We asked 'Fargo' showrunner Noah Hawley to let us follow him for two days. Amazingly, he agreed
Noah Hawley didn’t look nervous, but he should have been — and for more than one reason.
The Fargo showrunner was standing outside an innocuous-looking building in Calgary preparing to start filming another day of the second season of FX’s sleeper sensation. You’ll recall Fargo debuted to ultra-low, how-dare-they-even-make-this expectations last year, then stunned fans and critics by delivering arguably an even better darkly comic crime epic than the original 1996 Coen Bros. film, scoring the Emmy for best limited series. For season 2, Hawley did the total creative reboot thing, ditching his cast to try to pull off the same trick twice — just like HBO’s True Detective, that other crime anthology drama that held the pop culture spotlight in 2014. But especially after True Detective critically face-planted last summer, the question had shifted to: Can Fargo pull off the same hugely ambitious revamp that stumped its rival?
That’s one reason Hawley should have been concerned. The other was that I just arrived to follow him around for two days. “Shadowing a TV showrunner” is an idea I’ve pitched before, yet top writer-producers always refused — having a reporter hear everything you say while working a high-stress and high-stakes job is generally considered a terrible idea. So when Hawley agreed, I was surprised, yet also not. If anybody was going to go along with this, it was Hawley, who emits a calm and candid confidence and wants Fargo to reach a broader audience. In this respect, Fargo draws another comparison to True Detective, as showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is trailed by rumblings of chaos, and even took the rather unprecedented step not allowing any press onto his season 2 set.
As if reading my mind, Hawley’s very first question after I arrived last March was what I thought of the just-released True Detective trailer. Hawley researched how many days HBO gave Pizzolatto to make his first season — about 100 for eight episodes of True Detective compared to FX giving him 82 days to make 13 hours of Fargo. Hawley pushes for more time to make Fargo because he doesn’t consider it a TV series at all. You’ll notice in interviews that Hawley uses a different, more amibtious word to describe his content. “TV is usually the best you can do in the time slotted, but I believe we’re making a movie and it needs to be perfect,” Hawley said. “We just don’t have HBO’s money. We gotta run harder and faster.”
And over the next two days, I got to see how hard and fast Hawley could run.
Day 1: Fighting to get it right: Kirsten Dunst freely noted this was not her best day on set.
Though the production was shooting episode eight, Hawley decided to re-write and re-film a crucial argument scene from the season premiere (the original version of the scene, he explained, was “a failure to achieve what I wanted”). As fans know by now, the setup for the 1979-set second season follows two warring North Dakota crime organizations, a local outfit run by the old school Gerhardt (led by Jean Smart) and a corporate-y Kansas City syndicate represented by enforcer Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett), while caught in the middle are the local police (Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson) and an average couple, Peggy and Ed (Dunst and Jesse Plemons).
This scene was right after Peggy accidentally struck a mobster with her car, and she’s begging her husband to help cover it up. The production built a garage, which was bathed in sickly green-yellow florescent light with an assortment of saw blades mounted teasingly on the wall that you naturally assumed would be used to slice somebody up (and as it turned out, they were not). Peggy’s car is a Corvair, which is some sly dark humor — it’s the vehicle Ralph Nader famously declared was “unsafe at any speed.”
“If this comes out, all the things you want — that we want — it’s over,” Dunst’s Peggy desperately told Ed. “No shop. No kids. No family.”
They cut and went again, and again, honing their performances. The scene set a record for the most number of takes in the production. Dunst struggled to convey the perfect mix of desperation, panic, loving empathy, and threatening guile. A visiting FX executive leaned over to Hawley: “Why did you have to write such complicated emotions?” she murmured.
The Spider-Man actress was the first person cast this season and she felt like she was taking a bit of a risk getting into a TV series. Hawley helped reassure Dunst with an intuitive email sent the night before she started filming. “It made me cry it was so thoughtful,” she said. “He so eloquently put Peggy’s journey into words and said that he has confidence in me. It moved me so much.”
Yet Dunst was the least concerned cast member about the one thing that scares most actors who join Fargo — conquering the show’s distinctive accent. She previously did a much heavier Minnesota accent in the film Drop Dead Gorgeous. Fargo has a dialect coach on the set who gives corrective notes to the other actors, yet quickly signed off on Dunst’s performance. The pace of a TV show compared to movies can be brutal, however, especially since super-chatty Peggy flies through pages of dialogue. “I’ve never been the kind of actress who’s like [Dunst pretends to be ditzy], ‘It’s hard to learn lines! I have so many to learn!’ ” Dunst said. “But every night it’s like cramming for a test. It feels like I’ve made four films.” The effort paid off, with Dunst’s performance nominated for a Golden Globe this week.
And as it turned out, Fargo also made Jean Smart cry, though in a different way.
Literally, a brief meeting about chickens: A production assistant had a question for Hawley. There was a scene where Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson) eats a chicken and therefore a dozen chickens had to be purchased. The assistant wanted to be sure he got the right size of chicken. He selected ones that were kind-of medium-ish. Because what if the chickens are overly plump? Or, worse, distractingly puny? This is the type of totally mundane thing that showrunners and directors have to decide every day that audiences don’t even think about. Hawley quickly approved the chickens.
Why you’re actually pretty lousy at spotting CGI: Next Hawley is filming a quick scene from behind Ed’s fireplace. It’s an “impossible perspective” shot, oft used on Plemon’s previous series, Breaking Bad. You’re peering through the inside of the fireplace into Ed’s living room. Hawley explained that a crackling fire will be added in later with CGI. It’s interesting because we all tend to assume digital effects are used for action scenes and dramatic backdrops, but it’s far more often used to accomplish the most mundane things that you never notice. CG has become spackle, duct tape, and a magic wand rolled into one.
Plemons said he was originally put off by his role’s casting description of a “cow of a man,” but Hawley successfully reassured the actor. “He’s not slow, he just sees the world in a simple way,” Plemons said.
As we chatted inside a tent, Dunst secretly hid behind a tent flap eavesdropping. She later mischievously explained: “Jesse told me he hates doing interviews, so I wanted to listen in.”
Meeting the Gerhardts: Another scene: Smart’s matriarch Floyd coolly giving orders to her three thuggish sons, including the murderous Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan, of Burn Notice fame). To explain the role to Smart, Hawley sent photos from a book of bleak Andrew Wyeth paintings, but the actress said the bigger lure was much less esoteric. “I just wanted to either shoot somebody or say ‘uff-da’ just once,” the former Designing Women star said.
Yet the part required making the 63-year-old look older, which is the opposite of nearly every makeup session Smart has ever had. “The first day they cut and dyed and styled my hair I burst into tears,” Smart confessed. “But after 10 minutes, I was fine and I loved it. That it’s not a glamour role is incredibly liberating. This must be what’s it’s like to be a [male actor], where you’re just thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about — your character and the scene — instead of thinking, ‘Oh my God, why are they shooting me from that angle?’ You don’t have to care about looking skinny, or where’s the camera.”
Nearby, Donovan waited between setups. He was quite the sight in Dodd’s gold chain, sideburns and steel-tipped boots. “He’s probably the most ambitious character in the show and doesn’t fear anybody — except, in some ways, his mother,” Donovan noted about Dodd.
Hawley wasn’t the only one who felt some pressure to live up to the first season. Many in the show’s cast confessed to feeling that weight as well. “The first season is a high bar,” Donovan said. “I’ve never been part of something where they won all these awards and now you come in and they’ve changed everything and now it’s up to you to accomplish the same thing. But also there’s so much talent all around you that sometimes you forgot you’re in a scene and you’re just watching and admiring the other actors. Suddenly you’re like, ‘Holy s—, I’m not doing my job!’ “
Which might have been what happened during one of Donovan’s takes with Smart, where he blanked on one of his lines.
“I was having an Alzheimer’s moment,” Donovan explained to Smart afterward, then joked: “I should talk to you about that.”
Smart shot back: “Me? Have we met?”
About that split screen: Editing bay: Hawley watched a rough cut of the third episode and gave notes to the editor — cut that scene here, move that insert shot there. Editing an average show is complicated enough, but when you add in a large ensemble cast embarking on separate adventures in separate locations, the number of possible ways to cut together an episode become exponentially dizzying.
Hawley complicated this process even more by using a split screen to show different characters going about their business in different places. It was a daring move, and Hawley was concerned about making sure he was using it to help viewers keep track of his story, rather than merely seeming stylish or distracting.
“We’re tracking so many characters, and we have so many threats coming from so many angles, you want to keep pressure on the audience,” he explained. “I’m just trying to tell the story better. But the execution has to be perfect if you’re bringing people into a story in way they’re not used to.”
As a new scene began on his editor’s screen, a title card popped up to orientate the audience further: “Luverne, Minnisota.”
Hawley told the editor as gently as he could. “I don’t think you spelled ‘Minnesota’ right, my friend.”
An extremely boring meeting takes an unexpected turn: A scheduling meeting: This is when the next week of production is planned — as in, what scenes from what episodes will be shot where, and on what days, and in what order. If that sounds dull, well, yes. It’s deeply boring, thankless, detail-oriented, brain-numbing, non-glamorous work.
Hawley was seated with fellow executive producer Warren Littlefield, who was a legendary NBC executive in the 1990s. Hawley is the driving creative force of Fargo, but Littlefield is also hands-on behind the scenes. They chatted with assistant director Philip Chipera who was tasked with figuring out the schedule.
The catered lunch for this meeting included these deep-fried mashed potato-filled egg rolls smothered with sour cream, bacon, and chives. It’s difficult to explain how good these were. And for several minutes as the producers discussed production mechanics, the egg rolls are by far the most interesting things in the room. So I was entirely focused on trying not to crunch too loudly lest I look like a dork in front of Fargo’s showrunner and the man who greenlit Seinfeld and otherwise mentally tuning out of their conversation when several massive end-of-season spoilers were casually mentioned. Hawley glanced at me with a little concern; I abruptly stopped eating, staring back, wide-eyed and mid-crunch. But since I don’t reveal spoilers anyway, and because I actually missed hearing most of them due to aforementioned mashed potato egg rolls, the producers really had nothing to worry about.
Conversation then shifted as Chipera told Hawley he really loved his scripts, but that the showrunnner needs to trim something to fit the schedule. “I ran about 10 different scenarios this weekend trying to save just one day of production,” Chipera said, then he paused, seemingly unsure of whether to recommend losing a specific scene. Hawley picked up on it. “You’re not going to hurt my feelings,” he assured.
The good news for Hawley was that Chipera was recently able to squeeze in one nifty moment, and we got to see it the next day.
Day 2: Brad Garrett makes you feel short. We were in a Calgary civic building ready to shoot a scene from early in the season. This scene was the one originally cut from the schedule, then rescued. The Kansas City syndicate was having a boardroom meeting led by Brad Garrett’s character, Joe Bula, who gave a slideshow presentation on their Gerhardt family takeover plan. You can file this scene under “inessential yet awesome.”
“When in need of serious drama,” Hawley said, “do a slideshow.”
Hawley inspected the real-life conference room that will be used. There was a very long heavy wood table, but not in the “right” place. “Even blandness needs to be designed,” Hawley said and he grabbed one end of the table. I got the other end, and we strained to scooch it along, two thin guys attempting to lift heavy oak. A production assistant entered and was alarmed to see Fargo‘s Emmy-winning showrunner and some random reporter moving furniture: “We have set decorators who can do that! Sir!”
Once the stage was set, Brad Garrett entered. At 6-foot-8, he’s like a tourist-attraction monument whose size you don’t appreciate until you see him in real life. Hiring a former sitcom actor to play a humorless thug follows Hawley’s strategy of tempting well-known stars best known for comedy for a chance to shine in minor but dramatic roles (this year Fargo also has Ted Danson and Nick Offerman, while last season included Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, and Bob Odenkirk). Garrett nonetheless had to audition for the part. “I’ve never played a character like this, I gotta bring my A-game,” he said between takes. “And it’s interesting to play humor with a guy who isn’t trying to be funny; he’s funny despite himself.”
“The one thing is I don’t do my own stunts,” Garrett noted afterward. “They had to get a guy to even run for me — that’s how much of a non-athlete I am!”
The great and secret book: Fargo is full of tangents that only appear to be tangents. Last season, there were anecdotes and parables that felt like detours, but all were there for a reason. There wasn’t as much of that this season, which instead featured different kinds of departures — like the UFO teases and the arrival of a campaigning Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell).
“You can’t do the same gimmicks again,” the showrunner noted later. “You need all-new gimmicks.”
Another left-turn was in Monday’s penultimate episode and the introduction of The Big Book of True Crime in the Midwest, a sort of meta-universe tome that theoretically contains all the fabled Fargo stories, past and future. On a practical level the scene meant creating a prop book that included text and images inside that will be briefly glimpsed on screen. The prop master asked Hawley what kind of leather the book should have. How ornate is the cover? What kind of images does he want? And who will take on the thankless task of writing the tiny text inside the book that will pan by so quickly that viewers will have to freeze-frame to actually read it?
“I’ll write it,” Hawley quickly volunteered.
This, more than anything else I saw two days on the Fargo set, was the thing that impressed me the most. Hawley wrote the scripts for his entire first season, which is extremely rare. He wisely got some help writing his more ambitious second season. And after you get a sense of time-consuming responsibilities and dizzying number of decisions that a showrunner has when making a series, it seems particularly insane that Hawley would spend a fair amount of his extremely packed schedule to personally write a bunch of text for a prop book; paragraphs that won’t even be noticed by 99.9 percent of Fargo viewers. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it takes to have your own breakout TV show, that’s it.
Season 3 musings / downtime. For the principals, if not the crew, there is a fair amount of downtime on any set. So Hawley waited for fake snow to be added around a downtown courthouse. It was been a very mild winter in Calgary, but Hawley said this gave the year a distinctive “browner” look. The important thing is generating a sense of quiet rural isolation, not the snow. It’s like how the actual town of Fargo is barely seen in the film or the series, but it’s the name that’s key. When you break down the town’s name, it’s perfectly evocative: “Far” and “go.“
A bored member of crew started helpfully doing my job by quizzing Hawley about his season 3 plans.
Maybe go into the future next time? “Space Station Fargo: Year 2550,” Hawley replied.
How about you go in progression to the 1980s? “Nah, that’s too … neat.”
What about going further back in time? “Yes, let’s go way back and have everybody speaking Swedish.”
Months later (just last week, in fact) Hawley revealed season 3 will take place just a couple years after season 1, making it likely next year will be the first time that has at least one cast member returns from a prior year.
The Massacre at Sioux Falls. It was time for a visual effects meeting, but this was the only meeting Hawley wouldn’t let me witness, despite my anti-spoiler promises. The meeting rather precisely detailed the fabled Massacre at Sioux Falls. So I wandered into Hawley’s open office instead. His walls were covered with production photos. There was nothing decorative or personal there.
During the break I did pick up a compelling Hawley Fun Fact from a production member: He has an identical twin brother, Alexi. This is not so unusual in itself, but what’s hugely odd, if not downright unprecedented and Coen Bros.-esque, is that his brother is also a showrunner of a popular TV series — Alexi Hawley is currently co-running ABC’s Castle. Unasked question from my notes: “Ask if they ever secretly switch jobs without anybody knowing.”
Enter the cops: Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson play war-haunted veterans turned local cops this season, and on set they were preparing for a gunfight scene at a cabin. Fat cinematic snowflakes rained down, a rare snowfall during this mild Calgary winter, and they matched Danson’s white beard.
One of the first things you notice when talking to Danson is he makes strong eye contact. Many stars don’t do this, preferring to stare over your shoulder, or into the distance, as if addressing an unseen camera. Danson noted the prospect of learning the Fargo accent “scared the hell” out of him, so he started working on as soon as he landed the role, and practices every morning before coming to set. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to being in a musical,” he said.
Hawley told Danson his sheriff character is like a “cowboy poet,” which the actor finds apt. “As with Shakespeare, the words are right; I need to bring myself up to the level of the words,” Danson said, then considered: “I don’t want to fluff Noah up too much, okay, he may not be quite as good as Shakespeare, but the words are right. There is stuff that happens this season that’s astounding. Very far out. Yet it’s earned. And that he gets away with it makes him such a great writer.”
Danson was probably alluding to those UFO references this season which indeed eventually paid off (if you’re wondering about the UFO, best to read this Q&A with Hawley covering that episode).
Next it was Wilson’s turn to chat. He’s somehow able to make polyester maroon pants look fashionable in the role he took over from Keith Carradine, who played a much older Lou in the first season. Rather than try to play a young Carradine, Wilson said he tried to make the character his own, complete with the accent that Carradine skipped. “There is a lot of years between the two,” Wilson figured. “He’s at a different place in his life. Maybe Lou left and went to Southern California for awhile.”
Suddenly, Wilson and Danson were given surprising news: Their gunfight scene was being pushed until the next day. The reason is ironic: Too much snow. Filming outside the cabin won’t match the earlier snow-less footage.
Departure: As it turned out, Hawley was right about the snow. Nobody watching this season is talking about what the ground cover looks like. Instead they’re probably thinking about how every character is somebody you actually care about, even if you don’t particularly like them. A foreboding dread has hung over this year and every time a player is removed from the board it feels like a loss — and that’s probably the best compliment you can give a series nowadays. Fargo season 2 not only surpassed True Detective and avoided the sophomore slump, but one wonders if FX put Fargo in the Emmy’s drama series category instead of miniseries, whether Fargo or this year’s winner Game of Thrones would come out on top next season (or another title all together).
So perhaps Hawley didn’t have anything to be nervous about after all. Or more accurately, that it’s precisely because of his perfectionistic drive to keep improving every single chicken-sized element of Fargo that he now can feel some relief. Sure, Fargo‘s ratings haven’t improved, but that’s okay. It’s easy to forget Breaking Bad took years to become a hit, then exploded in popularity. Better Call Saul may be the prequel to Breaking Bad, yet Fargo feels more like its unofficial heir.
At one point on set, Hawley said: “It’s getting harder and harder to make something timeless. There’s so much now and it’s thrown at you so fast. Everyone has The Godfather or Citizen Kane at the top of their lists of best movies, but if they were made today would they still be on the list? Those movies became iconic because they stood alone. Now you sit in Transformers 5 and you’re seeing things the human eye has never seen and yet you’re bored. My goal is to do something … more.”