21 Darn Tootin' Facts About Fargo

1. Fargo was almost a TV show back in 1997.

FX’s original series Fargo, which debuted last year to critical praise and enthusiastic viewership, has breathed new life into the funny-accents-meet-brutal-violence formula. However, FX’s take on the Coen Brothers classic actually marks the second major attempt to adapt Fargo for the small screen. In 1997, a pilot directed by Kathy Bates (yes, that Kathy Bates) and starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson was passed on by the major networks. Although it never had a full run on television, this first made-for-TV version of Fargo wasn’t lost forever: it aired on the short-lived cable network Trio in 2003, as part of its Brilliant But Cancelled programming series. 

2. Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley wasn’t sure how to take Ethan Coen’s reaction to his first episode.

A bit more on the TV series: While the Coens had nothing to do with the 1997 pilot, they serve as executive producers on the FX show. According to showrunner Noah Hawley, when Ethan Coen first read the script, he gave two words of feedback: “Yeah, good.” Only after talking with Fargo cast member and frequent Coen collaborator Billy Bob Thornton did Hawley realize this was a rave review, and not just modest praise. 

3. Rumors that a Japanese woman died pursuing the buried ransom money led to a sort of Fargo spinoff.

The award-winning 2014 independent film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi. In 2001, several media outlets falsely reported that Konishi had trekked from Tokyo to Bismarck and Fargo in search of the fictitious money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s Fargo character Carl Showalter, and froze in the cold. The misunderstanding stemmed from a police officer who seemingly wanted to create an interesting story. In reality, however, Konishi’s story was much less strange and a bit more melancholy: she had traveled to Fargo to commit suicide in her ex-lover’s hometown.

4. Siskel and Ebert gave it way more than two thumbs up.

Roger Ebert called Fargo "one of the best films I've ever seen" and added that "films like Fargo are why I love the movies." Both Siskel and Ebert named it their favorite movie of 1996. 

5. Despite lots of critical love, Fargo was second banana at the 1997 Academy Awards.

A critical favorite since the moment of its release, Fargo took home two Oscars in 1997: one for the Coen Brothers for Best Original Screenplay and another to Frances McDormand for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson. However, Fargo lost most of the big awards to Elaine Benes’ least favorite movie, The English Patient. The World War II romance epic won a whopping nine Oscars at the show, including Best Picture and Best Director. 

6. It killed at the box office.

The Coens' previous film, 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, had by far their largest budget to date at the time with $25 million. It was also by far their biggest flop, earning less than $3 million at the box office. For Fargo, the Coens returned to a much more modest budget of $7 million, but ended up taking in $60 million at the box office, making it their highest percentage return on investment at the box office to date.

7. Steve Buscemi’s word count is a running joke.

Throughout the entire movie, Peter Stormare’s character—Gaear Grimsrud—has just 16 lines of dialogue. By comparison, his chatty accomplice Carl Showalter (played by Buscemi) has more than 150. This turns up as a running Coen brothers joke in The Big Lebowski, where Buscemi’s character Donny is constantly being told to “shut the f**k” up.”

8. The Upper Midwest has a love/hate relationship with the movie.

Fargo received some understandable backlash from Minnesotans and North Dakotans for portraying their neck of the American woods as being full of simple, funny-talking folks. Indeed, in the movie's DVD commentary, native Minnesotan Joel Coen referred to the state as “Siberia with family restaurants.” Fargo mayor Bonnie Cumberland said of Fargo in 1997: “It’s a movie that people who don’t live here seem to enjoy, but for us it’s a little bit of an embarrassment.”

However, as of late, many Midwesterners have warmed up to the film (pun totally intended). The film’s infamously lethal wood chipper is currently housed in the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, and in 2006 and 2011, the Fargo Film Festival kicked off with a “larger than King Kong” screening of the movie on the side of the city’s tallest building—a Radisson hotel—to celebrate the 10th and 15th anniversaries of its release.

9. William H. Macy took extreme measures to the land the role of Jerry Lundegaard.

Originally, William H. Macy was being considered for a much smaller role, but the Coens had him come back and read for the part of Jerry Lundegaard. Macy was so convinced he was the right man for the job that he pleaded with the Coens, even threatening to shoot their dogs if they didn’t cast him (jokingly, of course). Macy ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the bumbling Lundegaard, but lost to Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire. Macy claimed the role was a major turning point in his career, and that after: “I was ratified! I was sanctified! I'm a made guy." 

10. Only a few minutes of the film take place in Fargo.

Despite the title, only the opening scene—where Jerry meets with Carl and Gaear to reveal the plan to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom—takes place in Fargo. Most of the movie takes place in either Brainerd or the Twin Cities area. According to Joel Coen, “'Fargo' seemed a more evocative title than ‘Brainerd’” and that’s the only reason why they chose the North Dakota city for the title. Additionally, none of the filming was done in Fargo; the Kings of Clubs, the bar where the meeting between Jerry and the criminals takes place, was actually located in Minneapolis. 

11. An inside joke led to rumors that Prince had a cameo in the film.

The Coens provided anyone willing to stick around for the extended credits to a bit of a Minnesota insider joke. The role of “Victim in the Field” is credited to a scribble resembling Prince’s “Love Symbol,” which he went by between 1993 and 2000. This spurred rumors that Prince had a hidden cameo in the film. Anyone paying attention, however, would have noticed that the role was clearly played by a much huskier fellow, who also happened to be the film’s storyboard artist (and a longtime Coen collaborator) J. Todd Anderson

12. The film features two very familiar Coen Brothers tropes.

Two of the Coens' favorite plot devices—stolen or missing money and kidnapping—feature in eight (Blood Simple; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; The Ladykillers; No Country For Old Men; and Burn After Reading) and four (Raising Arizona; Fargo; The Big Lebowski; and Burn After Reading) of their movies, respectively. Alongside A Serious Man, it’s also one of two Coen films set predominantly in their home state of Minnesota. 

13. Every single one of Jerry Lundegaard’s nervous stutters was carefully scripted.

At the root of Macy’s career-making performance are lines that constantly sound like they’re tripping over each another. While they were well played by Macy, almost every single stutter-step was actually mapped out by the Coens in the script. (Ex: “Well, that's, that's, I'm not gointa, inta — see, I just need money. Now, her dad's real wealthy —.”) 

14. The movie marked a major comeback for one actor.

Before taking on the role of Wade Gustafson, the rich and hardened father of the kidnapped Jean Lundegaard, actor Harve Presnell hadn’t taken a film role in 20 years and was focusing on stage work. Following his turn in Fargo, he popped up on screen in blockbusters like Face/Off, Saving Private Ryan and Old School

15. You might know it wasn’t actually a “true story,” but the Coens' web of deception goes even further than the opening credits.

While the tag on the beginning of the film reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel Coen stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.” However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan Coen pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

16. The Big Lebowski almost came first (and that could have spelled disaster for the Coens).

It’s pretty much taken for granted that the Coens are small kings in the cinema world, able to more or less have complete creative control over their films. But without Fargo, this probably wouldn’t have been the case. Following the release of The Hudsucker Proxy, which bombed ferociously at the box office, the Coens had more or less finished scripts for The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Because The Dude was written for Jeff Bridges, who was busy shooting another movie, Fargo ended up getting made first. 

For the Coen Brothers, this release order ended up being a massive stroke of good fortune, since The Big Lebowski was a box office dud upon release and only built up its massive following after its theatrical run. Had The Big Lebowski been made first, it would have been the Coens' fourth consecutive poor performer(following Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy), and might have had major consequences on their careers. Instead, they gained the goodwill that came along with Fargo, a box office success that was praised by many as an instant classic. They’ve pretty much been riding the wave of praise and box office success ever since. 

17. The film’s editor, Roderick Jaynes, is actually Joel and Ethan Coen.

Because the Coens found having their names appear on screen as directors, writers, producers, and editors a bit tacky, they credit their editing work to the fictional “Roderick Jaynes,” who’s listed on all of their films outside of Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. When the fictional Jaynes was for nominated for his first Oscar on Fargo, the Coens wanted to have actor Albert Finney accept the award in character, but because the Academy doesn’t allow for surrogates to accept awards (presumably due to a 1973 incident involving Marlon Brando and a Native American named Sacheen Littlefeather) they had to scratch the plan. Jaynes ended losing to Walter Murch for his work on The English Patient, and would lose again in 2008 (with The Bourne Ultimatum's Christopher Rouse beating out the Coens and No Country for Old Men)

18. Not everything about Frances McDormand’s legendary performance was authentic.

To play the pregnant Marge Gunderson, McDormand sported prosthetic breasts and a faux-pregnant belly full of birdseed. It was McDormand’s second time wearing fake breasts in a role for the Coens, following Raising Arizona, where she thought a fuller figure was appropriate considering her character had recently given birth to quintuplets. 

19. Weird weather made production a headache.

Production for Fargo was made much more difficult since the winter of 1994/1995 was one of the warmest and least snowy in Minnesota history. This led to heaps of production delays and scrambles to find snow-covered scenery. Interestingly, David Zellner, who directed the aforementioned Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, also dealt with unseasonably warm weather when he set out to shoot his quasi Fargo follow-up, waiting a year to get the movie’s appropriately chilly look. 

20. The Coen Brothers have a way with birds.

Fargo’s opening memorably features a bird in flight set against the frigid Minnesota landscape. The incident was unscripted, as were memorable bird cameos in Barton Fink and Blood Simple. Joel Coen has commented “We have an uncanny ability to make birds do what we want them to do.” 

21. The actors went through extensive training to get their accents right.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

All images courtesy of Gramercy Pictures

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

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Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

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Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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