Director Scott Frank On Netflix's 'Godless'

Nov 26, 2017
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

"Godless," a new seven-part miniseries from Netflix is out now. It's a western set in New Mexico in the 1880s. The story follows a vicious, menacing outlaw, Frank Griffin, played by Jeff Daniels, as he hunts down his younger partner who has run off with the loot the gang wrecked a train to steal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GODLESS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why are you doing this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ride out, Frank.

JEFF DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) What all got you so mad at me? Damn it, I raised you up, Roy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

WERTHEIMER: I'm joined now by the writer of "Godless" and also its director Scott Frank. Thank you for coming on the program.

SCOTT FRANK: Thank you for having me - pleasure to be here.

WERTHEIMER: So, Scott Frank, I grew up in New Mexico. I never knew about a town called La Belle, a town of mostly women, all heavily armed. I used to go to the movies every Saturday. I've seen a lot of westerns. And this isn't like any of them. This is so dark. My mother would not have let me go anywhere near that.

FRANK: I'm sorry. I apologize for all of that.

WERTHEIMER: What drew you to sort of make this kind of western?

FRANK: I had always wanted to write a western. I thought any self-respecting screenwriter at some point has to give it a crack. And I wanted to do something different that I hadn't seen before. And that's tricky because there have been so many westerns as you point out.

So enter a woman named Mimi Munson, who's worked for me for about 17 years as my researcher. And Mimi said to me, you know, I've been reading a lot about these mining towns in the Southwest. And I thought to myself, wait. You mean, all those - the guys covered with - their faces are covered with dust and down underground. And I thought I don't know that I want to live there cinematically. And she said, no, I'm not talking about the men. I'm talking about the women. And I said, how do you mean? And she said, well, there were several towns in New Mexico where all of the men died in an accident in a single afternoon stranding the women in these places. And sometimes the women would leave and move on. And sometimes they would stick around and try and make a go of it. And I thought, wow. What a great starting point.

WERTHEIMER: Now, were it not for the bodies strewn all over the landscape, the other really remarkable thing about this is the way it looks. It was really beautiful and beautiful in contrast to the awfulness that it was talking about.

FRANK: Well, Steven Meizler was the cinematographer. And he's a very, very talented, talented young guy. And we spent a lot of time in New Mexico, as you know, growing up there. Virtually, every direction there's something beautiful to look at. And to your point about the violence and the bodies and so on - the theme of living a life you hadn't planned on living was in every history I read. I had come out to do this and ended up doing that. I was heading for this place, ended up living in that place. Half of my family was massacred by these people. My brother died of this. My mother died of that. Pretty much any day that ended with why, there was something terrible happening all the time. And so there's - the idea of coping and the idea of the environment being as much of an antagonist as Frank Griffin was interesting.

WERTHEIMER: The other character in the series that I really liked was Sam Waterston's character, the Marshal. Tell me about him.

FRANK: Well, there's a thing when you're telling a story - when you're introducing all these characters in your first chapter if you will. And there's always the person you think is going to be the hero. And I wanted somebody to come in with real weight, somebody who you automatically trusted, believed in. And Sam is able to do that in a way. He's able to speak exposition, if you will, in a way that makes it feel dramatic, always. Anytime he walks into a room on camera, he brings weight to that room.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GODLESS")

SAM WATERSON: (As Marshal John Cooke) I'm looking for Frank Griffin.

SCOOT MCNAIRY: (As Bill McNue) You think he might be here?

WATERSON: (As Marshal John Cooke) There's a regiment up in Ola Grande (ph). I'm on my way up there - see if the captain will help me out.

MCNAIRY: (As Bill McNue) You're going to the army?

WATERSON: (As Marshal John Cooke) Ain't no regular posse will go after him no more, not after they seen what he left behind in Creede.

MCNAIRY: (As Bill McNue) What happened up there?

WATERSON: (As Marshal John Cooke) Jesus, Bill. Ain't you been reading The Daily Review?

WERTHEIMER: And you have to give him great credit for being able to speak clearly through that enormous mustache.

FRANK: (Laughter) The squirrel as we called it - yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: One of your leads is Michelle Dockery. I almost didn't recognize her without all the the diamonds and the soft, silky clothing that she wore on "Downton Abbey." She is an outcast from La Belle. And her wardrobe is, I would have to say, filthy.

FRANK: Yes Michelle - you know, she wanted to do this part. And I wasn't sure because I'd only known her as Lady Mary on "Downton Abbey," the way we all do. But I knew this was a grittier, darker thing. And she did an audition while she was shooting "Bad Behavior." In the middle of shooting that - in the middle of 15-hour shooting days, she put together a tape for me to look out of her doing three scenes from "Godless." And it's the single best audition tape I've ever, ever, ever seen. It was amazing. And from that point on, I couldn't see anyone else in that role. It was incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GODLESS")

MICHELLE DOCKERY: (As Alice Fletcher) I turn around and see a 6-foot wall of water coming right at us. Henry, the horse, the buggy - they all got washed away right in front of me. I almost did, too. But my new yellow dress got hung up on some mesquite - saved my life. I wandered off for eight days in the wrong direction before I was found.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Found by who?

DOCKERY: (As Alice Fletcher) That's another story.

WERTHEIMER: Well, we sort of see her. And therefore, we see the series as a kind of feminist western, I guess. Is that what you meant to do?

FRANK: No, I think that's accidental. I mean, I think it very much is a feminist western, I suppose, especially in the context of everything that's happening right now. But at the same time, for me, I just thought that was a great piece of narrative juice because I was equally as obsessed with telling the story of fathers and sons, which is a big part of the show as well. And it's all there. But ultimately, I think the shinier thing right now is certainly the feminist aspect.

WERTHEIMER: That is Scott Frank. He's the writer and director of "Godless." It's out on Netflix. Thank you very much.

FRANK: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NURSES' "TRYING TO REACH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.