My original pitch was, ‘What is our Mike Yanagita?’ This show has to be able to incorporate those elements…either of philosophy or absurdity where the audience is asking themselves, ‘Why is this in here?’
The Coen brothers are voracious readers. In fact, they read much more than they watch movies or even TV. So when considering someone to adapt their classic 1996 movie Fargo for the small screen—in a pretty huge first instance of them not writing and directing their own creative product—it’s little wonder they picked a novelist.
Noah Hawley is the author of four novels and a genuine fan of the Coens’ work, he’s also, conveniently, a screenwriter. Back in the early aughts he landed an agent on a spec feature, worked a few years writing for the show Bones and then got his own show, The Unusuals. He sold a pair of pilots to FX so, when the Fargo job came up, he was given a shot to pitch. Key to his winning the gig was that he said he would not attempt to copy the Coens (smart move). Rather, he’d utilize some estimation of the elemental recipe that makes a Coen brothers film a Coen brothers film—from just the right humor/drama blend to doses of philosophy, regional detail, and mysticism. Mix in good, always earthen music, some hardluck types, and you’re close to home. But the real genius in his pitch came down to a small character in the original film—Mike Yanagita. Hawley observed that this character’s whole existence as a high school acquaintance of Marge—played famously by Frances McDormand—served no purpose narratively whatsoever. He was just there as a quirky detail to make it all feel more real.
The detail is so extraneous—especially in a crime story—that it generates a feeling that it has to be real, he keenly observed. And it seems it helped him win the gig.
In the TV version, which premieres April 15 and stars Billy Bob Thornton, Joey King, Colin Hanks, Keith Carradine, Oliver Platt, Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, and Martin Freeman, the Coens chose not to include Marge, feeling that her character was so large and unique it would interfere with the reimagining of the world. Hawley, who started calling the series No Country for Old Fargo during production, also pitched the show as a true crime anthology, meaning each season will follow one story from just before any crime is committed, basically like a 10-hour movie. So the show exists very comfortably in the recognizable world of the Coens, but at the same time it feels like an entirely new thing.
Hawley spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the challenges and risk of adapting a beloved Coen brothers film, what it was like writing an entire series solo, and why, if there’s a second season, he’s definitely bringing in more writers.
This show is anthology style, each season being a new story?
Yeah, it’s a 10-hour movie. That’s basically what I pitched them—the idea that, if they wanted to do another one, it would be a completely different 10-hour movie. That’s not to say it won’t be connected in some way but not necessarily literally or with the same characters.
True Detective on HBO, created by Nic Pizzolatto, who’s also a novelist, is another show using this format. Do you think this anthology approach is reflective in any way of how TV writing narratives are changing?
A few things are interesting. One, obviously, as a novelist, as one individual writer, you have to keep a very large story all in your head. You’re used to doing it—writing it by yourself. You know, I wrote all 10 episodes not out of some ego but because we had the time. I had eight months to write all 10 episodes before we started shooting. And it’s such a specific voice, this Coen brothers’ voice, you know?
But there are some business things as well. The studios are more attracted to this idea of just having one writer. It’s certainly cheaper. But also as the feature film business gives up the ghost, we’re moving into more of an auteur television thing. It started, obviously, with David Chase up through Vince [Gilligan] and all the greats.
This is obviously a complex issue with the Writers Guild, but from an artistic standpoint, having worked in writers’ rooms and having worked alone, what do you miss about the writers’ room, and what are the advantages of doing it alone?
It’s interesting. What I said to them was, “Look, I’m not gonna do it all by myself. Give me four writers for 12 weeks, and we’ll break all 10 episodes, and I’ll give you what ended up being a 115-page outline. Then I’ll go off and write all of them.” So what we ended up doing was… everyone who worked with me got a consulting producer credit, and they worked for the 12 weeks. We sat around and did what writers do, which is talk about either what we’re eating right now or what we’re gonna eat next. And we broke out the season. Then I went off to write.
Now, if I do this again, I don’t think I would do it the same way. I would want to have the writers writing scripts as well…
Because of the backbreaking amount of work or because of the collaborative enrichment?
Yes, both, and I also wanted to be a fair-minded person in trying to get those same writers back. So I said, “Hey look, come back and I want you to write a script this time.” The hardest thing in the first season of any show is that there’s only one person who knows what the show is and that’s you. So you spend those first 13 episodes just teaching people what the show is, which involves a lot of rewriting and then in second season, everyone comes in and goes, “Oh, I get it. Now I’ve seen all those episodes. I know what the show is.” So, in a way, the scripts you get in second season right from the go are more, you know, what the show should be.
It’s sort of the pancake theory, the first one’s a little funny looking and then the griddle gets hot…
Yeah, exactly. There was a moment in like mid-June where I’m sitting in an office writing a television series all by myself, and it felt very weird. Like there’s no one around. We’re not in prep yet. I’m just a guy who’s writing. We’re making 10 episodes, I know that, but I’m just in there by myself writing ‘em.
And it’s the Coen brothers. I’ve sat with them, and they’re super literate guys. They’re talented, obviously, but they’re very sharp. What specific anxiety, if any, did you have approaching this Coen brothers film?
Obviously, no one wants to be the guy who ruins the Coen brothers. It’s not that I feel like I could ruin their careers, but I certainly could ruin mine by doing such a poor imitation of them. I also knew from the beginning that I couldn’t imitate them. It couldn’t be about imitating. It had to be about translating my implicit feeling about those movies and what I thought was an understanding of what made them what they are, that mixture of drama and comedy and mysticism and philosophizing… and to try to recreate that, to say, “Is this that world?” But if I thought too much about, Is this a Coen brothers moment, then I’d start to get paralyzed. It’s interesting because making a 10-hour version of a two-hour movie, you need to do things that we’re in that movie and some others. I started to say we’re making No Country for Old Fargo…
…with a little Serious Man thrown in. But there’s definitely a know-it-when-you-see-it feeling. I said very early to the studio and the network, that you can’t make a Coen brothers movie by committee and, everyone respected that. At the end of the day, if this fails, it’s on me. I’ve got no one to hide behind. I set myself up to write all 10 of ‘em.
Did you actually at any point list the components that you felt constituted that Coen brothers ether?
I don’t think I ever made a physical list of them. What I liked about [Fargo] and their world in general is beyond the mystery and philosophy. I went into FX, and I said, “Alright, here; I’m pitching you this idea for the show but now I wanna talk about Mike Yanagita.” He calls Marge from high school, and they meet, and he tells her a sob story about this girl from high school he married who died of leukemia, and he’s just so lonely. Then it turns out that that’s totally made up and the girl has a restraining order against him. You’re watching it, and you’re like, “Why is this in the movie?” The reason is—at least my takeaway from it is—that at the very beginning of the film, it says this is a true story. You include a detail like this because it’s so odd it has to be true, do you know what I mean?
Yeah, it creates authenticity, the quirkiness that could only be real.
Right, so my original pitch was, “What is our Mike Yanagita?” This show has to be able to incorporate those elements, those elements either of philosophy or absurdity where the audience is asking themselves, “Why is this in here?” But on some sort of meta level it adds to the authenticity of the world, or it explores something thematically that is relevant once you take in the whole story.
You know, [FX Networks CEO] John Landgraf being one of the smartest men I’ve ever met and certainly the most articulate about storytelling, he understood implicitly that if you’re making a Coen brothers movie, you have to make a Coen brothers movie. It has to have all those elements in it.
To what extent, from a narrative construction standpoint, does Lorne Malvo [a quirky hit man played by Billy Bob Thornton] become the spine or the spear cutting through all these characters’ lives both ethically and structurally?
Yeah, it’s interesting, Malvo comes to town and changes everything. It’s a stranger-comes-to-town story. And he impacts Lester’s life and then at the end of the episode he leaves town, and he runs into Gus and has that moment with Gus.
He changes everyone’s life.
Right. So Lester and Molly are left to deal with the aftermath of what happened there and Malvo goes off to Duluth and starts a new story that involves Colin Hanks’ character as well. Ultimately, all those characters are going to intersect again. It gives it a certain scope and range to it. You know, the interesting thing that I talked to Billy about is, yes, Malvo is technically, I suppose, a villain and he kills a lot of people and all that. But he’s also us in a weird way because he’s the outsider in this strange little community, and he comes in and reacts to the way Lester is being treated and says, “That doesn’t make any sense,” which it doesn’t. So he’s the most despicable character, but he’s also the most like us on a cultural level. That creates an interesting dynamic.
When, where and how you write. Give me a little look at your ritual.
Well, before I had kids, I was definitely a morning guy. I liked to roll out of bed and get started before I felt like my real life intruded. Now that I have kids, I don’t really have that, um…
That luxury. But writing for TV has trained me to write whenever, wherever, ‘cause obviously when you’re running a show and they say, “Okay, from four to six you can rewrite episode five,” that’s when you rewrite episode five. So it’s good. I wrote my last book in a restaurant, basically, on my off hours. It’s a business, and it’s a skill—so it’s not about waiting for the muse to strike. It’s about getting it done.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West