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'Godless' Creator Was Determined To Put His Own Spin On The Classic Western


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring interviews with Emmy nominees and people whose shows were nominated. The award ceremony is Monday, September 17. The Netflix Western series "Godless" is up for 12 Emmys, including two for my guest Scott Frank, who's nominated for outstanding directing and outstanding writing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special. "Godless" has a great villain.


JEFF DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin) God - what God? Mister, you clearly don't know where you are. Look around. There ain't no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young'uns. This here's the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It's the land of the blade and the rifle. It's godless country.

GROSS: That's Jeff Daniels, who has an Emmy nomination for his performance as Frank Griffin, an outlaw obsessed with vengeance and willing to kill any person and destroy any town that stands in his way. The person he's obsessed with is Roy Goode, an orphan who Frank took into his gang and thought of as a son until Roy broke away and turned against him. My guest Scott Frank wrote and directed all seven episodes of "Godless." His film screenwriting credits include the adaptations of two Elmore Leonard novels, "Get Shorty" and "Out Of Sight," and the Philip K. Dick story "The Minority Report."

"Godless" has everything fans of Westerns love, but the story is pretty unconventional. It's set in the 1880s in La Belle, a New Mexican town run by women because most of the men died in a mining accident. The widow of the town's mayor dresses in his clothes, has become the de facto mayor and has a lover who is also a woman. One of the storylines involves an interracial romance. Another woman on a ranch on the outskirts of town has a son who's half Native American. This woman is a great shot with a rifle.

Let's hear another scene from "Godless." In the first episode, we see the men and women of another town singing a hymn in church when Frank, the villain, rides into the church on his horse, joining in the singing and stopping at the altar to deliver a menacing sermon while astride his horse.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Still all my song shall be nearer...

DANIELS: (As Frank Griffin, singing) My God to thee - nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

Folks, how 'bout it? Y'all been baptized? Y'all wash your bodies once a week? Have you committed adultery, ma'am? Have you betrayed your brother, sir? Do you preside in your family as servant of God? Y'all know I don't want to ever come back here and burn this house of the Lord down to the ground, so let's all bow our heads and pray that Roy Goode don't never show up here but that if he does, none of you well-meaning souls take him in unless you want to suffer like our Lord Jesus suffered for all of us. Amen.


GROSS: Wow (laughter). Scott Frank, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene. It's such a violation. This villain rides into the church on his horse and, on his horse, goes to the altar...

SCOTT FRANK: Everything is wrong.

GROSS: ...Basically starts threatening everybody that they might die if they do the wrong thing. It is all so wrong. And how did that image come to you of your villain riding to the altar of the church on his horse?

FRANK: You know, it just seemed like the natural thing that Frank would do. And I knew that later there were going to be other scenes of people riding their horses into various structures. And I thought it might be a nice, fun little setup for me. And he is, as you say, violating everything. And so I really wanted to set that up right away. And it says everything about him. And you sort of synopsize what the kind of central battle is in that one moment. And it just seemed right. It just seemed right to have him keep going and ride right on in.

GROSS: I'm so glad you made a Western because I'm a real fan of Westerns. And this Western is, like, so good. Why did you want to make a Western? And this is a major commitment. We're talking about - like, you've basically made seven movies here because there are seven episodes.

FRANK: I have to tell you about a woman named Mimi Munson, who's instrumental in all of this. Mimi's been my researcher for the last 17 years. And I told Mimi I'm thinking about writing a Western. I don't know what it's about. And she did two things that were - three things, actually, that sort of changed my life and made this happen.

One, she gave me about 20 of what she felt were the best Western novels to read. Then she said she'd been doing a little research about mining towns in the Southwest. And I said to myself, mining - you mean the guys in the - with the black faces. I'm not so sure. And I kind of looked at all of her research. And I told her, you know, all the sooty-looking guys, and they're down there in the dark, I don't know that I want to write about that world. And Mimi said to me, oh, no, I'm not talking about the men. I'm talking about the women.

And she said that all throughout the Southwest, there were several towns, from Dawes (ph), Colo., - was one I remember offhand - where all the men would die in a single day in an accident. And the women would be left behind, stranded. And they would either leave, or they would try and make a go of it. And all of a sudden, I had part of my movie. And again, it was not going to be a series back then. It was just going to be a film. And so this is around 2000, 2001. And so suddenly I had this place that I could write about that was very clear. And I had a group of people that I could write about.

And then the third thing she did was she went to the university research library at UCLA and collected all these letters. And a lot of them were oral histories in effect and written by these women. And it was spectacular for me because I not only got ideas for characters, like the prostitute who's the richest woman in town, for example. But also I got to hear how people spoke, which was hugely important to me because I didn't want to write a lot of, I-reckon-I'll-rustle-up-a-bunch-of-grub-type stuff.

GROSS: So the main town in "Godless" is called La Belle. And this is a town where all the men died. It's a mining town. And all the men or most of the men have died in a mining accident. So it's basically a town of widows with a few older men. And one of the widows played by Merritt Wever who our listeners might know from "Nurse Jackie" - she plays Mary Agnes, who's a widow of the late mayor of La Belle. And now that she is no longer a wife, she's given up a lot of, like, quote, "womanly" kinds of things. She dresses in men's clothes, a cowboy hat. She carries a rifle, and she's a good shot. And there's a scene in "Godless" that's kind of like, what if "The Magnificent Seven" were women...


GROSS: ...And they were protecting a town? Were you thinking of "The Magnificent Seven" at all?

FRANK: I was thinking about so many Westerns...

GROSS: So many movies (laughter).

FRANK: I'm sure that was one of them. And I'm sure now that you've said that, someone is about to do "The Magnificent Seven" with women.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: I'm sure that will be happening shortly. But yeah, there were lots of things that - lots of movies and conventions. I really set out - one thing because I was just going to have fun - and I thought, you know, I love the Western so much. Why not embrace every single cliche I can think of from, you know, the breaking of horses to the train robberies to the two guys facing each other in the street - all of that stuff? The mysterious loner - why not find a way to put them all in here and see if I can't do it in some sort of different way?

GROSS: Well, another example of that - I mean, Sergio Leone in his Westerns is famous, among other things, for those iconic close-ups of faces. And you have, like, a couple other shots, one with the hero of (laughter) the series and one with the heroine. And I can't say I've seen that Sergio Leone shot on a woman's face before.

FRANK: And he was probably the single biggest influence for me. I probably stole more from him than, say, John Ford (laughter). Those movies were a huge part of my childhood. And later, when Clint Eastwood began directing, obviously he was hugely influenced by him as well, but - movies like "High Plains Drifter" and certainly "Unforgiven," which is I think a masterpiece.


FRANK: But I watched all those movies over and over. And the language and the rhythm - he's not afraid to slow down to make everything take longer. And yet I was never bored in those movies, even when I was very young. I was riveted because of the composition, because of those close-ups - were so powerful. And they were always really well-scored as well.

The problem today is that the close-up is probably the most overused shot. You know, you have to be careful how you use it. And luckily, if you're outside in a place like New Mexico, you can do a close-up but shoot it with a wide-angle lens. And you have not only their face but all this beautiful information and vista behind them.

GROSS: But did you think to yourself, I'm going to do that really macho Sergio Leone iconic close-up, but it's going to be with a woman?

FRANK: Yes, yes. All the time, they're shot - the way they look down the rifle, the way the camera looks up the rifle towards them, they're all shots that are normally used with men. And I don't know that I said, now I'm going to do it with a woman so much as that's who the character was, and that's the shot that was right for that particular character.

GROSS: So a good Western needs a good villain. And, boy, did you create one...


GROSS: ...In a character that's played by Jeff Daniels, Frank Griffin. So what were your ingredients to creating a great villain?

FRANK: Well, I think you want a great villain who means well (laughter), who believes they're doing a good thing. I'm more interested in that person than the person who wants to, you know, destroy the world - but somebody who actually thinks they're doing good, who thinks they're doing the Lord's work, who believes that he's creating a family for someone, who believes that he's been a good father and who feels betrayed because he has always felt that he's done right by the people around him. And that's the first place for me to start - is, how can he be in the gray area? He's sort of not all bad and not all good.

GROSS: In the first episode, Frank has been shot in the arm. And he gets his arm amputated of course without any kind of anesthesia. We don't see it, but we hear him. And he's a pretty stoic guy. We hear him cry out in pain. And for the rest of the series, he's, you know, on his horse with one arm. Why did he have to be, like, a one-armed bad guy? Is that - is there, like, a history of that in Western literature?

FRANK: No, although there might be (laughter). I haven't read a lot of it, of - read a lot of that or seen it a lot, let's say. But he felt more powerful being that way. He felt more powerful by overcoming all of that. It seemed to me that he was a stronger, more frightening man not because he was missing a limb but because of how he thought about that missing limb. I mean, he carries it with him. That arm is on his saddle right above his rifle. There it is. He takes his...

GROSS: Yeah. There's just a - he wraps up his arm in, like, a blanket or a cloth - yeah, puts it on his saddlebag and (laughter)...

FRANK: And continues to carry it with him. So that's a very - I thought that just made for a very particular kind of guy. And...

GROSS: Well, I kept wondering, why is he doing that? Why did you have him do that?

FRANK: Because he's nuts (laughter)...

GROSS: Yeah, OK - good answer (laughter).

FRANK: ...Is my easy answer. But I think that it's just such a scary idea. And so visually, I thought it would be (laughter) just - you know, just this side of funny. And I think it's OK to go there. And he will do anything. And he'll ride his horse into a church. He'll carry his arm with him. And there's a big, you know, theme throughout the story that anything can happen to anyone at any time, and that was sort of the beginnings of that.

GROSS: One of the first things we see in "Godless" is an entire small settlement that has been massacred. We see their bodies. We see the dead horses. We see overturned wagons. And we know right from the start that part of the series is going to be who did this, and why? And what's going to happen to them? Will there be justice? And everything kind of rolls out from there.

It's quite a dramatic way to start. And I have to say, it kind of hooked me. But I also know it could also turn people off who might think, like, wow, this is just going to be really violent and bloody; I don't want to see it. So it was a kind of major choice to make. So I'm interested in that choice.

FRANK: Yes, and I was very worried always, even during shooting that sequence. I would joke, you know, between setups or after certain takes. I would say, and the sound you now hear is the sound of a million television sets all turning off.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: Because I just - I knew that we were playing with fire, and I knew it was humming a very specific key that isn't necessarily the entire show. But from a storytelling standpoint, it - I felt it was the exact right way to open because you want to know that's hanging over all of the proceedings.

You know La Belle could look like that at some point. And you know that what happened here was real and awful and terrible. And the trick was to not sort of marinate in it for too long and to have it play more like an introductory grace note, (laughter) say, than really kind of linger in it.

GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Scott Frank, creator of the Netflix Western series "Godless." The series is nominated for 12 Emmys, including two nominations for his writing and directing. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Frank, creator, writer and director of the Netflix Western series "Godless." The series is nominated for 12 Emmys, including two for Frank for outstanding writing and outstanding directing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special.


GROSS: So "Godless" is a Western. Westerns have to have great dialogue. It's just - it's not going to be good without the great dialogue. And it has to be kind of, like, snappy and both dark and threatening and kind of witty at the same time. And you adapted two Elmore Leonard books into screenplays, "Out Of Sight" and "Get Shorty." And he's just, like, a master of that kind of, like, snappy dialogue 'cause he's writing about, like, small-time criminals. So are there things you learned from working with Leonard - with Elmore Leonard material that you were able to apply to writing this?

FRANK: Oh, absolutely. And he wrote a ton of Westerns as well. He began by writing Westerns...

GROSS: Oh, right. That's right.

FRANK: ...Yeah, short stories for magazines and so on. And Western dialogue is really tricky. And so I read tons of Western novels where they had great dialogue to see how they did it. And I was really looking for telling phrases, phrases that describe things that I hadn't heard before that I could use.

GROSS: What's an example?

FRANK: Same with the letters, where how people talked about horses - tireless, sure-footed and mean. You know, I'd never heard anyone describe a horse that way. Someone being called a dead gun - I'd never heard that before. And you get people describing their rifles. You know, a rifle can be mighty comprehensive in a situation like that. And so studying other authors to see how they were specific and, you know, deciding how are we going to be specific in this story and sort of - kind of learning, catching it and then making it your own.

GROSS: You had to work with a lot of horses for "Godless." And some of the horses are supposed to be unbroken. And they get broken. They get broken in so that people can ride them. Had you worked with horses before? Had you ever, like, rode a horse before?

FRANK: Yeah. I rode a lot as a kid. But I learned when I started doing "Godless" that I knew nothing about horses (laughter), that I really knew nothing. And Rusty Hendrickson, who's a wrangler who just retired from the business, was, like, a legend and had done everything from "Dances With Wolves" to, say, "Django," you know? He'd been doing all kinds of movies forever. And he said to me very early on, they're not going to do what you want them to do. We're going to train them, and you're not going to get it all in one take. You're going to have to get pieces, and you're going to have to put together these pieces. And you're going to have to sort of chase them a little bit.

Roy - Jack O'Connell spent a lot of time early on working with the wranglers and stunt men to become a better rider. And he was a natural rider. He could already ride a bit. But he's laying - when he lays down those horses in the first episode, he's really doing that. Jeff Daniels as well was a pretty decent rider. And he lays down the horse. He fell a lot. He actually fell a few times and really hurt his arm - broke his wrist and dislocated his wrist rather and broke his hand. And you know - and also he's riding in a full gallop with his hand tucked behind his back and trying to stay...

GROSS: Oh, right because he's supposed to have an amputated arm in the series.

FRANK: ...And staying balanced. And even when he has two arms before when you're flashing back, it's still - he's riding with 40 people behind him. And at one point, his horse veered left and was going to leave him behind (laughter). And Jeff was falling to the right when buried in the gang of men - in the 30, 35 men, there are wranglers and stunt guys that are playing members of the gang, and he has a guy assigned directly to him. And Jeff's - I'm watching on the monitor as Jeff is about to fall off the horse. And out of nowhere, a wrangler rams into his horse on purpose and catches him...


FRANK: ...And grabs hold of Jeff and slows down both their horses and pulls Jeff off his horse. It was - my career was flashing before my eyes. Forget Jeff. Me - I was - (laughter) thought, oh, my God, if I lose Jeff Daniels, that's the end of that. Jeff of course was thinking about falling off the horse in front of 40 people and getting run over by all 40 people.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

FRANK: Yeah. So it's all - I'm joking about it now, but it's very scary. And we were really lucky. Even though we had 40 horses going all the time, very, very little - that was the biggest thing that happened. We were - because Rusty is kind of amazing, and Jeff Dashnaw, the stunt coordinator - all his guys - such good riders. And so I kept waiting for something awful to happen, and nothing ever did just very luckily. But it's difficult.

GROSS: Thank goodness, yeah.

FRANK: And you have horses riding into hotels, too, riding up the stairs.

GROSS: Right, I know.


FRANK: Yeah, and they have to learn how to do that.

GROSS: So it has to be strong. It has to be able to withstand the weight of the horse.

FRANK: Well, we built the hotel just - the hallways are just a little bit wider than you would notice. And, you know, the doorways are just a little bit higher. But we would - we were practicing for months before with a staircase we built outside. And the thing about horses is they can ride up the stairs no problem. They can do it really easily. It's going down. They can't go down, so - because they can't see where their feet are going. So we - after the horse would go up the stairs, in the hotel would be, like, a pit crew that would come in and put down these planks over the stairs so - like gangways from a ship so that the horses could be led back down.

GROSS: We’re listening to my interview with Scott Frank, the creator, writer and director of the Netflix Western series "Godless." It's nominated for 12 Emmys. We'll hear more after a break. And we'll feature an interview with Allison Janney. She is nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the sitcom "Mom." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring interviews with Emmy nominees and people whose shows were nominated. The award ceremony is Monday, September 17. Let's get back to our interview with Scott Frank, the writer and director of the Netflix Western series "Godless." The series is nominated for 12 Emmys, including two for Frank as outstanding director and writer for a limited series, movie or dramatic special. "Godless" is a Western that's an homage to classic Westerns but takes on stories you wouldn't find in those classics, including an interracial romance, a lesbian couple and a town run by women.


GROSS: I have to ask you about the church. I'll remind people the series is called "Godless" because it seems like at times God must be absent with what's going on. But you could tell how important the church is in people's lives. So I guess I'm wondering what religion means to you in terms of the story and also in terms of your life.

FRANK: I think in terms of the story, I felt that it wasn't that - necessarily that God wasn't present for these people. It's that you can't count on God and that Frank calls out the Norwegian settlers in saying, you know, there's no point in counting on God. He's not here. He's not going to look out for you. And that's the truth. There's no God here. And it doesn't necessarily mean that you can't believe in God. But people were using religion even then and forming their religious beliefs for all sorts of reasons - some to rationalize bad behavior, some to help them through the incredible struggle that they were going through in order to move West and then civilize wherever it was they ended up.

And there were stories in all directions at that time. There - you know, the Mountain Meadows massacre, which Frank references was, you know, based on a wagon train from Arkansas that was trying to make its way through Utah and was massacred by some Mormon settlers disguised as Paiutes. And they stole all their belongings. And the way Frank tells it is, I believe, close to what happened. And so those were men of religion behaving badly. And I was very inspired by - when I was reading Sally Denton's book, mountain - "American Massacre," I was reading about all the men who led that massacre and various quotes they had.

And Frank came from that for me because there was - they were using religion in a way that I felt was destructive and, again, to sort of rationalize their own bad behavior, whereas the priest who shows up at La Belle has come just to bring comfort to these poor souls. That's all he wants to do. And he does show up late, but he shows up. And so I think that that for me was - I didn't want to say that all religion is bad. But I did want to say that men use religion in different ways, and they sometimes use it in bad ways.

GROSS: So there's a poem that the preacher reads after he shows up. And it's a beautiful poem. I expected him to be reading from the Bible. And I thought, like, gee, that's not from the Bible, I don't think (laughter). Scott, where does that poem come from?

FRANK: It comes from a Jewish poet in either late 11th century or early 12th century named Yehuda Halevi. And I hope I'm saying that right. And I had stumbled across that poem a year or two after I had completed the feature script for "Godless." And I had been trying to get it made and was having trouble getting it made as a movie. And I just thought, if I ever go back into the script, this would be a great thing to have in the story.

And what I'd really written down on a card was, tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch. That phrase itself was enough for me. And I thought maybe I'll put it on a headstone. I'm not sure how I'm going to use it. But it's such a beautiful phrase. I need to put it somewhere in the story. It just seems so right.

Cut to many years later, and I'm now turning the story into a miniseries. And I'm still not sure where I'm going to use it. But now I've unearthed the entire poem, which is easy to find. And I'm trying to figure out where I'm going to put it. And I realize that I want to use it for one of the funerals that are in the story later in the day. But I don't want anyone to know about it because it's such a powerful poem. Every time I read it, I would get incredibly emotional.

GROSS: It's just such a beautiful poem, yes.

FRANK: It's gorgeous. It's just - it's perfect. And it's one of the best poems about grief and faith and love that I had ever seen. And it's short and just so powerful. So I didn't want to put it in the script because I was worried it would lose all its power once it dropped into the script.

GROSS: You didn't want the actors to see it.

FRANK: I didn't want them to see it. And for many of the actors in the scene, it was their last day of shooting. And they were already raw. (Laughter) And they'd been shooting for quite some time. And just before we started shooting the scene, I got them all together. And I - you know, I said it's our last day, and it's - and I know it's - you know, everybody's going to be so sad. And I said I'm not very good at saying goodbye, so you might not see me at the end of the day - just casually dropping this. And by the end of the conversation, everybody - they were all in tears. Everybody was in tears. And I thought, OK, good.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: And so then we brought everybody to the set. And then this young pastor walks up. And instead of just saying something brief and the scene ends, he begins to recite this poem. And everybody - crew members, actors, (laughter) everybody - just started falling apart as he was reading this poem. And so much of what you see in the scene is from that first take of him just reading that lovely beautiful poem that Yehuda Halevi had written, you know, back in 10-whatever-it-was when he wrote those words.

GROSS: It's a beautiful poem. I want to play the scene where the preacher reads it.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch - a fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be - to be and, oh, to lose - a thing for fools, this, and a holy thing - a holy thing to love, for your life has lived in me. Your laugh once lifted me. Your word was a gift to me. To remember this brings painful joy. Tis a human thing, love - a holy thing to love what death has touched.

GROSS: So that's a poem read out loud in the Netflix series "Godless," written and directed by my guest, Scott Frank. So since "Godless" is a Western, and since I love Westerns and you love Westerns, I'm going to ask you to describe what you love about Westerns that led you to make one.

FRANK: Well, where do we begin (laughter)? I think what I really love about the genre more than anything is that it's - it makes you feel small. You feel so small. It's man in this world where everything around him makes him feel smaller. You - the landscape, the weather, all of it - the circumstances - it all seems insurmountable. You are trying to do something - even just trying to travel 10 miles can be difficult, but you are always reminded of just how insignificant you are.

And creating a world - creating stories in worlds like that, where morality is sort of - is - dovetails with just fundamental notions of survival. Rules are all sort of created out of these notions of, how do we survive in this place, and how can we all last? And how do we trust one another, and do we trust one another?

All those kinds of things - those gray-area character ideas - are in the Western. And coupled with that is this incredibly, for me, beautiful aesthetic - just the - when a Western is well-shot, you can't stop looking. You want to - you can stay in a scene or a composition forever. And you have this gorgeous aesthetic often coupled to this very dark morality tale, and that just appeals to me.

GROSS: Scott Frank, congratulations on "Godless," and thank you so much for talking with us.

FRANK: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Scott Frank is the creator of the Netflix Western series "Godless." It's nominated for 12 Emmys, including two for Frank for outstanding writing and outstanding directing for a limited series, movie or dramatic special. Here's a song from a scene from "Godless."


AUDREY MOORE: (As Sarah Doyle, singing) The Trinidad girl is a haughty thing. If she kisses at all, it's on the wing.

SAMANTHA SOULE: (As Charlotte Temple, singing) The Catskill girl is the one to collar - kisses you good for half a dollar.

MOORE: (As Sarah Doyle, singing) The E'Town girl gives a kiss so sweet...

AUDREY MOORE AND SAMANTHA SOULE: (As Sarah Doyle and Charlotte Temple, singing) The poets all fall down at her feet.

SOULE: (As Charlotte Temple, singing) There's the Red River girls, ah, two for a song...

MOORE AND SOULE: (As Sarah Doyle and Charlotte Temple, singing) ...Kissing for meal tickets all day long. But don't forget the girls of La Belle won't kiss even mama for fear she'll tell.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Sing it.


MOORE: (As Sarah Doyle, singing) The Beaumont girl's from way down South...

MOORE AND SOULE: (As Sarah Doyle and Charlotte Temple, singing) She'll kiss the gold out of your mouth.

SOULE: (As Charlotte Temple, singing) The Sedona girl's not one of us...

MOORE AND SOULE: (As characters, singing) Her kiss is extremely dangerous. The Russian girl's kiss seems a little kinder, but she's got a Russian man behind her.

SOULE: (As Charlotte Temple, singing) The Creole girl is a one-eyed queen...

MOORE AND SOULE: (As Sarah Doyle and Charlotte Temple, singing) With a kiss as addictive as nicotine. And don't forget the girls of La Belle won't kiss even mama…

GROSS: Our Emmy series continues after a break with Allison Janney. She's nominated for an Emmy for her performance in the sitcom "Mom." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMANDA GARDIER'S "FJORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
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