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NOAH HAWLEY - COVER STORY

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, May 9, 2016

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 like that.

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 long-form television?

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.

Noah Hawley on the set of "Fargo" with cast members Colin Hanks (seated left)
and Allison Tolman (seated right)
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 go.

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?

But even 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 turns.

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

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