Thursday 8 October 2020

The Coen Brothers: Fargo, Crime and Realism

Fargo (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
‘Based on actual events’ the Coen Brothers’ Fargo tells the story of indebted Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who hires two lowlifes Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) and ransom her for money from his rich father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell). The scheme unravels when one of the kidnappers kills a state trooper during a routine traffic stop. As Carl and Gaear leave more bodies in their wake, the pregnant local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) begins to investigate. 

From its opening shot – in which a car trundles down a harsh, snowy road – to its bleak conclusion, the film transforms its dull, Upper Midwestern landscape into the setting for a narrative that explores the soul of modern America. The Coens take a standard film noir plot and transform it into epic drama, forming out of the grim events a portrait of the pursuit of the American Dream and its consequences. 

The films of the Coen brothers are often noted for their highly self-conscious relation to preceding film forms. In Fargo the screenplay resolutely undermines the traditional police procedural, most notably with the creation of the main female police investigator. Fargo deliberately turns against film convention in favour of a naturalism that gives its characters identifiable, clearly grounded lives. There’s a richness in the portrayal of the characters that fills the movie with closely observed, realistic details instead of clichés. This extends to the portrayal of the ineptitude of Carl and Jerry – the would-be ‘masterminds’ of Fargo’s kidnap plot. As Ethan Coen explains:
One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.

The true nightmare of Fargo is that many of the characters have unthinkingly bought into the promise of "the American Dream," yet they appear incapable of reconciling those impossible visions of optimism with the persistent problems that plague their lives – often caused by their own lack of self-awareness. Jerry Lundegaard is the living embodiment of this ubiquitous emotional crisis; yet, we get glimpses of it even in the most insignificant characters, such as the cashier at the restaurant, whose forced grin and artificially happy demeanour threaten to burst wide open at any time. 

Only Marge and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), seemed to be completely happy in their lives. They are not adhering to a preset model of "family life" derived from television, as the Lundegaards so ineptly do; rather, their lifestyle is less formulaic, less preset. As a stay-at-home spouse, Norm finds fulfilment in his job – despite the kitschy nature of his wildlife paintings – and eventually achieves professional renown; while Marge maintains a mostly optimistic outlook on life despite the daily horrors of police work. Thus, the couple may look forward to the arrival of their kid in "only two more months" with true hope and optimism, as well as to the pleasure it will bring.

Marge's worldview has been described as naive by some commentators due to her inability to comprehend the presence of evil. She is, however, more intricate than that. “There is... with Frances a really honest style, a very open presentation of her character,” Joel Coen remarked. Marge is prevented from becoming a caricature of herself by this.” Others regard Marge as the film's moral core, implying that it is her morality that endows her with the capacity to empathise, as well as the capacity for shame - a quality noticeably missing in the majority of the film's characters. 

In the interview which follows, initially published in 1996, Joel and Ethan Cohen discuss the writing and filming of Fargo, its precise characterizations, acting performances and the visual style that emphasizes the spiritual landscape of the bleak Midwestern setting:

Did some news item inspire ‘Fargo’, as the press kit suggests, or is that another false trail that you two have laid?

JOEL COEN: In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional. We were not interested in making a documentary film, and we did no research about the nature of the murders or the events connected to them. But in warning viewers that we had found our inspiration from a real story, we were preparing them to not view the film like an ordinary thriller.

Did this kidnapping of a wife organized by her husband create a good deal of sensation in 1987?

ETHAN COEN: It didn’t. In fact, its surprising how many things of this land get very little publicity. We heard about it from a friend who lived very close to where the story unfolded in Minnesota, which also happens to be where we are from.

Why did you call the film ‘Fargo’ when the important action of the film is set in Brainerd, which is in Minnesota, and not ‘Fargo’?

JC: Fargo seemed a more evocative title than ‘Brainerd’ – that’s the only reason.

EC: It was just that we liked the sound of the word – there’s no hidden meaning.

JC: There was, to be sure, a kind of western connection with Wells Fargo, but that was not part of our intention, and it’s too bad that some people should have thought so.

Here you returned somewhat to the territory of your first films, ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Raising Arizona’.

JC: There are some similarities, but also some important differences. These three films are all small-scale productions, their main themes relate to criminality, to kidnapping, and they are also very specific in their reference to geographical locale. Furthermore, Frances McDormand plays a role in Fargo and Blood Simple. But we have always thought that Blood Simple belongs to the tradition of flamboyant melodrama, as given expression in the novels of James M. Cain, along with some influence from the horror film. In Fargo, we tried out a very different stylistic approach, introducing the subject in a quite dry fashion. Our intention was also that the camera should tell the story like an observer. The structure of the film also follows from the origin of the story in an actual event: we allowed ourselves more digressions and detours. Each incident did not necessarily have to be connected to the plot. We also allowed ourselves to withhold the appearance of the heroine, Marge Gunderson, until the middle of the film.

EC: This is also a way of signifying to the viewer that he was not watching a genre film, that we were not going to satisfy expectations of this kind. In this way too, the film differs from Blood Simple.

What is it that drew you to the subject?

JC: There were two or three things about the actual events that interested us. In the first place, the story takes place in a time and place with which we were familiar and could explore. And then again it features a kidnapping, a subject that has always fascinated us. In fact, we had a screenplay that was quite different from Fargo that we would have been very happy to shoot. Finally, this subject offered us the chance to shoot a crime film with characters quite different from genre stereotypes.

EC: It’s probably not a subject we would have worked with had it not been connected to this particular context. When we begin writing, we need to imagine in a quite specific way the world where the story unfolds. The difference is that until this point these universes were purely fictional, while in the case of Fargo there was an air of authenticity we had to communicate. Since we come from the area, that helped us take into account the particular character of the place.

A ‘dialogue coach’ is listed in the credits. Is that a gag?

EC: No, not at all. Most of the actors come from this part of the country, and they did not need coaching, but Frances McDormand, Bill Macy, and Harve Presnell had to have some training so their accents would blend with the others. This was partly how the characters were developed, and it also contributed to the air of authenticity.

JC: The people there speak is a very economical fashion, which is almost monosyllabic. This seems as exotic to other Americans as it does to you Europeans! In fact, the Scandinavian influence on the culture of that area, the rhythm of the sentences, the accent, all of this is not familiar at all to the rest of America. The story could have just as well taken place on the moon! New Yorkers have a general conception of Midwesterners, but they know nothing about these cultural ‘pockets,’ these microsocieties with their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities.

EC: When we were small, we were not really conscious of this Scandinavian heritage that so strongly affects this part of the country simply because we had no points for comparison. When we got to New York City, we were astonished not to find any Gustafsons or Sondergaards. Certainly, all the exoticism comes from this Nordic character, with its polite and reserved manner. There’s something almost Japanese in this refusal to register even the least emotion, in this resistance to saying no. One of the sources of comedy in the story comes from the opposition between this constant avoidance of all confrontation and the murders gradually piling up.

JC: We didn’t need to do any research since this manner of speech, these expressions, these sentence cadences were familiar to us. Our parents had always lived in this part of the country, and that means we returned there regularly and were familiar with the culture. After all, it’s this culture that shaped us. Because we had not lived there for some time, we had the feeling of being separated in part from the environment where we had grown up.

The episode between Marge and her old high-school friend is a digression from the central narrative, which is fairly compressed.

EC: Someone mentioned to us that in this scene, Frances acts in the very restrained manner of an Oriental, while her Japanese friend is talkative and irrational in the American style. It was certainly our intention while writing this sequence that it should be a digression.

JC: We wanted to provide another point of view on Frances’s character, one that had nothing to do with the police investigation. This is also what happens in the scenes with her husband.

EC: Our intention was to demonstrate that this story is more closely connected to real life than to fiction, and we felt free to create a scene that had no links to the plot.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ is no doubt your most stylized film. This one, in contrast, is probably your least.

JC: We wanted to take a new approach to style in this film, to make something radically different from our previous films. And it is true that we were pressured in this direction because the preceding film was the most ‘theatrical’ of them all. But curiously, working from actual events, we came to yet another form of stylization, in the largest sense of that term. The end result was then not as different as we imagined it would be!

A little like Kubrick did with ‘Dr. Strangelove’, you begin with a somewhat documentary presentation, then little by little, with icy humor, everything comes unglued and turns in the direction of the absurd.

EC: That resulted in part from the nature of the story. There is a plan that is established at the beginning and which in the end changes as the characters lose control of it.

JC: That’s an effect implicit in the form of the story. When a character, in the first scene, tells you how things are going to go, we know very well that the unfolding of the story will go in a quite different direction. Others have also made reference to Kubrick, and I see the connection. His approach to the material is very formal, but then progresses regularly from the prosaic to the baroque.

How did you succeed in never falling into caricature, a danger because of the kind of story you work with?

JC: I suppose intuition plays some role with regard to our choice of style, and, even more, it depends a great deal on the actors and their ability to know when they might be going too far. For example, Frances’s way of presenting her character is very sincere, very direct. That prevents Marge from becoming a parody of herself. Frances was very conscious of the dangers posed by excessiveness because of the quirk she used of dragging out the end of every sentence.

EC: We worked constantly on the set making adjustments with the actors. They’d give us a fairly wide range of behaviors for their characters, and we never stopped discussing that while shooting proceeded.

JC: We worked a good deal on ‘feeling.’ It’s hard to say in words why Marge, in the film, is not a caricature, but a real person with three dimensions.

EC: What’s certain about this is that when we were writing the screenplay and the actors were interpreting their roles, none of us thought of the story as a comedy.

JC: And that certainly helped, at the same time, to create comic effects and make the characters plausible. The comedy would not have worked if the film had been shot as a comedy, instead of sincerely and directly.

The relationship between Marge and her husband is also quite strange.

JC: We were intrigued from the moment we started casting by the notion of very simple interplay between them and by the impassive expression of John Caroll Lynch, which seemed to suit the tone of the film perfectly.

EC: He is the perfect incarnation of the undemonstrative personality of people from that region. The relations between husband and wife are based on what is not said, and yet they succeed nevertheless in communicating in some sense.

The end seems to be a parody of the classic Hollywood happy ending with the husband and wife on their bed symbolizing the return to order and to the natural.

JC: It is true that this is a return to order, but we did not have the intention of finishing up with a scene that’s a parody. There was an article in the New York Times in which the writer asked why the people in Minnesota did not like the film’s end, even though everything turned out for the best, as they are fond of believing there!

The only point at issue in the ending has to do with money. But isn’t money the film’s principal subject?

JC: All the characters in the film are obsessed with money.

EC: At the same time, we did not want to be too specific, for example, concerning the debt Jerry owes. It was enough to understand that this character had trapped himself by getting involved in some deal that had turned out badly. Moreover, during the entire film, Jerry is a pathetic loser who never stops improvising solutions in order to escape from the impasses he finds himself blocked by. He never stops trying everything, never stops bursting with activity. That almost makes him admirable!

JC: What we found interesting from the beginning in the character played by William Macy is his absolute incapacity, for even one minute, to project himself into the future so that he might evaluate the consequences of the decisions he has made. There is something fascinating about his total inability to gain any perspective. He’s one of those people who build a pyramid but never think for a minute about it crumbling.

Did writing the screenplay take a lot of time?

EC: We had begun it before shooting The Hudsucker Proxy; afterward we went back to it, so it is pretty hard for us to estimate the time it all took. But two years had passed. What is certain is that the writing was easy and relatively quick, especially in comparison with our other screenplays, such as the one for Miller’s Crossing.

Was it determined from the beginning that the wife, once kidnapped, would no longer be a physical presence?

JC: Yes, absolutely. And at a certain point in the story, it was also evident to us that she would cease to be a person for those who had kidnapped her. Moreover, it was no longer the actress Kristin Rudrud who played her, but a double with a hood over her head. In this case, we had no interest in the victim. It did not seem that at any point the husband himself was worried about what might happen to her. And Carl, one of the kidnappers, didn’t even know her name.

Did you pick Steve Buscemi for this part before you had settled on Peter Stormare to play the other bad guy?

EC: In fact, we wrote the parts for these two comedians. And it was the same for Marge, played by Frances McDormand. Peter is an old friend, and he seemed an interesting choice for the role. Of course, his character is an outsider in the milieu where he finds himself, but at the same time he has an ethnic connection to it.

How do you work with your music director Carter Burwell?

JC: He has worked with us since our first project. Usually, he screens the film all the way through, then he plays a little bit of what he has in mind for us on the synthesizer so that he can give us some idea of what direction he’d like to go in. Before planning the orchestration, he plays parts of it for us on the piano, and we think about the connections these might have with certain sequences of the film. Then he goes on to the next step.

EC: In the case of this film, the main theme is based on a popular Scandinavian melody that Carter found for us.

JC: This is often how we work with him. For Miller’s Crossing, the music came from an Irish folk tune that he used as the basis for his orchestration, adding bits he wrote himself. For Raising Arizona, he used a popular American tune that Holly Hunter sings part of. On the other hand, for Blood Simple and Barton Fink, the music is all his own composition; it wasn’t inspired by anything else. For The Hudsucker Proxy, it was different yet again, a mix of an original composition by Carter and bits and pieces of Khachaturian.

EC: After he completes the orchestration, we go along with him to the sound recording studio. For our last two productions, he directed the orchestra himself. While the film is projected, we are still able to make last-minute changes. All told, the collaboration with him does not last more than two or three months.

How long did the editing take?

JC: About twelve weeks. That was a pretty short time for us because usually we take more, depending on whether we start editing while we’re still shooting.

Did the principal photography pose any problems for you?

JC: It was easier for us in this case than with our other films. We talked it over a great deal with Roger Deakins because we wanted to shoot a good many exterior long shots. From the very beginning, we determined to use nothing but shots where the camera does not move.

EC: Afterward we decided that this purist attitude was pretty stupid.

JC: And so we decided then to move the camera sometimes, but in such a way that the viewer would not notice it. We didn’t want to make the camera movement dramatic like we’d done in the past because we did not want to emphasize the action, make it seem either too dramatic or

EC: Roger Deakins worked on this production with a camera operator although, in the past, he was most often his own camera operator, including the two films he had made for us. This time he did not take charge of everything because he was often busy with the camera. On Fargo, we had problems with the weather because we needed snow, but the winter when we shot the film was particularly mild and dry. We had to work in Minneapolis with artificial snow. Then, because the snow didn’t always work out, we had to travel in the end to North Dakota to shoot the large-scale exteriors. There we found exactly what we were looking for: a sky with a very low ceiling, no direct sunlight, no line marking the horizon, only a neutral and diffuse light.

JC: The landscapes we used were really dramatic and oppressive. There were no mountains or trees, only desolate flatlands extending into the distance. That’s what we wanted to put on the screen.

Do you spend a lot of time looking through the camera?

JC: For the first film we made with Roger Deakins, Barton Fink, we were constantly looking through the viewfinder. For Hudsucker Proxy, less. And even less in the case of Fargo. This was no doubt a reflection of the material in each case and of the visual effects we were looking for, but it also resulted from our developing collaboration with the director of photography. When we work regularly with someone, we rather quickly develop a sort of telepathic language. I also think that Roger likes to work with people like us who take an active interest in problems of lighting, rather than with directors who depend entirely on him.

There’s a contradiction between what it says in the press kit, which credits you with the editing, and the film credits that name a certain Roderick Jaynes.

JC: Whenever we edit the film ourselves, we use the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. We prefer a hands-on approach rather than sitting next to someone and telling them when to cut. We think that’s easier. In any case, there are two of us in the editing room. As for everything else, we work together, and we never have the feeling of isolation that other people sometimes have. On Barton Fink and Blood Simple, we were also our own editor. On the other projects, we have used an editor, but we were always there, of course, whenever we could be. But if we called upon Tom Noble or Michael Miller in these other cases, it was because the editing, for reasons of scheduling, had to start while we were shooting.

Your films are set in New Orleans [sic], in New York, in Hollywood, in the West, or the Midwest. It seems you are interested in exploring American geography.

JC: We would like to shoot somewhere else, but, bizarrely, the subjects we come up with are always set in America. That’s what seems to attract us.

EC: It’s always necessary, or so it seems, that the universe in which our stories take place has some kind of connection, however distant, with us. In the case of Fargo, the connection was obviously even closer.

JC: We have a need to know a subject intimately or, at least, feel some emotional connection to it. At the same time, we are not interested unless there is something exotic about it. For example, we know Minnesota very well, but not the people who inhabit Fargo or their way of life. On the other hand, in the case of Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, the exoticism came from the story’s being set in a distant time.

What are your connections with the characters in ‘Fargo’, who for the most part seem somewhat retarded?

JC: We have affection for them all and perhaps particularly for those who are plain and simple.

One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.

JC: We are often asked how we manage injecting comedy into the material. But it seems to us that comedy is part of life. Look at the recent example of the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They rented a panel truck to use for the explosion and then, after committing the crime, went back to the rental agency to get back the money they left on deposit. The absurdity of this kind of behavior is terribly funny in itself.

What projects are you working on?

EC: At this point we’re working on two screenplays but don’t know which one we’ll finish first or which one will get financing first.

JC: One is also about a kidnapping, but of a very different sort. [This is a reference to The Ladykillers project, released in 2004]. The other is a kind of film noir about a barber from northern California, at the end of the 1940s. [This is the project that became The Man Who Wasn’t There.]

– From Closer to Life Than the Conventions of Cinema by Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret (Positif, 1996). Revised version in The Coen Brothers: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers) Ed. William Rodney Allen. (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).


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