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‘Fargo’: The Pivotal Decision That Made the FX Miniseries Shine

There would be no middle ground when it came to “Fargo.” The bold decision by FX and MGM Television to mount a miniseries inspired by the “Minnesota nice” world crafted in the Coen brothers’ 1996 feature would either be a creative home run or the equivalent of “television karaoke,” in the words of MGM TV exec Steve Stark.

Writer Noah Hawley and producer Warren Littlefield didn’t need 18 Emmy nominations to know how well the effort turned out. But the recognition for all aspects of the production — from stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman to the sound mixing — confirms how deftly they threaded the needlepoint.

“We knew if we were ever going to make this, it had to hold its own against the movie,” said Eric Schrier, FX’s prexy of original programming and FX Prods. “It took a lot of courage to do it.”

FX execs plucked “Fargo” out of a long list of movie titles that MGM TV Group president Roma Khanna brought to the cabler in 2011, shortly after she joined the Lion, as series development prospects.

Separately, former NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield was again circling a TV spin on “Fargo.” He’d first tackled the property in 1997 under the direction of Bruce Paltrow. It never gelled, in part because Littlefield knew that network TV wasn’t ready for the Coen brothers’ milieu.

But when word got around that FX was eying a “Fargo” project, Littlefield turned to a writer he’d just worked with on the short-lived ABC drama “My Generation.” He and Noah Hawley began beating up ideas for a series take on the property, and then reached out to FX.

At a meeting, Littlefield and Hawley were pleasantly surprised to hear the suggestion from FX execs that the miniseries be rendered without the movie’s lead character, detective Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand. It was an approach that Hawley and MGM brass had already considered. It turned out to be the pivotal decision that allowed the 10-hour miniseries to take on a life of its own while still paying homage to the original work.

“There was no bondage,” Littlefield says. “It became a magical experience.”

In the complicated deal negotiations that ensued, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen held out for the right to take their names off the project after they reviewed it — an option they never exercised.

Hawley had ample time to further hone the tone and voice of the series. He had eight of the 10 scripts written before production began last November in Calgary. He penned them all in 10 hours, though he put together a small room of writers to help him break the stories. They block-shot the episodes, allowing them to work on two at a time.

The freakishly cold winter of 2013-14 did wreak some havoc with the “Fargo” crew — at one point it was so cold that the propane heaters on the set stopped working, which brought the lensing to a halt. Nonetheless, “Fargo” demanded to be shot in the winter months, and Mother Nature obliged with snow and sub-zero temperatures that were punishing at times, Littlefield said.

“Fargo” now sets a high bar for what will surely be a stampede of movie-to-limited series adaptations. “We’re often approached because we have so many titles in our library,” said Stark, who is president of production and development at MGM TV. “We’re very happy ‘Fargo’ was the first and that it came out so well.”

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