Noah Hawley: FX’s “Fargo”

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Noah Hawley Photo by Carolyn Fong.

This week, Elvis Mitchell sits down with Noah Hawley, the executive producer and showrunner of the FX series ‘Fargo.’ The series debuts its fourth incarnation this month. It’s set in the 1950s and stars Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman as members of rival crime families. Hawley talks about how faith and allegories have often informed the storytelling of the series and how he can tell when a story will pass a Coen Brothers’ test.


Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition, of course. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest has been bringing something very interesting to series television going back to one of my favorite shows a few years back: ‘The Unusuals' to his work as the adapter of 'Legion' for FX.  His newest thing on FX is the fourth iteration of the series 'Fargo.' He is Noah Hawley, thanks so much for being here.

NOAH HAWLEY: Thank you, I appreciate you not calling it a season. As I always talk about year one, year two, year three, there's something that feels reductive about saying a season of television, maybe that's my pretentious point of view. But you know, in an anthology, it's a completely different story. So, it can be connected to the other years. 

KCRW: It feels like to me that each year is a reinvention. The first thing I want to ask you about is how you end up choosing the locale for each of these four incarnations of the show.

Hawley: It always starts with a situation, for lack of a better word, whether it's two men meet in an emergency room, and one of them is a very civilized man, and the other is the opposite. Or a woman drives home with a man sticking out of the windshield of her car and makes dinner for her husband. And those tend to pop into my head. And I think, "Oh, that's interesting, you know, who are the two men in the emergency room and what happens next?" 

This year I saw these two groups, these two crime families, let's call them, and they trade their youngest sons as an insurance policy. And, you know, there's a sort of what I guess I would call a Coen Brothers test where you think, "Oh, yeah, I could see that in a Coen Brothers movie." Then you figure out where it is. Is it contemporary? Season two was 1979; this year is 1950. It felt pretty quickly to me this year, like this was a story about America. In an earlier era, if we were going to talk about the sort of collision between what has been called the two great migrations of Italians over to America and African Americans coming up from southern cities to northern cities, and the collision of those two groups was, I thought, a really interesting place to set this story,

KCRW: Are you a man of faith, because articles of faith are so often parts of the core of what you do as a dramatist? 

Hawley: Yeah, it's interesting. I remember seeing Ira Glass go on tour to talk about how he builds a story on 'This American Life.' And he walked through the whole thing. And he confessed that he thought he had created a new type of storytelling, which is not just about what happens, but also is about human character and morality. And then he realized he was just doing a sermon and that it was the oldest form of storytelling on the earth. 

We live on a religious planet, and I think if you don't tell stories that include people's faith in them, you're not talking about humanity. And I also feel like certainly, in terms of the Coen Brothers, one of the most iconic things about their work is its Judaism. And not just dramatically, but also comedically and philosophically. Every year, I go back to "A Serious Man.” I find it one of their most rewatchable movies and also the basis for so many thought experiments for me and in thinking through a new season. You can't really tell stories about people without getting into their spiritual side, especially once you start to incorporate coincidence or randomness or the things you want to include when you call something a true story that isn't.

KCRW: I want to talk to you about faith, and I find myself struck by the fact that it doesn't seem to come up very often when people talk to you because faith is the bedrock for I would even say 'Legion' or even when somebody's believing against their better judgment that there is the future; we'll find a way to come to the other side. I'm struck that you're talking about these things, and in fact, they don't so often come up in storytelling. The Coens are very much part of that; be it subtextural or text. 

Hawley: I guess I'm something of a humanist in the Kurt Vonnegut sense of the word, probably not as cynical as he is. But you know, I do find that, certainly now that I'm a parent, but I think it was always so, that I do have a romantic sense about people. Which is not to say all people make me happy all of the time. But you know, we do have this amazing and unique property, which no other animal on the planet has, which is we have the ability to hope, and we have the ability to use our imagination, and we have the ability to imagine a world that's better than the world we live in. And there's great heroism as well as brilliance in that. And I think it's important to remind audiences of what people are capable of, especially in moments where it seems we're also capable of much baser forms of expression.

KCRW: I guess I'm asking these things too because of these characters, having this kind of belief in something better. It really feels like it's important to have that kind of thing in a show that deals with the African American experience, the 50s, where there is no concrete evidence of the world getting better in the 1950s coming of the 1940s. I wonder if that was one of the reasons that you wanted to bring a family of color to this particular version of the show?

Hawley: Yeah, it was interesting. I had a conversation with Chris Rock early on; we had dinner, and he stars in the season. I said one of the interesting things to me about the Coen Brothers movies, of course, is their Judaism, and so much of the humor, the sort of ironic-ness of their humor seems so tied to the Jewish experience, that idea of like, the food is awful, and the portions are so small. I thought there's something to that, the humor of injustice, that sort of Kafka-esque quality, that does not feel dissimilar to the African American experience in America. And I've been thinking in season three, this idea that irony without humor is just violence, right? 

You take these stories of Kafka, or, even some of the setups in the Coen Brothers movies, and I'll give you an example that felt relevant to this year. If you start a country, and you base it on the idea of equality and justice, and then you don't offer equality and justice to half of your citizens, how is that not the setup to a joke? And because there's no humor to it, it's just violence to say to people fresh off the boat, for lack of a better term, that this is a nation of immigrants and you must strive to become American and then to not really give them a way into that experience, it's like a castle with no doors. What is that if not the joke is on you? So I thought there was something there that allowed me to explore these subjects of race and immigration in a way that fit into a kind of larger Fargo mindset.

KCRW: I don't want to give too much away except to encourage people to watch the show in this current edition. But there's an episode in which Jason Schwartzman's character makes a speech about crime that is particularly chilling in this day and age we're living in now, and I want to ask you about where that speech came from.

Hawley: Well, the more I thought about crime stories, which is what 'Fargo' is, and it was never my great goal as a storyteller to tell a crime story. In fact, it's kind of a Trojan horse as a way for me to talk about other things thematically, and character wise, but I did think if I'm going to tell a crime story, I want it to be the best crime story on television. I started to think about how much we love crime movies. You know, we love Scorsese. We love the Godfather. We love our Korean gangster movies. This just a genre that people can't seem to get enough of. But the fascinating thing about them is who do we root for in a crime movie? It's never the victim; it's always the criminal, and that there's some way of creating this moral okay-ness with the idea of the taker versus the victim that I think it does feed into the American experience. 

We have this kind of national mindset that however you make your fortune, as long as you're successful, that's an American success story on some level, and you know, they didn't call them robber barons for nothing. Then you wonder how much does the fact that we love those movies make us okay with the criminal in real life. Of course, in the show, what Jason Schwartzman says is, "America loves a criminal as long as he looks like me. But if he looks like you," and he's talking to these black men behind bars, "you they don't love." Unfortunately, that is another truism about the double standard of America.

KCRW: Chris's character has a speech in the same episode, that's kind of a rejoinder to that, that is also about belief in the future. And you're talking about the Trojan horse, and for the Coens, of course, their crime stories are always Trojan horses because nobody gets away with the money ever, right? Basically, it happens with you, too, that nobody ever gets away with the money, and the money becomes immaterial, in fact. And for Chris's character, it's immaterial as well. What's important to him is this belief in the future so much that he's willing to sacrifice the present for it. And so those two speeches, I think, for me, are some of the finest you've ever done, but also are really about battling to maintain the kind of equilibrium in the face of self-awareness.

Hawley: Yeah, there's an interesting dynamic with Chris's character, which is he's trapped in this power versus safety paradigm. He wants more power because he thinks it will make his family safer when the reality is, if you just would settle for less, the risk to his family would be less, but he can't see that. It doesn't compute for him because, and race may play a part in it, he just doesn't feel safe. He feels like if he can really amass power, if he can take over the town, there has to come a moment in which he's so powerful that he can protect everybody. But of course, it's that hunger for power that makes him unsafe in the first place. 

This idea which I kept going back and forth with FX about because here's a man who traded his youngest son to his enemy, for power, but FX kept trying to get me to find a way to create a morally valid reason for him to have done that. And I kept saying, well, he's a criminal, so as much as he's the protagonist of the show, that doesn't mean that he is a good guy.

KCRW: What's so interesting to me about the show and really how it picks up on what the Coens do is that characters are so often fixated on the present; they're so fixated on what's right in front of them that it becomes almost an Old Testament parable. And that's something I think you brought to the show, too.

Hawley: I love a good parable or an allegory. I like stories that are representative of larger stories in a way, and I talked about Ira Glass and sermons but there is something in an old world kind of way of, you know, come sit around me, and I shall tell you a story in a teaching kind of way, which is, we don't learn from facts we've realized, we learn from stories, and a story is an empathy delivery device. And, if I, as a storyteller, can create empathy in you for a character who's not like you, I have to believe that, on some level, that is opening you up as a person and making you more tolerant and more interested in the stories of people who aren't like you.

KCRW: The exchange of children, which again is this weird kind of bet on the future and giving up your present for the future, feels almost like something running out of the Old Testament to me. And I wonder if you like that kind of stark simplicity of an act of ultimate sacrifice, completely divorced from familial connection?

Hawley: Yeah, that sort of fit the 'Fargo' rule, where it doesn't have to be true, it just has to feel true. You know, it's like when I thought about these two groups and trading their youngest son, I thought that seems like it'd be the ultimate insurance policy. And it seems like something that somebody has thought of it at some point. But it did introduce this very exciting and interesting way to explore assimilation, because the moment that you start talking about a child being assimilated into a different family, you stop being theoretical about assimilation, and you're also able to then look at how does this family absorb them?

In Chris Rock's case, they invite this young Italian-American boy, he sits at the table, he plays with the kids, he's part of the family. That's the only way they know how to treat him. But, for Chris's son who goes to live with the Fadda family, he's sent to the attic. He's basically handed off to this Irish bastard pariah, who they've taken on to raise. And so I think you see a lot about the morality of the adults based on how they treat the children.

KCRW: I would almost say that assimilation and a need to connect to something bigger than yourself goes back to 'The Unusuals' and a need to be part of something that's larger than you because that portends a future. So much of what you do is really about characters hoping to connect to something bigger than them and to want to be a part of the present rather than the future. And that's almost a difference between Loy and the Faddas is that he's thinking of the future because he has to, because the American past for people of color is so interconnected with misery. And the Faddas are still sort of connected to the past.

Hawley: For me, 'Fargo' is always a tragedy with a happy ending, and I've always thought of it as a story in which something tragic happens, and then it ends. But as you mentioned, for Chris and people of color, part of that tragedy is just called life, right?  And history. And, I think we're all hoping for that tragedy to have a happy ending one day, but I do think that it's important as a storyteller, to be aspirational in the future that you think that we're capable of, because, as we've seen, somebody's got to envision it before we can get there.

KCRW: I want to ask you about this bent that you have towards intersecting irony and melodrama, which is also kind of unusual and so often played as deadpan, so you can't often see the seams that join it,  I think is something that really connects you to the Coens as well.

Hawley: Yeah, for better or worse, this success that I've had in these homages to their work; we must share some sensibility somewhere. Some of it, I think, is they do a lot of things that they think are hysterical that aren't meant to be comedy on screen, Anton Chigurh's haircut being the most obvious example of something where I know they laughed at Javier Bardem's face for like half an hour. but then there's nothing funny about it in the movie. It's just this very specific and unsettling detail.

I feel like I'm allergic to melodrama, and maybe deadpan-ness. I mean melodrama on an emotional level, as I see it as a sort of sad piano music playing in anticipation of a sad moment. I know that I have directors who give me director's cuts in which they feel like they really landed the emotion of the scene, and then I just start to cut it back, because it feels too purple for me. It doesn't mean that there can't be a heightened sense of drama in the storytelling itself, but I can't tell you the number of times that the first thing I do is kill the music in a cut and try to get it to a place where it's not dry, but I'm not trying to manipulate the audience emotionally. There's a feeling there that's genuine, but I don't want to force a feeling on the audience.

KCRW: Well, maybe melodrama is wrong word to use, or operatic, but you can't have a show like 'The Unusuals' where somebody is basically parachuted into a really dangerous situation, on a day someone else's partner dies, and one of the other guys is suffering from a brain tumor he doesn't want to tell anybody about and not say there's not some melodrama? 

Hawley: Well, sure. But that's also an ABC show 12 or 13 years ago, in which the best you could ever do is make something good. And greatness was kind of out of reach on some level. They used to have on ABC this word that they used where they would talk about “emotionality.” They would say it needs more emotionality. And I would say, you know that's not an actual word, right? But I figured what it meant to them was the simulation of emotion. It meant that sad piano moment, and it had to be very one-dimensional, like, it could only be sad. It couldn't be sad and angry and chaotic and cathartic. It just really made them uncomfortable to have a complicated emotion. And so, the moment that I was able to get to FX, and I could start actually doing the storytelling the way that I wanted to, I feel like that big melodrama volume knob got turned way down.

KCRW: You brought up Javier. I remember how the Coens laughed but he hated that haircut. And he felt like he was marooned on this set with it. But that still creates a kind of an operatic setting. With this new edition of the show, I think about that emotional opera, but the deadpan and also the warring families of "Miller's Crossing," and how it's really left up to the viewer to respond to the situation, given the kind of dramatic information that the creators put across. And maybe that's about bringing your own level of emotionality-- forgive me for using that word-- to be lilac or purple. And you leave people to do that on their own for their own coloration rather than for you to dump it over their heads.

Hawley: Yeah, I would rather the audience decides what to feel in the moment, but I also feel like part of what I do is try to undermine the operatic-ness. Jason Schwartzman 's performance: I mean, he is nothing if not an operatic figure and yet also slightly ridiculous for that operatic-ness. I do feel like certainly, we hit these critical moral moments and characters--Patrick Wilson's character or Carrie Coon--faced with the real disintegration of the social fabric and what they think is right and wrong, and how these stories forced them to confront those feelings. And, those are big swings in terms of emotion and theme and character. So yeah, I'm not playing it safe. But within that, I guess I do feel like I tried to create drama, and let it be dramatic, without nudging it over into a soap opera.

KCRW: That's why I said an intersection to me of melodrama and irony often play with deadpan because it's not just simple or one note. There is a level of complexity, that, again, asks a certain kind of attention from the viewers to decide. If you just read off the high concept of "Legion," it couldn't sound any more melodramatic than that, yet in the watching of it, it doesn't play that way at all.

Hawley: That's the thing. You can't be too intellectual about this stuff either. And, people don't watch great drama because the ideas are good. They watch because they invest in the characters, and it's visceral, and that guy you really hate, and that person you really love, and oh, my God, what's going to happen next? I mean, we shouldn't be too reductionist. I do feel like, at the end of the day, we're just trying to entertain people, and if they feel entertained, they give you permission to do more. 

And, if you're a playful storyteller like I am, and you like to play with the medium itself, and to play with structure, you're gonna end up in territory in which it's an experiment. I love nothing better than walking on set that first day and going, this could be a disaster. You know, there's something really exciting to that, for me, because it feels like we're taking a risk.

KCRW: Well, that's gonna be the fun of it for you, too because it is pitched at a level that demands real concentration. And as much as we're told that we're in a golden age of television, a lot of the stuff doesn't tend to be as subtextual as you like your material to be. You've got to like the fact that you're throwing out material that people really have to concentrate on.

Hawley: My hope is to tell stories that are unexpected, because, I mean, how many stories do we absorb in a day anymore? And we're so sophisticated that you're half watching the latest thing on whatever channel or streaming service with your iPad out looking at CNN at the same time, and you're going, "Oh, yeah, that guy killed them. And they're sleeping together." Audiences are so far ahead that the moment you have a story be where they're like, "I didn't see that coming," then they put the iPad down, and now they're really dialed in because they're like, "wait, what's going to happen next? I don't really know." 

That's what's so great about the true story that's not true is it allows me to play with a lot of moving pieces on a collision course, and you don't know which ones are going to collide and when. Yes, in "Shane," it'd be this guy against this guy in the town square, but the reality is they'll never even get in the same room because here comes Jessie Buckley, her crime movie to collide with their crime movie and then hopefully the audience is going, "I haven't seen this before." Even though we've all seen crime movies before or gangster stories, but when some things are familiar, it allows you to kind of tell unfamiliar stories that feel fresh.



Rebecca Mooney