In the writer’s room with Graham Yost

Justified showrunner Graham Yost talks to Playback about his screenwriting style and bringing Raylan Givens to the screen, leading up to the Toronto Screenwriting Conference March 31 and April 1.

Leading up to the Toronto Screenwriting Conference March 31 and April 1, Playback will feature Q&As with some of the all-star cast of writers leading the conference, which takes place at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in downtown Toronto.

Graham Yost is the showrunner on Justified, the FX series starring Timothy Olyphant, based on a character created by novelist Elmore Leonard. He has written scripts for film, such as Speed and Broken Arrow and TV, such as Band of Brothers and Boomtown (creator). Here, he tells Playback about bringing Raylan Givens and Justified to TV, his screenwriting style, and what he’s thinking in the TV writer’s room.


PB: Justified is based on the Raylan Givens character from Elmore Leonard’s short story, Fire in the Hole. The show had a big debut on FX. What made you think the Justified character and series would make it as an ongoing series?

GY: Raylan is a hero.  Sure, he maybe shoots too many people (less so now than in the first season), but I thought he would make a great central character for a TV show.  He rarely yells and can often get out of most dangerous situations without having to pull his gun.  I also thought it would be interesting to do a show set in Kentucky.

PB: Justified is different from earlier TV series’ you’ve worked on, like Pacific and Band of Brothers. What was it like to go from TV work on those series to doing another Elmore Leonard adaptation? They seem like very different properties.

GY: The big difference is that Justified is fiction and Band and The Pacific were fact-based (not that we didn’t take a lot of license in depicting events).  We had a responsibility to history — and the men — when doing those miniseries.  Our only responsibility on Justified is to entertain.

PB: You’re adapting another writer’s character – a well-known writer with a specific style. Tell us about that process. How did you put together the writing staff?

GY: There were points in adapting the novella into the pilot where I simply re-typed Elmore’s writing.  I believe the trick of adapting Elmore is to be true to his vision and approach.  Be funny (but not jokey), have violence suddenly erupt in weird ways and hew to character. In hiring a writing staff the first year it was simply (though by no means simple) a matter of finding writers who liked Elmore and had that mix of humor and threat.

PB: What goes through your head when you’re in the TV writer’s room?

GY: Is that a good idea?  Is it different?  Is it fun?  Has it been done recently on another show?  Is it true for the characters?

PB: I read elsewhere that you describe your screenwriting style as “Treat characters with dignity and have a sense of humour.” If that’s true, can you expand on that approach?

GY: Elmore has said that, with a few exceptions, he has liked all his characters, even the really bad guys.  It’s important to remember that every character is the star of their own series.   And, they seem smarter and are more interesting if they have a sense of humor.

PB: Next up, you’re writing Major Matt Mason, which is based on a Mattel action figure. What drew you to this project? How is it different from what you’ve written previously?

GY: It probably won’t be called that, but the toy — which both Tom Hanks and I played with as boys — was the starting point.  It has given us the chance to go back to Moon.  We met when I came aboard his HBO miniseries on the Apollo program, From the Earth to the Moon.  We are both die-hard space geeks.

PB: You wrote Speed and Broken Arrow, too. Is there an internal switch that you flick when you move between TV writing and writing film scripts?

GY: The big switch is between writing something that has to be wrapped up in two hours vs. a series where you can explore character and plot for a long time (if you’re fortunate).

PB: What advice would you give to up-and-coming screenwriters?

GY: Write what you want to see, not what you think will sell.  Passion counts.  A lot.