Fargo Showrunner Prefers Decent People Who Are In Over Their Heads

Noah Hawley Talks Fargo Season Two and the Allure of Morally Dark Stories

by | October 11, 2015 | Comments

When people first learned of FX’s reboot of the acclaimed Coen Brothers film Fargo, many wondered why anyone would take such a sacred film and try to turn it into a TV show. Of course, the TV version of Fargo went on to become one of the best shows of 2014, winning a Peabody Award, a Golden Globe, a pile of Emmys, and also the Golden Tomato Award for the best-reviewed miniseries of the year.

This time around, as Fargo reboots for season two, there will probably be less skeptics. Again, showrunner Noah Hawley will use the Fargo universe to tell a new story, rewinding the clock back to 1979, where a group of Minnesotans struggle through a series of events instigated by one fateful night at the local Waffle Hut.

Rotten Tomatoes chatted with Hawley about season two — and why good people who do good things are inherently uninteresting. [Warning: Contains season one spoilers.]

Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: When you see what’s in your mind’s eye come to life on those sets, what’s it like?

Hawley: It’s cool. I work those people to the bone. It’s hugely ambitious — this year especially with the sort of scope of the story and the compressed amount of time we have to accomplish it. You know, we don’t make a 42-and-a-half minute show, and yet we’re making it in the same box that one has to make a 42-and-a-half-minute show. So there is an incredible amount of economy that goes into it, but seeing it unfold — those scenes you write — there are moments. I’m sure any writer would say the same thing. And then there are some moments you didn’t [expect].

There is a scene where Patrick [Wilson] comes home and Cristin [Milioti] gives him an ashtray that the daughter made, and I liked that scene when I wrote it, you know? I thought it did a lot to establish that we like these people and we want to be with them, and then we started shooting it, and it was a very emotional moment for him in a way that I did not expect at all.

It was so precise and profound and really makes that episode for him, where you know you love this guy. He’s carrying a heavy burden, and he’s never going to complain about it — but you see that it’s hard for him.

That elevates it for me. What I like about the challenge of doing this show is that it’s not good versus evil with a capital G, you know? These are decent people who are probably in over their heads with the forces that they’re facing, and that makes them more heroic to me than the guy you know is going to win — because Jack Bauer wins every time.

Rotten Tomatoes: So is that what draws you to sympathetic characters who do bad things?

Hawley: I got to watch, last year, our ninth episode with a crowd at the Austin TV Festival and it’s the hour where Lester sends his wife into the insurance office to get the passports and she gets out of the car, and then he calls to her, and you think, ‘Oh, is he going to stop her? Has he changed his mind?’ And he gives her his coat. His iconic orange coat. And then he stops her again and he tells her to put the hood up.

It’s so awful and watching it with a crowd of people was so great because there are three groans. There’s like, ‘I can’t believe he just sent her out there,’ and then it’s like, ‘I can’t believe he just gave her his coat,’ and then the hood. Then, of course, she’s promptly murdered, right?

That stuff is really exciting to play with because, it’s so morally dark, and it’s that moment where you really realize with Lester, ‘No, he’s is the monster.’

Malvo was the scorpion when you met him, and he’s just being a scorpion, but Lester is worse somehow. You met him, he was wearing human clothes, and now he turns out to be this monstrous person.

It was the same with Bill Macy, right? Like, you met him and you just thought, ‘Well, here’s this half-bumbling, hapless guy who made a bad choice and is in over his head,’ but then, every opportunity he had to stop it and own up, he didn’t. And it just kept going — the desperation. He just would not admit anything, you know? When they finally arrest him, he’s making these animal noises; it’s really powerful. So, if we can find our way to those kinds of stories, I think it’s really compelling.

Rotten Tomatoes: I know you’re a novelist and you do what a lot of TV shows don’t do, which is tell a complete story.

Hawley: Well, that’s the beauty of the medium. My feeling is you have to know how it ends before you can start it in this concentrated form because every step that you take is a step toward the end. So you can make these really decisive choices and bold moves and pull the audience forward and do things that are unexpected, but are actually a move toward your final destination — because you know where you’re going.

It was purely an accident of the calendar [in season two] because I gave them a script in November and they wanted to make it and go straight to series, but there was no way we were going to be able to film it that winter. So we had to wait 10 months, which allowed me to write all of them, which allowed me to separate the writer from the production. That was such a good model that it was like, ‘Well, we can’t now turn it into a regular TV schedule.’ And then you go, ‘It went so well the first time, why would we do anything different?’

But it is really helpful. When people look at shows and they’re like, “This season wasn’t as good,” or “This one didn’t end as well,” it’s tough to be making it up as you go along. Inevitably, you have an idea in the room where you’re like, “That’s so great! If we were just able to go back and lay that all in, we could really tee it up.” So that’s, I think, the benefit that we have — we know where we’re going.

Rotten Tomatoes: When you decided to go with the year 1979, what was your association with that year?

Hawley: I was a kid, and I was growing up in New York City… There had been a blackout in ’77 and crime was way up, and it really felt like the country was about to fall apart completely. And so, originally when I put that story in the second episode of [season one] about Sioux Falls, it was just a way for Keith Carradine to be able to tell his daughter, ”You know, I’ve seen something like this before” and I had no sense that it would be a story I would want to tell.

But also, because I thought it was funny, I made Gus’ boss say,” Oh no, it’s Sioux Falls all over again,” and then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well, that could be interesting if we do do another one to lay in a bit more in the last hour or two, and then audiences will say, ‘Oh, that would be cool to see that.'” Then I didn’t know, like, would we do that story right away? Or maybe we would come back to it after a year or something like that.

I didn’t really start thinking about the time period and what it meant for the story until we got into a room and really started to go, “How do we take the American experience at that moment and turn it into a crime story?” That was the challenge in itself.

Rotten Tomatoes: It’s interesting that you say you’re from New York City, because I think anyone who grows up in New York City is hyper-worldly at a really young age — and now you’re in this milieu that is really off the grid.

Hawley: I’ve lived for the last 10 years or so in Austin and it’s interesting because they’re different — Texas and Minnesota — but there is a sort of similarity to the under-spokeness, the sort of sense of humor of the place, and the fact that there’s a humility and a pride to it. I mean, my father-in-law [in Texas] is never going to complain a day in his life about anything, do you know what I mean? He’s just going to show up when you need him.

At the end of the day, I’m a populist and I want good things to happen to good people, but it’s a complicated world, and obviously, a story where good things happen to good people is not that interesting and there’s nothing really to learn from it.

You’ve got to put people through their paces and if they’re out of their league, it’s nerve-racking and it’s interesting. And if they win? That’s the best thing ever.

Season two of Fargo premieres this Monday, October 12, at 10 p.m. on FX. Read reviews here.

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