Fargo season 2 is set to be a a great American Western: On set with the director Noah Hawley

'The Coen brothers never make the same movie twice, so, my feeling was, well we can’t either'

Jane Mulkerrins
Sunday 11 October 2015 13:10 BST
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Fargo, season 2: Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons
Fargo, season 2: Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons (FX)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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In the centre of a cavernous studio the size of an aircraft hangar, a few miles outside Calgary, Canada, sits an ominous-looking industrial meat-grinder, its brushed steel sides splattered and smeared with what would appear to be blood. Twenty metres away are three hospital cubicles with reclining leather chairs accompanied by drips and monitors. Nearby, a workman is fixing sheets of steel to the walls of a giant walk-in refrigerator, while on the floor, ready to be bolted to the ceiling, are a gruesome-looking array of meat hooks. Here be the dark, gruesome Fargo HQ.

It feels odd to talk of Fargo as a franchise, but that is what it has become. When FX announced they were doing a small-screen spin-off of the revered 1996 Coen brothers thriller set in the snowy expanses of North Dakota and Minnesota, there was understandable scepticism about whether it could live up to the directors’ idiosyncratic vision. And yet, with the first series, creator, writer and producer Noah Hawley managed the fearsome task of replicating the film’s distinct mix of folksy humour and intense menace while finding his own compelling story, this time based in 2006 to the film’s 1987.

Can Hawley surprise again? “The Coen brothers never make the same movie twice, so, my feeling was, well we can’t either,” he says. This second chapter in the “anthology” brings us back to the same, small Midwestern towns, but 27 years earlier, in 1979, with a different narrative again, and an entirely new cast. As in season one, the theme is “innocent, earnest middle American people confronting savagery and evil”, according to Ted Danson, who plays Hank Larsson, a gruff, stoic local sheriff and Second World War veteran. And there is one character connecting the chapters: Larsson’s son-in-law, Lou Solverson, a state trooper played in Season 1 by Keith Carradine, and now, in younger form, by Patrick Wilson.

Fargo, season 2
Fargo, season 2 (FX)

Now, however, that savagery and evil comes not from one source, as was the case in the first series with Billy Bob Thornton’s malevolent drifter Lorne Malvo, but everyone from Mafia bosses to crime families and seemingly ordinary local folk, like ambitious hairdresser Peggy Blomquist, played by star draw Kirsten Dunst, and her butcher husband Ed. “It is more of an American epic, more of a western,” says Hawley, who jokes that, this season is “No Country for Old Fargo”, referring to the Coens’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy neo-western set one year later, in 1980. Hawley was deliberate in his selection of 1979, a year when, as he says, “America was at its lowest point”, with rising crime, a tanking economy, and widespread disillusion, thanks to Watergate and Vietnam. “There was this sense that the 1960s flower child era had turned into something ugly.” Danson, 67, explains Hank’s perspective. “I came back from World War Two and we didn’t have a murder here for six years,” he says, slipping into character. “And now all hell’s breaking loose, and I think you boys from Vietnam brought the war home with you.”

Prepare for blood to be spilled early and profusely, with acts of extreme violence including the notorious massacre at Sioux Falls that was mentioned in hushed, horrified tones in the first season. Meanwhile, Dunst suggests her character will be quick to reveal not only her burgeoning feminist principles but also a latent psychopathic side – which, given her husband’s profession, might just employ that meat-grinder? “She’s got her own intentions, and she won’t let anyone stop her. It starts to get a little ugly,” she notes, with more than a little understatement.

One of the draws of this series will be the brilliantly created sense of period, which extends to the 1960s lenses used to film the series, giving it an authentically muted colour and definition. Hawley is, I learn, as I tour the sprawling set, deliberate about everything, approving every single prop and piece of artwork personally. The production could open its own vintage store, given the mountains of garish furniture and eBay-sourced collectibles amassed. “This is 1979 in middle America, where not everybody had a new car or furniture,” says Kim Todd, one of the producers. “So a lot of stuff goes back to the 1960s and even the 1950s – we had to shop backwards.”

Filming a show as audacious as this one means big disruption in small towns like those of Fort McLeod and High River, where most of the filming took place; as well as changing signposts and painting shop-fronts, the shoot involved five full nights of gunfire in Fort Mcleod for one six-minute sequence. Fortunately, says Todd, having Cheers star Danson on set was a charm; the Alberta residents treated him like a real-life returning war hero. “I’ve never had such a positive response on any set,” she reports.

Later that day, in the hamlet of Bragg Creek, Danson and Wilson are dodging bullets on location. A deer sidles across our path as we approach an old cabin in the woods, with newspaper plastered across its windows. Wilson and Danson approach the property wielding handguns, while a crew member fires “zirk balls” from a prop gun, designed to create a realistic-looking impact when they hit the trees.

Wilson agrees that playing a character reverse-engineered from the future is a novel experience. “But this is a different Lou, at a much different place in his life,” he asserts. Though different for how long? In the first season, Lou was clearly haunted by the past; this chapter will elucidate why.

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Back in the studio, Todd shows me around more interiors including the grizzly home of the series’s big bad crime clan, the Gerdharts. “For this family, we needed a sense of history and weight, but not sentimentality; [more a sense of] brutish patriarchy,’ says Todd. The head and shoulders of a deer adorns one wall, along with stern, European-style family crests, while a large stuffed porcupine sits on a plinth.

Afterwards, Dunst and I discuss vintage fashions – and features; she believes she suits the decade. “I think it has to do with your face,” she muses. “I feel like I fold in pretty well to a lot of different periods – probably because my dad is European.”

Her German father’s family, in fact, still have a farm in Minnesota, and Dunst had no trouble adopting the distinctive sing-song accent for Fargo. “It was very familiar to me to step into that accent and that Lutheran way; keep your chin up and smile.”

Dunst assiduously prepares for her roles with what she calls “dream work”. “It’s writing down your dreams and using them as a way to help you with your character,” she explains. “It grounds your character more than if you just learn your lines.”

Unfortunately, the dark, gruesome nature of the Fargo storylines have fully infested those dreams of late; Dunst recently dreamt about a baby pig being boiled alive. “After I woke up, I thought, I’ve got to become a vegetarian,” she says, shaking her head.

‘Fargo’ returns on 19 Oct to Channel 4, at 9pm

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