Martin Freeman: Why the Coen Brothers’ movie Fargo works as a TV series

The classic crime movie has become a 10-part television series

“Television is way more interesting than cinema now,” David Lynch recently told The Independent, commenting on the flow of esteemed movie directors – from Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant to Michael Mann and Neil Jordan – towards the once despised medium. And now, save perhaps for Woody Allen himself moving to the small screen, art-house Hollywood’s colonisation of TV drama seems to be about to have its anointing moment, as two of cinema’s most idiosyncratic and determinedly independent auteurs, Joel and Ethan Coen, join the exodus. Or not, as the case may be; for appearances can be deceptive.

Despite sharing the executive producer billing on FX channel’s new 10-part adaptation of their Oscar-winning 1996 classic, Fargo, it appears that Coen brothers have had little input beyond reading the opening episode script.

“They’re not very involved on a practical level,” says Noah Hawley, the novelist and screenwriter acting as showrunner on the TV adaptation. “They were busy finishing Inside Llewyn Davis [their recent movie about a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village] and now have another movie to make, so they said, ‘Look this is not our medium… we don’t know or understand television… go and make your show.’”

Joel and Ethan’s absence was a creative blessing for Hawley, he says, “because, as you know, when you’re watching a Coen brothers movie there’s really a singular vision and I told the network at one point, ‘You can’t make a Coen brothers movie by committee.’”

The 1996 film told of a debt-ridden Minnesota car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), who hires a pair of criminals (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife. The film won a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for the brothers and a Best Actress Oscar for Frances McDormand as Margie, the pregnant police chief investigating what quickly becomes a spate of local homicides. However, when MGM had finished combing their back catalogue in search of properties to turn into TV shows, alighting on Fargo, the first thing the broadcaster told Hawley was to ditch Margie. Billy Bob Thornton in the new adaptation of ‘Fargo’ Billy Bob Thornton in the new adaptation of ‘Fargo’

“Very smartly they realised that that performance was so iconic that there was no way they were going to top it,” he says. Also, while Jerry has become a brow-beaten insurance salesman called Lester Nygaard (played by Hobbit impersonator, Martin Freeman), there is now only one criminal gate-crashing Lester’s timidly blameless life – an enigmatic hit man played by Billy Bob Thornton.

“There is a really interesting element to Fargo and a lot of the Coen brothers’ movies which is: what happens when a civilised man meets a very uncivilised man?” says Hawley. What actually happens in the first episode of Fargo must remain here spoiler-free, suffice to admire the way that Hawley has managed to capture the movie’s miraculous balance of humour and dread.

Meanwhile, the story of a milquetoast getting in touch with his reckless dark side brings to mind Breaking Bad, an association strengthened by the appearance of Ben Odenkirk, Breaking Bad’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman. Is Lester Nygaard about to embark on a similar journey to teacher-turned-drug dealer Walter White? “Yes, I think there is a hint of that… of the man who very quickly ends up doing things he never thought in a million years he would do,” says Martin Freeman, newly returned to London after five months filming in Canada – Calgary and its snowy environs standing in for Minnesota.

The so-called “Minnesota nice” – the way in which the locals are said to have been raised to be courteous and reserved, played a part in the casting of Freeman, claims Hawley. “I loved Martin in The Office and Sherlock, and when you think about polite societies, obviously the British society comes to mind,” he says. “And I always felt from Martin’s performances that there was something more beneath the surface than that politeness… there was an energy and sometimes an anger. He seemed like a guy who could snap if you pushed him.”

Does Freeman recognise that assessment? “Yeah, I do. Bits of my work have contained that if you care to look closely,” he says. “It’s that old thing that if you’re playing the tough guy then you look for the weakness and if you’re playing the happy guy you look for the anger. However much the criticism is laid at me, ‘Oh, he just does that same thing he does all the time’ – I don’t think I do. It’s not always immediately apparent, that’s all.” Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi in the 1996 film Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi in the 1996 film

Freeman has given us a Chicago accent on stage before, at the Royal Court in 2010 in Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, but this is his first screen American. Determined to get it right, he spoke with his Minnesota accent throughout the shoot (much to the surprise to some of the crew, when he came to say his goodbyes in an English accent), mastering the local twang that became such a feature of the 1996 movie, with Marge’s catchphrase “You betcha, yah!”

“The accent is less of a character than in the film,” says Freeman. “Over 10 hours, they were keen to even it out; 10 hours of going ‘Oh, yah!’ may have been a bit much.” Not that he rewatched the Coens’ film in preparation. “I gave it a wide berth,” he says. “I didn’t need that in my head.”

If the TV version of Fargo proves anywhere near as popular as the film then there will be further series. In the meantime, Freeman is returning to the stage this summer for the first time since Clybourne Park (and breaking his Shakespeare duck), playing Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall. Coincidentally, Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch is due to give us his Richard III in a new cycle of BBC history plays – and, talking of Cumberbatch, what exactly is the state of play on Sherlock?

“No idea at all,” says Freeman. “We were all hoping to get something done by the end of the year, now I don’t know if that’s looking likely. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with people’s commitments, but I’d definitely be up for doing something by the end of the year.”

‘Fargo’ begins on 20 April at 9pm on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high