Interview: ‘Fargo’ Creator Shares Influences and Character Developments

Episode 8 of “Fargo” airs tonight, and things get a little bit more crazy. Just you wait for what happens mid-episode. It’s a real game changer.

But before you take in tonight’s show, check out our interview with the series creator and writer, Noah Hawley (“Bones”). We talked about how “Fargo” started as a 68-page movie script and became a series, how he wrote his characters, and his TV and music influences.

You got a ten-episode season order from the very beginning, so you really didn’t have to do the whole pilot thing. Can you talk about how that affected the way that you told the story, knowing that you had a finite number of episodes?

Noah Hawley: “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 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.”

In terms of writing characters, do you write what you want your characters to do or do you let the story take hold and kind of go along for the ride like the rest of us? I feel that it’s all very natural and fluid.

Hawley: “The scripts are very detailed down a lot of the time to the camera movements. I feel like as TV used to be a sort of talking head medium with the occasional foot chase or car chase, but now, the cinematic bar is really high, which is the influence of HBO and shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Mad Men’ and it’s incumbent on us as writers to be filmmakers and to tell the story with the camera as much as possible, and I find it really exciting to have—anytime there’s 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, but it was really rare that things would change much on the day.

It was much more—and part of this 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, and of course, Billy Bob Thornton, he’s basically like where do you want me to go, what do you want me to say. He would laugh because apparently Billy and Joel and Ethan Coen always joked about those actors who would say my guy wouldn’t do that, they’d go out to a restaurant and he’d say oh, I’d order spaghetti and meatballs but my guy wouldn’t eat spaghetti and meatballs.”

Before you turned to fiction, you were a singer/songwriter. How much does music influence the way you write? Are there like times where you’re listening to a song and you kind of put it in like a cinematic context and you think of like a scene to write or something like that?

Hawley: “Musicality definitely is a part of writing even without music, the sort of rhythm of the scene and the beats of it and all, but certainly my composer, Jeff Russo who’s done my other two shows with me, he and I start talking at the conceptual stage. I did a show called ‘My Generation.’ We shot in Austin, and that was a show that I wanted to have a very Americana feel to it. So, we had more banjo and whistling in that show than any other show on television I think, but that was part of the identity of the show from the moment of its conception in a way, and here, obviously we were based on a movie that had an amazing score by Carter Burwell, a very orchestral score, and so, that’s what we were playing to, but Jeff and I had been talking since the outline stage, and so, as it happened on ‘My Generation,’ when I went to Calgary to make the show, one day I get ten tracks from him, ten pieces of score including he’s written the main theme that we use, he’s written a bunch of music that I’m then able to listen to as I’m driving around the lonely plains of Alberta, Canada. And so, the musical identity of the show, the mood of the show is there, and then as we’re filming scenes, I’m not playing it for the audience really or of anyone else, but I know what it’s going to sound like and I’ll call him and I’ll say hey, this piece of music that you have right here, I think this will be great for the moment where Molly finds Lester lying downstairs next to his wife, but let’s take it— it’s the sort of comic theme that we use to introduce Lester, but let’s take that piece of music, and let’s now slow it down and drop it an octave and turn it into a Lester’s not the bumbling fool anymore; it becomes a more ominous piece of music. So, definitely music is a huge part of everything that I do.”

Lately, it seems as though many shows are tipping towards this side where the hero is often the character of the psychopath, especially if you look at “Dexter” or “House of Cards.” Why do you think audiences enjoy this so much?

Hawley: “I think some of it has to do with the shock value of telling stories that come from a different point of view. Obviously, ‘Breaking Bad’ was hugely influential culturally, and ‘Dexter’ and all the way back to Vic Mackey on ‘The Shield’ and this idea of the anti-hero and that you’re actually rooting for a guy and he’s both the hero and the villain is a very interesting line to walk.

That wasn’t necessarily the line that I felt like I was walking. Billy Bob Thornton and I laugh because people talk to him and they call him Lorne Malvo, the protagonist of the show, which he’s not designed to be the hero of the show, and I find it interesting that people respond to him in that way.

Obviously, he’s a movie star and has a very big role in the show, but he’s an element of social destruction and anarchy and does a kind of violence to the social contract that’s just as meaningful as the real violence he does in life, which is to say it’s just as important to him to see if he can get a kid to urinate in his boss’ gas tank as it is to blackmail a guy or murder someone. He just wants to see how far he can push the human animal to be an animal, but I feel like that is balanced, his journey and Lester’s journey, which is definitely a dark journey by the optimism of Molly and Gus and this idea of what we remember most from the movie is yes, there was this real horrific violence, but there was this sort of American optimism to it and this idea that at the end of the movie when she gets into bed with her husband and he got the $0.03 stamp and they’re going to have a baby in two months, she’s going to wake up tomorrow and go back to life as normal, and it’s not going to be this crazy horrifying Coen brothers’ world…that that was the worst thing that she saw. So, I like the idea that in a very hopefully Coen brothers’ way, there is a good versus evil battle that’s going on here and I hope that the good wins out, but nothing’s black and white.”

Episode 8 of “Fargo” airs tonight at 10/9c only on FX.

Feature Photo: Noah Hawley, the creator and writer of “Fargo.”
Center Photo: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard, Kate Walsh as Gina Hess. Photo courtesy of FX.

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