They say there are no bad ideas. Maybe Noah Hawley can attest to that now.
As the mastermind to FX's TV adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning black comedy "Fargo," Hawley had big Sorel boots to fill. But the 10-episode first season, starring Billy Bob Thornton as menacing drifter Lorne Malvo and Martin Freeman as hapless insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, won over critics and received a hefty 18 Emmy nominations last year (even winning the prize for best miniseries).
Now, Hawley is about to see if magic can strike twice when the second chapter in the anthology series premieres at 10 p.m. Monday.
"There were two bad ideas here," Hawley told the crowd recently at the Hollywood premiere of the Season 2 opener. "To make the show at all, in the first place, was the first bad idea. The second bad idea, when that worked, was to throw it all out and start again."
Season 2 travels back to 1979 with organized crime with the help of leads Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.
The focus shifts to the mysterious Sioux Falls incident mentioned by Lou Solverson, the former Minnesota state patrolman and father to Molly played by Keith Carradine in Season 1 (the younger Lou we meet in Season 2 is played by Wilson).
We spoke to Hawley in a sit-down interview to discuss any second season jitters he may have in the wake of the icy reception to Season 2 of "True Detective," the limits that come with doing a prequel and more.
Is it nerve-wracking to unveil the second season, given how the sophomore installment of "True Detective" was received?
Yeah, that was unfortunate — seeing how people sort of turned on "True Detective," especially because we're really explorers. It's not a new medium, but it is an unexploited medium and we don't know yet everything we can do with it. So we have to put it through its paces. We have to experiment — and within that, we have to tell a story where you care about the characters and it takes you on a journey that's entertaining, that's satisfying and that, hopefully, audiences give you permission to play around with structure and play around with tone and all of that.
I can't control the way people react. I feel good about what we did this time around. I feel like I'm usually a good judge in terms of whether it's working or not working. I think part of the reason the first year was satisfying was because I felt like I knew what people expected to happen and wanted to happen and why — and I either gave it to them or I didn't. But if I didn't, it was for a very specific reason.
You can set people's expectations up, you can jump forward a year and make Molly pregnant and suddenly people are like, "Well, wait. It is the movie!" And then when I sent her out to danger, you can't help but think it's going to do the same thing. And then when it doesn't, even better. So it's all sort of a calculated risk that you take of saying, "What does the audience want from this story and, more importantly, what am I going to give them?"
One of the advantages of the first season was that you seemingly came out of nowhere to most people, there weren't expectations because most people didn't know what to expect from you. And you also had time to really set things up.
In some ways, I had more time with the second season. We premiered the first season a week after we wrapped. So my post-production process was hugely truncated. Here, we wrapped in March and we're premiering in October, so I really had the time — which, it turns out, was really important in post to say, it is a different story. It's a '70s movie. It takes place in a different era — what's the visual identity of this season?
Right. You use a lot of split screens and freeze frames, which are characteristic of movies of the time. Is that how you initially conceived the story, or did that come into play later?
Yeah, we're using some devices that are very '70s, which was not how I constructed the story in my mind. That came while we were editing because we have so many moving pieces this year and stories that we're away from for some time, so we were like, how do we keep those stories alive?
And so it became, like, you introduce these Gerhardts, and then you need to keep them alive, and so there will be moments throughout an episode where you might have a little montage where you're transitioning from one group of characters to another, and in that transition you can split from Kirsten Dunst to Jeffrey Donovan to someone else. And then that naturally led to, OK, if we use those split screens, how can they naturally work for us within scenes or anything like that.
And also, music and the way we use music is a huge thing for me. And the great thing about an ensemble show is it becomes modular. I know in this script, this scene came in from that scene, but now it actually works better if we move this whole piece.
Music, particularly when it comes to period dramas, is a big component to eliciting the feel of the time. How hard is it, though, to have it serve a purpose when you don't know if that same music will be there when people are streaming it or watching it on DVDs? And also, how do you do it without relying on the obvious?
I think about music a lot. I did this show "My Generation," which was canceled after its second week, and we were literally — the day it was canceled, we were sound-mixing the third hour. And they called me and said, "You need to replace all the expensive music with cheaper music." They were like, "Your show was canceled. Now you need to watch your show and take out all the songs out of it that you love and put in cheaper alternatives." That was a bad day.
You know, the music of the era is really iconic. But it's also overused a lot. So the question becomes how do you find cues that are really powerful.
So we have this Fleetwood Mac cue, "Oh well," which is pre-Lindsey Buckingham Fleetwood Mac. It's a great, powerful guitar-driven song and I made the decision to sort of, when we hit the '70s, to hit this Malaise speech from Jimmy Carter. He has that Southern oracle power, and when you set music to it, and we're showing you documentary footage from the time, there's a power to it that puts you immediately in that place in time.
But for me, it's not just about rock songs from the '70s. You'll hear over the course of the season, all kinds of music from different eras, and from around the world. One of the things that's most interesting is when you see how the '70s was interpreted in Italy or France or Africa — that music that is sort of distilled down into other places.
I don't think I'm giving too much away with this, but you open the second season on the set of a fictional Reagan movie. Is that always how you envisioned kicking things off this season?
We set the show in '79, which is this moment in the year before Reagan was elected president. It was one of the real low points in American history — post-Watergate, post-Vietnam. Huge economic recession. Gas lines. Crime on the rise. At a moment, when the American narrative had become so complicated and everyone was so paranoid because it turned out conspiracy did go to the highest level and you couldn't trust anything. So that's where everybody was. And then along came Regan and said, "It's not that complicated — we're Americans." You know what I mean? And people were like, "Oh, we like that so much better."
So the idea of waiting for Reagan — he becomes this specter hanging over this thing. So it seemed funny to me to start with a fake Regan movie where they are literally waiting for Reagan to come. And there are other elements in there that I'll let the audience interpret how they actually tie into the larger themes of the season. But definitely, they're putting the arrows on Reagan and any minute now, he'll show up. That was fun.
Did you have a 100-page outline like you did with the first season, and how did that evolve?
I ended up giving it to them in two halves. There was a script and probably four or five more outlines. We made some adjustments, and then I gave them the last four hours. I would say that I spent a little less time at the outline stage. I was sort of like, well, they trust me now. Plus, it's a huge year and very ambitious. And you sit down with an outline and think I can't fit half of this into 50 pages.
It was part of that learning curve as well. It forces you to distill down the most important aspects of the story. What's cool about having a lot of moving pieces is in the beginning, you're telling four or five stories, and by the end, you're telling one story. It all starts to come together in the middle in a way that is really satisfying.
I had the same writers both years. I just thought it was [crappy] not to give people scripts. And they did great. And it was great to have that continuity. I know Vince Gilligan had the same writers the whole time on "Breaking Bad." It really pays off.
Obviously, this is a very different story than the last one, and it tackles things in a very different way, but there's a mindset of how you think about problems or characters. You know, we're not going to do the melodrama pitch. There aren't sexy sex scenes. You know what I mean? It would be weird. I don't want to see these people in those positions.
Let's talk about the prequel aspect to all of this. When we last spoke, you admitted you were a tad worried about whether you'd feel like you were trapped in a box, the whole sitting on a porch with a gun scene and such. How did it end up?
Well, it's not a porch, it's more of a lawn. But yeah, it was interesting. It was challenging. It becomes a piece that could go anywhere. So the question becomes where is the best place for it. So that becomes an interesting challenge.
I said it at the time we're in the story where we say she's 4 years old. It's a lot easier to work with a 6-year-old actress than it is to work with a 4-year-old actress. So you know, you fudge a little, but with those kinds of things. In general, it was open-ended enough. And you know, they just talked about bodies piled so high. You know you're going to have a death count you're going to have to deal with.
Aside from that, it was pretty open for us. And that was exciting, to go, all right, what is that story? And we know that Lou is in it, but we also know that Gus' boss, Schmidt, is in it. So how do they come together? It's a multijurisdictional thing at some point. So all that stuff became a reverse-engineering challenge that was fun.
We don't yet know the fate of the show, but I think it's safe to assume there will be another season, so are you thinking about what in Season 2 could spin into something else for the next chapter? Start from scratch?
I like that the first year of the show, for three hours, you're like, "Oh, it has nothing to do with the movie," and then you realize that it did have this tangential feeling. So now, the first year is connected to the movie, and the second year is connected to the first year, so somewhere in there, as long as you're connected to something in some way. Here, it's a very literal origin story. But it doesn't have to be that overt on any level. So, I don't know. I'm starting to think about something. But I didn't do the same thing again and weigh in for the story.
Kirsten Dunst, I think, will surprise some people in this role. Is she someone we should be nervous about as things progress?
I think the performance that she gives is very complicated. I think what's more interesting is the question that we asked with Martin, and that in some ways, we had to ask with Walter White on "Breaking Bad": How long will you root for her? And maybe it's the whole way. But how much do you identify with her, and how long will you root for her? I think that's the more interesting question. But the performance itself is really spectacular.
I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy