“They said, ‘Your character is gonna be a very good-looking guy,” said Steve Buscemi, answering a question about how much he knew in advance about the Fargo character written specifically for him, at the Tribeca Festival’s 25th anniversary screening of Fargo on Friday (June 18th).
He was, of course, joking about the fact that multiple characters refer to his Carl Showalter — one of two semi-competent and ill-fated criminals central to the movie’s harebrained kidnapping scheme — as a “little guy” who’s “kinda funny-looking” in a “general kinda way.” These descriptions would have been fresh in Buscemi’s mind, because he sat and rewatched Fargo with the audience on Friday evening; before director Joel Coen and star Frances McDormand arrived for the Q&A.
It was billed as a Fargo reunion, but it was a small-scale one; no William H. Macy, no Peter Stormare, not even Ethan Coen — and Joel’s references to “when Ethan and I were writing together,” though probably meaning the period where they were writing Fargo, gave me shivers of nervousness, especially given his upcoming solo-directed take on Macbeth. The three people on stage weren’t recreating a visible dynamic from the movie itself; Buscemi and McDormand don’t even actually appear together on-screen in Fargo. But there’s a certain simplicity in bringing these two back because, as Coen related during the discussion moderated by author Mark Harris, they were the two cast members whose parts were written directly for them.
Well, those two plus Peter Stormare, after a fashion. Stormare, Coen explained, had written him and his brother a very nice letter from Sweden, asking for consideration should they ever require the services of a Swedish actor. They wrote a part for him as “The Swede” in Miller’s Crossing, which Stormare couldn’t actually fit into his schedule. (The part was rewritten as “The Dane,” possibly a nod to Stormare’s production of Hamlet that kept him from the film.)
So they had him in mind for Gaear Grimsrud, Carl’s near-silent, inscrutable but brutish partner — but they hadn’t actually met him before writing and casting the part. On set, Buscemi noted, Stormare was the chatty one, in stark contrast to the scene where perpetually irritated Carl tries to retaliate against his partner’s lack of conversational skills. (“Total fuckin’ silence.”)
Some of these stories have circulated over the past 25 years, but a new one was that the day after Buscemi and Stormare filmed the scene where Gaear decides to shoot the cop who’s just pulled them over, the two actors were actually pulled over when driving to lunch together. (Buscemi talked his way out of a ticket, a perfect reflection of the difference between his frequently hapless characters and the actor’s real-life charm, which borders on dapper at times.)
Elsewhere, the Q&A hit plenty of boilerplate Fargo discussion points: how about those accents; crazy that McDormand’s Marge Gunderson doesn’t show until half an hour in; the true-story disclaimer at the top of the movie is fake; what’s the deal with Mike Yanagita; and so on.
The most interesting bits had to do with the stop-start writing process that produced such a perfectly judged, beautifully written movie. Buscemi recalled hearing about this part they were writing for him circa the making of Barton Fink, about five years before Fargo was shot. Coen was fuzzy on some of the particulars, but did remember that he and Ethan had been working on the script, uncertain of where it was going, and after reaching the scene where Shep Proudfoot beats the hell out of Buscemi’s Carl with a belt, they put it aside for “four or five months” before returning to it.
In general, Coen described their process as “groping” through the story, and McDormand (who is married to Coen) offered a memorable example: an earlier draft of Fargo had a different personal detour for police chief Marge Gunderson.
In the movie, while in the Twin Cities area, following leads on the murders in her hometown, Marge meets up with high school classmate Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), who makes an awkward advance on her and, she discovers later, lies about his supposedly dead spouse; the woman in question is neither dead nor ever married to him. Originally, Marge’s friend in the area invited her to an anti-abortion protest, which Coen vaguely described as a nod to the pockets of hard-line conservatism in the area that didn’t ultimately provide what they needed.
This process probably isn’t unusual for the Coens or any number of great writers, but it’s nonetheless stunning to think how it resulted in Fargo, a movie that feels effortless and inexorable in its story progression, even when, as Harris pointed out, it breaks any number of conventions. That’s where the true-story designation comes in, Coen noted: You can get some more “latitude” from an audience that thinks it’s watching something that really happened, and they’ll be less likely to hesitate when, say, the story’s main character — and it is Marge Gunderson, despite screen-time counters — doesn’t enter until nearly halfway through the picture.
In recent years, that “this is a true story” opening text has been endlessly repurposed by the Fargo TV series. What really makes clear the passage of 25 years, though, is not that Fargo the movie created a whole world of television. Rather, it’s the wealth of movies the Coens have made since: Fargo was pre-Big Lebowski, pre-No Country for Old Men, pre-A Serious Man (their other major sojourn into the Midwest).
At the time, it was sandwiched between The Hudsucker Proxy and Lebowski, both widely considered disappointments at the time and better-appreciated now. In retrospect, Fargo feels like a point of no return, in a good way: the moment where the Coens made their world feel like a permanent fixture in American cinema. (The film ultimately won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, which for much of the ‘90s and ‘00s served as a “maybe this should have actually won Best Picture” consolation prize for the likes of Fargo peers Pulp Fiction, Almost Famous, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)
Marge’s competence and goodness clash with other characters’ greed, violence, and banality in ways that are both clear and, in another counterintuitive touch from the Coens, largely indirect. Again, she doesn’t interact with Carl at all, only has a couple of scenes with Macy’s Jerry (he squirms away from both), and captures Gaear at the very end. But she plugs away at her job, and delivers the loveliest ending of the Coen filmography. The Coens wouldn’t always allow such light to shine through their crime pictures. But there’s something fortifying about Marge and Fargo, something that’s made 25 years of additional Coens movies fly by.