Elmore Leonard: 'Justified' EP Graham Yost says author was 'our guiding light'

graham-yost-elmore-leonard.jpgWhen Graham Yost was writing the pilot of "Justified" for FX, he lifted some dialogue directly from "Fire in the Hole," the Elmore Leonard story on which the show is based.

"I'd be working away at the computer like any writer -- 'What's Raylan going to say next?' -- and I would just think, 'Well, what did Elmore have him say?' I would just copy down his dialogue," Yost tells Zap2it while reflecting on Leonard, who died Tuesday (Aug. 20) at 87. "It was actually a really important exercise for me, because it got me into deconstructing what his sentence structure was like, the tense that he used and how he would leave words out and just have these people talking fast. I learned a lot from doing that."

Leonard, after seeing the pilot, gave Yost a thumbs-up. "He said, 'I really like this.' I said, 'Of course you do. It's mostly you,'" Yost says. "The hard part then became what do we do in the next episode. He was completely hands-off on the whole thing, so it was up to us. But our guiding light, our north star, was always him and what he would do -- his world. We try to never lose sight of that."

Leonard was an executive producer of "Justified," but Yost says he never gave notes on scripts, in part because he hated the process when he wrote his own screenplays. He did, however, end up revisiting Raylan Givens in the novel "Raylan," which grew out of a suggestion from "Justified" star Timothy Olyphant that Leonard write another story about the character.

"He made changes to his world to accommodate the changes we had made to it," Yost says. "At the end of 'Fire in the Hole,' Boyd dies, and obviously in our series he doesn't. That was one of the things Elmore said after seeing the pilot -- 'You should keep that guy around.' I could tell him we agreed and we're going to figure it out, because he loved Boyd [ Walton Goggins]. So that was pretty cool."

Yost says Leonard, who was known for creating characters like Raylan or Chili Palmer in "Get Shorty" who almost always keep a cool head, was "incredibly cool in his own way."

"Affable -- that's the first word that comes to my mind. He was just a very friendly, fun guy to spend time with," Yost says. "He always had this little twinkle in his eye. He got a kick out of life."

More than 20 of Leonard's novels and stories were adapted for television and movies, but with a few exceptions -- "Justified" included -- Hollywood didn't often do right by the author's work. Yost attributes that to people "trying to crack something that didn't need to be cracked," adding that what made adaptations like "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight" work was the fact that screenwriter Scott Frank (who penned both scripts) treated the source material "with great love and affection."

"Why change something unless you absolutely have to change it? That was my feeling with the pilot," Yost says. "There were certain changes I needed to make for series, like keep Raylan's dad alive and make him a criminal, and have Winona be part of his life and things like that. But scenes between Raylan and Boyd or Raylan and Ava? Let them play the way Elmore had them play. And I think other people, they didn't get that, or something -- I don't know. I think they thought they were just buying the stories, and they weren't buying that dialogue, and that was a big mistake."
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