandary or we're in a corner and think "What would Elmore do? How would he get out of this?" It's something more when someone pitches something, and we say, "That is very Elmore." It's very much how episode nine ends with how Dewey [Crowe] drives off. When the writers came into the room and pitched me that, I said, "Wow! That is very Elmore!"
Q: Any hints as to how we can see this current, fifth season end?
Every season, we try to end with some questions but with a certain sense of completeness. In season two, the death of Mags wraps up and, to a degree, the Bennett story. In season three, it is the end of the Quarles' story. In season four, we answer the Drew Thompson question and Raylan [crosses the line]. In season five, you'll find a resolution to the story of the Crowes, but there is stuff that happens that points to where we'll be going in season six, more than any other season has lead to the subsequent season. For season five and six, we thought, in a sense, were one big season. That's something a little different.
Q: I don't know if you can tease anything for next season, but I'm guessing it'll end up coming down to something between Raylan and Boyd.
Our dream is to have everything come back to where it started, which is with Raylan, Boyd and Ava. We still don't know how we're going to get there. Then there's the wild card in the mix. You're going to see a character introduced in the next episode named Katherine Hale, played by Mary Steenburgen, who will be part of that whole, big story next year.
Graham Yost photo by John Lavet. Photo and title treatment courtesy of FX Networks.