Screenwriter of ‘Speed’, showrunner of FX’s much-mourned ‘Justified’ and all-round good guy Graham Yost talks to Harry Windsor about the streaming revolution, his new Amazon series ‘Sneaky Pete’ and adapting ABC series ‘The Code’.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you start as a writer?
My first scripted job was writing things for Nickelodeon, working on one of their first scripted shows, Hey Dude. Then I got a job on a network show, Full House. That didn’t work out. I was always working on screenplays.
How did you get the Nickelodeon job?
It’s one of those stories. A friend was playing softball, there was a cute girl there, I became friends with her, then I found out she had a boyfriend. I met the boyfriend, he was editing for Nickelodeon, and he brought me in. They were looking for joke writers, I wrote jokes, and it just started from there. I was in the Nickelodeon family, and when Hey Dude started they gave me a job.
You’re the show-runner on new Amazon series Sneaky Pete. Was the show your brainchild?
No. Bryan Cranston created it with David Shore. David Shore created and ran House for eight years and is a fellow Canadian. David and I have known each other for quite some time. They shot the pilot for CBS, CBS passed, so they went to Amazon. Amazon said yes but wanted a few changes. One of which was for Bryan to be in the show and be the bad guy for the first season. When that writer’s room [for the pilot] walked away they approached me. I brought in Fred Golan and Michael Dinner and Ben Cavell. We all worked together on [FX series] Justified. There was already a Justified writer on the show, Jennifer Kennedy – we kept her – and [brought in] another writer, Sal Calleros, who Fred and I had been tracking for some time.
Is it a drama?
It’s a drama but like Justified there are some strong comedic elements, cause there’s some crazy shit that happens.
Was the budget for Sneaky Pete much different to the budget you got from, say, FX?
I honestly don’t know what the budget was for Sneaky Pete and I’m not entirely sure what it was for Justified. All I’m interested in is how many days we get to shoot an episode and what resources we can bring to bear [on it]. Justified we had seven days to shoot an episode, Sneaky Pete we had nine. But there was also an appetite for more content [on Sneaky Pete]. Justified we were aiming for a forty-two minute episode – we sometimes went long and occasionally went short – and FX became fine with that. [With] Sneaky Pete you’re probably looking more towards 50 minutes. No more than an hour and Amazon probably don’t want anything less than 40. But anything thereabouts, they’re fine with.
It’s interesting that CBS passed. How are the networks going to survive, in terms of scripted drama?
The truth is they still make a lot of money. NCIS makes a lot of money. The networks are always making the right noises but… for example, Fred Golan and I wrote an adaptation of The Code, the Aussie show that Shelley Birse created. Michael Dinner was going to direct. We were going to do it for Fox. Fox said they wanted to do something different. But when it came down to deciding what pilots they were going to shoot, they ended up going with what they already did. We were horribly disappointed. I think there is a little trepidation in the community – John Landgraf has talked about this at FX. There are so many scripted shows, [and] there’s a little fear that when the music stops, only so many chairs are going to be left. So you do what you know works for you: a reboot of Prison Break, or whatever it is. So we’ll see. I hope there’s still room for the great big network shows of the past, like The Good Wife. Think back to LA Law, NYPD Blue, Lost, The West Wing.
How did The Code come across your desk?
Through Sony. Sony had made a deal with Playmaker. Basically I think they bought Playmaker. I watched it and Michael Dinner and Fred Golan watched it, and we said: yeah, let’s do this. It really translated quite easily to America. The biggest challenge was geographic distance, because you can get to Canberra from Sydney pretty fast, whereas in America it’s a big trip to DC.
Are you still pursuing that?
It’s not dead in the water, it’s just on pause right now.
How much has streaming changed things for you?
Well, Sneaky Pete is my first time working on a streaming show and it wasn’t that different. And yet there were differences. We’ve still got to break a story and come up with the characters and the plots and we still look at them in chunks of episodes rather than just a 10-hour haul. So some things don’t change, other things do. There’s no commercial, that’s one thing. There’s more freedom for swearing, which you are used to in Australia, but it’s still a big thing in the States. And nudity and things like that. More adult content. And they do want a bigger hook at the end of every episode so the people are going to tune in and just let it roll to the next episode.
Do shorter run series mean less opportunities for up and coming writers?
The young staff writer might not get the shot on episode 16 [anymore] because they’re only doing 10, but there are so many more shows that there is still an appetite for a lot of writers. One of the problems is making a good solid living. It’s tough if you’re only doing ten episodes. On the other hand doing 22, you don’t have a life.
What are you watching at the moment?
My wife and I are watching Westworld. It’s interesting. I got a big kick out of Stranger Things this American summer. And we’re really seeing this post-election thing. I was watching a lot of political shows for a while [during the election]. I don’t know if I have the taste for that anymore. We’ll see.
What else are you working on?
I’m working on a six-part mini-series for Nat Geo. Writing that with Bruce McKenna, who I worked with on Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It’s based on an unpublished Michael Crichton book about dinosaur bone hunters in the 1870s. It’s a story I’ve always been fascinated by and so has Bruce. They were kind of crazy, these guys. Just battled each other and hated each other and stole from each other and hurt each other and tried to be the first to find this dinosaur or that dinosaur. When Amblin approached me after getting the rights from Crichton’s widow, I said I’d love to do it with Bruce, whose father was a palaeontologist. He grew up on all these digs when he was a kid. If Nat Geo likes these first two scripts, and like what we want to do with the remaining four episodes, then the next big thing will be a director. And there are three big roles that have to be cast.
How many scripts are you working on at a time and how long do they take you?
It all depends. In production you gotta go fast. You have to write a script in a week. Maybe ten days. But you gotta keep it moving.
Graham Yost was in Australia as a guest of Screen Forever.