Scott Frank first conceived of “Godless” because he loved the Western genre. In an interview with IndieWire, he said, “It’s the romance of living in that time, everything from the horses to the guns. There’s a very romantic notion, the kind of surviving through all of that and living out there in those days. A lot of people look back on that and wish we were sort of there again, in many ways.”
“It’s not just the negative aspects, like the violence and sort of the being caught out in the elements. All of that are certainly part of it, but it’s also just the quiet, giant, empty spaces that we don’t have anymore, or we certainly don’t experience every day anymore.”
On Netflix’s limited Western series “Godless,” a sharp-shooter named Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) flees from the gang of outlaws he used to run with and ends up in La Belle, a town populated mainly by women. As his erstwhile adoptive father Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) tracks down Roy, the town must hunker down to prepare for the coming battle. Leading the women is Mary Agnes McNue (Merritt Wever), a widow whose brother Bill (Scoot McNairy) is the town sheriff and whose husband had died in the mine.
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“Godless” delivers some of the usual Western tropes such as a sequence for breaking horses and a big shootout at the end. But many other elements are more surprising. In a previous story, Frank revealed that La Belle is his fictionalized take on actual mining towns in which most of the men were killed. Below, he and cast members Jeff Daniels, Jack O’Connell, Merritt Wever, and Scoot McNairy answer burning questions about the series and reveal behind-the-scenes secrets on how it was made:
That Native American and His Dog
When Bill McNue follows the outlaws through the countryside, an older Native American from the Shoshone tribe pops up intermittently with his loyal dog to offer commentary. Near the end of the series, the Shoshone and the dog both appear again, at which point Roy tells Bill that the two were already dead. It’s not clear if Roy’s information is correct, but if he is, it calls into question what exactly Bill has been seeing — a vision or a ghost?
O’Connell isn’t sure what that means. “I don’t know whether it was just imagined,” he said. “I never really perceived him as an actual ghost, as we’d call it. I think it was a vision.”
McNairy is a bit more philosophical about the vision. “I just think that gives it the mystical element of the town,” he said. “Bill is a bit of a poet, sort of a deep thinker, it gives him a little bit of closure before heading into the Battle of La Belle.”
Meanwhile, Scott Frank, who also wrote the series, didn’t land on a definitive answer. “You don’t know if he’s a ghost or not,” he said. “The one who was sort of following him was also looking after him, protecting him. I wanted to give [Bill] someone to talk to. That guy just started showing up in my brain one day. He’s just one of those creative things.”
The Massacre Frank Survived
At one point, Frank Griffin describes his traumatic childhood in which his family and many other families were attacked by white men masquerading as Native Americans. While most of the 100 or so family members were killed, a handful of kids were spared, including Frank, who was then raised by one of the men who perpetrated the massacre. Although this incident gives insight into Frank’s twisted view of the world, it was actually inspired by a true event.
“I wanted a guy who was good but was also running from his past, and I had read a lot about the massacre at Mountain Meadows where they massacred the Fancher party when they were coming from Arkansas,” said Scott Frank. “This is a very controversial massacre because the Mormons were ultimately responsible, but for many, many years until very recently, they said they weren’t responsible and they blamed it on the Paiutes who were duped into being involved with that.”
“[The Mormons] massacred their families, and stole all the property of the richest wagon train in U.S history at the time,” he continued. “It was full of all kinds of gold and livestock and they stole it all and they let about  of the children live, and raised them as their own kids until someone came down from Arkansas came and got them. But I kept thinking, what if they forgot one of them? And that would be Frank.”
Scott Frank added, “There’s a great book by Sally Denton called ‘American Massacre’ about the massacre in Mountain Meadows. [It’s a] beautifully written book, and she had all this great dialogue in it, these great quotes from the actual guys who participated in the massacre. A lot of that I gave to Frank.”
The Chaotic Shootout
It’s pure pandemonium when Frank Griffin’s gang faces off with the women of La Belle holed up in the only building that can’t be burned down. Besides everyone shooting from every possible vantage point (including Mary Agnes from the roof of the building), in the middle of it all a couple horses storm the building, one makes it up the stairs and jumps out of the building, and then Bill and Roy even walk into town and start shooting.
“Me and Michelle Dockery were up on a roof so we were literally above the fray,” said Wever. “They also built a fake roof lowered down for when the horse comes up and stuff like that. That [was the only] one special effects shot when we were on the fake one. So, we got to see all the choreography and it was really a sight to behold. It was beautiful. It was really impressive.”
Since McNairy was in the thick of it, he had a completely different experience. “We took two-and-a-half, three weeks to shoot it,” he said. “It was crazy with all the fans and the smoke and the dust. It got to a point where you could shoot for the first 30 to 40 seconds, or something like that and then you couldn’t see anything. And then you’d stop, let it clear and start it back up again. With that being said, seeing the final version of it, how they pieced it together, it was definitely worth it — a great payoff.”
Bill’s Desperate Act
Bill McNue has been losing his vision, which makes his decision to leave La Belle to try and take on Frank Griffin’s gang seem like a suicide mission.
“[Bill and his wife] had an amazing relationship. He lost her during childbirth, and that’s the root of the relationship he has with Trudy. It’s his daughter and he loves her, but he always blames her for his wife’s death,” said McNairy. “I think, all in all, the death of the wife, as well as the crumbling of the town, and collapsing of the mine… he’s beaten.”
“I think Bill’s lost. He is clawing at his last stance to be somebody, to do something that’s memorable and to do something good before he can’t see anymore,” he continued. “He just sort of sees the future of his own existence evaporating slowly cause he is losing his vision. He also sees the world around him, the town around him starting to fall apart. He’s frustrated he can’t see, he doesn’t know what to do with this.”
How Jeff Daniels Played a Man With One Arm
After Roy shoots Frank Griffin in the arm, the wound is serious enough to require amputation (and subsequently, riding around with the severed limb tied to his saddle). While most of the series Jeff Daniels is able to disguise his loss of limb more easily with clothes and angles, in the final showdown in the meadow with Roy, Frank removes his shirt so that Roy can see the stub of his arm.
“We had a green sleeve that wore in the meadow,” said Daniels. “In New York in May — I didn’t show up to the set until September — I went downtown to do a big life cast of the arm. So they built the false arm. They also built a stub. I don’t remember if I strapped that. I don’t think so. I had to just basically tuck from behind and tuck here like that in the meadow, and then with a computer, they would do it later. We had a special effects guy worked with me there: ‘You gotta hold it like this, not like this, otherwise we can’t make it work.’ The hard part was you get to the arm amputated in Episode 1, so you’re doing a lot of horseback riding with one arm.”
The Best Cowboys in the Cast
While Daniels had to learn to ride a horse with his balance compromised, McNairy had an easier time of it having grown up in Dallas.
“I grew up riding horses as a kid and I grew up in Texas,” he said. “I felt very comfortable on the horse, and it was definitely more so that I was excited about than I was hesitant about.
“Guns are always something I’ve always been familiar with and been around and practiced gun safety and whatnot,” McNairy added. “Regardless of what you think, when you get there and you start working with people that this is all they do, there’s a plethora of education that I got from working with the horse wranglers as well as with Joey Dylan. And also the history he knew of all the revolvers and guns, what certain times they came out, and why this person would carry this particular weapon, was all incredibly informative as well. The guy knew the entire history of steel.”
O’Connell had perhaps the biggest challenge among the cast. Roy Goode was a true gunslinger who had incredible aim — such as when he shot the snake that was about to bite a baby — but also had a way with horses. When he’s working to break horses, there are many scenes in which he has to ride bareback.
“I just hung out with real cowboys maybe like two months prior to shooting,” he said. “The gunslinging stuff was pretty difficult — the twirling stuff, the gunslinging was pretty difficult. I just had to work at it.
“[Riding] was very difficult to begin with also,” he said, “because you’ve only really got the mane to hold onto. I had a couple falls, but I got off lightly. I just tried to hang out with these cowboy dudes as much as possible, and get a feel for it …roping cattle, and steering them, learning how to drive cattle, and stuff. It was not very [difficult], because I was just kind of following the lads that knew how to do it. I definitely struggled on my own.”
”Godless” is currently streaming on Netflix.