Noah Hawley is an experienced TV writer and producer (Bones) who has created multiple series in the past (The Unusuals, My Generation), but it wasn’t until this year’s Fargo that he created one that received a full season order. Fargo seems to belong to a trendy category of branded TV series that includes shows like Bates Motel and Hannibal, in that it is inspired by a famous film but not a straight adaptation. Fargo the TV series uses similar themes, settings, and dramatic situations as the Coen Brothers film of the same name, but it weaves an entirely new story and world.
Note: The interview below with Hawley contains several SPOILERS for the show up to and including episode #8.
QUESTION How did you break in as a TV writer, and what is your advice to new writers shopping around their first pilot script?
Noah I came in through the side door, really. I had started as a novelist and had written a couple of novels. I had one optioned by Paramount, and then, my motto is really what else can [I] get away with. So, I wrote a spec feature and ended up selling that and coming down to L.A. from San Francisco where I was living, and selling a pitch, and then was hired to adapt the book that had been set up, and so, suddenly I had this side career going as a screenwriter and then what else can I get away with…I started having television conversations and ended up selling I guess three pilots over the course of two years, and then feeling like if any of those ever got picked up, I would need to know how to produce a show, and so, I came down and I went to work on a show called Bones. I was there for two seasons and then I got my own show, which was The Unusuals. So, it was a very fast process, but the great thing about being a writer is you can always write yourself a career, and I would say you just don’t want to throw all your eggs in one basket and say well I’ve written this one script and I’m going to hock this one script until the day I die. Just keep writing. You have to write because you love it and you have to tell stories because you have to tell them. It can’t be this strategic [plan], like, “I hear that AMC is looking for a SciFi show.” It has to be, “what stories do you need to tell,” and if you have your own voice and if you’re telling your own stories, the market will find you eventually.
QUESTION: You got a ten-episode season order from the very beginning, so you really didn’t have to do the usual pilot process. Can you talk about how that affected the way that you told the story, knowing that you had a guaranteed, finite number of episodes?
Noah I was commissioned to write a pilot, and then, right away the conversation became about a straight to 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 set 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.
QUESTION Knowing what we know and that you initially wrote this as a movie script, what would a second season of Fargo look like?
Noah 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,” [Frances McDormand from the movie] by which they meant without any of the characters from the movie, i.e., 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” [Oliver Platt] found the money that Steve 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.
QUESTION I was a fan of your other show, The Unusuals, and Fargo reunites you with both Adam Goldberg and Joshua Close. Just curious—were the parts written for them in mind and what was it like working with them again?
Noah No, none of the parts were really written with anyone in mind. I tend to work from a—to write first and then cast later, but I’ve remained friends with [everyone from] that cast. It was such a great cast and obviously Jeremy Renner has gone on to do some other things, but all those guys, I stay in touch with.
The thing that I like about Adam and that I used him in The Unusuals is that I like casting him against type which is that sort of neurotic Jewish comic thing. I like putting him in a sort of darker, less-talky, more menacing kind of role. I think he brings something so interesting to it.
And then, Josh came in, he auditioned for the role of “Chazz,” and there was just a quality to him that I think really felt—he really captured a sort of small-town arrogance in a way, but also, I don’t know how you feel, but I felt like his journey and where he ended up by the end of Episode 7 was such a raw and vulnerable place, and people said they never thought they would feel sorry for him but they did. So, I’m a believer that when you find people you like working with, you should keep working with them, as a good philosophy.
QUESTION What was the influence of the Coen brothers? Did they have influence in the whole series, or only in the first episodes?
Noah Obviously, their influence is everywhere in the show, and obviously, I didn’t keep myself to just references or inspirations from Fargo the movie. I sort of 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 and The Goy’s Teeth as well as a lot of other moments, some big, some small that are influenced by them.
Their direct involvement really was pretty minimal. They obviously are very busy with their own material, and they read the first script that I wrote and I had a very nice conversation with them about it and 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 [see Billy Bob Thornton interview]. But there was never a situation where they wanted to know what was coming down the line; we didn’t break story [with them]. There was none of that. I think they sort of read it and they said okay, well he got it, he captured—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.
QUESTION Many recent American TV shows are defined by their amount of violence and moral ambiguity, with oftentimes a hero who is a psychopath, like Dexter and House of Cards, for example. How do you explain this?
Noah How do I explain my society? I think that’s a hard question. 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 –this idea of the anti-hero and that 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 refer to his character “Lorne Malvo” as the protagonist of the show, which he is not—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” [Martin Freeman] journey which is definitely a dark journey by the optimism of “Molly” [Alison Tolman] and “Gus” [Colin Hanks]. 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.
QUESTION So, 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 because [it feels] all very natural and fluid?
Noah The scripts are very detailed a lot of the time down to the camera move itself. I feel like as TV used to be a sort of a talking head medium with the occasional foot chase or car chase, 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. Any time 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 always joked about those actors who would say “My guy wouldn’t do that,” like they’d go out to a restaurant and he’d say “My guy wouldn’t eat spaghetti and meatballs.”
QUESTION It’s funny; there’s so much goodwill inherently built into Fargo, even though it’s been around for quite a while. 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 [being taken] around this new world? Did you feel that in the writing process?
Noah Yes, it was interesting. From very early on, when the challenge was presented to me as “Can you make a Coen brothers’ movie?” 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. 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 [go] 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, 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 thinks that it’s “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 see on their faces that they felt like I was getting it right.
QUESTION Fargo was a “true-crime” story that’s completely fictional. Are there any real true-crime stories that helped inspire the series?
Noah No. There wasn’t. It wasn’t like I read anything that I felt like was a detail that would play in well to this case. It was more that once “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” has had connections to a Fargo crime syndicate and that “Mr. Wrench” and “Numbers” came to town and all that. So, 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 story-telling, this sort of Joseph Campbell heroes journey thing that our friend Dan Harmon talks about all the time.
It was more like you’ll see in Episode 4, “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” [Bob Odenkirk] goes instead. In the fictional story, you would want her in that room, 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 and the same thing in Episode 106. When “Malvo’s” doing his whole thing of setting up “Don Chumph” [Glenn Howerton] and playing out that end game, and even the shootout, it’s like “Molly” and “Gus” are sort of driving around and they’re having coffee and they’re not—the textbook tells you to put them at the center of the action, but by not putting them in the center of the action, it feels more real, I guess, was the conceit. So, it wasn’t so much about looking for real-world inspirations as much as it was to try to make a fictional story feel realer.
QUESTION What went into the decision to do the [one year] time jump forward in Episode 108? Why was that important to finish out the story?
Noah I had a writer’s room of four writers even though I wrote all of them, but we got together for ten weeks and we broke episodes two through nine, and there was a moment where one of the writers, Steve Blackman, suggested we do a time jump, and there was part of me that felt like it might feel gimmicky and 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, like you watch this whole thing thinking oh, it’s kind of like the movie but it’s not the movie, but then the minute that she’s pregnant again, you think wait a minute, now it is the movie in this strange way, and now you have expectations based on the movie about 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, like 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 that the time jump felt justified on every level, and it allows us to sort of move all the characters forward and to move “Lester” forward to see his transformation complete and where he ends up and the kind of guy he is now as well as for “Molly” and “Gus.” For “Malvo,” all you know is what you saw at the very end, but it’s good. I can’t wait for you to see episode nine, let me just say that!
QUESTION A number of people have said that they think we’re in a golden age of TV, and I’m wondering if you agree with that, and if so, is that strictly on cable, or does it also apply to broadcast, and which shows, if any, do you like to watch?
Noah It’s an interesting question. I think obviously it is a great time, and there’s some of that that has to do with the feature business in the state that it’s in and there’s part of it that has to do with the fact that we now have, I think somebody said, something like 52 buyers of original scripted content and how do you distinguish yourself in that marketplace? Part of it is just the brand, and the quality of the show is the brand. It’s like when FX put The Shield on the first time, they couldn’t compete on any level with broadcast television except to create a show that you couldn’t find anywhere else and to hope that that would bring an audience to it and that was really the model (combined with HBO). Through the history of television there have been great, iconic, ground-breaking shows.
I think people used to read War and Peace and now we don’t, and what we do is we sit around and watch things on our screens, our phones, our iPads, our TVs and we spend a lot of time doing that. Almost by accident people discovered this idea of binge watching, first by going back and looking at shows like The Wire or shows where there are multiple seasons that people have missed, and this idea that you could watch all of them for 20 hours or 40 hours or whatever, it became a very addictive thing, and I think what’s interesting is people used to read War and Peace and now we don’t and what we do is we watch these shows and we need these shows to be great so that we can feel great about ourselves for watching them.
If you’re going to binge 30 hours a week, are you going to feel good about yourself if it’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, or are you going to feel good about yourself if it’s House of Cards? Or if it’s War and Peace as a limited series, this idea that this entertainment can also be provocative and educational and interesting and really move us, and you see it in the conversations that happen around televisions. From time to time I look at the [online] recaps of the episodes and there is a Paulene Kael-level dissertation and conversations about the deep meaning of the work—how the episodes work structurally, the themes of them, the characters. It’s very sophisticated conversations about shows, and then it’s incumbent on us to make very sophisticated shows so that you guys can keep talking about them in that way.
QUESTION Are there any shows that you particularly like to watch?
Noah I don’t get to watch as much anymore. I’m just catching up on Mad Men now. Obviously, Breaking Bad, I watched religiously. I’ve been watching Hannibal—I’m really intrigued by the world that [Bryan Fuller] created, and as someone who’s adapted underlying material, I love that he’s twisted and turned it into something uniquely his own. I watch Boardwalk Empire. I try to sample everything at least one or two episodes to see what is going on, but it’s hard at this moment. I’m sure I’ll binge watch on vacation. I like The Americans, as well.
QUESTION Just going back to the time jump in the upcoming episode, will any of the events in the years passed be addressed in upcoming episodes or do you feel everything is going to resolve from that point? And also, with “Lester” being this newly confident wielder of staplers, is there a showdown between him and “Lorne” in the future?
Noah Well, it certainly looks like that at the end as they’re, for the first time, in the room again. The first episode is all about these two guys and then they’re never in a room again until this point, and hopefully, we’ve managed to keep everyone entertained and create a compelling story without that element, but certainly, bringing them together now in episode eight, I think hopefully it gives everyone exactly what they’ve been hoping for all along. But the time jump was really—it was created, and if you saw the script, you would see. We have that moment where “Molly” and “Gus” get into bed; it’s a year later and she tells him that they’re doing good and he goes to sleep and they’re watching TV and the camera drops down through the bedding, and in the script it says “and 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 of these left, is that it, is that where it’s ending? And then, drop down through and create a sort of disorienting moment where suddenly you’re in Las Vegas and it’s some sales conference, and it’s not until we reveal “Lester Nygaard” that you realize, oh yeah, we haven’t seen where “Lester” is a year later, and look, he’s winning this award and then bring him into direct contact with “Malvo” again in the same room and just lead people with that.
Now, they really want to come back and see what happens next, but I think that the year jump was both to move the story forward and also to sort of say, maybe it’s an epilogue. Maybe we’re like a year later and actually she’s doing pretty good and she’s still thinking about it, but they got everything they need.
QUESTION I love the show. I want to time jump backwards with you for a moment to the day when you first saw the movie Fargo. What impact did it have on you as a moviegoer, as a writer?
Noah How old am I is the question? I don’t remember the location of the first screening, but I do remember, and I think at that point, I had probably seen Raising Arizona certainly as a movie which is such an iconic film and really such a unique—no one has ever made a film like Raising Arizona before or since, and so, coming into this film, I remember the feeling of unease that’s there from the beginning and the region as a character in it, but there was something about watching it unfold because obviously 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 and there’s that moment where 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 he shoots him, and there’s this crazy fountain of blood that comes out of his head and then it becomes a car chase and then the car flips and it really—it’s so shocking and delivered so dryly, and then you meet “Marge” and then 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, and I think that was the profound feeling from the movie was you saw this gritty and really kind of dark world view, and then it was contrasted by this woman, this pregnant woman who came in and just was very matter of fact and common sense and she wasn’t the mentalist. She just had a lot of common sense and she was a really endearing person, and they put her on a collision course with these really bad people and you worried about her and that’s what I remember.
QUESTION You have such a wide range cast, from Billy Bob Thornton to Martin Freeman, all big name actors, but [when you found Alison Tolman, she] was managing a photo shop in Chicago. What went in to finding her, and can you tell us a little bit about that experience of finding her because I can’t imagine anyone else playing that character now?
Noah I just saw her earlier today. We did some DVD commentary, and first of all, she’s so matter of fact about the whole thing—you guys all nominated her for an award, and eight months ago, she had a day job. So, our casting director, Rachel Tenner, who had worked with Ellen Chenoweth and worked with Joel and Ethan on A Serious Man and their last three or four movies, she started out as a Chicago casting director and still had a lot of local roots, which is one of the things we liked about her; she had basically gone to Minnesota to cast A Serious Man, and so, they were having sessions in Minneapolis and they were having sessions in Chicago and we were getting tapes, and I saw this tape of Allison. I had seen, I don’t know, 80 or 90 Los Angeles and New York actresses putting themselves on tape and a lot of really great talent there, but there was something the minute that I saw Allison’s tape, I thought oh well, that’s her.
She was a very real person, very grounded, but she got all the nuance of the comedy in a way that the others hadn’t done, and there was just something so disarming about her and matter of fact, and she seemed just really smart but also she wasn’t putting it in your face, and so, we brought the tape to the network and we got her in the mix and we did end up having a screen test in New York where we tested our best and brightest option. But it was inarguable that it was her role and everyone saw it and I got to call her up at her day job and tell her that she got the job…and then she hung up and went back to work.
QUESTION With these excellent reviews and the recent nomination to the Critics’ Awards, can we expect another season of Fargo or similar story, and what do you think about the good reviews?
Noah I think they’re terrible, and I want my bad reviews back. No, it’s amazing. I’ve never had this experience before of such universal acclaim for something that even I thought was a dubious idea in the beginning, and I assumed that the majority of voices would just be saying how dare you or what gives you the right to take on this iconic work.
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. 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 [the future] 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.
QUESTION But you have ideas for another season?
Noah 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 I’m really happy with all the pieces that we put in motion and the way things are paying off, 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.
QUESTION 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 [get inspired to write]?
Noah 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. Here, 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 [our composer] 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 the main theme that we use, 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—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 and let’s now slow it down and drop it an octave…so it becomes a more ominous piece of music. So, definitely music is a huge part of everything that I do.
QUESTION My question is about the anthologies here. We’ve seen a lot of successful anthologies lately: American Horror Story, True Detective, and I think Fargo is right in that same vein. Is there something you see about certain storytelling in Hollywood right now where it’s kind of lending itself to almost a ten-hour movie?
Noah It’s interesting. I think American Horror Story in a lot of ways is the—it’s three years old, but it’s the grandparent of all of this—just that idea, that breaking through that ceiling because for so long you just couldn’t do it, the whole thing was a hundred episodes or die, and then, I think obviously the 12 or 13 episode cable season started to wear away at that 22-episode a year mantra.
And then, Lost, also played a huge role in it, this idea that was really a cultural conversation piece and that Damon and Carlton kept saying look, we’ve only got so much story, we can’t do this forever and they had to force the network to give them an end date. I think it’s evolved to the point where the length of the show revolves now more around the length of the story as opposed to the other way around, and there are still going to be shows like 24 where you’re like well, it’s 24 episodes and it runs multiple years and there’s a new thing every year and that’s great, but otherwise, there’s all these properties that the only option you ever had was to make a two-hour movie out of it or to try and get an HBO John Adams’ miniseries going where now you have a lot of buyers for that kind of material.
But I think the critical thing in the cable world is on the business side, the idea that networks like AMC and FX, once they take a studio role, once they have backend to have ownership of the property, then they’re able to look down the road and go, okay, well, we’ll make—True Detective is not a good example because it’s HBO—but we’ll make Fargo and because we have a studio ownership in it, the same-day ratings don’t matter as much because we also are going to get money from foreign sales, from a big second-end Netflix or Hulu or Amazon sale, and therefore, they’re not tied to the ratings to make their money entirely. So, the minute that your network is also your studio…you’re seeing a lot more risk taking. Breaking Bad started out with very low ratings, and then, this binge watching built over time to build to the point of where their finale was a huge number, and that show will continue to make money for them for decades. So, I think it’s a confluence of the creative storytelling and the fact that you can’t make that $30 million feature film anymore but you can make a $30 million ten-hour movie on FX.
QUESTION Please talk about working with Bob Odenkirk because obviously this is such a different role from playing “Saul Goodman” on Breaking Bad, but I love his work on this series as well.
Noah 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. 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.
QUESTION How did you arrive at the few main characters you’ve written, who are similar on the surface to the movie, yet different in the details, as in “Marge Gunderson” and “Molly Solverson” or “Jerry Lundegaard” and “Lester Nygaard?”
Noah Well, I think it’s a question of familiarity and expectations and the idea that is—there is a sort of small-town character of a “Jerry Lundegaard” or a “Lester Nygaard” who is on the surface, is a sort of failure, someone who is not—doesn’t seem to have their lives under control. They don’t seem to be well-respected in the world, and in creating something that felt like the movie, I felt like you needed that character, the insurance salesman or the car salesman for familiarity, but then, of course, the familiarity breeds the expectation that their journey is going to be the same. So, the minute that Lester takes a hammer to his wife, you realize that you’re not going down the same path as you did before, and I hope that’s an exciting moment for people. “Jerry Lundegaard” was defined by his passivity. He was guiltiest of not speaking up when he realized that—he obviously hired these guys, but he didn’t call them off, he didn’t confess it at any point. He just became this paralyzed figure whereas “Lester’s” journey was about the actions that he took.
And then, as far as “Marge” and “Molly,” I knew that if I started the show with “Molly” as the chief of police, everyone was going to make a direct comparison to Frances McDormand and no one could survive that because Frances’ performance was so Oscar winning and iconic. So, I snuck “Molly” in through the side door. I created “Vern,” and I gave him a pregnant wife, and my thought was well the audience will go oh, I see what they’re doing, they just switched this and now the wife is pregnant but he’s having a baby, and then I kill him off and “Molly” has been introduced through the side door as a sidekick, so suddenly you realize only in Episode 2 that she is actually the star of the show, but at that point, you haven’t judged her against Frances McDormand. So, you’ve formed an opinion on her based on her performance versus based on somebody else’s performance.
QUESTION If we don’t see a second season for Fargo, is there any chance that we could revisit the characters you’ve created to live on in book form, and has doing Fargo opened up some new opportunities for you? Do you see any chance that you’ll turn some of your old books into a TV series?
Noah Well, there are a couple of questions there. Those characters, it’s a really fascinating thing because obviously TV is based on the idea that you fall in love with these characters, and then your reward is you get to watch them year in and year out. Obviously, we’re not satisfying that feeling for people. Are there stories to tell about “Gus” and “Molly” and “Wrench” and “Numbers” and “Malvo?” Sure. I’m sure there’s a whole world of stories to tell about them. I haven’t explored the idea of a book series or anything. Part of it is Joel and Ethan have been very patient with me, but I don’t want to turn their creation into an industry for my own gain. Part of it is also the idea at the end of the movie was “Marge” gets into bed and she’s seeing the worst case she’ll ever see and tomorrow she goes back to life as normal and that’s her reward, and that’s why you feel great about the movie is because she survived the worst thing and now she’s going to just have a baby and be a mom, and so, the reason this wasn’t a television series is because A, we’re saying it’s a true story, and if year in, year out, we just kept presenting “Molly” with these crazy Coen Brothers cases, there’s no way we could maintain that idea that it’s a true story.
And B, I think she would be such a changed person after four or five years or four or five books or whatever it was that what was that sort of best of America versus worst of America quality, she’d be in the more sort of bitter PTSD criminal minds detective as opposed to the sort of optimistic, trying to put the world back into the order that it needs to be in person. And then, as far as the books go, I write the books to be books and then I’m not out there hocking the idea that we should do this book, or that book. People ask and there are conversations, but I don’t have any specific thoughts at this moment.
Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern Pacific on the FX network.
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
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“…as much as an analysis of Nolan the filmmaker as it is an analysis of story structure within his films.”