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
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?