15 years ago, Scott Frank didn’t know he was going to make a feminist Western that could be binged on a streaming platform.
In fact, if you tell him you’ve guzzled his seven-episode drama Godless, which lands on Netflix Nov 22nd, in one sitting, he’s modest enough to seem flattered, if not a bit shocked. Frank, who’s dabbled in the genre before, most recently with his screenplay work on Logan, wrote Godless as an ode to his favorite classic Western films.
The story of a town in New Mexico run entirely by women after a tragic mining accident kills off their husbands, a man on the run from the outlaw gang he once belonged to and the man who served as his surrogate father, and a mother struggling to tame the wild land she’s been stuck with after the death of her husband, was meant for the big screen. But when Netflix picked it up instead, Frank realized he could give his characters (played by greats like Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, and Sam Waterston) more to chew. The end result? A miniseries set in the harsh, sprawling desert filled with gun-slinging, horse chases, petticoats, and plenty of bad guys. We spoke to Frank about reviving the Western on the small screen, getting Jeff Daniels on a horse, and how likely he’d be to do another superhero franchise.
This story was originally intended for film and now people will be able to binge it on Netflix. What convinced you that it would make a better TV series at this point?
I was having trouble getting it made as a feature, just because the economics of movies. It’s not that they’re making fewer movies, they’re just making fewer kinds of movies and the Western genre, in particular, is one that just doesn’t travel well overseas. At the same time, television is doing a lot of what movies used to do. They’re doing the forgotten genres, genres that movies have abandoned, in order to [attract] the biggest possible audience.
Steven Soderbergh, who’s one of my producers, had a great experience doing The Knick, and had felt that a lot of the kinds of movies both he and I like to make were being done on television, so he nudged me in that direction. Once we started thinking about it, it came together very, very quickly. Whereas I’ve been waiting 14 years to get it made as a feature, it was a matter of weeks before we had a deal to do it as a miniseries.
How did the script change from when you wrote it nearly 15 years ago?
I like to call this version the writer’s cut. It’s still the same story, but what I was able to do, because of the format, was go deeper and tell more of the characters stories than I could in a feature. So, thematically nothing really changed, it all just expanded, it all just grew a little bit.
Talking about the Western being an abandoned genre, what interested you about bringing one to Netflix?
I’ve always been interested in the idea that characters aren’t all good or all bad. I keep talking about how they all kind of live in this gray area where the good guys aren’t all good, and the bad guys aren’t all bad, and the Wild West is much more interesting in terms of that and the fact the characters are all acted upon by the environment they’re in. It’s a huge part of the story, and to have the world they’re in be another character is fascinating to me. You know, I’ve never done a story like that. We do that now with science fiction, they call it ‘world building.’ But this is sort of world un-building.
It’s really fascinating to me to see what happens when you put these characters in nature and see how small they are, or what they’re up against. Thematically I thought that was an interesting idea, whether it’s the women in La Belle who are challenged by the circumstances they’re in and being stuck in this place, or Alice Fletcher (Dockery) who is challenged by the lack of water and the land she’s trying to tame, all of that is great for spinning yarn.
Did you have an idea of what you didn’t want this Western to be?
You know what’s interesting, there were a couple of rules I set out for myself when I started to write it. One was to embrace every single Western cliché I could think of, to try to include them in the story, from breaking horses to two guys facing each other down in a gunfight — just all the great old tropes that were in the old Western stories, and then try to do them in a way that was unexpected. I read a lot of Westerns and that was a huge help to me, just to see how people spoke.
I gained a vocabulary when I read each of these stories, and learned about the way people thought. And I also have my own researcher who’s been working with me for the past 17 years, and she’s the one who found out about the towns in New Mexico where all the men had died in an afternoon, in these mining accidents. And sometimes the towns would become these matriarchies, where the women would stick around and try and make a go of it.
I feel like you’ve unknowingly created a great drinking game here — every time you recognize a Western trope, take a drink. I’m thinking whiskey’s probably appropriate.
Yup. They’re all there.
Is calling this a feminist Western good with you then?
It is a feminist Western but I don’t know that was my intention when I started writing it. I was trying to write about characters that hadn’t been written about. I didn’t have any story at the time, and when I learned about these women I thought, “Well, that’s a fantastic place to start.” I now know where to begin, because the politics of that are going to be fascinating, and also just the circumstances of people who are not where they thought they’d be. That became a thematic idea, that people are living lives they didn’t intend to lead — that goes for the women in La Belle, that goes for Alice Fletcher out on her ranch and Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) who was supposed to be with his brother on his way to California. Everybody is sort of stuck in this life they had not intended to lead. There were lots of things going on all at once. I used to joke with [my researcher] that she tricked me into writing a feminist Western, but you know I just wanted to write a story about the West that people hadn’t heard about, and these women were first and foremost on that list.
Did you know Jeff Daniels would be so terrifying as a bad guy?
I love it when guys who are such good people, play such bad characters. It’s fun to watch, and you know Jeff is truly a good soul, and to see him inhabit this horrible human being was a lot of fun for me. I knew it was actually going to be easy for him, the hardest thing for him was going to be being able to do this on horseback.
Exactly, with his hand stuffed into something behind his back. Except for the two or three times he fell off the horse, he was having a great time.
Is there another superhero movie you’d like to give the Western treatment?
You know what I’ve done a couple of them now, and both times I was dragged kicking and screaming into it, and both times, particularly with Logan I had a great time. I don’t know if I would do another superhero movie, it’s not a genre I’m drawn to. I’m surprised I’ve done it as many times as I’ve done it. There certainly are Western tropes that you can use in any genre. I would have to see if I ended up stumbling in that direction or not.