'Justified' Creator Aims To Stay True To The Late Writer Elmore Leonard

'Justified' Creator Aims To Stay True To The Late Writer Elmore Leonard

3:29pm Mar 26, 2015
Timothy Olyphant plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on FX's Justified, which is based on a novella by Elmore Leonard. The show's creator, Graham Yost, says the only "tussle" the writers had with Leonard happened during the pilot, over which hat Rayla
Timothy Olyphant plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on FX's Justified, which is based on a novella by Elmore Leonard. The show's creator, Graham Yost, says the only "tussle" the writers had with Leonard happened during the pilot, over which
Prashant Gupta / FX
  • Timothy Olyphant plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on FX's Justified, which is based on a novella by Elmore Leonard. The show's creator, Graham Yost, says the only "tussle" the writers had with Leonard happened during the pilot, over which hat Rayla

    Timothy Olyphant plays Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on FX's Justified, which is based on a novella by Elmore Leonard. The show's creator, Graham Yost, says the only "tussle" the writers had with Leonard happened during the pilot, over which

    Prashant Gupta / FX

  • Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant, left) meets with security expert Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt, center) and gangster Avery Markham (Sam Elliott). Yost says the show is violent but it can't be too violent because of the network's parameters.

    Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Olyphant, left) meets with security expert Ty Walker (Garret Dillahunt, center) and gangster Avery Markham (Sam Elliott). Yost says the show is violent but it can't be too violent because of the network's parameters.

    Byron Cohen / FX

  • Walton Goggins plays Boyd Crowder on Justified. His character almost died in the pilot, but the writers liked his chemistry with actor Tim Olyphant, so they decided to keep him alive.

    Walton Goggins plays Boyd Crowder on Justified. His character almost died in the pilot, but the writers liked his chemistry with actor Tim Olyphant, so they decided to keep him alive.

    Prashant Gupta / FX

The FX series Justified, which is in its sixth and final season, is based on the novella Fire in the Hole by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was an executive producer of the series until his death in 2013. The show's creator and showrunner, Graham Yost, says he has made it his mission to stay as true as he can to Leonard's vision and storytelling style.

"Ultimately I look at this show as Elmore Leonard's show, and we're all in service of him and his view and his way of writing and creating these characters," Yost tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So whatever feels like it works within that world is something we're open to."

Set in Harlan County, Ky., which is coal mining country, the story revolves around two men who have known each other since they were in the mines together as teens: Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, and Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. Raylan is now a deputy U.S. marshal and Boyd is an outlaw whose criminal activities include robbing banks. Raylan wants to move to Florida to reconnect with his ex-wife and their 5-month-old child, but first he wants to bring Boyd down, which means catching him when he pulls off his next heist.

The show is violent, but Yost says he and the writers have to walk a line to keep the network happy.

"Elmore's world is a violent world," he says. "In the best Elmore scenes, you think that something is either going to take a hard turn into romance and some kind of liaison, or it's going to take it the other way and go into violence. There's often something oddly humorous about the violence in Elmore's movies and in his books."

The show relies so heavily on Leonard's vision that Yost says fans who want a peek into how the show might end should read Leonard's works.

"Not because that will tell you how the series will end," he says, "but because it's always a good idea to read some Elmore Leonard. But there is, in his world, a certain way of ending things, and we aim for that."

Yost is also a producer of the FX series The Americans.


Interview Highlights

On the character of Boyd, who starts the show as a white supremacist

It's more interesting to me if [Boyd] is using the skinheads as cannon fodder in his desire to rob banks. And ... in the pilot, Boyd doesn't go into the bank, he sends two other guys in. He blows up a car first to distract the law enforcement and then drives up to the bank [while] two other guys go in and do the dirty work and come out with the money. I just liked him as this character who was manipulating other people.

When we decided to keep Boyd alive, that was a big decision. When we shot the pilot, Boyd was dead at the end of [it]. And then we tested the show and we had all just fallen in love with Walton [Goggins] and the chemistry between Walton and Tim [Olyphant], so we decided to keep him alive.

So what emerged was the notion of this character, Boyd, as being someone who will come up with a new scheme, a new way of looking at the world, and he'll seem to totally believe it. But it can be very different from what he had been doing in the past.

On creating authentic bad guys

We didn't do any research down in Harlan before we started writing the first season. But between the first and second season, a group of us — I think five or six of the writers and [the producers] — we all went down to Lexington and met the marshals. And then we went down and spent a few days in Harlan.

And one of the first things we heard — I remember [we] were out on an ATV tour up in the hills, and one of the guys [said] that he recognized a lot of the characters that we had created in the first season, and that gave us a big collective sense of relief that we weren't so far off the mark.

Again, we were always trying to apply Elmore's rules of making characters interesting and having them speak well and be smart and clever. Yes, we've filled that part of the world with a lot of bad guys, far more than there actually are, but I was always hoping that people in Harlan would view our show in the same way that people in New Jersey view The Sopranos, which is, "OK, it's not reality, but it's fun." We didn't want to ever insult people so we always tried to keep our bad guys pretty clever. I think if you create a lot of stupid characters, that's insulting, but if they're interesting bad guys, I think that's sort of fun.

On the "verbal fireworks" of the show's dialogue

I think to a degree over the course of the seasons we've kind of gone farther even than Elmore might have into the colorful nature of the language. But I have to say, we just had so much fun doing it. [The] particular line, "You're a card in fate's right hand," that's [writer] Chris Provenzano — I can see his fingerprints on that one. ...

There are certain characters, specifically Boyd — Boyd is just a blast to write. There was a line, in fact, that I wrote in season four where a character says to Boyd, "Man, you'll use 40 words when four would do." It can be a bit of a trap for writers — we can kind of get into it almost too much and have to peel it back a little because we don't want to go way over the top, although I'm sure at times we have. But it's a great freedom.

On working with Elmore Leonard

[Leonard] had spent probably 10 years in the '60s and '70s writing screenplays for Hollywood and he got out of that business because he didn't like getting notes: ... change this character, move this scene around, do this, do that. ... So he lived by that: He didn't give us notes. The only tussle ... we had over the pilot was the hat — that he saw much more of what's called a "businessman's Stetson" on Raylan, basically the kind of hat that the troopers were wearing escorting Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him. We tried that hat on Tim and it just didn't look great — it didn't look as [good as] a more regular cowboy hat did. That was about the only big fight we had with Elmore on the whole thing.

I joked with him after he had seen the pilot and he really liked it, and I said, "Of course you really like it, 90 percent of the dialogue is from you." Because I felt if you're going to adapt Elmore Leonard, [you should] use as much as you can of him.

On how Justified will end

I was on a showrunner's panel several seasons ago and [Terence] Winters [of Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos] was talking about Boardwalk [and] said he wanted Nucky to live long enough that he could go into a New Jersey diner and kill Tony Soprano. I said, "I don't know how Justified is going to end, but I think I know what song is going to be playing somewhere toward the end." ... We got hooked on playing this great country song "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" — we used it at the end of the first season and the second season, I think we skipped the third season, but we know that will play a part of it. ... It's just the question of who will live and who will die.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The FX series "Justified" has only three episodes left in its sixth and final season. My guest, Graham Yost, is the series creator and showrunner. Yost is also a producer of the FX series "The Americans." He wrote the screenplay for the film, "Speed," he wrote episodes of "From The Earth To The Moon," "Band Of Brothers," and "The Pacific" and created the NBC series "Boomtown." "Justified" is based on the novella "Fire In The Hole," by Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of "Justified" until his death in 2013. There's a lot of colorful bad guys in this series and terrific dialogue. Set in Harlan County, Ky., coal mining country, the story revolves around two men who worked in the mines together when they were teenagers, Raylan Givens, played by Timothy Olyphant, and Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. Raylan is now a deputy U.S. marshal. Boyd is an outlaw whose criminal activities include robbing banks. Raylan wants to move to Florida and reconnect with his ex-wife and their 5-month-old child. But first, he wants to bring down Boyd, which means catching him when he pulls off his next heist. In this scene, Raylan pays a visit to Boyd. Boyd is standing outside the home of his fiancee, Ava.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED")

WALTON GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Raylan Givens.

TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Look at you, hopping to like Mr. Hospitality. You must be hiding something good.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Arms aloft in a welcoming stance? Not I.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Surely something good is going on inside.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Well, you do have a tendency to interlope in moments of high drama. But this ain't one of those moments.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Do you even know when you're lying anymore, or is it just like blinking?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) What do you want, Raylan, leftover chicken? It's all been ate.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) What happened to the big bad man, called out 24 hours to get 'er done?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Afraid I don't understand your reference, Raylan.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) I'm asking where your [expletive] are at. Are you going to pull off the job, Boyd? Or am I going to die of anticipation?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Is that why you came, to help me find my [expletive]?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) I came to tell you I'm tired of waiting, tired of the bull-[expletive]. I've been lying to you, Boyd.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Well, now we're getting somewhere.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Keeping up the fiction that I've got all manner of things tying me to Kentucky, things that forestall my moving to Florida. But there's only the one thing - you.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) You want to lean in for a kiss?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Is that what you think this is, another one of your love stories?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Oh, well, I do like happy endings.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Well, this is one of them classic stories where the hero gets his man. Then he rides off into the sunset.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Ha ha. Or maybe it's like that other classic, where a guy chases a whale to the ends of the earth only to drown for his troubles.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) I've got to admit, there's a small part of me that's going to miss this when it's over.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Well, don't eulogize the past 'til the future gets its turn.

GROSS: That's a great scene (laughter).

GRAHAM YOST: (Laughter).

GROSS: Graham Yost, welcome to FRESH AIR. I can't wait to see how "Justified" ends.

YOST: Oh, thanks for having me on, Terry.

GROSS: So the end of that scene is kind of, like, a joke about how is the series going to end. Will it end with the hero, Raylan, capturing his man and riding off into the sunset? Or will it end more like Captain Ahab, who is defeated by the whale he's obsessed with killing - or maybe something that doesn't follow either of those narratives. (Laughter). So can I ask you the kind of feeling you are going to want viewers to have at the end? I can't imagine this being a "Sopranos" ending that's ambiguous. That wouldn't work in a crime show like this.

YOST: No, I was on a showrunners panel several seasons ago. And Terry Winters was on that. And he was talking about how "Boardwalk Empire"...

GROSS: And he did "Boardwalk Empire," right - yeah, and "The Sopranos."

YOST: He did "Boardwalk Empire" and he was on "The Sopranos." And he's - so we were being asked how are our series going to end. And Terry, talking about "Boardwalk" said that he wanted Nucky to live long enough that he could go into a New Jersey diner and kill Tony Soprano.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOST: And I said, I don't know how "Justified" is going to end. But I think I know what song is going to be playing somewhere toward the end. We got hooked on playing this great country song, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." We used it at the end of the first season and the second season. I think we skipped the third season. But we know that'll play a part of it. You know...

GROSS: OK, so someone is going to die. (Laughter).

YOST: Well, you know, it's just the question of who will live and who will die.

GROSS: Right.

YOST: And I guess my only sort of thing I will - I say to people is to get a sense of how we might end this thing, read Elmore Leonard, not because he'll - that'll tell you how the series is going to end, but because it's always a great idea to read some Elmore Leonard. But there is, in his world, a certain way of ending things. And we aim for that.

GROSS: Ava is a character who had been the girlfriend of Raylan Givens, the federal marshal who is the hero of the series. And then, after that, she became Boyd's girlfriend. And she's kind of in on things with Boyd. But Boyd betrayed her. And now she's become a snitch for Raylan. And we actually never know, like, where is she for real? Whose side is she really on? Who's she playing? 'Cause everybody in the show is double-crossing and triple-crossing each other. There's, like, all these, like, double double-crosses. And it's - you never know which way somebody's going, except for Raylan, who's more or less on the side of justice all the time. But you never know what game he's playing either. Anyways, at this point, I'm going to ask people who are "Justified" fans but have not yet caught up with this week's episode to put their hands over their ears or join us in about two minutes, OK, fair? Spoiler...

YOST: Fair enough.

GROSS: OK, so here we go. So in this week's episode, when Ava kind of has to decide which side is she on - is she on the side of Raylan, for whom she's become a snitch, or is she on the side of Boyd and is about to run away with $10 million to a new life with a new identity? So I was very surprised when the decision she makes is to shoot Boyd, to shoot Boyd and tell Raylan she's making off in the truck with the money. And there's no way she's going to go back to prison because...

YOST: Yeah, that one.

GROSS: She's been in prison. And Raylan got her out of prison under the premise of you'll become my snitch, and I'll get you out. So I never expected that.

YOST: That is - that is very gratifying to hear because we were kind of afraid. There was a teaser trailer that FX produced at the beginning of the season where you see Boyd and Raylan in a house. And the house catches fire, and you see Ava lock the doors. And we were afraid that that was going to give away our big surprise for the season, which was that Ava chooses a third path - that, you know, you've got Raylan wanting to use her as a snitch. You've got Boyd thinking that she's a Bonnie to his Clyde. And she basically, you know, says, just a second here. You know, what about me? And so we loved the idea of Ava just going off on her own path at the end of our 10th episode this year.

GROSS: And being as cold-blooded as everybody else.

YOST: Yeah, it's - I don't think it's an easy decision for her. And we went back and forth in that episode as to when she would decide that she was going to do this. And we landed on her really making it up in the moment, which felt closer to Ava's character than some big, diabolical plan.

GROSS: And we don't know - at least, I don't know - whether Boyd is alive or dead when the episode ends.

YOST: This not a big spoiler, but Boyd is alive for the last three episodes. I won't say how long he stays alive, but he's around.

GROSS: Good (laughter). That's good.

YOST: There was also the semiotics of gunshot wounds in film and television. And he got shot in the - what they call the upper left quadrant. So it wasn't right into his heart.

GROSS: Oh, I'm so glad you said that. My thing about Westerns - it always looks like somebody's shot in the heart. And then, at the end of the episode or at the end of the movie, their arm is in a sling (laughter).

YOST: Right.

GROSS: You know, it's just like - it's always that way.

YOST: Yeah, he takes it in the upper left and spins that way out. Now, that said, when we shot the pilot, Boyd took a bullet right in his heart. And then, when we decided to keep him alive, we had to say, I guess Raylan missed by, you know, a half-an-inch.

GROSS: So before we talk any further about where the series is now, let's go back to the very beginning of the series and play a clip from the first episode. And, you know, when the series starts, Raylan, the federal marshal, has just come back to his hometown of Harlan, Ky. and is meeting up with Boyd Crowder, who was his childhood - friend? I don't know what to call them. But they used to work in the mines together when they were teenagers. Now Boyd is a white supremacist, in episode 1 season 1. And so there's a scene when they're meeting for the first time in years. And they're now on opposite sides of the law. And Boyd Crowder speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED")

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Yeah, all those days, good and bad, they're all long gone now. Everything's changed. It's all changed. Mining's changed, no more following a seam underground. It's cheaper to take the tops off mountains and let the slag run down and ruin the creeks. Hey, you remember the picket lines don't you? Of course, backing the company's scabs and gun thugs. Whose side do you think the government's always been on, Raylan, us or people with money? And who do you think controls that money? Who do you think wants to mongrelize the world?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Who?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) The Jews.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Boyd, do you know any Jews?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) See, I recruit skins. They don't know no more than you do. And I have to teach them that we have a moral obligation to get rid of the Jews. See, it was in the Bible.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Where?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) In the beginning. It's part of creation. See, in the beginning, right, you had your mud people. Now, they were also referred to as beasts because they had no souls. See, they were soulless. And then, Cain - you remember Cain, now?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Mhmm.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Well, Cain, he laid down with the mud people. And out of these fornications came the Edomites. Now, do you know who the Edomites are?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Who?

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) They're the Jews, Raylan.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You're serious.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Read your Bible as interpreted by experts (laughter).

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens, laughing) You know, Boyd, I think you just use the Bible to do whatever the hell you like.

GOGGINS: (As Boyd Crowder) Well, what do you think I like, Raylan?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You like to get money and blow [expletive] up.

GROSS: That was Timothy Olyphant as Raylan, the federal marshal, and Walton Goggins as the white supremacist, Boyd. So Boyd isn't really a white supremacist anymore. If he is, he's kind of keeping it to himself. He's not about that. In season 1, he starts his own Christian cult. And that's - that's kind of been abandoned. So what happened to the white supremacy stuff?

YOST: You know, when we first talked to Walton about playing this part - the idea came from FX 'cause Walton had done such a great turn as Shane on "The Shield" - he was hesitant. He didn't want to play a southern cracker who was a white supremacist.

GROSS: Actually, let me stop you there. I asked him about that when I interviewed him. Let me play that clip. I asked Walton Goggins about playing a white supremacist. And he said he didn't want to play him as a white supremacist.

YOST: Right.

GROSS: He wanted to play him as someone who's a bit of a svengali and doesn't necessarily believe what he purports. So here's what Goggins said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GOGGINS: You know, I've made four southern movies. I've been in quite a few southern films. And initially, when this was sent to me, I wasn't interested in playing another southern guy labeled as a racist. You know, I think racism is a problem throughout our country, and it's not confined to those states below the Mason-Dixon line. And for me, I did not want to perpetuate a stereotype. So I had them take out references to our president, Barack Obama. And I wouldn't say the N-word. And I said I would do this if Raylan was able to point out that Boyd doesn't necessarily believe that which he is saying. And that was very important to me. And the other thing that I wanted to explore with Boyd, which I think is more appropriate for him as a person, kind of getting in his skin, was to explore his intellect. And I don't think that that was there in the original pilot. It was tweaked very easily, just with a couple of different sentences here and there that explored how smart this guy really was. That was important to me more so than - that was interesting to me. Just to be a racist didn't interest me.

GROSS: So that was Walton Goggins in 2010 on FRESH AIR, talking about his reaction to the character that he plays on "Justified" when he was first offered the part. And my guest is Graham Yost, the creator and showrunner of "Justified," which is on FX. So when Walton Goggins presented those concerns to you, what was your reaction?

YOST: You know, it really fit in with how I was looking at Boyd anyway, which is it's more interesting to me if he is using the skins - the skinheads - as cannon fodder in his desire to rob banks. And in that first episode, in the pilot, Boyd doesn't go into the bank. He sends two other guys in. And he blows up a car first to distract the law enforcement and then drives up to the bank. Two other guys go in and do the dirty work and come out with the money. And I just liked him as this character who was manipulating other people. And when we decided to keep Boyd alive - 'cause that was a big decision... When we shot the pilot, Boyd was dead at the end of the pilot. And then we tested the show. And we had all just fallen in love with Walton and the chemistry between Walton and Tim. So we decided to keep him alive. And what emerged was the notion of this character, Boyd, as being someone who will come up with a new scheme, a new way of looking at the world. And he'll seem to totally believe it. But it can be very different from what he had been doing in the past. And, you know, the big evolution became when, in the second season, he started to fall in love with Ava. And that's really been sort of a central question of the series is does he really love her? Or is that just Boyd talking himself into yet another framework in which he can view his life?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Graham Yost, And he's the creator and showrunner of the FX series, "Justified," which is concluding in three more episodes. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Graham Yost. He's the creator and showrunner of the FX series "Justified," which only has three more episodes left. Justified is set in Harlan County in the Kentucky hills - big coal mining area. There's a lot of bad guys in it, and many, or most, of the bad guys are part of this group known as the Dixie Mafia. And I honestly thought that that was something that you made up. But according to Wikipedia, it's, like, the mafia in the South, and it's existed since the '60s or so. So what did you know about it when you started writing?

YOST: Honestly, we didn't know a lot about the Dixie Mafia. It also goes by the name The Cornbread Mafia. But we, you know, started poking around. Frankly, probably, we started with reading Wikipedia like anyone else...

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOST: ...And - you know, that's where we all start these days - and picked up a few books and found some stories. And it just gave us something that we could then use in Lexington so we could have bad guys in Lexington so that Raylan could go up against other people rather than simply, you know, having to make the two- or three-hour drive down to Harlan all the time. You know, over the course of the seasons, connected it into larger stories and the history and, you know, other legends we had heard, and that became a good backdrop for us.

GROSS: I'm assuming that you wanted to be able to have enough creative freedom to have really colorful bad guys - 'cause you have some very colorful bad guys - but at the same time, to not get into stereotyping southern mountain people. Can you talk about walking that line because it's not just, I'm sure, that you wanted to avoid stereotyping, but people also get very easily offended when you're talking about their group.

YOST: We didn't do any research down in Harlan before we started writing the first season, but between the first and second season, a group of us - I think, like, five or six of the writers and Sarah Timberman, one of the producers, and Don Kurt, one of the producers - and we all went down to Lexington and met the marshals. And then we went down and spent a few days in Harlan. And one of the first things we heard - I remember we were out on an ATV tour up in the hills and one of the guys saying that he recognized a lot of the characters that we'd created in that first season. And that gave us a big collective sense of relief that we weren't so far off the mark. Again, we were always trying to apply Elmore's rules of making characters interesting and having them speak well and be smart and clever.

So yes, we've filled that part of the world with a lot of bad guys, far more than there actually are. But I was always hoping that people in Harlan would review our show the same way that people in New Jersey viewed "The Sopranos," which is, OK, it's not reality, but it's fun. And yeah, we didn't want to ever insult people, so we always tried to keep our bad guys pretty clever. You know, I think that if you create a lot of stupid characters, that that's insulting. But if they're interesting bad guys, I think that's sort of fun.

GROSS: This season on "Justified," there's a group of people trying to buy up the land in Harlan County. They're trying to buy people out so that they'll be able to grow marijuana when marijuana is legalized. Is that on the verge of happening in Kentucky?

YOST: That was one of the first questions FX asked when we were breaking the season. They said, how real is this? And we found out that there is a, you know, an effort to legalize weed for medicinal purposes. And you know, I think that exists in some 30 states right now. So we felt that there was a possibility - and given what's happened in Colorado and Washington and now D.C., and I forget where else - for recreational use that we thought that that might be something that could happen.

And it was also an effort for us - we wanted to sort of bring the series back to where it began, or at least in our second season, which was a lot - there was a lot about weed. And then we moved off weed into oxy, and then from oxy into...

GROSS: Meth.

YOST: ...Into heroin.

GROSS: Yeah.

YOST: And meth - right, meth in the first season - yeah, exactly. You can sort of plot out our seasons by what...

GROSS: (Laughter) What drug is being sold.

YOST: ...What horrible drug - yeah. And it sort of - meth was pretty bad. Oxy was maybe even worse. And then heroin was probably the worst of all, so bringing it back to something that's a little more easy-going, a little more mellow.

So we thought that that was an interesting terrain. And then we also did research into the legal weed business in Colorado and the fact that people can't deposit their money into FDIC-insured banks, that they just keep them in private - keep stacks and stacks of money in private vaults. Well, that is just fantastic news for people writing a crime show. When you've got a lot of money floating around, that is the best thing we could hear.

GROSS: My guest is Graham Yost, the creator of the FX series "Justified," which has three episodes left. After a break, we'll talk about one of the dumbest villains in the series and one of the most violent scenes. And Yost will tell us how he learned about movies from his father who hosted a movie show on Canadian TV. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Graham Yost, the creator and showrunner of the FX series "Justified," which has only three episodes remaining in its sixth and final season. It revolves around two main characters from Harlan, Ky., who used to work in the mines together when they were teenagers and now are on opposite sides of the law. Raylan Givens is a U.S. deputy marshal. Boyd Crowder is an outlaw whose resume includes robbing banks. "Justified" is based on an Elmore Leonard novella. And Leonard was an executive producer until his death two years ago.

Elmore Leonard, you know, has written a lot of really colorful, small-time criminals, and some of them are not very smart. And you have some villains on your show who are very smart and others who are really dumb. One of these super dumb ones is a character who sadly got killed this season (laughter). I'm thinking of Dewey Crowe. Describe what Dewey Crowe was famous for in the series.

YOST: Dewey Crowe appeared in the pilot, played by Damon Herriman who's a young Australian actor. So it's always disconcerting or off-putting when you're on the set or you get thrown when you - sitting next to him and he's talking in his thick Australian accent and then he goes onto the set and becomes full-on Dewey Crowe. But, yeah, he's just a numbskull - dangerous but a numbskull. But he was in the pilot, and we decided to keep Dewey around and keep him in the mix throughout the series and just use him, you know, occasionally - not too much because he was just this wonderful character we didn't want to wear out. And the great thing that Damon did with him is that he didn't play him as ridiculous at all. He played him absolutely seriously. He felt that Dewey absolutely believed his craziness and was fully invested in it. And there was a scene last year where he's trying to kill Wade Messer, and he prays to Jesus saying, just let me kill this guy and then I'll do whatever you want...

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOST: ...Completely unaware of what exactly he was saying. And it was a hard decision to kill him off. But it just felt like that would set the table and set the stakes right at the beginning of the season, that if, you know, Boyd was willing to kill this hapless, you know, harebrained nutball (ph), then what's he going to do when he finds out that Ava's snitching on him?

GROSS: So let's hear a scene with Dewey from this season. And Dewey is part of a group of cousins who are all involved in nefarious stuff, and he's the only one who's survived until this point. Everyone else has been killed off. And he's just gotten out of prison. And as he gets out of prison, Raylan, who is his nemesis - Raylan, the federal marshal - is there to greet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUSTIFIED")

DAMON HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Thank you, Jesus.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Como esta, Dewey?

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Christ, Raylan?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) How's it going amigo?

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) We ain't amigos.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Oh, so you speak a little Spanish? That must have come in handy down in Mexico.

HERRIMAN: (As Raylan Givens) I got no idea what you're talking about.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Federale named Aguilar who says different.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Hey, my lawyer told me you come within a thousand feet, that's harassment.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You best back up.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) They got cameras all over.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) His description fits you to a T - Nazi tattoo, funny hair, stupid-looking.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) That could be 10,000 people. How am I supposed to read that? It's in Mexican.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You just have to take my word for it. Mexican government wants to extradite you back to Nuevo Laredo, put you on trial for the murder of Johnny Crowder and a truckload of others.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Well, I ain't never been to Mexico in my life.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) That's not what's in question, Dewey.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) I didn't kill Johnny Crowder.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Well, then tell me who did. Maybe I can help you out.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Yeah, I ain't a rat. And like I said, I wasn't even there.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) Then you got yourself a problem. I can give you maybe a week to jog your memory, then it's off to a Mexican jail. And we both know that's a world away from [expletive] and tequila.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) Yeah, I'm done talking. I got a bus to catch.

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) You're a card in fate's right hand. Don't you see how it's going to play out?

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) What the hell does that mean?

OLYPHANT: (As Raylan Givens) It means you need to be smart.

HERRIMAN: (As Dewey Crowe) What I need is a $6 [expletive]. A smarter move, I cannot imagine.

GROSS: So that's a scene from this season's "Justified." And "Justified" only has three episodes until its series finale. And my guest, Graham Yost, is the creator and showrunner of the series. So, you know, the writing is just so much fun on "Justified" because everybody speaks very colorfully and says things like you're a card in fate's right hand (laughter).

YOST: Yep.

GROSS: And, you know, that's the kind of dialogue Elmore Leonard is famous for. But, you know, Elmore Leonard - I don't know how closely he worked on the show when he was alive, but, you know, he died in 2013 sadly. So even if he worked closely on the show, he couldn't work with you for the past couple of years. Can you talk about what the process is like of trying to write dialogue that is both threatening and kind of funny and colorful and also is just, like, you know, verbal fireworks?

YOST: You know, I think to a degree over the course of the seasons, we've kind of gone farther even than Elmore might have into the colorful nature of the language. But I have to say, we just had so much fun doing it. That particular line - you're a card in fate's right hand - that's Chris Provenzano. I can see his fingerprints on that one. He was one of the writers with Michael Dinner and Fred Golan of that first episode this season. And there are certain characters and - you know, specifically Boyd. Boyd is just a blast to write because -you know, there was a line that, fact, I wrote in season four where a characters says to Boyd - man, you'll use 40 words when four would do.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOST: And, you know, it can be a bit of a trap for writers. We can kind of get into it almost too much and have to peel it back a little because we don't want to go way over the top, although I'm sure at times we have. But it's a great freedom.

GROSS: Yeah, another characteristic of Boyd's style of speaking - it's not only wordy, it's very ornate and very formal, even though there's almost always a veiled threat underneath it.

YOST: Well, that - and that, you know, that clip you had of Walton talking about how smart Boyd is - we quickly decided that he would be self-taught and he would like to read books and he would like to use big words and correct people on their grammar. And, you know, that also gave us license to have Boyd really flower it up. And Raylan does it, too, in a much more direct and sort of homespun way - also inflected by his years as a law enforcement officer.

GROSS: So in the years that you were able to work with Elmore Leonard, did he give you advice about plotting or dialogue?

YOST: No, Elmore was - you know, listen. He had spent probably 10 years in the '60s and '70s writing screenplays for Hollywood. And he got out of that business 'cause he didn't like getting notes. And so he understood that it was...

GROSS: And notes are the feedback that you're given, like you can't say this, you should do that instead.

YOST: Yeah, let's change this character, move this scene around, do this, you know, do that. He hated getting notes. And so he lived by that, and he didn't give us notes. The only tussle, the famous tussle we had over the pilot, was the hatm, that he saw much more of what's called a businessman's Stetson on Raylan, basically the kind of hat that the troopers were wearing escorting Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him. And we tried that hat on Tim, and it just didn't look great. It didn't look as good as a more regular cowboy hat did. That was about the only big fight we had with Elmore on the whole thing.

He - I joked with him after he'd seen the pilot and he really liked it. And I said well, of course, you liked it. I used - 90 percent of the dialogue is from you. And because I felt that if you're going to adapt Elmore Leonard, man, use as much as you can of him. I always felt that that was the great thing that Scott Frank did when he adapted "Out Of Sight" and "Get Shorty" - and Quentin Tarantino in doing "Jackie Brown." He changed the character's name and ethnicity and the title of the whole thing, but he kept a lot of Elmore's dialogue. And why not? The man just wrote great dialogue.

GROSS: You mention the Timothy Olyphant hat in "Justified" - when I interviewed Timothy Olyphant about "Justified," I asked him about the hat. And he said that every time he saw Elmore Leonard, Elmore Leonard would say to him, don't be afraid to lose the hat. You know, a gust of wind could pick it up and blow it away, and you'd never see it again. And Olyphant said that he interpreted that as Elmore Leonard saying don't let the hat define the character.

YOST: Well, yeah. Elmore's thing was he didn't want it to be "McCloud." If you remember that series from back in the day with Dennis Weaver who was playing a - I forget where he was from, I think he was from Texas - and he comes into some urban environment, and he's still wearing his cowboy hat and he kind of stands out. You know, Elmore didn't want that. And I think that that's one of the reasons why Kentucky kind of works. And the hat - while is kind of out of place, most people wear baseball caps - but it doesn't feel ridiculous. It's not Raylan in Manhattan wearing that hat. And we came, eventually, to kind of a rule which is if he's on the job, he's wearing the hat. He doesn't wear the hat indoors much, unless he's on the job. But if it's his personal life or he's in the office - no hat.

GROSS: The hat goes along with the dialogue where everything's like a little bit bigger than it is in real life?

YOST: Yep. Fred Golan and I were talking once about "Justified" and the reality level. And I said, I think we're about two feet off the ground. You know, we're not - we're not really grounded. This is not real - it can have feeling of reality, but it - really, the goal of the show was to be fun.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Graham Yost. He's the creator and showrunner of the FX series "Justified," which is based on an Elmore Leonard novella called "Fire In The Hole." And it's just three episodes away from its conclusion. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Graham Yost. He's the creator and showrunner of "Justified," and the FX series only has three episodes left until the series finale. In talking about "Justified," another thing that happens on the series is, like, there's been a lot of, you know, pretty sadistic violence over the years. And I'm wondering like what's your - what's your standards for when violence is justified on the show and for how graphic to make it?

YOST: You know, FX is a basic cable show, so we can use certain profanity. We can say the S-word but not the F-word and various things in between. And they have concerns about violence, and they'll say, you know - and when they read a script, they'll give a note back saying, you know, watch the level of gore on this. And when we've shot something, they'll say be careful to modify this or that. But they do sort of let us be violent. And Elmore's world is a violent world, you know, in the best Elmore scenes, you think that something is either going to take a hard turn into romance and some kind of liaison, or it's going to take the other way and go into violence. And there is often something oddly humorous about the violence in Elmore's movies and in his books.

In "Justified," sometimes we were just brutal, and we would just have someone shoot someone and it was just kind of awful and sudden. But the best moments for us - the ones where we kind of nod and say, yeah, Elmore would have liked that and we got a kick out of it - would be things like at the end of season three when it's Raylan versus Robert Quarles, played by Neal McDonough. And Quarles has got this slide gun on his arm kind of like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." And he's dragged Raylan up into Noble's Holler, which is where this sort of African-American community in Harlen that we made up based on - loosely based on something that used to exist there 30 years ago. And the chief - the headman in that community is Ellstin Limehouse, played by Mykelti Williamson. At any rate, it all comes together in this slaughterhouse because Ellstin Limehouse runs a barbecue joint. And we had this scene where McDonough has his slide gun, and he sees someone coming in who he thinks is going to turn the tables on him. And he whips out the slide gun, shoots that one guy and then he's turning it over on Raylan. And we had Limehouse swing out with a cleaver and chop off his arm - which is pretty brutal. But what made it a justified scene that we were very proud of is that we had in the - and they improved it on the day just in the - while they were shooting that night - that Neal, playing Quarles, reached with his good arm for his severed arm, and Raylan just pulled it away out of his reach. And it's such a bizarrely funny and horrific moment that that kind of sums up what we would be going for when we were doing scenes of violence.

GROSS: And then you must need a lot of special effects for the arm and for the blood.

YOST: Yeah, I mean, a lot of it can be done just the old-fashioned way...

GROSS: Special-effects makeup is what I mean, yeah.

YOST: Yeah, special-effects makeup. And then there's the certain green screen stuff when you see him on the ground - because Neal actually said that we could not chop off his arm.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOST: Which was - I just thought he was a better friend than that.

GROSS: What about anything for art (laughter)?

YOST: Yeah, and we'd worked together on "Boomtown" - I really thought that he would do that. And "Band Of Brothers" - but no, he wouldn't give up his arm.

GROSS: Well, you grew up with a lot of movies and television. Your father, Elwy Yost, was the host of a show called "Saturday Night At The Movies" in Canada. And what did he do on that show? Did he show movies or interview movie people?

YOST: Both. He would have a double feature every Saturday night and he would have interviews with people. It was on educational television, sort of an Ontario equivalent of PBS. And he would interview people that were related to the theme of the movies. The example I'll often give is that if he was showing "The Ox-Bow Incident," which was a great movie about vigilantism, then he would have guests on to talk about modern vigilantism and law. But he would also have an interview that he had done with Henry Fonda who was in "The Ox-Box Incident." And so he was talking to people who made the movies as well as talking to critics and intellectuals and writers about whatever the themes were that appeared in the movies.

GROSS: Sounds like a great show.

YOST: Oh, it was a fantastic show. And, you know, my dad was - you know, often looked at as being too much of a gee-whiz kind of guy that, you know, he loved every movie he saw, which is not at all true. But he - what he was able to do was find something in every movie that he learned something from - even if it was bad. You know, he would learn, yeah, that's bad - don't do a story like that. And so for my brother and I growing up in that household - and my mom loved movies, too - the story goes on their first date back in Toronto in 1951. My dad decided he'd take my mother to, I think, see "Easter Parade" because, you know, girls like - they like musicals. They come out, and my dad hated musicals so this was a real sign that he was smitten by this woman, my mother, Lila, because he was willing to go to a musical with her. But afterwards, they're talking, and he said, what did you think? And she said, well, I, you know, I'm not huge fan of musicals. He said, well, what kind of movies do you like? And she said, well, I really like "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre." And as soon as my dad heard that, he was done for life. That was it, you know? You would - you know, in a film you would push in and you would see a twinkle in his eye and hear wedding bells. So, you know, we grew up in a family where we all talked about movies and books all the time.

GROSS: So did you meet your wife through movies, too?

YOST: So our first date we went out to see "Bull Durham." And - have you seen "Bull Durham" recently?

GROSS: Not recently.

YOST: You know how - there's a lot of sexy sex in that movie. And so my wife and I - well, then not even girlfriend - were sitting there, and I'm thinking oh, my - 'cause there's, you know, there she is in the bathtub and there's candles everywhere and there's all that kind of stuff going on. And I'm thinking, oh, my god, I hope she doesn't think that I knew that this movie was going to be like this.

GROSS: And?

YOST: But, you know, then we had a great dinner and on we went.

GROSS: You didn't want to make it seem like when Travis Bickle takes Cybill Shepherd...

YOST: Travis Bickle takes Cybill Shepherd...

GROSS: ...To the porn theater (laughter).

YOST: ... To a porn movie in "Taxi Driver." That's exactly what I was afraid of.

GROSS: (Laughter). So did your father live long enough to get to see you succeed in movies and television?

YOST: You know, he and my mother and my brother were there in 1994 at the premiere of "Speed." And that was a big, big night for the family. And he was alive through the start of "Justified" - you know, his mind was going by then, but he was very, very proud of the work I got to do.

GROSS: Good - and you wrote the movie "Speed."

YOST: Oh, yes, I'm sorry. I assumed that everyone has read my Wikipedia entry. Yes, I wrote the - I wrote the movie "Speed."

GROSS: You're making a joke about Wikipedia but you used to write for the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." Did encyclopedia writing help you in any way - just learning how to not write colorfully but just to write, like, basic, explanatory prose?

YOST: I - listen, that was my first job and then I also wrote for "Soap Opera Digest" and I wrote flap copy for Doubleday. And I would write anything anyone would pay me to write, and I think it was all really good experience.

GROSS: Well, I'm really looking forward to see how "Justified" ends. I'm sorry it's ending, but it'll be great to see the finale and what you do with it. Graham Yost, thank you so much for the show and for being on our show.

YOST: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Graham Yost is the creator and showrunner of the FX series, "Justified," which has only three episodes left in its sixth and final season. Yost didn't tell us how it will end, but he did say one thing we'll definitely hear in the final episode is the song that ended most of the previous five seasons. It's called "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive," written by Darrell Scott. Here's a version by the Ruby Friedman Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'LL NEVER LEAVE HARLAN ALIVE")

RUBY FRIEDMAN ORCHESTRA: (Singing) In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky, that's the place where I traced my bloodline. And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone, you will never leave Harlan alive. Oh, my grandfather's dad crossed the Cumberland Mountains. He took a pretty girl to be his bride. Said, won't you walk with me out of the mouth of this holler? Or we'll never leave Harlan alive. Where the sun comes up about 10 in the morning.

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. He says it's one of the best albums he's heard this year. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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