Graham Yost on the End of Justified, and the Late, Great Elmore Leonard

Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images

On the occasion of the series finale of Justified, we gave a holler to the series' executive producer Graham Yost to talk about Harlan County, crime, cowboys, coal mining, Ava, Boyd, Raylan, the eternal flame of Deadwood, the prospect of a Wynn Duffy spinoff, and the late, great Elmore Leonard, of course.

It was a good run. We tip our hat and raise our glass in salute. Not apple pie, though — that stuff'll kill you.

At last it’s finished, eh?
Yes, sir. It’s crazy.

What was the last scene that you shot? 
You know, I’m kind of blanking on it! It was in the drawing shed, it wasn’t Raylan or Boyd — his last day was the Wednesday of that week, Raylan’s last day was the Thursday. So it was just Sam Elliott, Boon, Loretta, and Ava. And we did all the stuff when she makes the phone call to Grube’s and talks to Boyd but pretends she’s talking to Zacharia. And the various altercations and stuff bringing her against Markham. And it was Sam Elliott (Markham) coming up with that notion when they were just rehearsing the scene of grabbing the chair and pulling it toward him — which was a totally cool bit. So it was all that drawing shed stuff.

Did you have any kind of a set protocol for wrapping people on Justified, for saying good-bye to people when it was their last day ever on the set?
Yeah, the protocol is, you give them the back of their chair, and you wrap them for the series.

Was this a sentimental time, or is Justified too cool for that?
Oh no, it was very emotional. I’m the worst! It was funny — everyone kind of lost it at one point or another. It was kinda cool.

It looked almost as if Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins were gonna lose it during that final scene in the prison. Walton Goggins teared up, and it looked like Timothy Olyphant was about to in a couple of shots.
Yeah, that was their last scene together.

The episode is dedicated to Elmore Leonard, as I would assume the entire series is. Do you remember the last time that you spoke to him, and if so, do you remember anything that he told you? Did he have any advice about the show, how to pursue it?
No, no. He had done his time in the salt mines of Hollywood writing scripts, and he didn’t like giving notes, so he wasn’t about to give them. He just would tell us that he liked it — he got a kick out of it. And then we would hear stories of him in his neighborhood, in his town outside of Detroit, and running into people and telling them, “Oh the season of Justified is about to start up again, it’s really good this year!” He was a real booster. That’s the best review we ever got.

He was supposed to be an absentee landlord on your series, since the thing was based on one short story by him, Fire in the Hole. But it didn’t turn out that way, right? I’ve heard that he genuinely liked the show and even participated in it, to some extent.
Yeah! I mean he gave us a whole book. He gave us Raylan, which just started as a little suggestion from Tim (Olyphant) on the set when Elmore was visiting, and saying, “Why don’t you write another Raylan story?” So that became his final novel.

Is it true that you handed out bracelets on the set that said, “What would Elmore do?”
Yeah, just to the writers' room, and then also to Elmore’s family.

What would Elmore do? Do you have any sense of what that means on a practical level, for storytellers? Can you articulate it?
Well, it’s an approach to characters, an approach to scenes, humor, violence, all of that stuff. But in terms of how we ended the series, that was our big question: What would Elmore do? And listen, we didn’t have him to ask, but Greg Sutter, who was Elmore’s researcher for 30 years, sent me an email about a month or so before the finale was shot, saying, “What are you gonna do? You can’t kill Raylan, you can’t kill Ava, and Boyd — Elmore already tried to kill him once and that didn’t take. So what are you gonna do?”

And then I got an email from this week — he had seen the finale, and he felt that Elmore would be proud and would appreciate it, and he’d like the bit with the hat at the end.

Right! When we see Raylan in the postscript, he’s wearing a different hat!
Yeah, one that’s a little closer to what Elmore had in mind for Raylan. It’s still not quite the businessman Stetson. But at least more in that neighborhood.

I must say it didn’t end structurally in the way that I thought it would, which I guess is a good thing, because all signs were pointing to some sort of a showdown. I didn’t know if it would be a traditional Western drawdown between Boyd and Raylan or between Raylan and Boon, which we did get a version of. Or if it would be something like the end of season three, where somebody dies but not at the hand of the person we expected.

But you sort of dispatch all old business by a little past the midpoint of the last episode, and then you go into this kind of extended postscript, which is not something that I would have anticipated, because it’s never been Justified’s style to jump ahead like that.
Well, I hope that’s a good thing. It’s always been our sort of driving goal to give the audience what they wanted, but in a way that they didn’t expect, and so we hope that we did that. We felt we owed the characters that postscript, to find out where they ended up. Especially with Ava in the wind: We needed to resolve that.

Did you have any discussions about whether it made sense to kill some of these major characters? Because of course, a lot of people were thinking, Somebody’s gonna have to die. But you really didn’t kill off anybody major.
Yeah. And that was … I will say that our kind of sneaky way … well, not really sneaky, but we encouraged that thinking. And even when I was doing interviews, and other people doing interviews, we would encourage people to ask the question, “Who is gonna die? Who’s not gonna make it out of Harlan alive?” We felt it was an interesting choice to go in the other direction and have them all get out.

You set up this young gunfighter, Boon, and of course we worry that this is going to be one of these sad Westerns where the shallow young guy kills the older, wiser guy. And it seems like you’re going to give us that, but then Raylan just gets winged, and then he puts his hat back on. It’s almost like the kind of dry, tough-guy humor you’d see in a Howard Hawks movie: “I thought you were dead.” “Nope, where’s my hat?”
Yes, exactly. And then Raylan takes the bad guy’s hat because his has a hole in it. And that was just the smart work of the writers who worked on building up Boon — and you see in episode 12 when he goes for a head shot with Derek and misses, and he says, “That’s the risk you take going for the head shot, but some of these pussies wear vests.” So you know, that’s his mistake: He goes for the head shot. He shoots Raylan, which is something no one else has done, but he doesn’t kill him.

Well, wait, actually, that’s not true! Other people have shot Raylan, but it was usually when he was unarmed.

It is very Elmore Leonardian, if that’s a word: how you build up to this incredibly high-stakes feeling in the last few episodes — giving us a sense that there’s a sort of apocalyptic Armageddon ultimate showdown coming, that Harlan’s going to go in flames and everybody’s going to die — and then everything gets resolved in an almost no-fuss way. People just kind of move on with their lives.
Yep. And that was very much the goal. We wanted to have things happen where you think there’s gonna be some huge build to the death of Markham, and then it happens very brutally and suddenly. And then Raylan and Boyd come down to this huge confrontation, and no guns go off.

Boyd has the opportunity to draw on Raylan and he chooses not to, which is — I don’t know if I would call that evidence of growth, exactly, but at the very least it seems like the smart play.
Well, yes, I think that’s Boyd being smart, but that’s Boyd also on the edge of being suicidal — he’s going to make it Raylan’s choice. Because he thinks that Raylan is going to kill him, so he’s not going to let Raylan have the satisfaction of it being a justified shooting. He’s going to make Raylan do what he’s always wanted to do: murder Boyd.

And the scene also shows us Raylan’s growth, in that he doesn’t do it.

We see Boyd in prison at the end, and he’s preaching again. He’s got a big neon crucifix behind him.
Yeah! We watched the final episode with an audience in Harlan, and when we’d come in for a tight shot on Boyd, people were — there was a little bit of joy trickling through the audience seeing Boyd again, but when we revealed the crucifix, they all started laughing! “There’s Boyd again, doing what he’s always done.“

Did you ever have conversations, you and the other writers, about whether or not there is a moral code on Justified, apart from the various, conflicting ones the characters articulate on the show? Is there right and wrong on the series? Are there good guys and bad guys in some sense, or do y’all not personally believe in that?
I think we do believe in it, and Raylan has a pretty strong code that is legal and also ethical and moral. Right from the beginning of the show, when his Miami chief says, “You realize it’s not a hundred years ago, right?” you get that it’s very much an old-fashioned code that doesn’t really sync up well with modern jurisprudence. But he does have that code all along, which is to get the bad guy. We were in Lexington and Harlan over the weekend and in the U.S. Marshals’ office in Lexington there’s an old poster from five years ago, and it says, “220 years of bad days for bad guys.”

Well, you certainly have carried the Western into the present day, and you did so by way of the gangster movie.
Yeah — I mean, I always maintain that all of Elmore’s Western fiction was crime fiction at its heart — there were always bad guys doing bad things, and good guys trying to survive. Crime fiction always had a Western element to it, and I think that was the case with Fire in the Hole and what we did with it on Justified.

Can you talk a little bit about Harlan County as a fictional location and a real place? And how the people of Harlan felt about the show, and how you felt about that location? How did it feed your imagination, and what did it do for the writers and the actors and the crew?
Well, there’s that card at the end of the finale where we thank the marshal service and the people of Harlan for their support and their stories. And the thing about it was, the support was fantastic, but the most important thing was the stories. We got so many stories from the marshals over the years, and so many stories from people in Harlan. We were back there over the weekend, showing them the finale, and hanging out at the Pizza Portal after — which is an actual place.

Is the vault in the basement?
No, the vault’s upstairs. But that’s where we got that whole idea!  

What kinds of things did people from Harlan give to the writers?
They just kept on telling us stories. You’d run into people and they’d say, here’s a story about this guy, and then there’s a story about this guy. They love to tell stories, and it’s a community that’s full of storytellers. Every year a group of writers would go to Harlan and Lexington and just dig our own coal. Just to get more stories. It’s a long list of things that we pulled out of Harlan.

Listen, it’s a stressed community, and it’s shrinking, because coal mining is drying up in that part of the world. It’s easier and cheaper to do the big mines up in the badlands than it is to dig it out of the hills. So Harlan is not what it used to be, and it’s a struggle — and that’s part of the stories they told us. Our Harlan is a fictional Harlan, just like Elmore’s world — once [writer-producer] Fred Golan and I were talking, and I said, “Our level of reality is about a foot off the ground, or two feet off the ground; we’re not quite real.” But we have our own fictional world. And in our Harlan, these are the people. But they’re not completely dissimilar to the people of Eastern Kentucky, and we tried to use the Elmore rule of “Make them interesting, and respect them. Don’t let them be stupid.” Except for Dewey Crowe.

And you keep returning this season to coal mining, to people digging coal together — that’s the closing exchange of the entire series: “We dug coal together.” “That’s right.” All through this season, they talk about people dying in the mines in the past, and you think characters are going to die in the mines in the present, like their ancestors did. Was the heritage of mining something that emerged organically during the writing process this season, or was it something that you decided a long time ago to keep in the back of your minds and bring forward as you headed into the final stretch?
We knew that we wanted some kind of return to coal in this final season, when we came up with the idea of Boyd going into an abandoned mine to get the money. That really worked well for us. And then our production designer and his team just did a great job of building a mine set on our stage that we could shoot in — it looked real and it worked.

Is there any chance we’re going to see a Wynn Duffy spinoff?
Someone pitched that online: All I Do Is Wynn. There are a lot of characters we would be interested to see in the future, but it all depends on the appetite and the story. The worst thing in the world would be to do something that didn’t fulfill the promise. I think they’ve done a great job with Better Call Saul, but that is not the usual result of trying to do a spinoff.

When you look back on shooting the series and writing the series, what are the images that spring to mind?  
You know, I go back to the first day, shooting the pilot. We’re at Ava’s house, and Joelle [Carter] is gonna do her big monologue about her shooting Bowman. And it was a lot to throw at this actress on her first day, and she just nailed it. The big question for us — and the whole season and the series and everything hinged on it — was her kissing Raylan at the door, and whether or not that would work. And I had questions about it, Tim had questions, Joelle, [director] Michael Dinner. We didn’t know if it was gonna work. And when we saw it and realized it was gonna work, it was like, “Okay, then we’ve got a shot here.”

And then the other big thing would be the scene between Raylan and Boyd in the church in the pilot. The chemistry between Tim and Walton was just electric. And that was the scene that led us to decide that Boyd would stay alive, and that was a critical decision. I don’t know if we would have made it to six seasons without Boyd Crowder and without Walton Goggins. Though we might have, because Tim was so strong. And he’s just the perfect Raylan.

The whole reason for doing the season, in my estimation, came down to the scene between Raylan and Dewey, and the fact that Raylan talks a shotgun out of an idiot’s hands without pulling his own gun.

Do you ever think about what the place of the show is going to be in the pantheon?
Of course we think about it, and we hope for the best. And I do think it’s a show that will age well. We wish we’d gotten a huge audience the whole time, because we’re very proud of what we’ve done, and we love Elmore and his world, and we wanted more and more people to see it. You know, it’s an old Hollywood line from Harry Cohn, who was a studio chief who produced It Happened One Night, and he said, “I don’t care if this movie makes a dime, I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” And there’s a little bit of us in that, in that I don’t care if this show makes any more money, I just want everyone to see it.

Well, between the dialogue and some of the casting, you certainly satiated the Deadwood-size hole in a lot of people’s hearts, and that’s no small feat in and of itself.
Well yeah, getting Garret [Dillahunt, who played Ty Walker] in there was big, and all through the years we’ve gotten a lot of people from Deadwood, and lot from Boomtown, a few other alums from other things we’ve worked on. And that’s part of the fun of being in this business: You work with great people, and you find an opportunity to work with them again.

Do the actors get to take things home with them after they’ve wrapped?
Yeah, everyone took something they were allowed, and then everyone took what they were not allowed — they just grabbed shit. As for Tim, the only thing that he took I believe was Boon’s hat, the one that he ends up wearing at the end.

What about you?
I’m looking at a sign here that was used from the show that says 'Harlan City Limit.' I’m taking that with me; a lot of good memories.