Just before “Fargo” returned to production in August, Noah Hawley — the writer who somehow adapted an eccentric and beloved Coen brothers film into one of the most decorated television series of the past decade — sent a letter to the show’s cast and crew. He wrote about the importance of safety. He wrote about mutual responsibility. He wrote about Tom Cruise.
“Someday in the not too distant future Tom Cruise will go to space,” the message began. “He will bring a film crew with him. He will bring a director and actors. They will shoot a film. Now space, as we know, is an airless vacuum where nothing can live. A hostile void where a suit breach or airlock malfunction can kill, where even the simplest tasks must be done methodically, deliberately. Astronauts train for years to prepare. They drill protocols and procedures into their heads. They know that surviving in space will require their full concentration. Now imagine doing all that AND making a movie.”
The “Fargo” crew is rather more earthbound, but Hawley likened its experience to that of Cruise, who is indeed planning a trip to the International Space Station to shoot an action movie. (It was reported in May that he will do this with the help, of course, of Elon Musk.) But before Tom Cruise ascends into space, the cast and crew of “Fargo” are gathering in Chicago to film the final two episodes of the show’s fourth season in a 13-day stretch — five months after being forced to break camp by the coronavirus pandemic. Hawley is at his home in Austin, from which he is overseeing a massive post-production effort under a time crunch; the show’s new premiere date is set for two weeks after shooting on the final episode is slated to end. In a Zoom interview with Variety from his porch, he unpacks his advice to his crew. “We have to believe that we’re in space right now,” he says. “We all have to not open that airlock unless you’re sure that everyone is protected.”
Before COVID, Hawley was poised for a career moment: Bouncing back from a flop of a feature-film directorial debut, his energies would be funneled into a long awaited fourth season of the anthology that vaulted him to the showrunner A-list. The new installment of “Fargo” would be the most ambitious yet. It would star Chris Rock as a midcentury Kansas City crime boss and, in a meta twist, Coppola scion Jason Schwartzman as his rival for power. It would debut just before the May Emmy cutoff. It would win awards. And from it Hawley would segue into theatrical redemption by writing and directing a new “Star Trek” feature for Paramount.
But hey, it’s 2020.
Like all people, Hawley had his personal plans upended amid the deadliest global pandemic in a century. “Fargo” shut down just days before shooting was set to wrap and stayed shut down for five months, forcing it off its spring premiere and into next year’s Emmy window. His “Star Trek” movie has been put on hold as Paramount, in the wake of the Viacom-CBS remerger, and with new president Emma Watts aboard, recalibrates. Now, instead of moving to a new chapter, Hawley is at last finishing “Fargo” under unprecedented circumstances.
That there is even a fourth season of the show to be finished is a bit of a miracle, given how busy Hawley’s been in recent years.
“It’s certainly the most ambitious season,” he says. “My feeling is always unless you think it can be the best one yet, don’t make another.”
Rock, who had watched the first three seasons long before being approached about the fourth, had been offered countless series roles. “But nothing like this,” he says. In the past several years “it’s ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Fargo.’ These are the best shows on television.”
“Fargo” premiered in 2014, and it wasn’t supposed to work. The film that is its spiritual source material won Oscars for Frances McDormand and Joel and Ethan Coen in 1997 and is today considered a masterpiece. The series was born of MGM, having just emerged from bankruptcy, looking to exploit its film library for television. Hawley won a bake-off for the job of creating a TV “Fargo” by virtue of an unorthodox pitch — his show would be connected to the film by only the thinnest narrative thread, one that wouldn’t be revealed until the fourth episode; instead he would build a show that was of a piece with “Fargo.” It would be like the original in tone, in setting, in prominence of exotic Midwestern accents. It would be a dark-comic meditation on violence in America. But it would not be “Fargo 2: The Adventure Continues.”
Hawley might have seemed an unlikely candidate to pull off something like this. A novelist and veteran of the “Bones” writers’ room, he had created two television series — “The Unusuals” and “My Generation,” both of which were canceled by ABC before finishing their first seasons.
“He was a novelist, and he had developed his skills as a showrunner,” says FX Networks and FX Prods. chairman John Landgraf. “So when he came to FX, I knew he was a really good writer. What I didn’t really know about him is what a complete filmmaker he was, how truly gifted a director as well as writer he was. He’s part of that rare breed that just has command over every club in the bag.”
The show worked. It became one of FX’s heaviest Emmy hitters, racking up 52 nominations in its first three seasons, and winning for best miniseries in Season 1.
Hawley is meticulous — the quality to which the success of “Fargo” is most likely attributable. Dry-humored and detail-oriented, he is not afraid of spending hours in post-production making sure that the sounds of bullets whizzing by are exactly as they should be. “It can be demanding, working with Noah,” Landgraf says. But the exec learned to trust Hawley implicitly at the beginning of the show’s second season.
Hawley wanted to direct the first two episodes, but FX, already concerned that the story for Season 2 was too sprawling, dissuaded him from helming the premiere. When the first cut of that first episode came in and the network complained that it didn’t work, Hawley convinced Landgraf to allow him to oversee reshoots. Then, when the network was still unhappy with a new cut, Hawley argued successfully for another crack at it — coming up with a device he would employ through Season 2 and subsequent seasons in which the action of multiple characters in different locations was displayed simultaneously.
“When it finally became what it became, it was genius,” Landgraf says. “It was brilliant. He was right.”
It was more than two years ago that Hawley began thinking seriously about a fourth installment of “Fargo.” He found himself dwelling on the final scene from the movie, in which McDormand’s Sheriff Marge Gunderson admonishes the contract killer she’s just captured: “And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”
“‘Fargo’ is an exploration of America, for me,” Hawley says. And as the show has progressed, it’s specifically become an exploration of the role of money in America. Set in Kansas City in 1951, Season 4 centers on two organized crime families, one Italian, one Black, whose patriarchs swapped their youngest sons in an effort to establish a truce.
“I started to think about the origins of America and of doing a period piece,” says Hawley. “These scenarios kind of come to me in a fully formed way. There’s two crime families, and to keep the peace, they trade their youngest sons as a hostage or an insurance policy.” That one of those families would be Italian and the other Black gave the show an opportunity to explore the barriers to entry to American life.
Hawley had Rock in mind as the boss of the Cannon family before he even began writing. “He just popped into my head, which doesn’t normally happen,” Hawley says. He called FX, and the wheels were set in motion for a meeting between Hawley and Rock, who turned out to be a fan of the show.
Rock’s Loy Cannon is a crime boss capable of ruthlessness and empathy — and a strategist who finds his ambitions to engage the mainstream white business world frustrated.
“Look at every movie that’s come out in the last five years and every television show with an African American lead, and I want you to show me a better part,” Rock says. “Is there a better part for me? Not really. Nothing even close.”
Hawley was in Chicago in March, directing a week of reshoots and additional photography for the first nine episodes. He was working with Rock on the day word came that production would be halted.
Rock was himself poised for a career turning point, starring in a pair of high-profile dramatic roles in “Fargo” and the grim horror film “Spiral,” both set for summer debuts, both delayed. “On that last day where I had to tell him this is the last scene we’re going to shoot for who knows how long, and he realized this is it — I think that was hard for him to go from this moment of relaunching to not knowing when it’ll happen or if it’ll happen,” Hawley says. The uncertainty affected the rest of the cast too. Salvatore Esposito, Gaetano Bruno and Francesco Acquaroli had to travel home to Italy, unsure whether they would even be allowed to return to the U.S. Jack Huston, Hawley says, “just wrapped himself,” heading to the airport when he realized that the full-stop announcement was imminent.
The break was a setback. Then, months later, as Hawley prepared for “Fargo” to resume shooting, Watts, newly arrived at Paramount from Fox, told him that his “Star Trek” film was on hold.
That Paramount, through a series of false starts, has been unable to get the feature arm of the franchise back up and running even as corporate sibling CBS has, under executive producer Alex Kurtzman, established a bona fide universe of series on the television front is a source of embarrassment for the studio. Hawley’s “Trek,” for which he’d finished the script and begun hiring designers, was set to feature a new crew of characters. But, he says, it would have an explicit connection to franchise canon, one he likens to the moment in the first season of “Fargo” when Oliver Platt’s Stavros Milos finds the money buried in the snow by Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter in the Coen brothers’ film.
“We’re not doing Kirk and we’re not doing Picard,” he says. “It’s a start from scratch that then allows us to do what we did with ‘Fargo,’ where for the first three hours you go, ‘Oh, it really has nothing to do with the movie,’ and then you find the money. So you reward the audience with a thing that they love.”
According to Hawley, his “Star Trek” treatment is still alive, just in stasis. Watts, who will decide whether it moves forward, oversaw 20th Century Fox when its sibling, Searchlight, released “Lucy in the Sky,” Hawley’s feature directorial debut, last year. The film starred Natalie Portman as an astronaut shaken by her experience in space.
Much of Hawley’s work plays with perception. When, in Season 2 of “Fargo,” a UFO shows up at a crime scene, it succeeds both as a reference to the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and as a very Hawley moment in which reality bends in service of character and narrative. Hawley’s second FX series, “Legion,” went farther down this path, using the physics of the superhero genre to tell a story about trauma and toxic masculinity.
But the approach was received less well with “Lucy,” which was dismissed by critics and tanked at the box office.
Hawley takes a deep breath before answering a question about it.
“I set out to make a magical-realism astronaut movie,” he says. “Not a lot of high demand for that. But that’s what the story wanted to be. I’m not sure, at the end of the day, that the understanding that the studio had was that I was making a magical-realism astronaut movie — even though I wrote a script for a magical-realism astronaut movie, and I showed them all the visuals. I think the project originated as a kind of Reese Witherspoon dark comedy. And I think there was some degree to which, when they saw my director’s cut, they were expecting a Reese Witherspoon dark comedy.”
Hawley remains proud of the film and its cultural impact. But he questions the release strategy that saw it open the same summer weekend as Warner Bros.’ “Joker.”
“It’s an ambitious, movie-star-driven film with big themes, and a very emotional film,” he says. “What is that if not a fall film?”
The five months of work stoppage were difficult, but also presented Hawley ample time to tinker with “Fargo.” The first cut of the first episode was submitted in December, while the final cut wasn’t locked until mid-August. “We’ve been through some really, really challenging times in post-production because his ambitions are so big,” says Landgraf, who notes that such a process wouldn’t make the end product better “if one of his superpowers wasn’t how good he is in post, editorially.”
Hawley also had ages to plan a return to production. He chose to winnow the number of setups, split the lengthy final episode into two shorter ones, and hire two directors to shoot simultaneously — one on location, one on a soundstage.
“Noah as a leader is really brilliant,” says Jessie Buckley, who stars as Oraetta Mayflower, a classic “Fargo” character in that her every action is dictated by base human urges and her every word spoken in a thick “Prairie Home Companion” accent. “He sets the tone, but he also wants your imagination to come into the world.” Before cast and crew were recalled to Chicago, Buckley says, Hawley met with her via Zoom. “We talked about the script, and we talked about what the set would be like.”
The return to production was an exercise in managed risk. Hawley contrasts his task — reassembling, for 13 days, a seasoned crew who know each other and the sets — with the months-long lifts being attempted on series heading into production on new seasons, or on features such as “Jurassic World: Dominion,” which just began shooting in the U.K. (Over the 13 days of shooting, no “Fargo” cast or crew member tested positive for COVID-19.)
“We’re doing two weeks,” he says. “It’s hard for me to imagine starting a movie right now and thinking I’m going to get five months of this without having to shut down.”
Now, with Season 4 set to premiere Sept. 27, Hawley is willing to ponder the future. He still needs to wrap post-production on the remainder of “Fargo.” And there is a novel, his sixth, to finish. His desire to direct another feature is undiminished. “I like the structural challenges of a two-hour movie,” he says. He teases the possibility that the novel he is working on might have a second life as a feature or a television project.
But in terms of new screen projects, his plate is — for the first time in more than a decade — empty.
“I’ve been going nonstop for 15 years,” Hawley says. “There are worse things than seeing a little daylight and going, ‘Maybe it’s time to assess.’” If the world hadn’t forced him, Hawley may not have found the opportunity to do so.
“I’m sitting on a porch right now,” he says. “I kind of like that.”