'Fargo' Creator Noah Hawley: How I Made It in Hollywood

Issue 14 REP Noah Hawley - P 2014
Phil McCarten/Invision for FOX/AP Images

Issue 14 REP Noah Hawley - P 2014

The former singer-songwriter turned to fiction -- his first book was optioned by Paramount and Patrick Stewart -- before getting his break in film and TV.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

After an eclectic career, which has entailed music, multiple books, a film and a cadre of network series, writer-producer Noah Hawley, 46, is adding another line to his résumé: a cable show. On April 15, the former Bones writer will serve up Fargo, starring Billy Bob Thornton, on FX. With pre-premiere buzz running high, the man who wrote, produced and ran all 10 episodes reflects on how he made it.

I had wanted to be a rock star. I was a singer/songwriter and I had a band in New York, but at a certain point [in my early 20s] I realized my target audience was 14 years old and I wanted to tell stories that were a little more than a pop song. And when you're in a band, you're tied to three filthy, penniless men and you're living in a van. So I started writing fiction on the side.

I come from a family of writers. My mom had been a writer, nonfiction books, and her mother was a playwright in the 1930s and '40s. And my twin brother, Alexi, is a writer on The Following. When I sold my first book, A Conspiracy of Tall Men, it was part of a two-book deal. It wasn't hugely lucrative, but it was enough money for me to quit the paralegal job I had in San Francisco. (Before that, I had worked for Legal Aid for a few years in New York City, where I grew up.)

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I was part of a writers' collective with 21 writers and filmmakers called the San Francisco Writers' Grotto. We had our own office space in this old converted dog and cat hospital and we had a basketball hoop outside. I'd bring my dog to work every day and write. In some ways, I was crazy to leave. The book was optioned by Paramount and Patrick Stewart, and it was Patrick who reached out. It's pretty crazy to have the captain of the Enterprise call you.

I sat down to take a break from writing a book and wrote a spec feature that would end up being the movie Lies & Alibis with Steve Coogan. An agent said people had read it and wanted to meet me, so I flew down to L.A. for my first round of general meetings. I sold a pitch about a guy who starts saying yes to everything. (It's not the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man but it was a similar premise.) Then Paramount said, "You're a screenwriter now, so why don't you adapt your book?" I was probably 32 years old, and I think it helped that I wasn't a 22-year-old with stars in his eyes.

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Suddenly, I had this other career going. But there was always this sense that I could go back to writing books if it didn't work out. That was a very important lesson for me: You should always have options. The minute that you're defined by one thing, you're owned by that thing. [Hawley has since sold three more books.]

I sold a couple of pilots next. There was one that didn't go at CBS with Gale Anne Hurd about a fixer, and then another about a con man who has to take in his kids and put them to work that I worked on with John Landgraf when he was at Jersey Films. He bought it when he went to run FX, but that didn't go, either. I got a staff job on Bones, and in my third year I sold The Unusuals to ABC. I did My Generation [for ABC] after that. Through luck or skill, or a combination of both, I became a creator, and I never went back.

The leap from network to cable [with Fargo] was a huge one for me because at the networks there's a real desire for original content but also a fear of original content. To arrive at FX and have them say, "Can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous?" is incredible. John Landgraf would rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody.

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Look, they asked me to make a Coen brothers movie, and the one thing a Coen brothers movie isn't is predictable or safe. I said to them, "There's going to be violence, humor and drama, but there's also going to be some mysticism and absurdity and we're going to wrestle with philosophical issues. Not everything is going to add up in a way that's neat." And to their great credit, they said, "That's what we want, too."

Personal: Married, two kids (ages 6 and 1). Splits time between L.A. and Austin.
Reps: Ted Miller and Nancy Etz, CAA; Joel McKuin, McKuin Frankel
Hot Project: Creator, Fargo (FX), debuts April 15.