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  • Matthias Clamer / FX

    Colin Hanks stars as a police officer in “Fargo,” a new FX series. “The script read more like a film’s, or a novel,” the actor said.

  • Chris Large / FX

    Billy Bob Thornton plays a chatty, menacing criminal in the 10-part series, which debuts next Tuesday.

FX expands snowy landscapes of ‘Fargo’ into TV series

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 8, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 13, 2014 - 12:47 pm

To cinephiles, the 1996 Coen brothers film “Fargo” is a classic that should be preserved forever in Upper Midwest snow and ice.

Like “Pulp Fiction” two years before it, “Fargo” combined humor and stunning bursts of violence. Then it went deeper, exploring the limits of depravity while celebrating the resilience of goodness, as embodied in sharp-eyed, pregnant small-town Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

McDormand won a lead-actress Oscar. Directors-writers Joel and Ethan Coen won a screenwriting Oscar and vaulted from indie darlings to the ranks of America’s foremost filmmakers.

Now “Fargo” has been adapted into a 10-episode limited FX series that debuts at 10 p.m. next Tuesday and begs the obvious question of why.

“I don’t know why we’re doing this,” joked series writer and executive producer Noah Hawley. “We’re crazy. I don’t want to be the guy who ruined the Coen brothers. Not that I can ruin them, but I can ruin myself doing it.”

But Hawley, a television veteran (“Bones”) and author (“The Good Father”), said he could not pass up a chance to evoke a Coen brothers world on screen.

The project, executive produced by the Coens, gave him “leeway to do things I would never get away with otherwise,” Hawley said by phone from the show’s Calgary, Alberta, set Friday, the final day of a five-month shoot. “I can create a mixture of really dry, compelling drama with comedy, with true crime and violence, and this other element which sort of mixes a little absurdity, a little mysticism and a little philosophy.”

Like the film, the series proclaims itself a true story when it isn’t, centers on a crime spree in a small Minnesota town and blankets itself in snow and “you betcha” politeness.

But rather than take story and characters directly from the film, Hawley took inspiration from them. The small town where much of the bloodshed occurs is Bemidji, not Paul Bunyan’s other stamping ground of Brainerd, where the film was set.

There is a hapless, henpecked salesman (Martin Freeman) in the series, but he is both more pathetic and angrier than William H. Macy’s character in the movie.

There’s no Marge, but there is a young, highly capable Bemidji policewoman named Molly (Allison Tolman), who teams with a similarly green Duluth officer, Gus (Colin Hanks), even though she sometimes does not agree 100 percent with his police work.

Coen film veteran Billy Bob Thornton (“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Intolerable Cruelty”) plays slippery criminal Lorne Malvo, who is chatty like Steve Buscemi’s kidnapper in the movie but far smarter. In the menacing, brooks-no-guff way Malvo tells people how things are going to be, Thornton also evokes Javier Bardem’s killer from the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men.”

“Fargo” the series expands to include a big, noteworthy ensemble cast, including Keith Carradine as Molly’s dad, Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”) as her superior officer, and Kate Walsh as a trucking mogul’s randy wife.

“It really is its own sort of stand-alone companion to the movie,” Hanks said. The actor and Sacramento native called last week from Los Angeles, just before boarding a flight to Calgary.

The goal is not to imitate the Coens, Hawley said, but to “distill down a feeling you get from watching those films.”

Even if Hawley had wanted to use the film characters, Marge always was off the table. When FX and MGM Television (MGM owns rights to “Fargo”) approached Hawley about a series a few years ago, “they said, ‘We are wondering if it can be done without Marge,’ ” Hawley said.

CBS had tried a show with Marge in 1997, with a pre-“Sopranos” Edie Falco in the role. The pilot was not picked up.

“Frances’ performance in that role is so iconic that there’s no way to top it,” Hawley said.

But there are ways today to move from film to television and retain a sense of cinematic storytelling. The Falco series that did get picked up, “The Sopranos,” started that ball rolling in 1999, and cable channels, along with digital platforms like Netflix, keep playing with and honing format and creative approach.

A&E has done a “Psycho” offshoot, adapting Hitchcock successfully in the prequel series “Bates Motel.” In March, Robert Rodriguez tightened his embrace of television by debuting a 10-episode, serialized version of his 1996 film “From Dusk Till Dawn” on his own fledgling El Rey network.

Like “Fargo,” “Dusk” was impossible to envision as TV-series fodder when it came out, due to its violence. But cable has pushed so far past earlier violence and gore boundaries that FX’s recent “American Horror Story: Coven” out-grislied anything in theaters.

Unlike “Fargo,” “Dusk” carries the same characters and story from big to small screen. Also unlike “Fargo,” “Dusk” does not have a sterling reputation to uphold. The film already bore straight-to-video sequels, as befitting the work of a filmmaker enamored by 1970s exploitation.

“Fargo” carries more of an air of “event” television in the mode of anthologies like FX’s “American Horror Story” and HBO’s “True Detective,” which unspool original stories over the course of several episodes. Though Hawley said there later could be another original story to tell under the “Fargo” umbrella, it will not involve Gus, Molly or Malvo.

“Fargo’s” pace, close to “Detective’s” in meting out details of its crime story, attracted Hanks right away.

“The script read more like a film’s, or a novel,” Hanks said. “A lot of times when you first read a (series’ first) script, it introduces all the main characters.” In “Fargo’s” first episode, main series character Gus appears in one scene, late in the episode.

Hawley said the limited-series format holds to the film’s spirit. “Fargo” ended with Marge, having witnessed great horrors, cuddling her husband and discussing the impending birth of their baby.

“She is going to wake up tomorrow and go back to her normal life,” Hawley said. “That is the worst thing she will ever see. … If she (was to) wake up tomorrow and catch another crazy Coen brothers case, she is not going to be the same person for long.”

Gus and Molly, nice people who see what Hawley calls “savagery” firsthand in the series, also inevitably would change if they kept seeing it. “What’s unique becomes ‘Criminal Minds,’ ” Hawley said.

TV has been touted as the new film since “The Sopranos,” but what was untrue then holds weight now, when most noticeable creative advancements in screen entertainment happen on cable or Netflix.

“Everyone has a 60-inch television now,” Hawley said. “And the movie business is only giving us big tent-pole movies. The filmmakers and the actors and the writers are all gravitating toward longer form, and the bar is really high.”

Yet there still are holdouts on this whole film-to-TV thing. Like the Coens.

“They have said to me that television isn’t their medium,” Hawley said. They liked and signed off on Hawley’s first script for the show, Hawley said. Otherwise, they were too busy with their 2013 film “Inside Llewyn Davis” to breathe down Hawley’s neck.

But Thornton and “Fargo” series producer John Cameron, a Coen collaborator on “Fargo” and several other films, were on set to provide insights into the Coens’ approach. Not so much into setting up shots – “It’s interesting how little of interest there is to say about that process,” Hawley said – but sensibility.

For example, the Coens apparently “laughed for 10 minutes” after deciding to put Bardem in that modified-Dorothy Hamill wig in “Country.”

“There is nothing funny about that character,” Hawley said. “They make very specific decisions for reasons that are no more complicated than it made them laugh.”

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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