Graham Yost, a Canadian film and television screenwriter, is best known for his films Speed and Broken Arrow, and his TV series Boomtown and mini-series Band of Brothers. He has also written episodes of new mini-series The Pacific.
He is the creator and executive producer of F/X’s new drama Justified, a series that features the character of US Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), who was first featured in Elmore Leonard’s short story Fire in the Hole. Givens is a modern-day 19th Century-style lawman, assigned to cover the area in Kentucky where he grew up.
Were you a big Elmore Leonard fan and what is it about his characters or dialogue that like?
I started reading Elmore’s stuff back in the ‘80s with La Brava, and I’ve pretty much read every book since. So when Sony came to me with a short story that Sarah Timberman and Carl Beverly had found called Fire in the Hole, I loved it, and I remembered the character of Raylan Givens from Pronto and from Riding the Rap, and I loved the fact that it was set in Kentucky, which is a different place to do a show.
The thing that’s always gotten me about Elmore’s writing, I love his sense of character, that things are unpredictable. There is a great deal of humor, but violence would suddenly erupt in a surprising manner. So I felt having a shot at adapting him would be really fun. There were points when I was writing the pilot where, literally, I would be thinking, ‘What’s Raylan going to say next?’ And I would go, ‘Well, what does Elmore have him saying next? Let’s try that because that will be good.’
What was it about the concept of the show that appealed to you?
I thought it would be a change of pace for FX, in that while it’s a violent show and it’s a crime show, Raylan Givens is a hero, and he has stuff haunting him, and he’s a human being. There’s stuff in Kentucky that he’s going to have to face in our first season, but he’s a good guy, and you like him, and you are rooting for him. And that really appealed to me as a change-up.
Can you tell us a little more about Raylan Givens?
The interesting thing about Raylan is that he’s someone who grew up watching the Saturday afternoon reruns of Gunsmoke and Have Gun Will Travel. I think he’s got part of the western ethos in his mind, and that’s one of the reasons he puts on the (cowboy) hat. We ask [in the show], ‘Why do you wear that hat?’ And he says, ‘Well, I tried it on and it fit.’ So there’s a little bit of Elmore’s Western stuff in here as well as it’s a modern-day crime story. So I thought it was a nice combination of the two worlds of Elmore Leonard.
Will Elmore be writing any of the scripts?
Tim hit him up on the set when Elmore came to visit late last fall. He said, ‘Hey, do you want to write another short story that we could use?’ Which we would love. That was the big challenge, frankly, it was one thing to adapt a short story, but now we have to come up with the next story and the next story and feel the voracious gaping maw of the television series business. I suppose that was the thing I was most frightened of.
What we did was, we got every available book we could get of Elmore’s and divided them up between the writers and started reading them just to get the flavor and the style and the approach, and then we kicked around story ideas. I got these bracelets for everyone and the writing staff, and it says ‘WWED,’ ‘What would Elmore do? So we wear those, and people think we are in some kind of weird cult, but that’s okay.
Can you talk about the unique look of the show?
Michael Dinner directed the pilot and has stayed on the series as our directing producer. He wanted this to be a very clean-looking show, have a little bit of the feel of a western, but without hitting people over the head with it. So there are some shots that are iconic in the western (genre). There’s a great shot of Tim walking up to a house with a shotgun.
Has this turned out the way you envisioned it when you embarked on it?
Like any television show, it’s yes and no. There’s a lot of stuff that we knew going in, we wanted to do an Elmore Leonard show, that’s the reason I signed on, and I think the reason Tim signed on. There’s a sensibility, a way of telling stories, a way of doing dialogue and characters that I just thought would be great for a weekly television show.
Then there’s the reality of doing a show week in, week out and (things change). Walton Goggins plays Boyd Crowder, he doesn’t survive at the end of the story, but after we saw his performance we said, ‘Let’s bring him back, let’s have the bullet miss his heart.’ So those are the things you don’t know when you sign up. So it does evolve, but it’s evolving along the lines of what we hope is a good, solid Elmore Leonard show.