Interview: Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield bring ‘Fargo’ to the small screen

04.14.14 4 years ago 2 Comments


CALGARY – As pages go, Warren Littlefield is slightly overqualified.

The Brandon Tartikoff protege spent 20 years as an executive at NBC, cultivating in a '90s run as NBC Entertainment President a gig that was, at times, rather wildly successful.

On this March day in Calgary, though, Littlefield is serving as a tour-guide for a group of reporters visiting the set of his FX limited series “Fargo.” Just a 10 minute drive from downtown Calgary, we've left the urban center behind and we're at a facility that is doubling for the Bemidji Police Department, as well as several other rural Minnesota hubs.  Depending on which way you wander, there are interrogation rooms, a main squad area, portions of a local hospital and a middle school cafeteria, in which we're conducting most of our interviews next to a fine piece of juvenile art that has nothing to do with “Fargo,” but I'm including it anyway. 

Art on the set of FX's

Outside, the parking lots have become a jurisdictional nightmare with squad cars from both Bemidji and Duluth PDs, reflecting the Minnesota-spanning crime wave that serve as the centerpiece for “Fargo.”

Since leaving NBC in 1998, Littlefield has branched out as an independent TV producer. My favorite of his credits is certainly FOX's short-lived cult classic “Keen Eddie,” but you may have enjoyed ABC's “My Generation,” which may not have been successful, but it brought Littlefield together with Noah Hawley, a relationship that became important when Littlefield decided to take another stab at turning The Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning favorite “Fargo” to the small screen.

Littlefield first tried to adapt “Fargo” for TV back in 1997 when a pilot was shot with Edie Falco stepping in for Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson. Directed by Kathy Bates, the “Fargo” pilot wasn't awful by any means. In fact, it aired on Trio — I miss Trio — back in 2003 as part of the network's “Brilliant But Cancelled” series, which may also have been how you saw Kiefer Sutherland's busted “L.A. Confidential” pilot back in the day. When Littlefield decided a few years ago to take another stab at “Fargo,” he turned to Hawley, who had a brilliant-but-cancelled series of his own in ABC's “The Unusuals” back in 2009.

Rather than sticking to the Coens' story of a pregnant cop, a botched kidnapping and a series of murders, Littlefield and Hawley decided to do something far more complicated: FX's “Fargo” is a 10-episode drama that captures the Coen Brothers' sensibility and much of their worldview through a plot that feels similar, but never identical.

On the set, Hawley is the master of that sensibility. While he broke stories with a small staff of writers, Hawley wrote the final scripts for all 10 “Fargo” episodes and he's also off to the side, ready to engage in long discussions of character and motivation with various cast members including Martin Freeman, whose Lester Nygaard has some very superficial similarities with Jerry Lundegaard from the film, but ultimately isn't much like that William H. Macy character at all. 


Littlefield is also a regular on-set presence, but if Hawley is mostly hunkered down with actors, the veteran executive is talking to department heads and coordinating things on his phone, at least when he isn't showing reporters around faux Bemidji or discussing the logistics of the “E.R.” pilot with “Fargo” director Scott Winant, who didn't direct said pilot but may have been in conversations to direct it at some point, if my eves-dropping is accurate.

“Fargo” is in simultaneous production on the season's seventh and eighth episodes, but both Littlefield and Hawley took time to do sit-downs in the shadow of Cat Squid with individual journalists. 

My conversation with Littlefield is on Page 2 of this multi-page story. He reflects on the brainwave of doing “Fargo” without Marge, his instinct to get Noah Hawley involved and his thoughts on why it's important that the TV industry is coming to embrace different storytelling structures, including the limited series.

On Page 3, you'll see my interview with Hawley, who talks about recreating the Coen Brothers sensibility, the challenges of creating a satisfying ending and which other Coen Brothers properties he could imagine adapting.

Follow through for the interviews… 



HitFix: So, for you this has been a real sort of journey bringing this actually to TV. How gratifying is that it actually going to air, that you're actually finally going to have done this?

Warren Littlefield: Pinch me. It's kind of a dream. So there are days and nights in Calgary where I'm like, “Yeah, this is all real right? We're doing this?” I started over three years ago working on this putting all the pieces together and being able to do this. So yeah, it's been remarkable. Just the leap we took creatively to not use the same characters from the film, to tell a new story with new characters and yet it still be “Fargo.” To have the Coens sign on as executive producers and they're very much of the belief that this is Noah's vision so they don't interfere with that, but their influence, always being mindful of what they created with that original film in '96. That informs us, and yet we're probably liberated by how we're able to go about and do our show.

HitFix: Who was it that sort of had the brainwave of not just readapting the movie again?

Warren Littlefield: When I adapted it first in '97 when I was at NBC it was a straight adaptation of the movie. And when push came to shove I chose not to make it because I was worried about disappointing the audience and that it would be somehow a paler version. No regrets on that decision. And in the early discussion, when MGM set up the deal with FX — no writer, no producer, nothing attached just a desire to develop the property — I reached out to FX and I'd been in discussion for quite some time at MGM and I said, “We really need to hear from Noah Hawley, we worked together on 'My Generation.' I'm really convinced Noah has a vision for this.”

HitFix: Had you ask Noah if he had a vision for it or did you just assume?

Warren Littlefield: After I read his fourth novel, “The Good Father,”  just said, “Is it possible you're a fan of the Coen Brothers because here's what I want to do next.” And Noah's like, “Please, of course.” So Nick Grad at FX said, “Look, we don't know this for sure. We ask ourselves as we look at the property, do you have to have Marge to do 'Fargo'?” And I was like, “Wow that's really interesting question.” And he said, “We don't know the answer, we're just asking the question.” So I kind of scurried back to Noah and said, “Here's what they said.” And Noah found that wildly liberating, the idea that there can be original characters, that it could absolutely play in a Coen Brothers tone and place, that we would always be aware of the original work, but a new crime saga with all new characters. He was a giddy. And then when we presented Noah's script to the Coens, they just said “We're not big fans of Imitation but we feel like Noah channeled us and we would like to put our names on this.” And they didn't have to do that. They also, when we were looking at casting directors they suggested Rachel Tenner, who did the local casting when they made the original movie. And Rachel has continued to do a number of films with them. And so Rachel had never done television but we were like, “We want her.” So it's been a journey that's always been informed by the Coens' original work, but I don't think there's a more important decision than ultimately going and cutting our own path in a “Fargo” universe.

HitFix: Well now, in your mind is the sort of the perfect amount of involvement for the Coens to have? Like they gave their blessing, they put their name on it but they're not vetting every script, they're not looking at final cut of every episode.

Warren Littlefield: As visionary filmmakers they don't believe in watering down anything in the creative process. And when they read Noah's piece they were like, “OK, he gets it. He knows who these characters are. He's going to explore their lives in this universe and they're unbelievably respectful.” So we've run some major things by them and the fact that they liked our opening 90-minutes, that they embraced it, that's an unbelievable complement to us. But yeah, they said, “Go do it.”

HitFix: When did Noah have the ending for the 10 episodes?

Warren Littlefield: I think he had some sense philosophical where it would go but it wasn't until he got in the room with four writers breaking stories where he understood what all the specifics of the journey would be. But when we delivered to FX and MGM the first script that Noah wrote, then the next of document was about a 15-page kind of a document that said, “And here's what would happen.” And it was off of that script and that document that went with it that they ordered the 10 hours. And Noah then, at that point, he knew where he was going.

HitFix: Now sort of remembering your network hat, how do you like this new limited series model that apparently everyone has decided this week is the reinvention of the wheel?

Warren Littlefield: Well, I love it. I love it because I bow down to those who can knock out 22 strong hours of television a year. It's an unbelievable task. And it's great, but it's not the only way to tell stories. And the idea that you can have a writer write all 10 hours, that it's absolutely their vision for character, for place, for story, there's something very pure about that and I think also very satisfying. And we, across many different platforms, when we want it, as we want it, just what's a satisfying meal, and for “Fargo” it's these 10 hours. And I think we'll leave the audience feeling really, really satisfied that they lived with these characters, had an experience with them and walked away.

HitFix: Is this a model though that people, that network heads should have started poking around with 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago?

Warren Littlefield: You know, 10, 15, 20 years ago, longform it was kind of the movie-miniseries. And then those turned into “Policewoman Centerfold” that turn into like just a lot of crap. And it was cable that really brought back that longform and then all of a sudden networks I think really being blocked out from, being shutout of Emmys said, “Well, look, we used to do that. Why don't we raise the bar and get back in and start doing that again?” And I think when you go to Amazon or, heaven forbid, if you could still go to a bookstore, they come in all shapes and sizes and colors and just, “What's a good story?” And television should embrace that. And it is less formulaic. There are more choices than ever before. That's wonderful for artists and creators to tell stories not an arbitrary, “Hey it's got to be 22 hours-a-year,” how about this? “It's got to be great. It's got to hold our attention.” And I think that's kind of the bar that we're judging ourselves by.

Click through for Noah Hawley's interview…



HitFix: Now, the way Warren explained it was that an FX executive was sort of pondering and said, “Do you think you could do 'Fargo' without an Marge?” 

Noah Hawley:  He did not lie to you.

HitFix: And that you sort of pondered at that moment. What was your thought process?

Noah Hawley:  I did. Well, you know, I mean my initial reaction was actually to get very excited about the idea because it's such an iconic film and that role is so iconic and who's going to step into those shoes?

HitFix: Edie Falco unsuccessfully apparently.

Noah Hawley: Yeah. It's unfair to ask anyone to try really. And certainly when Martin Freeman signed on, one of our early conversations he said, you know, he had no interest in being Bill Macy. He has a very different character who fills a similar space, but is a very different character. But for me the idea was, “All right, if you want to adapt the movie without any of the characters from the movie then you're basically saying to me we want you to make a Coen Brothers movie.” And then you think, “OK, well what does it take to make a Coen Brothers movie?” And so you sit down and you go, “OK, well on the surface it's not a whodunit.” There's no mystery to it, right? It's a true crime story, which means you start before the crime is committed. Now that's interesting to me because now you're investing the audience in the story unlikely whodunit, at the beginning. And you're saying that Martin's character and Billy's character are just as important as Allison's character Molly the cop. Unlike a “True Detective” model where the cops are everything and the victims are sort of nameless and faceless, even though they have names and faces. And then the other thing is we don't meet Marge until 30 minutes into the film when a crime is committed and a cop should come in. And then you're telling those three stories for the bulk of the movie. So it's an ensemble, which is always attractive to me, but then the question is, “Well, so tone is everything with the Coens, and there's a scale.” There's literally you can go from “Hudsucker” on the one side to “Miller's Crossing” on the other side. And so I sat down and I said right alright, well I can do “Fargo” the movie, I can do “No Country,” I can do “A Serious Man,” I can't do “Lebowski,” I can't do “Raising Arizona” because, you know, the difference in making a 10-hour movie and a 2-hour movie is it has to be more grounded over timel, I think. I think if it was too farcical it would wear on people and they wouldn't invest in the same way.

HitFix: Like you say, the tone is everything and how do you quantify that other then “I'm doing a Coen Brothers impression”?

Noah Hawley:  Yeah, well, one of the things that I said to FX and MGM early on, not to be rude, but I said, “You can't make a Coen Brothers movie by committee. Gor better or worse it's a singular vision and you guys have signed onto my vision and I love getting feedback, but at the same time if it's a question of sensibility… ” There's so many elements that you get in a Coen Brothers movie. From my very first pitch with them I said, one of the big things that makes “Fargo” the movie so unique is Mike Yanagita. So what is our Mike Yanagita? That's the thing.

HitFix: That was going to be my next question.

Noah Hawley:  Yeah. What is that thing that is… think Mike Yanagita, you'll see it and you're like “Why is this in the movie? It has nothing to do with anything,” which is exactly why it's in the movie because it purports to be a true story and you wouldn't put it in the movie unless it was true, right? Look at this weird thing that happened to her while she was doing this. But it also plays into this really running Coen Brothers thing, which is best quantified in “A Serious Man,” which is this idea that you have to except the mystery. Things happen, they're not always explained or explainable. So certainly in talking with the network I said, “Look, it's going to be a very grounded crime story with a very Coen Brothers sensibility. And one other thing that's going to define it in that way is that there's going to be these elements that are not necessarily quantifiable in terms of 'How does this fit logically in with the rest of it?'” Which is not to say “in a sort of naval gazy way” but, you know, in a way that makes the narrative unexpected, which is the most important thing.

HitFix: Now, when you were sort of looking at the characters you wanted to have in this universe, was there any very first character? Was there a character you sort of spun everything else around?

Noah Hawley:  Yeah, it was interesting. Very shortly after they said we want to do it and we want to do it without Marge, I had this image of two men in the emergency room meeting by chance. And one of them was Lester and the other was Malvo. So this idea of — which is very much in the movie and also in “No Country” — it's like there's the civilized world and there's the wilderness. And what happens when a civilized man meets a very uncivilized man and what is the infection that comes out of that? This idea as Malvo says in the first episode, “You know, you spent your whole life thinking there are rules, there aren't rules.” What does that do for a civilized man to hear that there are no rules and how does that change him over time? And so that became the beginning of the idea for me. And then as that story started to grow then the police characters came into it, naturally in a way, and, of course, we had the challenge of Frances McDormand and saying, “OK, we're doing without Frances McDormand, but that doesn't mean she is not hanging over the whole show.” So my solution to that, I hope, was to I guess pull a fast one of sorts on the audience and to say, “OK, well, the first cop we meet is the chief of police and he is a guy first of all and he's married and his wife is pregnant” and so the audience goes, “Oh, I see; they just flipped it, right?” And at the same time I introduce a female deputy who's in a sort of sidekick way and, you know, when the things turn and she has to step to the front hopefully the audience hasn't judged her in that way because she wasn't filling that role at first. So my hope was to give Allison a chance, you know, give Molly a chance to be judged on her own merit.

HitFix: And I love the names here. But those are names that you have to sort of earn by having a specific sort of world in which having a cop named Solverson is acceptable. And having a bad guy whose name is Malvo. How did you know when you had made characters who had earned the names that you were going with?

Noah Hawley:  You try not to over think it I don't think. I mean with Lorne Malvo I wanted a name that was not a name you heard in real life in some ways like Anton Chigurh, which was obviously Cormak McCarthy's name, but there was something about the combination of the sort of old school “Bonanza” name with obviously a Latin derivative, this Malvo obviously being it's a name for bad or evil. And then you just write. You raise the bar and you have to rise to it.

HitFix: So 10 episodes, you know you're doing this as a contained entity. When did you have the ending? And when you look at sort of general TV audience disconnect with endings — it's really hard to do an ending —  can you do an ending that will satisfy an audience on TV today?

Noah Hawley:  Well, I can tell the story and that's a different question. I think you have to live by the rules you establish. And I think that there are a lot of shows that their endings, that they don't follow their own rules in some ways. And I think there's hopefully a lot of unexpected turns and a lot of moments that the audience doesn't see coming, not just on the plot level but on a character level. And so they go into the ending actually not knowing what's going to happen or believing that anything could happen. And I think, again, if there is linearity to once you set a plot in motion you have to see it through to the end. And I think you'll see that we twist some things up a bit toward the end in a way that resets that for people. So I think that we're gonna to pull it off but…

HitFix: And you sort of mentioned the other Coen Brothers movies that you said you could do. Give me one that you might enjoy doing for another 10-episode season?

Noah Hawley:  I love “A Serious Man.” That's a great one. It's not…

HitFix: What network is going to let you go that Jewish with a TV show?

Noah Hawley:  Exactly. But, you know, but I think “No Country” is obviously… I mean you could do “True Grit” obviously as a Western. I mean it just – what I like is that by doing “Fargo” I've sort of taken on more than just “Fargo” and that's the most exciting part is there's a universe there with a sensibility and a history and it's nice to be able to slide into it.

“Fargo” premieres on Tuesday, April 15 on FX.

See also…

Martin Freeman compares 'Fargo' to 'Sherlock' on the set of the FX drama

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