Interview: Justified's Graham Yost

Crédit photo: Michael Becker Interview: Justified's Graham Yost

Graham Yost had what he thought might be a nifty idea for an episode of Justified, his Emmy Award-winning series adaptation of a short story by legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard. In the series, which begins its third season Monday, Jan. 30 on SuperChannel — Justified airs on the premium cable channel FX in the U.S. — Timothy Olyphant plays a laconic, old-school lawman who works the backroads of Kentucky coal-mining country.

As Justified’s showrunner, senior executive producer and story editor-in-chief, Yost is effectively The Boss. He began his career as a writer, though, and every so often, he likes to put pen to paper — or fingers to laptop — and write a script of his own.

Yost’s idea, which resulted in the April 2010 episode, The Collection, was simple but clever. It was about an art collector obsessed with collecting the works of Adolf Hitler. After an apparent suicide at an opulent Kentucky horse farm, Olyphant’s character, lawman Raylan Givens, must track down the dead man’s missing art, which is worth a fortune on the black market.

Givens, a gentleman of good breeding and proper manners, is appalled that anyone would collect Hitler’s ratty paintings, and says so, when he finally catches up to the alleged art collector.

That, in itself, was a promising yarn for an hour of episodic TV — but then Yost remembered something his late father told him, from the time the younger Yost dreamt of being a writer. His father, Elwy Yost, was the host for 25 years of TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies, from 1974 to 1999.

Saturday Night at the Movies, fondly remembered by film buffs who made it a Saturday viewing habit, was a showcase for classic films. Yost would follow each film with interviews and feature segments with directors, actors, writers, film historians and anyone else associated with the film being shown that night. The elder Yost had a keen wit and quick mind. He was interested in finding deeper meanings behind the film being shown, and his subjects often responded.

His advice to his son was to think of an original idea, and then throw in a twist, something unique and unusual that would make the story unpredictable and give it an added kick.

Graham Yost knew that simply recreating what Elmore Leonard had written on the page in the short story, Fire in the Hole, would not be enough to serve Justified well. Yost’s TV adaptation had to be easy to follow, but also be witty, smart, acerbic, shrewd, quirky and fast, fast, fast.

So he came up with a twist for The Collection: The art collector was not just collecting Hitler’s paintings, but burning them, then displaying the ashes of each painting in a specially marked jar, with the jars neatly lined up on the shelf of a private art gallery, viewing by invitation only.

That episode summed up Justified in a nutshell. It would be a crime drama, yes, but it would be a crime drama with a difference.

Today, nearly two years later, Justified is one of television’s most honoured, critically acclaimed dramas in what many cultural historians are calling a second golden age for TV drama. Justified, together with Mad Men, Damages, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Treme, Game of Thrones and the recently retired Friday Night Lights, stand at the forefront of a new wave of adult storytelling that rivals anything on the big screen.

Yost’s father died last July, in West Vancouver, at age 86 — the same age Leonard is now. Elwy Yost was born in 1925, in Weston, Ont.; Elmore Leonard was born three months later, almost to the day, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Yost was suddenly quiet and reflective in an interview with Postmedia News, as he recalled his late father’s memory. He sees the new season of Justified as an homage to his father.

“Everything that I do in my work is an homage to my dad,” Yost said quietly. “He always impressed on me the value of taking an idea and turning it on its head and finding something different. My dad was obsessed by that. His favourite moments in movies were moments that were surprising, and yet felt incredibly satisfying. Or incredibly heartbreaking. So, for both my brother and I, whenever we see movies, we see them through the lenses that our father gave us.”

Yost says he feels the weight of responsibility — to his audience, and to himself — every time he takes on an episode of Justified.

“It’s conscious,” Yost said. “It’s always conscious — with me, with Tim (Olyphant), in the writers’ room: ‘What can we do to make this better? What can we do to make this different?’ — without it being just gratuitously different. When things work in television and movies, you give the audience what they expect, but in an unexpected way. You let them see things, on their own, by going a little deeper.”

Yost returns home often, to both Toronto and Vancouver.

“I get back to Canada as much as I can.”

Yost is also an executive producer of the DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi series, Falling Skies. The pilot episode was filmed n Oshawa, Ont.; subsequent episodes were filmed in Toronto. The U.S. cable channel renewed Falling Skies for a second season last summer; filming will resume shortly.

Justified’s coming season will revolve around a new villain, played by Neal McDonough, whom Yost first directed in the acclaimed, short-lived 2002-’03 series, Boomtown. McDonough plays a white-collar wheeler-dealer from the big city who relocates in Appalachia, thinking he’ll be able to lord it over the hicks and show them which end is up. As in past seasons, it’ll be down to Raylan Givens to show him the error of his ways. Givens, as originally created by Leonard and re-imagined by Yost, is the strong, silent type.

“He’s not one-dimensional, or even two-dimensional,” Yost explained. “There’s a lot going on there, and Tim has dug real deep to find that. Raylan gets into showdowns with people, and there are times when the anger flashes out, if something touches him that has deep meaning to him. He always has respect for the situation, though, whoever the bad guy is. He’s not a yeller. You know, Elmore Leonard’s characters don’t yell very much. And that’s a fun thing to explore in a series.”

The second season ended with the untimely passing of back-country crime matriarch, Mags Bennett, as played by Margo Martindale. Martindale won the Emmy for her performance.

Yost admits he was reluctant to kill off one of his most colourful villains, but art must be served.

“You know, we can’t just accumulate bad guys over the years, and have them all sitting around in a room like teachers on probation in New York or something, just waiting to get back,” Yost said, straight-faced. “I regret that we killed Mags. I do regret not having Margo around. She’s a great person and had a great attitude and really got a kick out of being part of that world.

“Margo is in one of those new shows, A Gifted Man. She clicked a photo on her phone to send me, and that’s now my desktop background. It’s a picture of Margo giving me the finger. So I’m always reminded when I turn on the computer.”

Justified returns Monday, Jan. 30 on SuperChannel at 10 ET/9 PT.

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