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'Justified' Creator Graham Yost Talks Raylan, Boyd and Season 2 Feuds

by Maureen Ryan, posted Feb 8th 2011 11:15AM
At the end of my interview with 'Justified' executive producer Graham Yost, an unexpected thing happened. He brought up 'Psych.'

Don't worry, the second season of 'Justified,' which arrives at 10PM ET Wednesday on FX, is not an homage to the USA show about a fake psychic. In its second season, 'Justified' is better than ever; it's still a rich and intoxicating blend of shaggy yet taut storytelling, sterling dialogue and terrific acting. The FX show remains deeply embedded in the world created by Elmore Leonard (who wrote the stories on which 'Justified' is based), and U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is not heading to Santa Barbara to visit Shawn Spencer.

But as Yost and I were wrapping up our chat, I said that I looked forward to watching 'Justified' because it's, well, fun.

"That's the whole goal," Yost answered with a smile.

"My whole goal when I signed on to do this show was, I wanted to do a fun show," said Yost, whom I spoke to in his Los Angeles office in January. "I wanted to do a show where people look forward to it because they're going to have a really enjoyable hour. Part of it comes out of just watching TV with my kids," who are fans of 'Psych.'

"Something like 'The Pacific,' 'Band of Brothers,' even 'From the Earth to the Moon,' and certainly 'Boomtown' -- these are shows that were incredibly well-respected and high-quality," continued Yost, who had key creative roles on all those shows. "But I couldn't say that week in and week out, they were something that people would look forward to because it was going to be fun."

But 'Justified' is that rare top-flight cable drama that offers, among an array of other pleasures, the appeal of escapism. The professional and personal life of Raylan Givens can be knotty and some of his cases take him to dark places, but the show isn't in the business of making viewers question their existences or despair over human nature.

Obviously 'Justified' is a more substantial and ambitious show than anything on USA, but one of the pleasures of the FX drama is that it wears its many accomplishments lightly. It's probably difficult to mix ambiguity and intelligence with a sense of playfulness, but 'Justified' makes it look easy.

I'll post a review of the show's very enjoyable second season Wednesday, but below, Yost talks about Raylan's new adversaries, the Bennett clan, which includes a cunning matriarch, Mags (the great Margo Martindale) and her son Dickie ('Lost's' Jeremy Davies); Loretta McCready (Kaitlyn Dever), the young character who became "the heart of the season"; the challenges of giving adequate screen time to the ensemble drama's many intriguing characters (including Walton Goggins' Boyd Crowder); and the differing demands of stand-alone episodes and serialized arcs.

This interview has been edited and condensed. There are some general indications about things that will happen in the second season, but, in my opinion, there are no spoilers.

Maureen Ryan: I watched the first three episodes and I love that I can't predict where the stories are going. How challenging is it to create stories like that yet not put people off by being too out there? Where do the germs of story ideas come from, and how do you make it so that it's challenging in a fun way for the audience to follow along?
Graham Yost: Well, it all goes back to Elmore. Talking to him about how he writes is actually terrifying because he doesn't outline, he just starts writing and he doesn't know where the story's going to go. That doesn't mean he doesn't rewrite, you know. He'll go in one direction and say, "No, I don't want to do that," and then go back and change directions. But because he's always surprising himself, he's also surprising the reader. And he really follows [the dictum], "What are the interesting characters, what would be something weird to happen here?" So, that's a little bit of our guiding principle, on the one hand.

On the other hand, we're doing a television show, we have to know where we're going because we have to plan it in terms actors whose time we buy and [having the right sets ready]. So we can't just be making it up as we go.

The way we started this season was, we visited Kentucky and we went to Lexington and we went to Harlan and we heard stories. And we heard stories for five seasons worth of material. And at least I say that now [laughs]. And we came up with an idea for a good antagonist for Raylan.

We came up with the idea of this Bennett family, which has an age-old feud with Raylan and his family. It has been peaceable for the past 20 years, partly because Raylan's been out of the state. And so we wanted to play with the idea of feud culture in that part of the world.

We also wanted to play with the idea of second chances. Raylan's got a second chance with Winona. Boyd's got a second chance. Ava [too]. Everyone's sort of got a second chance and what are they gonna do with it? One of the themes in Elmore is, do people change?

That's one of the things I was thinking about as I watched those season 2 episodes -- can Boyd change? Can Raylan change?
There you go. I would say that's the entire series is about whether Raylan can change or whether Boyd change, but primarily Raylan. So we wanted to explore that.

And then we start to craft this notion of, what is our story for the whole season? And what you'll notice in 'Justified,' [both] last year and this year, we have more standalone episodes in the first half and fewer in the second half. And by the time we get into the last three, four, five [episodes of the season, it's much more serialized]. So in our early episodes, those have more standalone elements to them, but we also have our big arcs [that start building].

Was there ever a thought about wanting to avoid the stereotypes about that region and those kinds of clans? Because, as you say, in the last few episodes, we're deep in the Bennett's territory and that feud culture.
We find out more and more about the Bennetts and the history between the Bennetts and Raylan's family [over the course of the season]. We start to get a sense of each of the brothers as individuals, where they fit into the pecking order of that clan.

And then the other character that we came up with [for the Bennett story line] was Loretta. Elmore started writing some new Raylan Givens stories and he had a story [about the Crowe family, which is related to Dewey Crowe. The story] was Pervus Crowe and his sons Dickie and Coover, and we decided to make the patriarch a matriarch and make it Mags Bennett instead of Pervus Crowe, but we liked Dickie and Coover. We added a third brother, Doyle [Bennett], who was suggested by another character in Elmore's story.

There was also this 14-year-old girl, Loretta McCready. And we just fell in love with that character. And so we said, we've got to put her in -- let's make her the client in the first episode. So it ultimately becomes about saving Loretta.

This was a character Elmore had come up with?
Yeah. She's not in peril in his story, she's just this 14-year-old kid who witnesses some events and talks to Raylan. We just loved her attitude and how smart she was. There was a moment in the story that we ended up not using in the script, where Raylan says, "You know, when you start dating boys, be kind." Because he can already tell that she's a pistol.

But when we were looking at that character, we knew, if we cast this well, she could be integral to the whole season. If we don't cast it well, then we will have to banish her. And we cast above our pay grade. We cast above the quality of our show, I would almost say. We've got such a great cast, but this girl [who plays Loretta], Kaitlyn Dever, is just stunning and is so good. And you can see in the scene with her and [a character in the season premiere], the way she held her own. We've got fun stuff for her.

And we heard that Jeremy Davies was interested in being in the show and so we said, "Well, what about Dickie?" We wrote the part and then he did an episode and we go, "That's who Dickie is. Now we get it." And so that's sort of adjusted things. So, Dickie and Coover and Doyle, the three brothers, [those characters] started to shift [based on the performances]. Joel playing Doyle -- he's incredibly charming. So let's play to that.

The biggest thing I would say is the casting of Margo Martindale as Mags. There's that one big scene toward the end of the first episode with her and Dickie and Chris Mulkey, we went "Okay. We've got a season." Now, thank God it worked out because we were already writing episodes five and six by that point...

If it hadn't worked out, you'd have been in ...
We'd have been in deep trouble.

Up a creek, as they say.
Yeah, as they say. But, let me go back, because you were talking about stereotypes. One of the things we found when we went to Lexington and down to Harlan is that, like people everywhere, they've got a sense of humor about themselves. There is a sensitivity to being portrayed as shoeless, toothless hicks; they were very happy that at no point did we ever have a character say "y'all." They said, "Please, don't have anyone say y'all." That doesn't mean the people down there don't say y'all, they just don't like the cliché.

But a couple times I heard people say, "You know, I'm watching the show and I see a character and I say, 'I know that guy.'" And I think that if we have been able to not insult people and if they have gotten a kick out of it, [that's the best response]. A lot of it, again, originates with Elmore, because he always treats his characters with respect. As he has said, there have only been a couple of characters he has written he hasn't liked in some way. He likes them, they're not stupid. They can do crazy things, but there's a twinkle...

There isn't condescension.

You know, just to focus on Raylan for a minute, he does a lot of things that aren't necessarily good. On the page, he could almost be ... not an unlikable guy, but a difficult person to empathize with, put it that way. Is that something you are conscious of in the writing of each episode, or do you know that Timothy will just kind of nail it in the performance, because he brings innate quality to the role that makes you kind of root for him?
I think it's a combination of [things]. I think we've established with the character that he's got a good heart and that he's well-meaning and that he's not a law breaker and that he has a code.

And so much of [whether a character is likable has to do with] who likes him and why. Ava's not too fond of him right now, but she was in love with him last year. And Winona, despite all the crap that's gone on between them, she loves him. And you know that [Raylan's boss,] Art, despite all the stuff that Raylan has put him through, he has affection for him.

So I think because we see things through the other characters as well, he earns a lot of trust and affection. The stuff that he does, it sort of divides the audience a little bit. There are some people who are just, "Oh man, I'm so glad he did that. I'm so glad he busted that guy in the chops." And other people are like, "Wow, really? You're a Deputy U.S. Marshal. I don't think you really should be doing that." We end up, hopefully, satisfying both sides of that.

I will say, without giving away any big story points, there is something that happens in the middle of the season where Raylan crosses a line that makes him really question himself and his future in the Marshal Service. And it's a big experience for him and it does lead him to certain revelations about himself and about his relationship with other people. And that was one of the goals early on as well.

Well, there's that line [in season 1], Winona saying, "You're the angriest person I've ever met."
You mean the line I put in so that FX would put it on the air?

Oh. Is that how that line got in there?
Pretty much. Yeah.

That came from a note from the network?
It was a note on the script. It was like, "This script was great, but we want to get the sense that there is dark stuff going on." I said to [FX president John Landgraf], "Well, what do you want, John? At the end of the episode, do you want him to go down to the basement of his house and there's a 19-year-old boy chained to the wall?" And he said, "No."

I just sat and I thought, well, what's true to this character? He's got a criminal father and he becomes a Marshal and what would that do to him? And I thought, "Oh yeah, he's probably incredibly angry." So he has some moments of self-doubt and self-reflection occasionally. At the end of the pilot [he was thinking], "Would I have shot him anyway?" He doesn't know. Because he's interested in finding out.

But I want to go back to something you said -- you know, how does he get away with stuff with the audience? And I was saying a lot of it is simply the other character's responses [to Raylan]. But a good chunk of it is Tim. Tim as [Seth Bullock] on 'Deadwood,' he was a pretty serious character. But he's done other stuff where he's been really funny. One reason I think this [role] is so great for him is because he's funny, he's charming, he's dangerous, he's scary, he's violent, he's endearing.

I feel like you have the high-class problem of having a world full people that I want to spend more time with. But how do you parcel that out? You know, this season will we get more Rachel, more Tim, more Boyd and all these other characters?
You'll see in [episode 1 and 4], there's a lot of Rachel. And then in the second episode, we thought, let's pair Raylan with Tim, let's spend some time with them. And you see this flintiness, this sort of cranky side from Tim. That was fun.

The third [and fifth] episode, we get a lot more Boyd. We felt we earned that by this season we not only earned it, but that the audience would be clamoring for it, because people love them their Boyd.

They do. To me, he is the flip side of Raylan.
He is. The careful thing with Boyd, and I hope we get it right this season -- we didn't want to have him so broken and so despondent over the events of the end of the first season that he didn't have a spark. [He talke briefly about an event in an upcoming episode that demonstrates that "Boyd is back."]

And so we have a lot of stories we want to serve. And that's the greatest challenge.

Not to give anything away, but Boyd and Ava are less antagonistic than I would have predicted this season. Is it that just me not remembering how things ended up between then at the end of season 1?
Well, where we started with him in [season 1], he had this sort of lustful attitude toward her. And then he had this religious conversion and is it real or is it a lie? That was the big question of season 1, is Boyd full of crap or does he mean it? And I loved Raylan's line, he said, "I don't know if he's full of crap, but I think he believes it." And you know, [in the season 1 finale], Raylan and Boyd are headed toward Bulletville and Raylan says something to the effect of, "So, you were sincere." And Boyd says, "Was I?"

You know, he still doesn't know. But, but something did change in him. I think the scene that, for me, concretely showed that he had changed or was trying to change was when Boyd went to Ava and apologizes at the beginning of the last episode [of season 1]. He says, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that when my brother was beating you, I didn't step in." He doesn't say those words, but that's the intent.

And those words are absolutely, 100 percent sincere?
A hundred percent sincere.

But she's not buying that.
She doesn't buy it. But he said it and that has an effect on her. And I think that also, she's alone, Raylan doesn't have any time for her [when season 2 begins] and so that's why we made that choice. You'll see where we're going with Ava, she has an understanding about herself later on this second season, and I hope people will say, "Of course."

I think the danger with the female characters in the first season is that they started to seem like they only exist as possible love interests for Raylan, and I enjoy the show so much that I want all of the characters to be as nuanced as Raylan is. Do we see more of both Winona and Ava this year?
We see a lot more of Winona, and Ava is a bit on a more of a slower boil, or [there's] slower development, but we will find things out about her and see things about her as the season progresses [to the point that,] as I said, I hope the audience says, "Of course. That makes sense."

Was the desire to do those stand-alones at the start of the season something the network requested or was it just what you found most practical? Or was it what people enjoyed?
I actually love doing stand-alone episodes because I love creating that really satisfying single hour. Because you know, you have two audiences. You're got the people who are sampling and then you've got the people who get invested. So the people who get invested want the big story. Right? And the people who are sampling don't want to feel lost.

The feeling was in the first season, the first seven or eight episodes needed to be more standalone while we built the framework for the serialized arc, then we could just go into that. Our feeling was with this season was that we could really, in terms of standalones, [do those in] the first four episodes. After that, everything is pretty much... I wouldn't say [fully serialized], but there'll be different facets [of the big story in each episode].

Obviously this show, it's the Raylan show, but it still blows my mind that there was an idea to kill Boyd off in season 1. I mean, do you just sit there and go, how can we add more Boyd?
How can we fit it in? I mean the thing is, Walton is so brilliant, if he's only in three scenes in an episode, he scores in every one.

We do feel we have an embarrassment of riches in terms of the cast and hopefully the characters, but it feels inconceivable to do the series without Boyd, even though that was the intent when we were shooting the pilot. And I would say, that also goes back to Elmore, which is being open to opportunity.

If Elmore creates a character and that character starts to speak well and interestingly and they get along with the main character, well, maybe the story's gonna go that direction. So, to a degree, that's what we did with Boyd. You know? "Well, it worked out with Walton, he's unbelievable. Let's keep going."

And as I said before, this girl, if we hadn't gotten Kaitlyn Dever we wouldn't have seen much more of Loretta in this season. Turns out Loretta is the heart of this season in a way.

What is Elmore's role in the process? Did it change from season 1, or is it the same?
It's the same. The thing that changed was the fact that he got enough of a kick out of season 1 that he started writing some more Raylan stories.

As the person running this show, was that, like, better than getting 10 Emmys?
Better than 10 Emmys. You know, that was the biggest kick that we got -- the fact that he got a kick. I say that the two best reviews we've gotten on this show was the fact that Elmore's writing more Raylan stories and that people in Harlan enjoy the show.

What he said to us was, "How about these stories? Hang 'em up and strip 'em for parts." He's got a whole story about organ theft, we're not touching that. We're going to save that for another season, but we like Dickey and Coover and we like Loretta, and we like his character Pervus, who became Mags. "Let's use that... Oh that scene... the town meeting, let's use it." You know, it's that kind of thing.

You know, I guess what's different about this show is -- of course it's an excellent cable drama, but I look forward to watching 'Justified' because I know it's going to be fun.
That's the whole goal. Listen, I love 'Boomtown,' I love 'The Pacific,' I love 'Band of Brothers.' [Those are all projects that Yost either created or in which he had a key writing/producing role.] When people ask me, I say 'The Pacific' is the best thing I've ever been a part of. I take no authorship of that, nor do I [with 'Justified']. This is Elmore Leonard's show; we're just trying to serve his vision.

But something like 'The Pacific,' 'Band of Brothers,' even 'From the Earth to the Moon,' and certainly 'Boomtown' -- these are shows that were incredibly well-respected and high quality, but I couldn't say that week in and week out they were something that people would look forward to because it was going to be fun.

And my whole goal, when I signed on to do this show, was I want to do a fun show. I want to do a show where people look forward to it because they're going to have a really enjoyable hour. Part of it comes out of just watching TV with my kids. I watch most episodes of 'Psych.' It's a fun show.

It is, definitely.
I look forward to it. It's fun every week.

Yeah. And you know, I can sit down to watch an episode of 'Justified,' and I'm pretty sure I won't end up feeling bad about human nature.
About life.

I won't have existential despair at the end of it.
Yeah. I think there's room for those shows.

There's absolutely room. I watch them all! [laughs] But it's a relief to explore something that has elements of darkness but isn't dark.

It's like, "I like these characters, they like hanging out with each other."
Yeah, Elmore's funny. We try to be funny like him.

Some might think that what's below is a possible spoiler, so read on at your own risk.

Does the Dixie Mafia figure into the season or can you not talk about that?
No, I can talk about it; it just spoils people's enjoyment of the episodes. Let's ruin Christmas while were at it. [laughs] We will see the Dixie Mafia. You'll see an episode four, there's a scene with Emmitt Arnett. Arnett played a big part in episode 7 last year, 'Hatless,' where Raylan goes to try to bail out Gary. So we see Arnett and without giving anything away, we will see [Arnett employee] Wynn Duffy later on in the season. That's our hope, as long as [actor] Jere Burns is available.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Dear Mr. Yost:
Justified is a good show - I just don't understand the use of the Lord's Name in Vain! It's really not necessary especially since "God" does not have a last name!!! Thank you for your time!

April 15 2011 at 6:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
William B

Great interview Maureen about an excellent and potential great show! Just as the show has so much to work with, so did you, and I love the combination of thoughts on the characters but also thoughts about what makes great TV and how professionally satisfying it must be for the show runner to work so successfully for and with a great author.

February 17 2011 at 9:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow what a fantastic interview! Tons of info here and it makes me look forward to this season even more. The premier was already the thing I was anticipating the most this year, and the first episode of season two didn't disappoint, they took everything up a notch. Introducing the new clan was done in such a subtle and brilliant way, and the scene with the bear trap was BRUTAL, especially as a DISH customer/employee I saw the whole thing in HD. I do wish we got to see a bit of Ava this episode because she was my favorite part of the original story Elmore Leonard wrote and she's just a great character on TV. Can't wait for next week!

February 11 2011 at 9:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is one of the best shows on TV !!!!!!!!!!! It is hilarious!!!!!!! I can't believe it didn't get any awards.

February 09 2011 at 12:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lou Sytsma

The hostage episode was my favorite from last season.

February 08 2011 at 8:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My favorite work of Graham Yost remains NBC's "Raines", but "Justified" is certainly more fun.

February 08 2011 at 2:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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