‘Fargo’ Writer Noah Hawley Introduces Civilization to the Wilderness
Eighteen years ago, a wood chipper consumed Steve Buscemi in an unforgettable display of blood spray and limbs. That precise murder weapon won’t rear its head when FX’s Fargo premieres next week, but fans of the 1996 Coen brothers classic can count on familiar themes and tone.
“Familiar,” but not exact.
Rather than stretching the story of Joel and Ethan Coen’s film over the course of 10 hours, the event series embarks on a new journey with new characters. Buscemi’s ill-fated Carl Showalter is nowhere to be found here; likewise, the memorable run-in with the wood chipper has been abandoned — at least as far as the pilot episode is concerned. Instead, expect new players, new crimes and new instruments of death.
“It’s an interesting challenge,” writer Noah Hawley told Spinoff Online on the Calgary set of Fargo. “We’ll obviously be compared to that movie, and to [the Coen brothers'] other movies, but not directly.”
FX’s take on Fargo isn’t the first time the film has come near the small screen. In 1997, executive producer Warren Littlefield was tasked with adapting the film as an NBC series, although he ultimately abandoned the project. “At the end of the day, I felt it was a television network version of that movie,” he said. “Somehow, I had a fear we would disappoint the audience. So I passed.”
Another failed attempt at Fargo came courtesy of CBS, with Kathy Bates directing a pilot episode, and The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie veteran Edie Falco occupying Frances McDormand’s award-winning shoes. Littlefield never saw the completed pilot, but Fargo was never far from his mind.
“[NBC] had given me, as a development gift, a snow globe,” he recalled. “It had that flipped-over car, with Margie bending over, and blood all in the snow. It was a great little snow globe … I always kept staring at it. I always kept it close by.”
About three years ago, Littlefield realized the snow globe’s contents were ready to spill out into the real world.
“I realized that television has changed,” he said. “The world had changed. Television can do Fargo now, the right way.”
As it happened, FX was already contemplating turning Fargo into a television series. Littlefield called upon Hawley, with whom he had worked on ABC’s My Generation, to join forces and pitch their vision to the cable channel.
“We talked about it a little bit, but it wasn’t [serious] until it got set up at FX without a writer,” Hawley said. “They were thinking about doing Fargo as a series — and they wanted to do it without Marge.”
“Noah was giddy with that thought,” Littlefield recalled. “The idea that we could do an homage to the Coen brothers’ creation, the idea that he could create original characters and an original crime saga, again in that world of Fargo — it was wonderfully liberating to him.”
Given the mandate to spin a yarn inspired by Fargo, but with a new story and with new characters, Hawley immediately envisioned two central roles.
“The first image that came to me was two men sitting side by side in an emergency room,” he said. “One was sort of a William H. Macy type of character. But who was the other one?”
The other one became Lorne Malvo, less of a man and more of a walking, talking, chaotic force of nature — almost the perfect mixture of Buscemi’s Showalter and Peter Stormare’s psychotic Gaear Grimsrud. The role soon belonged to Billy Bob Thornton, a veteran of Coen brothers movies like The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Noah didn’t know what to expect,” Littlefield said of his first meetings with Thornton. “Noah said, ‘I can take you through everything of where this character is going and what’s going to happen.’ Billy said, ‘I don’t want you to. I’m not ready for that. I know right now that I love this, and I have tremendous faith in what you’ve written and where you’re going to take me. So let’s go on this journey.’”
For Hawley, Malvo’s journey boils down to one essential idea: “What happens with a civilized man meets a very uncivilized man?” That conflict is represented in Malvo’s first meeting with the aforementioned Macy-inspired character, Lester Nygaard, a small-town salesman and a bit of a loser in his life.
“A lot of what happened with Macy’s character in the movie, it happened before the cameras even rolled,” Hawley said. “He needed money for something. There’s some scam with cars that’s never fully explained. I wanted to take it back further and say, where’s the birth of that moment?”
Enter the emergency room, and Malvo and Nygaard’s very first meeting — a meeting that will change Nygaard’s life forever.
“The idea that’s very present in the movie of Fargo, and also in No Country for Old Men, is the idea that outside of civilization, there’s still a wilderness,” Hawley said. “When Lester meets Malvo — when civilization meets the wilderness — there’s a level of infection. What does that do to Lester? That was the start for me.”
With Thornton on board as Malvo, the rest of the cast started taking shape. The Hobbit and Sherlock star Martin Freeman signed on as Nygaard. Newcomer Alison Tollman was cast as Molly Solverson, a young deputy working for the Bemidji Police Department. Colin Hanks joined the ensemble as dimwitted Duluth deputy Gus Grimly. Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Kate Walsh and more came aboard as well. Even comedians like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have roles to play in the series.
“And it all started with Billy,” Littlefield said. “By signing on, Billy said to the creative community, ‘I want to go there.’ And that opened the floodgates.”
Even if FX’s Fargo isn’t a note-for-note adaptation of the film, the series stays true to the Coen brothers’ vision. For Hawley, attempting to tell “a 10-hour Coen brothers movie” means that all of the filmmaker’s various styles and sensibilities are at his disposal.
“It gives me leeway to do things I don’t know that I could do otherwise,” he said. “You can play around with a certain level of shocking violence. Every tone is available, except melodrama. You can be hugely dramatic and comedic, you can play around with magical reality, and you can really explore, as in A Serious Man, some very interesting, philosophical riddles. In fact, you should do all of those things if you’re trying to make a Coen brothers movie.”
“When the Coen brothers read his script, their words were, ‘We’re not big fans of imitation, but we feel like Noah channelled us,’” Littlefield said. “That’s a pretty incredible compliment.”
Fargo premieres April 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Stay tuned to Spinoff Online for more interviews from the set of Fargo.