'Fargo': Noah Hawley Breaks Down Season 3 Violence and the Coen Brothers' Influences

Ewan McGregor Fargo FX - H

[This story contains spoilers from the season three premiere of FX's Fargo.]

Welcome back, Fargo

It's been a long time since viewers experienced the oddball blend of shocking violence and Minnesota Nice that is Noah Hawley's Fargo

The FX anthology completed its murder-and-aliens-filled second season way back in December 2015 and, since that time, Hawley has had a well-received launch for his novel Before the Fall and another FX series, the trippy Marvel mutant saga Legion.

Fortunately, it took no time for the third season of Fargo to settle into its rhythms with the introduction of bickering brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor), Emmit's sassy ex-con girlfriend Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), shady lawyer Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg) and pillar of law-and-order Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon). It also took little time for the body count to begin to pile up as Emmit and Ray's rivalry over an ill-chosen inheritance led to murders unforeseen and very foreseen. 

Fargo is still deep in simultaneous production and postproduction, but Hawley got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the tone of this season's violence, the challenges of his first season without a Solverson carrying a badge and whether Legion and last season's UFO intrusion empowered greater oddities in the third season.

The first two seasons started with these actions of shockingly serious violence that felt very unplanned and spontaneous. But the big act of instigating violence here is both precise and almost kind of Looney Tunes-y in its humor. Does that sound right to you, and is that part of the tone of the season in your mind?

The Looney Tunes tone? No. I knew from that first year that because we're making a 10-hour movie and not a two-hour that if we did the actual tone of Fargo — which is a more comic movie than people remember — then people might think we got the tone wrong. I said to myself, "If you look at the whole array, tonally from Ladykillers or Raising Arizona on the one side to Miller's Crossing to the other side, I think we have to lop off each end." We shouldn't ever devolve into farce, but I also don't think we want to be earnest at any real point. What I ended up settling on is this idea of making No Country for Old Fargo, where we need a dramatic crime infrastructure that sustains the level of threat throughout, where you're always a little worried about everybody and the threat of violence is always there. And within that, you can have these comic moments.

This year, there is whimsy to the setup and Ray and Nikki have a certain lightness to them that makes us really like them. And obviously, what happens at the end of that first hour between them is both horrific and entertaining. So it's a balance, but you'll find overall that there is a lot of comedy this year but the stakes are really high as well. 

Carrie Coon's character fulfills some of the same dramatic and thematic purposes. But how much and how immediately did you find yourself missing having a Solverson this season?

(Laughs.) I never missed them. I mean, I miss Patrick Wilson and Allison Tolman, but we have to keep innovating or die. I really like that Gloria is not Marge Gunderson and that she's not Molly and she's also not Patrick Wilson. She's someone who — unlike Molly and Marge, who are women of a simpler world in a small town where everything made sense — Gloria, when we meet her, is already reeling from the rug being pulled out from under her. Her husband has left her for another man, she's been told that she's no longer chief of police at the end of the year, so she's sort of both chief and not chief at the same time. And then, her stepfather is killed. So she's already on the defensive, she's already trying to cope with a world that doesn't make sense and the crime only exacerbates that. 

So, she's a more taciturn character, she's a little more guarded, she's a little more defensive. She covers it as well as she can with the Minnesota Nice veneer, but we see that she has a much harder edge. I like that she was different and the more I wrote her, she just wanted to be that person. I had conversations with the network because they anticipated that she would be a Marge or a Molly and they were looking for that, and they were like, "Why is she so hostile?" and I was like, "That's just who she is, she's different." And it took awhile for them to go, "Oh yeah, even though it's the same show, it's a different show entirely, so we can't judge it by the standards of last year or the first year." 

Is Minnesota Nice timeless? Is it unstuck from time or does it feel different and more anachronistic in 2010 vs. in the '70s or the '90s to you?

That's definitely something I wanted to look at, this idea that maybe Minnesota Nice itself was under threat. As I define it, Minnesota Nice is a heightened friendliness and sense of community that sprang up around a region that was historically isolated and in the frozen tundra of winter. And, with a very Lutheran-like "I won't embarrass you by asking about your feelings or burden you with mine," that sort of humility. How does that survive in the age of "Here's a picture of everything that I'm eating and here's every thought that I have in my head, I'm tweeting the moment it comes into my head and I'm sharing everything on Facebook," which seems very counter to the identity of that region. Mostly, we see that through Gloria, who is the woman out of time, who is a technophobe more, and because the rug's been pulled out from under her, she doesn't like the speed at which the world is moving on her. So I'm looking at it that way but again, this isn't a lecture, it's an entertainment. It's a color to it, but it's not a lecture.

I like how out-of-place the modern world feels just in Fargo in general, like the cellphone pops up in the first episode. What were the positives and the negatives of having modernity encroaching in your own process and your own storytelling?

The positive was that you're not taking it for granted. I wanted people looking at their screens to literally be thematic. We literally gutted cellphones and put more powerful light in them. Sometimes it had a cord running up the actor's sleeve so that we could exaggerate that light on their faces. It's alluded to once when Ray and Nikki are in the bathtub after their big victory and they're both checking their phones. We don't make anything of it, but it does snap you out the moment and go, "Oh yeah, we do that." Like, my kids are trying to talk to me and I realize that I'm answering an email. You realize how much these things have come between us and the world around us. Again, you see it, but I don't say anything about it in the show. So I think we're playing with that just as a color to say that Fargo has to adapt, we live in a modern world and there is a sort of nostalgia for a simpler time and place. But that simpler time and place is struggling with modernity just as much as we are.

Then you have these encroachments of the old-fashioned into the modern world. How did you decide bridge and stamp collecting were going to be the old-fashioned things that were going to encroach in this 2010 world?

The stamps came first, this idea that Ray and Emmit's dad had died and left Emmit a Corvette and Ray a stamp collection. And Emmit knew that stamps appreciate in value and that cars depreciate. So being the smarter and older brother, he tricked his younger brother into trading, 15-year-old Ray, who said, "Hell, yeah, I want a Corvette, I'll get the girls" and then later realized what a short-sighted trade that was on his part. So, that was always part of it, and then the bridge came in mostly through Nikki and this idea that I really wanted Nikki and Ray to have something positive that they were working toward, an exit strategy and the idea, that how do we show that Nikki is a strategist, that she's the brains of the operation. And then the more I read about bridge, the more complicated it became. I mean, it's a game that's literally with quantum probabilities and 58 octillion possible deals. Then it became really fun to make bridge sexy. Bringing back stamp collecting and bringing back bridge seems like a pretty good way to fight the modern world.

Now as a spectrum of "surprised" and "relieved," what was your reaction to how willing the audiences were to embrace the aliens in season two? What does that embolden you to be able to do going forward in terms of just how far audiences will go with you in these stories?

Honestly, I expected a lot more pushback. I remember watching that hour almost in real time and looking at the write-ups afterward and I was gratified by the fact that our audience just went with us because they trusted us and we created this mind space of Fargo and we laid the groundwork from the very first hour. Obviously, Joel and Ethan had had the UFO in The Man Who Wasn't There and it wasn't completely out of the realm of the Coen language, but there was part of me that expected that people would go, "Oh come on, now you've gone too far." So when I settled in to write this year, I'm not looking to say, "Oh, we need to top ourselves or anything," I'm just looking for what's organic to this story. There are elements that are expansive, but it's not my goal to push those boundaries. It's more just, "How do I tell the story?"

In terms of storytelling and experiencing the way that a TV story can be told, how did the Legion experience bleed into Fargo

I deliberately kept it out. When I was behind the camera shooting the first hour of this year's Fargo, there were a couple of moments where I thought, "Oh, the camera can do this," and then I thought "No, that's not a Coen brothers move." The great thing about Fargo is that it's a more objective style of filmmaking, the camera moves in very classical ways and the most interesting things normally are the characters. And that said, I started in season two to enhance some moments with a more obvious camera move, but in general, it was nice to go back to that language, the cinematic language of just trusting your story and using the camera to tell the story but not drawing attention to it.

So even after two, into three seasons now, the What Would the Coen Brothers Do? bracelet is still something you look at? It's not something where it's become your Fargo at this point in your mind? Or at least not completely?

Every year there is a little bit of a relaxation, I would imagine. For two years, I never allowed us to pull focus between characters in the sequence. I always thought, "Well, we'll do two passes and we'll have the focus deep on one and focus near on another and we'll find a way to cut around that." But this year because so much of this show is about pairs of people, it was just natural. I mean, the story was in the focus shift, the story was when Emmit and Sy are facing off against [David Thewlis'] Varga, and Varga is saying, "It's an investment, not a loan." And Emmit looks over at Sy, the story is what happens on Sy's face. You want the camera, the focus to shift. So, I relaxed that. We still shouldn't do it melodramatically or anything. But yeah, I'm always trying to think about. It has to be consistent with the filmmaking of No Country for Old Men or the filmmaking of Fargo or A Serious Man. This isn't about pyrotechnics of the camera, it's about telling a story.