On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, veteran screenwriter Graham Yost talks about being the showrunner for the Amazon Prime Video series “Sneaky Pete.” He previously wrote movies like “Speed” and TV series like the FX crime drama “Justified,” so he explains what makes writing for Amazon different — or not.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in full in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network, I am here in Vox headquarters in New York City. In a minute, we’re gonna take you to a fancy midtown hotel where I talk to Graham Yost. He’s a TV screenwriter, movie screenwriter, he’s got a cool show on Amazon called “Sneaky Pete.”
So here is that Graham Yost interview. If it sounds echo-y, it’s because this fancy hotel has a lot of marble in it, so it’s a tiny bit bouncier than I would have liked, but we think you can listen to it. You’ll enjoy it.
I’m with Graham Yost, the executive producer, do I get to call you the creator as well?
Graham Yost: No, you do not.
Not the creator of “Sneaky Pete.”
You can call me the showrunner.
Guy in charge of “Sneaky Pete,” which you can see on Amazon. I think an episode at a time.
No, we drop the whole thing.
You do the full drop.
There’s my research out the door. Graham has made a lot of cool things over his career. He wrote “Speed,” which is a great movie. Made “Justified,” which is one of my favorite all-time TV shows. Want to talk to you about “Sneaky Pete” to start with, in case ... this is the second season?
If you have not watched the first season, you can go watch it now.
With Amazon Prime.
This new world. Watch anything any time.
The quick synopsis, it’s a caper show.
So he is ... Marius — played by Giovanni Ribisi — as the first season opens has been in prison for three years and he’s just getting out and he finds that the world outside has changed a little bit. Some business that basically sent him to jail is still hanging over his head. The bad guy, Vince, played by this actor you might’ve heard of, Bryan Cranston.
Also a producer?
Also a producer, and he’s the co-creator with David Shore. They want their money. Vince wants his money and it’s gonna be bad for him. So Marius hides out, takes on the personality, that persona, the I.D. of his cellmate, Pete, and shows up at this farmhouse that Pete hasn’t been to in 20 years and says, “Hey, it’s me. Pete.” So he takes over that life, it’s an assumed identity, and he’s gotta kind of scramble to try to get this money to Vince and all this stuff and finds out this family is not just this sweet ... Well, he thought they were like municipal bonds or something, no, they’re a bail bonds company. Yeah.
So he’s juggling identities, there’s capers involved.
Juggling identities, running cons, and it turns out he was running a big con against Vince and that’s Season One. Season One ended with him thinking it was all taken care of and then something from Pete’s past — the guy he’s pretending to be — something from Pete’s past comes up and bites him in the ass. These thugs grab him and say, “Take us to your mother and the $11 million or we’re gonna kill your family,” because they think he’s Pete. And that’s where we start with Season Two.
So it’s a fun show, it got good buzz last year. That’s how I ended up finding ... it’s interesting to find a streaming show right now, because you don’t generally see a lot of TV ads for it. But I found it, it’s great, looking forward to catching up on Season Two, just watched the first episode this morning.
How did you get to this show? Because originally it was a CBS show, when you were originally not involved, right?
Right. So originally it was Cranston, he created it with David Shore, and they did it for CBS. CBS passed. And you know occasionally this can happen in this business, when there’s a busted pilot that someone else will pick it up.
They made the show, they made the pilot episode.
Right. Amazon said ... Morgan Wandell, who was running drama at that time, said, “Yeah, yeah, okay, we’d like some changes. We want Vince to be ...” Actually he didn’t say we want you to play Vince, but they said we’ll create Vince as this bad guy and they only had three weeks to get it done, and shoot some new scenes. So it was like, “Might as well be me,” is what Bryan said, “because then we don’t have to cast ...”
So that was stitching together just after the fact.
Stitching together after the fact, they shot some additional scenes. In fact, there’s this one pivotal scene in the pilot towards the end between Marius and Audrey, the grandmother played by Margo Martindale, and they ... and I realized, “Wow they shot that in the barn at Disney Ranch,” where we shot a lot of “Justified.”
And anyway, then Amazon said yes, you know what they would do is just put the pilot up and see how people responded, and it got a really good response, so they said let’s do a series.
You’re still not involved in this?
Still not involved. There was a first attempt to have a writers room and run it, and it was just hard to come up with the stories. I think that ... so that writers room disbanded and there was a feeling because of “Justified” that I might be the right person, and so ...
Get the crime and you get ...
Crime and a little bit of humor in some characters.
Then Elmore Leonard — it’s not quite Elmore Leonard, “Sneaky Pete,” but it’s Elmore Leonard ...
It’s got that vibe. And by the way, you’ve got some of the same actors, which I assume is not an accident.
Well, no. So once I saw it, and the ... Fred Golan, who did all six years with me on “Justified” and Michael Dinner, who directed the pilot of “Justified” was our directing producer. We all signed on, but part of it was because of Margo and another part was frankly Giovanni and Marin Ireland, and Shane, and Libe, and Peter Gerety. It was just ... it’s rare in the business to be handed a great premise, really good pilot, Seth Gordon did a great, great job on the pilot, you’re handed that and just this terrific cast. So, that was the reason we all signed up.
You said it’s not unusual or it happens sometimes, but in the pre-streaming days, right? If you made a show for a network and they pass, that show generally just ...
90 times out of 100.
Even if it was a good show, no one wanted to touch it. It seems like in the streaming era, Amazon and Netflix are often interested in picking up something that someone passed on.
They’re more interested than ... In the past, another network would be interested in picking up something.
Why do you think that is?
They’re just, you know, because they can see it. Someone’s already done that work of actually putting the pilot up and shooting it, they can tell whether or not it’s something that might work for them.
Seems logical that you would wanna do that. I think it’s less, much less logical the networks for years wouldn’t ever do that.
Well, it’s also because the networks had such, not narrow channels, but you know there is an ABC type of show, there’s a CBS type of show, there’s an NBC. If you’re shooting something for CBS, chances are working on NBC or Fox is slim, but it could maybe work on another, on a streaming service.
And when they come to you and say, “We have a show that doesn’t work and it’s for Amazon,” which even a couple years ago it’s still pretty new to TV.
Are you reticent to take that on? Do you go, “Well I don’t know”?
So, what had happened is again, I keep on bringing up their names, but Fred Golan and Michael Dinner and myself, we had worked on a pilot script for Fox that previous fall, and then in January we were told they weren’t going forward with it. So we were very disappointed.
Which is standard?
Which is standard, right. It’s that pyramid in Hollywood ...
Earn a lot of money in time and doesn’t happen.
You have a hundred pilot scripts written, you shoot 10 and you put two on the air. It’s this pyramid of death. But so we found out we weren’t going forward, we had nothing to do, so when they came to me I was like, “Well, we have nothing else going on right now, we could be developing things, but might as well do ...” Again: Premise, cast and that pilot, yeah, we’ll take it on.
I’ll be totally honest, there was a feeling of like, “Well, if we fuck up, if we don’t crack this, everyone else is gonna get the blame. If we succeed then we get patted on the back.” So it was ... the stakes for us were not as high. We could sort of relax and enjoy it and try to do the best show we could.
Do you think about this as a streaming TV show or this a TV show that Amazon is streaming?
That is an interesting question and it’s .... As things start to change, you start to think of things differently. For example, we pitched the first episode of the first season — our first episode, not the pilot — and pitched it to Morgan Wandell and Bryan and his partner James Degus and all the Sony guys, Zack and Jamie. We had it up on the board. We use a whiteboard, I like to have a whiteboard room instead of cards. So, we’ve got it put up there and we’ve got it broken by acts and Morgan says, “Yeah, we don’t have acts at Amazon.”
Because there’s no commercials. So you’re not breaking it up every eight minutes or 10 minutes. But I said to him, “We still have acts creatively.” Because we need to know the pace of the episode, where are we hitting what, where, when.
Because viewers, you think, just have that conditioning, they expect that? Or that’s just how you know how make a ...
That’s just how I know to tell a long story. But it started to change over time because you don’t have to go to commercial break. You realize that thing that normally I would put in the last 10 minutes, we could put that in 20 minutes to the end. We could amble a little bit, as long as we got a big turn at the ...
Even more than on FX with “Justified,” streaming shows like a bit of a cliffhanger, some kind of hook at the end of the episode, because for them the show is working when people let it roll. When it says the next episode will start in however many seconds, if people just let that roll, then the show is working.
In the olden days, right? That was to get you to come back next week, here it’s just stay on the couch for another 10 seconds. That’s the same construction, really.
It’s the same ... roughly the same construction, but there’s an urgency to it rather than, “Oh yeah, I’ll check in on that next week.” It’s like, “I’m gonna watch it now.” I have been told by someone that the best way to break out of that addiction is to stop an episode in the middle. So get about 20 minutes in and then go to bed.
If you don’t wanna binge?
But you gotta see what’s gonna happen next because they’ve just hooked you. Yeah.
So you lean even harder on, “Holy shit, this thing just happened, we gotta ...”
Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be a gun to the head, it can just be, well, as the first episode of this season ends, it’s just propelling you forward into the next episode. We’ve got ...
Right. “Holy shit, something happened 10 minutes earlier.”
The holy-shit thing happened 10 minutes earlier, now it’s, We have to accomplish this and it’s impossible, let’s do it.” Hopefully that’s enough to ...
Are there other parts of making or marketing the show that are different for this?
Its small stuff, but it’s ... A thing where you’re gonna bargain the first season and the props guy says what kind of beer do you want to drink, and it’s like, “Well, does it have to be Hampstead?” You know, it’s these made-up brands, Kingsland — well, you know, not Kingsland. And he said, “No, it can be anything.” Because there’s no advertisers, you don’t have to worry about offending Coors, if you’re putting Bud Light onscreen. So that’s a small thing but it creates better verisimilitude.
Budgets are the same, it looks like at this point now?
Basically the same. Unless you’re doing “Game of Thrones.”
Yeah, you got money for music rights. I saw there’s a Steely Dan reference in the first episode and then you end with Steely Dan in the credits.
It was very expensive, and I got yelled at. But I insisted Walter Becker had just died, and we’re putting in a Steely Dan song.
Sorry to spoil the first episode, but it’s a good song.
It’s a good song.
And that was Michael Dinner’s idea to put that song in at the end. You know, it’s the same constraints, really, unless, you know, once Amazon starts doing the Tolkien series, they’ve spent a lot of money on that. That’ll be ... then they’ll be spending a lot of money.
But for a show like this, you don’t need an unlimited budget, you don’t need an HBO budget on this. It’s ... you can get it done in the time allowed. That doesn’t mean that it’s not difficult, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have two crews running for many days to pick up scenes that we dropped in the previous episode and all that kind of thing. Then trying to schedule the actors and, you know, because it’s got a big cast. But, yeah, we were able to get it done.
In podcast land we take short breaks, we take short breaks here for advertisers, we do have advertisers, we’re gonna come back in one minute, or less.
See you in one second.
Back here with Graham Yost, still here, he did not move.
Not an inch.
Lousy day to move.
Aw, it’s fantastic out there.
We’re recording this on a crummy day in March, you can see the show in March. Do you think about how people will find a show like this? If you know to go to Amazon video, there’s a whole carousel of stuff there, movies, etc. Do you think about how they will get word out to a viewer? Other than podcasts? Or is that not your job?
It’s not my job.
To worry about.
It’s not my job. It really ... the thing is is that some people, some showrunners, are really smart about that and know how to get involved and know how to push things in a certain direction. My feeling is that’s not my forte. That anytime I think of something like, “Hey, why don’t you do ...?” it’ll be explained to me that I’m an idiot.
They politely say, “Hey, great idea.” And never come back.
And then ... Frankly, you see the trailers that Amazon cuts and the ads and the ideas that they have, there’s one they call “Truth,” which is a poem written by Emily Dickinson being read by Libe Barer, who plays the kid in the show, Carly. I don’t know who came up with the idea, but it was great, it was beautiful, and it had all the cool shots of the season and stuff. Like, man, you guys know what you’re doing.
You guys go for it.
Yeah, and then you see their print campaigns and it’s like, “Well shit, that’s wonderful.” So really I just kind of stay out of that and do good job. And then now I’m in New York and I’m riding the subway and I’m seeing how many “Sneaky” ads are on the subway walls.
Those are for your benefit.
I know, what if it like disappeared as, say, I went through the station. No, but I count them, and it’s like I know that next week or the week after those will be disappearing and all “The Americans” ads will be coming in.
But you also are happy to see.
I’m happy to see that.
You mentioned the Tolkien shows, it’s reported and true that Amazon now has bigger ambitions for TV, they want even bigger shows, which have bigger audiences. You came on when they were still in the ... we’re very happy that “Transparent” is a critical hit with a relatively small audience. As they are scaling up their ambitions, does that change what you need to do for a show like this?
You know, it’s not that hard to work an orc and a warg into ... no, I don’t know, but listen, hey if they’re writing wargs that would be fantastic. Listen, I’m a total Tolkien geek, I belonged to the Tolkien Society of America when I was a kid. So I support anything that involves more of his world coming to life.
It’s a different kind of thing. I think that “Sneaky” is not that kind of thing, doesn’t need to compete with that. And this is one of the interesting things, is that there’s room for so much. That you can have a show like “Sneaky,” you can have a show like “The Tick,” you can have a show like “Patriots,” all these things. And some of them are gonna work, some of them aren’t gonna work. But you’re not ... and then you can also have, you know “The Silmarillion” or whatever they’re gonna do.
But when they started they were really just tinkering and they sort of stumbled into — I think from the outside it looks like they stumbled into these small quirky shows that then had critical buzz. It seems like they’ve ... they’re upping their ambitions and they want a bigger audience. And a show like “Sneaky Pete,” right, is not intended for ... what’s the polite way to say it? It’s just not a show that can run on a broadcast network, right?
It could, except for the swearing and the sometimes nudity.
Right. It’s dark and people get killed.
Yeah, it’s dark and people get killed. So it fits this thing, it could maybe be on basic cable. Listen, “Sneaky” ... Amazon doesn’t release numbers, but they do release the rankings. And “Sneaky” was the No. 1 show for them in North America and second in the world. So that’s good, so if I find out that No. 1 means 700 people, that’s not good.
Do you wanna find out?
No. Because honestly the only ... And I used to say this, we’d get the overnight ratings on “Justified” and we’d get the ... it’s not gonna affect our story telling, because we do so much of the shows now long before they air. So with “Justified” we’d shoot an entire season pretty much and then it would start to air. So it’s not as though any information we get from the ratings is gonna change things.
And that’s certainly the case with this, because the whole thing drops at once. So the only input ... the only thing that matters is whether they say they want another season. That’s all it comes down to.
So you make “The Americans,” like you said you’re a producer.
I’m a producer on that, like I said I don’t make it, I just read scripts and watch cuts and say, “Joe and Joel, you’re doing a fantastic job.”
That is a critically beloved show, not a huge audience. When you see the numbers coming in for that, do you think, “Well, I’d rather not see the numbers there.”
It’s just I feel bad for the network, they’re not as big as they could be, but I also feel good for the network because “The Americans” has been a real success for them critically. Not only critically, they ... FX loves that show. John Landgraf loves that show, as does John Solberg, and Eric Schrier, Nick Grad, the whole team, Colette. They just love it, because it’s really good and it’s smart and it’s engaging and it’s ... got its own pace, and it’s ... you know, people wanna find out what’s gonna happen to that family and they care.
How conscious are you of the fact that there’s so much tech money coming into Hollywood right now? Trying to make content. Netflix if gonna spend eight billion, Amazon is spending whatever they’re spending, Apple’s shown up with a big checkbook, the guys from Sony, who you know. Do you think, “Boy, there’s a window here and I’ve got to make whatever I can make because this can’t last forever”? Or do you just go about your business?
Yes and no. Which is, there perhaps is a window, but no one knows. Look, as a writer, the previous guild negotiations back in ... well, we struck back in 2007 and then there was another negotiation and then there was a threat of a strike the last time around. Previous negotiations, the studios would claim poverty. This time they said okay, we can’t claim that.
When we started “Justified,” I remember Zack Van Amburg at Sony saying, “We honestly don’t know if doing shows for basic cable makes financial sense, we don’t know.” Then he would try and bust my balls on some kind of budget issue and I’d say, “Well don’t make the show.” And he’d say, “Shut up, we’re gonna make the show.” And on we would go and we’d give each other shit, but they can’t claim that anymore. It does work.
But no one’s sure ... is basic cable gonna survive? Is it gonna be something but streaming? Is it network constraining? Is it a combination? How are people gonna get this? Is there gonna be a singular portal that everyone is gonna gravitate toward? Are you gonna be able to buy a package where you get Hulu and Apple and Netflix and Amazon for, you know ...
Kind of like cable TV.
Kind of like cable TV. And where are you gonna watch your sports and how is ESPN gonna do? So it’s an incredibly tumultuous time and no one knows what’s gonna happen. It’s a time of great opportunity, but it’s also a time of ... People also are kind of protecting their slice of the pie. So we do this and we’re gonna get a little more of that.
Do you think, “Well, I got a project and normally I couldn’t get it financed, but if the Apple guys are around and they wanna throw money around, I’m gonna pitch this thing that I would never normally pitch to another network.”
You think that, and then invariably you guess wrong. I mean, at least for me. I’ve already been talking to the Apple guys. The one complicated thing for me about Apple is that Morgan Wandell, who was the head of drama at Amazon, is now at Apple running international, and his assistant is my daughter. So there was one weekend where she had these scripts that Noah Wyle and I had written when we were doing something for Sony, trying to get this miniseries off the ground ... we wrote it for FX. FX passed, now we’re having Apple read it, and my daughter says it’s on her weekend read pile. And I said, “Clementine, you have to recuse yourself, because if you like it that’s great, but if you don’t like it, I don’t wanna hear that.” So that’s part of my story.
That’s the nepotism downside.
We’ll take one more quick break, come right back.
And we’re back. It’s still cold outside, it’s nice inside. Can we just talk a bit about how you got into the business?
Because you came from ... not nepotism, but your dad was in entertainment, right?
Yeah, not nepotism. I was hoping for nepotism, that didn’t work out. But certainly an example, and yeah.
What did he do?
My dad ran a show in Toronto for 25 years called “Saturday Night at the Movies,” and it was on the Canadian equivalent of PBS, it was providential, it was TV Ontario. He’d show a couple movies on Saturday night and in between the movies he’d have interviews with people who worked in those movies. Like if he had “The Ox-Bow Incident,” he’d have an interview that he did with Henry Fonda. But he’d also have a panel of people talking about ... in the case with “The Ox-Bow Incident,” vigilantism.
That’s a cool show.
It was a great show, and he was just a great fan of movies, he loved movies. People would say, “Oh, your dad never puts on anything he doesn’t like.” And it’s like, “Yeah, because he gets to choose what he puts on.” But every year his producer would make him put on a couple musicals, and he never enjoyed that.
So was your thought, “I wanna do this, I wanna do a version of this”?
Yeah, and he also wrote some children’s adventure books, and my brother and I grew up in a household where we talked about movies and books all the time. We didn’t go to church, our church was the movie theater. The lights going down, we’re now gonna watch stories that are gonna entertain us and identify us and that was our life. It was fantastic.
And so my dad also ... he’s the one who back in the early ’80s would talk to me and say, “You know, I heard about this Kurosawa script about a train that can’t slow down or it’ll blow up.” And he said, “I always thought it was a good idea.” Eventually it was made and it was “Runaway Train,” but it wasn’t that they can’t ... that it’s gonna blow up, they just can’t get to the brakes. I came outta that and I thought, “Man, it’d be better if that was a bus.”
And thanks, Dad. Exactly. Thanks, Dad. Thanks to Kurosawa.
Before you wrote “Speed,” you were making TV.
I worked for Nickelodeon.
Was the thought, “I’m gonna graduate from TV and into movies and then never look back at TV”? Or ...
That wasn’t the thought, but that was part of a sort of ethos or whatever, a sort of zeitgeist of Hollywood writers at that time. I worked on “Full House” for nine-and-a-half weeks and I quit four days before I thought I was gonna be fired. I’ve since found out they weren’t gonna fire me, I was just miserable there. Two days after I quit, “Speed” sold.
So then “Speed” came out and years go by, I’m on the lot, I go to visit the “Full House” writers room to say hi, a bunch of the writers were still there, and they look at me like the guy who graduated from Triple A ball off to go play in The Show, that I’ve gone up to the major leagues. They’re like, “How is it up there?” Another 10 years, 15 years go by and now I see fellow feature writers and they’re saying, “How do I get into TV?” And so the whole paradigm has shifted in the past 20 years.
Why do you think Netflix — and Amazon’s played around a bit with it as well — has not been as successful making movies as they have with TV shows. Is there something different about the process that hasn’t translated?
Maybe. I think it’s also that no one is successful at making movies. It’s really hard to make movies that work. No one is successful in television, except for the few shows that are. I mean, yes, there are, what, 500 scripted shows or whatever it is.
We talk about a couple dozen of them.
We talk about a couple dozen, and it’s really hard to make it work. You gotta thank your lucky stars if things align. It’s usually a sensibility of story and cast, and support of the network. I think that’s why ... I quote unquote have been lucky, as my luck has been getting associated with things that have all these things that have come together.
I have this theory. There’s something about the episodic nature of streaming TV that just works better, and/or keeps propelling you into the next episode, like we were talking about, and in a movie, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And you’re not giving it another chance. No one wants to really engage me in that theory, but that’s ...
I know, I think that’s a good theory.
Good. I have an upvote from Graham Yost.
Yeah, and the ... Listen, the thing about the modern TV landscape is the ability to tell a story over 10 episodes. You can do a novel. That’s really fun. To tell a story in two hours, it’s got to be a very particular story, and you really ... so many things can go wrong and then you’ve lost it in the first five minutes and you’re never getting it back.
Can we talk about “Justified” briefly? Because I’m just a giant fanboy, because I love Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard has made amazing books, should have made many amazing movies, less successful than you would think, right? A handful of really great Elmore Leonard movies, and then ...
I could tell you his favorites.
And his least favorites.
That’s gotta be “Out of Sight,” right?
No, his favorite was “Jackie Brown.”
Oh, okay, also one of the greats.
But, his favorite I think working relationship or just palling around was with Scott Frank, who wrote “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.”
Who we’ve had on this podcast.
Scott Frank is a great writer and a really great guy, and Elmore loved him.
And you nailed the Elmore Leonard tone and vibe in your show.
And I said, “I’m gonna write ‘Justified’ just like Scott Frank wrote ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Get Shorty,’” which is let Elmore be Elmore. Use as much of him as you can. The dialogue in “Get Shorty” and in “Out of Sight” is Elmore Leonard’s dialogue, even if it’s Scott doing it. It’s Elmore.
It’s like when I did the pilot of “Justified,” it’s an old story, but I would say, “What’s Raylan gonna say next?” And I would say, “Well, what does Elmore have him say next?” And I would retype it. Second episode on, we had to figure out how to do that. That was the challenge.
Elmore was alive when you started that show, did you have to ...
He was alive for the first four seasons.
So were you talking to him throughout. Were you asking for script ...
No. I’ll tell you what happened though. So first season, he visited the set and Tim was sitting with him and said, “Why don’t you write another Raylan short story?” And he said, “Okay.” And he went off and he wrote a story and he enjoyed it so much he wrote two more, and he packaged them together as a novel, and that was his final novel.
His 45th Raylan, and the coolest thing, the best thing that has happened to me in this business is that it’s dedicated to Tim and me. That’s something that ... Tim and I look at each other and all the tussles we had over the years with “Justified,” because Tim is an incredibly creative person and we didn’t always see eye to eye.
Tim Olyphant. And we look at each other and say, “We’ve got that, that he dedicated this to us.” So Elmore loved the show, he got a real kick out of it. But he was always the inspiration. One of the “Justified” stories is I had rubber bracelets for the writers saying WWED, What Would Elmore Do?
Frankly, I’m gonna take that hopefully for the rest of my writing career. Because even if it’s not like Elmore Leonard, he had certain rules and goals about character and story and how you do things that I think really apply to anything I’m gonna do.
I’m really lucky because I get to do a podcast where we’re talking about Elmore Leonard a lot. Scott Frank said, I said something to the effect of, “Seems like you just took ‘Out of Sight’ and put it on the screen, you just lifted the pages.” He said, “No, no, no, it’s actually much harder than that, there’s a lot of stuff in the book that actually becomes harder to film, and you’ve gotta do a lot more work than just taking the dialogue.” But that dialogue is a great start. Why do you think other folks have struggled with his books?
Sometimes they just take it for the story, they don’t realize that Elmore isn’t about the story, the story is secondary or tertiary. It’s really, it’s character.
It’s kind of the hang, right?
That was the thing about FX. So for “Justified,” John Landgraf had worked on Karen Sisco, he actually co-wrote a script on Karen Sisco, the ill-fated ABC show. Michael Dinner had directed the pilot of Karen Sisco, Sarah Timberman at the Universal when one of the presidents, when they did Karen. So we were all Elmore fans, and I knew that John at FX would let us hang. Hang with the bad guys, hang with the good guys and just have a scene, whereas Tim used to put it, the best Elmore scenes, someone’s gonna get fucked or someone’s gonna get fucked. You know, it’s gonna be, it’s gonna go sexy or it’s gonna go violent and you don’t know, and it’s gonna go funny and it’s gonna go sad, and you just don’t know. That was really fun to work in that world.
A great hero, Tim Olyphant, he had a great bad guy ...
You know, he was the role that Tim was meant to play, because he’s funny, sexy, charming, dangerous, all those things, he could do that. Then we got Walton, then we got Joel and Nick.
Which season did Margo Martindale ...
That was the second season.
Second season. And, which and if you haven’t watched the show, watch it all, but go watch the second season. Because I’d never seen her before and she just one of the great all-time villains.
Did you find her? How did ... where did she come from?
I said to FX, I wanna do a criminal matriarch for this season, I want it to be about a feud. They were concerned about a criminal matriarch and she’d be bad ... we used to call badassery, we’re always looking for who’s a badass. So we figured that she had to kill someone in the opening episode and we thought shooting, no, knife, no, poison. So we came up with that idea, built it back into her back story and did all of that, wrote it and then casting — Cami Patton and Christal Karge were doing our casting — and they sent over the clips to look at on a computer and they said, “We think Margo is the one.”
I watched it and there was some ... Adam Arkin was directing, he wasn’t sure, he was thinking maybe it was someone else. But then we picked Margo. Then one day Adam Arkin was over, he was editing and he said to Sarah Timberman, Fred Golan and myself, “I wanna show you something,” and he took us upstairs and he showed us the final scene of the first episode, where Margo ... not the final scene but where she poisons poor Chris Mulkey, and we looked at each other after that and said, “Well, we got a season.”
You know, we knew, and another thing about that first episode was Kaitlyn Dever who was playing the kid, we were thinking if she wasn’t good, then we’d have her in the first episode and the last episode. But she was so good that we came up with this whole different thing and the two of them together. Margo will still talk about Kaitlyn and what an amazing actor she is.
Margo Martindale is in “The Americans” and now she’s in “Sneaky Pete.” Not a coincidence.
Not a coincidence. Now when the part of Claudia came up in “The Americans,” Joe and Joel were concerned about casting someone who’s so identified with “Justified,” and Landgraf said, “That’s part of the FX thing, we love to cross pollinate,” put Walton on “Sons of Anarchy” as Venus Van Damme, you know. That’s a cool thing to do for FX.
You like having a crew?
Yeah, the sense of this FX repertory company, so yeah. I think I was the one who got to call her and tell her, “Do you wanna be a spy?”
That’s pretty cool. Well, thank you for putting her on TV. Oh man, she’s great.
She had a great career before, but it’s just been so much fun to get to know her and hang with her.
Thanks for your time. This is great. I love talking to smart people about their cool shows. So you can watch the entire run of “Sneaky Pete” right on Amazon Prime. There, there’s your promotion.
There you go, and free two-day shipping.
Thanks, Graham Yost.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.