Godless marks Scott Frank’s first foray into the western genre. One could argue that his screenplay for Logan was western-adjacent, but Godless is a tried and true western complete with outlaws, gunfights, a town tragedy, a drifter and horses — an animal that executive producer Steven Soderbergh fears.
Created and written by Frank, the seven-part limited series — which was originally conceived as a feature film — reunites the Out of Sight writer with director Soderbergh and executive producer Casey Silver. Hitting the beats of a traditional western, Godless follows criminal Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his gang of menacing outlaws as they set out on a mission of revenge against Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), a son-like protégé who betrayed them. While on the Run from Frank and his goons, Roy finds refuge with tough-as-nails Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) in the isolated mining town of La Belle which is populated by mostly women. When word gets around that Griffin is headed their way, they hunker down and prep for a fight against Frank and his gang.
The mini-series earned 12 Emmy nominations including Outstanding Limited Series and has reinvigorated the traditional western for modern-day, binge-watching audiences. Deadline sat down with Frank and Soderbergh to talk about the road to making Godless, their feelings about being dubbed a “feminist western”, Frank’s aim to include every cliche and trope in the series and, of course, we address Soderbergh’s aforementioned fear of horses.
DEADLINE: Godless has been in the works for some time now, but it’s now on Netflix and received quite a reception — including 12 Emmys. But what was the initial spark that made you want to do Godless?
SCOTT FRANK: To be honest, I just wanted to try writing a western. It was really more ambitious then. It was a genre I hadn’t tried. I really enjoyed watching them. I had no idea, no story, nothing in mind, other than I just would really like to, at some point in my career, write a western. That was it.
DEADLINE: Steven, how did you get on board the Godless bandwagon?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I can’t remember when I first became aware of this. Obviously, you know, I have a long-standing relationship with Scott. I also had a long-standing relationship with Casey Silver and so I can’t remember exactly when I heard that this existed. Casey called and said, “Would you take a look at this?” I said “Of course, I’ll read anything Scott’s writing. I just want to be clear that I’m reading it as a friend, cause there’s no universe in which I’m going to make a western.” And he said “That’s fine, that’s fine.” And I read it and loved it. At that point, it was, what, 178 pages?
FRANK: Yeah, probably.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, so it was a movie. It was a big movie…and a really good movie. But this would’ve been at a time when — well it’s probably still true — mounting a three-hour western was quite an uphill battle. I just read it and said I thought it was great and kept tabs on what was happening with it and then Scott went off and did some other stuff.
FRANK: But also one thing he’s downplaying is while I was writing it, I was hoping I would be able to get the band back together and work with Casey and Steven because we all did Out of Sight together. It never occurred to me that Steven wouldn’t want to direct a western. So the first person we gave it to, thinking let’s do this one, was Steven. So needless to say I was surprised to hear his feelings about dust, and horses, and things like that.
SODERBERGH: Which is why I never went to the set. (laughs)
DEADLINE: Westerns have beats, tropes, and there’s something very traditional about them. With Godless, did you want to change enough but not so different that people don’t see it as a western?
FRANK: No, I [wanted to do] the opposite. I really set out to embrace every single western cliché I could think of and that was the fun of it. That’s why I wanted to write it. I wanted to write about the gunfights. I wanted to write about breaking horses, all of the train robberies, all of the old tropes were really — it was really fun for me to try and weave all of it into a new story. That was really it. I knew I was gonna take a lot of old ingredients and then try and locate them in somewhat of a fresh context. That was really what I was looking for.
DEADLINE: Many have dubbed Godless as a “feminist western.” Did you feel a certain pressure to follow through with that label?
FRANK: I never felt pressure. I certainly recognize that today, it’s a clear and clever marketing hook. But I wrote it about 14 years ago, and back then, for me, the town full of all women felt like fresh context — a way to locate a very traditional story in a world that I hadn’t seen, and that is what I was thinking about. Also, because the story I was formulating was more of a father-son story, I thought that contrast would be really interesting. I think it wasn’t so much my intention but time sort of turned it into rather a feminist piece. But I don’t know that it completely holds water that way because a third of the story is about the town full of women, and a third of the story is about this guy’s life on the ranch with this woman and her son, and a third of the story is his relationship with Frank Griffin. So they all have equal importance to me when I was writing it, certainly.
DEADLINE: Merritt Wever and Michelle Dockery have some standout performances. When you were writing it, were you thinking that these characters could do more on the show or even have their own series?
FRANK: No, because I really thought of it as a one-off — as either a film and then later, it was Steven’s suggestion that we think about it as a mini-series. Though, when I as expanding it, those were the two characters I gave the newest storylines to.
DEADLINE: What were the advantages of making it into a mini-series versus a feature film?
FRANK: Well for starters, you can get it made. Second of all, you can have a deeper dive with everybody. You’re not so rushed in terms of character and telling individual stories and you don’t have to lean so hard on the concept so much as the people and that’s a luxury. And you can just tell a bigger story, and I think there are lots of stories out there that fall between. They’re not movies and they’re not quite television series that could work really well in this model, in a limited model. I like it a lot actually.
SODERBERGH: Also, I think it was one of those examples of an occasion where the thing that everybody tells you is the problem is not the problem. It’s actually the solution. So when people would look at the script as a movie, their first reaction would be “You have to cut 40 pages.” They didn’t say they didn’t like it, it’s just you’ve gotta get this down to 135, et cetera, et cetera… and that’s one of those things where you look at it and go “Well what if we did the opposite? What if that’s not the problem? What if that’s the solution?” It seemed to me as soon as we discussed that idea, the whole thing just got super exciting. I mean hard for Scott, he had to double the amount of pages that he’d written in a matter of a couple of months, but it felt right. It felt like the universe could really withstand being broadened. So I don’t know after we thought about that, it all fell together.
FRANK: Actually the storytelling, it felt beyond a solution, it just felt very downhill to me because I have so much material that I hadn’t been able to use, that I really liked. Some of it was cut for a good reason but some of it was heartbreaking to be a part of the story and so there was quite a bit that I’d been thinking about for many, many years. So even though I only had a few months to get it all done, it had certainly been percolating for much longer.
SODERBERGH: And also what happens is a scene like the gun battle with the town — which as we talked about is a pillar of this kind of movie — when that comes not at an hour and 50 minutes but six hours into your spending time with these characters, you have a completely different reaction to that sequence. It’s just got a lot more resonant because you’ve spent so much time with everyone involved, and that was another payoff of having something of this scale: is that all of these things landed in a much different way if it had been a two-hour movie.
DEADLINE: Why did you think Netflix was a good home for Godless?
FRANK: Well, we had some other interests from other places but the reason that Netflix, for me, was clearly the best spot for us because they really were committed to making it. They wanted it, they needed it, they were green lighting it based on the feature script. They were less concerned with giant movie star casting. They really wanted it to be true to itself. They really were embracing the idea of doing this genre. They hadn’t done an in-house limited series yet — this was their first official in-house mini-series so it just felt really positive. It felt like we were all on the same page. They were genuinely excited about it. It was the first time in 14 years where somebody didn’t say “Wow, I love this. I hope someone else makes it.” What they said was “We love this, and we’re desperate to make it, let’s do this, and let’s do it soon.” And so that, for me, was great and that attitude never changed throughout the whole process.
SODERBERGH: Scott and Casey went into the meeting — I wasn’t even able to be there. With a ballpark production number, budget that we pulled out of our ass, a start date that we pulled out of our ass, and these things would work if everything went exactly right. If Scott was able to generate this new material, and we were able to budget and board this thing and have it turn out the way we thought, everything had to go right. It turns out it did, but they said “Yes,” and then never looked back.
DEADLINE: As we mentioned western genre is very traditional with its tropes and beats. It’s almost the same kind of formula over and over again, but people enjoy it so much. What draws the two of you to the western genre? More than that, why do you think audiences love it so much?
SODERBERGH: Well, that’s a Scott question because of all the genres that exist, I’ve probably seen fewer westerns than any other. I’ve seen the classics, but it’s not something that I pursue. I’m terrified of horses, the whole thing is just traumatic for me but it’s clear that if all good drama involves conflict, that genre just rolls out of bed with these massive conflicts in place that you get to play around with. It’s very cinematic. It’s got a lot of movie DNA built into it inherently, at least that’s my impression from a distance.
FRANK: I think that’s right, I mean in terms of the conflict it’s man against environment, as much as it is man against other wild men. It’s really fascinating for me because so much of the morality of western, which, for me, I love stories that live in the gray area — and that’s western. There are no real good guys or real bad guys. They’re all kind of a combination of things if they’re interesting. And in my favorite westerns, they’re certainly the old school, twisting of the mustache, but this was very different for me in that the westerns I’ve loved, it was this combination of good and bad, and also the wish fulfillment of these people surviving under these conditions, and “could I do that?”
And I think western is akin to a lot of fantasy stuff as well, because it’s these other worlds that look different and feel different to the one we’re in, and they’re fun to visit in a safety of your own living room or movie theater. I think that to see these people doing these things that are more heroic than say, a superhero, because they’re using what they have at hand. I think it’s a fascinating thing for people and really, really satisfying. And also, they’re just gorgeous to look at, whether in color or black and white.
DEADLINE: I know it’s a limited series and there can’t really be a second helping of Godless but are you looking to pursue more western stories like this?
FRANK: I don’t know, I mean you never know. I don’t have one right now that I’m itching to do. But you never know… down the road there may come another story that I want to tell that’s set in the West but for me this was, soup to nuts, a completely satisfying experience and I wouldn’t want to feel like I’m trying to do it again because it never works.
SODERBERGH: You can call it Godfull.