Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley explains why Chris Rock is perfect for season 4
Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley sits on a patio table in an Austin, Texas cafe discussing his Emmy-winning anthology drama's upcoming fourth season with a reporter. It's Feb. 25, 2020. Hawley had just finished writing his season finale script, the show was in its final weeks of filming in Chicago, and the first episode was expected to premiere on FX in April. We were sitting there without masks, without virus anxiety, and with no sense of the pandemic tsunami that was about to change the world – as well as delaying the publication of this interview and the Fargo premiere itself (now Sept. 27).
That's the unique context for the following time capsule of a pre-season chat. But the particularities of Hawley's insight into the upcoming season are just as relevant today as they were back in February. Fargo season 4 stars Chris Rock as Loy Cannon, the head of a Black crime family in 1950 who trades his youngest son to the Italian mafia. In return, the Italian mobsters surrender one of their sons to Loy. That's the initial setup, and then things get very Fargo-ian complicated from there. "This is certainly the biggest story we've tried to tell – it's going to be like 25 main characters this season," Hawley says.
Below Hawley talks about season 4 (spoiler-free), casting Rock, and gives some hints about the Star Trek movie he's writing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before season 4, you were giving off the vibe you might be done with Fargo. How close did you come to not doing this season?
NOAH HAWLEY: I feel no pressure when I end one to do another one. The land grabs mr chill. So, yeah, no. And [studio] MGM, they understand, "Oh, we'll just leave him alone, he'll get there on his own timetable." I'm sure the timetable is not their favorite. It's like 18 months, two years, three years between these things.
Was this always going to be a Fargo story? It's different enough from the others that I could imagine it starting out as something else.
It was always going to be a Fargo story. The origins of any story become a bit hazy because there's so much work that comes afterward. But like for the third year, the idea came almost complete, which was: There are two brothers and their dad died and he left one of them a stamp collection and the other one Corvette and the smarter brother knew the stamps were going to appreciate and the Corvette was going to depreciate. So he tricked his brother into trading and he became a success and his brother became a failure. I was like, "Oh, that's an interesting idea. That feels like Fargo to me."
This one was a similar kind of thing. I was really intrigued by this certain Kansas city group introduced in season two, and just had this idea of doing a show about the history of America on some level. Fargo has always felt like the story of America, even when it was Marge Gunderson and Bill Macy [in the 1996 Fargo movie]. There are two groups and in order to keep the peace they trade their youngest sons, and that's the start. That takes a story about immigration and assimilation and turns it into something much more personal.
Fargo is not just a place, it's a type of story where truth is stranger than fiction. So then the actual story itself doesn't have to be the same each time, it can be scaled up or scaled-down, it just has to fill that mind-space. I joke about doing a Fargo 5051 in a space station – you could do that story, as long as its in that mind-space.
How did Chris Rock come to mind? I spoke to him the other day and his casting was a surprise even to him.
For me casting is instinctual on some level. I thought of the story and I thought of him. There's the voice that Chris has and you think about him as an entrepreneur, as someone who started with very little, and who's built his own reality. Literally, through his command of language and the stage he built a career for himself. And then, he's aged, the way we've all aged, and has had some setbacks. If you watched his last [stand-up comedy] special, you know he's learned some hard lessons. He just filled the right space for me.
Luckily it wasn't a hard conversation. I called FX from the set of Lucy and said, "Here's the basic idea and I want to cast Chris Rock." They got really excited about it. Chris came to the set two weeks later and I pitched him the thing and luckily he was a Fargo enthusiast and he was in. There wasn't a script for six more months. I've never done it that way before. There's always been a script first. Obviously there are a lot of stories in this season that aren't my story. I have my own immigrant story and my own American story, but I don't claim to think it represents everybody's stories. So it's very important to have partners and writers and directors that reflected the experiences of the characters in the story.
Yes, Chris said every once in a while he would make a suggestion or push back on something for the sake of authenticity?
There was this scene in the first year in the first hour of him showing up at this bank and there was a guard outside the door who wouldn't let him in through the "white" door. He had to go in through the "colored" door. He says in the script, "I have a meeting with the president of your bank and if he's showing me the respect of sitting down with me, don't you think I should get the respect of walking through this door?" I thought it said a lot about his hubris. And Chris said to me, "I've seen that scene in every historical drama." And then he came to me with the idea of what if he gets stopped going out the "white" door. I've never seen that. Ultimately I ended having him come out through the wrong door and the guard saying, "Hey that's the wrong door" and he doesn't even turn his head. That ended up being a more powerful statement.
There is also a scene where an Italian family gets turned away at the hospital, which feels like a bit of a twist on the scene in The Godfather where Vito is taken to the hospital. You realize, "Oh, they were discriminated against too."
The Italians didn't have it so hot either. The interesting dynamic is, is that [both families are] underdogs. Neither of these groups was embraced or accepted by white America at that time. Even though we've established that they have power within their alternative economy – which is the only economy they really have access to – they don't have power within America as a whole. I thought, important to remind the audience, "These guys can also be turned away for having skin that's too dark."
The practice of has having your enemy raise your son. I know that was done in the Middle Ages when a ruling force would take the son of an enemy to keep them in line. But did you find any instances of that in more modern times?
With Fargo it doesn't have to be true, it just has to seem true. But so there was something about that that was believable. If you were trying to keep an uneasy peace, certainly that hostage scenario is definitely a deterrent. But it also raises very interesting issues when you talk about the morality of it. Chris Rock is on some level the hero of this story, but he did trade his youngest son. Part of him has to be okay with the worst-case scenario, right? In exchange for power or money. We're so trained to watch these crime stories and root for the criminal, for The Godfather. We have to remind [viewers] these people are not your friends. You might be able to empathize with them and they might be right on some level, but they're willing to do things you should not be okay with. And how much can both sides push it before those children become endangered?
You also introduce a Minnesota-not-so-nice nurse played by Jessie Buckley who – I don't want to give away anything – but is sort of in her own separate crime movie.
One of the exciting things for me about always building these stories is that there are stories built around a lot of moving pieces on a collision course, and you're never really clear which ones are going to collide and when. So it adds that level of randomness to things that brings a sort of truthiness to it. A writer's natural instinct is to figure out what's going to happen next in this character's story. In the writers' room we say: "You don't need to think about that because another story is going to collide with their story and they're not going to have the opportunity to do what you thought they'd do next." Once you establish that reality for the audience, hopefully you don't know what will happen next – not as a gimmick, but all these people have their own agendas and are vying to get what they want and that's impacting the people around them.
I know you don't like this question, but since it's been a few years since I've asked: Have the Coen brothers ever said one specific thing about any choice you've made, good or bad, in any of your seasons?
They engaged the first year, and only on the first script. They called me and said very nice things and they engaged with the script – by which I mean suddenly some pages showed up in which they played with the material a bit, most memorably, the motel scene, when she asked, "Do you have any pets?" and had some fun playing with that scene, which of course I put in the script. But that was it for them. I emailed with Joel before we started this one again and he was gearing up for The Tragedy of Macbeth and he said, "You're still making that thing?" And that's about the extent of it.
I loved The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I think I watched it three times. It was one of those things I didn't even know I wanted it until I saw it.
I saw that at a challenging time during the editing of Lucy, where we started getting into focus groups and that sort of stuff. And I watched that, and here's this thing that they made and they took no [studio] notes from anybody on it. It's entirely theirs. It's paced the way it has to be for their work – which is not something everybody is going to love – but that whole Tom Waits section only works because of how long it takes before something happens. That really inspired me to tell this story that I've been wanting to tell and to understand that you can't focus group creativity in a substantial way. And that's what I told FX during the first season – you can't make a Coen brothers movie by committee. The moment you go, "I have a unique point of view but I suppose I could take these notes and push it more toward a mainstream audience" then I don't know what I'm making anymore.
I assume your answer about doing a fifth season is the same open-ended answer as always?
I currently don't have anything. No time period. No itch for something generated by this one. Nothing where I'm like, "Oh, I'd like to get into that in more detail." I finished the last script recently and thought, "Well, that might be the last one I ever write." And then that way it's meaningful, because you have that moment to think, "Well, did I say it all?" And I go, "Yeah, I have said everything that I have to say about these themes and characters and ideas in this moment." But I also look at how Vince Gilligan made El Camino. Now that we're in the streaming universe, maybe there's a Fargo story that's just two hours. There's a version which I say, "I've got one, but it's only two hours, let me do it as a movie." So I feel like that opens up possibilities.
You're also writing a Star Trek movie. From our conversation earlier it sounded like you're going tonally for something that's less about battle and war and closer to the exploratory spirit of The Original Series?
I can't say much about it except it's an argument for why humanity should prevail and why we should come together and unite, which I think is important – to look at the United Federation of Planets and remember at some point Earth is what we are now and then we invented warp technology and met extraterrestrial life and everybody came together. But how? How did we get from where we are now to where they are then? And what happens if that utopian reality is challenged? There are times of challenge and war when we have to prove our values all over again. Maybe there's a time in the Federation where this ideal is challenged and it won't survive on its own. It needs to be saved.