“Godless” is the smart western that nobody wanted when it was a two-hour movie. Scott Frank (“A Walk Among the Tombstones”) spent 12 years hearing “no” to his drama about a small town that lost all of its men to a mining disaster. However, once it became a limited series, Netflix jumped at the opportunity.
Frank has long been known as a hot screenwriter, in a career that stretches from Kenneth Branagh’s “Dead Again” in 1991 to Oscar-nominated turns for Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 “Out of Sight” and last year’s “Logan.” However, he never expected to become the showrunner of a sprawling TV series.
“I could watch eight movies all day for the price of a ticket and candy,” said Frank. As a kid growing up in northern California in the 1960s, his mom would drop him off at the theater for marathon movie sessions. That’s where he discovered Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For A Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
Frank views Westerns as a great way to investigate contemporary society. “It’s a source of the American character in a way that is both romantic and mythic, very attractive, not altogether true or accurate, but seductive and entertaining. Sometimes good guys are also bad guys, because all the laws and mores are still being formed and determined.”
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When it came to writing his own western, HBO’s “Deadwood” inspired Frank in 2002. “Sadly, when I began noodling on it, the movie business wasn’t receptive to that genre,” he said. “It was considered tired, it didn’t travel well overseas, nobody was looking for a western. Tom Selleck was doing TV movies on cable, but for the most part westerns didn’t justify the cost, after the DVD market dried up. Marketing executives were in the room with creative executives. Westerns were an uphill battle, a very expensive proposition. Kevin Costner’s ‘Open Range’ cost $25 million. We were a $45 million-$50 million feature. We looked everywhere — Argentina, Spain — for ways to make the movie cheaper.” But the movie stalled.
As Frank points out, today’s relationship between TV and movies is the inverse of what he saw as a teenager in the ’70s. Movies turned inward with iconic films like “Dog Day Afternoon” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as an adult alternative to TV comedies like “Green Acres” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“Now movies are for superheroes, broad comedies and family,” said Frank, “and TV is where you go for adult material. TV is willing to explore more important subjects, take risks on material that is hard to sell as a film. Both Netflix and HBO are looking to do westerns, and it was [executive producers] Steven Soderbergh and Casey Silver who were there from the first word until the last frame locked.”
Frank first sent the script to Soderbergh to direct, but there was one small problem: He doesn’t like horses. “I never thought I’d direct it,” said Frank. “I had written it to put the band back together from ‘Out of Sight’ at Universal.” Later, after Soderbergh directed “Beyond the Candelabra” at HBO, he told Frank: “Now’s the time to expand it as a mini-series.”
A few years later, after Netflix’s Cindy Holland worked with Frank as a consultant on “Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events,” she told him: “I want to make this!”
Finally, Scott nabbed a green light for a two-hour movie that Holland expanded to a six-hour mini-series during prep, pushing him right into series production. “I was going off the edge of a cliff,” he said. “It was helpful that I had a ton of material that I didn’t have room for in the feature. I had characters and relationships I wanted to explore. It was pretty clear from the get-go where I was going.”
Frank dug into the history of the West, reading about historical figures, wagon trains, Mormons, and other religious groups. He created Frank Griffin, who is destined to repeat the sins committed against him and will do anything to punish Roy, the prodigal son he adopted as a boy and trained to be a sharpshot killer.
Along the way, Frank also found stories of towns stripped of their men by mining accidents. While he knew he was also crafting a feminist western, he started with a story of fathers and sons. Netflix met some backlash when the series it presented as a women’s western also focused on several leading men.
“The telling of the story and the selling of the story are two different things,” said Frank. “I didn’t set out to write a movie about a town of women; I loved the context. The researcher had never heard of it before she discovered the phenomena throughout the west as several communities of men died in single accidents, leaving women stranded. Some gave up, others tried to make a go. It was an interesting place for Roy to hide. The original story was about Roy, but when it grew, the women’s stories expanded. I worked hard for them to save themselves. The army doesn’t come; they have to fend for themselves.”
Renowned New York casting director Ellen Lewis helped Frank to assemble a superb multi-national cast — and Netflix let him pick whoever he wanted. In an homage to “Once Upon a Time in the West,” he cast his “The Lookout” star Jeff Daniels as the series’ cutthroat one-armed villain.
“Leone cast Henry Fonda as a bad guy who always played a good guy,” Frank said. “It seemed effortless. I knew Jeff could do it. Some actors are innately sweet and can’t hide it. Their kindness is there and you feel, with anything vicious or evil, they have trouble going there, they give off a generous vibe. Jeff is different. He’s a kind, thoughtful person, but he is also very introspective, and can be very dark. He has this side too that makes him complicated.”
“Frank was so much fun to play,” said Daniels. “He’d put a bullet in a guy’s hand and quote the Bible. He’s committed to both things. I don’t know what he has — some kind of mental illness, he was damaged and raised in bad circumstances, it just screwed him up so much. In his head, this is normal. Sometimes people disappoint him and he has to shoot them. Once you get the way he thinks, it’s fun, and it’s all about the beard and the hat.”
Frank first went into production on six episodes of roughly an hour each, but by the time he had shot 120 days and was on the other side of post-production, he had seven episodes timing out to 7 1/2 hours.
Among the women, outsider widow Alice who harbors Roy is played by “Downton Abbey” star Michelle Dckery, who enjoyed adopting a flat American accent and strengthening her arms in order to wield a heavy rifle. And while Frank originally wanted a 50ish woman to play Mary-Agnes, another gun-toter in men’s garb who leads the townspeople, Lewis suggested “Nurse Jackie” star Merritt Wever, whom Tony Gilroy directed in “Michael Clayton.” “All that toughness is much like Frank,” said the director. “But she’s in direct opposition: She’s a painfully shy human underneath.” With Wever in mind, Frank was inspired to expand her part and add the romance with former prostitute Cally.
Scoot McNairy, an actor known for colorful character roles (“Argo,” “Killing Them Softly”), was another revelation. Frank understood what he could do as the blind sheriff after he met him. “It changed the way I saw the character. He got younger for me, and I made him more tragic.”
English actor Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken,” “71”) wasn’t exactly what Frank had in mind either, but “he was not afraid to be still. He’s one of those actors who can do a lot with a little, not looking for bits of business. He has an expressive face and eyes, just sitting there. He’s very powerful on screen. He’s real and both competent at what he does with vulnerability underneath, sadness.”
To shoot period New Mexico, they went to Santa Fe with a $60 million budget and some state rebates. Frank directed all the episodes. “I stole a lot of Leone, Eastwood, John Ford, William Wyler — all the good ones. When you’re in New Mexico, you see quickly that in almost every direction there’s a beautiful shot.”
Production built the mine, the hotel, and the town of La Belle from scratch, which was a key character for the series. Working with horses brought a huge learning curve, from building ramps for them to the well-choreographed shootout finale.
Frank had to scope it all out ahead of time, or he’d never have made it. “We had to see where to put the camera, think about the sun, from the end of the first episode crossing the Rio Grande on horseback — what time was the water backlit, when and where was it safe to for the horses to ride across. So much planning.”
Riding horses almost killed Daniels, who was thrown three times but got back on the horse each time. On the second to last day of filming, when a runaway horse took off at a gallop, he jumped–and broke his wrist.
Netflix is clamoring for a second season. But Frank hasn’t figured it out yet. He wishes he had had more time to devote to the black community. “I set them up and knocked them down,” he said. “I needed one more chapter with those folks. I wish I had been able to figure out.”