Showrunners 2012: 'Justified's' Graham Yost

"I now get written notes because I'm notorious for either just saying nothing on the phone call, if we do a notes call, or just saying repeatedly as if I'm pressing a button, "That's interesting. Let us take a look at it," he says about the network notes process.

From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV's most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter's annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them -- and their shows -- alive. 

Graham Yost, Justified (FX)

The TV show that inspired me to write:
Yost: Hill Street Blues. Hill Street encouraged and allowed serialized storytelling. Big arcs for the characters, so their lives felt real and they were ongoing and it wasn't just the same world every week. But as well, they would have some kind of close-ended story every week. There would be something going on where you could go, "that was a satisfying hour of television." We shoot for that. Pretty much anything I've worked on tried to have that element.

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My big break:
Yost: First, I wrote journalism in New York back in the ‘80s. I got a book contract for Spy-Tech, about espionage technology, and in the mid-‘80s. My first big scripted job was Hey Dude on Nickelodeon, and that was their first scripted show. I worked on the 65 episodes produced in two years. Just as a writer, we got to do all the classics. Have the boy and girl who say they don't like each other but really do, have them get handcuffed together, and someone loses the key. So, let's do that episode. Let's do the one where the middle-aged owner of the place gets hit on the head and thinks he's 15 years old again. Let's do that one. It was fun.

My TV mentor:
Yost: There have been a few. I would say, a really important one -- I first started coming out of Hey Dude I worked on half hour and did a short stint on Full House. Quit four days before I thought I was going to be fired. But then got on a show called The Powers That Be, created by Kauffman and Crane, who then went on to do Friends. The showrunner in the first season was Charlotte Brown who Ithink had been a showrunner (or higher-up anyway) on Rhoda. So she'd come out of the Jim Brooks school. And the other big executive producer the show, the guy behind the whole thing really, was Norman Lear. The two of them were very critical in helping to goose my writingalong. And then -- it'll sound like sucking up -- but it wasn't so much that he was a mentor as he gave me an opportunity, was Tom Hanks on From the Earth to the Moon. Just because we're telling a real story, a true story, the bar got set pretty high, so we had to hopefully do a good job and be honest and truthful and still dramatic and not screw it up. That really changed my writing.

My proudest accomplishment this year:
Yost: In the last year, you know what it would be. At the end of the third season, the very last scene between Raylan and Winona, the script was written by Fred Golan, but we all had a part in figuring out that last scene. I did a draft, Fred did a draft, Tim [Olyphant] weighed in. And the thing we landed on -- it's not a personal pride, but a group pride -- just this moment between Raylan and Winona when he tells her that his father was ready and willing to shoot a cop in a hat even if it was his son. It was a pretty great moment from the way Tim performed it and Natalie [Zea], and the way it was directed by Dean Parisot. It was one of those things that just came together. It was a great way to end the season. Not hit it over the head. And in editing, do we end on Winona, do we end on Raylan? A lot of choices to make, and it all just kind of came together, Steve Porcaro’s music, the theme he's developed over the years for Raylan and Winona, it was just a haunting little ballad. It all came together.

The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Yost: I've been very lucky. Working with Katherine Pope at NBC and various other people at NBC, and then all the people at FX. I've had funny exchanges with people, but they're not acrimonious, or "you're an idiot." I now get written notes because I'm notorious for either just saying nothing on the phone call, if we do a notes call, or just saying repeatedly as if I'm pressing a button, "That's interesting. Let us take a look at it." Just over and over again. So I get written notes. But there have been times where I've snapped. People would set their watch by how long it would take for me to call back and say, "Sorry, I was such an idiot." We just figured that written notes work best. 

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The one aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate:
Yost: I wouldn't say it's “rather delegate,” but there are things have become delegated. I don't go to casting sessions anymore. I see clips on my computer. So that becomes the duty of the writer who's producing the episode along the director and our brilliant casting people. I did a lot of editing on Boomtown with Avnet and also on Reins and thought I was going to do a lot on Justified. The first episode came in after the pilot and I had a bunch of notes, and Michael Dinner said, "Let me take a pass." And then he did a pass, and all my notes were answered. And I was like, "Well, that's done!" Michael will do the editing now. Stuff gets delegated. It'd be crazy not to. We're all very lucky on this show that we're all pulling in the same direction.

My preferred method for breaking through writer's block:
Yost: I'm a little superstitious by nature, so I'm afraid to say I don't. Sarah Timberman came into the room last week and our room is a pretty boisterous room and we were just dead silent and she said, "What's going on?" And we said, "We're thinking." You'll hit a beat in the story and it's like, "I don't know how we're going to make that work. I don't know how we get from A to C. Where the hell is B?" And we'll just sort of sit on it. My method, and there is a joke in the room about me and the yellow pad, is to say, "I'm just gonna go yellow pad this for a while." And one of the writers got a T-shirt made for me last year which has  ayellow pad on it, and the phrase, "The yellow pad giveth and the yellow pad taketh away" because you're not exactly sure what I'm going to come back with when I do some yellow padwork. That sort of helps me. Just writing things down. Write down questions. Why do we care about this character? Why do we care about this situation? And I'll just start to, not entirely stream of consciousness, but just free-form. Just start scribbling.

If I could add any one writer to our staff, it would be:
Yost: At the risk of insulting anyone, I would say I always ask Michelle Ashford if she's interested. But she wasn't for a long time, and now she's doing her own show on Showtime. She's busy. And we met when I was directing an episode of LA Doctors. She made a deal to come on Boomtown. She was pregnant, and due in September that year. She said, "I'll give you three months." We squeezed a couple scripts out of her, and they were just fantastic. I was so lucky to work with her on The Pacific as well.

The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
Yost: I'm not embarrassed to admit I watch anything. I'm not ashamed to watch anything. I'm trying to think of any sort of guilty pleasures with the kids. We watch really good stuff. 

The three things I need in order to write:
Yost: I need a yellow pad. I sort of can get by with just the yellow pad. I wouldn't say I need quiet. I can't write with music on, I'll tell you that. I always need food. If I ever get cranky, and kids will justlook at me and say, "Have something to eat. Your blood sugar is low." I'm a salt and fat guy more than a sugar guy. I find that if I start sugar,that just starts an unhappy roller coaster of climbs and dives. So salt and fat is always good. Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. I'm right there with Gov. Romney on that one. Not much else, but we agree on the Caffeine-Free Diet Coke.

If I could scrub one credit from my résumé, it would be:
Yost: I'm lucky enough that I'm proud of everything I've done, and even stuff -- my dad really taught me this -- which is look for the positive. I did a credited re-write on the Howie Long movie, Firestorm, and you know what? They paid me. I got to go to Vancouver and meet Howie Long and the other cast members and Dean Semler who's directing. Howie got injured on the film, so I'm sure he doesn't look back on it all that fondly. We gave it a shot. There's nothing I would scrub.