Can Fargo do it again?

The first season of FX’s small-town crime thriller impressed critics, stunned skeptical Coen brothers devotes, and earned 18 Emmy nominations. But now showrunner Noah Hawley is attempting a complete creative reboot for season two. There’s a new small town setting (Luverne, Minnesota), a new time period (1979), a new story (about rival mob gangs) and new characters (including a married couple played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons and a young, not-yet-cast version of the first season’s retired state cop Lou Solverson). Below, Hawley answers EW’s burning questions about his creative plan—and also addresses that other crime anthology show.

EW: What excites you most about the second season?

Noah Hawley: The scope of the storytelling this season is a lot bigger—thematically, on a character level, and story-wise. It has more of an epic feel to it. That’s exciting. Within that expansion, we’re still holding onto that Fargo tone. My feeling was that Joel and Ethan never repeat themselves, so the show would be false if we just tried to do the same thing again. We should take their example.

What can you tell us about the story this season?

It’s about a small-town married couple who find themselves caught in the middle of a war between the last of the mom-and-pop crime syndicates and an out-of-town new corporate crime syndicate. It’s about how the couple manages that situation.

How big is the core cast compared to last year?

Last year, you could call it a four-hander—Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman were really the core. We’ve probably doubled that in terms of the characters that we’re really invested in this time. Their stories are all connected. You’re essentially seeing different perspectives on the same story. One of the things I am attracted to is creating sympathy for characters you might not normally feel sympathetic toward. For example, with Glenn Howerton’s [fitness trainer] character last year—he was sort of a buffoon, but you felt bad for him the way he went out. Or the idea that you might really be rooting for one character going into a room, then come out rooting for the other guy. I think that’s what makes storytelling more interesting.

Yes, you tend to have a strong sense of empathy for your characters.

I think that’s especially important. I never want to be accused of mocking this region or the people from this region. We have our share of idiots on the show, but they’re not idiots because of where they’re from. They’re idiots because they’re idiots. Even then, I think we underestimate people. Under the auspice of [the show’s faux disclaimer] “this is a true story,” you can also avoid the more familiar storytelling tropes. Like in the movie Fargo, when Bill Macy gets arrested at the end, Marge [Frances McDormand] is nowhere to be seen because he’s in a different jurisdiction. It’s less dramatic on one level, but it doesn’t make it less interesting.

What does the time period change get you?

In 2006, which is the year the first season was set in, it was a boom time for America. Obviously, we were fighting two wars, but in terms of people’s sense of security at home, I think people in a small town were feeling relatively safe and secure. When this violence came to town it was really shocking. In 1979 in Laverne, Minnesota—a smaller town, about half the size of Bemidji in the first season—you’ve had all your assassinations in the late 60s, you’ve had the Vietnam War, you’ve had Watergate. You’re in an economic recession with gas lines. There’s a real sense that men like Lou Solverson and other veterans have brought this war home with them. There’s a parallel, time-wise, with No Country For Old Men, which took place in ’80 or ’81. As Tommy Lee Jones says, “Crime these days, you just can’t take its measure.”

When you get that small and remote of a town, and go that far back in time, it almost gets a little Wild West—and things like cell phones and DNA testing are no longer on the table.

True. North Dakota is the frontier, even in ’79. It’s a frontier mentality, and there is a Western feel to [the season]. It’s not the ’70s in a Boogie Nights way, but it was the hangover, the morning after the ’60s, the moment before Ronald Reagan came in with his “shining city on a hill.” The idea is this was the lowest moment in American history since the Depression. We also have a Miller’s Crossing component—Gabriel Byrne was caught in a war between two sort-of rival gangs; we have a similar dynamic.

You mentioned that you owe it to the franchise to not do season two the same as season one. How similar is the tone?

I may be too close to it to really say for sure. We haven’t shot a frame yet. The actors make all the difference, on a certain level. I think if you go back and watch the movie Fargo, it’s actually more comic than you remember. We tend to remember Marge’s dignity and the brutality of the violence and Bill Macy’s amazing performance. So I felt that if I aimed to match the tone of the movie exactly, people would think I had gotten it wrong.

Also, the fact that [the show is] a 10-hour story, and not a two-hour story, you really have to take these characters seriously and the stakes for them have to be real. There’s a reason we started calling it No Country for Old Fargo—it has to have that life-or-death quality.

We definitely have captured that here. One of the things I really liked about the feedback to season one is that Fargo brought back basic human decency as a storytelling device. It wasn’t like Good versus Evil, with a capital “G.” It was basically decent people who were trying to overcome this great evil. I think that is the core identity of Fargo and something that is very much there in this next season, but it’s set during a more unsettled time. It’s not about protecting this bucolic world that they have. It’s about fighting to re-create that world because it has disappeared on them.

So even though young Lou is in season two, did you end up resisting a flash forward to Keith Carradine’s older version of the character from season one?

I don’t have any plans for it. There’s this thing that we have to avoid—nostalgia on any level for our own work. I would work with [the first season cast] until the end of my days if I could. It was such an amazing experience. But I worry that it would get precious. We all think we really want a sequel to a movie, and then we get it and we’re like, “You know, we didn’t really want a sequel to that movie.”

The winter weather played a key role in the first season, but this time you’re starting later.

I think we were shooting the first week of November last time around. We are not shooting until mid-January.We definitely have [winter weather] in the first half of the season. It’s going to get to spring on us, but I think that’s interesting to see. I think it’s interesting to see what happens in the region and how it changes and if it can still be Fargo if it’s not the icy tundra.

You showed a penchant for fables and anecdotes. Is that the same this time?

No, I feel like that would get gimmicky. There’s a huge thematic underpinning for me. And that sub-textual work is still there, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be the random Bible parable perhaps, but that’s not the driving sense of the show this year.

I love the way the first season was directed. I know the Coen brothers are the inspiration, but I also thought about Stanley Kubrick a lot. Is that going to be the same, and do you have any directors signed on?

Yeah, Randall Einhorn is coming back. He did episodes three and four for us last year. He’s going to do the opener and two other episodes for us. He did that great episode where Billy was arrested and became a Minnesotan, which I just thought was perfectly executed. I’m going to direct this year, and we have a couple other directors coming in.

Going back to the ’70s, it’s great from a visual standpoint. It’s really specific and very fun on a production design level. I think we’re going to stick within the classic filmmaking language that we used last season. You don’t see any Steadicam work or shaky, handheld stuff in a Coen brothers movie. There’s a lot of deliberate moving of the camera. There’s a language to it and a pace that we established in the first season, which is definitely a signature of the show.

It had sort of a heavy, foreboding presence to it.

The interesting thing about the Coens is that a lot of their movies are really horror movies. There’s that same sensibility on a moral level of “don’t go in the basement. If you transgress, you’ll be punished.” If you think about Blood Simple or No Country, when Josh Brolin is sitting on the bed in the motel and you see the light under the door—it’s the tension, the pace of it, that creates that dread.

Or even Barton Fink—that hellish hotel room.

Right, yeah. It’s that oppressive ambiance. It’s about letting it breathe. You can’t rush it. It’s a message that is established by that sense of foreboding, of “I’m here and I’m waiting.” The more I wait, the tenser I get.

True Detective is perceived as your rival. What do you think of the show, and does that rivalry have any reality to it?

I don’t really know what that is. I went to an Austin film festival this year and spent a lot of time with [True Detective season one director] Cary Fukunaga, who is a true gentleman and artist. I had a great time catching up with him. I don’t think there’s a rivalry. We weren’t even submitted in the same category at the Emmys. It’s not like we were competing with each other.* We’re two anthological shows with great, cinematic ambitions, but I certainly don’t feel a rivalry—unless [Nic Pizzolatto is] trash talking me behind my back!?

Who knows!

Look: I love this moment in television, and I think the fact that Nic can be making that show at HBO and we can make what we’re making, and we got another Vince Gilligan show to look forward to… the number of voices out there are doing interesting, original work around the globe… it’s crazy. I heard there were something like 350 television series currently in production. It’s a staggering number.

Last time, the Coen brothers blessed you to go off and make your own show. Did they give any input this season?

No, they’re making Hail, Caesar in warm Los Angeles, while I’m up here freezing my buns off again. I spoke with them at the beginning and we sent them material. But they go into the rabbit hole of their work and we’re all richer for it. I think they’re thrilled at the success of the first season. I don’t know what level of ownership they feel over any of it, or whether they’re just sort of amused that it’s something that’s going on without them.

Is their lack of feedback slightly maddening because you’re always wondering what they think of the choices you make?

Do we all want a phone call from our heroes on a weekly basis telling us how great we are, and does it make the job harder on that basis? Of course. Look, I have such deep respect for those guys that I value any conversations I have with them or any input into filmmaking or storytelling. But I’d say that since they don’t really want to contribute to the story, it makes it simpler on a professional level. When you’re telling stories with a lot of moving pieces that have to unfold in a very specific way, it’s easier to have a singular vision. So while I would love any insight or opinions they have, we’re plugging on without it.

Previous: Read an exclusive script page from the season 2 premiere of Fargo.

*This interview was conducted before Fargo and True Detective were nominated for the same Golden Globes best miniseries category—so while the two titles weren’t directly competing before, they are this month.

For more on this winter’s most promising TV programming, pick up this week’s issue of EW.

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An anthology series Inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same name.
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