‘Fargo’ mastermind Noah Hawley makes stranger-than-fiction real

Noah Hawley, Sunday Conversation
Noah Hawley is photographed at the Vicerory Hotel in Santa Monica.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For Noah Hawley, this is a true story.

“Fargo,” the critically lauded FX miniseries adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning 1996 black comedy, made quite the impression with the TV academy, receiving a hefty 18 Emmy nominations — accolades that came without the kind of intimidation practiced by the show’s menacing drifter, Lorne Malvo (played by Billy Bob Thornton).

Ahead of the Emmy ceremony Monday, the writer-executive producer-show runner behind the prestigious drama sat down at the Viceroy Santa Monica Hotel to reflect on bringing the Coens’ signature stranger-than-fiction tone to television.

What is Emmy-nominations morning really like? We hear so often people saying, “I had no idea they were today,” or “I slept through it all.” Lies, right?


Liars. No, I’m kidding. I’m the boss. I don’t have that luxury of not knowing. I got up and turned on the TV and sat there. And, of course, they said they were going to start at 5:35 a.m., or whatever it was, and then they didn’t announce them for another 20 or 30 minutes. I sat there watching a poor woman get hit by a [California Highway Patrol] officer on the side of the road [on TV]. Did you see that too? It was crazy. And they just kept showing it over and over. I was like, “This is really bad mojo going on.”

What goes through your mind when you get the tally? Did you have your own number in mind, secretly?

Yeah, I mean, you think “typo” as the first thought. I won’t say I didn’t have a number in my head. But I will say that it was nowhere near 18. It was a single-digit number, let’s put it that way. Then your mind goes to, “Well, what 18 things could we be nominated for?”

You’ve been doing this for a while. When does Emmy become a goal, or a factor, in the process of doing a TV show? Or is it mostly a pressure imposed from the network side?


It’s not a thing you can work toward. I know plenty of great writers in this business, who have been doing it longer than I have and haven’t even been nominated. The biggest reward for me was just being able to make the show I saw in my head. The other two shows that I did [ABC’s “The Unusuals” and “My Generation”], which I loved, there was a lot more process. You’re always fighting against a broadcast urge to tone things down or to make things more like something else.

So to be able to do what I thought was the best version of the show and what FX thought was the best version of the show, that was really the reward. You just never know with the Emmys because you also see people get snubbed. The first response is not, “Oh, that’s so great that this or this got nominated.” It’s “Why didn’t Michael Sheen get nominated?”

Talk about your road to writer and show runner. You were a songwriter at one point. Is there a connection I’m missing?

Yeah, in my youth I was a songwriter. There’s no straight line. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school. I didn’t do well in the school I went to. But I was always driven, and I was always interested in things. I was a musician for a while, but at the end of the day, I’m not a night person. I felt, somewhat, as a storyteller, I wanted to address matters that weren’t for 14-year-olds. And I started to write fiction because it didn’t involve carrying heavy equipment or living in a van with three filthy, penniless men.

That led to selling my first novel, and then my motto became “What else can I get away with?” I did some feature work, then tried TV. I was always very aware that the only power that you have is the power of options. If the film industry dries up, then you focus on the TV or the books. For me, it was always about what story do I want to tell next?

Do you remember what the first substantial piece of fiction you wrote was like?

I was in my early 20s. I had a job at the Legal Aid Society in New York City, working in family courts. I was a paralegal working on abuse and neglect cases and juvenile delinquency cases. It was really hard work. And working with these attorneys who are all overwhelmed and on these cases that were really challenging on a lot of levels. I started writing fiction as a way to, not literally work out my feelings about that experience but as a way of keeping alive an artistic identity.

I started working on a novel — you know, the novel that goes in the drawer.


I want to know what it was about!

I’d have to open the drawer. I’m not comfortable opening it. It was kind of gothic, I guess. Not my real voice. But it was a way to get started and a way to think about it as I read more and thought about the craft.

I’ve always been really attracted to playing with structure. To take the story of “Fargo” and break it up in such a way that’s it’s not linear, per se. I was very attracted to the idea that some people are going to watch live and some people are going to binge-watch, and that means there will be no commercials and an episode will end and go right into the next one. So what is that experience like of watching three hours of it in one sit-down?

For a TV writer in 2014, the way people watch must greatly influence the way you envision telling a story now — the structure, the pace. Is that restricting or freeing?

Yeah, it does change things for me. I even talked with Jeff Russo, our composer, about it. Because it’s one thing when you score the act out, but what if there aren’t commercials and you’re just swelling to black? You have to think about that stuff also. We did a lot of cold opens. Each episode would open and there was kind of a sense of disorientation like, “Where am I now?” Or, “Now it’s six months earlier and I’m buying the shotgun with Lester.”

I like the idea that if you’re binge-watching, the show is not necessarily going to pick up where you left off. Suddenly you are going to have a slight disorientation. Put in a 10-minute parable sequence in the middle of an episode or do a one-year jump in the middle of an episode — elements that people aren’t used to seeing. I think it pushes people out of a comfort zone. They stop half-watching and they start watching the show.

I think if you can get people to fully engage, then they engage with the show in a much deeper way. And it’s just fun for me, obviously the Coens also. They started “A Serious Man” with a Yiddish parable and at the end of it you’re like, “What does that have to do with the movie?” Even at the end, you have to think about what that had to do with the movie. I had my ideas, but they weren’t telling me. So that’s the fun part.

You’ve started writing for the sophomore season, right?


We have a room going. We’re working on the first script. We’re looking to start shooting in the new year. One thing that we had in the first go-round that was so helpful was time — the time to really sit down and break all 10 and then go off and write them. I wrote two at a time, three at a time and gave them to the network. It really allows you to go back and adjust, so by the time you’re really prepping the show, you know by Episode 9 that you need a backdoor for Molly to enter while Malvo is going out the front door. You know what I mean?

You pick those locations so down the line, you’re not hampered by what you envisioned. As much as I think there was a corporate impulse about hey, we premiered in April with the first season, we should premiere in April with the second season, neither FX nor MGM pushed really hard about that. It’s nice to be such a critically acclaimed show on a network where that matters because they understand that if you rush it, the only thing that will happen is you hurt yourself.

Had they not seen the success of “American Horror Story,” would they have been as open to taking this approach?

Obviously Ryan [Murphy, co-creator of “American Horror Story”] opened the door with that idea, which people had been trying for a long time. I think it took someone of his clout to be like, “No, no, it’ll be great. You’ll see.” I don’t know whether he went with the idea of using some of the same actors each time, but certainly once that became a repertory company, then it really took on an identity. Once the door opens, everyone goes through it and suddenly we’re in a limited-series waterfall.

When you’re writing at a time like this, one that is constantly referred to as a new golden age of television, is it crippling when you’re sitting in front of your computer trying to write?

I think it’s madness to try to think about that. Part of my success in the first go-round was that nobody saw me coming. But now they are going to see me coming, and now it’s going to be judged against the first season. You just have to accept that that’s going to happen.

This is just a very different story. I mean, we’re talking about filmmakers who made “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “No Country For Old Men.” How can you judge those two films against each other? And that’s very liberating because I can say to FX, “Look, it’s a different story, and we’d be crazy to go, ‘Who’s our Malvo this year?’” Those are the wrong questions to ask. You know, there were moments in the process where I did say, “Look, you can’t make a Coen brothers movie by committee. You just can’t.” And for better or worse, somebody has to make those calls about what makes it feel right. And that person has to be me.

Talk to me about writing for this world. I mean, do you write in “normal” voice and then add the region-specific vernacular later?

No, it’s all in one go. It’s the voice of the show. Once you find the voice of the show, that’s what it is. Writers who were there for the breaking of the first season are now going to have to write in that voice. That’s the challenge of the television model. When you’re a writer on a show, your job is to write in the show runner’s voice, really. And in this case, the show runner writing in the Coen brothers’ voice. So it’s complicated. But that’s the fun of it also. One thing I loved about the movie was how inarticulate everyone was. And it’s not something you normally write to. Usually, you’re looking for that one perfect word. But here it’s like, why use one word when 10 words will do? They almost never finish the sentence they start. In my mind — for Lester, let’s say — to make a declarative sentence is to risk offending somebody. So he’s always sneaking up on what he wants to say.

Was he the character who came to you first?

It was the two. Actually, it was Malvo and Lester sitting in the emergency room. One of them is a very civilized man, and who is the other? I had this idea of what appears to be a strangers-on-a-train premise but isn’t, because one man has been pushed and pecked and bullied, and then another man has no agenda except to say, “What you’re telling me doesn’t make any sense. Why would you let this man bully you in front of his kids?” And Lester is saying, “Well, OK, yeah, why don’t you just kill them for me?”

That was the really fun part of writing Molly and Gus, because when you get right down to it, the origins of the story don’t make any sense. Why would he just kill this person for no reason, for no money? And it’s because he was living in a different world than they were living in. That’s the great theme that the Coens play with: Villains live in a different world than heroes. We, now, we’re in this jaded anti-hero world.

And that’s what made “Fargo” so refreshing. The TV world has become so saturated and fixated on the anti-hero, and here comes along a show where that’s not the focus. We’re not so concerned with Lester — is or isn’t he the antihero. It’s more about decent versus bad.

Yeah, it’s not even good versus evil. It’s just folks against evil, which is a very different thing.

Did you feel like you had to present viewers with a hard and true antihero?

No, not at all. The moral gray area is certainly FX’s wheelhouse. But after Walter White, what can you really do? So, for me, it was always about managing expectations. Again, the audience is so sophisticated now. It wasn’t about tricking them, but it was about managing their expectations. It’s like, I knew if I introduced Molly as the chief of police, everyone would just compare her immediately to Marge. But if I snuck her in through a side door and said, “Oh, she’s the sidekick to Verne, who’s the married police chief with a baby on the way,” the audience thinks, “Oh, I see, they made the wife pregnant.” And then of course Verne doesn’t make it, and Molly suddenly becomes the hero of the story because she’s come through that side door, hopefully you’ve given her a chance to be who she is, and not Marge.

When you’re casting at a time when having big names is the thing to do, how crucial and maybe creatively freeing is to have some unknowns in the mix that people aren’t on the lookout for?

We had a conversation with FX where they were like, “Look, these are the roles where we would like to get big names for: Lester and Malvo. Molly could be a discovery.” That was something we talked about early on. And that was great. I mean, who had an expectation for Allison [Tolman]? They had never seen her before.

I picked every extra. For every episode, we’d go through and I’d go, “all right, here are the faces I want in the scene.” Because when you watch a Coen brothers movie, there is no detail too small, and so much of the world is defined by the look of people’s faces. Sam’s sons weren’t in the outline. But when I wrote the script, he had these two sons and it sort of took on a life of its own.

Do you need to be in a certain surrounding when it’s time to write?

The thing with making your art your business is: It’s a business. You can’t sit around waiting for the muse, especially when you run a show and you’re in production and an outline is due, a script is due and a reshoot is due. No. You look at the calendar and you go, “OK. I can write from 4 to 6.” So you write.

I gave the network a 115-page outline of Episodes 2 to 10, very detailed. It was down to even the way the shots would be. And I didn’t really deviate from those. It all worked out. We’d done the work. Why reinvent the wheel? Before we begin, how does it end? It’s good to know where that journey ends.

Looking back on the first season — from its development to its execution — how would you describe it all?

I said earlier that my motto is “What else can I get away with?” That applies to show running as well. I’m always amazed at writers who can’t take a note or bristle at the idea that they would even get a note, which is like, well, that’s the business. It’s a business of constraint — creatively, logistically, financially. You’re always being told what you can’t do or what they don’t want you to do. The challenge is, “Well, they say I can’t do it, but how do I still get away with it?” And that’s what they want you to do, really. No one ever got rewarded for taking every note and making something they don’t want to make. You’re hired to create and run a show because they trust that you have a vision for that show, a vision you will carry out.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t collaborate. It just means that things that are really important, you fight for. And for me, I don’t like to yell. I think there is power to the word “no.” And that power is only there if you use it very infrequently. For me, it was to understand, “OK, they are saying they don’t like this particular actor for this particular role, and I think this is the perfect actor for this role, so how do I get this actor in this role without offending anyone?” And sometimes it’s about bringing that actor in and showing there are more sides to them. Or it’s maybe they don’t understand your vision for the character. So I would find myself writing a whole short story, basically, about that character and why whatever actor was the perfect person for it.

Would you have done anything differently?

There were a handful of scenes that I felt were staged in a manner that was more comedic than I would have liked, so I had to really cut against that. But you can’t set every minute. That’s the problem. With Joel and Ethan, when they write it, direct it, edit it — they are very separate things. For me, I’m doing it all at the same time. But those are things that, in another go around, are easier to correct because you know you’ve done it. So when someone is saying, this would be really funny, and you’re like ‘Well, that’s not what I’m going for.” You can adjust.

Care to share an instance of that?

There was a scene in Episode 3, I think it was, where Wrench and Numbers shake Lester down for the first time in his empty office. I felt like there wasn’t enough menace to that. I never really believed he was in danger. There was a certain shaking-the-guy-down quality that felt familiar to me in a way that I think we could have kept the audience a little more worried as opposed to laughing it off. But there were very few of those. It’s a crazy marathon of material, and you’re cross boarding two episodes, so in any one day you could be shooting scenes from two different episodes. It’s a volume business. You don’t have the HBO time or their money. And yet that’s just another one of those constraints that the audience can’t feel.

Do you have a favorite scene to write or see come to life?

Writing that emergency room scene between Bill and Martin was so thrilling. It’s a six-page scene and very meticulous, step by step. And nobody told me the scene had to be shorter. We got there and there was Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, and I just sat at the monitor and watched these guys. It was so thrilling to see it come to life and to realize, while we were filming that scene, how the show should be cut. Because just watching those men in a two-shot on-screen, I was like, “Why would I cut that up?” So we stay in a really wide shot for a long time, and it’s not until Billy moves over to sit next to Martin that we move in. It really established the pace of the show. There is tension in the slowness of it that is the opposite of what television has become.

What was the first scene you got around to shooting?

We shot Keith Carradine’s diner the first day. And the first scene we shot, I think, was Molly and her dad, and then Verne comes in. And he says she’ll make a good chief one day. So it was literally Allison Tolman, who had never shot a scene of dramatic television before. We had, in the weeks leading up to it, some rehearsals to get people comfortable with the accents. We had Bob Odenkirk up there. Martin came in. Everyone was working with the accents and getting up to speed, getting everyone used to the idea that it wasn’t a comedy. It was just dry. Throw away the comedy, throw away the drama. Just underplay everything.

And how about the Gus and Molly relationship? Were you surprised by the popularity of Golly?

I don’t think I was surprised. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he never put a love story in anything because when you put a love story in something, people get stupid. They can’t see anything else. I haven’t seen romance in a Coen brothers movie, so it had to be something different. And it had to be underplayed. What was really great about doing that year jump is just when you felt that sense of a courtship, boom, they’re already married. And suddenly it was the movie in a way that it hadn’t been before.

How much did you stick to that 100-plus-page outline in the end, especially in regard to the final episode?

I basically stuck to that 115-page outline the whole way. The final scene — it wasn’t by any means the last scene we shot. It was probably about halfway through shooting that block. I got a call from [FX President] John Landgraf, and he was like, “Look, the scene that you wrote is good, maybe it’s great, I don’t know, but the last scene from the movie is sublime. It’s so simple, but powerful. He gets the 3 cent stamp.” And I said, “Well, let me shoot it, cut it together and then I’ll show it to you.”

I went to set. And [director] Matt Schackan, he was setting it up to shoot it and cover it. I took my show runner’s prerogative and said, “This is what I want: I’d like to be outside, looking in on her while she gets the phone call. And then I want to do it as a oner. But the simplicity of it and the power of being in that one shot, getting them on the sofa, and just sort of pushing in on them, and letting them watch TV and letting her say, “I’m proud of you,” and all that. And then I knew something that John didn’t know. I was always going to use the original theme from the movie there. When she hangs up the phone and she thinks for a minute about Lester being dead, and she starts to walk and you hear that music from the movie. It plays under the scene. You can’t describe that to someone, they have to feel it.

There are some clues in the first season that play a part in the second, which travels back to 1979 and focuses more on Molly’s father, Lou Solverson. Were they intended to be clues when you set out with the first season?

In Episode 2, when I first had Gus’ boss say, “It’s Sioux Falls all over again,” and then when we were at the diner, I thought: It’s funny if they worked together on it. I had no intention that would be the story we told. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt it would be the fun thing to do to set it up. But of course, now I’m in the writers room and I’m going, “All right, well, at some point he has to be sitting on a porch with a shotgun while his family sleeps inside.” The story wants to go where it wants to go, but you’ve sort of committed yourself.

So are you feeling boxed in?

No. We’ll get it. We’ll get it. But it is funny to have to navigate some of that stuff. It’s exciting to look at the period and decide which Coen brothers movie we’re borrowing the feel from this time and how we’re using music. I’ll sit with the [director of photography] to talk about the look of it. Is it feeling like a Technicolor story? Or how are we changing up this approach? I think we’re on to something great.

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