With his Los Angeles-set police drama "Boomtown" surviving the cut and returning to NBC this fall, Graham Yost has finally moved beyond "Speed," the hit 1994 movie about a Los Angeles bus wired to explode, for which he has screenplay credit.
"Listen," says the Canadian-born writer/producer, "for years I was the 'Bus Guy.' When we were doing (the HBO space-race miniseries) 'From the Earth to the Moon' - I didn't do that as a conscious decision to not be the 'Bus Guy,' but it helped."
And besides, Yost admits that he didn't even write all of "Speed." "Joss Whedon wrote 98.9 percent of the dialogue," he says. "We were very much in sync, it's just that I didn't write the dialogue as well as he did. That was a hard part of the whole 'Speed' thing. It's my name up there, but I didn't write the whole thing. But I fought hard to get that credit, so I'll live with it."
What sets Yost's concept for "Boomtown" apart from other cop dramas is its overlapping story structure. The Peabody Award-winner usually shifts among the points of view of its main characters, including LAPD officers, a prosecutor, a paramedic and a reporter.
Illustrating this idea are the opening credits, a stream-of-consciousness montage inter-cutting series characters and scenes of Los Angeles history.
"We are incredibly proud of those opening credits," Yost says. "We wanted the interconnectedness. Even though these stories don't seem to be part of one another, they are all connected in some way."
That was the idea anyway, but as the series rolled out, that's not always what happened.
"We screwed up many times on that," Yost says. "There were a few things we found out. I had my dream from the beginning that we're watching seven short stories that interconnect, or seven films that are crisscrossing or five or four or whatever."
"Then I kind of broke the season down, as it turns out, into 'solve a crime' episodes and 'prevent a crime' episodes. Our pilot was 'solve a crime.' A girl was shot in a drive-by shooting - who did it? The second episode, when the telemarketer overhears a man supposedly threatening to kill his wife, it's a 'prevent a crime' episode. There's still a mystery to solve, but they're really just trying to find this woman and keep her alive."
It turns out that such a seemingly minor change in the characters' intent can have major impact on how best to tell a story, as Yost and the "Boomtown" writing staff discovered.
"What we found out with that episode, and the other one where the paramedic got taken hostage in the back of the EMS truck, is that when we screwed around too much with the linearity, we lost focus and tension. So we found, if we were doing an episode where we were trying to prevent a crime, we have to stay fairly linear. Otherwise, all the tension drains out of the balloon."
"So that was one big lesson. The other one wasn't so much of a lesson, it was just something from the outset, where I said, 'I reserve the freedom to do anything the hell we feel like.' "
In fact, one episode, "Fearless," is entirely from the point of view of the title character, a police detective (Mykelti Williamson).
"I wanted the freedom to do that," Yost says. "Toward the end, it's kind of a newbie mistake, but me not knowing if we're coming back, I just said, 'Well, if all we're ever going to get of "Boomtown" are 18 episodes, there are a few episodes I want to do, and that's one of them. I want to do a single (point of view) from beginning to end."'
"There have always been concerns: is it audience-friendly? We pay attention to that, but I don't feel we betrayed anything at this point."
One new element next year is the addition of Vanessa L. Williams for 10 episodes, playing the series' first female detective. This is partly in response to criticism that the current female characters - wives, girlfriends, the paramedic and the reporter - have been given short shift.
"This is something we wanted to address in 'Boomtown,"' Yost says, "and that was part of our pitch for why we wanted to come back. Vanessa Williams will be toting a gun and flashing a badge. She was good in 'Shaft.' She can run and gun."
And for those who may have wondered, Yost reveals that the show's name comes from a 1986 album called "Boomtown" by David and David (Baerwald and Ricketts).
"It's very much of an '80s song," Yost says. "It's about the drug culture in L.A., but it's one of the great L.A songs that people don't know about. We've still not been able to figure out a way to work the song into the show, but we will someday."
"It came to represent a slightly sardonic view of the world, of Los Angeles. At one time, this was a boomtown. What those frontier towns had going for them was a certain lawlessness, the sense that you can reinvent yourself and start over. That's very much the case with Los Angeles. Everybody's from somewhere else."
"The cities of the West, at one point in their histories, were boomtowns, and L.A. is the epitome of that."
(Reruns of the first season of "Boomtown" are airing on TNT at 10 p.m. EDT Mondays.)