Admit it. You saw the ads. Fargo is a TV series now
? How is
that supposed to work
Of course, if the films of the Coen Brothers
have taught us anything, it’s that the universe indeed works in mysterious and
unlikely ways. And true to form, here we are. Multiple Emmys and Producers
Guild Awards later, FX can proudly show off the unlikeliest adaptation in
recent memory, a reboot of a story that was never intended to be a franchise,
and arguably the best show on television.
In this magazine, we talk about "vision” a lot, often enough that we
worry that the word starts to lose its meaning. But we don’t know what else to
call it, other than pure creative vision, to plunge into a singularly
self-contained feature film and find an entire TV universe inside. In this
case, the vision belongs to a gentleman named Noah Hawley.
Regular Produced By readers
know that TV showrunners come from all walks of life. Noah Hawley can chart the
progression from musician (struggling) to novelist (well regarded) to
screenwriter (successful). His career in
television provided him with essential resources at every stage: a year writing
for Bones to learn the craft; a first series, The Unusuals, which aired only 10 episodes, but gave him the opportunity to
create and run a show; a second series, My Generation, also
one-season-and-out, paired him with TV veteran Warren Littlefield, who’s served
as his right-hand producing partner ever since. It was Littlefield who first
sparked to Fargo, and sensed what Hawley could do with the
story. The rest, well, that’s history, you betcha.
Produced By editor
Chris Green caught up with Noah Hawley while the producer was busy on location
in Vancouver. Kindly carving out an hour before the production day got rolling,
Hawley proved more than ready to dig into the nitty-gritty of producing
television in general and Fargo in particular, whether discussing how to
handle network notes, his approach to creating tension through the use of
music, or the privilege of enlarging upon the pitiless but humane spirit of a
Coen Brothers classic.
Not every writer becomes a producer or a showrunner. How did that
process unfold for you?
At one point I was between books, so I wrote
a script that I sold in a pitch. Paramount had optioned my first book, so I
ended up adapting that as well. Basically, within six months, I had three
feature deals, which was a huge left turn from writing fiction. And then at a
certain point—because my motto is "What else can I get away with?”—I started
talking to the TV reps at ICM. Out of those two meetings came two pilot deals:
one at CBS and one at FX. I soon realized that if any of those shows ever got
picked up, I should know how to produce television, right? So I came to LA and
did some staffing interviews and went to work on the first season of Bones with Hart Hanson, because he told me I would
learn how to produce on the show.
Right. So as part of your first encounters with the industrial mechanism
of making TV, how did Hart help acclimate you?
Hart was a great mentor because he taught me that there’s a
process to this, to being entrusted with a huge sum of money to make something
for a large audience, and then to still try to make something that reflects
your artistic drive. I think Hart’s style played into my natural inclination as
well. I’m not a battler. You rarely win in the long run by fighting every
single thing. Hart sort of taught me how to "manage up,” if you know what I
mean. I think the thing that most writers don’t realize is often half of your
time as a showrunner is spent managing network and studio notes, which is way,
way, way too much time to spend when you have a show to make. So the key is:
How do you do that in a way that allows you to get what you want while making
them feel like they’re getting what they want? A lot of it is figuring out what
does the note really mean? A note is often a symptom, a referring pain. They
think that they don’t like this scene, but really it’s because something
earlier wasn’t set up properly. They often aren’t experts at diagnosing the
problem. They just feel the pain. I mean, a useful note is "This is confusing.”
or "I know what you’re going for here, but I don’t think you got there.” A note
is not "I would do it differently.” That’s not a note. But rarely is the best
response to stamp your feet and yell. Sometimes the right solution is not to
engage with the note. You see how serious it is. If they keep bringing it up,
you can address it down the line if you have to.
When I was doing My Generation, we had
a scene where Mehcad Brooks’ character was stationed in Afghanistan. He’d been
shot at earlier in the hour, but he was telling his wife he was coming home ...
no matter what they threw at him, he was gonna come home.
|Noah Hawley (right) on location for "Fargo" with cast member Angus Sampson|
I’m a big fan of catharsis, that idea that you
can build emotionally to a release. So for that moment I picked this song that
worked perfectly, because it starts [as one thing] and it builds into [another
thing]. Paul Lee’s note came back that the song wasn’t right, that it was too
sad. I was confused. I mean, it’s not a sad song. It has this driving,
uplifting part. So I went around and around with them about how A) it’s the
perfect song and B) like, why do you even care? Why does it even matter, on
some level, what the last song of the second episode is? It’s not like you’re
going to have a massive groundswell of audience leaving or arriving based upon
that piece of the thing. But I was determined to get what I wanted.
Now, in the very beginning
of the song, when it’s quiet and more emotional, the singer is singing the
words, "I’m sorry.” And I finally realized that it was just those words—"I’m
sorry”—at the beginning, that were establishing a tone I didn’t intend. That
was where the note came from.
So I had the composer put a piece of score in
the beginning to replace that early part of the song, and then it built into
the second half of the song, and the score was sort of no less emotional but it
just didn’t have those words in it. I even sent an email to Paul, including the
lyrics to the song, and showing how positive they were. And I got to use it. On
some level, it felt like a complete waste of my time—literally hours and hours
that were spent analyzing the problem and figuring out how to address it. But
it was important to me and so I did it. Every season has hundreds of examples
If you don’t get what you want, it’s your
fault, on some level. Sometimes they’ll never give in, and it’s a losing
battle. But I start from the assumption that there is a creative solution. I
just haven’t thought of it yet.
how did Fargo come about? How did this 20-year-old movie, fondly
remembered, but without a lot of common currency, get turned into award-winning
Well, MGM had just come back
from the ashes one more time. Warren Littlefield had been looking at their
library and Fargo was a property that had some possibilities.
It was interesting to me, but it just didn’t feel like broadcast was the place
to do it. You’d just end up making Picket Fences, which is
fine, but it’s not what the movie was. So it sort of went dormant and I kind of
forgot about it until Warren told me that it had been set up at FX with no
writer. I just happened to be going into FX the same week about another
project. And so the discussion turned to well, how would I turn Fargo
into a TV show?
And I said, "Well, it’s not a TV show for a couple of
very clear reasons.” I mean, one of which being it’s this crazy and violent and
very odd case at the end of which Frances McDormand gets into bed and tomorrow
is gonna be a normal day. That’s her reward. And the reason that we watched
that movie is because that was the one case in her whole career that was that
bad. And if she woke up tomorrow—the start of the next episode—and there was
another crazy Coen Brothers case, A) you couldn’t call it a true story anymore
and B) it would start to become ungrounded and less believable.
Why is the movie called Fargo, after all? It’s set in
Minnesota. Only the first scene of the movie is set in North Dakota, and yet
the movie is called Fargo because the word itself is evocative of a
place, this northern frontier. As Joel and Ethan said, it’s Siberia with family
restaurants. It’s where you can have the Swedish meatballs at the buffet and
then freeze to death in the parking lot.
So what if Fargo was also a type of true crime case where
truth is stranger than fiction? An anthology series works perfectly in that
world because it’s the sensibility that remains but the story changes.
How receptive was FX to an anthology series?
The first season of American Horror Story had done well for them, so
they were open to it. What I like about FX is that "Fearless” isn’t just their
brand; they legitimately want to take risks and break new ground. If you’re
trying to differentiate yourself from the whatever, 52 other broadcasters or
outlets, you can only define yourself by the quality of your programming. So,
yeah, they were very receptive.
So how did you approach turning
that pitch into a story that lived and breathed on its own accord?
That’s the challenge of it, right? It’s not that they asked me to
remake the movie or make a sequel to the movie. It’s like they said, "Here’s a
painting of a city. We want you to paint the same city but with different
buildings.” You know what I mean? None of the characters are the same, and it’s
not the same story. So what is it? It’s something that has the same feeling to
it, but what is that? So, on some level I had to distill what it was that made
that movie, that movie.
How did you answer that for yourself?
It’s sort of not "articulate-able.” A lot of it is instinctual.
Knowing that Joel and Ethan were very happy with the script was very
encouraging. Having their work as a model gave me a certain leeway that I could
say, "Well, look. It’s not that I want a 10-minute parable
sequence in Episode 5 but, I mean, it’s a Coen Brothers movie, right?” There’s
certainly precedent there. At the same time, it’s not about idiosyncratic
choices just for their own sake. It’s about internalizing that there’s no such
thing as melodrama in a Coen Brothers movie. You never have a moment of purple
melodrama. And yet, in their best films, there’s still emotion. I mean, look at
Fargo. In the end, there’s a sense of human dignity
and beauty that comes through even though they never once tried to play to the
audience’s emotions. So then the question becomes: How do you effectuate that?
From a filmmaking standpoint, you have to figure out, how does the camera move?
How are we lighting? Editorially, how are we putting this thing together? On a
production level, I’ve always taken pride in creating an environment for the
artists that feels supportive and where everyone knows that we’re all going to
do our best work and then go home to our families.
Well, there’s "doing your best work” and "doing your best work while on
location in a frozen wasteland.”
It was well below zero for most of our
production calendar. There’s very little stage work on Fargo. It’s not a TV show where you have a lot of
standing sets and you keep going back to them. So we’re out most days. And
there’s a lot of story to move through, so it’s this constant jigsaw puzzle. We
had to figure out how to do that the first time, and then the second time I
went ahead and made it bigger with more moving pieces and more locations. I
think we had three extra days or an extra week added on to our production
calendar, but not a lot. Most problems you can solve one way or another if you
put your head to it the right way. I think that Colin Bucksey won an Emmy for
Episode 6 of our first season, which was the blizzard episode, with two huge
action sequences in it. Of course, it was sunny for most of that blizzard so
that entire blizzard is just special effects, which is a testament to John
Ross, our VFX artist.
It’s like a military operation on some level.
What it comes down to is having the confidence in your prepping and planning. I
choose every extra. I’m involved in every decision that gets made on the show.
I sit with every department and have a sense of how everything looks and how it
all works. We encourage all of our directors to storyboard the bigger
sequences. If you know what you’re looking for, and you know when you’ve got
it, you can make good time. But you have to know.
And not only do you have to know… your team needs to know as well. I know
that producers give tremendous thought to "casting” the crew and department
heads. What was that process like for you?
Well, it’s tough. We got lucky in some places, and in other places
we had to make real adjustments. You come across a certain attitude sometimes,
often among groups where people are accustomed to doing low-budget things.
There’s a sort of "good enough is good enough” attitude, right? "It’s just a
chair, what does it matter?” You know what I mean?
Basically, you’ve got to weed that right out.
You’ve got to tell people, "I want your best ideas. I want your most creative
ideas. This isn’t that show where ‘good enough is good enough.’ This is the
show you’ve been dreaming about working on, where you finally get to express yourself
as an artist.” At a certain point you realize that some people want that, and
other people just want to punch in and punch out. And so you have to weed that
out. So I’m not precious about that. That’s not to say you fire people
capriciously. You give people a chance to do their best work. But if they
can’t, you’ve got to make a change.
Right. That feels like AN even more demanding mandate on this particular
show, which comes out of a specific authorial voice that everyone is already
familiar with. It’s not like you have the luxury of making up your voice as you
|Noah Hawley on the set of "Fargo" with cast members Colin Hanks (seated left)|
and Allison Tolman (seated right)
Certainly, we have these sort of rules that
we go through. There’s stuff that you don’t see in Joel and Ethan’s movies.
They don’t pull focus between a foreground actor and a background actor. You’re
going to either cut to a different shot to highlight that actor or you’re going
to let the actor be out of focus. The camera moves on the track in very
traditional ways. They very rarely use steadicam. They certainly don’t use
handheld. In general, it’s a pretty classic approach to filmmaking
This year I think I asserted a slightly more
aggressive style because I felt like it suited the period and the material—a
little more fast-pushing our dolly out in some places, that kind of thing. But
I understand my responsibility to Joel and Ethan and their work, and it’s an
honor to get to speak their language.
given the critical and audience response, whatever expansion the second
season represents seems to have worked for everybody. How did you approach
doing something that continues the emotional, thematic thread that the movie
and the first season have started, but widens the scope?
You can’t be afraid to throw it all out and
start again. I like to joke that the first bad idea was to make the show in the
first place, and the second bad idea was, once it worked, to throw it out and
start again. The minute that you know you’re making terrible decisions, you’re
just sort of liberated [laughs]. But what I have that a lot of other
people don’t have is a canon of films that I can refer to. Not that Joel and
Ethan have mined every nuance of every story, but all of their films are
reference points for me. There are dynamics or themes that occur in their work
that suggest a good jumping off point.
What I’ve found is
there’s usually a catalytic event. In the movie Fargo it was that a guy hired these people to
kidnap his wife. In my first season, it was a man who had been bullied by
everybody ends up in the emergency room sitting next to another man, who’s very
much his opposite. Where do you go from there? In the second season, it was a
woman who ran someone down and then drove home with the guy sticking out of her
windshield and started dinner. And then you think, well, that feels like the
right story, the right tone, so now what? I felt like I could build a story
around that. What does that story want to be?
musically, once we started editing, I realized I couldn’t put any of our music
from the first season into this second season, because they’re totally
different stories. In our first year, the musical sound of tension we had was
this sort of "washing machine sound” that would rise and fall, a very steady
mounting pressure. And then in the second year, when things get stressful, they
get more chaotic. Anything could happen. So we have these horns that come in. It’s a much more anarchic sense of tension.
All of that comes by building the whole thing block by block.
But it’s a process, and as much as FX and MGM
were 100% behind starting over, there’s still a ghost in the room, in that we
made a show that won every award that they have, and now we were throwing it
out and starting again. The first hour of the second year feels nothing like
the first hour of the first year. It doesn’t do the same things. So it took an
act of faith on everybody’s part, which was to trust me, we’re going to get
there. It’s going to work. But I was probably the only one who was 100%
confident of that, because I saw it in my head.
I do want to ask you about one of the most decisive borrowings from the
original film which is your "This is a True Story…” opening titles. What do
those titles mean to you? What do they do for the story that follows them, a
story which pretty definitively did not happen?
Well, it’s interesting. When I went into the network that first
meeting, I said, "What we have to figure out is: What’s our Mike Yanagita?” Do
you remember that character from the movie?
The Asian guy who she went to school with,
right? They had lunch or dinner or something.
Right. So we’re in the middle of
our movie and this guy calls her, "Hey, Margie. It’s Mike Yanagita. We went to
high school together.” And then she ends up having this very awkward lunch with
him where he talks about the high school girl he married who died of leukemia
and how he’s just so lonely. She finds out later that he made that whole thing
up and the wife actually has a restraining order against him.
The first time you see it,
you’re wondering, "Why is this in the movie?” My answer was that it contributes
to the "true story” quality of it, because the only reason you would put that
encounter in the movie was because it "actually happened.”
The true story thing allows us to play against
the archness of crime, of crime movies on some level. Calling something a true
story liberates you from those clichés of plot that seem to dictate every story
ever written as basically white hat versus black hat on a collision course. In
real life, things don’t play out like they do in the movies. When people think
something is true, smaller moments become more dramatic and sort of allowed.So
when you say something is a true story it allows you to make those left
The audience has their expectations because they think they know how
these things play out. So you can use those expectations to steer them down a
different road. Again, because I don’t have melodrama available to me, we try
and invest the simplest moments with that kind of power. It’s how, in the
second season, Patrick Wilson’s daughter made him an ashtray at school and
gives it to him when he’s just had a bad day. And he gets a little teary. Now,
on paper, the scene isn’t that. To allow the dignity of these characters to
come through in the most dry and simple ways makes the story more powerful than
writing these big emotional turns that are manipulating the audience. On a
filmmaking level, it allowed the Coens and their camera to take a much more
objective role. I think on all those levels, the true story device allows us to
present this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction idea in a way that always has to be
grounded and credible while at the same time pushing those boundaries.
- photographed by Peter Host
- This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine