When Scott Frank finished writing "Minority Report" in 2002, he dropped a show biz bombshell that took 15 years to detonate. "I remember telling my poor agent at the time, 'I'm going to write an original on spec,' and she said, 'Anything, as long as it's not a western,’" Frank recalls. "I just laughed."
Frank's speaking from his Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River, which is about as close as he got to the wild west before creating "Godless." The long-gestating Netflix miniseries, set in 1880s-era New Mexico, centers on plucky rancher Alice (Michelle Dockery), strong and silent Roy (Jack O'Connell), one-armed Mormon outlaw Frank (Jeff Daniels) and sharp-shooting lesbian widow Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever).
Thick with subplots, richly detailed secondary characters and sprawling landscapes, the seven-episode "Godless" revels in its archetypes. "I wanted to include every western cliché I could think of," says Frank. "I wanted to write a gun scene. I wanted to write a scene where somebody's trying to break a horse. I wanted a hanging, a train robbery, the soap opera of a mining town. I wanted to do all the things I love about westerns without making them feel stale."
The only problem: Frank, who made his screenwriting reputation in the '90s adapting Elmore Leonard's snappy crime stories "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," knew next to nothing about western lore other than what he'd absorbed from decades of movie-watching. In search of fresh story material, Frank spent two years reading western novels, among them Pete Dexter’s “Deadwood” and the 1902 classic “The Virginian.” “I loved the way they described things, the way people talked about the parts of the horse, the parts of their boots or spurs," Frank says. "I was on the make for the telling detail."
Pioneer letters archived at UCLA Research Library also informed the "Godless" saga. "The flash flood Alice talks about in 'Godless' came from this fascinating oral history I read where someone described what it was like to be in the middle of a flash flood. I thought, 'Oh, we should have a flash flood in 'Godless!' "
And villain Frank Griffin's grandiloquent, scripture-misquoting rhetoric owed its distinctive cadences to 19th century Mormon writings that Frank uncovered. He says, "Back then, people spoke with this mixture of formality and the roughest grammar imaginable, sometimes in the same sentence."
Frank completed "Godless" as a feature script in 2004 but failed to find any takers for his old-school yarn. "One of my studio friends told me, 'You're answering a question that nobody's asking.'" Even Frank's buddy Steven Soderbergh passed on it. "I'd written 'Out of Sight' for Steven so he was the first one I showed 'Godless' to," Frank recalls. "He said, 'I love this, but I'm afraid of horses.' Steven wasn't going to be the guy. After that, 'Godless' languished for a long time."
Frank moved on to direct his own script for "The Lookout" and later earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine swan song "Logan." Finally, in 2016, Netflix hired Frank to make an expanded version of "Godless." Working with his longtime producer Casey Silver, Frank seized the opportunity to go long-form. He says, "At movie test screenings they ask 'What's the slowest part for you?' and people say, 'The beginning!’ They don't ask 'Were you bored?' They say, 'Was it slow?' And somehow, slow is bad. But the way I see it, the more you invest in the characters, the more payoff there is at the end. It was easy to expand 'Godless' because I had all these ideas in my head that I couldn't follow through on as a feature."
Now at work on the Cold War chess saga "The Queen's Gambit," Frank looks back at his immersion in the American western as a bracing exercise in myth-making traditions. "As much as we look to the future or to fantasy realms for entertainment, people still like to visit the romantic vision of the west," he says. "What would it have been like to live in a world where the natural environment is a constant antagonist, where you have to carry a gun, where you struggle to grow food and have to travel great expanses on foot or by horseback? I think westerns are part of who we are as a people because you've got that element of ‘There but for the grace of God might have gone I.’”