Fargo went from a weird curiosity on the TV horizon to must see television in record time, no small thanks in part to the work of Noah Hawley. Hawley wrote the entire season, produces the show, and was the one whose mind the entire concept arose from. After getting approval from the Coen Bros. the man most well known for the short-lived show The Unusuals has filled Breaking Bad‘s and True Detective‘s void admirably. I had the chance to participate in a conference call with the man and as tonight’s crazy, twisty, time-manipulating episode changes the game it’s a good time to share some of what makes the man tick. Enjoy:
Nick Nunziata: It’s funny; there’s so much goodwill inherently built into Fargo. Even though it’s been around for quite a while, there’s that world that you already have some goodwill established with the viewer but as I was watching the first episode there was that passing of kind of the brain going from “oh my God, this doesn’t suck, this doesn’t suck” to the point where it goes “oh my God, this is great”, and then it started to take its own life. At what point in the process did you feel sort of that baton being passed from where you’re telling your audience “you’re safe here, this is the world you know but now you’re going to a new place in the world”? Did you feel that in the writing process and as you guys are putting the show together?
Noah Hawley: Yes, it was interesting. From very early on, when the challenge was presented to me as can you make a Coen brothers’ movie, can you tell—what if it went like this? We’re sitting around telling crazy, true-crime stories and you told me the one about “Jerry Lundegaard” who hired these guys to kidnap his wife for money and then everything went to hell, and I said, oh yeah, that’s crazy, have you heard the one about the insurance salesman who runs into this guy in the emergency room, and so, that was sort of the free association that launched the show for me, which was pretty almost immediately upon being presented with the challenge, I had this image of these two guys in the emergency room, and one was a very civilized man and the other was a very uncivilized man and the question was who were they, where did they come from and where were they going, and there was something in that that felt inherently Coen-esque.
And then, the minute that I started to take that down the path, it felt like what you were describing, which is this feels like the movie but it’s not the movie, and then the question—and then, as I sort of put the pieces together and introduced the character of “Vern,” who was the chief of police, knowing that he was in some ways a diversion to sneak “Molly’s” character in and building up to that moment where the doorbell rings and “Lester” has killed his wife and he think that it’s the “Malvo” showing up, but it’s really “Vern” and the way that that played out, all of it felt organically like it was working and that was a very exciting moment, and a very exciting story to come in and tell to FX and to have them—to see on their faces that they felt like I was getting it right.
On the possibility of a second series:
Look, obviously in an industry like this, anytime something is a success, you think how can I make more money off of it. That said, my experience with FX is they’re very proud of the quality of the work, and their biggest concern is if we were to do it again, could we make it as good or better, and certainly those are conversations that are being had. I think that, for me, it’s really important that there’s a kind of alchemy that happens when you get all the right elements in place that a lot of it is skill but some of it is luck as well, and I’m not in any hurry to try to top myself there. It’s been a crazy two-year span of getting picked up and writing them all and producing them all and we have our final sound mix today on Episode 10, and then, I’m excited about the idea of really taking the time to think about and the network is kind enough to allow me to do that.
So, I think it’s a really exciting voice to work in and the leeway that I get in making a “Coen Brothers’ movie” is I get to mix tone, drama and comedy and violence and magic realism and be structurally innovative with how I tell the story and all those sorts of things that I might not have gotten away with on my own. So, it’s been a blast.
On an idea for a second series:
It would look like a new movie really. I really liked that when FX said we want to do Fargo, we’re wondering if you can do it without “Marge,” by which they meant without any of the characters from the movie, by which they meant can you write us a new Coen brothers’ movie. I liked the idea that it was just a story that felt like that story but actually had no connection to it, and then, as you get deeper into it, you found that there was a connection actually and that “Stavros” found the money that Buscemi buried at the end of the film, and you realize that, wait a minute, this story is even tangentially connected to the movie, I think is really fun. So, I think if we were to do it again, you would see a new movie with new characters but one that might have some connection either to the first season or to the original movie, just not in a way hopefully that you can predict or expect.
I have some thoughts of what we could do that I think would be really great, but obviously, you’re seeing from the ten hours that you’re watching now that all the pieces—my feeling is that all the pieces that we put in motion and the way things are paying off is I’m really happy with it, and I don’t want to just have an idea for how it starts; I need to have an idea for how it ends because it starts and ends in the same season, so you can’t fake it until you make it. You have to start out knowing exactly where you’re going.
On Bob Odenkirk:
Bob was great. He came in, and it’s very funny, he was so comb-over driven by in Breaking Bad and the mustache and the haircut was very—those were sort of at the forefront of his mind at the beginning of like the look of the character, and when he signed on, there was only maybe two or three scripts written, and the journey that “Bill’s” character takes, it’s actually a very major character in the show but wasn’t necessarily in the beginning, and I think it was his enthusiasm for the material that made him say well, I just want to be a part of this, but I think he really appreciated—that scene that he has with Martin Freeman where Martin “confesses” in setting up “Chazz” and to the point at which they’re both in tears at the end, that wasn’t a scene that Bob ever got to play on Breaking Bad. The range of things that we asked him to do to have this sort of small-town innocence and this kind of [indiscernible] obstructionist quality which is not based on the fact that he’s a bad guy, it’s just he doesn’t want to live in a world where his old friend could be guilty of anything. Playing all those levels, we really pushed Bob and he rose to it.
About going straight to series:
I was commissioned to write a pilot, which I wrote a script, and then, right away the conversation became about a straight series order, which I think had a lot to do with just good timing and the fact that the network was expanding, knew that they were going to expand it to two or three channels and they wanted to launch into this limited series business. What was really exciting from the story standpoint, for me having written shows that have been cancelled relatively quickly or where you never really get out of the gate story wise is the idea that no matter what we did, FX was going to air all ten of them, and so, you write knowing that you’re going to be judged based on the totality of the story as opposed to people who get only a couple of episodes in. The other thing that it allowed us to do is to really lay in—to set things up to pay off down the road, and so, both from a writing standpoint and visually to really start introducing visual metaphors and themes and setting step up and also just to walk into locations where we were scouting and knowing that we were going to need a back door in Episode 8 or whatever it was very helpful, but when I wrote the first episode, I didn’t write with any act breaks; I just wrote a 68-page movie script, and I did the same when we were breaking story. We never put end of act one, start of act two on the board, and that really changes the way that you write because you’re now creating these artificial story points simply to throw to commercial, and anyway, it was a really great process knowing that we were telling a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Fargo appears tonight on FX. It’s a ballsy episode. Just you wait…