An original adaptation of the Academy Award-winning feature film, the FX drama series Fargo features an all-new crime story with all-new characters. Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a ruthless and mysterious man who has turned the life of small town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) upside down, in a way that he never could have imagined, and stirs up trouble everywhere he goes. From executive producer/writer Noah Hawley, the show also stars Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks, Allison Tolman, Oliver Platt, Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh and Joey King.
During this recent interview to discuss the shift in storytelling for the remaining episodes and to look ahead to future seasons, Noah Hawley talked about writing the show knowing that the audience would get to see the totality of the story, the extent of the Coen brothers’ input, his writing process, not looking to any true crime story to base this on, the change in storytelling for the last couple of episodes, a possible Lester and Lorne showdown, what a second season might look like, and that he already has some possible ideas. Check out what he had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are spoilers.
NOAH HAWLEY: I was commissioned to write a pilot, so I wrote a script. And then, right away, the conversation became about a straight series order, which had a lot to do with good timing, and the fact that the network knew that they were going to expand to two or three channels and they wanted to launch into this limited series business. What was really exciting, from the story standpoint, 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 10 of them, so you write knowing that you’re going to be judged based on the totality of the story. The other thing that it allowed us to do is set things up to pay off down the road. And so, both from a writing standpoint, and to really start introducing visual metaphors and themes, it was very helpful. 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. That really changes the way that you write because you’re now creating these artificial story points, simply to throw to commercial. It was a really great process, knowing that we were telling a story with a beginning, middle and end.
What was the influence of the Coen brothers on this TV show?
HAWLEY: Their influence is everywhere in the show. I didn’t keep myself to just references or inspirations from Fargo, the movie. I opened myself to their larger body of work, as storytellers, and their sensibility. We do a parable sequence in Episode 5 that’s obviously a nod to A Serious Man. A lot of other moments, some big and some small, were influenced by them. But, their direct involvement really was pretty minimal. They obviously are very busy with their own material. They read the first script that I wrote, and I had a very nice conversation with them about it. They were very happy with it. And then, we showed them the first episode and Ethan Coen said, “Yes, good,” which apparently is effusiveness from him. There was never a situation where they wanted to know what was coming, down the line. We didn’t break story together. There was none of that. I think they read it and they said, “Okay, he’s doing it the way we would do it, so we’re just going to let him do his thing.” But they bought me waffles, which was nice. Or maybe I bought them waffles. I can’t remember.
When you’re writing characters, do you write what you want your characters to do, or do you let the story take hold and go along for the ride?
HAWLEY: The scripts are very detailed, a lot of the time, to the camera move itself. I feel like, as TV used to be a talking head medium with the occasional foot chase or car chase, the cinematic bar is now really high, which is the influence of HBO and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. It’s incumbent on us, as writers, to be filmmakers and to tell the story with the camera, as much as possible. Anytime there is a four or five-page stretch with no dialogue, where it’s really just the camera telling the story, that makes me very happy, as a filmmaker. But within that, you always get up, on the day, with the actors and you put the scene on its feet, and you figure out the blocking and how it would actually play out. It was actually really rare that things would change much, on the day. Part of it is just about getting everyone to buy into the vision of the show, but I feel like, if you have really thought it out and you really know exactly how you want things to unfold, your cast will go on that ride. They want to believe that you know what you’re doing, and there are certainly moments where we talk stuff through. Billy Bob Thornton was basically like, “Where do you want me to go? What do you want me to say?”
Fargo is a true crime story that’s completely fictional. Are there any real true-crime stories that helped inspire the series?
HAWLEY: No, there wasn’t. It wasn’t like I read anything that I felt was a detail that would play in well with this case. It was more that, once I put the characters in motion, Lester came in and Malvo came in, and the idea of killing the bully and killing the wife came in, then it was about playing out the consequences of that, and the idea that Sam had connections to a crime syndicate, and Mr. Wrench and Numbers came to town, and all that. At that point, I wasn’t really looking for any true story to rely on. It was more the idea that once you call something a true story, you’re able to break a lot of the rules of hero-based storytelling. It was more like, in Episode 4, when Gus manages to arrest Malvo and he calls Molly and says, “You should be here,” and she gets her coat, but she never makes it there and Bill goes instead. In the fictional story, you would want her in that room because she’s the hero. She’s supposed to be sitting across from the villain. But the true story version is that she never makes it there, just like Marge wasn’t there when Jerry Lundegaard was arrested at the end of the movie. So, it wasn’t so much about looking for real-world inspirations, as much as it was about trying to make a fictional story feel realer.
What went into the decision to do a time jump forward?
HAWLEY: There were a couple of reasons. I had a writers’ room of four writers, even though I wrote all of them. We got together for ten weeks and broke Episodes 2 through 9. There was a moment where one of the writers, Steve Blackman, suggested that we do a time jump, and there was part of me that felt like it might feel gimmicky, so I wanted to sleep on it. I liked the idea that it felt like a real-life thing because, obviously, if these cases aren’t solved quickly, often they’re not solved at all, or the case goes cold and then something new happens. So, I liked that idea, but it wasn’t until I literally slept on it and woke up the next morning and thought, “Well, she’s pregnant. That’s why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because, in that year, things have happened to her personally where she and Gus are now married and she’s pregnant and, suddenly, it is the movie, in a way. Now, you have expectations, based on the movie, for the situations that she’s going to be put in, that maybe we play into, or maybe we defy. It’s always very important to me to try to create a story that feels unpredictable. You can’t jump ahead and see what’s coming, but at the end, when you’ve watched the whole thing, it all feels inevitable. So, it’s a tricky line, but I did feel like, once the pregnancy thing came to my head, the time jump felt justified, on every level. It allows us to move all the characters forward, and to move Lester forward to see his transformation complete.
Will there be a showdown between Lester and Lorne, in the future?
HAWLEY: Well, it certainly looks like that, as they’re in the room together again. The first episode was all about these two guys, and then they were never in a room together again, until this point. Hopefully, we’ve managed to keep everyone entertained and create a compelling story without that element, but certainly, bringing them together now, in Episode 8, gives everyone exactly what they’ve been hoping for, all along. We have that moment where Molly and Gus get into bed, and it’s a year later and she tells him that they’re doing good. He goes to sleep and they’re watching TV, and the camera drops down through the bedding. If it feels like that’s the end of the movie, well that’s on purpose. I purposely wanted to create a moment, in Episode 8, that literally mimicked the end of the movie, so that everyone thought, “Wait a minute, I thought there were two more of these left. Is that it? Is that where it’s ending?” And then, we drop down and create a disorienting moment where suddenly you’re in Las Vegas and it’s some sales conference. It’s not until we reveal Lester Nygaard that you realize, “Oh, yeah, we haven’t seen where Lester is, a year later. Look, he’s winning this award.” And then, we bring him into direct contact with Malvo again, in the same room, and just leave people with that. Now, they really want to come back and see what happens next. I think that the year jump was both to move the story forward and also to say that this is an epilogue. We’re a year later and she’s actually doing pretty good. She’s still thinking about it, but they’ve got everything they need.
What impact did Fargo have on you, as a moviegoer and as a writer, when you first saw it?
HAWLEY: I don’t remember the location of the first screening, but I do remember that I had probably seen Raising Arizona, at that point, which is such an iconic film. No one has ever made a film like Raising Arizona, before or since. And so, going into Fargo, I remember the feeling of unease that’s there from the beginning, and the region as a character in it, but there was also something about watching it unfold. You don’t meet Marge in the movie for the first 33 minutes, or something. You think, “Okay, it’s this guy and he’s hired these guys, and they go and they kidnap the wife and it all goes horribly wrong.” There’s that moment where Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare have been pulled over by the state cop and things get violent, and Peter Stormare grabs the guy by the tie and shoots him. There’s this crazy fountain of blood that comes out of his head, and then it becomes a car chase and the car flips. It’s so shocking and delivers so dryly. And then, you meet Marge and suddenly the movie opens up into this really endearing world, where I pitched the show to FX. I said, “It’s the best of America versus the worst of America.” Yes, we have problems, but look who’s solving them. The profound feeling from the movie was that you saw this gritty and really dark world view, which was contrasted by this pregnant woman who came in and just was very matter of fact and common sense. She was a really endearing person, and they put her on a collision course with these really bad people, and you worried about her. That’s what I remember.
What would a second season of Fargo look like?
HAWLEY: 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 any of the characters from the 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, and that Stavros found the money that [Steve] Buscemi buried at the end of the film. You realize that, “Wait a minute, this story is tangentially connected to the movie.” I think that’s really fun. So, if we were to do it again, you would see a new movie with new characters, but one might have some connection, either to the first season or to the original movie, just hopefully not in a way that you can predict or expect.
Do you already have ideas for another season?
HAWLEY: I have some thoughts on what we could do that I think would be really great. My feeling is that all the pieces that we put in motion are paying off, and I’m really happy with that. 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. You can’t fake it until you make it. You have to start out knowing exactly where you’re going.
Fargo airs on Tuesday nights on FX.