'Fargo' producers talk Season 2 pressure and challenges
CALGARY, ALBERTA. Success has not bred comfort for the creative team behind FX's “Fargo.”
It's early April at one of the vast stages housing props and interior sets for “Fargo.” Just one day earlier, it was announced that “Fargo” was receiving a prestigious Peabody Award, an honor that capped off a Season 1 haul that included a Golden Globe, several Emmys and perhaps the best reviews for any 2014 television series. Not bad for a show that met with many raised eyebrows when FX announced it was bringing the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning favorite to TV, only without any of the same actors or characters and with only the tacit blessing of its original creators.
Noah Hawley, creator of FX's “Fargo,” was initially cagey regarding what a second “Fargo” installment might even look like, only to reveal later that the 1979 Sioux Falls Massacre referenced in the initial season would be the basis for a new round of episodes.
Not that the first season had any trouble rounding up an all-star cast, but Season 2 features Patrick Wilson as Lou Solverson, the younger incarnation of the character played by Keith Carradine originally. Ted Danson, Jean Smart, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Jeffrey Donovan lead the deep ensemble.
In production on two episodes and setting up locations and shots for more, the key “Fargo” producers have to cobble together time with the group of reporters visiting the set, so I got four minutes with Noah Hawley and slightly more time with former NBC Chief Warren Littlefield and source-of-Coen-continuity John Cameron, Q&As which are all being combined here over two pages.
With Hawley, I discussed the process of seeding a sequel in the original season and how the legacies of World War II, Korea and Vietnam impact “Fargo” Season 2.
With Littlefield and Cameron, I talked about the new pressures they faced this season despite the rapturous response to Season 1, pressures of added expectations and also of the period setting. We talked about the ongoing input of the Coens and when this will simply become a standalone “Fargo” of its own. They also talked about whether or not this season was different with Hawley opening up the writers' room and also directing for the first time.
Check out the three interviews below, as “Fargo” returns to FX on Monday, October 12.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER AND CREATOR NOAH HAWLEY
HitFix: Last year when everyone asked you what Season 2 looked like you were all sort of hemmy and hawwy about it.
Noah Hawley: Exactly.
HitFix: When did you know what Season 2 had to be?
Noah Hawley: I feel like as we got close to the end of production. I started out with the Sioux Falls reference just as a way for Keith Carradine”s character to relate to his daughter and to give her a warning. But I also made this analogy with Gus”s boss saying, “Oh no, it”s Sioux Falls all over again” and realizing that they were connected, which I thought was kind of fun. I was like when there's this backstory alluded to that you never really explain. But then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well that”s an interesting world to explore.” So I started writing to it in episodes nine and ten. But it wasn”t necessarily with knowing what the catalyst event was, because it”s always about that. It”s Bill Macy hiring these guys to kidnap his wife or Martin Freeman running into Malvo in the emergency room. All the moving pieces, realizing that there was this catalyzing event and then here were the players, and then I mean that took me a while to sort of build together.
HitFix: Does that put pressure on you though to seed Season 3 within Season 2?
Noah Hawley: Yeah I”m sure there is that pressure. I don”t know that I”m doing it as efficiently as I did. And I also think that you need to think about it. It”s like I like that there was this tangential link between the movie and Season 1 with Stavros and the money. This is a much more direct link which I don”t know that I would do again to say, “Hey, let”s spin off this story into another story” or whatever. And I think the stakes go up each time because I don”t want to repeat myself and clearly the more stories you tell in this tone of voice the more things you cross off a list. You”re like, “Okay I”ve done that. I can”t do that again I can”t do that.” So it feels like time is your friend and your enemy. It”s like, “Okay well now I see what these two years are” and how to create a third story that is going to stand on its own and yet connect to these other things, that becomes a harder and harder paradigm I think.
HitFix: You have main characters or these tangential characters who are a Vietnam veteran, a World War II veteran and a Korean War veteran. How overtly did that part of the structure come into your storytelling?
Noah Hawley: I was clear at the end of last year that Lou had been a lieutenant on a swift boat in Vietnam. Obviously Vietnam, the shadow of Vietnam really hangs over 1979 and Watergate. Part of the way that I explained “Fargo” in the first year is it”s basically just decent people against evil. And it”s like World War II when all the farmers put down their plowshares and went off to fight Hitler, but they did it so they could come back and pick up their plowshares. They”re just trying to make their world safe so they can go back to those lives that they were living. And that sense of decency really pervades this. And so that was the idea. World War II was a much simpler war, morally. You come back and you go, “OK, I did this for this reason.” And Vietnam obviously was a war that is much more complicated. I read recently about something that”s different than PTSD, which is a sort of sense of moral injury. As a solider you”re often asked to do things that would be immoral in peace-time and so you come back from a war and you think you”re a bad person because you did something that otherwise you would have considered immoral. And that becomes more exaggerated when the war itself is not justified or you have a hard time justifying. So certainly you could go over and fight in World War II and think, “Well, whatever I did I did for a reason.” But it”s a lot harder I think coming out of a war like Vietnam. So that”s something that Patrick”s character was really struggling with.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER WARREN LITTLEFIELD
HitFix: In Season 1, you had a ton of talent involved, but you were still doing something risky. You were still doing something where people didn”t know exactly how it was going to turn out.
Warren Littlefield: Most everyone thought we were crazy to attempt it.
HitFix: So a year later and now the proof is presumably in the Emmy and success pudding. What doors suddenly opened for you? Did this become an easier season for you guys to orchestrate?
Warren Littlefield: No, we made it as difficult as we possibly could. We walked tall. We were a little stunned by the level of awards and success that we had – thrilled, proud. And on one level I think we just said, “Okay, so it”s an anthology, all new cast. Let”s see. It”s set in 1979. Let”s make it really difficult.” And so not only did we start all over again, we probably made it with a larger cast, a bigger canvas, a period piece. We took on even more than we took on our audacious journey of last year.
HitFix: So what is your reaction when Noah says, “Okay. It's 1979”?
Warren Littlefield: Before Noah laid out the story for this season, what I said is, “The reason we succeeded and the reason we got to talk about season two is because you turned yourself loose. You had no fear. You felt no restrictions. You lived in a Coen world with all original characters and your own original story. It”s okay to scare everyone. It”s okay. Don”t be limited.” And there were some discussions of, “Well, it would make sense if we kept it contemporary.” There was a short list that we had heard of things that might make sense and I”d said to Noah, “I don”t think you should pay attention to any of those things. I think you should just set yourself free.” And God bless him that”s what he did.
HitFix: If you”re the angel on the shoulder, in that case does that mean that there”s someone whose job is to be the devil and say “Dude, you can”t do this – pitchfork, pitchfork, pitchfork”?
Warren Littlefield: No. Our quest is always like, “Holy s***! Okay, now how do we do it?” And look, we have huge ambitions in each and every script that Noah has written, or in this case in year two that any of our other writers deliver to us. They”re tremendously ambitious. We could say, “Well, they pay us for 42 minutes and 30 seconds. They don”t give us more money when we deliver 55 and 60-minute episodes.” And yet the complexity of our characters, the complexity of our world, the number of stories that are all going on in our minds demand that”s what we do. So we just go, “We”ll do it. We”ll figure it out.” That”s who we are, that”s what we do. And we just refuse to say we can”t.
HitFix: You come from a background of a more regimented world where, you know, if they say, “You”re giving us 42 minutes and 30 seconds,” that”s damn well what you”re coming in with.
Warren Littlefield: You bet. Exactly that.
HitFix: Are there any advantages to that? Are there any advantages to actually having that much structure, to not having the ability to go 60 minutes?
Warren Littlefield: Look, there are vitamins and minerals in a more structured show where an audience goes, “That”s what I”m going to get” and they get slight variations of that each and every week. And that”s a tried and true formula throughout the history of television. And that”s fine. It”s just not who we are. So I think our master is, “Do we belong in a Coen universe? Do we deliver the Coen DNA? Is this 'Fargo'?” That”s our master. And within that we have a huge landscape on which Noah can paint.
HitFix: When do you stop needing to refer to it as a Coen Universe? When does it become Our Fargo Universe? When does it become a Noah Hawley universe? When does it stop being?
Warren Littlefield: No one said it as clearly as the Coens did Year One where, “This is Noah”s vehicle. We as filmmakers respect that, step back. We are in awe of his talent. We put our names on it. We embrace it but go with God.” And so there”s no bigger embrace than having that. So I think we”re there. And yet we should never forget where we came from and that is a brilliant, iconic, multiple Academy Award winning motion picture. And Noah, no matter what state he”s in — awake, asleep, transcendental meditation — it doesn”t matter where Noah is, I don”t think Noah would ever forget that. He”s informed by it and then his own creativity frees him to do what he does.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JOHN CAMERON
HitFix: I was just talking with Warren about this. Last year you guys were doing something that was purely speculative, it seemed like potentially a bad idea in fact to many people. You”ve got a lot of talent and everyone was like that seems like not such a great idea. This year having obviously seen how last year”s show did, has it been easier to go forward to this season knowing that you”re doing something you know works?
John Cameron: You know this season is very different, the story”s different this year. It”s a bigger broader story in a certain way so there are inherent challenge to that. In other words, we”re not retelling last season or relying on last season. It”s a completely new piece. So in that regard it has the same kind of startup and creative challenges that we faced last year.
HitFix: It still has to be a different feeling doesn”t it?
John Cameron: Yeah although I do have to emphasize it”s a completely different story, so there”s an inherent risk in that, right? So it”ll be like if people loved year one, this is a different sensibility and different story that we”re telling. So I am confident that it”ll be embraced.
HitFix: How would you define the differences such that different audiences might like this who maybe didn”t like last year and vice versa.
John Cameron: It”s a larger cast. It”s a more diverse story. It”s kind of a tapestry of different stories that collide and interweave. It”s got a more epic feel. The one and sensibility is still “Fargo,” there”s no question when you watch this year that you”ll know you”re watching the same universe that you were enmeshed in last year. So that”s all analogous but the stories are broader I think.
HitFix: What is your reaction when you hear, “Okay, we're set in 1979”?
John Cameron: Bring it on. It”s fun. It”s a big challenge. That kind of think, that production challenge, honestly it”s fun to try and figure it out. We have the same resources we had last year in a certain way, but we”re in 1979 with a bigger story. “Okay.” That”s a heavy thing but it”s just energizing and fun to attack.
HitFix: Energizing, but have some parts of the period setting kept you up at night more or less than others?
John Cameron: You know initially I was really worried about cars, about automobiles, because it”s been a long time since the '70s. But I am gratified to report that there are many old cars in Alberta. And a lot of them will be on screen in the show.
HitFix: We walked through the sets and obviously there”s very much a period feel. But what have you guys tried to do to avoid going too kitsch to wallowing I guess in '70s kitsch?
John Cameron: Yeah, it”s not “The Brady Bunch.” It”s not a hazy memories of the '70s. We”ve striven in everything we do to be real, to feel real and to use real furniture, wardrobe, vehicles, set dressing from the period. So as you say it”s not a cute representation of 1979. Hopefully it”s an accurate one.
HitFix: But there are still things obviously that you want to include to make people laugh. An orange shag carpet for example. You know that something like that will make people giggle.
John Cameron: Listen I had an orange shag carpet in my house growing up. Seriously. And, you know, I graduated from high school in 1976. It”s spot on. I laughed when I saw it in a way like, “That”s for real, that”s not fake.” So that set that you were on, Peggy and Ed's set, could have been my rec room in the house that I grew up in in Michigan.
HitFix: So you want to reassure people that even though things that might make modern audiences ironically giggle, not so much ironic.
John Cameron: They”re for real, yeah. It”s heavily researched and deeply researched this show. Our production designer, our cinematographers, our set dressing department. They really went deep in terms of the reality of the period.
HitFix: Last year there was always the big underlying narrative of the, “We went to the Coen brothers, we got their blessings, et cetera, et cetera.” This year did the same thing happen?
John Cameron: Yep, totally. Yeah, we”re in touch with them but they”re basically like, “Yeah, great.” They recognize that this is Noah”s show and he should be free to make it and they”re pleased to let that happen.
HitFix: But what did you guys send them?
John Cameron: They get scripts.
HitFix: And do they respond to all of them or sometimes do they just not have time to get back to you guys?
John Cameron: They”re not involved in terms of notes or response like in a typical kind of situation where they read a script and have thoughts on it. They are more hands off in the best sense. They trust Noah and they trust us and this is his show and they”re letting it happen.
HitFix: Well in two seasons have there been any notes or really hasn”t been?
John Cameron: The initial script that Noah wrote, the pilot script, they read and then he met with them in New York. I wasn”t privy to that conversation. I assume they had some thoughts but since then it”s not an ongoing discussion in terms of the details that you”re talking about.
HitFix: Well I just wasn”t sure if this was the kind of thing where once you got their blessing it became a blessing that carried through forever as it were.
John Cameron: Yeah I think it carries through until we drop the ball somehow, which I don”t expect will happen with Noah in any way, shape or form. I don”t think they would sign off on something they didn”t believe in. In fact I”ve known them for many, many years, for decades now. I know they wouldn”t sign off on anything they didn”t think was good.
HitFix: Has Noah”s stepping back from writing every single script, has it changed things from your point of view this season?
John Cameron: No, not really. He”s a showrunner. He”s written by far the majority I think of the scripts this year. He”s got the heaviest script commitment and also the other writers on the show have been with Noah and have been close with Noah since long before “Fargo.” So that kind of tight collegial atmosphere continues.
HitFix: I understand that he directed the season. Talk a bit about Noah as a director.
John Cameron: He”s a natural. Some writers can”t realize the visual aspects of the medium and Noah can. He did a great job, he really did, right out of the gate. And the crew was kind of totally impressed with the experience.
“Fargo” returns to FX on Monday, October 12.