Emmys: 'Godless' Producer on Why the Series Didn't Work as a Feature

Ursula Coyote/Netflix

Casey Silver dishes on transitioning the Western from big screen to small and how his producing partner Steven Soderbergh helped get it to the finish line.

Godless took a lot of faith to get to the screen. Screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Logan) originally envisioned an epic feature film employing classic iconography of the American Western — just as that genre was experiencing one of its falling-out-of-favor cycles in Hollywood. But Frank and producing partners Steven Soderbergh and Casey Silver (who had collaborated on 1998's Out of Sight) persisted for more than a decade, finding a home for their story — about a group of widows defending their mining town — in the wide-open vistas of streaming content at Netflix (the series, which stars Michelle Dockery and Jeff Daniels, earned 12 nominations).

"The entire thing stands on Scott's shoulders," says Silver, who spoke with THR about transitioning the story from big screen to small and how Soderbergh helped carry it to the finish line.

How did Godless first come about, and why didn't it work as a feature?

Scott came to me 15 years ago saying he wanted to write a Western. When the screenplay was finished, we had a terrific movie script — that was 160-plus pages long. We asked our pal Steven Soderbergh if he'd be interested in directing. Steven loved the script but didn't want to work with horses. That was the end of that idea. Thus began a very long and somewhat tortured process of Scott and I trying to get the movie financed. After years and years of trotting it through Hollywood and continually getting turned down because it was a Western, or it was too long or whatever, Soderbergh suggested that we consider trying to make it for television. Cindy Holland [vp content acquisition] at Netflix read Scott's script and committed to make the show on the strength of the original screenplay with the proviso that we expand it to six hours and become Netflix's first original limited series. After wandering through the Hollywood movie jungle for more than a decade, Steven's advice and Cindy's belief finally got us to the starting gate.

What was the process like for expanding the script to seven episodes?

As Scott was writing to expand the original screenplay, we were simultaneously scouting locations, building the town, beginning casting with Ellen Lewis and generally preparing the show — kind of like laying the railroad track as the train is bearing down behind you. Ironically, where we had killed ourselves previously trying to boil a long screenplay down to its essence for a movie, this time Scott had little time to write — yet had twice the screen time to more deeply explore his characters and story. I was impressed by Scott's dry palms when things got hot. Not a small thing.

Were there specific ways that you and Soderbergh were able to help support Scott during the process of making the series?

Steven recommended our cinematographer, Steven Meizler. The scope and ambition for the show was beyond anything Scott had attempted. It was like making three movies with one director and crew. On a show of this size, with giant set pieces and intimate dramatic moments, with a director who wrote a vivid and descriptive script that he somehow envisioned, Soderbergh's recommendation of Meizler was essential to making the show what it is. Not to mention the fact that it's marginally better than a poke in the eye to have Steven around for post.

 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.