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Noah Hawley on the Life Span of Fargo, Ewan McGregor’s Dual Role, and Adapting Cat’s Cradle

Noah Hawley is a busy man. Not only is he working on the third season of Fargo, set to take on our “selfie-oriented” culture, he has two other major projects in the works for FX: a new X-Men series, Legion, and an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. He sat down with the Vulture TV Podcast recently to talk about how Ewan McGregor is going to play two roles, and why he’s hesitant to say Fargo will go on for many more seasons. Listen to the conversation here, and read an edited transcript below.

Gazelle Emami: Why did you decide to set season three of Fargo in 2010?
Noah Hawley: I wanted it to be more contemporary. I didn’t want to jump to another period to do a period piece for the sake of doing a period piece, and then I got interested in this idea. There’s always this sense of danger and threat that goes on, and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if “Minnesota-nice” itself was under threat? This idea that we’re in this modern world, and that that region was so isolated for so long. Joel and Ethan Coen described it as Siberia with family restaurants. There’s this overly friendly sense of community built up by very isolated people, and there’s this Lutheran humbleness that keeps people from talking about their own feelings and asking about yours. What does that do in this modern age where everyone takes pictures of their food, and they share every thought they’ve ever had in real time? What happens to Minnesota-nice when people start interacting with screens instead of each other?

GE: The sound bite that’s been going around is that this season will focus on our “selfie-obsessed” culture.
It’s gotta be subtler than that, you know? But I do find that that’s interesting to me, just in terms of this character, our law-enforcement official. One of them this year [is] someone who’s more isolated and not into this social — this sort of fake community. [It looks at] how she has to navigate [that] with a 10-year-old son. It begins to seem like a bad episode of Parenthood, but it’s not meant to be like that.

Matt Zoller Seitz: There’s this idea of there being a “Fargo feeling.” I know it’s a mysterious, intuitive thing, but do you have a sense of what that means?
It has to do with the balance of the understatement of drama and comedy and violence. There is a truthiness that’s required because it’s a fake “true story.” There are always a lot of moving pieces on a collision course, and you can never really predict which ones are going to collide, which gives it an unpredictability that is important. And then the idea of basically decent people who are in over their head.

To write that is always about underwriting on some level. Here’s the example I’ll give: In the last scene of the first season, Molly gets a phone call that Lester’s dead, and she goes in and sees Gus and Greta, the stepdaughter, and basically it’s over — he’s going to get a medal and she gets to be chief. John Landgraf, who runs FX, called me the day we were shooting it and said, “It’s a good scene on paper and I know that the last scene of the movie was sublime, and I don’t know if this is that yet, so I just wanted to have a conversation.” I said, “Let us shoot it and I’ll cut it together tomorrow, and I’ll show it to you and then we’ll decide.” I knew it was the one time in the season I was going to use the original Carter Burwell theme, and I didn’t say that to him, because why would you ruin that discovery? I cut it together and showed it to him and everyone was happy.

There was a [similarly simple] moment in the second season — in that first hour where Patrick Wilson comes home from having seen the Waffle Hut and Cristin Milioti is up waiting for him doing the dishes — and they have this moment where his daughter made him an ashtray. And that was it. The scene was not very complicated, [but] Patrick brought this emotion to it that I hadn’t predicted. You’ve got to leave room in the characters for the actors to do things. Let’s not forget how beautiful simply washing dishes can be.

MZS: You’ve got a strong genre element, which is always really important in shows like this, especially cable shows. I know networks prefer it. There’s science fiction, there’s horror, there’s a crime element. You’ve got funny, brutal, nasty people, but also these quiet domestic scenes we talked about and also these kind of lyrical, almost kind of art-house cinema moments. How do you feel when people come up to you and want to talk about the show purely in terms of the crime element?
My feeling has always been if you entertain people, they give you permission to do more on a thematic or character level. But I fully expect that they are some people who watch Fargo just because it’s entertaining and funny or suspenseful. It’s what I would call a second-watch show, which is because it’s hopefully unpredictable. Now that you know how it ends, you want to go back and watch it again to see the inevitability of the moves. [As for the violence] I never want [it] to be fun.

GE: Each season of Fargo is such a slow build, and then it has this incredible payoff. How do you break it down episode by episode? In terms of, here’s when I’m going to have my big dramatic moment.
It’s good to be unexpected with it. You wouldn’t expect that episode four would be a huge episode necessarily. A great example from Breaking Bad is when the two guys come for Hank in the parking lot — it just sort of happened in the middle of the season. Both years, I like to take a turn around the seventh or eighth episode. We did the one-year jump in the first year, and then Peggy and Ed hit the road in the second year. Right when the show is going to settle in, now you’ve watched five or six, you know the rhythms, you know it can’t ramp up too fast, you’ve got to get to the ending, it does something different, and there’s no rut.

MZS: What is your writing process? Do you write in longhand, do you type on the typewriter, do you do it all electronically?
I see myself as a first-draft writer, so when I sit down to write something, the first draft is usually pretty close to the end draft. There will be some tweaks along the way, but it’s not like I’ll go 20 pages and throw it out and start again. In the TV business, you’ve got to write fast, and someone will tell you, “Can you rewrite this episode before … 6 p.m.?” So that’s when you rewrite it. You can’t wait for the muse to show up. So I trained myself to write. To not be precious about it at all, so if I have to write on an airplane or get up early to write or write late, you just gotta sit down. When you have the time, you have to be able to do it.

MZS: I’ve always wondered, how much of a plan do you have? When do you make a decision to change course? Have you ever gotten in a place where you say, Holy shit, this brilliant thing that I thought I was going to do that was going to be so great is just not working, what am I going to do that’s not that?
We’ve been able more than most shows to separate the writing from the production, so certainly that first year I’d written eight of the ten scripts before we went to camera, and then the second year I’d written six of the ten, but we had all ten outlines so everything was broken. The example I’ll give is: I knew in that first year that Lester was going to use a bear trap. So in that first episode, there’s that bear trap on the wall in the garage, and sure, I show you a machine gun. You show a gun in the first act, you’ve got to fire it in the third act, right? But what I was really showing you was the bear trap on the wall, and every time we were in that garage, you were seeing it. But if I didn’t know the end I couldn’t set that stuff up as well. It needs to feel accidental on some level, [but] it has to be really well planned out on another level.

Both years I stuck to those outlines and there was one moment in the last hour of the first year where I gave Billy [Bob Thornton] the script and he had a couple thoughts. Originally, Malvo was going to impersonate an FBI agent and get close to these guys, and Billy quite rightly said, “It’s the one time where what we’ve seen him doing and what he ends up doing are the same, there’s no, like, why is he doing that moment, and plus it feels like a lot of work to do, to just get close to those guys.” I thought he was right, so I went back and had him go to the used car lot and take the car for a test drive and send the guy, and it seemed a little more creative on that level.

GE: What point are you at right now in the process of writing season three?
I’ve written the first episode, we’ve broken the whole season basically and are working the outlines through. As you heard, we cast Ewan McGregor to play brothers.

GE: Is the makeup for each brother going to be dramatically different?
To some degree, yeah. One brother gets to look like Ewan McGregor, and then the other one will look like fatter, balder Ewan McGregor probably.

GE: Have you thought about how that’s going to work filming-wise?
No. You know, when I met with Ewan, I hadn’t realized he has this Jesus movie coming out where he plays Jesus but also Satan. So when I met with him, he said, “Oh, I just did this on some level,” and he actually had his stunt guy, his body double do the scenes with him because the guy had been working with him for a while, and then you could get on the one side or the other and film it. Look, it’s going to be a process, and you need to give yourself more time in production just to think about shooting that scene an extra, whatever, ten times.

MZS: Are you gonna talk to David Fincher or Spike Jones? There is a precedent for this.
Yeah, I think so. The hardest thing is if you want them to interact with each other, it becomes harder, but everything is so much easier than it used to be in terms of the visual effects and face replacement, so we’ll figure it out. That’s not the part that’s worrying me right now.

MZS: What’s the part that’s worrying you?
I got nine more episodes to write.

GE: How many episodes are you writing this season?
I don’t know. I wrote or co-wrote six or seven of them last year. It’ll probably be about the same. You know, it’s a specific voice. Vince Gilligan recently famously said, “If you stick with your writers.” It seems hard at first to get people to really learn the show and write the show, but he’s a firm believer in, you just stick with people and train them and they’ll reward you for it in the end. It’s a little bit harder when you keep changing what the show is, on some level, because you’re always having to go, “It’s year one of this show and it has a similar voice, but these characters are not the same characters, they don’t speak the same way, etc.”

MZS: You seem to have committed to this idea of building a world — maybe more geographically expansive than people expected it to be, but still, it’s a particular part of the country; there’s usually a crime element of some kind. I wonder if you worry that you might eventually run into the Star Trek phenomenon where you’ve got so much accumulative backstory and so much established history that it becomes harder to have freedom. Where it becomes, we can’t do this because it would conflict with this story we told in season three.
I guess that’s assuming there are going to be more than three years of it or more. Every time I’m in the middle of one I go, I don’t know if there’s another one. I know that big corporations don’t usually do a mic drop after a success, but one of the things I really respect about John Landgraf and FX is we did the first one and it was a huge success, and we wouldn’t have done another unless we both felt like we could equal it or top it. It was the same with this one —  the bar is very high, and I don’t think there has to be ten years of something to make it great. If usually you get, what, five seasons in five years? I’ll probably have three seasons in five years given the first one was 16 months between seasons and this one will be 18 or 20 months between seasons. So at that point … I don’t know. I mean it’s gotta work. But the other thing is, maybe then you go, “Okay, great, we had three, those came relatively easily,” and you do the Louis C.K. thing and say, “Hey, it’s four years later, I have another one,” and then you just make that. If it isn’t an anthology or a limited series in that way, you can event-ize it and not stick to that TV schedule.

GE: Could you ever imagine going back to broadcast TV after working in this more flexible creative environment?
No, I don’t think so. There’s only one note you ever get in broadcast and that’s clarity. You only really ever get the clarity note, and they’ll sacrifice everything for clarity.

MZS: What does “clarity” mean at a broadcast network?
It means anything that you’re trying to say, you both have to see happen, say out loud as it’s happening, and then talk about it after it happens.

GE: No nuance.
Half of a broadcast show, in my experience, is things happening, and the other half is people talking about how they feel about the things that happened. And so there’s this sense of everyone saying their subtext out loud. It’s that “Joe, you’re my brother” dialogue.

So it’s hard to imagine, and for me it’s really about the creative freedom — playing with structure is really important to me, and clarity is not. I’m a big believer that it’s a very sophisticated audience. Landgraf himself said famously at the TCAs, “I’d rather make something great for some people than something good for everybody,” and I would have to agree.

GE: You’re also working on Cat’s Cradle, an adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut book.
I had a couple writers for a couple of weeks come in to help me think out loud about how long is this story, and what’s the basic shape of it. It’s probably somewhere in the six to eight hour [range]. I need to sit down and write a script along with all the other scripts I need to sit down and write. But it would be a period version. There’s no way to modernize it, or it isn’t really interesting to me. It would follow all those characters from the book and expand in the way that, when you have six to eight hours to expand on a novel, you can. In a novel, you can move through time at an escalated pace, you can pick up and then you start in a new place, and you can fill in the backstory of where you were. So when you read the novel Cat’s Cradle, which is one of  my favorite books, with the idea of adapting it, you’re like, Oh, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know how they got it from this point to that point, or How are we going to add all these things up?, so it’s been really fun to play with.

MZS: In the last 15 or 20 years, television shows have become so much more varied and adventurous in the way that they tell stories. Given this, why do you want to write a novel? What does writing fiction on the page give you that you can’t get from these increasingly elaborate productions where you get notes but you’re not handcuffed?
A novel is a relationship, you know? When you read a book, the writer has done half the work, and you’re doing half the work. You’re providing the imagination, the words are turning into pictures in your mind, there’s an active relationship that’s going on. And I’ve tried with Fargo and the other works to create that in a more passive medium by making it more unpredictable, by giving you open-ended thematic story pieces — why is there a UFO, what is the Ronald Reagan thing? All that forces the audience to not just receive the show, but it engages their imagination. But there’s still nothing like a book to really make you feel like you’ve disappeared into a world. And you know in a book you can really talk about ideas and themes and characters in a deeper way than you can even on the screen. It’s amazing how flexible the human mind is in terms of jumping into a backstory or an aside. Vonnegut is a great example — it’s not a linear story by any means, but somehow your brain is keeping it moving in one direction even though the story is taking you in all these different directions.

MZS: You jump back and forth in time in your latest novel, Before the Fall. Were you thinking of Vonnegut at all as you were writing it?
 No, although there is a brilliant simplicity to Kurt Vonnegut in his sense of morality. I think that is present in this book a little bit, too, which is, like, “Don’t be a bully.” It’s not more complicated than that. It’s like, you’ve got to be nice to things that are weaker than you and not gang up on them.

Sony optioned [Before the Fall] as a movie, and I’m interested to play with the two-hour format and see if you can you be as creative in that space and still tell the story. A two-hour movie tends to be a plot-delivery device; you tend to have to introduce all the characters, say what the goal is, and then get there with a setback, but that’s not really how life is or what a story necessarily wants to be. I always like when there are a lot of moving pieces. So is there a more economical way to do that version? I don’t know. I’ll discover, and I’ll let you know.

Noah Hawley on Ewan McGregor’s Dual Fargo Role