FX’s hit series Fargo (Tuesdays, 10/9C) is set in a very specific world – one that was created by Joel and Ethan Coen in their brilliant film of the same name. We not only gave the series an A+ grade (which it has maintained through eight episodes, counting tonight’s), we said, ‘You won’t believe it’s not The Coen Brothers!’
The creator of the network’s ‘true crime’ series, Noah Hawley, spoke with a group of bloggers/journalists about the show – where the idea came from, how he came to cast Allison ‘Molly Solverson’ Tollman, the state of television today and so much more – including the possibility of a second season. Please note that are some serious spoilers for tonight’s interview in the interview, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, check it out after tonight’s episode.
Thanks so much for doing the call today.
Noah Hawley: Sure.
I’m really, really loving the show. My question is, and I know the actors have talked about this some, but you got a ten-episode season order from the very beginning, so you really didn’t have to do quite the whole pilot thing. Can you talk about how that affected the way that you told the story knowing that you had a finite number of episodes?
Noah: I was commissioned to write a pilot, which I wrote a script, and then, right away the conversation became about a straight series order, which I think had a lot to do with just good timing and the fact that the network was expanding, knew that they were going to expand it to two or three channels and they wanted to launch into this limited series business. What was really exciting from the story standpoint, for me having written shows that have been cancelled relatively quickly or where you never really get out of the gate story wise is the idea that no matter what we did, FX was going to air all ten of them, and so, you write knowing that you’re going to be judged based on the totality of the story as opposed to people who get only a couple of episodes in. The other thing that it allowed us to do is to really lay in—to set things up to pay off down the road, and so, both from a writing standpoint and visually to really start introducing visual metaphors and themes and setting step up and also just to walk into locations where we were scouting and knowing that we were going to need a back door in Episode 8 or whatever it was very helpful, but when I wrote the first episode, I didn’t write with any act breaks; I just wrote a 68-page movie script, and I did the same when we were breaking story. We never put end of act one, start of act two on the board, and that really changes the way that you write because you’re now creating these artificial story points simply to throw to commercial, and anyway, it was a really great process knowing that we were telling a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Knowing what we know and that you initially wrote this as a movie script, what would a second season of Fargo look like?
Noah: It would look like a new movie really. I really liked that when FX said we want to do Fargo, we’re wondering if you can do it without Marge, by which they meant without any of the characters from the movie, by which they meant can you write us a new Coen brothers’ movie. I liked the idea that it was just a story that felt like that story but actually had no connection to it, and then, as you get deeper into it, you found that there was a connection actually and that Stavros found the money that Buscemi buried at the end of the film, and you realize that, wait a minute, this story is even tangentially connected to the movie, I think is really fun. So, I think if we were to do it again, you would see a new movie with new characters but one that might have some connection either to the first season or to the original movie, just not in a way hopefully that you can predict or expect.
I was a fan of your other show, The Unusuals, and Fargo reunites you with both Adam Goldberg and Joshua Close. Just curious—were the parts written for them in mind and what was it like working with them again?
Noah: No, none of the parts were really written with anyone in mind. I tend to work from a—to write first and then cast later, but I’ve remained friends with all of that cast. It was such a great cast and obviously Mr. Renner has gone on to do some other things, but all those guys, I stay in touch with.
The thing that I like about Adam and that I used him in The Unusuals is that I like casting him against type which is that sort of neurotic Jewish comic thing. I like putting him in a sort of darker less-talky, more-menacing kind of role. I think he brings something so interesting to it.
And then, Josh came in, he auditioned for the role of Chazz, and there was just a quality to him that I think really felt—he really captured a sort of small-town arrogance in a way, but also, I don’t know how you feel, but I felt like his journey and where he ended up by the end of Episode 7 was such a raw and vulnerable place, and people said they never thought they would feel sorry for him but they did. So, I’m a believer that when you find people you like working with, you should keep working with them is a good philosophy.
In the series, you work with brothers Coen. I think one episode. What was the influence of the brothers Coen? They have influence in the whole series, or only in the first episodes?
Noah: Well, the Coens, obviously their influence is everywhere in the show, and obviously, I didn’t keep myself to just references or inspirations from Fargo the movie. I sort of opened myself to their larger body of work as storytellers and their sensibility. We do a parable sequence in Episode 5 that’s obviously a nod to A Serious Man and The Goy’s Teeth as well as a lot of other moments, some big, some small that are influenced by them.
Their direct involvement really was pretty minimal. They obviously are very busy with their own material, and they read the first script that I wrote and I had a very nice conversation with them about it and they were very happy with it, and then, we showed them the first episode and Ethan Coen said yes, good, which apparently is effusiveness from him. So, their direct involvement—or there was never a situation where they wanted to know what was coming down the line, we didn’t break story. There was none of that. I think they sort of read it and they said okay, well he got it, he captured—he’s doing it the way we would do it. So, we’re just going to let him do his thing, but they bought me waffles, which was nice, or maybe I bought them waffles, I can’t remember.
Seems to me like many of these new American TV shows nowadays are defined by the amount—they always depict a lot of violence and this moral ambiguity and I think that the hero over time is like the character of the psychopath, like other shows like Dexter and House of Cards. I was wonder how do you explain this?
Noah: How do I explain my society? I think that’s a hard question. I think some of it has to do with the shock value of telling stories that come from a different point of view. Obviously, Breaking Bad was hugely influential culturally, and Dexter and all the way back to Vic Mackey on The Shield, and this idea of the anti-hero and that you’re actually rooting for a guy and he’s both the hero and the villain is a very interesting line to walk.
That wasn’t necessarily the line that I felt like I was walking. Billy Bob Thornton and I laugh because people talk to him and they call him [Lorne Malvo] the protagonist of the show which is not—he’s not designed to be the hero of the show, and I find it interesting that people respond to him in that way. Obviously, he’s a movie star and has a very big role in the show, but he’s an element of social destruction and anarchy and does a kind of violence to the social contract that’s just as meaningful as the real violence he does in life, which is to say it’s just as important to him to see if he can get a kid to urinate in his boss’ gas tank as it is to blackmail a guy or murder someone. He just wants to see how far he can push the human animal to be an animal, but I feel like that is balanced, his journey and Lester’s journey which is definitely a dark journey by the optimism of Molly and Gus and this idea of what we remember most from the movie is yes, there was this real horrific violence, but there was this sort of American optimism to it and this idea that at the end of the movie when she gets into bed with her husband and he got the $0.03 stamp and they’re going to have a baby in two months, she’s going to wake up tomorrow and go back to life as normal, and it’s not going to be this crazy horrifying Coen brothers’ world…that that was the worst thing that she saw. So, I like the idea that in a very hopefully Coen brothers’ way, there is a good versus evil battle that’s going on here and I hope that the good wins out, but nothing’s black and white.
So, in terms of writing characters, do you write what you want your characters to do or do you let the story take hold and kind of go along for the ride like the rest of us because I feel that it’s all very natural and fluid?
Noah: The scripts are very detailed down a lot of the time to the camera move itself. I feel like as TV used to be a sort of talking head medium with the occasional foot chase or car chase, but now, the cinematic bar is really high, which is the influence of HBO and shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men and it’s incumbent on us as writers to be filmmakers and to tell the story with the camera as much as possible, and I find it really exciting to have—anytime there’s a four or five-page stretch with no dialogue where it’s really just the camera telling the story, that makes me very happy as a filmmaker, but within that, you always get up on the day with the actors and you put the scene on its feet and you figure out the blocking and how it would actually play out, but it was really rare that things would change much on the day.
It was much more—and part of this is just about getting everyone to buy into the vision of the show, but I feel like if you have really thought it out and you really know exactly how you want things to unfold, your cast will go on that ride. They want to believe that you know what you’re doing, and there are certainly moments where we talk stuff through, and of course, Billy Bob Thornton, he’s basically like where do you want me to go, what do you want me to say. He would laugh because apparently Billy and Joe and Ethan always joked about those actors who would say my guy wouldn’t do that, they’d go out to a restaurant and he’d say oh, I’d order spaghetti and meatballs but my guy wouldn’t eat spaghetti and meatballs.
It’s funny; there’s so much goodwill inherently built into Fargo. Even though it’s been around for quite a while, there’s that world that you already are kind of some goodwill established with the viewer, but as I was watching the first episode, there was that passing of kind of the brain going from oh my God, this doesn’t suck, this doesn’t suck to the point where it goes oh my God, this is great, and then, it started to take its own life. At what point in the process did you feel sort of that baton being passed from where you’re telling your audience you’re safe here, this is the world you know but now you’re going around the world? Did you feel that in the writing process and as you guys are putting the show together?
Noah: Yes, it was interesting. From very early on, when the challenge was presented to me as can you make a Coen brothers’ movie, can you tell—what if it went like this? We’re sitting around telling crazy, true-crime stories and you told me the one about Jerry Lundegaard who hired these guys to kidnap his wife for money and then everything went to hell, and I said, oh yeah, that’s crazy, have you heard the one about the insurance salesman who runs into this guy in the emergency room, and so, that was sort of the free association that launched the show for me, which was pretty almost immediately upon being presented with the challenge, I had this image of these two guys in the emergency room, and one was a very civilized man and the other was a very uncivilized man and the question was who were they, where did they come from and where were they going, and there was something in that that felt inherently Coen-esque.
And then, the minute that I started to take that down the path, it felt like what you were describing, which is this feels like the movie but it’s not the movie, and then the question—and then, as I sort of put the pieces together and introduced the character of Vern, who was the chief of police, knowing that he was in some ways a diversion to sneak Molly’s character in and building up to that moment where the doorbell rings and Lester has killed his wife and he thinks that it’s the Malvo showing up, but it’s really Vern and the way that that played out, all of it felt organically like it was working and that was a very exciting moment, and a very exciting story to come in and tell to FX and to have them—to see on their faces that they felt like I was getting it right.
I just wanted to know, Fargo was a true crime story that’s completely fictional. Are there any real true-crime stories that helped inspire the series?
Noah: No. There wasn’t. It wasn’t like I read anything that I felt like was a detail that would play in well to this case. It was more that once I put the characters in motion, once I said—and there is a slight [indiscernible] undertrained quality to the set up, but the minute that Lester came in and Malvo came in and the idea of killing the bully and killing the wife came in, then it was about playing out the consequences of that, and the idea that Sam has had connections to a Fargo crime syndicate and that Mr. Wrench and Numbers came to town and all that. So, at that point, I wasn’t really looking for any true story to rely on. It was more the idea that once you call something a true story, you’re able to break a lot of the rules of hero-based story-telling that this sort of Joseph Campbell hero’s journey thing that our friend Dan Harmon talks about all the time.
It was more like you’ll seen in Episode 4, Gus manages to arrest Malvo and he calls Molly and says you should be here, and she gets her coat but she never makes it there and Bill goes instead. In the fictional story, you would want her in that room, she’s the hero. She’s supposed to be sitting across from the villain, but the true story version is that she never makes it there, just like Marge wasn’t there when Jerry Lundegaard was arrested at the end of the movie and the same thing in 106. When Malvo’s doing his whole thing of setting up Don Chumph and playing out that end game, and even the shootout, it’s like Molly and Gus are sort of driving around and they’re having coffee and they’re not—the textbook tells you to put them at the center of the action, but by not putting them in the center of the action, it feels more real, I guess, was the conceit. So, it wasn’t so much about looking for real-world inspirations as much as it was to try to make a fictional story feel realer.
I was wondering specifically about the episode next week (tonight). What went into the decision to do the time jump forward? Why was that important to finish out the story?
Noah: Well, for a couple of reasons, one, it plays into what I just mentioned which is I apologize to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but we’re going to talk spoilers now. It was suggested, I had a writer’s room of four writers even though I wrote all of them, but we got together for ten weeks and we broke episodes two through nine, and there was a moment where one of the writers, Steve Blackman, suggested we do a time jump, and there was part of me that felt like it might feel gimmicky and I wanted to sleep on it.
I liked the idea that it felt like a real-life thing because obviously if these cases aren’t solved quickly, often they’re not solved at all or the case goes cold and then something new happens. So, I liked that idea, but it wasn’t until I literally slept on it and woke up the next morning and thought well she’s pregnant that’s why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because in that year, things have happened to her personally where she and Gus are now married and she’s pregnant and suddenly it is the movie in a way, like you watch this whole thing thinking oh, it’s kind of like the movie but it’s not the movie, but then the minute that she’s pregnant again, you think wait a minute, now it is the movie in this strange way and that also sets up for me, now you have expectations based on the movie about the situations that she’s going to be put in that maybe we play into or maybe we defy in a way that it’s always very important to me to try to create a story that feels unpredictable like you can’t jump ahead and see what’s coming, but at the end, when you’ve watched the whole thing, it all feels inevitable. So, it’s a tricky line, but I did feel like once the pregnancy thing came to my head that the time jump felt justified on every level, and it allows us to sort of move all the characters forward and to move Lester forward to see his transformation complete and where he ends up and the kind of guy he is now as well as for Molly and Gus, and then, for Malvo, all you know is what you saw at the very end, but it’s good. I can’t wait for you to see nine, let me just say that.
You talked early on a bit about differentiating series from the movie Fargo, and I was wondering if there’s any hesitation efforts to try to move up to the movie if you’re worried about working on the script and how you sort of made it your own.
Noah: Well, there’s always the concern of they’re such big shoes to fill. I think creatively that’s a paralyzing thought though. So, there are buffers built in. It was a big swing, but I took it and certainly the network was there to say yes, you didn’t get it, we’re not going to make the show, and then, once we started shooting, we made what I believe to be the best version of it and the network said yes that is the best version of it. So, there are buffers in there. You get some positive or negative feedback as you need it.
But certainly that moment on a Thursday or Friday when we sent the script off to Joel and Ethan and we’re now just waiting for them to read it, it’s a pretty nerve-wracking time and then to then call them—have them call me on the phone and say very nice things about it and to really tell me in no uncertain terms that they were happy and that they felt that I got it right. That was the most important feedback that I’ve gotten in this whole time is when your heroes acknowledge you it’s always a good moment.
A number of people have said that they think we’re in a golden age of TV, and I’m wondering if you agree with that, and if so, is that strictly on cable, or does it also apply to broadcast, and which shows, if any, do you like to watch?
Noah: It’s an interesting question. I think obviously it is a great time, and there’s some of that that has to do with the feature business in the state that it’s in and there’s part of it that has to do with the fact that we now have, I think somebody said something like 52 buyers of original scripted content and how do you distinguish yourself in that marketplace, and part of it is just the brand—is the quality of the show is the brand. It’s like FX when they put The Shield on the first time, they couldn’t compete on any level with broadcast television except to create a show that you couldn’t find anywhere else and to hope that that would bring an audience to it and that was really the model combined with HBO for saying look, television—and there were great broadcast shows throughout history. Through the history of television there have been great iconic ground-breaking shows. I think people used to read War and Peace and now we don’t, and what we do is we sit around and watch things on our screens, our phones, our iPads, our TVs and we spend a lot of time doing that and almost by accident people discover this idea of binge watching, first by going back and looking at shows like The Wire or shows where there are multiple seasons that people have missed, and this idea that you could watch all of them for 20 hours or 40 hours or whatever, it became a very addictive thing, and I think what’s interesting is people used to read War and Peace and now we don’t and what we do is we watch these shows and we need these shows to be great so that we can feel great about ourselves for watching them.
If you’re going to binge 30 hours a week, are you going to feel good about yourself if it’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, or are you going to feel good about yourself if it’s House of Cards? Or if it’s a War and Peace as a limited series, this idea that this entertainment can also be provocative and educational and interesting and really move us, I think that’s playing into it as well is that people—and you see it in the conversations that happen around televisions. From time to time I look at the recaps of the episodes and this is a Pauline Kael level dissertation and conversations about the deep meaning of the work and structural—how the episodes work structurally, the themes of them, the characters. It’s very sophisticated conversations about shows, and then it’s incumbent on us to make very sophisticated shows so that you guys can keep talking about them in that way.
Are there any shows that you particularly like to watch?
Noah: I don’t get to watch as much anymore, but the iconic shows of—I’m just catching up on Mad Men now. Obviously, Breaking Bad, I watched religiously. I’ve been watching Hannibal. I’m really intrigued by the world that he’s created, and as someone who’s adapted underlying material, I love that he’s twisted and turned it into something uniquely his own. I watch Boardwalk Empire. I try to sample everything at least one or two episodes to see what is going on, but it’s hard at this moment. I’m sure I’ll binge watch on vacation. Any recommendations?
I like a lot of the stuff on FX. So, I think The Americans is another one that they have.
Noah: I like that one as well.
So, my question is—my audience are writers and a lot of them are aspiring TV writers, so they wanted to ask you how did you break into TV writing and—
Noah: We lost him for the second part of the question.
*The caller’s line dropped out*
Just going back to the time jump in the upcoming episode, will any of the events in the years passed, will they be addressed in upcoming episodes or do you feel everything is going to resolve from that point? And also, with Lester being this newly confident wielder of staplers, is there a showdown between him and Lorne in the future?
Noah: Well, it certainly looks like that at the end as they’re, for the first time, in the room again. I found it really interesting to—the first episode is all about these two guys and then they’re never in a room again until this point, and hopefully, we’ve managed to keep everyone entertained and create a compelling story without that element, but certainly, bringing them together now in episode eight, I think hopefully it gives everyone exactly what they’ve been hoping for all along. But the time jump was really—it was created, and if you saw the script, you would see. We have that moment where Molly and Gus get into bed; it’s a year later and she tells him that they’re doing good and he goes to sleep and they’re watching TV and the camera drops down through the bedding, and in the script it says and if it feels like that’s the end of the movie, well that’s on purpose. I purposely wanted to create a moment in Episode 8 that literally mimicked the end of the movie so that everyone thought wait a minute, I thought there were two of these left, is that it, is that where it’s ending, and then, drop down through and create a sort of disorienting moment where suddenly you’re in Las Vegas and it’s some sales conference and it’s not until we reveal Lester Nygaard that you realize oh yeah, we haven’t seen where Lester is a year later, and look, he’s winning this award and then bring him into direct contact with Malvo again in the same room and just lead people with that.
Now, they really want to come back and see what happens next, but I think that the year jump was both to move the story forward and also to sort of say maybe it’s an epilogue. Maybe we’re like a year later and actually she’s doing pretty good and she’s still thinking about it, but they got everything they need.
I love the show. I want to time jump backwards with you for a moment to the day when you first saw the movie Fargo. What impact did it have on you as a movie goer, as a writer? Do you remember even, say, which theater you saw it in, which I guess is my way of saying what kind of profound impact might it have had on you?
Noah: How old am I is the question.
Noah: I don’t remember the location of the first screening, but I do remember, and I think at that point, I had probably seen Raising Arizona certainly as a movie which is such an iconic film and really such a unique—no one has ever made a film like Raising Arizona before or since, and so, coming into this film, I remember the feeling of unease that’s there from the beginning and the region as a character in it, but there was something about watching it unfold because obviously you don’t meet Marge in the movie for the first 33 minutes or something. You think okay, it’s this guy and he’s hired these guys and they go and they kidnap the wife and it all goes horribly wrong and there’s that moment where Buscemi and Peter Stormare have been pulled over by the state cop and things get violent and Peter Stormare grabs the guy by the tie and he shoots him, and there’s this crazy fountain of blood that comes out of his head and then it becomes a car chase and then the car flips and it really—it’s so shocking and delivers so dryly, and then you meet Marge and then suddenly the movie opens up into this really endearing world where I pitched the show to FX. I said it’s the best of America versus the worst of America. Yes, we have problems, but look who’s solving them, and I think that was the profound feeling from the movie was you saw this gritty and really kind of dark world view, and then it was contrasted by this woman, this pregnant woman who came in and just was very matter of fact and common sense and she wasn’t The Mentalist. She just had a lot of common sense and she was a really endearing person, and they put her on a collision course with these really bad people and you worried about her and that’s what I remember.
We recently talked to Allison [Tolman] who plays Molly on the show, and you have such a wide range cast from Billy Bob Thornton to Martin Freeman, all big name actors, and when we heard her story, she was working in managing a photo shop in Chicago. What went in to finding her, and can you tell us a little bit about that experience of finding her because I can’t imagine anyone else playing that character now?
Noah: I just saw her earlier today. We did some DVD commentary, and first of all, she’s so matter of fact about the whole thing, it’s really—she was obviously—you guys all nominated her for an award, and she was, eight months ago, had a day job. So, our casting director, Rachel Tenner, who had worked with Ellen Chenoweth and worked with Joel and Ethan on A Serious Man and their last three or four movies, she started out as a Chicago casting director and still had a lot of local roots, which is one of the things we liked about her; she had basically gone to Minnesota to cast A Serious Man, and so, they were having sessions in Minneapolis and they were having sessions in Chicago and we were getting tapes, and I saw this tape of Allison, and I had seen, I don’t know, 80 or 90 Los Angeles and New York actresses putting themselves on tape and a lot of really great talent there, but there was something the minute that I saw Allison’s tape, I thought oh well, that’s her.
She was a very real person, very grounded, but she got all the nuance of the comedy in a way that the others hadn’t done, and there was just something so disarming about her and matter of fact, and she seemed just really smart but also she wasn’t putting it in your face, and so, we brought the tape to the network and we got her in the mix and we did end up having a screen test in New York where we tested our best and brightest option. But it was inarguable that it was her role and everyone saw it and I got to call her up at her day job and tell her that she got the job and then she hung up and went back to work.
With these excellent reviews and the recent nomination to the Critics’ Awards, can we expect another season of Fargo or similar story, and do what do you think the good reviews of the critics?
Noah: I think they’re terrible, and I want my bad reviews back. No, it’s amazing. I’ve never had this experience before of such universal acclaim for something that even I thought was a dubious idea in the beginning, and I assumed that the majority of voices would just be saying how dare you or what gives you the right to take on this iconic work.
Look, obviously in an industry like this, anytime something is a success, you think how can I make more money off of it. That said, my experience with FX is they’re very proud of the quality of the work, and their biggest concern is if we were to do it again, could we make it as good or better, and certainly those are conversations that are being had. I think that, for me, it’s really important that there’s a kind of alchemy that happens when you get all the right elements in place that a lot of it is skill but some of it is luck as well, and I’m not in any hurry to try to top myself there. It’s been a crazy two-year span of getting picked up and writing them all and producing them all and we have our final sound mix today on Episode 10, and then, I’m excited about the idea of really taking the time to think about and the network is kind enough to allow me to do that.
So, I think it’s a really exciting voice to work in and the leeway that I get in making a Coen Brothers’ movie is I get to mix tone, drama and comedy and violence and magic realism and be structurally innovative with how I tell the story and all those sorts of things that I might not have gotten away with on my own. So, it’s been a blast.
But you have ideas for another series?
Noah: I have some thoughts of what we could do that I think would be really great, but obviously, you’re seeing from the ten hours that you’re watching now that all the pieces—my feeling is that all the pieces that we put in motion and the way things are paying off is I’m really happy with it, and I don’t want to just have an idea for how it starts; I need to have an idea for how it ends because it starts and ends in the same season, so you can’t fake it until you make it. You have to start out knowing exactly where you’re going.
Before you turned to fiction, you were a singer/songwriter. How much does music influence the way you write? Are there like times where you’re listening to a song and you kind of put it in like a cinematic context and you think of like a scene to write or something like that?
Noah: Musicality definitely is a part of writing even without music, the sort of rhythm of the scene and the beats of it and all, but certainly my composer, Jeff Russo who’s done my other two shows with me, he and I start talking at the conceptual stage. I did a show called My Generation. We shot in Austin, and that was a show that I wanted to have a very Americana feel to it. So, we had more banjo and whistling in that show than any other show on television I think, but that was part of the identity of the show from the moment of its conception in a way, and here, obviously we were based on a movie that had an amazing score by Carter Burwell, a very orchestral score, and so, that’s what we were playing to, but Jeff and I had been talking since the outline stage, and so, as it happened on My Generation, when I went to Calgary to make the show, one day I get ten tracks from him, ten pieces of score including he’s written the main theme that we use, he’s written a bunch of music that I’m then able to listen to as I’m driving around the lonely plains of Alberta, Canada. And so, the musical identity of the show, the mood of the show is there, and then as we’re filming scenes, I’m not playing it for the audience really or of anyone else, but I know what it’s going to sound like and I’ll call him and I’ll say hey, this piece of music that you have right here, I think this will be great for the moment where Molly finds Lester lying downstairs next to his wife, but let’s take it—it’s the sort of comic theme that we use to introduce Lester, but let’s take that piece of music, and let’s now slow it down and drop it an octave and turn it into a Lester’s not the bumbling fool anymore; it becomes a more ominous piece of music. So, definitely music is a huge part of everything that I do.
My question is about the anthologies here. We’ve seen a lot of successful anthologies lately, American Horror Story, True Detective, and I think Fargo is right in that same vein. Is there something you see about certain storytelling in Hollywood right now where it’s kind of lending itself to almost a ten-hour movie is what I see Fargo as, or maybe it’s eight-hour movie for True Detective, but I feel like it’s kind of the film of TV if that makes sense. I just want to kind of get your thoughts on the success of a lot of these anthologies here as we’re seeing on TV right now.
Noah: It’s interesting. I think American Horror Story in a lot of ways is the—it’s three years old, but it’s the grandparent of all of this—just that idea, that breaking through that ceiling because for so long you just couldn’t do it, the whole thing was a hundred episodes or die, and then, I think obviously the 12 or 13 episode cable season started to wear away at that 22-episode a year mantra.
And then, Lost, I think also played a huge role in it, this idea that was really a cultural conversation piece and that Damon and Carlton kept saying look, we’ve only got so much story, we can’t do this forever and they had to force the network to give them an end date. I think it’s evolved to the point where the length of the show revolves now more around the length of the story as opposed to the other way around, and there are still going to be shows like 24 where you’re like well, it’s 24 episodes and it runs multiple years and there’s a new thing every year and that’s great, but otherwise, there’s all these properties that the only option you ever had was to make a two-hour movie out of it or to try and get an HBO John Adams’ miniseries going where now you have a lot of buyers for that kind of material.
But I think the critical thing in the cable world is on the business side is the idea that networks like AMC and FX, once they take a studio role, once they have backend to ownership of the property, then they’re able to look down the road and go okay, well, we’ll make—True Detective is not a good example because it’s HBO, but we’ll make Fargo and because we have a studio ownership in it, the same-day ratings don’t matter as much because we also are going to get money from foreign sales, from a big second-end Netflix or Hulu or Amazon sale, and therefore, they’re not expecting—they’re not tied to the ratings to make their money entirely. So, the minute that your network is also your studio, I think you’re seeing a lot more risk taking where you go okay, obviously Breaking Bad started out with very low ratings, and then, this binge watching built over time to build to the point of where their finale was a huge number, and that show will continue to make money for them for decades. So, I think it’s a confluence of the creative storytelling and the fact that you can’t make that $30 million feature film anymore but you can make a $30 million ten-hour movie on FX.
One quick follow up. You mentioned several times, you’re obviously a big Breaking Bad fan. I know you have an incredible cast on this show, but just real quick if you could, just talk about working with Bob Odenkirk because obviously he was such a big part of Breaking Bad, and he’s phenomenal, such a different role for playing Saul Goodman on this show, but I love his work on this series as well.
Noah: Bob was great. He came in, and it’s very funny, he was so comb-over driven by in Breaking Bad and the mustache and the haircut was very—those were sort of at the forefront of his mind at the beginning of like the look of the character, and when he signed on, there was only maybe two or three scripts written, and the journey that Bill’s character takes, it’s actually a very major character in the show but wasn’t necessarily in the beginning, and I think it was his enthusiasm for the material that made him say well, I just want to be a part of this, but I think he really appreciated—that scene that he has with Martin Freeman where Martin confesses in setting up Chazz and to the point at which they’re both in tears at the end, that wasn’t a scene that Bob ever got to play on Breaking Bad. The range of things that we asked him to do to have this sort of small-town innocence and this kind of [indiscernible] obstructionist quality which is not based on the fact that he’s a bad guy, it’s just he doesn’t want to live in a world where his old friend could be guilty of anything. Playing all those levels, we really pushed Bob and he rose to it.
How did you break in as a TV writer, and what is your advice to new writers shopping around their first pilot script?
Noah: I came in through the side door really. I had started as a novelist and had written a couple of novels. I had one optioned by Paramount, and then, my motto is really what else can they get away with. So, I wrote a spec feature and ended up selling that and coming down to LA from San Francisco where I was living and selling a pitch and then was hired to adapt the book that had been set up, and so, suddenly I had this side career going as a screenwriter and then what else can they get away with; I started having television conversations and ended up selling I guess three pilots over the course of two years, and then feeling like if any of those ever got picked up, I would need to know how to produce a show, and so, I came down and I went to work on a show called Bones, and I was there for two seasons and then I got my own show, which was The Unusuals. So, it was a very fast process, but the great thing about being a writer is you can always write that thing that gives—you can write yourself a career, and I would say you just don’t want to throw all your eggs in one basket and say well I’ve written this one script and I’m going to hock this one script until the day I die. It’s like just keep writing. You have to write because you love it and you have to tell stories because you have to tell them. It can’t be this strategic well, I hear that AMC is looking for a sci-fi show. It has to be well what stories do you need to tell, and if you have your own voice and if you’re telling your own stories, the market will find you eventually.
How did you arrive at a choice few characters who are similar on the surface, yet different in the details as in Marge Gunderson and Molly Solverson and between Jerry Lundegaard and Lester Nygaard to use as the baseline characters in this series?
Noah: Well, I think it’s a question of familiarity and expectations and the idea that is—there is a sort of small-town character of a Jerry Lundegaard or a Lester Nygaard who is on the surface, is a sort of failure, someone who is not—doesn’t seem to have their lives under control. They don’t seem to be well-respected in the world, and in creating something that felt like the movie, I felt like you needed that character, the insurance salesman or the car salesman for familiarity, but then, of course, the familiarity breeds the expectation that their journey is going to be the same. So, the minute that Lester takes a hammer to his wife, you realize that you’re not going down the same path as you did before, and I hope that’s an exciting moment for people. Jerry Lundegaard was defined by his passivity. He was guiltiest of not speaking up when he realized that—he obviously hired these guys, but he didn’t call them off, he didn’t confess it at any point. He just became this paralyzed figure whereas Lester’s journey was about the actions that he took.
And then, as far as Marge and Molly, I knew that if I started the show with Molly as the chief of police, everyone was going to make a direct comparison to Frances McDormand and no one could survive that because Frances’ performance was so Oscar winning and iconic. So, I snuck Molly in through the side door. I created Vern, and I gave him a pregnant wife, and my thought was well the audience will go oh, I see what they’re doing, they just switched this and now the wife is pregnant but he’s having a baby, and then I kill him off and Molly has been introduced through the side door as a sidekick, so suddenly you realize only in Episode 2 that she is actually the star of the show, but at that point, you haven’t judged her against Frances McDormand. So, you’ve formed an opinion on her based on her performance versus based on somebody else’s performance.
You’ve talked about your novels and stuff like that. If we don’t see a second season for Fargo, is there any chance that we could revisit the characters you’ve created to live on in book form, and has doing Fargo opened up some new opportunities for you? Do you see any chance that you’ll turn some of your old books into a TV series?
Noah: Well, there are a couple of questions there. Those characters, it’s a really fascinating thing because obviously TV is based on the idea that you fall in love with these characters, and then your reward is you get to watch them year in and year out. Obviously, we’re not satisfying that feeling for people. I think are there stories to tell about Gus and Molly and Wrench and Numbers and Malvo? Sure. I’m sure there’s a whole world of stories to tell about them. I haven’t explored the idea of a book series or anything. Part of it I think is I think Joel and Ethan have been very patient with me, but I don’t want to turn their creation into an industry for my own gain. Part of it is also the idea at the end of the movie was Marge gets into bed and she’s seeing the worst case she’ll ever see and tomorrow she goes back to life as normal and that’s her reward, and that’s why you feel great about the movie is because she survived the worst thing and now she’s going to just have a baby and be a mom, and so, the reason this wasn’t a television series is because A, we’re saying it’s a true story, and year in, year out, we just kept presenting Molly with these crazy Coen Brothers’ cases, there’s no way we could maintain that idea that it’s a true story.
And B, I think she would be such a changed person after four or five years or four or five books or whatever it was that what was that sort of best of America versus worst of America quality, she’d be in the more sort of bitter PTSD criminal minds detective as opposed to the sort of optimistic, trying to put the world back into the order that it needs to be in person. And then, as far as the books go, I write the books to be books and then I’m not out there hocking the idea that we should do this book, is it this or that book, is it that. People ask and there are conversations, but I don’t have any specific thoughts at this moment.
Photos by Chris Large/Courtesy of FX