Noah Hawley (“Fargo”) and Brad Falchuk (“American Horror Story”) didn’t know each other well when they sat down for our Variety conversation, but by the time our hour together was over, the two showrunners had bonded over a mutual respect for their bosses at FX, a love of writing — and benefitting from the migration of movie stars to TV.
Variety: What do you think makes for a good miniseries?
Falchuk: I think it’s the same thing that makes anything good, really. And that’s a compelling story, obviously. The good thing about a miniseries that’s different than a TV show or a movie is that it has a beginning, middle and an end. A movie: the beginning, middle and end has to happen in a short period of time. A TV show: it’s all middle, basically. In a miniseries, you’re able to tell the story in a more full way.
Hawley: You need a good James Clavell novel, I think, to make a good miniseries. (Laughs.) What I really appreciate in this moment is that rather than trying to fit story into the length of the show, you’re adapting the length of the show to the story you’re trying to tell. You can have a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, and therefore every episode, every step, really decisive things can happen. Ten (episodes) was an arbitrary number at first, but it really ended up being the right number. If we’d had to do 12, there would have been some filler in there. The minute things get too complicated, you can lose people. So it’s nice to have just enough story to deliver something powerful.
Variety: How does that compare with what makes for a good drama?
Falchuk: There may be 10 or 12 episodes, but then the story continues the next season. That’s a very different animal. That’s a very different way of telling stories. It gives you a different degree of freedom in terms of how much you can push your characters, how much you can push the storytelling. Having done shows that spend years of time, you really never know when that end is coming. You can’t write to the end. As a writer, the most exciting thing is to write to an end.
Hawley: It’s like “The Killing” premiered two years too early. If they’d allowed that to wrap at the end of the season, and then do a different case at the end of the year if they’d wanted to come back — they got a lot of backlash for having to be a television series. If we do our jobs right, the audience wants to come back with those characters, but we don’t allow them to do that.
Variety: So how do you envision season two of “Fargo”?
Hawley: I pitched the idea to FX that there’s this larger “Fargo” universe where there’s true crime in the upper Midwest and I can tell stories from any era of that. Maybe they connect to the first season or the movie, or maybe they don’t. It’s just a style of storytelling. We’re under the auspices of being a true story that isn’t true. It has to have that truth-is-stranger-than-fiction feel to it. Because it’s true crime story vs. a cop show, you meet the characters before the crime is committed — which is interesting to me. You only introduce the cops once the crime has been committed. It’s more about regular people from this region as opposed to some archetypal, cigar-chewing Kojak cop and the mustache-twirling villain.
Falchuk: Did you pick the crime first? And then pick the characters and fit them into how they relate to this crime?
Hawley: It started more thematically thinking about how the crime in the movie worked. I just had this image of two men sitting next to each other in the emergency room. And one of them was very civilized, buttoned-up, and one of them was not. And who were these guys and where did they come from? What was that collision between them going to do? So this sort of crime came out of what turned out to be Martin Freeman’s character and Billy Bob Thornton’s character, but made it personal. There’s a violence that Lorne Malvo does to the social contract that’s almost as bad as the violence that he does in real life. All the people in this region have to behave in a certain way because that’s how polite society works. He comes in and just says there are no rules, and that in and of itself is a really dangerous idea for Lester.
(Chris McPherson for Variety)
Variety: So Noah, do you envision season 2 with a whole new cast?
Hawley: Yes, I think so. I’m sure FX wanted to make a traditional television series, and in my attempt to get the job I said, there’s no series here. If we come back in season 2 and it’s the continuing adventures of … (a) it’s not going to seem like a true story anymore, we can’t really say that and (b) she’s not going to be the same person, season to season. She will become more jaded and dark. Or she’s just going to seem stupid. If we do multiple seasons, each one will have to be another true crime story from the “Fargo” universe. You can jump around in time. There are no rules. You guys play with era as well. That’s the fun thing about it. You get to reinvent every season.
Falchuk: It feels like the most rewarding way to do TV, don’t you think? I don’t know if it’s always going to be the most lucrative way. Season 2 of a show is hard. Season 4 of a show is hard. But season 5 is getting to the point, where in general, if you’re a network show, you’re lost. You’ve lost the cultural zeitgeist. You’re a production that’s a little bit fatter. You’ve got actors who’ve been there for a long time. It’s much more molasses-y to tell stories because it’s like, we did that. So if you bring in new people, creatively speaking, it’s much more challenging. You’re never terrified of the next season. As a writer, it’s much less scary to come up with a new idea than to come up with a new idea for an old story.
Variety: Audiences are certainly responding to that.
Hawley: In breaking the story, and talking with the composer about the music for the show, I didn’t write with any act breaks at all. We didn’t break story with any act breaks. It’s a very different way of approaching television because I wasn’t worried that I couldn’t find four or five dramatic things to go out on. But I’m also not worried about people changing the channel because the last thing they saw wasn’t incredibly dramatic. The idea is that people are going to watch it without commercials. How are they going to watch it down the line is just as important, I think.
Falchuk: I think premium cable helped with that. I do think that gave a cadence to television-watching that people were just not used to. When the shows like “Sopranos” came around, you never know when that moment is coming. You never know when it’s 12 minutes, or now with network TV, every six minutes. It allows for that. Nobody’s getting worked up. It’s not like, wait, you didn’t give me my jolt at halfway through. But that’s interesting that you did that intentionally.
Hawley: Well, I just sat down to write the first episode, and I never wrote “act out.” And as a result, that helped me in a way with the network, because it was a 70-page script that read like a movie, and it got everybody to think, well, we’re making a movie. There was a moment when the network reached out and said, we think you need to start putting act breaks in the script, and I just didn’t respond to the email and never did.
Falchuk: (Laughs.) I love FX, because they do that.
Variety: What has your experience been working with FX?
Hawley: You’ll get notes from them like, can you make it darker and more morally ambiguous? No one gives you those notes. My show is a more film editorial style. We stay in masters longer, we stay in two-shots longer. It’s not cutty like TV. It has its own pace, which I think is like part of what sets it apart from other shows. John Landgraf watched the first episode and he called me and said, “I’m not worried people are going to change the channel because it’s slow.” I’ve never on earth considered that a network president might say that to me. The nice thing at this moment, as opposed to broadcast, for this golden age of television, is what makes it marketable is the quality. So to make something unique is a selling point, as opposed to trying for this four-quadrant thing that everyone else is doing. And FX got it. I didn’t have to do this uphill battle all the way that I have to do every time. They just got it. I know their motto is fearless, but it’s true.
Falchuk: The other thing that they’re the best at is selling the show. Their marketing stuff is so amazing because they’re also not afraid to sell. I was driving down Sunset and there’s a billboard for some new NBC show and you’re looking at it going, I can’t believe it’s real. Is that a joke or is that real? When you see the FX ad campaigns, you’re like, I want to know what the show is about. They’re very good with finding these iconic images and really pushing it. They’re not shy. They know they buy episode one, and we buy episode two. They will spend all the money to get the eyes on episode one, and if it’s good enough, people will come to episode two.
Hawley: I drove around New York when we did the upfronts and when we premiered “Fargo,” and they crocheted a sweater for a double-decker bus and drove it around. I never talked to Joel and Ethan Coen about it, but it must have been odd for them to be walking around New York and seeing far more publicity for the show than they ever saw for their movie — that movie or probably any other movie that they’ve ever made.
(Chris McPherson for Variety)
Variety: You’ve both reaped the benefits of movie actors coming to TV.
Falchuk: It’s because of what movies are being made now. They’re remaking “Spider-Man” again — they just remade it. There’s less work there. Writers started being driven to TV when we started seeing how much power and freedom we had. People our age, when we were growing up, we wanted movies, movies, movies. Now it’s TV where you really want to be. TV writers, we’re not just drawn to writing. We’re producers. And we’re directors. And we’re drawn to that. We don’t want to just write the script. We want to create the world. I think TV is the only place to do that. So any great actor is going to be attracted to that. To someone with a vision. To writing that’s great.
Hawley: Also the fact that they don’t have to make 22 episodes a year for seven years. In my case, they just sign on for 10. And they can still have a life. And they don’t feel like they’re now a cog in a machine. Billy (Bob Thornton) had done TV in the heyday. This is obviously very different. He responded to the material and he heard he didn’t have to sign on for the length of a movie. So there was no downside to it. It’s a crowded field of famous people in this world, and I think those actors are finding when they go to TV, it separates them. They can stand out and get a recognition for quality of work for roles that just aren’t around anymore.
Variety: What’s it like working with Billy?
Hawley: Billy is like whatever those precision tools are they use to build watches. He has this “watch me get it in one” mentality. I’m sure you found this with Jessica Lange. There is a difference between movie actors and TV acting, especially with movie stars, which is they know their face is 20 feet high on the screen. They know they don’t have to do much. What Billy brought to do the role is just a stillness. Nothing he did was ever arch or over the top or too comedic. Just very precise. He showed up with that hair — I didn’t give him that haircut. When he did, I knew we were making the same show.
Variety: The setting is also very much a character in both of your shows.
Hawley: I’m interested to see, and I don’t know if it’s season two or if there is a season three, what’s it like there in spring or summer. If I came to FX and said I want to film in the summer, which means our dates move, if I had a good vision, I think they would sign off on that.
Falchuk: I’d never been down to New Orleans until we started shooting, and anywhere you turn the camera is sexy. Every scene has an erection. There’s something going on there that is so non-American but totally American, so sexy and dark but there’s hope everywhere.
Hawley: I’m just laughing because I don’t think I’ve seen any of my actors below the neck.