How Scott Frank finally got his cutthroat look at our frontier nation on TV – and why you shouldn’t consider this a “feminist Western”
“This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the bleeding rifle.”
So snarls murderous outlaw Frank Griffin in the monologue that gives Godless, the new seven-episode Netflix miniseries premiering on November 22nd, its title. Leading a pack of marauders out to terrorize and slaughter every man, woman, and child that crosses their path, he’s not merely a creature of the American West in the 1880s. Griffin is some otherworldly manifestation of it, a reminder that anyone who ventures into this borderless, lawless country can expect none of the mercies of civilization. (Think Cormac McCarthy’s “The Judge” from Blood Meridian,only a tad less ornery.) “Same God that made you and me also made a rattlesnake,” he continues. Don’t expect to live long. And don’t expect your fate to be sensible or just.
The fact that writer-director Scott Frank has tapped perennial nice guy Jeff Daniels for the role of the larger-than-life bad guy only increases the sense of danger; not since Henry Fonda was cast as the blue-eyed menace in Once Upon a Time in the West has an actor so savagely upended his image. But from the pre-credits sequence in the very first episode, which ends with the harrowing image of a small boy hanging by the neck over the train tracks, it’s clear that while this man may be evil, he’s not exactly wrong. And to hear the show’s creator talk about Godless‘s view of our frontier nation, with its unforgiving landscape and predatory claims, you’d think there’s little separation between his view and that of his villain.
“You were well and truly alone out there,” says Frank. “If you believe that God will save you or that God is looking out for you, you’re doomed. The only way you’ll survive is to count on yourself. I think there’s truth in that, in terms of surviving the Old West.”
After spending the Nineties as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, with credits that included Dead Again, Out of Sight and Get Shorty, Frank conceived of Godless in the early 2000s as a project for Steven Soderbergh. The director balked at the idea – “I don’t know how to photograph horses,” he recalls Soderbergh saying – and Frank’s interest in directing it himself met resistance from studio executives. They were reluctant to make Westerns, and doubly reluctant to trust a first-time filmmaker.
So Frank filed away the feature-length version of the script and moved onto other projects, before finally going behind the camera for the 2007 thriller The Lookout (which featured Daniels in a supporting role) and the 2014 Liam Neeson vehicle A Walk Among the Tombstones. After Soderbergh made The Knick for Cinemax, he encouraged Frank to expand the script and bring it to television. “What had taken 13 or 14 years to get anywhere as a feature took about a week to get set up as a [TV] miniseries,” he says.
For as much as Griffin’s prophecy hang over the show, Godless expands in many different directions over its seven-episode sprawl, a few of which top out at 70-75 minutes long. Frank talks about poring over history books and novels to get an authentic feel for the American West, but as a genre specialists, he rattles off an endless series of cinematic touchstones, too. Like Rio Bravo, the show is about local jailers having to protect the gunslinger they’ve arrested from an outside attack – only here the sheriff (Scoot McNairy) wanders out of town and the inmate (Jack O’Connell) is sheltered by a woman (Michelle Dockery) who springs him to work on her ranch. And like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the fate of a mining town falls to the encroaching forces of big business and its well-armed agents.
The big hook of the show, however, reveals another, more optimistic truth about the Old West as a land of possibility and reinvention. Much of the action takes place in the literal no-man’s-land of La Belle, a town run almost entirely by women courtesy of a silver-mine collapse that killed off their husbands. Two years later, they’re approached by arrogant businessmen who promise to revive the mine, bringing money and men back into town, but the late mayor’s feisty widow Mary Agnes isn’t eager to concede. She wears her dead husband’s clothes. She’s sleeping with a former prostitute. She’s devastatingly quick on the draw.
And she’s played with scene-stealing ferocity and wit by Merritt Wever, the Emmy-winning actress from Nurse Jackie (see her Joe Pesci-esque acceptance speech) and the sixth season of The Walking Dead. “I think that she sees the women in the town are in this unique opportunity to make the town financially viable without sacrificing this chance they have at economic independence,” she says. “That’s a big deal for her. And I think she’s pretty pissed off and feels pretty betrayed that the other women in the town don’t see it that way, or don’t realize what an opportunity that is.”
Though Godless was conceived over 15 years ago, it happens to come out at a time when stories of sexual misconduct from Hollywood to Capital Hill have exposed the abuses of men in power. A Western about a town run by women would seem to hit the culture in stride, but Frank has mixed feelings about the comparisons. “People are saying, ‘Won’t that be good for the marketing of it?'” he notes. “And it makes me a little uncomfortable, because I feel like it cheapens what’s happening now …and it also makes you look at this story in slightly different terms.”
“I never fancied myself any sort of feminist spokesman or storytelling because I don’t think I can be,” Frank adds. “I’m a man with all my flaws, and made all the mistakes one could make. I felt like what I could do is honor these women I was reading about, who seemed really interesting to me – these characters no one had ever told stories about.”