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[Warning: This interview contains spoilers from Wednesday’s episode of Fargo,“Aporia.”]
After starting his career as the young star of films like Christine and Dressed To Kill and then transitioning to directing small, well-received films like The Chocolate War and Waking the Dead, Keith Gordon has carved out a third act as one of the most reliable directors of prestige TV.
A résumé that already included episodes of shows like Dexter, Rectify, Rubicon, Masters of Sex and Homeland has reached something of a peak this spring as Gordon directed my favorite third season episode of The Leftovers (the Nora-centric “Don’t Be Ridiculous”), a pivotal episode of Better Call Saul (“Off Brand”) and the last two episodes of the current installment of Fargo, reuniting him with Carrie Coon.
Wednesday’s penultimate Fargo episode, titled “Aporia,” features a truck heist action set-piece, a tense negotiation between Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Varga (David Thewlis), and several tremendous dialogue-driven sequences built around Coon’s Gloria.
In a wide-ranging interview, Gordon talks about the formal differences between his three spring directing gigs, the tricky mirror effect in the Gloria-Emmit interrogation sequence, and the emotional conversation and climactic scene with Gloria and Olivia Sandoval’s Winnie. He also celebrates the versatility and genius of Carrie Coon and explains why he hasn’t directed a feature since 2003’s The Singing Detective.
The full Q&A …
I’m glad we got a chance to talk, because this has been a ridiculous spring of television for you, between Better Call Saul, Fargo and The Leftovers. When you’re in the middle of that run of shows, can you pause to recognize the quality of scripts that you’re working with at the time?
Oh sure. I’ve been trying more and more to only work on shows that I really love, because I kind of feel like that’s what makes it exciting. So I’ve been doing that more and more over the last couple of years and, yeah of course, the writing is incredible and the vision is incredible. TV is a showrunner’s medium and a creator’s medium, and when you work with people who have amazing visions, it’s both the quality of the writing, but it’s also the quality of the larger personality of the piece. And, particularly someone like Noah [Hawley], who’s also visually incredibly bold and very encouraging on taking chances. And so, for directors, it’s also a lot of fun, those kind of shows where you’re not trapped to sort of TV naturalism and you’re doing something that’s more cinematic, more offbeat. It gives you a lot more that you can help bring to the table. Ultimately it’s their vision, but you’re able to add more.
And is that something that you can feel shifting in the process, of I would say the past decade that you’ve been working across cable and prestige TV? The shift, not necessarily to becoming a director’s medium, but to become conspicuously more of a director’s medium?
It’s funny. At the end of the day, it’s really truly a showrunner’s medium. They are the auteurs of television. There’s no question. At the end of the day, Fargo is Noah’s baby and Damon [Lindelof] is mother and father of Leftovers. But sure, as director, when shows get more cinematic and when they take brave chances with storytelling and music, as a director, it’s very exciting. You get to feel a part of something amazing.
I don’t think it can ever be a director’s medium unless you’re the director/creator, as more people are playing with. But it’s still, the chance to feel like you are bringing stuff to the table has only grown and grown and grown with these kinds of shows. That’s why I try to do these kind of shows that have that kind of vision, because there’s room for it. I’ve done mostly cable, and I’ve tried to stick to shows that I love. A couple of times I’ve done network stuff or whatever, it really feels like the rules are so constrictive.
I remember being on one show that shall go nameless, but it was a network TV show and I just felt like, “If I left at lunch, would anybody notice?” And you certainly don’t feel that in these worlds, you really feel like you can add and you can be a big piece of the puzzle. But at the end of the day, I feel like all credit has to go to those people who create these incredible universes.
It wouldn’t be that hard to go back and look at your résumé, because you haven’t done a network show in, I think, 10 years, slightly longer than that? What would it take to even get you back into that playground?
I don’t know. Unlimited freedom to do my own show? I mean really, seriously, to me the cable world is so cool because you’re getting to work on this kind of material. Look, there have been a couple of network shows … I would have loved to have done an episode of American Crime, which I thought was an amazing show. And I loved that show. And I’m sorry that I haven’t had the chance to work on it, although I know John Ridley put a premium on hiring persons of color and women, which I thought was really great and really appropriate for that show, as well as appropriate for the world in general.
There have been the occasional network shows that I would have loved to have worked on, but I don’t think of American Crime as a typical network show. I think what made that special was that there really was a vision and a voice behind it. That still seemed to be a comparative rarity in network TV.
You directed two episodes of the second season of Fargo as well. Coming into the bubble, leaving the bubble and coming back in, how did season three feel conspicuously different, and in what ways is the grammar and the vernacular of it all, in what way is it consistently Fargo-y to you?
The fascinating thing is that there was a real arc to the emotion of this season in a way that was very different. This season for me, it started light and very playful. And I remember thinking, when I saw the pilot for this season, that there was only one murder and it was it was hysterical. It was like a Monty Python murder. There was the off-camera murder of Gloria’s stepdad and then there’s the air conditioner dropping on the guy’s head, which is hysterically funny. It really was. I mean it’s gross and bloody, but it’s really was Monty Python work. Whereas the first episode of season one, there were all these very serious murders and even season two, right at the jump you were in a darker part of the world.
Here, it started in this funny, light and playful world, and it’s got more and more serious and grounded and emotional and dark in tone as the year goes on, which I think is a very interesting, different approach. And I really like that Noah kind of mixed it up and didn’t just follow the same grammar in terms of the arc of the year. So that was what really stood out to me this year, as particularly different was how playful it felt in the beginning. The beginning, if you’re going to talk about the Coens’ world, it was much more Raising Arizona, or whatever, even though it wasn’t. It’s Noah’s world, really, the Coens’ by proxy. By the end you’re in No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man and some of their more serious stuff. So, I thought that was particularly interesting as a difference in terms of how you approach the year.
How much compositionally is written into the script and how much leeway do you get to bring your own eye to things? I’m thinking about a couple of shots in particular. There’s the lovely shot of the blood flowing into the milk and there’s the shot of the deputy entering the room the with the corpse head in the extreme foreground. Those were both just beautiful shots.
The blood flowing into the milk was something that I had an interest about that wasn’t written. There was no blood/milk I don’t believe in the script. It was just blood on the floor. And I thought the idea of him falling on the milk bottle and having the blood, it would just be more visually exciting. It’s also very intentionally a callback to the beginning of season two, because when the judge is shot, there’s a mix of coffee and blood and stuff on the table. One of the things about Fargo is it’s always a story that echoes. So as a director, you’re working with, “Oh, here’s a thing we can echo.” I don’t know if people are going to catch it intentionally. But trying to feel that world is always sort of echoing to earlier things.
But occasionally Noah will write a very specific image and they’re usually wonderful and you try to fulfill them. But there’s also, as a director, an unusual amount of freedom to do that. And I didn’t have to call Noah and say, “Oh, is it OK if I do blood with the milk?” On a lot of shows, the showrunner would want to know something like that and approve of it, think about it. Noah is very trusting. Once he trusts you, at least I always feel like that, that he trusts me a lot and he’s always given me that message of, “Unless you’re changing something of a story point or whatever, I trust you, go follow your instincts.” And he’s always told me that he likes my eye and he loves the way I think.
So I try to just frame things and find images that are exciting to me and could also be exciting to him. I also watched the way he directed the first episode very carefully and trying to integrate the grammar that I’m noticing. It’s actually, with this show, there was a tremendous amount of comparative freedom for a show that has such a strong voice. It’s kind of a paradox, but it’s part of what makes it so much fun to do.
How does that compare to Damon on Leftovers and to Peter [Gould] and Vince [Gilligan] on Better Call Saul in terms of how much formal leeway you might or might not have?
There’s always a lot of leeway on those shows. Damon writes some very specific images, but, again, there’s room, but I feel that Damon, because of his style, his cutting style, he spends a lot more time in intense closeups. If you look at Leftovers, that’s really where the show tends to live. I mean, he does get back occasionally, but it lives in this very intimate intensity, which means that that’s really where you’re putting your focus and your energy, whereas Fargo is a much more compositional show. The shots are much more framed very intentionally. It’s all wide lenses. The longest lens you ever use is a 50, and that’s rare so even when you’re doing a quote unquote single, rarely are they closeups. Noah and I talked about closeups as exclamation points not periods. You’re playing a lot more on two-shots or even when it’s a single, you’re seeing the upper half of someone’s body, so you’re getting body language and then when you do go in tight, it really has a meaning. It’s really a specific moment that you’re picking for that. So, each show just has its own language and because Fargo plays with these wide open shots, and there was a lot of that in the last episode as well, these sort of big open, sort of, wide, wide shots.
It really focuses a director a lot on composition and what’s in the frame and how it can relate to everything else and it’s much more intentional, whereas something like Leftovers is largely shot handheld. And yes, we’re thinking about lighting and composition, but it’s really about getting in those faces a good deal of the time and then picking those moments where you step back. But that’s not where you’re going to live. In Fargo you’re gonna live in the wider shots.
Better Call Saul, you’re sort of in between the two. Peter and Vince like wide stuff and they also like framed. I think Damon doesn’t like things that feel too over-intentional of a frame too often. He likes it occasionally, but he also likes a certain loose, light, very naturalist feel, which I think extends to the complete unnaturalistic feel of the world in a way, whereas Fargo and Better Call Saul are more composed shows. The frame is very thoughtful and often there’s a symmetrical frame or Better Call Saul, you shoot through something. It’s just the language they established in those shows.
Part of the fun and the challenge of directing shows like this on a very high level is first of all, adapting yourself to the show and really studying the style of that show and seeing what their language is and what they do and what they don’t do. And also finding ways to try to add something and to bring something new to the table, but still fit it within the language they’re using. Like in the last two episodes of Fargo, I did a lot with mirrors and that was something that I did a lot last time too and I know that Noah had really liked it. It really hadn’t become part of the show’s language, but it still felt like you could. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, that’s weird. That’s some other show.” So, you’re always looking as a director for where can I bring something that adds to the language but doesn’t conflict with the language or make you feel like, “Oh, that’s not like this show.”
I’m glad you mentioned the mirrors because there’s a press still of the Gloria/Emmitt confessional scene where it goes like 50 reflections deep with the mirror/window. This is an episode of big conversational scenes. There’s that, there’s the Gloria/Widow Goldfarb interrogation, and then there’s Varga and Nikki together. That’s a lot of talking in those three scenes.
It’s interesting. There’s a real shift in the show. Episodes seven and eight are very action-y episodes, with that incredible chase scene in the woods, and when I got nine and 10, I got nine first and then 10, and 10 is more of a mix, but nine is very character-intensive and very people sitting and talking, revealing themselves, and it’s not something that people do a lot in Fargo. People don’t really talk about themselves very much. I thought it was very interesting and very touching the way Ewan’s character does it and then Carrie does it, when the roles are reversed in that mirrored questioning room, how first he’s revealing himself and she reveals herself and she’s talking about her marriage and he’s talking about his childhood. It’s something that Noah doesn’t do a lot and I was very struck by it and I thought it was very, I loved the fact that there’s a reward for being with these characters. He let them tell their own stories a little bit and I thought that was really cool and again, something a little bit different than his usual language, but also, it’s done beautifully. His writing is so good.
The actors are, of course, phenomenal. So, I loved getting to do those scenes and then finding a way to make that room so special and not just look like an interrogation room, brought me back to the idea of putting a mirror on each side so you get this infinite depth and infinite regression. And there’s also the idea of where reality is getting a bit confusing. The whole season has been about, “What is truth?” So now you’ve got these mirrors on mirrors and in the first scene when Ewan is confessing, it’s framed a little bit more normal so you can get the depth, but it’s a little bit straighter. The second scene where Carrie is talking, it’s even a little bit more of an Escher box, and the mirrors are making it more uncomfortable. Like, “Exactly where is everybody?” So, we wanted to play with that idea a little bit too, that even that whole police station, when we were talking about how to design it, it’s got strange angles and strange walls. Nothing is a box. Everything’s got a 45-degree angle on it, so you’re a little bit lost in an alternate universe in there. It’s nowhere near what Legion does, but it’s a little bit what Legion does in a much more subtle way in putting you in a place where it’s hard to get the situation exactly.
So, we kind of talked about that and the design was a big part of that and building those sets and lighting it and then doing the mirror trick, which is something that I stumbled into last year on Fargo when we did the elevator that way, in the scene where Rachel Keller gets in the elevator when she’s escaping, and then also when The Undertaker is coming to try to kill Bokeem Woodbine’s character, we played with that in the elevator with these mirrors back and forth, and usually the problem with something like that is you’ve got your camera in the shot and you have to do all this CGI or you’re cheating and the angles don’t look quite right.
I had the idea, what if we really use a two-way mirror and just lit it bright enough that you shoot through it without having to hide the camera or put a tiny hole in then cover it up and it worked. It was something we tried and it actually worked where we had a camera looking outside the box of those rooms and through those windows so you don’t have a camera you’re worried about reflecting. It was an honest reflection. So, that actually allowed us to play with it, and it was a lot of freedom in terms of how, where to put the camera, and how to light things. It’s something that I loved, and it just felt very right for the Fargo world because there’s the surface stuff going on and then there’s all the other layers and somehow it just spoke to that for me somehow.
Then too, there’s the variation of the pacing. You’ve got all those heavy dialogue scenes that are so central to the episode, because of that how freeing was the dialogue-free truck heist to stage?
Oh, it’s great. Noah gets credit for writing it that way. I think he’s very conscious of how the elements should piece together. Doing the truck heist was great fun and doing that one long crane shot was such a blast to do. It was not easy. We had to move the crane during the shot to not see itself. It was a rainy night and it was one of those big things to take on, but then it worked really well. Then I think, like, take six it just went perfect and we were able to go, “OK, well, we’re done.” So, that was a lot of fun.
A heist is great. It was really Mary Elizabeth driving the truck, which we loved. She learned how to drive that truck so it’s really her driving away, which just delighted me and the entire crew to no end. Those scenes are really great fun to shoot. That’s when you feel like you’re making a movie the way you imagined when you’re 12 years old and you’re running around at 2 in the morning, the guns are going off and a truck getting hijacked. There’s something about it that really feels like the best of why you wanted to get into the business, because it’s exciting and magical and amazing and you’re doing it in real life. You think, “It’s a real truck and guns are going off. Our actors are jumping over the wall of a truck and diving!” You become a kid.
In the season of kind of gross and disgusting Varga moments, the ice cream on the toilet may be the grossest because it gives the impression that we’re totally invading this guy’s privacy, literally, because we go through the door of the stall. How was that achieved?
(Laughs.) That was a Noah image. The idea of going into the stall and then going ever closer and ever closer and ever closer, that was something that was in the script. We just pushed it even further than he might have thought we were going to be able to. We actually were designing a rig to get right into his mouth. Basically, they built a bathroom. I had them build it so that the stall was much deeper than what it normally would have been. It was like twice the length of what it normally would be. So, we kind of just went up the door and then dissolved through the door and then we were on a 16mm lens and we just pushed in forever so that the space is very exaggerated and very stretched. They just had this lens up on this kinda exposed way at the end of the camera and a little light right next to it so we could just push really all the way into David’s mouth without losing image.
We were all pretty grossed out when we did it. There was a lot of laughter on the set as people were watching the monitors. David was an incredibly good sport, as he always is about the fact that we’re shoving a camera into his mouth and he was like, “OK, just tell me when to bite. Tell me when to chew” because he couldn’t see exactly what it was, so I was having to go, “OK, now bite. Now the last bite. Now just chew!” It took about four or five takes, and the last one was truly grotesque and we were like, “OK, well we’re not going to get it more disturbing than that.”
I think there’s something about that character with food and the fact that he needs to ingest constantly and then throw up constantly. It’s the insatiable hunger of that man that speaks a lot to who he is and to what he represents in our society, which is that bottomless pit that can never be fulfilled. We create expectations and needs that no matter what you achieve or what you have, you’ll never be OK with. That’s the dark side of the American Dream, is that unfeedable need for more.
In that conversation scene with Gloria and Winnie, how much are you just trying to capture kind of a natural rapport between those two actresses and those two women at this point in the season when they’ve been working opposite each other for this long?
I think that in some ways there’s a bit of, in the second-to-last episode, there is a bit of emotional completion for Gloria that’s happening there. There is that return to this theme the whole season about particles bumping into each other and they become real. In having that moment, that hug between the two of them, that moment of real human contact, she’s real again, which is why she can go in the bathroom and the water flow and all that. I think the trick of a scene like that was finding the emotion but not making it sentimental because I know that Noah doesn’t like sentiment in a traditional way. He doesn’t want ever to feel like we’re pulling someone’s heart strings, and yet it’s a very sweet and touching scene. So a lot of it was about finding the right tone, but it’s still Fargo. It’s never going to be schlocky sentimental but be honestly sentimental, be honestly heartfelt between the two of them.
We played a lot. We did a lot of different takes and played with levels of emotion and then we went through various certain passes of “How long exactly should the hug be?” I think that in my cut the hug was two seconds longer and then Noah made it a bit shorter. I think it was just finding that exact right level. Again, it’s still within the language of the show, but allowing for a real emotional moment between these two women, for Gloria in particular where she suddenly feels seen. She feels heard. She feels contact. She feels another human being getting her. For the whole season, she’s been invisible, literally. She hasn’t fit in the world as it exists and now she suddenly does again. In some ways that launches you into the last episode with her in a bit of a new place, because there’s a sense of not being alone for her.
You also had just a great Carrie episode on Leftovers. Just reflect a little on the spring that she has had between these two shows airing at the same time. It’s kind of remarkable.
Oh my God, I’m so happy for her because she’s one of my favorite actors in the world and one of my favorite people in the world. I love getting to work with her, so getting to do two things with her in the same year was incredibly exciting. When Noah and John Cameron called me and said, “So, did you know that we’re thinking about Carrie? Do you like working with her?” I was like, “Hire her. Hire her now! You won’t be sorry. Please hire her.”
I was so excited she was part of Fargo. She’s just so wonderful. I do think, “Yeah, these are two of the very best shows on television,” and it’s funny because the two roles have some similarities but they’re actually incredibly different and they’re really very different women. In Leftovers there was just so much anger and pain and grief that’s being worked through and that’s what was so remarkable in the last season and the last episode was actually working through it. The character in Fargo is much grittier, she’s much less damaged on the surface, even though she’s still got a great vulnerability. She’s really strong. She’s quirky, but she is tough. With the character in Leftovers there’s tough, but it’s very, tough is covering the incredibly fragile core, so there’s some surface similarities but they’re actually very, very different women.
Carrie’s a delight to work with. She’s so, completely unself-conscious and just free to try stuff and you don’t need to direct her, but she loves to be directed. She always knows what her character is, but she also is so open to input and feedback and just “Try this” or “Try that.” I adore her. I hope this leads to her getting a lot more wonderful roles, because I think she really deserves it. I hope she gets award nominations and all the stuff, because she’s just great. You just want people who are amazing talents to get recognized. To do those two parts on TV at the same time and have them show up at the same time, it’s wonderful kismet. I want her to become a big movie star. I want to be able to build things around her, so I’m just hoping that the world really takes in what she did.
I am right there with you. Now, it’s been a while since you’ve done a feature. Is this a situation where the movies that you gravitate toward aren’t the movies that are getting funding these days? Or are you simply getting what you need creatively out of this very curated cable TV schedule that you’ve been working on?
I actually do very much miss doing features and I’m actually now getting very aggressive about trying to get back to doing my own movies, but probably on a very small level. The reality is sure, I am drawn to subject matter and stuff that’s not expensive. I made five indie films, the films I would make now would be indie films, but getting these films financed is much harder than it used to be, and it wasn’t easy then. But it’s harder still, now. So what happened was TV kept getting better and better. The writing, the actors, the subject matter was more and more fascinating and so it became a great way, at first, just to pay the rent while I try and get my own movies made and then it became its own career, because I was having an amazing time working with all these incredible people.
I will admit to missing doing something that is my own. So, there are a couple of projects now that I’m trying to piece together even very small funding for and just do it with, put together an amazing cast of friends and just go and shoot for under $1 million. Just go and make a movie that is a story that I want to tell. So, I’m hoping to ultimately keep both going. I’m sure I will always continue wanting to work, as long as TV stays at the level that it’s at, the chance to work on shows on the level of Leftovers or Fargo or shows that I have not gotten to work on but I think are brilliant, like Handmaid’s Tale, or whatever, as long as those are around, I’ll want to keep working in TV. But I’m hoping to balance it more 50/50 with my own projects.
I’m also developing things for TV. I’m working on something with Warren Littlefield, and so I’m trying to mix it up and have some more things that are my own. But also enjoy working for people that I admire.
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