Netflix’s Godless is a Western anthology series that embraces the myriad cliches, tropes, and conventions of the genre, yet still comes across as something totally fresh and dynamic. The show is often wildly inventive and disarming, reflecting its creator, Scott Frank — a veteran Hollywood director, writer, and producer. Frank screenwriting career is easily the envy of any filmmaker, including Logan, Out of Sight, Minority Report, and Get Shorty, to name but a few of his amazing scripts. He’s also directed The Lookout and A Walk Among the Tombstones.
Much like Netflix’s other recent, original series — Stranger Things, The Crown, and Ozark — Godless is the work of a singular, focused vision (Frank wrote, directed, and produced). Strangely, there’s little indication in Frank’s resume to suggest he had a Western in him, though one could argue that Logan is very much an Old West tale of frontier justice and badlands morality. Godless is no Logan, however; the series focuses upon more than a dozen major characters and plotlines during its seven-episode run.
Godless is unexpectedly focuses on a single, remote mining town and its vulnerable residents, rather than your typical white hat vs black hat showdown — though blazing six-shooters and repeating rifles frequently punctuate the proceedings. Godless often evokes HBO’s Deadwood, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and maybe even a bit of the Coen’s remake of True Grit with its bizarre characters, profanity, violence — constant tension and long, quiet pauses are the series’ hallmarks. Frank’s overlapping narrative also delivers complex characters with nuanced backstories; each episode presents a focused, stand-alone tale that builds toward a unified ending, and is presented via multiple points of view.
SlashFilm recently interviewed Frank about Godless; he describes the pre-production process of scouting the huge, sprawling vistas of the American Southwest:
Well, it’s a lot of finding the right location. Because there’s a lot of shooting in the right spots. Pre-production was, aside from building the town, because the town, obviously, is 60 percent of the show… For the most part, anywhere you point a camera in a lot of New Mexico, it’s gorgeous… You want the light to be a big part of it, and that was also a big challenge. It’s what, again, what creates that sort of, that sense of size and vastness, and land that goes on forever.”
Godless is essentially one long movie, akin to series like Stranger Things, rather than Netflix’s more serialized shows like Daredevil or Luke Cage. Frank wrote and directed each episode of Godless, rather than share duties with others:
It was 120 day shooting schedule, so we were shooting it just like a long movie, basically like a seven hour movie. It was scheduled and boarded that way. It wasn’t like a normal TV series where you’re delivering an episode at a time. We shot all of it and then began cutting… Because we were shooting it and then doing a very separate post-production, I didn’t want to give it up to anybody else, it just didn’t make sense. I thought it was much easier just for me to stay with it and do all of it. I think you’re seeing that more and more now.”
Surprisingly, Godless was originally intended as a feature film, but none of the major studios would touch it. Frank explains the studio’s reticence:
The genre. I would be told over and over again that, ‘We really like this story, but westerns don’t travel. They don’t do well overseas, and this is kind of a big one and it would cost a lot of money. If you could make it for $20 million instead of $40 million, which is what the feature would have cost, maybe even more, you might have a shot.’ It was just, it was a tricky sell because the genre just wasn’t in vogue when I wrote it back in 2004.”
Frank concludes the interview by talking about what he learned while making Godless:
I think about, the biggest thing I think on that movie was I had confidence as a writer, and I had confidence in the story. I didn’t have confidence as a director, and I think every scene, I was trying to prove something. I was over-complicating it a lot of the time. Then, when I got into the cutting room, I would un-complicate it. There, for me, on The Lookout, I was treating each scene almost like its own short story for a lot of it.”
Filmmaking is a collaborative, high-pressure, high-stakes endeavor — it’s why so many movies stick to safe, tested formulas. By contrast, many creators regularly praise Netflix for the freedom, patience, and support they’re shown. Obviously, no studio is going to make a 7-hour Western, but even an abridged version must still appeal to a global audience.
Projects like Godless reinforce that Netflix serves a different kind of audience, and it’s exciting to see what an accomplished filmmaker, like Scott Frank, can do when given the means to see their vision through to fruition.
Godless is now streaming on Netflix.