Scott Frank interview

Godless, the acclaimed new miniseries now streaming on Netflix, first came into being years ago when writer, director, and creator, Scott Frank wrote a feature script pitting Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and the town of La Belle against the wrath of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). Despite all the talent that became involved, the western struggled to get made as a film. After years of trying and directing two exceptional films, Frank brought the project to Netflix, where he was finally able to tell his original story on a grand scale.

Even the magnitude of Griffin’s towering presence helps make Godless bigger in scope. Some of the characters are as epic as the landscapes – Frank doesn’t really mind if Netflix customers experience them on an iPhone. He recently told us about the series’ journey to Netflix, the exeprience of shooting a mammoth of a western, and much more.

The last time we spoke, you said Godless made you realize you’re a “horrible director.” What made you think that?

Because I realized that there was so much to do in order to realize the story the way it needed to be realized, and I felt wholly inadequate in terms of being up to the task.

The scope of the show is huge.

It’s huge, it’s huge. It’s really huge.

What is the pre-production process like for a project of this magnitude?

Well, it’s a lot of finding the right location, because there’s a lot of shooting in the right spots. Pre-production was, aside from building the town, because the town, obviously, is 60 percent of the show. Then we shot in other towns that had already existed in New Mexico, but we built our own town so a lot of pre-production was focused on that and how we were going to shoot in the town. Also, the shootout, sort of storyboarding the shootout, rehearsing the shootout, right down to building fake staircases for the horses to ride up and down. A lot of that, but in terms of scope, we … I remember at one point, [executive producer] Casey Silver saying to me, “It would be good to have a list of shots that you really wanted to get that just sold the size of it.”

I was sort of always on the make for those sorts of things when we were out and about. For the most part, anywhere you point a camera in a lot of New Mexico, it’s gorgeous. It’s a question of what time of day, so [cinematographer] Steven Meizler and I would think a lot about what time we would shoot. Like when the horses are crossing the river in the episode, in the first episode, Steven was very particular about what time to get the light behind the water at the end of that episode. We would be thinking about that all the way through, because it’s not just having the landscape as background. You want the light to be a big part of it, and that was also a big challenge. It’s what, again, creates that sense of size, vastness, and land that goes on forever. “Where is the sun? Where is the horizon?” Lots of discussions about that on all of our scouts.

It wasn’t just about where the mountains were, which direction looked better. It was which direction told the story in the best way for us, what was happening. A lot of the show was shot with a 25 millimeter lens, which meant even closeups … The camera’s very close to the actors, but you have all this information in the background. You can still see how much there is around them and behind them. It just contributed to make everybody sort of feel dwarfed by the landscape, which is a big part of living in the west. The environment and the land and the weather, that’s all a big, that’s a whole other character. All of that was stuff I really had to learn and really had to focus on, and hadn’t focused on before.

I think light and the water rising when Frank and the gang goes the rive illustrates your point. It makes Frank Griffin feel like a force coming.

Yes, that’s it. That’s it. Again, that was rehearsed, and what part of the river and even how many rocks are in the river, and how many horses can we get to cross the river? All of that stuff had to be carefully planned, and in-particular, the shootout at the end is so massive, so that had to be very carefully organized.

We began by taping out the various floor plans of the hotel on the soundstage, and just sort of working through where everybody was going to be, and then where the camera was going to be. Then, from that process we began storyboarding very carefully because we didn’t have a lot of time, and so we wanted to be careful as to make sure that we were getting every single shot. Again, it’s very tricky once you involve horses.

Planning that big final shootout, what were some of the big shots that you said you envisioned early on?

So you’re looking for those angles, which could be when the horses start riding into the hotel, when the women start shooting from the roof. Even that, there’s a very tricky shot of, or complicated shot where the camera cranes up, it’s all quiet in town, and the camera cranes up over the hotel, over the two women, and then zooms in on the 40 horses riding towards town, finds them way off in the distance. Just the timing of that took a lot of forethought and planning. It was very, very difficult to figure out because we didn’t do it with any sort of effects.

Those are really the horses that are coming, so you had to time it so just as the camera came up and over the women, the horses are being revealed in the distance. Things like that took a lot of planning. The staircases in particular were tricky because horses can ride up the stairs without too much trouble, but they can’t come down so we had to … It was almost like a pit crew would come in after each take and nail these planks over the stairs, these boards over the stairs with little raised ridges in them so the horses could be led down the stairs.

Then the removable walls in some places in the hotel, like on the first floor so that the horses could ride up the first landing but then they would go right down a ramp, they could keep going down a ramp out the back and you wouldn’t see them. There was a lot of walls being pulled and platforms being put down. Each time the horses rode into the hotel was tricky. Sometimes I’d find myself standing there on the second floor next to a horse on this carpeted landing. It was a very surreal experience, especially when they started to take a shit on the floor.

I imagine you easily could have handed off an episode or two to another director, but what made you want to direct all of Godless?

Yeah. It didn’t seem to make sense to give it to another director other than almost any other director would probably do better than me. It was 120 day shooting schedule, so we were shooting it just like a long movie, basically like a seven hour movie. It was scheduled and boarded that way. It wasn’t like a normal TV series where you’re delivering an episode at a time. We shot all of it and then began cutting.

It wasn’t being aired as we were shooting the way a traditional TV series might. If you’re doing it that way, then it makes sense to have other directors because I would have to be in the cutting room and have to be working in post-production at the same time as the show’s being shot, and I couldn’t be in two places at once. Because we were shooting it and then doing a very separate post-production, I didn’t want to give it up to anybody else, it just didn’t make sense. I thought it was much easier just for me to stay with it and do all of it. I think you’re seeing that more and more now.

Did those 120 days feel any different than shooting a movie?

Yeah, it felt just like shooting a long … It was like a long movie schedule. It didn’t feel any different than making a movie. I mean, we shot it just as we would a movie. I would frequently joke though, whenever we would have a particularly big shot or something with any sort of scope to it, I would, after we’d call cut I would usually say, “Well, that’s going to look great on someone’s phone.”

[Laughs] Would you prefer someone not to watch the show that way or would you just be happy they’re watching it?

However people come to it is fine with me. I mean, I wish they wouldn’t watch it on their phone. I was sitting on the subway the other day here in New York and I look over at somebody watching Marco Polo on their iPhone, which is a gorgeously shot series. It’s just kind of amazing. I hope people don’t watch the show that way, but however people enjoy it is fine with me.

I can’t control that and it will look good on a big screen, and it will look good on a small screen. I always suggest that people watch the first two episodes in a row because you’re really kind of hooked after the first two episodes. The first episode is introducing quite a few people, but they’re also long. I understand that each episode is kind of a full meal and I understand that you might need a break between them.

All the characters you had to introduce in the first episode-

Oh my god, yeah. There are 80 speaking parts in the show.

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