The explosives have begun to go off in the “Year of the Crowes” FX’s Justified with just two episodes left. Art Mullen’s (Nick Searcy) been shot and his deputies need to step up while he lies on a hospital bed in critical condition. Raylan Given’s (Timothy Olyphant) struggle with the Crowe family reached the point of no return, as has the partnership between Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Wynn Duffy (Jere Burns). Oh and Ava (Joelle Carter) has just asserted herself as an alpha in the prison system and builds her own criminal rep. Five years in, Justified continues to help lead the pack of superb television and as always there are plenty of cogs in motion, and we’ve got Executive Producer/Showrunner Graham Yost on board to talk about this current and next year’s final season, how their writer’s room is unique, and finding time to help produce FX’s other hit winter drama, The Americans.
Buzzfocus: What’s your impression of how Season 5 has gone, what worked and what didn’t work?
Graham Yost: I really don’t read the reviews or the comments but a lot of the writers do. So I hear secondhand that the audience is done with any stand alone episodes so that’s something that will help guide us into next year. I understand that. The reality is that we’ve got the audience we’re going to get. It went up a little this year and got our highest ratings, but pretty much we’ve got who we’ve got. There are people who obviously like the show or they wouldn’t be coming back and so they’re invested in the big story and that’s going to guide us moving into next year. Overall I think the response has been pretty strong.
Then from a writer’s room perspective?
GY: The casting of Michael Rappaport (Darryl), Alicia Witt (Wendy), Jacob Lofland (Kendal) and A.J. Buckley (Danny) as our Crowes have really worked out. One of the joys working in television is writing characters and then casting and then seeing what they do with it, then watching it and saying, ‘Ooh yeah, let’s see more of THAT!’ or ‘Let’s give that guy as much as we can.’ A.J. playing Danny really popped for us this year as did Michael and Alicia from the jump. Jacob too. So that’s something that became really fun and we wanted to keep going in that direction. A couple of episodes in we realized that our plan was going to work because these people are great.
It’s been out there now that Boyd, Wynn and others have survived their early deaths, and the direction of the show can change mid-shoot. So I wanted to know what that does in the writing process, how does it shake up the overall plan of the season? How deep do you go before you realize that you’ve got to change it up?
GY: In terms of Boyd that goes back to the very genesis of the show, when he was supposed to die in the pilot and that gave us the series with the relationship between Raylan and Boyd, everybody knows that. We also had to make a decision early on with Ava and would she be coming back. We said, yes, we loved Joelle, and what she did with the character and she became a big part of the series. A lot of the choices we’ll make between the seasons, for example, you could’ve said that Wynn Duffy died at the end of the “Hatless” episode in Season 1, but we just loved what Jere was doing–so much that well, no one pronounced him dead. So let’s keep him alive.
We’ve made decisions like that on characters as we go. Listen, Johnny Crowder was supposed to die at the end of the first season; he got shot in the stomach and that’s not supposed to be survivable. Again, unless you see someone performing the last rites or a flatline on the monitor, they’re not dead… unless they blow up. [Laughs] But we just loved what David Meunier was doing and the character was fun to write for so that became a big part of the series as well.
Each episode has so many moving parts and the culture of the Justified set is very collaborative open to input from the cast and the writers on hand during shooting. Could you explain how you’re able to manage the scope of each season? It seems like there would be a lot of re-writes along the way as these big decisions are made.
GY: Oh there’s a lot of re-writes! Some episodes will go triple-white or triple-blue, which is where we’ll go through all of the (12) shooting script colors a third time, for sure at least twice. Most of those are minor changes based on production. A lot of it is the input of the actors. Then we’ll have a little talk. Me, and writers Fred Golan, Dave Andron or whoever the writer of the episode is who’s been working with the actors. If it’s scene work, then we say fine, just inform us to what is adjusting or changing. If it’s structural, then we might all get together and discuss it. There’s been those Sunday afternoon conference calls to talk about something Tim (Olyphant) wants, or something Walton (Goggins) wants, or whatever. Can we make that work? Sometimes what happens and this is sort of my managerial mistake is I just lose sight of when they know where the story is going, how far in advance we have plotted out for them and where this particular episode is leading us.
So they might bump on something in an episode and I’ll get together with them and tell them, this is where we’re going and this is where we need to get to. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say okay, great I understand and roll on. Occasionally there are times when they don’t get that and maybe we all gather in the room and say, ‘course adjustment’. Last year we had a situation where we had a plan for the middle of the season and Tim wasn’t interested in it and rightfully so. We wound up finding a different place to go for the middle episode. This year everyone knew we had a tough juggling act this season because we had three stories running, Raylan’s, Boyd’s and Ava’s. So keeping them all moving forward was a challenge. It was difficult production-wise, script length, cost–a lot of things. As you’ll find at the end of this season, it really points the direction of where we’re going next year and you can see where things are coalescing.
On that point, talk about the decision to break Ava out into her own from being a supporting character to having her own journey apart from the rest of the cast and emerging as one of THE main characters alongside Raylan and Boyd.
GY: Originally, when we were breaking Season 5, we started to have serious discussions about Season 6 as well and where we wanted the series to end up. We still don’t know–absolutely–how the series is going end up but we know the direction we’re headed in. Once we had an idea about that, then that gave us certain goals about Season 5. Without tipping anything off, there came to us a desire and feeling for the whole series to come full circle and the idea of headed back to where we began, which is the relationship between Raylan and Boyd and Ava. Those would be the central three characters of the crime story. Also we were thinking about the relationships between Raylan and Art, Raylan and his fellow deputies Rachel and Tim, and how all of that would come into play, plus Wynn Duffy. Once we got a notion of where we could go next year, that helped guide us this year. Part of it was that we knew that Ava was going to jail. What could we do with that? What could her experience be over the course of the year? That would then set us up for where we wanted to go next year.
It’s so creative what you guys have done so far and how each episode takes a life of its own. If you lay out all of the episodes, you’ve even structured the flow of the seasons differently, placing the climax at different points of the season, as well as moving the emotional peak. Looking back, was that something that was by design?
GY: I think that was always in the plan, just in the nature of the show. A lot of that goes back to our father, our mentor, our guiding star in all of this, which is Elmore Leonard. One of the great thing about his writing was that it was endlessly surprising. Now, the reality is if you read 20 of his books, you can see certain patterns emerge, and ultimately it’s not as surprising, you know? Something is going to happen and that in of itself can be a trap. But when we’re dealing with television, our feeling was that we could make it to the end of six seasons without repeating ourselves too much.
We have repeated ourselves, but usually with a spin on it, but that was always our fear. We just never wanted to be treading water, or going over old territory, which is why you’ll see starting with Season 4, Raylan and Boyd don’t cross paths that much. We’d done so many Raylan and Boyd scenes, how could we do it differently this time? So that was a big choice. That hamstrings us to a degree, because we know the audience wants those scenes but they don’t want to be bored by them. That’s been a difficult path to chart.
So many great characters have emerged from the background, like Dewey (Damon Herriman) this year, Ellen May (Abby Miller) and Shelby (Jim Beaver) last year. It’s no secret that two characters fans want to see more of is Rachel (Erica Tazel) and Tim (Jacob Pitts). Will we get to see the spotlight put on either of them by season 6?
GY: Yes. Season 5 was a slim year for them. You will see in the last run of episodes 11, 12, and 13 them being a bigger part of the story. At the end of the season there’s something pointing forward especially with Rachel, but Tim will come along as well.
So I’d like you to speak with you about these suspenseful standoffs where sometimes people get shot, sometimes not. Can you talk about creating these moments?
GY: Part of that was in the original plan of the series that was the marching orders of FX Network president John Landgraf in the first season where he said he’d like there to be a showdown in every episode. That can take different forms, and it doesn’t have to be in the fourth act. We talked in Season 2 at the end of I think the fifth episode, where Raylan is talking to Loretta (Kaitlyn Dever) and there’s a showdown in that. He’s offering help and she’s pushing back. Will she take the cell phone that he’s giving her and that’s the showdown. Will he accomplish what he wants? He does.
Then we get the diner sequence this season in episode 505: Shot to Hell, which was so intense.
GY: The one between Art, Wynn Duffy, Picker (John Kapelos), and the hit man from Detroit Elias Marcos (Alan Tudyk) and the worst bodyguard in the world, Mike (Jonathan Kowalsky). [Chuckles] That became the center point of the episode in many ways. Boyd had his shenanigans going on in the episode as well with Paxton, Mooney and raising the dead. When Chris Provenzano turned in that scene, that’s it, minor tweak here and there but that is a great scene. Those are fun to write, and when we get a great director, in that case it was Adam Arkin, and those great actors, it’s really a fun five-six minutes of television.
I think these are some of Justified’s best moments, but you’ve also managed to keep them fresh, how so?
GY: Another thing that goes back to Elmore and this is one of Tim’s formulations and he says in a lot of Elmore’s writing someone is either going to get fucked or someone’s going to get fucked. Sometimes there will be a sexual tension, and is the hero going to bed down with a woman he just met? The other version, is someone going to die in this scene? And you just don’t know. These people are able to do anything at any time.
So for us that means we have to have new characters coming to the show so the audience doesn’t know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. If you keep doing Raylan Boyd, Raylan and Ava, Boyd and Ava… you know there’s not going to die [pauses] at least through season five, although we’ve had some dramatic exits in Season 5. The difference becomes in Season 6, to a degree, everything is up for grabs and we’ll see how that plays out. We do want that sense in Season 6 that, ‘Oh dear God, anyone can die at any moment’. Probably not Raylan, but it’s always a danger. By the way, Raylan might and we haven’t figured that out yet.
That’s nuts, because when I spoke to both Joelle about Ava and Nick about Art respectively, for this season I expressed my fear for their characters as the way the season has been dovetailing. There are rumors that a dramatic death will close out the season, but honestly, that could happen at any point, given how we discussed the way you’ve changed the formula each year. So the show has created this dangerous climate.
GY: Mm-hmm. Yeah and we like to use that with the actors. If Nick (Searcy) is giving me any grief, I’ll tell him, ‘Buddy, this is a cop show, anyone can die at any time.’ Then Nick punches me in the face, then we go on our merry way. [Laughs] No. That it can go sideways at any point is part of the Elmore effect.
What time do you get to work on The Americans?
GY: Unfortunately, we have the same schedule so it can get a little crazy at times, especially in January and February when both shows are headed towards the conclusion of their seasons and the schedules get tighter. I’m a producer on The Americans so I’m not a writer. That’s all Joe Wesiberg and Joel Fields, Josh Brand, and Stu Zicherman and their great team. Especially in the first season Joe and Joel would call if they had questions about the network or about production or whatever and I would give my experience if not my advice. But they’ve got a lot more experience now so those calls have become fewer. Now it’s basically hearing the pitches along with Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey from Dreamworks, give whatever comments we have and watch the cuts and they’re free to take them or not. That’s the life of a non-writing producers.
As a collective you all deserve kudos on that show, especially for being one of the only folks in Hollywood to find a way to make the Russians the good guys.
GY: Yeah, someone said that you’re rooting for them to lose but you’re rooting for the marriage and the family to survive. I think that was one of John Landgraf’s original formulations for the show. Joe really took that to heart. So he’s created this great marriage-and-family drama as well as a great spy show. They’re the bad the guys and yet they don’t see themselves that way, at least not yet.
Even though it’s a period show, do you keep an eye as to what’s going on currently in Russia and Ukraine, not to bleed into the show, but perhaps you are monitoring the developments?
GY: Well, you’d have to ask Joe and Joel about that? I know it is a period show and there are echoes that come up in the present, but they don’t like to hit those over the head. One truth about Russia I remember years ago writing about the KGB back before I was really writing scripts, was that it’s a country with an incredibly powerful secret police since the time of Peter the Great, whether it’s the NVKD, the KGB, or I forget what they call it now but it’s always been that way at least for 500 years. So there’s a degree to which whether it’s Communists, or Klepto-Capitalists, or whatever, there’s a certain character of how things worked there for quite a long time that holds true to today, considering (Vladimir) Putin was a KGB Officer – things haven’t changed.
The women characters on the shows on Justified and The Americans are written so well, and you have some great women working on each staff, Ingrid Escajeda, Jennifer Kennedy (and Wendy Calhoun in the past) on Justified. Can you talk about how much they put into those characters?
GY: I think it’d be kind of I don’t know if the correct term would be sexist, like if we had a scene with Ava, maybe we should have Ingrid or Jennifer take a look at it. But both Ingrid and Jennifer are good writers and can write stuff that’s hard boiled as well. We have a lot of male writers (Benjamin Cavell, Taylor Elmore, Dave Andron to name a few) can write great stuff for Winona, Ava, Katharine Hale, so we all write everything.
Tell me about Mary Steenburgen’s character Katherine Hale and how such a sweet woman found a way into Wynn Duffy’s heart.
GY: [Laughs] You’ve found out a little information in these last two episodes. She’s not in episode 12, but she has a significant scene towards the end of episode 13 and that’s all I’ll say. You’ll find out more and more about what her position was in her late husband’s criminal enterprise. That also points towards the last season. As I said earlier in planning Season 5 we were thinking about Season 6, so we’re thinking in the sense it’s all one big story. Season 5 is the Year of the Crowes and in 6, we’d sort of bring it all down. We needed to have something big and criminal going on and Katharine Hale will have a big part of that.
Mary’s scenes are so rich and she’s always excellent in whatever she does whether it’s Wilfred or Last Vegas. She knows how to draw you into her lacework, so I can see what Wynn finds in her.
GY: Mary wasn’t that familiar with the show or with Elmore, but her husband Ted (Danson) is a big fan of Elmore. That helped us get her and her son is a fan of the series so she got talked into it. I think she enjoys playing the part of someone who on the surface is a sweet, southern belle, but is ultimately quite lethal.
Now looking back is it strange that Arlo may have had an anchoring effect on Raylan? It seems like having that soul-sucking force in his life kept him somewhat on the straight and narrow. Now he seems a little rudderless, staying away from Winona and the baby, and fighting with Art.
GY: That’s the story of the season and that’s one of the big stories for the rest of the series–the fallout with Art–there’s a future episode where he talks about him being the one guy he cares about. Well, he cares about Winona and the baby too, but there’s a lot of meaning in what he says. That relationship couldn’t have fractured as much if Arlo was still around in a way. I don’t know if we’d have room in the story. But with Arlo gone, there is sort of a vacuum and now he’s fighting Art.
Before we wrap, is there a chance that Limehouse makes an appearance this season or next?
GY: As we saw with his conversation with Dewey and Raylan, I always said I couldn’t imagine the series ending without seeing Dickie Bennett again. I couldn’t imagine this series ending without seeing Limehouse.
Are we ever going to see Boyd have something go right for him?
GY: [Laughs] This season? Listen, I think Boyd’s story is always about things going right and then there are ramifications for those things going right and now there’s a new set of problems. I think the same holds true with Ava. The only character who has a more of an unblemished win is Raylan but even his story–the end of last season he conspired to murder the guy who tried to kill his family. That’s some success but there’s a lot of fallout from that. That’s always part of the fun of the story for us is that nnnnothing ever works out perfectly for any of these people. There’s always a cost.
There are two episodes left in the current season of Justified, tune in Tuesday nights at 10pm on FX.