'Fargo' TV Series Captures The Best And Worst Of America The finale of the Fargo TV series airs Tuesday. The characters are different, like a deputy sheriff played by Allison Tolman. But writer Noah Hawley says the Coen brothers told him he "nailed it."
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'Fargo' TV Series Captures The Best And Worst Of America

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'Fargo' TV Series Captures The Best And Worst Of America

'Fargo' TV Series Captures The Best And Worst Of America

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tomorrow night is the season finale of the FX TV series "Fargo," an original adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 film "Fargo." The film was a dark comedy set in the wintry landscape of rural Minnesota. It won Oscars for best screenplay and best actress. The FX version has a different story and characters, but critics agree that it captured the look and tone of the film, mixing eccentric characters and deadpan humor with sudden and savage violence. Our guests are Noah Hawley, the series creator and writer, and Allison Tolman, who has a breakout role as Deputy Sheriff Molly Solverson. Noah Hawley has written four novels. He also wrote for and produced the TV series "Bones" and created the series "The Unusuals" and "My Generation." Allison Tolman grew up in Texas. She studied theater at Baylor University and performed at the Second City training center in Chicago. They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Fargo." Lester Nygaard, a struggling insurance salesman played by Martin Freeman, has had an encounter with a man who used to bully him in high school and is waiting in the emergency room with a broken nose. He happens to be sitting next to a hitman, played by Billy Bob Thornton, and they strike up a conversation.


MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) If I was any kind of man, I'd have shown that Sam what's what.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Sam?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Yes. The bully in high school and he's a bully now.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) So why didn't you show him what's what?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) He had his sons with him, and...

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) You let a man beat you in front of his children to send them a message?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) No. That's not - heck. Just heck.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) In my experience, if you let a man break your nose, then next time he tries to break your spine.

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Sam, no way. I mean, I don't think. I just, I guess I embarrassed him in front of his boys.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) You embarrassed him?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Yeah. He was telling me about a time where he and my wife, they were - he didn't know she was my wife is the thing. And when I told him...

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) This man slept with your wife and you're worried about embarrassing him?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Not slept. No, they didn't - he said it was just - she has soft hands, see? And I guess...

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Mister, we're not friends. I mean, maybe we will be someday, but I've got to say, if that were me in your position, I would've killed that man.


Noah Hawley, Allison Tolman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Noah Hawley, I wonder if you'd talk a bit about the shots, the pacing, the use of silence and whether you were trying to capture something from the movie, or is it, you know, something that you were doing yourself?

NOAH HAWLEY: You know, I think television has risen to such a cinematic level that I was making a movie, you know, and it had to look like a movie and it had to have the scope of a movie. But, you know, the Coens have a very classical approach to filmmaking. The lenses that they use, they're wider than you usually use in television. They do locked off shots and their angles are different. They're a little lower a lot of the time. And, you know, so there was a lot going into the production design on the Coen brother movie front and then also cinematically. But that started in the writer's room and it was really important to me to tell the story with the camera as much as possible. And so if you read the scripts, you'll see that a lot of the camera work is even described in the scripts and, you know, if you can get two or three or four pages without dialogue, where it's just the camera telling the story, that's really exciting to me as a filmmaker.

DAVIES: Now, in the movie, the sheriff Marge Gunderson, who is played of course by Frances McDormand, is kind of at the center. She's the hero. She won an Oscar for the role. And in the series, we have a woman, played by our guest Allison Tolman, she was a deputy sheriff, who's at the heart of the story as it develops. And Noah, as you were - I wonder if you can talk about creating her character. Anything that you wanted to either draw on or avoid from the Marge Gunderson character from the movie?

HAWLEY: Well, I knew that it was a real challenge, given Frances McDormand's performance and the iconic Oscar-winning nature. So I knew that whoever came into the show was going to have a huge uphill challenge. So I tried to stack the deck in Allison's favor. You know, I created a chief of police, Vern Thurman, who's a man with a pregnant wife. And so when you first meet Molly, she's sort of the sidekick character to the chief of police and the audience, I hoped, would say. oh, I see what they've done. They've just - they've taken the chief of police and they've made him a man and given him a pregnant wife. And so that's how we're doing it. And then people were meeting Molly as a sort of sidekick. So they weren't comparing her to Frances. And then, of course, and you know, we're 10 episodes in so I think I can spoil, you know, Vern doesn't survive the first episode and Molly suddenly at the end of that premiere episode becomes our hero. And my hope is that because she's kind of come in through the side door, people have not prejudged her in the same way. So, you know, for me it was about, not just about who she is but how I got her into the show so that people could be just as delighted by her as they were by Marge.

DAVIES: Let's listen to an early scene of you, Allison Tolman. And you're, in this scene you're at a diner, talking to the sheriff, Vern Thurman, who's played by Shawn Doyle. And you're just talking about these brutal murders that have suddenly appeared in the town of Bemidji, Minnesota.


ALLISON TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverson) Say, chief - listen, I've been thinking about that fella in the snow, with the underpants? There's something odd about that.

SHAWN DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) You're saying other than the fact that he was just wearing panties?

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverson) Yeah. See, we know from the wreck that whoever was driving cracked their head on the steering wheel, right? The fella in the snow...

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) No head injury.

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverson) Yeah, so you see...

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) That's some good police work there, deputy.

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverman) Oh, thanks.

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) If he's not the driver, I guess we've got to ask, who is he?

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverman) Ran his prints, nothing. Plus, turns out the car was stolen.

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) Oh, yeah?

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverson) Yeah. Yeah, over in Grand Forks. I called the local PD, I'm just waiting on a callback.

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) Any thoughts there on Hess?

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverson) Uh no, not of such. The lady that Hess was with, didn't get a good look at the fella who killed him on account of all the blood in her eyes. But, you know, we're checking the knife for prints. Oh also, Bill's going around to local stores to see if maybe the knife was bought here in Bemidji.

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) You'll make a good chief one day.

TOLMAN: (As Molly Solverman) Me? But what about Bill? He's got seniority.

DOYLE: (As Vern Thurman) Bill cleans his gun with bubble bath. No. It'll be you, if you want.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, Allison Tolman, as Deputy Sheriff Molly Solverson in the series "Fargo," speaking there with the character played by Shawn Doyle. Allison Tolman, there's a lot of comedy in here and I love the way you kind of deliver that line where you're saying that in this brutal murder, the woman didn't get a good look at the assailant, on a count of she had so much blood in her eyes.


TOLMAN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's a great line, and I think a very, sort of, Minnesotan syntax, which is nice that Noah gave me to deliver, on account of all the blood in her eyes.

DAVIES: Allison Tolman, you submitted a video to get this part, is that right?

TOLMAN: I did, yeah. I'm actually, I'm based in Chicago still. And my agent there in Chicago, I guess this, these sides kind of came down the pike. And they said, why don't you come in and put yourself on tape for these two scenes? So I did. And, you know, I was not working at the time, I was temping as a receptionist in the morning. I just popped by on my lunch break and put myself on tape for "Fargo" and then sort of walked out of the room and tried to forget about it. And by the time I had been cast, six weeks later I had taken a part time job at a photography studio in Chicago, doing postproduction.


TOLMAN: So I'm a bit of a - I was wandering a little bit at the time. I had a job that I loved working in IT actually for three years doing customer service. And I had just quit that job and kind of left this life of stability and was, sort of, not sure what was going to happen next, and was honestly just hoping to find something in a creative industry that I could do, (laughing) which is ironic, you know...

HAWLEY: You can check that box off.

TOLMAN: ...In retrospect.


DAVIES: We're speaking with Allison Tolman and Noah Hawley. Allison Tolman stars in and Noah Hawley created and wrote the FX series "Fargo." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us we're speaking with actress Allison Tolman and Noah Hawley, who wrote and created the FX series "Fargo." Its final season airs next Tuesday night at 10. I thought we'd listen to another scene. Allison Tolman, this is you playing Deputy Molly Solverson, and you're going to interview Lester Nygaard, whose house has been the scene of some murders including that of his wife and the police chief. And the company knew on this is the new chief, Bill Oswalt, who's played by Bob Odenkirk, and he's an old friend of Lester. And as we'll hear in the scene, you and he kind of have a different attitude toward the investigation and toward getting something out of Lester in the interview. Let's listen.


TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) In your statement, you said that you came home and found your wife - that she was already dead.

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Downstairs. Yeah. I heard the washer going spin cycle. And I - well, you know, she was on the floor, you know, and there was a lot of - I never even heard the guy. Just one minute. Looking at her and the next...

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) So you don't remember Chief Thurman come into the house then?

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) No. No, I feel sick about that, really. I guess he saw the guy breaking in.

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) No. Mr. Nygaard, Chief Thurman came to talk to you about a man you may have met in the emergency room that day previous.

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) You don't say.

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Chief Oswalt) Look, Lester, if this is too hard for you, you can just give us the bare bones...

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) We got a witness says that she saw you and this other fellow arguing about Sam Hess.

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Who?

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) Sam Hess?

ODENKIRK: (As Chief Oswalt) You remember Sam. He used to beat you up in high school.

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) What?

ODENKIRK: (As Chief Oswalt) Oh, yeah. Well, Sam had a thing for ole' Lester here, used to chase him around the schoolyard until one or the other ran out of gas. You remember. Big kid. What was that name he called you? Lester...

FREEMAN: (As Lester Nygaard) Oh, yeah. Yeah, Sam. That was a long time ago.

TOLMAN: (As Deputy Solverson) You were talking about him in the emergency room, so what's the story there?

DAVIES: And that's our guest Allison Tolman with Martin Freeman and Bob Odenkirk in the FX series "Fargo." Allison Tolman, it must have been really fun in this - this thing you had with Bob Odenkirk where he doesn't quite get it, does want to really seriously investigate things - and you're kind of impatient.

TOLMAN: Yeah, that was the first scene that I got to do with Bob, actually and the first, really, just straight up kind of comedic scene I think I got to play during shooting. And Bob, who is one of the smartest men I know, plays a really wonderful buffoon. And I think the energy - the dynamic between he and Molly - is, really - it's just so just a purely comedic, that it was really fun to play with.

DAVIES: Yeah, Noah Hawley, Bob Odenkirk was that hilarious sleazy lawyer in "Breaking Bad," Better Call Saul. What made him work in this role for you?

HAWLEY: Well, you know, Bob brought a real humanity to the role and, you know, what I like about it is, you know, the character starts off - you think he's just a comic fool and a buffoon, as Allison said. But over the course of the 10 episodes, you realize that there's a real depth to him and that the reason that he doesn't want to accept that Lester could be guilty is not that, you know, he has a shortage of imagination. It's that he doesn't want to live in a world where a friend of his from high school is capable of this kind of evil. And Bob, really, you know, he brought that. And I think he loved the challenge after playing Saul of really stretching as an actor. And here, you know, he has to start with this layer of, you know, the sort of comic bafoonishness. But over the course of it, he really, you know, he has some surprising and really touching and dramatic moments.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk about the Billy Bob Thornton character, Lorne Malvo, the hitman. This guy is fascinating. Seems educated, kind of quick on his feet, with the sort of menacing dialogue that he seems to improvise but seems perfect. And I thought we would play this scene where he is driving a stolen car at night and is stopped by a police officer played by Colin Hanks. And one note - as we listen to the scene, the Officer Gus is a single dad and his daughter stays in touch with them from home on the police radio while he's on duty. And during this car stop, we'll hear - we will hear the daughter calling, trying to reach him, and the hitman, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who's in the car overhears this and refers to this in the exchange.


THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Evening, Officer.

COLIN HANKS: (As Deputy Grimly) Evening. License and registration, please.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) We could do it that way. You ask me for my papers. I tell you it's not my car, that I borrowed it, see where things go from there. We could do that. Or you could go get in your car and drive away.

HANKS: (As Deputy Grimly) Why would I do that?

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Because some roads you shouldn't go down. Because maps used to say there'd be dragons here. Now they don't. But that don't mean the dragons aren't there.

HANKS: (As Deputy Grimly) You step out of the car please, sir.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) How old's your kid?

HANKS: (As Deputy Grimly) I said step out of the car.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Let me tell you what's going to happen, Officer Grimly. I'm going to roll my window up. Then I'm going to drive away, and you're going to go home to your daughter. And every few years you're going to look at her face and know that you're alive because you chose not to go down a certain road on a certain night, that you chose to walk into the light instead of into the darkness. Do you understand me?

HANKS: (As Deputy Grimly) Sir.

THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) I'm rolling up my window.

DAVIES: That's just a remarkable scene. Noah Hawley, you want to kind of talk about writing that scene?

HAWLEY: Well, you know, it's one of the things that I said when I went into FX to pitch this show was, you know, at the very beginning of every episode it says, this is a true story. It's not a true story. But says this is a true story, and I did a lot of thinking about why the movie did that. And I think that a lot of it had to do with the fact that real life doesn't unfold like a story. Things happen that don't fit neatly into a box. And one of the things is, you know, you're not going to meet every important character in the show in the first 10 minutes the way you do in a normal show. And the fact that we followed Billy through this whole hour and we've seen him - we've just seen him kill multiple people and we know how lethal he is. And then we meet Gus's character who we introduce in a conversation with his daughter on the walkie-talkie about the games she's watching and has she done her homework. And then, you know, Gus pulls Malvo over, and we're afraid for this guy because we know that he doesn't stand a chance.

And I think that it takes Gus from a point of a sort of amused, like, what's this guy up to, to a real fear for himself and his daughter and ultimately he lets him go. And I wanted to start Gus with that moment and really explore cowardice, not necessarily in a negative way. I mean, he's got a daughter he has to get home to so he made a choice that was probably for the best but then, of course, as in most Cohen Brother's movies, his action has consequences and he's not going to be able to get off that easy.

DAVIES: And when we listen to Malvo intimidating him, as we do with a number of characters in the series, I mean, there's sort of a poetic or lyrical quality to the way he does it. I mean, he talks about how there used to be, you know, dragons on maps to tell you what roads not to go down on. Do you have a back story for Malvo? Is he educated? What do we know about him?

HAWLEY: I don't really have a back story for him. I mean, what I liked about, you know, Malvo - and his back story's really never explained - is the fact that he feels like almost an elemental force that has always been around. You know, and ultimately I think the question becomes, is this really a human being, when you get right down to it, or is he some kind of elemental force? But I really like this idea.

I mean Joel and Ethan have described this region of the country as Siberia with family restaurants. And I like the idea that, you know, these towns are sort of these islands in this frozen tundra and the highway runs through. And, you know, the highway system has allowed these types of characters to sort of flow through, and, you know, it's the sort of stranger-comes-to-town story. But this idea that Malvo, you know, he blows into town and he destroys Lester's life and the lives of a lot of people in the town, and then he blows off to Duluth and starts a whole new storyline. I like the fact that there was a nonlinear quality to it. It's not that he came to town and stayed. It's that he came and had his impact and the story we tell from there is the aftermath of that impact on those who were left behind and then where he goes from there.

GROSS: Dave Davies will continue his interview with Noah Hawley, the creator of the FX series "Fargo," and Allison Tolman, one of the stars of the series, in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Noah Hawley, the creator and the writer of the FX series "Fargo," and Allison Tolman, one of the stars of the series. "Fargo" is loosely based on the Coen brothers' movie of the same name. The season finale is tomorrow night. Here's the series' theme music which was written by Jeff Russo.


DAVIES: Noah Hawley, you know the score, which was written by Jeff Russo, is haunting and powerful. What did you want the music to add?

HAWLEY: Yeah, I mean, it was very important to me that the score of the show be similar to the score of the movie but not the same. And, you know, obviously, when you do something with drama and comedy in it - and by that I mean a scene that has drama and comedy in it - you know, the minute you introduce music, you're either scoring the drama or you're scoring the comedy. And, therefore, the scene becomes either dramatic or comedic. So in those scenes, what you try to do is not have music at all and let it be what it is. And you know, "No Country for Old Men" - there's no music in the whole movie, and the tension of the silence was so dramatic, that, sometimes, a lack of music is also a way to score a scene. And so, you know, we talked about having a theme for each character. I mean, Malvo has this sort of walking base line theme, and Lester had a sort of comic theme, and, you know, those themes changed over time. And then there was a moment when, you know, Lester is becoming a worse and worse person, where suddenly, we're using Malvo's theme for Lester.

DAVIES: We're coming to the end of this 10-episode run of Fargo, and people love it. And people really love Allison Tolman's character, Molly Solverson. Are they going to want to see her more? Noah Hawley, are you going to disappoint them?

HAWLEY: Well, I'll give you her address and then they can stop by and see her anytime they want.

TOLMAN: Yes, please do that, Noah.

HAWLEY: Well, here's what I'll say, and this is something, you know, from the very beginning, that I talked about with the network, which is, you know, at the end of the movie, when Marge Gunderson, you know, she's seen the leg in the wood chipper and all the horrible things, and she gets into bed, and Norm got the three-cent stamp, and she's got two more months until she has the baby. You know, you realize that she's going to wake up tomorrow, and life is going to go back to normal. And I think that that moment is so powerful and adds such poignancy to the story - that, you know, it felt really important to me to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And the other component of it is that we're telling people it's a true story. And at a certain point, you know, if Molly wakes up the next morning, and it's like, no, there's another crazy Coen brothers case. A, you know, it's not going to be believable, and B, overtime, she's not going to be the same person, you know. I sold the show to FX as it's the best of America versus the worst of America. And I think what - what people like is this romantic idea that, you know, you go off and you face evil, and you come back. And your reward is to lead a simple life. And you don't have to, you know, go on this dark journey where you're some demon hunter, you know, who's haunted - you know, like on "Criminal Minds."

DAVIES: You said the Coen brothers read the first script, but didn't play much of a role in this. Have you talked to them since so many episodes have aired? And do you know what they thought?

HAWLEY: I send them emails every once in a while, addressed dear dead letter office. And I don't tend to get a response. You know, it's interesting. I mean, I think it has to be odd for them. I mean, we went and we did a premiere in New York City. And you walked around, and everywhere you went, there were "Fargo" ads on billboards and buses, and FX, you know, crocheted a wrap for a double-decker bus, you know. It had to be odd for them to be walking around and seeing all of this promotion for a TV show based on a movie they made 20 years ago - far more promotion than the movie, itself, probably got. So I think that, you know, my impression was that they had to sort of compartmentalize and create a space in their head for this thing that I was doing that they weren't doing. And so, you know, my impression was that, you know, they were very clear in saying, you know, we don't even like promoting our own movies. We're not - you're not really going to get us out on the chat shows to talk about "Fargo."

DAVIES: You think you'd get an ata-boy - well, you know.

HAWLEY: Well, they did, you know - we did show them the first episode, and we have a producer on the show, John Cameron, who had produced, I think, five or six of their movies. And, you know, once you're in their inner circle, they're a little warmer, I think. And, you know, John was given the task of calling them to see what they thought of the first episode. And Ethan said, yeah, good - which, apparently, is high praise coming from Ethan. But that was the last word. So, you know, I think that'll be on my tombstone - yeah good.

TOLMAN: Yeah, good.

DAVIES: Well, Allison Tolman, Noah Hawley, congratulations on the series, and thanks so much for speaking with us.

HAWLEY: Thank you.

TOLMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Noah Hawley is the creator and writer of the FX series "Fargo." Allison Tolman is one of the stars of the show. They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. "Fargo's" season finale is tomorrow night. Coming up, we listen back to an interview with jazz singer Jimmy Scott. He died Thursday at the age of 88. This is FRESH AIR.

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