“OK, so we got a trooper pulls someone over, we got a shooting, these folks drive by, there's a high-speed pursuit, ends here and then this execution-type deal.”
In 1996, an indie movie called Fargo took Hollywood by storm. Directed by Joel Coen, written by Joel and his brother Ethan, and produced by Ethan—like all of the Coen Brothers movies—Fargo told the story of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a deep-in-debt car salesman, whose plan to have his wife kidnapped and then split the ransom with the kidnappers goes predictably and terribly wrong. Local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), sporting a thick “Minnesota nice” accent and a belly full of baby, investigates three homicides committed by the inept kidnappers (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), and the whole plot slowly unravels as Jerry and the kidnappers get more desperate and more foolish, and Marge keeps following the trail.
Even after multiple viewings, Fargo remains riveting, a multi-layered piece of art that can be appreciated on any number of different levels, from the unforgettable dialogue to the starkly beautiful cinematography, the lightness of its comedy and the contrast of its chilling violence. One could call it genre-defying, except that the Coen Brothers have created their own genre combining the dark with the absurd. Just ask anyone who's ever seen Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, or Raising Arizona.
One of the fascinating things about seeing this movie more than once is that it becomes a completely different experience the second time. The first time, we almost feel sorry for Jerry as he grasps at straws that might get him out of the financial bind, and the life, that he's trapped in. And there’s a comedy to it, right up until the first murder, which is where the movie makes an irreversible shift into darkness. Once we meet Marge, it's easy to spend the rest of the movie on edge, fearing that she’ll track down the criminals and they’ll kill her without hesitation or remorse. It adds tension to that first viewing, keeping you guessing, waiting, and wincing.
Spoiler alert: Marge solves the crime, though not in time to prevent six murders, and emerges physically unscathed, but clearly affected by the pettiness of a world in which people will kill others “for a little bit of money.” So when you watch the movie again, you know that the violence is coming, that Jerry's scheme isn't just doomed, it's catastrophic, and that Marge will survive. The snow, the cold, the emptiness of the parking lot, the blizzard outside, even the buffet, take more of the spotlight as each moment gets to breathe a little without the distraction of fearing for Marge's safety. In the thick of bleak snowy landscapes, iced-in cars, and chilling wind, the movie has a warmth that comes from Marge Gunderson and the world she lives in, where her husband gets out of bed to make her eggs and she makes a pit stop during an investigation to pick him up some night crawlers.
On this, the 20th anniversary of the release of this 98-minute classic, we celebrate the movie with five fun facts. None are quite as fun as the movie itself, but all are pretty fascinating. Every piece of the Fargo puzzle adds to its perfection.
The Coen Brothers Plan Everything Meticulously . . . Almost
“I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.” – Marge Gunderson
Joel and Ethan Coen are known by their colleagues for their meticulous planning. They know what the shots should look like, and they know when they get it. They used every single scene they shot for Fargo, leaving only one, of Marge's husband Norm ice fishing, on the cutting room floor. All the stammering that William H. Macy did as Jerry was 100% scripted, down to the half words and pauses. But when it came time to shoot the wood chipper scene, it turned out they didn't know anything about how to do it. Actor Peter Stormare, a self-described "country boy," had to tell them that no one would actually use a hand to put something into a wood chipper, and suggested that he use a piece of firewood to push down the protruding leg and then try to foil Marge Gunderson by throwing it at her. It worked, and as reported by Stormare, was nailed on the first take. (That wood chipper, by the way, is now on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.)
The Coen brothers also admit that two of the iconic shots from the movie were just good luck: the snowplow at the end, which defied a request to stay away from the area where they were shooting, and the circling bird in the film’s opening sequence. "We have an uncanny ability to make birds do what we want them to do,” says Joel Coen, referencing Fargo, Barton Fink, and Blood Simple.
Fargo Inspired a TV Show Before the One That's on Now
“I’m not so sure I agree with you 100% on your police work, there Lou.” – Marge Gunderson
The TV show Fargo, already set for a third season on FX, is a critical and commercial success. It leaves the original Fargo characters behind but takes place in their world, with a few references to the movie here and there and a fresh cast every season. Season 1 starred Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, and Colin Hanks. Season 2 had Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Jean Smart, and Kieran Culkin. Season 3 is due to premiere in 2017.
But there was another TV series planned years earlier, which focused on our hero Marge Gunderson. A pilot was made in 1997, starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco, directed by Kathy Bates, and co-written by Bruce Paltrow, but it never got picked up, airing as part of a Brilliant But Cancelled special on Trio. Bruce Bohne, who played Lou the police officer, was the only original movie cast member to appear in it.
The Car Sales Talk Sounded Authentic For a Reason
“Well, he never done this before, but seein' as it's special circumstances and all, he says I can knock one hunnert off that TruCoat.” – Jerry Lundegaard
Jerry Lundegaard is a car salesman—or rather, the Executive Sales Manager—at Gustafson Motors and his car dealer spiel is dead-on authentic for a reason. All of his discussions with the hapless couple in his office about TruCoat were taken, almost verbatim, from an experience Ethan Coen had a car dealership, no exaggeration required.
Amongst the Movie's Multiple Oscar Nominations Was One for Someone Who Didn't Exist
“Yah, it's pretty darned busy here, but that's the way we like it.” – Jerry Lundegaard
Fargo scored Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing, but the person nominated for editing doesn’t actually exist. The Coen brothers edit their own movies, and have said that having their names on the screen so much can get tacky, so they often credit the editing to the fictional Roderick Jaynes.
The first time they used the name was on Fargo, and when they got the nomination, they wanted to have Albert Finney accept the award in character. That plan got scrapped quickly, since surrogates have been banned from accepting Oscars ever since the famous incident in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. The English Patient ended up winning in the editing category anyway, but McDormand won for Best Actress and both brothers won for Best Original Screenplay.
Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare Were Complete Opposites of Their Characters
Carl: “You ever been to Minneapolis?”
Carl: “Would it kill you to say something?”
Gaear: “I did.”
Carl: “’No.’ That’s the first thing you’ve said in the last four hours. That’s a fountain of conversation there, buddy. That’s a geyser.”
Throughout the movie, the “kinda funny-looking” Carl Showalter (Buscemi) talks nonstop, frequently berating Gaear Grimsrud (Stormare) for his relentless silence. But in real life, Buscemi is a quiet man who becomes “like a clam” in between takes, reported Stormare, who was usually found chatting up the crew himself.
The night they shot the first murder scene, where they kill the police officer who pulls them over, the Coen brothers wanted to take everyone to the best pancake place in the Twin Cities. Buscemi was driving Stormare, and they missed the place and had to do an illegal U-turn to circle back. It was in the wee hours of the morning, with no one around, and after a block or two they got pulled over by a lone police car. It was an eerie echo of the scene they’d just shot. A female cop slowly made her way to the driver’s side. “Are you aware that you’re going in the wrong direction and that you did an illegal U-turn further back there, sir?”
Buscemi had his license but not his registration, and, channeling his talkative Fargo character, tried explaining the whole story: he was an actor from out of town, the car was a rental, they were shooting a movie, they were meeting up after a long night of filming, etc. “That doesn’t give you the right to do illegal U-turns and drive against traffic, does it?” she asked.
Somehow, Buscemi talked her out of giving them a ticket, and the two actors were left wondering if it was a prank set up by the Coens or if it had really happened at all; after she left, they sat still in the car for a while, still, feeling like the whole thing was almost too bizarre to be real.
You’re darn tootin’.