‘Silo’ Creator Graham Yost On His Futuristic Apple Series: “It’s Not Science Heavy. The Key Is To Make It Feel Real”

‘Silo’ Creator Graham Yost On His Futuristic Apple Series: “It’s Not Science Heavy. The Key Is To Make It Feel Real”

It seems to tickle Graham Yost when people refer to Silo as a sci-fi drama.

Though the Apple series is as high-concept as it gets—the adaptation of Hugh Howey’s novels is about a futuristic community that exists in a massive underground vault with 144 floors — there are no spaceships in Silo. And there are certainly no lasers.

“It’s not science heavy,” says Yost, the clever mind behind FX’s Justified, who created the Rebecca Ferguson starrer for the streamer. “For me, it’s fantasy, it’s whatever. It’s alternate reality, all that stuff. But the key is to make it feel real and lived-in. I mean honestly, if you pick at the science too much, it falls apart.”

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Several studios tried to pick apart Howey’s tomes before Silo finally became a small-screen reality. After Howey self-published Wool, the first book in his dystopian series in 2011, 20th Century Fox snatched up the rights with Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian attached to produce. But the project was shelved when Disney purchased the studio, so AMC Studios stepped in to rustle up a new version for its sister cable network.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Oscar Preview issue here.

Apple eventually became the proper home and picked up 10 episodes, while recruiting other stars like David Oyelowo, Rashida Jones, Tim Robbins, Common and Will Patton. (The drama has already been renewed for a second season.) “The thing that got me was, wait a second, what happened? Why are they there? When can they go out?” says Yost, who also EPs Apple’s other sleeper hit, Slow Horses. “As a reader of the books, I kept turning the pages. I wanted to find out, and I felt that Hugh did an incredible and smart version of answering those questions in a satisfying way. So that’s been our guiding star in the writers’ room. Let’s never forget this is a mystery.”

Here, Yost talks about his journey adapting the popular books, and how that massive staircase became a reality.

DEADLINE For those who haven’t read the books, are they an easy read or are they super dense?

YOST My advice to everyone, and Hugh and I are friends so I’ve said this in front of him when we were being interviewed before the launch, is to absolutely read the books as soon as you finished watching the entire television series. We want to be the ones who unfold the mystery. Then read Hugh’s version, which we are staying close to in some ways and diverting in other ways. But it’s still about a big hole in the ground. Is it an easy adaptation? No, but I don’t really know anything that really is, when you get right down to it.

DEADLINE You haven’t really done anything high concept, or apocalyptic in your past, right?

YOST My brother and I wrote a pilot for NBC that didn’t go forward. It had a big science fiction element, sort of a world takeover, kind of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers kind of thing. But no, I’ve never worked on anything that’s gone into production. As a kid, I got into sci-fi by becoming a Lord of the Rings fanatic. I mean, I read it five times this past year. It went from Lord of the Rings into general fantasy and then into science fiction and all the classics — Asimov and Heinlein, all these people.

DEADLINE Why didn’t you call the series Wool, which is the name of the first book?

YOST I’ll use this an example. When we told Rebecca it was going to be called Silo, she said, ‘oh, thank goodness.’ She said every time she’d tell people what it’s called, they would automatically pull at her shirt. Wool is a hard word to hear, and it’s actually a hard word to say. It looks fantastic graphically. Wool is a great word because the two Os in the middle, and the way the W and the L balance out, it just looks cool. A year and a half ago, I was speaking with Jamie Erlich and everyone at Apple, and I said, ‘look, in the writer’s room, we think the show should be called Silo because we think wool is both hard to say and hard to hear.’ Jamie said, no, the first book is called Wool. And then they got a new head of marketing in, and he said, ‘it’s got to be Silo.’ So it became Silo.

DEADLINE You said at its heart, Silo is a mystery. Have you already decided when you’re going to reveal that mystery?

YOST Roughly? We’ve sort of planned on a certain number of seasons. The tolerance that an audience has for a big mystery is a certain number of seasons. It’s not eight, it’s not six. You’ve got to wrap it up in a relatively timely fashion. So we’re trying to be realistic with what we can sustain.

DEADLINE Was it all on you to describe the silo in the script, or were you able to leave a lot of stuff up to the designers?

YOST Our production designer in the first season, Gavin Bocquet, didn’t want to look at the graphic novel version, which is the one I looked at. The illustration starts to come alive, which frankly I thought was very cool. There are ways those artists imagined the silo, the cleaning suits, stuff like that. Gavin didn’t want to look at that, but eventually, there were a few things where he said, ‘okay, show me what they had.’ The big thing that came out of talking with me and Morten [Tyldum, director] was designing the look of the big things, like the central staircase. I had in my mind that the walkways from the stairs over to the side would be covered. He came up with the idea of these open bridges, which are just so elegant and beautiful. He also came up with the idea that it’s three spokes essentially, so when you’re looking down, there are alternating walkways, but they’re all the same three directions. He also came up with the whole notion that there was a circular plan to the whole thing. The cafeteria is a circle. The sheriff’s office is a circle in the marketplace, the IT bullpen, everything’s round because it’s a round environment. He and Morten and I came up with the idea that the residential levels would have this almost old European town feel, with alleyways. It was our feeling that if you were designing something that people had to live in for many several centuries, you would need to have that. It couldn’t just be straight lines.

DEADLINE I know it was important to kill off two people in the first episode, but did it have to be major stars like David Oyelowo and Rashida Jones?

YOST That was the biggest, hardest decision of the whole deal. I wanted to replicate the experience I had when reading it, and Hugh wrote the first book, which is about the sheriff and his wife. He wrote that as a story. That was it. It was a standalone story through Amazon, and it just took off. It just became this viral sensation. People said they wanted more. Well, he killed off the two main characters! So then he came up with the character Juliette and then had her take over the story. We knew it was a risk to do a first episode that is essentially a prequel to the Juliette story, but ultimately it became thematic for the whole thing. There were a lot of fans who haven’t read the books who were still waiting for the sheriff to show up again, but it did establish that anyone can die, which I think adds to the tension and the thriller aspect of it. I do think that for people who’ve seen the Mission Impossibles, who have seen Dune and see Rebecca’s face, they’ll go ‘okay, I’ll stick with it to see what happens with her.’ Also, she’s the face on the poster. I understand why previous adaptations did not want to start with a story that killed off the two main characters, but I felt that was part of the experience of the whole thing, and that part of it was fan service, and part of it was just me serving why I enjoyed the thing. Because I was going, ‘wait a second, now what?’

DEADLINE You dropped an apocalyptic drama during the pandemic. Did you wonder whether people would want to watch this because of the hell they’ve already been through?

YOST All the time. But our feeling was, if we really buckle down and do the best job we can, we’ve got a shot at doing something that connects anyway, and that maybe in a strange way people will identify with it. when you’re stuck inside for so long, you start wondering, ‘what’s it really like out there?’ So we hope more for that. But that was part of the thing, which is let’s not make this dystopian. Let’s not make life in the silo to be something that is horrific. Their lives are okay, everyone’s got a job. They got food, they got family, they got friends, they’ve got something to do. They don’t have TV and they don’t have books, but they’ve got people they love and children to raise, and they’re all working together for something which is the survival of what they understand to believe are the last people on the earth, whatever that is. So we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t too depressing. And at the same time, we also wanted to be honest with that sort of pervasive claustrophobia that would happen. And that’s why Gavin’s design for the central shaft was so important, because at least when you get into the central shaft, there’s a sense of space and openness and grandeur. We think of that central part of the silo was being sort of the cathedral of the place.

DEADLINE Have you run up those steps yourself?

YOST I will say this. We feel bad now when we write scenes where people are running up the stairs because it’s okay to do it once. It’s okay to do it twice, but when you have to do it 10 times, it is tiring. It’s all well and good to imagine it. And then it’s like, ‘oh my god, this lot of work.’ But here’s one of the things, it’s an indoor show. We start at eight o’clock in the morning and go to five or six and we’re done. There’s no worry about weather. You’re protected and you can get the work done. That said, you show up for work when it’s dark outside and then when come out, it’s dark again. People start to think like, ‘so I’m a mole now.’