'Godless' Creator Scott Frank On Crafting His Epic Netflix Western [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.

godless first look

When you began reworking the feature film script into a miniseries, what were some of the major new characters added to the story?

From reworking the script, I call the show the writer's cut because it's taking, it's doing the exact opposite of what you normally do: it's taking a script and making it longer. I would say the principle changes involved the town of Blackdom, that was never in the feature script. Those characters were never in the feature script and to be honest, I wish I had one more episode to go deeper with them. They were added. I think a lot of the relationships in town were deepened. Callie and Mary Agnes became a deeper relationship.

The character of Martha, the painter, she was added in the expansion from feature to miniseries. I'm trying to think who else. Whitey's love story with the girl in Blackdom, Louise, that was added. What else? Oh, and a lot of the flashbacks. A lot of Roy's ... Some of that was in the feature script, but there was a little bit more, the story about Frank and Roy and their sort of history, that was expanded just a bit. I'd expanded it a lot more, to be honest, and shot a lot more, but we just didn't need it.

What else did you shoot that didn't make the cut?

I just shot a ton of stuff between Roy and his brother, Jim. There are tons of stuff between Roy and Jim as kids, and we just didn't need it, you just kind of got it and the letter sort of said everything.

It seems like with westerns especially, the power of suggestion is enough.

It's plenty. It was plenty and the story would get bogged down because you'd want to get back to the story that's the most tense, which is when is Frank going to show up?

When Godless was in the works as a feature, what prevented it from getting made?

The genre. I would be told over and over again that, "We really like this story, but westerns don't travel. They don't do well overseas, and this is kind of a big one and it would cost a lot of money. If you could make it for $20 million instead of $40 million – which is what the feature would have cost, maybe even more – you might have a shot." It was a tricky sell because the genre just wasn't in vogue when I wrote it back in 2004.

Having worked with Jeff Daniels before, while writing the series did you have in mind for Frank?

No, I never have anyone in mind while I'm writing, because you tend to get disappointed if you can't get them. I tend to cast roles with dead actors, and so just to help me think about them in certain terms of archetypes. For the most part, if somebody were to ask, I would say, "It would be this type of actor or that type of actor," but I don't, I try not to get too wed to anybody who's actually walking around because sometimes you can't get them and then you have to readjust, and that's always a big heartbreak.

If anything, back when I wrote it, back in 2004, if anything, and when I was trying to direct it myself after The Lookout, I thought Jeff could play the McNairy part. Originally, I was thinking about Jeff to play that role. Then 10 years went by.

Merritt Wever is fantastic in the show. How did she get involved?

I had not heard of Merritt and I wasn't particularly familiar with Nurse Jackie, I'd seen a little bit of it. I didn't recall her, but I remembered her in Michael Clayton, and she was incredible in Michael Clayton. She was much younger because that was years earlier, but I remember her in that. I remember Tony Gilroy telling me that she was just one of the best actors he'd ever worked with. Then I saw a picture of her, a more recent picture of her. A casting director showed me one, and she just looked absolutely perfect. She just came in for, we just had, I basically just met her, I didn't audition her, I knew she could act.

She came in and we just had this conversation, and she was so shy. I realized, I never thought about it before, but I realized, sitting there talking to Merritt, that Mary Agnes, the character, should also have this kind of shyness to her, even though she's so tough and seemingly confident in every situation, or I would say competent in every situation. She's also painfully shy and I thought, it was an idea that had not occurred to me. Sitting there talking to Merritt I realized, "She's going to make this character much less obvious, much more vulnerable, and at the same time, incredibly strong." Within two minutes of talking to her, I knew she had to play the part.

Does that happen often with actors you cast? 

Sometimes you shake someone's hand and you just know they're just everything you want. Sometimes you get that feeling.

You and Steven Soderbergh been collaborating for a while now. What makes that relationship work? Do you see eye to eye on a lot of things?

We do, for the most part. I mean, Steven is a very good teacher and has been a very good mentor for me as a filmmaker. He helped me a lot on A Walk Among the Tombstones. I was floundering at one point during my edit, and he was a huge, clarifying force for me on that movie. I learned so much just talking to him while I was in the post-process. I went off and made a pilot after that. The big lesson I learned from him in the process of Walk Among the Tombstones was to simplify and sort of find the elegance in simplification, and having rules for yourself that you actually follow.

It makes all your decisions on the set so much simpler because you don't have an infinite amount of choices, you have only your rules, and if you adhere to them, and if they're the right rules for the story, it makes all of it so much smoother and simpler. That doesn't mean you don't have problems to solve. You're solving problems every day, and the process of solving those problems is so much more satisfying when you're doing it from this place of consistency in terms of your aesthetic, and so it was a big lesson for me. I thought I'd known it on The Lookout, I'd thought I'd known it on Walk Among the Tombstones, but it wasn't ingrained in a way that was there behind everything I was doing, and so I sort of brought that all to bear when I made Hoke, this pilot that ultimately never saw the light of day.

It was a great experience for me, and I worked with Steven Meizler on that. He was the perfect, perfect partner for me. It was a true one and one is three kind of experience. We brought all that to bear on Godless in a just bigger way. Steven, he was a great person to have, to talk to during prep and when I was trying to figure out how to do things during production. He was always watching what we were shooting and would occasionally have a very good suggestion for us or something to be mindful of. Then in post, looking at the cuts because it was such a ... Our first cut was nine and a half hours, and figuring out the shape, he encouraged me to be agnostic about the shape of the show and to embrace some level of fluidity in terms of sorting it all out.

You mentioned having rules before you go into a project and sticking to them. What were some of your rules for Godless?

Well, even just in terms of lenses, in terms of palette, in terms of how you're going to approach it. How many closeups? We kept talking about, "We're only going to go to closeup when we absolutely need to punctuate something. We're going to try and shoot as much of the show as we can with a 25 millimeter lens," again, for that reason, to keep it so that the background is always very present in all of the shots. We had a very limited number of lenses we were using.

We were going to use not a lot of light. We were going to have any light used at all on the set, you knew where it was coming from. It was a lot of natural light. We're not pulling a lot of lights off the truck all day to solve problems. We're trying to figure out how to light with what's there and maybe augment a little here or a little there, but for the most part, we were shooting in natural light.

There's a scene in the saloon, for example, it's about 4:00 in the afternoon when Sam Waterston comes in to ask about, when he comes into the saloon in LaBelle, or the first time he's there to ask the old gents about who else is there, who could fire a gun, that he's worried about the town. There's not a single light inside that saloon, and the saloon at night later, I don't want to give it away when he goes into Old Grande, where it's very, very dark, again, very little in there.

Very, very little light that we shot. You can see him and you can see his eyes, but we were, again, following these rules that we had, "That's the only light you should see. You should know exactly where it's coming from." Occasionally, we would break that rule out of necessity or I would even say, once in a while, insecurity, but for the most part, we adhered to them straight through.

Like Godless, do you have any scripts in the drawer you've been trying to make for a long time?

No. There are other scripts I've written that haven't gotten made and I wonder maybe that's for a good reason. I still think about this little movie I did years ago called After Haley. I don't think I got it right, but I know there's a movie there. It's a totally different kind of movie, but for the most part, I think I've exhausted the supply of scripts in the drawer. I have to look forward now. I have to actually do some work.

How about another novel?

I would love to write another novel. I'm noodling on that now. I'm not sure, it might be a sequel to "Shaker." I have a feeling it might be, and I'm also thinking about doing "Shaker," possibly as a mini-series, the same way I did Godless.

That sounds great. Before I let you go, I gotta say I'm a big fan of The Lookout

Oh, thank you.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from that film?

I think about, the biggest thing I think on that movie was I had confidence as a writer, and I had confidence in the story. I didn't have confidence as a director, and I think every scene, I was trying to prove something. Instead of sort of settling into ... Again, I was over-complicating it a lot of the time. Then, when I got into the cutting room, I would un-complicate it. There, for me, on The Lookout, I was treating each scene almost like its own short story for a lot of it.

I don't know that that would necessarily bother an audience but now, as a filmmaker, I'm really allergic to the way I shot that. I would be, I'm much more consistent, and again, much simpler in terms of how I like to shoot. The filmmakers I really admire have a very, very simple aesthetic, and it's still very powerful and elegant and beautiful. I tend to, I don't know why, I tend to be more drawn to that than this super complicated hyper-cut stuff that's also out there.

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Godless is now available to stream on Netflix.