'Fargo' Boss Reveals What Ethan Coen Really Thought About the Pilot
As FX turns 20, Noah Hawley explains the "fascinating challenge" he had in adapting the Coen brothers' beloved movie.
As FX turns 20, fifteen of TV's top scribes -- from Rescue Me's Denis Leary to Louie's Louis C.K. -- reveal what it's like to write for a network that encourages smart TV (almost) without rules as part of a series that The Hollywood Reporter is rolling out this week. This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I had a fascinating challenge before me: Create a series that gave you the same feeling you got from watching the movie Fargo but wasn't the movie.
In the summer of 2012, MGM and FX struck a deal to turn Fargo into a TV movie, but there was no writer attached. I got a call from FX saying, "We're wondering if you think this can be done without [Frances McDormand's character] Marge?" By which they meant, "Can you write us a totally new Coen brothers movie set in that same region?"
I went back to their films and asked myself: What makes a Coen brothers movie a Coen brothers movie? The thing with Fargo is that it wasn't a whodunit -- it wasn't a cop movie. It was a true-crime story that wasn't actually true. I had to play into this idiosyncrasy, which means we meet the criminals before the crime is committed and don't meet the cops until afterward. Immediately I had an image of two men sitting side by side in an emergency room -- one very civilized, the other very uncivilized. Who are these guys? Where does the story go?
I wrote the first script, and FX said they wanted to go straight to series. I had a four-person writers room, and we broke the remaining nine episodes. Then I turned a 115-page outline in to the network and then left to write all 10 scripts myself. Usually, in building a TV series, you only manage to get two or three scripts written before production starts. For this, I had eight, which allowed me to create a highly detailed world in which each element I set up paid off later. [HBO's] True Detective proved that everything in your show is meaningful, whether you intend it to be or not. You have to be very careful about what you put in at every stage of the writing.
When I first talked with Joel and Ethan Coen, they asked what I had planned to do about the characters' Minnesota accents. In the film they had become iconic and such a caricature in our culture that I felt we should really underplay them. They agreed. We wanted something that sounded regional without being so exaggerated. Aside from that, they never gave me any notes. They read the first script, liked it, suggested a few lines and jokes, but that was the sum total of their creative involvement. They said: "Look, we don't know television. It's your show -- just go make it."
When we showed them the first episode, Ethan said, "Yeah, good," which I've since learned is a rave review.
Noah Hawley is the creator of and an executive producer on FARGO, which airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.