'Fargo' Director Talks Bringing Minnesota Nice to Los Angeles

Gloria goes to Los Angeles in an innovative and time-bending new 'Fargo.' Director John Cameron talks about the episode's themes and its cameos.
Chris Large/FX
Carrie Coon and Ray Wise of 'Fargo.'

[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the May 3 episode of FX's Fargo, "The Law of Non-Contradiction." ]

For the show's first two seasons, John Cameron served as key on-the-ground producer for FX's Fargo on location in Calgary and also lent Coen Brothers continuity, having served in different producing capacities on films including The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There and the original Fargo

Cameron, also a regular second unit director for Fargo, hadn't directed a television episode since a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys installment back in 1998. 

He makes a spirited directing return on Wednesday's Fargo, an episode titled "The Law of Non-Contradiction." It's a wildly unusual episode even for the reliably inventive series, taking Fargo from snowy reaches of the Midwest to Christmastime in sunny Los Angeles. Gloria's (Carrie Coon) investigation into her former stepfather's death also facilitates a flashback to the film industry in 1975 and a trippy animated sequence courtesy of Floyd County (Archer). It's one of the most deliriously fun hours Fargo has ever done.

Running between sets back in Calgary, Cameron got on the phone to discuss bringing the Fargo aesthetic sensibility to La La Land, the show's latest nod to the film's tough-luck Mike Yanagita and myriad cameos including Rob McElhenney. 

Cameron's also a bit cagier on how the animated sequence's aliens tie into the second season's UFOs and whether or not they've been consciously nodding to Carrie Coon's work in The Leftovers.

The full Q&A ...

When I've interviewed you in the past, it's always been as the producer on the ground in Calgary making Fargo run. How did you come to find yourself directing the least Calgary-y episode of Fargo ever?

I don't know if it was intentional, but it was serendipitous. I was thrilled to get the assignment and the opportunity. I think it was intentional on Noah [Hawley's] part and a happy assignment on my part.

It's been a really long time since you've directed an episode of TV. When did you decide you wanted to get back into the director's chair?

I'd done second unit on both seasons of Fargo prior to this and on Legion, so I've always kept my hand in things in that regard. I always kept that muscle, to a certain extent, exercised. When I worked with the Coens I would do second unit for them, etc. So it's always been an area of fascination, of love, to me, so when the opportunity presented itself to me, I was quick to say "Yes."

When it comes to detours in the Fargo universe that seem unconnected to the main mystery, but bring our hero to a different brand of life understanding, the immediate point of reference going back to the original movie is the Mike Yanagita storyline. Was that a particular touchstone on this episode for y'all?

No question. We talked about this as 'The Mike Yanagita Episode' in exactly that phraseology. That was the idea from the get-go.

What's the challenge of doing an homage that's blatant to that degree, but making this into the Mike Yanagita for your Fargo?

In a certain way it's an homage, but also it's integral to the plot and theme of Fargo season three, so it's not an add-on or a strange byway. It'll make more sense as the season plays out and as we get to the end. Part of the rationale for the episode from Noah was that these are real stories, right? This is a true story. In real life there are dead-ends and box-canyons and clues that don't play out and paths you have to take in order to come back correctly onto the main path in terms of an investigation. So this always presented as Gloria feeling like she had a lead that she had to run down and realizing, at the end of it, that the particular lead and the story that she learned and the information gleaned was not absolutely pertinent to the immediate case at hand. That's a kind of thing that cops face day in and day out in real life and that was part of the impetus for the episode as well.

When she's in Los Angeles and she's investigating this lead, when do you think she realizes that it's not going to help with the actual case at hand, but that there's the resolution she needs to find that's more personal than professional?

I don't think she realizes it until the very end, until she's back at the diner with Older Vivian and it becomes clear to her. She references it, right? She says, "This is just a story," which is part of the thematic of this season: What's real? What's true? What's a story? We're telling stories all the time. To Gloria, she realizes, "This has been a fascinating look, perhaps, into a personal story that's personal to me, but in terms of my investigation as Gloria the cop, it really doesn't mean anything."

I know Noah's got his sense of the show's cinematic or televisual grammar, the rules that the show abides by, but the new location brings about a different color palette and all of that. Did it also change what you could do with the camera, how you could tell this story specifically as an L.A. story?

It's an L.A. story and it's also a bit of a homage to The Big Lebowski, another brand of Coen film. In the past two seasons we've always looked to the more serious, if you will, films like No Country For Old Men or Fargo itself or Miller's Crossing a bit last season, but moving to L.A. on this investigation that Gloria finds herself in — and of course the two time periods we tell the story in, especially the '70s time period — seemed to lend itself to the lighter or slightly broader film approach that Joel and Ethan use in some of their films. 

I'd also already been feeling a real Barton Fink vibe as well, so did moving to Hollywood make that more overt in your mind?

There are definitely a few Easter eggs in there that recall Barton Fink, as I'm sure you're aware. Both Lebowski and Barton Fink are quintessential Los Angeles stories for Joel and Ethan, New Yorkers that they are now. Los Angeles is a strange land to them and they love to explore it, and I think we do a bit of that, certainly, or try to. 

The few cutbacks to Minnesota are such a stark difference in terms of style, the color palette, again. What colors and tone were you and the director of photography trying to get into the frame perhaps because you knew you'd never get to use them again?

You see the warmer palette that we use in Los Angeles. There's no light like Los Angeles light, like Hollywood natural light, and the fact that much of our story takes place in the '70s, we wanted to give it that "smoggy" feel, a bit of a golden haze that lays over the City of Angeles in the '70s and that's Dan Gonzalez and his approach to lighting and color palette. We wanted Gloria to be a stranger in a strange land and certainly in modern-day Los Angeles she is. She learns of the '70s story as it unfolds, and it even has a different look, color palette-wise and lighting-wise.

What was your role in working with the Floyd County guys on the animation sequence? It looked like it had a Don Hertzfeldt/World of Tomorrow vibe?

Hertzfeldt was definitely the touchstone, so spot-on again, my friend! They were fantastic, Floyd County. I'm eager to do a series with them now, having had the experience of working with them on this one episode. They're just fantastically creative and professional and fun to work with.

There are presumably no coincidences in the Fargo universe, so how do you guys see your one set of "real" 1970s aliens/UFOs from season two intersecting with these new "fictional" aliens we've just been introduced to?

(Pause.) I think we're just gonna have to let that story play out! (Laughs.) I'm not sure how to answer that. (Pause.)

What if I'd told you back when the first season started that Fargo was going to become the kind of show that would work in alien storylines of several kinds?

Sign me up!

Going back to this as a stranger-in-a-strange-land or fish-out-of-water storyline, what were you going for in terms of how this new setting would explore a different side for Carrie Coon and Gloria?

She's a Minnesotan at heart. She comes from our Fargo Heartland, so to speak, where much of the emotion of everyday life is buried very deep under the layers of Minnesota nice, but what we discovered working with Carrie and with Noah approaching this episode is again the theme of stranger-in-a-strange-land, where her typical demeanor and defenses, if you will, that work in the Fargo geography, she's a little bit at sea here in Los Angeles. So a little bit more emotion and vulnerability and unexpected twists and turns emotionally make themselves apparent because she's on foreign turf, so to speak. So I think what happens in the episode gives Gloria a little softer side and a little more emotional side than she had in the Fargo geography.

A couple of times this season it has felt like you've been riffing off Carrie's work on The Leftovers, like when technology doesn't work for her or in this strange hotel/road trip situation. Has that been intentional?

I have to say that as far as I can tell, it's absolutely coincidental. It was constantly to brought to our attention by Ms. Coon herself, "Hey, I've already done this!" but mainly just for laughs. I don't think there was anything behind that, just a cosmic coincidences. 

Did having had Glenn Howerton in the first season make you guys think of Rob McElhenney for this little part or did hearing about working on Fargo from Glenn make Rob approach you?

We definitely approached Rob. We know his work. We're fans of all those guys on that show, and this character just seemed to cry out for his presence and he agreed, thankfully. We called him and he said, "Sure! What time?" and the result is what you see.

And who had the inspiration on the casting of Francesca Eastwood as the '70s actress and then her mother Frances Fisher as the older version of the character? There's no way I would have recognized Francesca, but when I saw her name in the credits, it was just a great "A-ha!" moment.

I'm not going to claim credit and I can't remember, but it just seemed like it was ever thus. It became a thing of, "Of course we're doing that! Let's do that!" In terms of the intentional idea, I'm not even going to make it up. Let's call it a collective decision that we all came to.

It works so well, because Frances Fisher is clearly one of those character actresses who seems right at home in this universe, and her daughter is still so early in her career.

It was fantastic. As you say, it's two ends of a career. Frances is just amazing. Every frame that she's in, I'm enthralled by as a viewer, not just as a director. And Francesca's just really starting her journey. You see some of that DNA, but of course she brings her own thing to it, that nervous vulnerability that a young actress has in our business is exactly what we're we're looking for and she brought that to the role, and we're the richer for it.

And sticking with casting, what's it like bringing in Fred Melamed as another of the Coen Brothers veterans you've brought into the Fargo television universe this year along with David Thewlis and Michael Stuhlbarg?

Some of that is conscious, but obviously they have to be perfect for the role. The roles are written and we say, "Who's the perfect actor for this?" Certainly Fred was perfect for Zimmerman, just like Michael's perfect for Sy. It's a combination of the role as written and who's right and the fact that we're making a show set in the Coen universe leads us to a certain style of acting and certain actors, and that only makes sense. It's all, to us, part of the same universe.

For that reason, is it a good idea to avoid having Michael Stuhlbarg and Fred Melamed actually sharing scenes together? Would a Serious Man reunion tear a hole in the Fargo universe? Is it best to keep them separate?

Definitely. Separate by decades. No question. In fact, sometimes casting is discussed and we go, "We can't do that because of 'X.' They'd be in a scene that is too reminiscent or directly reminiscent of other work they've done with Joel and Ethan," so that's a factor for sure. We try to walk that tightrope carefully.

Noah's always talked about the region and winter as being the foundational values of Fargo. In this episode, you have big deviations in terms of geography and weather. Does it feel like having had this experience, it's a one-off or does it feel to you like this proves how much more expansive the Fargo universe is than you had realized?

I think it translates out of its winter-y, native home very effectively, especially in Los Angeles. Joel and Ethan are fascinated by Los Angeles. It's the home of our art form, film and television, so that Fargo sensibility coming into Los Angeles made perfect sense of the episode. For the future, I do think it's a sensibility that can travel, but it certainly is rooted in the cold winter of the Midwest that we're so familiar with from the film and most of the series.

But as you're finishing up another cold winter and spring in Calgary you aren't yearning for Fargo: Hawaii Edition for the fourth season?

That's entirely up to Mr. Hawley. I'd be willing to go anywhere for this show.

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