In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. One of those people is Graham Yost, who created the acclaimed but short-lived series Boomtown, and now oversees FX’s Justified, which recently wrapped its second season. We spoke with Yost about working on Hey, Dude, collaborating with Elmore Leonard, and his love of Mythbusters.
What was your first job in show business?
My first real showbiz job was on a Nickelodeon show called Hey, Dude. That was my first real paid scriptwriting job. I still run into people in the business who skip over any other credits I have and say, “I loved Hey, Dude!” This was back in ’88, ’89, ‘90. It was a goofy show about kids working at a dude ranch in Arizona. We did 65 episodes; I wrote 13 of them. We didn’t know what we were doing, but it was writers’ boot camp. It was great.
What show made you want to work in TV?
My dad had a show in Toronto all about movies for 25 years. It was an educational show that aired on the PBS of Ontario. He would show a couple of movies every Saturday night and also have interviews with people who made those movies, or with people who could discuss the subject of the movies. I grew up in a family that all we did was talk about movies and books. But as a viewer, I would have to say Hill Street Blues. I do believe that we’re in a true golden era of television, and I think it started with Hill Street. There were certainly ambitious shows before that, but there was something about Hill Street, the ability to not have just stand-alone episodes but to weave its characters’ lives through these satisfying weekly stories was really inspiring.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned, and from whom?
Back in the nineties, I worked on an uncredited rewrite of Operation Dumbo Drop. Denis Leary, Ray Liotta, and Danny Glover were in it. And I remember that the stuff I was writing for Ray Liotta’s character just wasn’t ringing true, and Bob Cort, who was one of the producers, in a gentle way just reminded me: “Never forget that every character is the hero of their own movie, and they have reasons for doing what they’re doing. They don’t wake up in the morning and start twirling their mustache thinking, I want to be a bad guy.” It’s a simple thing, but man, that really struck home and has really paid dividends, especially in a show like this where we have a lot of bad guys and we have to treat them as humanely as possible.
Do you have a showrunner philosophy?
I don’t know if I have one particular philosophy other than set the course, and then we’ll find the way. I don’t have to have everything worked out before we start the writers’ room; I come in with ideas, the other writers come in with ideas, Tim might have an idea or two, as might the studio and the network, but I sort of come up with a basic plan, a guidepost, and try to stay close to that. When Elmore Leonard writes, he doesn’t know where he’s going, and he doesn’t outline. So he just tries to have fun with the characters and what odd things will occur to him, what will surprise him. That said, the other thing, I suppose, is always be looking for the theme of the episode. Sometimes you don’t find it until you’re in your third draft, but then it can inform everything that you’re doing in the episode.
Are you a control freak or a collaborator?
Depends on the show. Boomtown, far more of a control freak; Justified, far more a collaborator.
What determines that?
On Justified, I’m trying to bring to life another writer’s vision — it’s Elmore’s world and I’m just living in it. So that just opens the door to more collaboration — with the writers, with the actors, with the other producers, the studio, the network. It was a bit of an adjustment at first, because I was used to … I wouldn’t say ruling with an iron fist, but Boomtown was really my vision and “this is where we’re going.” With Justified, it’s “Where are we going? Let’s figure it out.”
What’s your best show pitch that didn’t make it on the air?
I really wanted to do something suggested by those great spy stories by Alan Furst. They’re all set in the years leading up to World War II, and the early years of the war. I pitched that to Sony and it just didn’t get traction. So, I had an alternate version … to portray resistance against an alien invasion, but it was going to be too much like V. I ended up working on Spielberg’s show that’s coming out in June on TNT, Falling Skies, but that’s more of a military resistance and I was more interested in the subterfuge, clandestine, more cloak-and-dagger kind of resistance.
What show do you wish you had created?
The first thing that popped into my head was Lost. I just think that it was such a singular show, there’s never really been anything like it … other than Gilligan’s Island. It had a real vision and a life and a look and those characters.
Is there a dream show you’d like to get on the air?
The dream show I’d like to get on the air is this thing from my friend Remi Aubuchon. He came up with this idea back in 2000 called Quarto. It’s basically Mission: Impossible meets Shakespeare in Love. It’s about four guys in Cambridge back in 1595 who do secret missions for the queen. We wrote a script and we still love that script, and there was actually some interest from a Canadian production company this year; we’ll see if anything materializes.
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
My first network job was on the staff of Full House back in 1991. I was hired on a probationary basis for ten weeks, and I quit at nine and half weeks, right before I knew they were going to fire me. It was just a bad fit.
What does that mean?
I found it to be a fairly competitive room and I just couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t pitch ideas as well as other people, and I just kind of got lost and my voice wasn’t heard. I could see it happening but was incapable of stopping it. I was utterly marginalized. It was really no fault of the showrunners or the other writers. It was organic. I just didn’t fit.
What are some twists or character developments that really changed a show that you admire?
Going back to Lost, the “Walkabout” episode in the first season, when they reveal that John Locke has been paralyzed and now he can walk on this island. From what I’ve heard, that was a turning point on the show as well. There was a lot of debate on the episode, but when they did it, it galvanized the show.
Another that dropped into my mind was when the character played by Diana Muldaur on L.A. Law went to walk onto an elevator and suddenly fell down the shaft to her death. It’s twenty years later and I’m still laughing because it was so absurd and so dramatic. And I’m actually one of the few people who actually got a kick out of the end of St. Elsewhere. I understand why people hate it — it feels like a cheat — but at the same time, it’s a television series, and let’s have room for a little poetry. I thought it was really quite beautiful.
How much do you care about what fans think?
I care a lot. I don’t read the blogs; however, other people involved in the show do. It’s a very self-selecting thing; they pass on the good ones and the funny ones. But in general I like to know if people are responding to a story line or a character or are they not. The weirdest thing about television is, unlike movies, where you can preview them a hundred times to find out what’s working and what’s not, you don’t get that [input] with TV.
Can fan feedback ruin shows?
Not to my knowledge. Over the course of television’s history, I think fans have done more to save shows and support them than ruin them.
Is there a form of television that should die?
I think the bait that is dangling in that question is scripted television vs. reality, but the reality is there’s a lot of interesting quasi-documentary television about people’s lives and professions. Listen, if Mythbusters is reality, I don’t want reality to go away.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King