Fargo just came back for its third season. I reviewed the premiere here, and I had a conversation with creator Noah Hawley about the first episode, how this season is and isn’t different from the ones that came before, whether his work on Legion impacted what he did here, and more, coming up just as soon as I confuse the word “singularity” with the word “continuity”…
(Two notes on the interview: 1. At the end of our conversation, Hawley uses the phrase “10-hour movie,” which you know gives me the hives, but I let it go both because we were out of time, and because Hawley’s shows in general have been great about having their cake and eating it, too, on this front: telling complicated season-long stories while also making sure that individual episodes are distinct and memorable. 2. This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed, including the removal of a stupid digression where I — my brain scrambled by too many actors on too many Peak TV shows — tried asking him if Michael Stuhlbarg and David Thewlis were the first actual Coen alums he’d employed on this show, followed by him politely saying, “Well, there was Billy Bob Thornton…”)
I want to start by talking about names. How much time at the start of each season do you spend figuring out what names you are going to give these characters?
Well, I take myself on a retreat to Hawaii and walk on the beach… No, you come up with them as you need them. I will say that Ray and Emmit Stussy, the name was just there with the idea, two brothers, so I didn’t ask too many questions about why they had to be called that, but they did. I think there’s this combination of wanting something that feels a little dated, like with Gloria: names that you don’t see around a lot anymore, but you don’t want to go too far. And then, what do you marry Gloria with? It wants to feel slightly heightened, but not so far that you’re in Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace territory with names where you’re like, “Well, that’s not a real person.” So Gloria Burgle, or Donnie Mashman, the deputy, it’s sort of a smell test, I guess. And there are oftentimes that other writers in the room come up with character names and it’s just not how I see the character ultimately. It’s a sound test. It’s how the vowels look together on the page. Yeah, there’s something to that.
But, for instance, with Gloria, she’s a police officer and her last name is “Burgle.” In season one, Molly had “Solve” in the front of her last name. Is that something that’s even in the thought process, or that’s just how each of those instances turned out?
Yeah, it’s not conscious. I’m not trying to be cute. If I have been cute, then that horrifies me a little bit. I find puns to be the lowest form of humor, so I’m never going for that. It’s more just that Burgle is a funny word with a funny “ur” sound in the middle of it. And next to Gloria, it’s just … I don’t know. They pop into my head and they either work or they don’t.
With Gloria, saying someone’s a female cop can encompass a huge array of characteristics, but how do you look at her versus Molly versus Marge Gunderson? What are certain things that separate this character out from the other Fargo cops we know?
Well, she’s more taciturn; she’s lost more. Both Marge and Molly lived in this small-town bubble, and they came from a life that wasn’t luxurious, but everything made sense. And then over the course of the story, they were introduced to the idea that not everything makes sense, and how are they going to cope with that? Gloria, from the very beginning, is living in a world where things don’t make sense. Her husband left her for another man; she’s Chief of Police but she’s losing that title, so she’s sort of both Chief and not Chief at the same time. She’s starting to share custody of her son. And then her stepfather’s killed. So in that first hour, and certainly going into the second hour, I think she’s feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under her. And she has, obviously, a layer of Minnesota nice, but she’s a little gripier, a little more stubborn, has a little harder edge to her. And her heart’s a little more on her sleeve; she can’t cover it as well as those other women.
And definitely, that’s a process — and one with the network as well. They’re looking for Marge Gunderson in that character, and I was like, “She’s not there. This is not the same woman. This is a very different person than Marge or Molly.”
What did you find interesting about the idea of brothers played by the same actor?
Ray’s clearly the underdog character. He’s the one who ended up with less, and his older brother clearly feels superior. And he’s met this nice girl, but it’s complicated because she’s his parolee and he’s not allowed to date her. And you’re just rooting for him; he’s the underdog. He gets bullied, but there’s something to having, on some level, the same face looking at back him, or looking out at us with Emmit the older brother. You’re like,”Well, I see his younger brother in him. I see that there’s good in him, because I like this actor playing the one role.” I had mixed feelings about him playing the other role, but some of that empathy transfers over, I feel like. And ultimately, these two brothers not getting along and having this gripe, there is something to it that feels like a split within a single person. If any of us could just get past our own grievances and look at it from the other person’s point of view, I think we would get along a lot better. So there’s something to that as well.
Has making Legion influenced anything you’ve done visually this season?
No, in fact the opposite. Literally from the moment we’re talking today, a year ago I was shooting the Legion pilot. That was amazing to think that I’d made both of these series within 12 months. There were a couple of moments in shooting the premiere where I was like, “Oh no, you can’t do that. That’s a Legion shot.” We’re back to classic filmmaking; we’re back to cameras moving on a straight axis in or side to side. We’re back to very simple coverage and objective storytelling with the camera. That said, I’m always looking to enhance the story or the moment or the character. Is there something I could with the camera that will help tell the story? It just has to be a lot subtler in Fargo. But certainly, making Legion and pushing myself as a filmmaker, just allowed me to really think about, from a filmmaking standpoint, what are the boundaries of what you can do? I never went to film school. On some level, I’ve been educating myself on the job. It’s nice to go back to the classic language, though, and rely on the story and rely on the actors and let it be tense and let it take its time.
What are some things you’ve found that are very specific to 2010 as opposed to the ’70s period of season two, the mid-‘00s of the first season, or even to 2017?
Even though our first year was in 2006, it was kind of a small-town bubble. The only nod we gave to the modern world was really that people had cell phones, but it still felt like a town out of time. Here in 2010, this is post-global financial crash, which impacts Emmit Stussy, the parking lot king, and obviously, we’re dealing with some modern issues about gay marriage and how life is changing culturally for people in this region. And then the impact of technology as well. I always had this idea of well, what if “Minnesota nice itself was under threat?” Minnesota nice, in my mind, being defined as a sort of exaggerated friendliness and sense of community that grew up around the isolation of this region in wintertime, and this sort of putting a good face on hardship. But what happens when that real sense of community is replaced by a kind of virtual community where you can have 300 friends who you never see? And people overshare. This is also a kind of Lutheran community where you would never embarrass someone by asking them how they’re feeling or burden them with your feelings, and yet, suddenly we’re all Instagramming photos of every meal and sort of tweeting every thought we have. It’s a very different mindset. This show’s not about that and it’s not dealt with so overtly, but we’re definitely seeing it more, especially around Gloria and her relationship to all that stuff.
Is the show, three seasons in, easier to make because you’ve done a couple of years and you know what this world is and what the tone is and everything? Or is it harder because you’ve now done two of these stories and you don’t want to repeat yourself?
I think it’s a little bit of both. From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s easier on some levels because you’ve established the language of it. For two years, I had this rule that we never pulled focus or throw focus in a shot; if the focus is foreground on a character, we don’t throw focus background; we’d just do two different passes. But so much of this season is about pairs, between Emmit and Sy, and Ray and Nikki, there’s a lot of moments where dialogue is going back and forth, and people are looking back and forth. And it just felt like, “All right, we can relax that this year.” We never want to throw the focus in a sort of melodramatic, “This is an emotional scene” kind of way. But informationally, that’s where you’re attention is going, so sometimes you have to shift. So all the rules are made to be broken if it helps the story.
And then from a writing standpoint, yeah, you just don’t want to repeat yourself. But every story is new, and sometimes even though there might be a moment that feels reminiscent, it may go a different direction, so you may have an expectation that doesn’t get met, so I tend not to close myself off from any ideas.
With the opening in East Berlin, how did you decide this is where you wanted to open the season? So far away and so much earlier in time, and with this seemingly random conversation about mistaken identity and what stories are?
Obviously, we started our second season with a big Ronald Reagan movie in the 1950s. If you think about A Serious Man starting with a parable in the shtetl back in the who knows what year that was, I’m attracted to that idea of opening with a scene that does lay out, thematically, some of the bigger ideas of the year that we will connect back to it on some level. You’ll see how, but there’s something to that. I also am a fan of a slight amount of disorientation that you might even find from episode to episode, certainly in our first season; always starting someplace where you have to go, “Wait, where are we?” We’re not just dropping right back into our story. And I felt like there were a lot of ideas in this interrogation scene that are very resonant to the story that we’re telling.
But at the end of the day, the only real answer is that I sat down and that’s what I started to write. And it seemed resonant and it seemed on point and it seemed like it was doing what I wanted it to do. And then we come out of it, obviously, by pushing it to that picture, and it allows people to kind of settle in and go, “Okay, it’s a new season, and …” But it’s a ten-hour movie and we’re taking our time and we’re laying the groundwork and we’re not just dropping into a chase scene to try to jumpstart the show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org