Beautifully shot and wickedly funny, Ethan and Joel Coen’s warped homage to their home state earned nominations for everything from the Palme D’or to the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film (won) to Academy Awards (won two). The film is at times quiet as falling snow, observational; then suddenly bloody and hysterical all at once. With pitch perfect performances from Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and a silent but deadly Peter Stormare, Fargo is everything you could ever want in a black comedy.
1. Fargo is the sixth film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coens are from Minnesota, which they describe as “like Siberia, but with more family style restaurants.” When they were young, to pass the long winters the boys watched and grew to love television movies. Joel bought his first 8mm camera before he was ten years old. One early film the Coens made was called Henry Kissinger: Man on the Run and featured Ethan as Kissinger. Joel went to NYU film school, Ethan went to Princeton and then became a statistical typist. The brothers began collaborating on screenplays.
2. At the beginning of the film, text reads: “THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” In fact—according to Director of Photography Roger Deakins (Barton Fink, Homicide, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?)—it was not really true and was based on several incidents. There was a 1987 newspaper story about a woman named Helle Crafts, who disappeared in November, 1986. Crafts’ husband told people Helle was visiting her mother in Denmark, but a friend telephoned the mother and discovered Helle was not there. A babysitter saw a rug with a dark stain in the Crafts home; it later went missing. A private detective found the rug at a landfill and took it to police—that along with other evidence indicated foul play, but where was the body? Finally, December 31, 1989 police discovered the truth: Helle’s husband had fed her body through a wood-chipper. According to Ethan Coen, “the script pretends to be true.”
3. The bird circling at the beginning of the film was an accident; the Coens say they’ve always had great luck with birds. There’s a bird at the end of Barton Fink and a flock of birds in Blood Simple. According to Joel, “We have an uncanny ability to make birds do what we want them to do.”
4. The Canadian Goose painting was borrowed from Jim and Bob Hautman, two of the United States’ most renowned painters of ducks. The Hautmans are childhood friends of the Coens (lived up the street), who used to make films in the Hautman’s backyard. The Hautmans’ paintings have been featured on several Federal Duck Stamps (discussed by Marge and Norm at the end of the film). Federal Duck Stamps are not postage stamps, but rather a requirement purchased by every duck hunter over the age of 16. The money goes to protecting land and habitats for birds. In 1934 the stamps cost one dollar, they’re up to $15.00 in 2012.
5. The crew waited for it to snow in Minnesota for weeks to get the opening shots. When it finally came, Deakins (filming other scenes) sent his assistant out to shoot; they had already scouted the location and gotten all the camera angles. While the state’s average winter snowfall was normally four to five feet, this was the second warmest winter in one hundred years and one of the least snowy. Much of the snow in the film was fake.
6. The Coens originally had considered William H. Macy for a small role, but after his audition they had him come back to read the part of Jerry Lundegaard. Not entirely convinced, they kept auditioning other actors. Finally, Macy flew to New York and persuaded them to hire him. The actor reportedly told the Coens he would shoot their dogs if they didn’t give him the role. Deakins had worked with Macy previously on David Mamet’s Homicide. Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Verdict, Wag the Dog), a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and director, was also Macy’s theater teacher. Macy was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Cuba Gooding Jr.).
7. When scouting locations, such as the car dealership where Jerry worked, the Coens would say a place looked “too interesting;” they wanted bland. The scene where a couple tries to make a deal with Jerry was taken directly from an actual experience Ethan had—it was “an almost verbatim transcript of my experience.” The pin Jerry wears is an award for service to the dealership; Macy wouldn’t do the scene without it.
8. The film’s Paul Bunyan statue was made by Production Designer, Rick Heinrichs. The real statue (one of many) is located at an amusement park called “Paul Bunyan Land” in Brainerd, Minnesota. According to the Fargo trivia, the “tall tale” of Bunyan was first published in 1916. Bunyan was born in Maine and grew to over 100 pounds within weeks. He kept company with “Babe the Blue Ox and the lumberjack was considered a defender of the people. Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) spend the night at a truck stop and motel called “The Blue Ox.”
9. Before becoming an actor, William H. Macy was studying veterinary medicine. Peter Stormare considered being a priest. Stormare is from Sweden and in the village where he grew up, he had to drive an hour and a half to get a pizza. The actor studied under Ingmar Bergman and performed at Sweden’s Royal Theater for eleven years. Frances McDormand studied drama at Yale and Steve Buscemi, at the famed Lee Strasberg Institute. While trying to get her career started McDormand waited tables in New York; her roommate at the time was Holly Hunter. Hunter told McDormand about two really weird guys holding auditions and soon after, McDormand was cast in her first film role—as Abby in the Coen’s Blood Simple. Hunter and McDormand worked together in Raising Arizona. McDormand is married to Joel Coen.
10. There are several scenes where Jerry is in front of a window, with the view behind him of cars racing back and forth. The Coens purposefully created this theme, wanting the audience to think about all the people coming in and out of the area and how you never know if one of those cars holds a couple of serial killers. Jerry is also seen behind vertical blinds many times to give the illusion of him behind jail bars.
11. Roger Deakins, who has worked with the Coens on several films, said the brothers are so in sync (they both write the scripts) that he can ask either of them a question and get the same answer. They have low budgets and simple storyboards and they rarely do improv or reshoots. Deakins reshot only once for the film—the exterior of the bar in the opening—because it didn’t look bleak enough. “The Coens have their films so clearly conceptualized in their heads, they know how to get what they want.” They also use just about everything they shoot, with only one scene (Norm ice fishing) not used in the final film.
12. This top shot was supposed to be of a lot filled with cars, but when Deakins saw the tracks from one car, the cinematographer said let’s just leave it with those snow tracks; the Coens agreed.
13. Deakins said it was about -20 degrees Fahrenheit when they were shooting the scene with the dead trooper. (During filming the Coens noted they’d done a similar scene in Blood Simple.) The equipment and cameras operated fine (certified to -60) but the Key Grip had on such a huge suit to keep him warm that he couldn’t move.
14. Steve Park (Mike Yanagita, Marge’s high school classmate) was criticized by some Asian Americans for playing this role. In response Park said, “Not every Asian character has to be heroic, so long as the character is authentic.” Park started out as a stand up comedian in New York and went on to be a series regular on “In Living Color.” The actor has been active in working against racial stereotyping in the media and has received the Anna May Wong Award of Excellence for his efforts.
15. The parts of Carl and Marge were written specifically for Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand; McDormand wasn’t sure about taking the role at first. To play Marge, the actress had to wear a pregnancy suit and during shooting, one of the suit’s breasts burst. McDormand was nominated for and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Of his role, Buscemi said “It’s hard on a mother to see her boy put through a wood-chipper.”
16. To learn their film accents, the actors studied Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. Mohr was also a writer for—and much of the material came from— Garrison Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.
17. Because the Coens thought it seemed vain to put their names in the credits so much (they co-write, direct, produce), they made up a fake Editor, “Roderick Jaynes,” who was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award. The brothers had hoped to have Albert Finney pose as Jaynes, but the Academy discouraged it.
18. The office building where Jerry makes a deal with Wade (Harve Presnell) was chosen specifically for its windows and the view. The day the scene was shot was also the one day Minnesota was hit by a blizzard (when the assistant was sent out to get the film’s opening shots) and thus nothing much other than whiteness is be seen out the windows.
19. Composer Carter Burwell (Where the Wild Things Are, In Bruges, “Mildred Pierce”) has scored all the Coen brothers’ films except O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The recurring music in Fargo is based on a Norwegian folk song, Den Bortkomne Sauen (The Lost Sheep).
20. Macy liked Jerry, saying “He sets the plan, he is sure it will work and despite all information to the contrary, he never deviates from it. Gotta love somebody that has that kind of faith. On other hand, he’s dumb as a pile of rocks.”
Cindy Davis has never been to Minnesota and sees no reason to go.