Death Becomes Him: Noah Hawley on Bringing 'Fargo' to TV

The Fargo TV series creator resurrects a franchise that killed off its major characters nearly 20 years ago.


Credit: Chris Large, Copyright 2014, FX Networks.Credit: Chris Large, Copyright 2014, FX Networks.It was an interesting challenge, one that some said was crazy, maybe even stupid to try. Take an iconic film more than two decades old, replace every major character audiences originally loved, squeeze the new story into a brand-new format, and ditch many of the traditional television writing conventions in the process. For Noah Hawley, the writer who rebooted the Academy Award-winning film Fargo into a limited-run series on FX, the creative challenges of thinking like a Coen brother while writing like an original were too juicy to pass up. And he’s glad he did. Calling the series “the highlight of my career” in an interview with The Guardian, Hawley has been critically hailed for his work and signed a two-year agreement with the network to potentially develop a second season of the Midwestern thriller as well as other projects. Fargo’s final episode air Tuesday, leaving fans hoping that another season, packed with even bigger creative challenges, is on the way.

Get In Media: What attracted you to this particular project?

Noah Hawley: There were a couple of things. One, the challenge and the opportunity to make a Coen brothers movie, which had such a unique mixture of, in this case, drama and comedy and violence, but also more idiosyncratic storytelling, which you don’t normally get the opportunity to do on television. Usually, they either want a comedy or a drama and when you say to them, “How about some elements of magic realism or farce or absurdity?” it’s usually hard to sell them on that stuff, but in my case, I could say, “Well, I’m making a Coen brothers movie.” 

GIM: You’re best known for creating your own worlds. What was it like to write within a world that was already established?

NH: What’s fascinating about Fargo is only the first scene in the movie takes place in North Dakota, but that movie’s called Fargo because there’s something so evocative about that word. In the case of stripping all the characters out of the movie and still calling it Fargo, it really became about telling stories in this universe, in this sort of frozen tundra, a particular type of true crimes story that isn’t true. So, basically, there were no limits for me. It was basically about, “Can I tell my own story in this environment and tell it in such a way that it makes people think of the original movie?” At no point did the network or studio tell me that I couldn’t do something or that it didn’t feel Coen brothers enough. It just happened to be what I felt like was a perfect marriage of my voice and their voice in a way that never made me feel like I was imitating them.

GIM: How did you capture the Coen brothers’ voice, but also have your own spin on it?

NH: A lot of it was about looking at that movie and other movies of theirs, not with a spreadsheet, but in terms of thinking about what are the elements that made the original movie what it was?” Structurally, it’s a true-crime story. It’s not a who-done-it, so you’re meeting the characters before the crime is committed, which is really interesting. The police officer, Marge, didn’t come into the movie until the crime had been committed and that was 30 minutes into the movie, so the idea that you can bring important characters in at any point in the story is really exciting. These true-story cases don’t unfold the way that scripted narratives take place, so things happen that don’t fit neatly into the big picture. That’s the idea that I would introduce Colin Hanks’ character in the last 10 minutes of the first episode. He’s a major character, but he doesn’t come in until the end of the first episode because that’s when his role in this story starts. All those elements that you bring in to try to make it feel more like a real-life incident and less like, “Well, it’s a pilot so all the important characters have to be introduced in the first 10 minutes.”

GIM: How did you choose which elements from the original movie you were going to keep and what you were planning to add?

NH: There are no characters from the original movie in the show, so that decision was made. I mean, once you’re not including Marge, there’s no one really left. Everyone else is dead or in jail, basically, from the original movie. I had an image of two men sitting side by side in the emergency room, and one of them is a sort of mild-mannered civilized man with a broken nose and the other, who is the other? That sort of Strangers On a Train meeting felt very Coen brothers to me and then it was about figuring out who were both men?

One of the great elements about that movie is their version of the regional inability to communicate. [William H.] Macy’s character, I don’t think he finishes a sentence in the whole movie. There’s this sort of exaggerated politeness where you don’t even want to make a declarative sentence for fear of offending someone by having an opinion. The challenge of writing characters who manage to communicate their point but not in the most direct way was a really fun exercise. Usually as a writer, you’re looking for the perfect word to express something, but here the idea was, “Why use one word when 10 words will do?”

GIM: Did working on a limited-run series like this change or affect your writing process?

NH: Yeah, you know that you’re telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s very liberating. If you know where you’re going then every step of the way becomes a deliberate step in that direction. If you’re going, “Well, we’re going to be on for seven seasons, we hope” and you were introducing a conspiracy that [you’re] going to explore for four seasons, you end up with a lot of open-ended pieces. In this case, we were writing a movie, really. It’s not a television show in that it’s not designed to last. It’s designed to burn quickly and therefore you can introduce major characters and you can give them hugely dramatic moments and you can kill them off because you’re not worried about, “Well, what if people love that character and we want them back in Season 3?” It allowed me to make really specific choices and deliberate choices to tell the story in the most dramatic way possible and I think you’ll see it if you watch all 10 [episodes]. We don’t leave anything standing.

GIM: The last time I interviewed you, you stated that with network television, the general rule is that if you have 22 episodes, 12 of them are great, four of them are good, and the rest are…

NH: Worse than that.

GIM: Yeah.

NH: Television, historically, is the best you can do in the time allotted. [With only 10 episodes], having all the scripts written before you start filming, you’ve done all the plotting and planning before you start. Then it’s just about executing that vision. With television, usually you get 12 weeks before you start shooting and if you’re lucky you’ll get three scripts in and you’ll plan out nine or 10 episodes and then, what’s going to happen in the remaining 12 episodes? You don’t have any idea and so you’re writing outlines and the network is saying, “Yeah, we don’t like that. Try a different story,” so then you just run out of time. You get eight writers each knocking out an act of the script and it’s not a graceful way to tell a story.

GIM: You guys have done pretty well in terms of ratings. Do you feel like this project could influence more networks to bring back films or other types of media as television series?

NH: I don’t know. It’s interesting to think about because people have been trying to reinvent movies as TV shows forever. What I find most interesting is the idea that when you hand a property to a writer with their own voice, like Hannibal for example to [series creator] Bryan Fuller, he has his own voice and his own vision and his own style. He’s executing a version of that story that is really unique and specific, versus when you say, “Let’s turn The Firm into a TV show.” You have to do something exciting and new with an existing property. You can’t just copy the property. I mean, these people can go out and watch Fargo the movie, which is a masterpiece, and if I were just to say, “Hey, I’m going to remake this masterpiece, but just not as well,” no one’s really going to tune in. If I say, “You know what that makes me think of? I told you this story of the time that Jerry Lundegaard hired these guys to kidnap his wife and everything went crazy, but did I tell you about the other time when Lester Nygaard…” It becomes like you’re swapping stories with the Coen brothers, basically. They told us the story of Jerry Lundegaard and I’m saying, “Hey, that makes me think of this story of Lester Nygaard.”

Fargo’s bloody finale airs Tuesday, June 17 at 10 p.m. EST/PT.

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