Every western has a big shootout as its climax, and Netflix’s new limited series Godless is no different.
What is different, though, is the breathtaking scope of the shootout. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his gang of outlaws ride into the town of La Belle hunting their former associate Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell).
But the women of La Belle, led by Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever) and Alice (Michelle Dockery), are armed, ready, and hunkered down in the hotel.
What follows is what can best be described as “elegant chaos,” as bullets go flying, horses ride up the stairs of the hotel, Alice and Mary Agnes pick off outlaws from the roof, and fires rage across town. Toward the end, Roy and sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy) show up to help finish off the outlaws.
Yahoo Entertainment talked with creator-writer-director Scott Frank and Emmy winner Wever to find out how it came together.
Scott Frank: The scene was pretty detailed in the script. I read so many western stories that I’m certain I borrowed from each and every one of them. As I began to write and I began to tell the story of the hotel, I realized everything was going to be centered around that hotel.
Merritt Wever: I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a sequence like that. I didn’t have any understanding of how it would be done. I also saw quickly that it wouldn’t be shot until the end of the shoot, because they burn down the town.
Frank: When you come to the shootout, I didn’t want it to be a lot of people you didn’t know. I tried hard in the course of the series for you to get to know as many people’s faces from the town as possible, so when you saw them hiding in that hotel and fighting for their lives, they were real characters and not just background players. I wanted you to feel all through the story that anything could happen to anyone at any time.
Frank: We literally taped out the first floor of the hotel on the giant soundstage and began working it out with [stunt coordinator] Jeff Dashnow and Rusty Hendrickson, the [horse] wrangler. We began to work out how everything was going to play out inside that hotel, beat for beat. And, of course, it expanded as we did. We just kept running it, rehearsing it. We had the first floor taped out, we had the second floor taped out, and we had the roof taped out.
And then we began a very long process of storyboarding and going through all the storyboards carefully thinking about every single shot we needed to get. We had to plan it because horses were involved — horses were riding up the stairs — so they had to be trained well before we started shooting.
Once we had a very complete list of storyboards and knew how we were going to shoot it, we began to organize those storyboards and think about in what order we were going to film it. That was really difficult, figuring out how we can capture all of that on film.
Wever: I had it so easy comparatively. It was probably really challenging for the technical people on their end. It was easier than a lot of the scenes, for me anyway.
Wever: I didn’t realize until I got there that I had one of the best gigs in the battle, because Michelle [Dockery] and I are on a roof, literally above the fray, the whole time. So we’re looking down on the gang on their horses for hours, in the middle of just the worst dust being blown around and being kicked up by the horses. And we were up on this roof against this beautiful sky, just looking down on it. I had all this nice quality time with [Michelle]. She’s so lovely and warm. It doesn’t occur to you when you read a script what the actual shooting conditions are going to be.
Frank: We spent about $4 million building the town. The hotel was designed to accommodate all the horse work — the hallways were slightly wider, the ceilings were slightly higher, so that the horses could fit. And then we built a mockup of the roof against a hillside backdrop, because the horse couldn’t ride up onto the roof; it wasn’t safe.
Wever: Almost everything Michelle and I did was shot on the real roof in the real building, but part of it was shot on a small roof that was built specifically for the shot. That’s all I remember, that we had to fake something. Probably [for] the horse, since it obviously can’t [gallop, stop, and throw a man off] the real roof. But it was extensive and fancy — the fanciest thing I’ve ever been around.
Frank: The horses were the biggest challenge all the way through, not just in the shootout. We have a lot of scenes where people are taming horses, learning how to ride horses, and it takes a lot of patience. The horses in the shootout: There’s a lot of gunfire going on around them, they’re riding inside of buildings. It’s very tricky. We rehearsed it all.
The horses could go up the stairs, but they weren’t trained to go down the stairs — they didn’t know how to walk down. So after every take where they would go up, we would quickly have a pit crew come in and put in these special boards over these stairs so they could walk down these ramps. In some cases on some levels, there was a hidden door in the back, so when the horse went up the stairs, we could pull the wall and they could go right out the back, right down a ramp outside again.
Wever: There’s a shot in the beginning where I shoot one of the Devlin brothers off his horse. I remember practicing my movement over and over. I don’t know if it ended up in the final cut, but the shot went from me spinning backwards to seeing the stunt person pulled off his horse. And I was so scared s***less that I would mess up and require somebody to get dragged backwards by a rope off a horse again. I didn’t want that shame.
Structuring the shootout
Frank: What I didn’t want to do — for lack of a better expression — is neuter these women that I just spent all this time empowering. Everybody you think is going to help them doesn’t. So for a good long time, these women are giving it back to Frank and his men. That was very important for me to show that, to show that they’re just as afraid as many might be in that situation, but also that they’re just as brave in that situation.
When Roy and Bill show up, it’s very important to me that it’s a different chapter. They don’t save anybody. The women have been defending themselves. The women have been doing just fine. They enter a battle, and they don’t turn the tide of that battle. And the Roy/Frank moment happens separate from that. I didn’t want to muddy that whole feeling of the fight with the two of them.
The “elegant chaos” of the scene
Frank: That’s what the landscape is — elegant chaos. The shootout is full of dust and fire, and you wanted to have those kind of big western moments: the guys facing each other, the guys in silhouette. But at the same time, you wanted it to feel real and urgent and unpredictable.
The cutting room
Frank: We actually shot a lot that we didn’t use, that we didn’t need, that we storyboarded. [The scene] is already a 20-minute bit of business, and it was almost longer — almost a half-hour. There was so much happening. Every gang member you knew had their moment of death. There was a little more business down in the mine.
I liked all of it, but it just felt shapeless and long. So we discovered some new ideas as we went, but we also realized we didn’t need as much as we had.
The lighter moments
Frank: Watching horses go to the bathroom inside the hotel, stuck up on the second floor waiting while we put the ramp in to take them down and … whoops! In the middle of the fancy parlor, there they go. It was a very strange sight to see a horse inside this beautiful hotel.
Wever: This won’t sound funny to anyone who wasn’t there, but I think I laughed the hardest I laughed in 2016 on that roof. I’m playing this tough character and I’m trying not to embarrass myself, and then Michelle looked around and saw me — I think for lunch I had steamed asparagus, and the wind up there was so strong, it all started rolling off my plate. She turned around and caught me holding my hat in one hand and then running after a really limp, flaccid piece of asparagus, so it didn’t roll off the roof onto one of the Griffin gang actors. I laughed about it for days.
Godless is now streaming on Netflix.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: