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
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

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.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker