Press Tour: ‘Fargo’ heads to TV with Billy Bob Thornton

If FX’s “Fargo” limited series is as good as FX’s “Fargo” Winter TCA press tour panel, viewers are in for a treat. (And judging by the pilot episode FX made available for preview, they are.)

This post could just be a “Top 10 Billy Bob Thornton Quotes” and be very entertaining, but Thornton’s quips weren’t the only highlight of a panel that went a long way toward convincing skeptical journalists that revisiting the Coen Brothers’ 1996 modern classic might be a good idea after all.

First of all, the Coens like it! “Joel and Ethan are executive producers on the show,” notes showrunner Noah Hawley (“The Unusuals”). “When the show was first set up, they didn’t have to put their name on the project if they didn’t want to. They could’ve just gone to their mailbox and got the check. They read the first script and they liked it. We showed them the first episode and Ethan quite expansively said ‘Yeah, good.'”

“When Ethan says, ‘Yeah, good’ he’s over the moon,” notes Thornton (who worked with the Coens on “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and “Intolerable Cruelty”).

Part of the reason may be that Hawley isn’t interested in remaking or imitating what the Coens already put on film. Instead he’s basically playing in the Coens sandbox, using the tone and point of view they brought to the story as a starting point for an almost entirely fresh story and set of characters (with healthy doses of loving Coens homage along the way).

As co-star Martin Freeman notes, “What brought me to it, I have to be honest wasn’t the idea of making a ‘Fargo’ spinoff — love the movie as I do and love the Coens as I do — it could’ve been a terrible ‘Fargo’ spinoff. It has to stand on its own and I felt it did.”

To that end, “Fargo” functions as a self-contained limited series not unlike “American Horror Story” or “True Detective.” Future “seasons” are possible (and Hawley says he already has ideas for a follow-up) but they would focus on different circumstances and characters.

“When I pitched the show to FX I pitched it as an anthology series,” Hawley explains. “I felt like what made the movie so satisfying was when Marge gets in bed after this very strange and violent case she’s investigated, we know that tomorrow when she wakes up it’s going to be a normal day.

“It seemed like the wrong idea to make a ‘Picket Fences’ style show where every week something kooky happens. That’s not the Coens style.”

“What defines the movie to me is the Mike Yanagita scene,” Hawley adds, referring to Marge’s meeting with an ex-boyfriend that seemingly has little to do with the film’s plot but helps flesh out both Marge’s character and the world the action is taking place. He hopes audiences welcome the show’s ambition to follow a similar character-driven path. “The movie is not a whodunit,” Hawley observes. “There’s no mystery and you’re following all the players — William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi. What we’ve constructed [with the series] is really an ensemble piece.”

This isn’t the first time “Fargo” has been targeted for the small screen. Executive producer Warren Littlefield remembers it was soon after the movie came out that he was pitched a network series spinoff when he was running NBC. “The script was good,” Littlefield recalls. “But it was a network television version of an iconic film. We were going to disappoint people.”

That pilot was a more conventional take, directed by Kathy Bates and starring a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco as Frances McDormand’s character Marge. It was ultimately produced for CBS but not picked up to series. Littlefield believes that now that enough time has passed, and the TV landscape is vastly different, “Fargo” can get the TV treatment it deserves. He cites FX’s preference to not include the character of Marge, since McDormand likely wouldn’t reprise the role, as an example of the network’s desire to produce something more interesting than a rip-off of the movie.

And Hawley is committed to nailing the movie’s tone, a line between comedy and tragedy he dubs “cragedy.” He says that’s the key to telling story set in a particular region — with all the quirks of speech and behavior that come with that — and not come off like you’re condescending to or mocking the characters.

“It’s all about grounding it,” Hawley says of the delicate Coen Brothers’ balancing act he’s attempting to duplicate for the show. “We’re not adding comedy. There are moments where characters say things that are funny and you’re not even sure if they’re joking or being serious. One of the great things about Tommy Lee Jones in ‘No Country for Old Men’ — he’s very funny but no one remarks on it or even smiles.”

More highlights from the panel:

– The wisdom of Billy Bob #1: “When I was coming up when you went from film to television it meant something was wrong, you may as well be on ‘Hollywood Squares.’ Now it’s the opposite.”

– The wisdom of Billy Bob #2: “If you want to be a celebrity, just go to the dentist in Beverly Hills and punch somebody or something. If you want to be an actor, get on a good series on television because that’s where it’s at.”

– Hawley says that if you’ve never seen “Fargo,” you can still watch the show. But you may want to rethink your movie-watching habits. “I don’t think you need to watch the movie beforehand,” he says. “I think you should because it’s a great movie.”

– Thornton on what started to change his mind about television: “I had seen ‘The Wire,’ and started watching bits and pieces of other shows ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘The Sopranos.’ My buddy [Bill] Paxton was in that Mormon show and all that.”

– Co-star Colin Hanks says the cast works with a dialogue coach to nail the regional accents. “We’ve got the ears of our guide there telling us when we’re going too broad. We all agreed don’t go too big, just keep it as realistic as you can. I started off somewhere between Chicago and Canada and sort of whittled it down to Minnesota.”

– More Thornton, discussing his mysterious character: “I can’t say a lot. I can say that I end up saving the planet.” [Yes, that’s a joke.] “It’s not a typical bad guy, it’s sort of god and the devil all wrapped up into one. A puppet master in some sense, who is not only capable of very dangerous things but also is very mischievous and toys with people.” And Hawley has given him some killer dialogue, plus a very distinct haircut. “A lot has been said about the haircut,” Thornton says with a grin. “My manager said to me when he first saw the dailies, ‘It looks like you’re channeling the dark side of Ken Burns.’ I thought that was great.”