Building a western town from the ground up, teaching actors to gallop and shoot, creating period garb only to coat it in dust… Netflix’s Godless called for round-the-clock commitment by an array of craftspeople and artists.
Early in episode three of Godless, Jeff Daniels careens through an imposing New Mexico canyon on a speeding horse.
As deranged outlaw leader Frank Griffin, he's chasing his adopted son, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), who has betrayed him. Wielding a gun in one hand and reins in the other, Griffin gets shot by Goode and loses control. His horse goes one way, his body the other. As he pitches sideways, two of his masked comrades quickly brace him to prevent a fall.
Thing is, Daniels wasn't faking it — he truly was headed for a mean spill. And those masked men weren't characters; they were stuntmen, who rescued him in the nick of time.
"It's a western," Daniels says dryly. "I wasn't sitting on a ladder pretending to be riding." In fact, on the second-to-last day of shooting, he actually did fall off his horse and broke a wrist. That canyon shot, however, turned out to be a winner. It meshed into the story even better than what was originally planned. A classic Old West saga, Godless stands out for its unexpected characters, glorious panoramic shots and a lingering attention to detail that allows viewers to imagine they can touch, smell and inhabit this world.
"It's very realistic. We did tons of research," says Scott Frank, who wrote, directed and executive-produced the seven-part limited series, now streaming on Netflix. (Steven Soderbergh and Casey Silver also served as executive producers.)
Seeking to recreate the 1880s as closely as possible, the production team, for instance, built an entire Old West town from the ground up. Then they added the dents and scratches and other details that make it feel run-down and lived in, including doors that didn't quite close, frayed clothing and billows upon billows of dust.
"I was obsessive with it," Frank says. "I was constantly adding dust to clothes and dirt to faces." Or he was removing excess props to reinforce how spare and modest the settlers' lifestyle was.
The story was similarly fashioned as a genuine slice of life, saturated with the types of characters who are more often relegated to the sidelines. In a nearby shantytown dubbed Blackton, African Americans who fought in the Civil War now scratch out a living with their families. Crucially, the frontier town of La Belle is populated almost entirely by women who were widowed en masse by a mining disaster.
"There were actual mining towns in Colorado and New Mexico and beyond, where there would be a mining accident and all the able-bodied men would be gone in an afternoon, and all the women would either be stranded or they'd have to pick up and move on," says Frank, who eagerly latched onto that narrative. "It was a story I hadn't seen before."
La Belle is also where Goode takes asylum, on the run from Griffin and his gang. More precisely, Goode arrives near La Belle in the dead of night at a ranch outside of town. Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery) owns the spread, where she lives with her mixed-race son, Truckee (Samuel Marty), and her Paiute mother-in-law, Iyovi (Tantoo Cardinal).
Though she greets Goode with a bullet (it just grazes his neck), she lets him stick around after he demonstrates a knack for taming horses; she owns a pack of wild ones that need to be broken. But since Griffin has basically issued a fatwa against anyone who shelters Goode, a showdown looms.
Griffin and his band of murderous misfits are drawn with degrees of dimension. They act barbarously, but viewers get peeks into the childhood traumas that drive their cruelty. "He is certainly the baddest bad guy that I've ever played," says Daniels, who inhabits his terrifying character — a master manipulator with a messiah-like complex — with a calm, eerie certainty.
"I made the decision not to try to understand him," Daniels says. "I really thought, just chase his insanity. He doesn't know where he's going. One minute he's quoting the Bible, the next second he's putting a bullet in someone's head. Just follow it. Chase it."
Daniels also gets many of the best lines. When Griffin's gang ambushes a train, a traveling dignitary yells out, "What in the good holy hell is going on here? Do you boys have any goddamned idea who I am?" Griffin responds with a bullet. "I know you were Jimmy Sloan," he deadpans to the corpse and several horrified passengers. "And I don't appreciate you using the Lord's name in vain as such."
It's not only actors, however, that shine in this series. Horses and the wranglers who trained them were asked to pull off all kinds of tricks. "It was sizable," Rusty Hendrickson says. A boss wrangler who grew up in Montana in the horse industry, he came aboard early to help determine what horse stunts were possible.
When Frank, for instance, wanted to see a horse clambering up a stairwell with an outlaw on its back, the wranglers slowly but surely trained a horse to do just that. And when Frank wanted to find a unique, cinematic way to demonstrate Goode's special affinity with horses, Hendrickson suggested that Goode appear to be taming them by softly yet firmly making them lie down, in what turned out to be some of the tenderest scenes in the series.
"You didn't break them," says Frank. "You gentled them."
Teaching a horse to respond to a hand command to lie down, however, can take months, as does training one to drop to the ground for shootout scenes. "We go through a lot of horses to find one who will take a fall, where they will stay down and act dead," stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw says. (The horses weren't harmed, and Humane Society reps were always on hand.)
To prepare, the actors attended cowboy camp, where they learned to ride and handle rifles and pistols. Daniels started two months ahead of the others to ensure that he could gallop without fear of being thrown, especially since Griffin undergoes an arm amputation and Daniels has to ride one-armed for most of the story.
"It was a pain in the ass," Frank says, referring to hiding Daniels's actual arm underneath his costumes. Sometimes they'd secure it in front and sometimes in back, depending on the angle of the shot. "But there was always a bump that we had to remove digitally."
Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays young deputy Whitey Winn, quickly mastered the cowboy tradition of spinning a pistol around a trigger finger, even triple-and quadruple-spinning his revolvers. "He was unbelievable," Dashnaw says, recalling with amusement when he'd gather a group together for spinning lessons. "You can see 40 grown men on horses spinning guns like little kids," he chuckles. "Everybody gets into it."
"I was not at all familiar with it," says Merritt Wever, the born-and-bred Manhattanite who plays Mary Agnes McNue, one of La Belle's widows. Not having watched many westerns, much less handled a weapon, Wever began drilling herself to shoot a rifle at every opportunity, she says, "until I could depend on it."
McNue, viewers soon discover, came out of the closet in the wake of her husband's mining death. She took up with a brothel worker–turned–schoolteacher (Tess Frazer as Callie Dunne) and became a de facto town leader.
"I worried I wouldn't be believable," says Wever, who previously played a bubbly nurse on Showtime's Nurse Jackie. However, costume designer Betsy Heimann fortified McNue by garbing her in men's pants, suspenders, boots and a no-nonsense cowboy hat — her dead husband's wardrobe. Once Wever buckled on a gun belt, she instinctively found herself walking differently. "You have to take up space," she says.
All the costumes in Godless are period-specific — either found or designed by Heimann, who once worked with Luster Bayless, a legendary costumer for John Wayne westerns. Basing many details on old photos, she defined each principal character with a distinctive look.
Fletcher, for instance, is a rancher, so Dockery's outfits are functional. She wears overalls. The worn leather belt around her waist is an actual vintage piece. "I loved to think of who wore it before," Dockery says. The costumes' colors are consistent with the sets' muted tones, which were all chosen to evoke a feeling of the past. Frank says the "rigorous palette" included greens, browns and burnt oranges — "not too cheerful or colorful."
Besides constructing La Belle, the set designers built the more rudimentary Blackton, as well as Fletcher's ranch. Director of photography Steven Meizler weighed in on set design to ensure that he could block shots to his liking.
For instance, he requested a window be placed in Fletcher's house that overlooked the vast, empty swath of land surrounding her home — so she could see, and he could shoot, any approaching visitors. He similarly needed a window cut into the jail cell so he could shoot the scene where Sheriff McNue (Scoot McNairy, as Mary Agnes's brother) gets mocked for fumbling his pistols while trying to deal with some troublemakers outside. (He's losing his eyesight but trying to keep it a secret.)
"We had little models built for that reason," Meizler says. Before production began, he watched hundreds of westerns to absorb the classic aesthetic. "It is the land of the rattlesnake and locust. It was very tough to survive there," he says. Meizler wanted, more than anything, to make viewers feel the struggles settlers faced in trying to start life anew under that wide-open sky and harsh high-desert climate.
The crew got a taste of how rough things could be when dry thunderstorms — the main cause of western wildfires — would blow in. "One of the most challenging things was the weather," Meizler says. "If there was lightning within a mile of the production, we had to shut down."
He and Frank also risked going quite dark in some scenes to evoke how a pitch-black sky would have enveloped homesteaders on a moonless night. When shooting those deeply shadowy takes, Frank says, "I used to make a joke: 'The next sound you hear is a million TV sets being turned off.'"
Widowed twice and ostracized by most of the townsfolk, Dockery's Fletcher has become a creature of her austere world. She doesn't mince words. When she tells Goode to "declare yourself or I'll shoot," she isn't kidding. Nor is she given to smiling. "The less I could do, the better," says Dockery, who recognized her character immediately upon reading the script. "I had a feeling that I knew her."
She auditioned almost hastily by videotape. But, Frank says, once he saw her interpretation, he couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. Although Dockery had ridden plenty of horses side-saddle as stoic Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, for Godless she had to ride western style, holding the reins in one hand and a rifle in the other. That took some getting used to. So did the shooting, for which she prepared with arm exercises; she wanted to hoist heavy rifles with ease.
Dashnaw says all of the actors "were unbelievably dedicated." But of course, it's stunt riders who take the actual falls during shootouts. "These guys have to have ridden horses their entire life," he says, to make those falls look realistic. "If it looks fakey or like you caught yourself," he says, they brush themselves off, get back on and keep trying till they get it right.
Daniels was also thankful for them. "One of the reasons you look so good is because of the stunt people. I was constantly amazed at what these men and women were doing around me. Why they weren't hurt, I don't know. The only one who was hurt at the end of the day was me."
Even though he trained for months, nothing prepared Daniels for bolting down that canyon in a herd of 30 horses and parting ways with his horse in the middle of a full gallop. Everything amps up in that situation, he explains, "because the horses all think it's the Kentucky Derby and they all want to finish first.
"Usually, people who say, 'I'd love to do a western,' are actors who've never done one," Daniels says, laughing. "It's just the danger of the horse," he quickly adds. "If you can survive that, you'll be okay."
Perspectives from the Posse
"Not often do production designers have the opportunity to design and build a classic western mining town and its surrounding world completely from the ground up. One of the most compelling scenes required the hotel to be large enough to host a gun battle on horseback in its interior, yet keep it in proportion with the rest of the town's buildings. Therefore, we made all the other buildings taller, with interior spaces featuring lofty ceilings and long vertical windows. The end product was a town with a believable and harmonious scale."
"We wanted to show the hardship of living in the west, but still embrace the realism of a town run by women. The cabins in La Belle, for example, may look the same on the outside, but the interiors reflect each character's station in this hard frontier life. For the German woman [Christiane Seidel as Martha], who was a bohemian, we brought together a cornucopia of oddities from around the world. For Alice [Michelle Dockery], who was constantly on the brink of failure, everything in her house had a purpose."
SUPERVISING ART DIRECTOR
"My background as a professional architect prepared me for our challenge to design and build a complete western town from scratch under an aggressive schedule of just 10 weeks. My expertise and instincts with texture, color, tone and architectural building types from the late 1800s were invaluable in bringing design integrity and authenticity to the town of La Belle and the other sets."
"It was a collaborative effort from everyone in the art department to make the sets as perfect and period-correct as possible. I found the stage sets the most challenging: the mine shaft, the interior hotel, the well and a couple of interior shacks. What I enjoyed most was turning an entire soundstage into a forest complete with creek bed."
"Each of the characters was specific in their own way, but it was especially rewarding to get to cast Merritt Wever, an actress I have known for many years, in a role that is so unlike who she is and watch her bring Mary Agnes to life. I think Jeff Daniels is an actor at the top of his game and we were lucky to cast him in the role of Frank Griffin."
CARLOS RAFAEL RIVERA
"Scott Frank and I have a somewhat unusual approach in which he will send me the screenplay during pre-production and I will score the written word, not the picture. What's really cool about this is getting to be a part of the storytelling at an early stage, helping to set the tone while discovering our way into some of the set pieces and characters."
"Under Carlos Barbosa's direction, I developed elevations, floor plans and 3D computer study models for the La Belle saloon and the Creede train depot, two key visual elements in the series. Researching and detailing the buildings true to the materials and architecture of the period was critical in communicating mood and sense of place while supporting the storyline and action."
"Having only one director [Scott Frank] and one editor for the entire series, we chose to approach this series not as a typical seven-episode series, but as a seven-and-a-half-hour feature film. The way you see it isn't exactly as it was written or shot. We moved flashbacks across episodes. We lifted entire storylines."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018