FX's 'Fargo' Cast, EPs on Film Comparisons, Anthology Format, Courting Billy Bob Thornton

Fargo Panel at Winter TCA - H 2014
Phil McCarten/Invision for FOX/AP Images

Fargo Panel at Winter TCA - H 2014

FX is headed to Fargo this April, but the limited series from My Generation's Noah Hawley is a not a retelling of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 best picture Oscar nominee.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour, Hawley said the Billy Bob Thornton- and Martin Freeman-starrer takes the tone of the feature film and was inspired by what happens after Frances McDormand's ace sheriff, Marge Gunderson, wakes up the day after solving the case depicted in the movie.

"We know tomorrow will be a normal day and that innocence and small-townness is what makes us feel good after the movie ends," Hawley said. "It seemed like the wrong idea to make a Picket Fences idea show where something cooky happens every day. That's not a Coen model. She's not going to be same person after seeing so much dark stuff."

The 10-episode limited series will follow an all-new "true crime" story with a new case and characters, all steeped in the humor, murder and "Minnesota nice" of the original. Thornton stars as Lorne Malvo, a decidedly more serious heavy than the one portrayed by Steve Buscemi in the feature; Sherlock's Freeman steps into the role of the bumbling salesman, Lester Nygaard, that was played by William H. Macy. Newcomer Allison Tolman brings a new twist on McDormand's clever cop.

Hawley noted that the series, which he approached as a 10-episode movie, will stand on its own for anyone who has not seen the original Fargo.

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"After a season or two of the show, people who see the movie might say that was a great episode of Fargo. Each season is a separate true crime story from that region. The movie now fits into the series as another true crime story from the region," Hawley said. "I don't think you need to it watch before [watching the series], but I think you should watch it because it's a great movie, but you don't need to."

Producers noted that the Coen brothers -- who don't typically produce other people's work -- were given the choice to put their names on the FX drama and were impressed by Hawley's script. (The showrunner penned every episode of the series.)

"TV is not their medium as they've said, and they told me to go ahead and make my show," he said. "We showed them the first show and Ethan said, 'Yeah, good.'"

Added Thornton, who has worked with the Coens on The Man Who Wasn't There and Bad Santa: "When Ethan says, 'Yeah, good,' he's over the moon."

For Thornton, meanwhile, committing to Fargo was an easy decision after he read the script. The Sling Blade Oscar-winner was attracted back to television after what he cited was a gaping hole in the film industry for his peers.

"The entertainment business can pretend all they want but the movie world has changed drastically, particularly in last five to six years. When I was coming up, if you went to TV from film, it meant something was wrong, so you may as well be on Hollywood Squares. Now it's the opposite," he said.

Thornton referred to guys like Dennis Quaid, Bill Paxton, Kevin Costner and Kevin Bacon -- or the actors he came up with who he joked are "in their early 30s" -- were used to doing mid-level studio and high-budget indie films in the 1990s and early 2000s, but said that those projects no longer exist, as the studios have shifted to event movies and broad comedies. "One way or the other, television has now taken that spot. For actors who really want to do good dramatic work or dark humor and drama, you have to do it on TV," he said. "It's great way to develop character over time. I'd seen The Wire and thought TV was headed in good direction."

"What's on TV now is actually like the movies that we were doing. It's inevitable that actors are going to go to TV now," he said, calling the pilot script for Fargo "flawless." "If you want to be a celebrity, then just go to the dentist in Beverly Hills and punch somebody. If you want to be an actor, get on a really good series on TV because that's where it's at."

As for the future of the series beyond the pilot, Hawley said his Fargo will follow what happens to Freeman's Lester following a shocking decision he makes during the premiere. But it's not a whodunit or mystery. "Joel and Ethan said polite society is often the most violent, and I was interested in taking a man like Lester, who is so squeezed by life that it's pushing him to the point where he might snap," he said of the ensemble piece. "How does that man deal with the aftermath of that? … There's an infection that takes place between Lorne and Lester and … we're heading for a big collision at the end of the thing." 

As for what a potential second season would look like, Hawley said he's already planning to tell a new story, but Fargo isn't like FX's Ryan Murphy-Brad Falchuk anthology series, American Horror Story, in which actors would return to play new parts for a completely different premise.

"You look at the Coens' A Serious Man, which is a more philosophical movie, where you have to accept the mystery and that's a great template for a crime story: that broader element of randomness and real-world details that are stranger than fiction," Hawley said.

Fargo premieres on Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX.

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