With FX’s series “Fargo,” premiering Tuesday, showrunner Noah Hawley had the daunting task of adapting the beloved 1996 Coen Brothers film for the small screen. While the series employs different characters and a different storyline than the film, the frigid, folksy shadow of the original still sets high expectations.
TheWrap spoke to Hawley about the search for a leading lady that wouldn’t be overshadowed by Francis McDormand’s iconic Marge and creating a new kind of bad guy with Billy Bob Thornton‘s Lorne Malvo. The showrunner, who previously worked on “My Generation,” “The Originals” and “Bones,” also talked about the miniseries’ prospects beyond its initial 10-episode run.
TheWrap: Let’s start with the big, broad question: Why a TV adaptation of “Fargo”?
FX said we want to do this as a series, and they said, “We wanted to do this as a series. We’re wondering if you can make it without Marge.” By which they meant any of the characters in the movie — and, I think, rightly so. Hers is such an iconic character and an iconic performance that it’s just going to feel like an imitation.
What they were really saying is, “Do you think you can make this as a Coen brothers movie set in this region,” which the Coens have described as Siberia with family restaurants.
That forced me to think about, what makes this movie this movie, and what makes a Coen brothers movie a Coen brothers movie. And then the journey was to figure out what the underlying story was and write the scripts, but also to turn those scripts into work that could hopefully stand up to the work of two of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
That’s a pretty tall order.
Yeah. I don’t know if it’s hubris or foolishness on my part, but it was fun to do, I tell you that, for better or worse.
The Coen brothers are executive producing on the series. How much input did they have in the project?
Well, they could have had more, but they weren’t really interested in engaging creatively with the material aside from having read the first episode and being really excited about it. I had a conversation with them, which was a really nice thing for me, but they said, “Look, it’s not our medium. We don’t know television or really understand [it]. We wouldn’t be helpful to you in making a television show.”
Plus they were launching “Llewyn Davis” at the time and they had another movie they wanted to make behind it, and they told me to go make my show. Their faith in me was very kind, and I hoped that I have lived up to it.
So they didn’t tell you, “There’s a woodchipper in your future if you screw up our beloved classic”?
No, I don’t think so. At a certain point you don’t want to be the guy who ruined the Coen brothers, but even if I didn’t get it right, I think it would be such a small blip on the radar of their work that I think they’d feel well-insulated.
The cast includes Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks. Was there any difficulty in getting any of them on board?
No, actually, when it came together, it came together really quickly. I think the biggest hurdle was the first one, which was conceptual, to say, we wanted to make a 10-hour movie and we wanted to cast it like a movie and we wanted to go after a caliber of feature actors who would do the movie version, not the TV version. That’s all fine to say, but then you have to go out and get that cast.
Billy was the first piece; there was no one else I wanted for it and we offered it to him. I met with him and he loved the material. I was prepared to do a whole dog and pony show, but he didn’t require one. And then Martin Freeman came into the mix for Lester, and then suddenly with the two of them attached, then our phones started to ring and people understood that we were very close to pulling off a great cast, and people wanted to be part of it. Which is that thing you can’t control — the buzz around a project.
On the other side, you have relative newcomer Allison Tolman in the pivotal role of Molly Solverson. What led to that casting decision?
We auditioned a lot of actresses, obviously. A lot of actresses walking into a casting room in Santa Monica wearing parkas and saying, “Cold enough for ya, chief?” And a lot of great actresses. But then a tape came in from Chicago, and there was Allison. And she felt sort of effortlessly grounded and she got all the nuance and humor of it without being comic.
When you bring somebody new in, there are zero expectations about them, and I think that worked to our advantage. I think it also works to our advantage that she wasn’t set up in the first episode to be the hero, and so I think people give her a chance that they wouldn’t if we’d said, “OK, here’s our ‘Marge.’”
There’s really not a point in trying to re-create that character, because it was so well-done in the first place.
Well, in the process of setting up in the first episode that you have the chief of police who’s a man, who’s got a pregnant wife, and the audience, maybe they think, “OK, I see what they’ve done, they’ve just reversed it, and he’s our hero and he has a pregnant wife at home.” And so people say, “OK, well, that’s clever,” but then of course that turns out to be not the hero at all of the series, so my hope is that by pushing people out of that pattern of expectations, they have to watch what you’re showing them as opposed to the movie that they’re playing in their head.
“Fargo” is billed as a limited series, and often shows that are initially limited series suddenly transform into ongoing series once they’re a hit. Is there the possibility that “Fargo” could evolve into an anthology series along the lines of “American Horror Story,” with a new story every season?
Yes, I think that’s possible. I’ve had those conversations with the network. For me it came down to that very first conversation. What I pitched to FX is, it’s the best of America versus the worst of America. If we all decide that we’re happy with this first 10-hour movie and I think that I might have another 10-hour movie in me, it wouldn’t necessarily involve any of the same characters or story.
Billy Bob Thornton‘s character, Lorne Malvo, has sort of a reverse-“Touched By an Angel” thing going on — he shows up and inspires people to do bad things. How did that character come about?
He’s a manipulator, he’s sort of a low-key type character. But what I liked is the idea that there’s this sort of running theme in the Coens’ work that also exists in “Fargo,” which is this conflict between the civilized world and the wilderness, for lack of a better term. You see it with Bill Macy thinking that he can hire these guys who don’t live by the rules of society and somehow still control them.
I like the idea that Billy’s character is really attracted to this idea as he travels through this uptight, polite society, he’s really compelled by the idea of, “How far can I push these people to become uncivilized?” Whether it’s getting a guy to urinate in his boss’ gas tank, or getting someone to do something far worse. It’s that interesting motivation that is not about power or money, really.
You’ve talked about this being a 10-hour movie. What are the challenges of bringing a cinematic scope to the small screen?
I think the bar has been raised really high in the past few years. Obviously, HBO has been doing it, and “Breaking Bad” was a huge step in that direction as well. It’s about telling the story with the camera as opposed to telling the story with the people talking to each other. And the minute that you step away from telling the story through dialogue, you’re entering into a more cinematic world. That was really exciting for me, and that was the bar — obviously, Joel and Ethan are iconic filmmakers, and their work is incredibly cinematic.
You look at “No Country” — every shot in that movie builds the story forward, there’s no fat on it at all. They’re not flashy shot-makers the way that they used to be, but there’s a tension on a filmmaking standpoint that we felt that we had to rise to.
Is there any hint of redemption for anybody in “Fargo” by the time the series winds up?
I think there is. One of the mandates that I felt I had, based on the body of work that I was riffing off of, is, there’s no melodrama in the Coen brothers’ world. They never try to manipulate you emotionally into feeling something. There’s no sad piano music that comes in. There’s a dryness to it, there’s a draw-your-own-conclusion message to it.
So, this idea of redemption: all these characters have journeys, otherwise there wouldn’t be drama. Gus and Molly are gonna see some things and do some things that they never thought that they would see or do, and the question is, well where does that leave that them in the end? And the same thing with Lester, Martin’s character; hopefully, what people will see as an incredible journey and he’s very much changed by it, but [whether it’s] for better or worse, that’s for the audience to decide.
So no “This is where the strings come in” moments?
Exactly. Which is one of the delightful things about getting out of broadcast network television and onto FX, is that when you say you’re making a Coen brothers movie, and that’s part of making a Coen Brothers movie, they say, “Great.”