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

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