Writing As a Career: It’s ‘Justified’

It didn't take long for Graham Yost, executive producer of FX’s Justified, to point out who inspired him to write in TV: “My mentor is my Dad, Elwy.”

Elwy Yost hosted a weekly movie show, Saturday Night at the Movies, on TVOntario for 25 years. “I grew up in a household where we were always talking about movies and books,” Graham recalls. “It was because of him that I read The Lord of the Rings five times.”

Graham’s mother, Lyla, reinforced it all. “I always joked that if I told my parents that I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, they would have been supportive but kind of disappointed,” he says.

Yost didn’t disappoint, finding success in TV, particularly with his gritty hit FX drama, Justified, which will end its run after its upcoming sixth season. Justified averaged 4.1 million live-plus-sevenday viewers in its fourth season and is averaging 4.3 million for season five.

After graduating from Toronto University, Yost moved to New York in 1982. He wrote articles for Soap Opera Digest and Encyclopedia Britannica, the latter of which led to writing a book, Spy-Tech, on espionage technology.

After writing jokes for the Nickelodeon series Turkey Television, Yost was hired as a writer for Hey Dude in 1989. It was his “made it” moment.

“By that time I was living in L.A., but they asked me to be the writer on-set… to do rewrites and work with the production,” he says. “ That was really the start. Then I was writing for television.”

Yost expected some kind of development deal from Nick after Hey Dude. When it didn’t happen, he set about writing a feature film between shows.

“I had this idea about a bomb on a bus,” he says. “The bus couldn’t slow down or it would blow up.”

Before selling the script for what would become Speed, the enormously popular Keanu Reeves-Sandra Bullock thriller, Yost had a brief stint as a staff writer on Full House. “I was on Full House for 9½ weeks. I quit four days before I was going to be fired,” he recalls. “That was not a good fit for me.” Two days later, Speed sold to Paramount.

Though he wrote the features Broken Arrow and Hard Rain following Speed, Yost sees his experience on the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon as the real turning point in his career.

A Breakthrough in Television

“My writing got a lot better,” Yost recalls. “It was the subject matter and because of [Earth to the Moon executive producer] Tom [Hanks]. He gave me a shot and that really changed my career.”

Yost continued working with Hanks on HBO’s The Pacific, sharing outstanding miniseries Emmys for both. It was the kind of collaborative relationship one tends to look for afterward. Yost found it again when he was shopping Justified, and it became clear FX was the right place. To Yost, FX Networks president/GM John Landgraf made the decision easy. Landgraf is “really respectful and supportive,” Yost says.

The feeling was mutual for the FX chief. The potentially upsetting news of Justified heading offstage hardly dims his view. “As disappointed as I might be in the decision, I’m really proud of them,” Landgraf says of Yost and his team. “I have a lot of admiration for a group of creative people who have every financial incentive to take that extra year or two,” and don’t.

Yost says he and Justified star Timothy Olyphant decided to end the show after season six to avoid “repeating ourselves” and end on a high note.

As for his plans following Justified, aside from executive producing season two of The Americans (which premiered Feb. 26), Yost is figuring things out. “I’m sure I’ll develop something this fall,” he says. Yost and his brother, Christopher, continue to write feature scripts together, though he won’t talk about those projects until a contract is signed.

Yost will also be spending weekends in Monterey, Calif., with his family, watching TV. “Game of Thrones is pretty big in our house.” he says.