Interview: ‘Justified’ showrunner Graham Yost on villains, arcs and life without Mags

On the last day of press tour, I sat down with “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost to talk about the show’s third season. Given that the season was going to premiere two days later, I knew I wasn’t going to have the time to transcribe the interview then, so I geared it to go after tonight’s episode (you can read my review of that here), which introduced Mykelti Williamson as the second of our two major new villains, Ellstin Limehouse, and guest-starred Carla Gugino as a U.S. Marshal who very closely resembled the one Gugino played on “Karen Sisco.”
Yost and I talked about villains new and old – including the gaping hole that Margo Martindale left as Mags – about the show’s evolution to be serialized even in episodes that might once upon a time have been standalone, and about Elmore Leonard’s new book “Raylan,” which is partly Leonard’s adaptation of “Justified” season 2, and partly contains stories that Yost in turn adapted for season 3.
Should I wait to read the book until after I”ve watched the season?
Graham Yost: I was talking to someone who said it”s a little bit like “True Blood,” where you”ve got these alternate universes; same characters, similar, but there”s some differences and there”s some back and forth. I would say this. I would wait until you see the — no, you know what? Read it.
Graham Yost: You”ll see that in our fifth episode we go at something that Elmore has big in the first third of his book and then you”ll also see stuff that we used from last season. So when you see this character Pervis Crowe, it”s like, “Oh, that is Mags.”
It really seems like your approach here this season was, “I can”t replace Margo so I”m just going to like go with volume,” because there”s the two new guys and Dickie is still around and Dewey floats back in. There”s just so many different antagonists bouncing around off of one another. Wynn Duffy has a bigger role. Was that actually your strategy?
Graham Yost: Well it wasn”t consciously volume; although someone said, “Wow, it takes two big men to fill Margo”s shoes.” And I hope she gets a kick out of that, but we looked at — it wasn”t just Margo. It was also the boys. It was that clan, and then you throw (Loretta) into that mix and that was that thing that we focused on last year. This is a little bit more disparate, but as you”ll see the stories advancing, everything starts to (come together), and of course Raylan”s got to figure his way through.
I don”t think Neal (McDonough’s) character is referred to by any name at all in the first four episodes and at first I was wondering if that was a conscious thing, like he”s just the man from Detroit.
Graham Yost: What did we call him (in the scripts)? Well, he was “Carpetbagger.” But yeah, no, he really is the man from Detroit for a long time. Yeah, I think we start to nail down the name in (episode) six or so.
Is there a specific reason for that?
Graham Yost: No, it”s just that, you know, in real life names don”t come up that much. You know? And Raylan, we”ve got to see it through Raylan”s eyes.
With the Derringer he uses, on the one hand, that”s “Taxi Driver,” but on the other, a Derringer is an Old West kind of weapon.
Graham Yost: I always wondered this. “Taxi Driver” came out in what, ’76? I wonder if it had (anything to do with) things like “The Wild, Wild West.” I mean, Jim West always had like stuff like that kit, and guns and knives, and of course his gun that shot the thing. So, that wasn”t conscious to make it a Western thing. When I thought of it I realized, “Okay, we”re going to have to go straight at the “Taxi Driver” thing,” (and we) address it early. And but that”s also part of Elmore”s world. Characters in Elmore”s fiction love movies. And so it felt that we could get away with it.
And by tying it to “Taxi Driver,” that becomes even more, here”s the city man versus the backwoods folk.
Graham Yost: That wasn”t conscious, but I”ll take it.
All right, so he’s the carpetbagger and he represents that. What was your goal with Limehouse?
Graham Yost: It really started with just a feeling that I wanted to explore the African-American communities in Harlan. Because when we found out that there still were these little pocket hamlets of black folk living there, and how did that happen? This is a very white part of the world and so the research tumbled us on to a bunch of stories that just started to ring bells for us. One of which is that there was this place where battered white women would go to seek refuge ’cause their batterers would not dare come in there. So, I thought, “That”s kind of cool.” And that sort of made sense in terms of Raylan”s backstory, Ava”s backstory. So it was stuff like that and then we also found out that one of the models for Mags Bennett was this woman Mags Bailey, and the story goes that she stored her money under a black church ’cause she knew that no one would go in after it.
Did you know when you went in to last season that you had more plans for Dickie? Or was it just, “I”ll leave him alive and maybe, you know, something will come up”?
Graham Yost: It”s two things. One, Jeremy (Davies) is just so electrifying. But then again so was Joe Lyle Taylor who played Doyle. So was Brad Henke as Coover, and of course Margo, but there was a sense, “Okay, we don”t want to kill them all off.” And if we”re going to keep some of them alive, let it be the person who has the strongest animosity personally for Raylan and for Boyd. So it seemed like a good fit.
Limehouse and Carpetbagger both have very specific looks. Carpetbagger with the suits and just the way he carries himself. Limehouse has the teeth and the hat and everything. How much was that on the page and how much was just them working with the hair and make-up and costume people?
Graham Yost: You know, the notion of Carpetbagger that he was a sharply-dressed man was something that we hit on very early. We wanted him to stand out. In terms of Limehouse, Patia Prouty, who”s our costume designer, tried a bunch of different looks and the teeth were T”s. He just wanted teeth that looked like they hadn”t gotten a lot of 20th century dental attention. So he went out and got teeth made.
Everyone on the show likes to speechify, but these two it seems like in their early appearances give a lot of monologues.
Graham Yost: Well especially Limehouse. One of the ideas we had for Limehouse, which we ended up not really following through on, is him as a storyteller. And that he would tell things in terms of parables and stuff like that. And he gets a little bit into that, but it”s just fun to have T tell a long speech.
I don”t know how much you”re actually going to let yourself say on the (Carla) Gugino character. You”ve had Stephen Root on the show a number of times as the judge, who bears some resemblance to a judge who has appeared in -.
Graham Yost: Maximum Bob?
Yes. In other Leonard works that you don”t have the rights to. Goodall has a resemblance to a character Carla has played before that you don”t have the rights to. What can you say?
Graham Yost: Well, the whole rights issues was a confusion. We would have loved to call her Karen Sisco, but it was just going to be too hard to work out and the fact is that we just wanted her on the show playing a female Marshal. Also we liked the idea that she”s someone who Raylan knew when they were peers and now she”s in Washington. She”s a deputy director and that”s a fun thing to play with a little bit.
Did you watch that show at the time?
Graham Yost: I watched that show after, I think when we were doing the pilot, to look at how other Elmore shows have been done.
Elmore talks all the time about how sometimes the adaptations are good, sometimes they”re bad. That always seemed to me one of the more faithful good ones.
Graham Yost: Yes. I think there were little hints drawn by the need to be more procedural. But that”s a network show.
Well, let”s talk about that, because your show started out fairly procedural. It wasn”t until midway through the first season where it really got in to what was going on with Bo and all of that. And now it seems like you”ve started this season with like three or four episodes that have some procedural stuff, but you have the antagonists of the larger term working in the background, slowly building towards it. When did you figure out that that”s what the show needed to be and how did that happen?
Graham Yost: Well, you know, it”s funny. One thing that gets forgotten, including by me, is that one of the reasons that the show, the way it did in the first season, was because of (Walton Goggins). He was off doing “Predators.” And so we didn”t have him around. So we could use him for a scene here and scene there from a couple episodes and shoot it. And then when he was done with “Predators,” then we had him full time. So that”s really when Boyd rere-enters the series in the first season. So, we knew that the first season was going to be about Raylan and Boyd but also Raylan and Arlo and then Raylan and Ava and Raylan and Winona. Its Raylan and all these things; Raylan at the focus. And so we did the best we could with what we had and we could see once Boyd got out of prison at (episode) six that this — that everything”s just started to kick up.
In the premiere, Raylan starts talking about Mags’ money and how one of the purviews of the Marshal”s office is recovering stolen funds. How much do you guys have to work to constantly, pardon the pun, justify Raylan”s presence back in Harlan dealing with these people?
Graham Yost: We have to work at it all the time. That”s a constant thing because the reality of Marshals work is, there”s a lot of WitSec, but it”s mostly going after people. And when you have a serialized show you can”t have a fugitive of the week because you”re trying to keep your story within the characters you already have. And there is a magic thing that we can use and we”ve used occasionally which is a task force. The Marshals can get themselves put on any task force and so they can help the DEA, they can help local police, they can help state police, whatever, and we use that sparingly, but that”s always an option.
And in terms of the cases of the week, it seems like this year in particular there is some sort of historical element to each one, whether it’s Art dealing with his friend or whatever.
Graham Yost: Yes, and that”s because our world has gotten bigger, we”ve got a bigger library of characters to choose from. That makes it a little easier but it”s still difficult.
It”s been a while since I watched the second third season finale, but my recollection is Winona is not happy that Raylan is going off to Harlan and that”s sort of like they”re on the verge, they”re going to go to Glynco, he”s going to get out of all this shit and then she”s mad. And we come back and she seems to have basically accepted that, “No, even though he got shot, this is our lives and we”re staying here.” What was your thinking there?
Graham Yost: Keep watching. That”s all I”m going to say.
Let”s talk about Frank (John Hughes, who played Poe in tonight’s episode), because he was one of my favorite parts of “Band of Brothers,” and I have waited for him to have another part like that. You like bringing back people you’ve worked with before, but how do you decide, “All right now I”m going to bring him in”?
Graham Yost: It”s funny. His name didn”t come up (at first). But listen, we brought Rick Gomez in to season one. And didn”t use him last year and I will say Gomez has one, maybe two appearances this year. And Frank, it was tough because it”s a great part but then we”re done (with him), and so it was like, “Do I want to use Frank for that or do we want to find something where he can run for a few episodes?” And we just said, “You know, we”ve got to feed the beast. We”ve got to keep moving. ‘Frank, do you want to do it?” ‘Yes.”” Similarly, Matt Craven (who plays Raylan’s boss from Miami), I would always want to have him in things.
In terms of how the way the season is structured. As I recall last year there were like four relatively stand-alone episodes and Mags is floating around in the background. Then we had essentially a two-parter involving Winona stealing the money and then we went into (the arc). Is there going to be anything like that in this season?
Graham Yost: Well, we have financial responsibilities. In last season, we cross-boarded six and seven. (Episode) six was still kind of stand-alone. It had – we called him “the Oxygenarian.” That was our term for him. And our slow speed chase and that led in to (episode) seven. This year, seven and eight are our cross boarded episodes and there”s something that kicks out of seven. And there”s more stuff in the Marshall”s office and blah, blah, blah, blah. I think it”s just sort of natural. You have to have that sort of turning point or some big thing in the middle of the season before you get in to your third act.
When you introduced Jere Burns as Wynn, obviously there was whatever was going on with him and Gary, but did you have any expectation past that?
Graham Yost: No. But once we saw that first episode with him — well, we had two episodes with him in the first season; six and seven. And it was just, “When can we bring Wynn back?” Because he is just so delicious and he and Tim did great work together. So we”re happy. Wynn plays a prominent role this year.
How’s Art feeling about Raylan at this point? Have they reached an accord?
Graham Yost: To a degree. Our feeling was that Art showing up and saving Raylan”s life at the end of season two showed that, “Yeah, Raylan”s a pain in the ass but he”s still family and I still love him.” The whole second episode was to show another side to Art. And that settles certain things, but you”ll see other things that come up between them.
Yeah, you see that Art was once upon a time not above bending the rules himself.
Graham Yost: Yes. And you”ll see, you know, there will be other frictions between Raylan and Art.
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