A Conversation with Graham Yost
In this episode, we’ll hear from writer, producer, and showrunner Graham Yost. Yost was behind 90s action hits Speed and Broken Arrow, World War II epics Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and the suspenseful TV dramas Justified and the Golden Globe-winning FX series The Americans.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story, film and TV writer and showrunner,
- I grew up in a household where my parents
just talked about movies and books.
And my little line is that if I'd said to my parents,
"I want to be a doctor or a lawyer,"
they would have said, "Are you sure?
Are you sure you don't want to be a writer?"
[Narrator] In this episode, TV showrunner and writer
Graham Yost discusses writing film and television
for more than 25 years,
including the iconic action film, Speed,
and the TV hit show, Justified.
- I've read in a couple interviews that your dad
was a huge influence,
and I don't know about getting you started,
but in your ideas and how you view your storytelling.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
- My dad grew up in Toronto in the Depression.
And I have a friend who always gives me crap because I always
say Toronto, Canada.
He says, "People know where Toronto is now.
You don't have to be that Canadian about it."
And he just fell in love with movies.
The story goes that, it was the Depression.
Their family had no money, but they could give him a dime
so he could go to the Saturday matinees.
The deal was, he'd have to come home and tell his parents
what the stories were, what the movies were about.
So, he became a storyteller in that way.
Long story short, his life ended up taking him into
having a show about movies in Toronto
on educational television.
My brother and I grew up in a household where my parents
just talked about movies and books.
My little line is that if I'd said to my parents,
"I want to be a doctor or a lawyer,"
they would have said, "Are you sure?
Are you sure you don't want to be a writer?"
Then, very specifically, I'd asked him over the years,
one was, "Can you think of any movie that had a great idea
but didn't really work, but the idea was solid?"
So, he would come up with things occasionally.
But then he told me about a script he'd heard about
that Akira Kurosawa had written that had never been produced,
about a train that couldn't slow down or it would blow up.
It finally was made by Andrei Konchalovsky.
It's an okay film.
It's a train, it's in Alaska, it's prison escapees.
It's not that it will blow up,
they just can't get to the brakes.
I saw it and I went, "Aah, that was good.
"But it would be better if it was a bus.
And it would be better if there was a bomb."
I sat on that idea for a long time,
and then I started writing in television.
I wrote for Hey, Dude on Nickelodeon.
Really, not even one cheer for Hey, Dude ?
[audience member cheers]
- Thank you!
You know, I was looking for work in TV and had some time
and wrote Speed and that sort of changed my life.
- So, Speed , let's talk about that process,
because that's a pretty big...
to go from zero to 60 on that one,
no pun intended.
- Well, zero to 50. - Fifty, right.
- When I first came up with that idea,
or Akira Kurosawa came up with that idea,
people were always disappointed when they find out
that there was something--
And yet it was interesting, when the movie came out,
there was an article--
Basically, the point of the article was,
well, it's not that original.
There was this story about a mafia woman who gets
a phone call, is told that her car has a bomb in it.
There was this...
it's like people just went out of their way
to show that it wasn't that original.
It's like, "Just ask me.
I'll tell you it wasn't that original."
But initially, I just focused on the bomb and the bus.
I had a painkiller-addicted cop with a knee brace and a cane
because I'd seen Cutter and Bone or whatever it was called,
Cutter's Way , and I like Jeff Bridges.
So I was imagining him.
The woman who takes over driving the bus was going to be
an African-American paramedic ambulance driver.
So I wanted to figure out, how does she know how to drive?
One of the first things that Paramount said was,
"Does she have to be African-American?"
I said, "Aah, I guess not.
I don't know."
I'm a neophyte, I'm just going to cave in to anything.
The first person, when it went to Fox,
the first person we went to was Halle Berry.
And it was just one of those various lessons.
It's like, anyway.
But when I first was thinking of the idea,
there was no elevator sequence at the beginning.
Then I thought, "Yeah, I need something to start this off."
And the elevator sequence was really what sold it,
because people were reading that,
and they're going "Well, this is really exciting
and I don't know what's going to happen."
In terms of what was made versus what I wrote,
one of the big things was, once it got on the bus,
it stayed on the bus to the end.
It was at Paramount they said, "Yeah, too much bus.
Can something else happen?"
"Well, it should be another thing to do with
public transportation because that's what the movie's about."
It's a support of public transportation.
It's a big PSA.
Go green, try not to explode.
So I thought, "Well, LA's got a subway system now.
Let's end it in the subway."
That was one big change from the first draft that people read
to what got made.
There are other big changes.
One of the big ones was,
I felt that one of the most important characters
in a movie like this is the bad guy.
And I thought, "Boy, they don't spend any time together really,
the hero and the bad guy."
And I thought, "Hey, what if we find out that his partner
is the bad guy?"
I really reached for it, and people bought into it.
But, the summer before production began,
that was thrown out.
It became just a bad guy.
I hadn't counted on what it would mean to
cast Dennis Hopper.
And that when you get America's favorite crazy man,
it suddenly is, he's a compelling bad guy
because it's Dennis Hopper.
And that's a big lesson is that,
as well as you can write stuff, and you can attract an actor,
boy, they can bring stuff to it that--
and they can also be wrongly cast and ruin it.
But they can bring stuff to it that takes it from here
and puts it up to there.
- Let her go, you don't need her,
you have the money.
Take it and walk.
Just take it and walk, you don't need her.
Go on, just take it!
Take the money and walk!
- Stay right there.
Stay right there.
I'll do it, I'll let go.
I'll let go.
You still don't get it, do you, Jack, huh?
The beauty of it.
A bomb is made to explode.
That's its meaning, its purpose.
Your life is empty because you spend it trying to
stop the bomb from becoming.
And for who, for what?
Do you know what a bomb is, Jack, that doesn't explode?
It is a cheap gold watch, buddy.
- The other big change was, I didn't write the final draft.
It was written by this guy.
I don't know if anything will happen with his career,
there had been someone else who had done a draft,
so I was on it up until June of 93.
Then they brought in another writer who did a terrible job,
and I hated his draft.
In Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel songs,
people are always getting in their car and driving around
to think about things.
I actually did that that night.
I drove around, and it was like this dark night of the soul.
I was just so heartsick.
But then they fired him.
They brought me back for a short period.
Then they fired me and then they brought in Joss.
I read his draft, and I went, "Hoo, man.
Not only does he get it, he made it better."
- Was there something he took that you had in there
that you feel like he elevated it?
- Yeah, very simply, I had Harry and Jack,
Jack is Keanu Reeves and Harry is Jeff Daniels,
and as they're doing the whole elevator thing,
I had him quizzing Jack, "Okay, what would you do if..."
It was just, there was no lead-in.
It was just, okay, here's another scenario.
Guy comes in, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And it was Joss who came up with "Pop quiz, hotshot.
What happens if..."
And that became a catch-phrase.
Here's another scenario, not quite a t-shirt thing.
Pop quiz, hotshot, that goes on a t-shirt.
- All right, pop quiz.
Airport, gunman with one hostage,
he's using her for cover, he's almost to a plane.
You're a hundred feet away.
- Shoot the hostage.
- Take her out of the equation.
Go for the good wound and you can't get to the plane with her.
- You're deeply nuts.
You know that?
- So you made this film that becomes one of the
films of that era.
Then you immediately get boxed into, like, Broken Arrows
and other, Hard Rain , were--
How did they come about?
Was that like, now you're the guy to call
to do this action film?
- Not the guy to call,
one of the guys.
It was interesting.
Because of the whole thing with the--
It's one of those rules of life that nothing is unencumbered.
Nothing is perfect.
There's always some problem with it.
So, the fact that I was re-written by Joss
just haunted me in my career at that point.
Fox had made another deal for another script of mine
that became Broken Arrow .
I almost sensed that they were disappointed
because they liked it.
It was like, "Oh, [bleep], maybe he's not a talentless hack.
Okay, let's make this movie."
But then by the time Hard Rain came along,
Mark and I could sell anything.
Then that movie didn't really work.
Mark and I joke about it all the time.
I said, "Well, let's look at the movie where
I wasn't re-written, Mark.
That one didn't do that well."
maybe I'll get into television where we'll all be in
a room of writers, and I can hide.
It's sort of a pigeonhole,
but one of the great things about being a writer is,
if you want to get out of the pigeonhole,
just write your way out of it.
Write something different.
For me, what happened was, it was a TV thing.
I got a call from my agent, this was 96.
She said, "Tom Hanks is doing a miniseries at HBO
"about the Apollo space program.
Are you interested?"
I said, "I am a space nut.
I am interested."
I ended up getting a job writing one.
Then Tom backed me to direct one.
I re-wrote another couple.
Then I got to be involved in From the Earth to the Moon .
That really changed things.
We were talking to Frank Darabont
to direct the episode "Apollo One",
which was about the fire on the...
If you've seen First Man , it depicts the fire.
But this was more about the investigation after
and all of that.
He joked with me, he says he wasn't joking, though,
that when he read the script, he kept on flipping
back to the title page and saying, "Wait a second.
This is the bus guy?"
Up until that point, that was the best review I'd ever gotten
was Frank Darabont saying, "This is the bus guy?"
- I guess HBO at that time would have been a great place
to be learning a lot about the TV experience.
- Yeah, Sopranos started right around the time that
Earth to the Moon came on, which was 98.
I think they came on in 98 or 99.
HBO was really becoming this
When you're working with Tom Hanks and then,
Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg,
that's a different experience
than most people go through at HBO.
Because you're under their shadow.
You're protected by these cumulative 1600-pound gorillas.
Going for a math joke,
- When you went and pitched Justified ,
were you still at that time calling it Fire in the Hole ?
- No, it was just untitled Elmore Leonard.
[Barbara] What was your pitch for that?
You said you had this great pitch meeting
and then he came up with a lot of great ideas.
What was it that you pitched to him,
and how much did we see of that?
- It's funny.
There were actually,
the first pitch was to CBS,
which would not have been a good home,
and it would have been very much a procedural.
It would have been about fugitive of the week.
I actually read parts of the story aloud
just because I loved Elmore Leonard.
Didn't sell there.
There was one pitch we did at HBO
and I was pitching to a wall.
These three people, I can't even remember who they were,
You can tell, I'm a hambone.
I'm freezing, but I'm still trying to make jokes
and get laughs off math jokes.
Got nothing from them.
So I just picked it up, dropped the humor,
told it quickly, got through it.
As we're walking out, Sarah and one of the other people
on the team says, "That's the best you've ever pitched it."
"That was just uhhh ..."
It was such a self-defeat.
And then they made an offer by the time we got to the elevator.
- HBO did? - HBO did.
- By the time you got to the elevator?
- What did you learn from that experience?
- Maybe I shouldn't try to be funny.
it certainly depends on the room and what the purpose is.
Listen, we went to eight places and six were interested.
- Why didn't you go to HBO?
- Because we went to FX.
Because FX was the right place for it.
Blaine Graff totally got Elmore Leonard,
supported doing an Elmore Leonard show
the way we all thought it should be done,
which is, do it like Scott Frank wrote Get Shorty
and Out of Sight .
Just let it live in these scenes with the characters.
George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez
in the trunk of a car falling in love.
Boy, if you can pull that off.
Well, Elmore did, so do what Elmore did.
- Wendy Calhoun was here a couple years ago on our panel.
Well, actually, a bunch of Justified writers were here
and they were talking about various character things.
Wendy said that she ended up writing all this
romantic dialogue that she was not expecting to
actually write in a show like that.
I realized after she said that, it was like,
"This really isn't a Western like I thought it was."
It's a love story between Raylan and Boyd.
They're a love story.
They appreciate each other,
they hate each other,
they're a marriage.
Well, mine, anyway.
They're really like, honestly,
two of my favorite characters in TV,
and because you like them and sometimes you don't like them.
Can you talk a little bit about how you all...
that decision when you were starting,
about how you were going to approach them.
- It can be a lot of simple small things.
I remember shooting the pilot,
and there was just this shot of Raylan walking up
to the house to the final confrontation at Ava's house.
Boyd's waiting inside with Ava
and he's carrying a shotgun that he's just taken off
of Dewey and Devil.
The show basically survived because Damon Herriman
played Dewey Crowe.
And then we got Patton Oswalt to play Constable Bob.
It was just the way he walked holding a shotgun,
it's like, well, he can do the walk.
Because I know he's a great actor.
But can he do the walk?
And, that was it.
And the other one was the scene in the church
where these two old friends see each other for the first time.
In Elmore fashion, they embrace.
They don't, I'm going to get you, it's just,
Boyd leaves, if you have to leave,
I'm going to come and find you.
How about we have a showdown like that time
we bunked together?
It was just their friendship and the fact that Raylan
was able to call him on his [bleep] and say,
"Boyd, I just think you're full of [bleep],
I think you just like to rob banks
and blow [bleep] up."
- Aw, you know Boyd, I think you just use the Bible
to do whatever the hell you like.
- Well, what do you think I like Raylan?
- You like to get money and blow [bleep up.
I know about your friend, Devil
and his record selling dope.
And I'm willing to bet
that you blew up that church in Lexington.
Not because it was black but because it was a dope store.
Ten to one says you got paid to do it.
By some other dope dealer around didn't like the idea
that preacher getting a free pass from the police.
Win-win for you,
wasn't it Boyd.
Not only did you get to blow something to smitherines,
you got money.
- There were three people who knew who Raylan really was.
Boyd and Winona.
So they became really the spines of the series.
They had to stay around to the end.
- That opening scene though, in the pilot,
is a little bit like that elevator scene.
If you hadn't--
I don't know if that was out of the book, but-
- It's interesting.
It's referred to in the novella.
It's really in the book "Pronto", and we couldn't get
the rights to use any of the dialogue or the setup from,
or any of the characters really, from "Pronto".
Except for Tommy Bucks because he appears,
his name appears in the novella.
At any rate, so we had Raylan, we had Tommy Bucks,
we couldn't really involve Harry Arno at that point.
We later on got the rights from Elmore to use parts of
Riding the Rap , so that we could do an episode where
we had a Harry Arno-like character.
I had to write that and that was my first exercise.
Something Elmore used to do when he was starting out
as a writer is, he loved Hemingway.
He'd read a page, but he'd keep a card over the
bottom half of the page.
And then he would just write what he thought Hemingway
would write, and just see how close it became.
Fred Golan, who I've worked with now forever, once asked Elmore,
"What happens when you write a book?"
And Elmore said that he had to read one or two of his books
to remember how he wrote.
There was just a certain approach to character
and story and dialogue.
So that was my first attempt at writing like Elmore Leonard,
was that scene with Tommy Bucks.
And it worked.
- Have a meal with me, okay?
I swear, you pass up...
these are the best crab cakes in town, I swear to God.
Much better than that crap we were eating in Managua.
I don't know if it was Mexican, Puerto Rican...
I don't know what it was, but it was crap.
You remember? I hated it.
- I didn't mind it.
I had some pork dish I quite liked.
- A second ago you said two minutes,
what's going on here?
- Time flies, huh?
- [laughs] You... you're a character.
I was telling my friends this morning how yesterday
you come to me and,
"if you don't get out of town in 24 hours,
I'm gonna shoot you on site."
Come on, what is that?
They thought it was a joke.
They started laughing.
- You tell them about the man you killed?
The way you did it.
'Cause I found nothing funny in that.
- Then maybe I shoulda killed you, huh?
Maybe I made a mistake.
we all have regrets.
- A lot of the other stuff in the pilot is just,
I pulled it off the page.
What's Raylan going to say next?
Well, let's see what Elmore had him say next
because Elmore was a brilliant dialogue writer.
- The through line of that with all the other characters
though, is he the guy that did that, was he in the-
- Elmore always loved people having legends
and people talking about it and people being knowledgeable.
I know who you are.
I heard about that.
He always loved that.
It was interesting.
That showdown became something that basically we went back to
at the end of the series, which is,
would Raylan have shot him if he had known that he was unarmed?
And he answers that question at the end.
And that became the whole arc of the series.
Tim and I agreed pretty early on and FX agreed
that Raylan would grow, but he'd grow that much.
Because in Elmore's world, character will out.
Whoever you say you are, whoever you behave like,
that's what you're going to end up doing.
- It's really hard not to fall in love with
Boyd Crowder, too.
He's a fascinating guy.
He's very charming.
That charm is just constant.
- Yeah, listen.
We all have egos and I think the fact that the audience
loved Boyd so much would drive Tim a little bit nuts.
And so, in the final season, he really wanted us
to remind the audience of what a bad guy Boyd was.
So we had him do the unforgivable.
Spoiler alert, first episode last season,
and we had to tell Damon this just after we were
doing a DVD commentary
and we had all met for that.
Then afterwards, he said,
"So, what have we got planned for the season?"
The worst Australian accent ever.
And we said, "Well, Damon,
Dewey's going to die."
Audience members were shocked.
It's like, "Boyd, no. Boyd, no."
And then after five minutes, it's like, well,
you know, he was a bit of a blabbermouth, so...
he didn't see the bullet coming, so it's not as though
he tortured him or anything.
We just sort of laughed to ourselves.
There's nothing that Boyd could do.
Michael Dinner ended up directing a pilot
this past year, really good, about LA Confidential .
A reboot of that thing, taking more of the whole novel
rather than the one chunk that the movie was about.
But Walton was in it, and Shea Wigham was in it.
And Shea was the last person that Boyd killed on Justified .
He's the guy whose truck he steals and shoots him
in the cab of his truck, really for no good reason.
Even then, the audience is kind of like, well, that's Boyd.
So making him unlikable was just a ridiculous task by the end.
It was Walton.
He is so charming.
- Old boy by the name Hut McKean mean anything to you?
- Let me guess, I killed him?
My men killed him.
My dope killed him.
My daddy killed him.
Next thing that comes outta your mouth is,
"How do you sleep at night, Boyd Crowder?"
Well, do you know how?
'Cause I know who I am.
You're a slave.
Disenfranchised and don't even know it.
You drive your [bleep] truck
to your [bleep] house,
live out your [bleep] life.
You think you're better than me cause you play by the rules?
My life is my own.
- You didn't hear a word I said.
- I don't give a [bleep] about what you said.
I'm an outlaw.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation with Graham Yost
on On Story.
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