'Fargo' without Marge and Jerry, but with an A-list cast
Oh, jeez. That was the reaction of many when FX announced it was planning a TV series based on Joel and Ethan Coen's beloved movie "Fargo." Why mess with the classic 1996 Oscar-winning dark comedy set in Minnesota that introduced the world to unflappable pregnant Police Chief Marge Gunderson?
Worries were eased a bit with the Coen brothers giving FX their blessing. And luckily, the network wasn't looking for a carbon copy of the film or even a spinoff featuring one of its characters.
"They said, 'Do you think we can do it without Marge?' By which they meant without any of the characters in the movie," said writer Noah Hawley. "But what they were really saying to me was, 'Can you make a Coen brothers movie set in this (Midwest) region?' Which was really exciting."
An A-List cast
A 10-episode limited series, "Fargo" premiered last Tuesday (9 p.m., FX). Paying homage to the Coen brothers' original, it boasts an A-list cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Oliver Platt, Bob Odenkirk and Kate Walsh. While it takes a bit to settle into the first episode, subsequent episodes (four were available for media to view in advance) flourish with clever writing, compelling characters and top-notch acting.
Hawley kept the tone, sense of place and mixture of violence and humor similar to those in the film. The accents are back as well as regional colloquialisms. There's the sad, eerie music and desolate snowy landscape that looks so cold it'll have you reaching for a sweater. Special attention is paid to the littlest of details -- like a mallard salt and pepper shaker holder and stuffed pheasant mounted on the wall at the local diner. There's also the use of a hockey stick as a weapon.
Gone are Marge, played by Frances McDormand, and William H. Macy's pathetic character, Jerry Lundegaard.
Instead, the television version of "Fargo" features a new cast of characters and a fresh "true crime" story set in Bemidji and Duluth, Minn., circa 2006. Fargo, N.D., is home to a crime syndicate hub. (In reality, the series was filmed outside Calgary, Alberta, because of financial reasons.)
"I had the idea very early on for just this moment in the emergency room between two men, one of whom is a civilized man and the other who is very much the opposite," Hawley said. "I knew the civilized man was an insurance salesman who was bullied by his wife and everyone around, but who was the other guy?"
The civilized man is Lester Nygaard ("Sherlock's" sidekick Freeman), an endlessly hen-pecked, downtrodden soul. The other guy is hitman Lorne Malvo (Thornton), who has a terrible bowl haircut, no conscience and a twisted sense of humor. Their chance meeting turns Nygaard's world upside down. Thornton called his character a "snake charmer" in a recent call with reporters.
"What really attracted me to it was not as much as he didn't have a conscience, was he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people," Thornton said.
When he was coming up in the acting world, Thornton said, television was considered a bad word. But thanks to the increasing quality of TV shows over the past decade (especially on cable), that has changed.
"Now, it has a cachet, and actors are clamoring to get on television because it's a place that we can do the things we were doing in movies," Thornton said. "There's a spot that television is filling that the movie business is not, which is the medium-budget studio movies."
Midwestern kind of reserve
If anyone in the TV series is going to be compared to Marge Gunderson, it's Molly Solverson. She's a young, determined Bemidji cop played by newcomer Allison Tolman who eventually teams with kindhearted Duluth cop Gus Grimly (Hanks).
"I wish I could say I really had to toil to find Molly, but I didn't," Tolman said. "I think that's what really got me the role; she spoke to me instantly and sort of sprung forth from the page fully formed for me."
Tolman added: "Something I find endearing and that we play with quite a bit in the series is this idea of the Midwestern kind of reserve you have in Minnesota," she said. "The idea that it's a group of people who very often don't say what they're feeling, so you have to glean their emotions from what they do say."
Even though Thornton's menacing character is a drifter, there is a brief point in the show in which he has to play a Minnesotan to avoid trouble. The actor is no stranger to the state, having filmed part of "A Simple Plan" in Delano. He said he has friends from here, as well, including Kelly Lynch, who used to do impressions of her neighbors and family for him. He said this part of the country is "kind of alien to some of us."
"It's just a really interesting culture," Thornton said. "You guys can talk about something that's really heavy, and yet sound like you're talking about going to the grocery store."
For FX's "Fargo," Hawley said he wasn't asked to present Minnesota as it is in real life, but to re-create the Coen brothers' version of their native state. Even though the brothers are executive producers of the show, their involvement was minimal.
"They said to me, 'It's not our medium; we don't know television,' " Hawley said. "They really liked the script that they saw, and they told me to go make my show."
However, the brothers did ask Hawley early on what he was going to do about the Minnesota accent. He told them he planned to tone it down for TV.
"I think we found that middle ground where it feels very regional, but it's not as labored," Hawley said.
Dialect coach Tony Alcantar was brought on board to work with the actors.
"At one of the meetings, it was described as 'Fargo' the movie minus 20 percent accent-wise," Alcantar said. " 'Fargo' light, I guess you might call it."
He added: "The film 'Fargo' has been out for almost 20 years and, subsequently, imitations and parodies of the movie have been around for 20 years," he said. "If there was a most difficult thing for a number of actors, it was to not push it into the stereotype so that we're just accent acting. I'm not saying the original film was accent acting. I know some people from Minnesota who talk like that, but not everyone does, obviously."
It was important to Freeman that his character didn't come off as a caricature, so he worked hard on getting the accent just right. "I didn't want it to be like a comedy sketch," he said in a recent call with reporters. "I wasn't playing an accent. I was playing a character who happened to speak like that and to be from that place."
Accents and all, Freeman is betting it won't take folks long to forget the movie while watching the TV show.
"I do hope and I do sort of believe that people who come to it with an open mind, within 10 minutes, you're no longer thinking about the 1996 film, you are -- from my experience of how people have reacted, they're totally engrossed in the world that we've created," he said.