Fargo's wood-chipper turns 20: A brief oral history
Two decades after the release of Fargo, the snowbanks of our memory are still splattered with Steve Buscemi’s body parts. After searching two states for fugitives Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) comes across a grisly, unforgettable sight: Grimsrud feeding his accomplice into a wood chipper.
On the 20th anniversary of the Coen brothers’ classic release, Peter Stormare, production designer Rick Heinrichs,, and cinematographer Roger Deakins, recall how the bloody scene came together.
When Fargo first went into production, not everyone involved expected it to become as influential as it did.
ROGER DEAKINS: It was quite a low-budget film, Fargo. After [The Hudsucker Proxy], the Coen brothers said, “We’re going to do this little low-budget film in Minnesota.”
RICK HEINRICHS: My wife tells me I was laughing out loud as I first read the script for Fargo, though her own reaction was one more of appalled horror.
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Like everything Joel and Ethan Coen put into their frame, the chipper needed to be perfect.
HEINRICHS: Joel and Ethan wanted the machine to feel both utilitarian and familiar. We researched various wood chippers based on what size would frame up well for Peter Stormare. We had to hide the brand name because, after all, what company would give permission to have their potentially deadly yard implement put to apparent deadly use? There was a chipper brand called the Wood Chuck on the market, so I called ours the Eager Beaver, painted it caution yellow, and put logos and hazard stickers all over it.
DEAKINS: The wood chipper was worked out well in advance. Once the chipper started, [the blood] would be everywhere. You couldn’t do take 2.
Despite testing perfectly the day before, there were technical difficulties on the day of the shoot.
PETER STORMARE: The brothers said, “Let’s test the machine once, so that we know it really works and something comes spurting out.” It was supposed to be, like, spaghetti and meat sauce and some red coloring.
DEAKINS: [The wood chipper] was misbehaving. There’s something about mechanics and film sets. They always break down.
STORMARE: They tried again and again. Nothing happened. Instead of starting to scream, the brothers said, “You better have it working tomorrow. We can shoot something else today, but tomorrow, it better be working.” We came back the next day, and it worked.
DEAKINS: We were playing with the foot sticking out of the wood chipper and the way it bobbled…. It was kind of gross shooting it, frankly.
STORMARE: Buscemi was not in the wood chipper, as many people think. It was a prop leg, a prosthetic. They asked me to push the leg down with my hand. I remember this vividly because I’m a country boy. I said, “I can’t push it down with my hand, unless I’m a moron.” So I took a piece of firewood. Then I said, “I can use this as a weapon when she draws her gun. Maybe I can knock her out with it.” They said, “How do you mean?” “I’ll throw it.” “Okay, let’s try it.” I pushed it down with my fire log, and when she comes, I throw it at her. I missed her, and she ducked a little, which was kind of cooler. It was a single take, and the machine worked perfectly.
Since then, the scene has become a noir classic, capturing Fargo‘s unique mix of shocking violence and twisted humor
STORMARE: It is a crazy little scene. We all debated: Is this really good?
DEAKINS: I remember laughing.
HEINRICHS: Enough film talk— I just want to laugh again at Carl’s socked foot hopping up and down inside the maw of the chipper feeder!