You Betcha: 15 Polite Facts About TV's Fargo

FX
FX

The contrast between the affable citizens of Minnesota and the bloody criminal activities they find themselves drawn into helped make the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996) a critical and commercial success. In 2012, the filmmakers decided to cooperate with an expanded-universe attempt on FX. With their help, 2014’s Fargo retained all of the film’s Midwestern charm, with Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Molvo at odds with Martin Freeman’s wife-bludgeoning Lester Nygaard.

The anthology series has been a hit for the network and for Hawley, although the third season—which is slated to wrap up June 21, 2017—could potentially be the last. In case you're in the mood for reflection, we’ve rounded up some trivia and production notes about television’s most polite crime saga, with plenty of "You betchas" and "Uff das" in tow.

Note: Some spoilers ahead.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST FARGO TV ADAPTATION.

A year after Fargo’s theatrical release, rights holder MGM attempted a small-screen adaptation starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, the role originally played by Frances McDormand. The Coens were not involved, which may have doomed the project from the start: it never went to series and sat on the shelf for six years until cable network Trio unearthed the pilot in 2003 as part of their block of unseen-programming specials. Ironically, NBC executive Warren Littlefield passed on this project—which eventually wound up at CBS—fearing it could never live up to the movie: Littlefield wound up becoming an executive producer on the 2014 series.

2. THERE’S A REASON THEY DIDN’T USE MARGE.

One reason Littlefield was more supportive of this spin-off was because creator Noah Hawley had no desire to revisit McDormand’s Marge Gunderson character, the heavily-pregnant sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota. In 2014, Hawley told IndieWire that he opted for an anthology format with a different narrative every season to avoid the show becoming about the “grim” day-to-day adventures of Marge.

3. THE COENS DIDN’T HAVE TO BE INVOLVED. (BUT THEY WANTED TO BE.)

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Because MGM owns the rights to Fargo, they didn’t necessarily need Joel and Ethan Coen's blessing to move forward. (And apparently didn’t get it for the 1997 attempt.) But when Littlefield presented them with Hawley’s script for the pilot, they decided to become involved. “They just said, ‘We're not big fans of imitation but we feel like Noah channeled us and we would like to put our names on this,’” Littlefield told HitFix in 2014. “And they didn't have to do that.”

4. THE SERIES IS ALL TAKEN FROM A (FAKE) TRUE CRIME BOOK.

Hawley has been quoted as saying he thinks of the Fargo-verse as being influenced by a big book of Midwestern crime tales, with each season being a different chapter. He cemented that idea in the ninth episode of the second season, opening with a close-up of a book titled The History of True Crime in the Midwest.

5. … WHICH MIGHT EXPLAIN THAT UFO.

Saving Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson character during the “Massacre at Sioux Falls” referenced in the first season was the appearance of what appeared to be a UFO hovering over a motel parking lot. Even by Fargo’s standards, it was a strange occurrence. According to Hawley, who was pressed for some kind of explanation during a June 2016 book signing, the scene stemmed from the idea that the show is taking cues from “true crime” books and all of the unbelievable details they often contain.

Speaking of a similar scene that felt disconnected from the narrative of the original film, Hawley said that he asked himself, “‘Why is this in the movie?’ It has nothing to do with the movie—except the movie says, ‘This is a true story.’ They put it in there because it ‘happened.’ Otherwise you wouldn’t put it in there. The world of Fargo needs those elements; those random, odd, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction elements.”

6. THERE WAS A VOICE COACH ON SET.

If you’ve ever met anyone who wasn’t a big fan of the Coen brothers' 1996 film, they probably pointed to the syrupy Minnesota accents as being too obnoxious to put up with for too long. Hawley was cognizant of that, too. Although he kept a voice coach on set, he had the actors minimize any attempt to lay it on thick. The accent “became a caricature after the movie,” he said. Allison Tolman, who played first-season cop Molly Solverson, said her accent was inspired by listening to a Midwestern character on the 1990s Howie Mandel cartoon Bobby’s World.

7. FX FELT THEY NEEDED BILLY BOB THORNTON.

FX

Oscar-winner Thornton portrayed philosophical hitman Lorne Malvo in the first season, a casting move that FX president John Landgraf said was mandatory for the show in order to find its footing. “We needed Billy Bob Thornton,”  Landgraf told a television critics panel in 2014, “but now the show, the title, the tone, the writing … are the star of that show.”

8. BAD HAIR IS A SERIES TRADITION.

Jean Smart was cast in the second season as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch crime boss of a bunch of hooligan sons. Set in 1979, the 62-year-old Smart was asked to cut and dye her hair to appear more matronly. “They first day they cut and dyed and styled my hair, I burst into tears,” she said.

While Thornton sported an equally unfortunate cut in the first season, he seemed more pleased with it. "I got a bad haircut," he told Collider in 2014. "We had planned on dyeing my hair and having a dark beard, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, 'Hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player for Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, it’s the dark side of Ken Burns.'"

9. YOU NEED TO WATCH REALLY CLOSELY TO CATCH ALL THE COEN EASTER EGGS.

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Hawley’s Fargo doesn’t just pay homage to the feature that inspired it; if you watch closely, you’ll see obscure references to the entire filmography of the Coens. A second-season episode panned over a diner placemat featuring a Hula Hoop in a nod to 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy; the balm Unguent is featured in both the film and show as a treatment for a bite and gunshot wound, respectively; a chalkboard ad for a White Russian drink special—a favorite of The Dude in The Big Lebowski—can be seen behind Martin Freeman.

10. SHOOTING CAN BE CANCELED WHEN IT GETS TOO COLD.

To mimic the frozen tundra of Minnesota in the winter, producers headed to the frozen tundra of Calgary in late 2013. Temperatures sometimes dropped to minus 30 degrees. On one particularly harsh day, producers noticed that a traffic cone had become so frozen it shattered into pieces when a wind swept through, dropping the temperature to minus 40. They called off shooting for the remainder of the afternoon.

11. THE FAKE SNOW CAN BE IRRITATING.

FX

While there was plenty of real freezing to go around, the production couldn’t always rely on a steady stream of real snow. The show used a fake concoction made of shredded rice cakes that proved bothersome to the actors; it made their shoes so slick it was hard to walk without slipping, and breathing it in resulted in bronchial irritation.

12. FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA GOT A LITTLE UPSET.

When the series announced it would be taking advantage of the tax breaks available to television productions shooting in Canada, the city of Fargo, North Dakota let out a collective sigh. “I was afraid they might want to shoot it in Canada,” said Charley Johnson, president of the city’s visitor’s bureau. The state has no film commission to offer any financial breaks, but they do have a wood chipper at their tourist center.

13. BRUCE CAMPBELL WON THE REAGAN ROLE BY MOCKING HIM.

FX

Bruce Campbell figures he got the job portraying then-presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan in season two by mocking him. He and executive producer John Cameron went to high school together and kept in touch, which allowed Cameron to see Campbell do his version in the 1980s. “My kids grew up in a Reagan Era, they were young during that decade, so we mocked him good,” Campbell told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that must've been how that came in, that John was like, ‘OK. I've seen Bruce do Reagan for years’ and I'm sure Noah Hawley was at least intrigued."

14. EWAN MCGREGOR FOOLED SET VISITORS.

In the third season, Ewan McGregor plays Emmit and Ray Stussy, two brothers with vastly different lifestyles. While Emmit is the "parking lot king of Minnesota" with a fortune to match, the scheming Ray has gone to seed, with straggly hair and a paunch. McGregor told Entertainment Weekly that when a car mechanic came on set to discuss Ray's Corvette, he had an hour-long conversation with the actor while he was in makeup for Ray. The next day, he was (re) introduced to McGregor and had no idea he had already spoken to him.

15. DON'T BET ON A FOURTH SEASON.

Hawley has been candid that the current, dual-McGregor season might be its last. "There's only a certain amount of storytelling you can tell in that vein," he told the crowd at the ATX Television Festival in June. So should you completely abandon your summer-in-Minnesota plans? Not quite. Hawley said he felt the same way about seasons one and two, as well.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Do the Right Thing

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

A shot in the arm of American consciousness, Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee’s incendiary profile of racial tension and police overreaction—bristled in the veins of moviegoers when it landed in theaters in the summer of 1989. Taking its title from a Malcolm X quote, Do the Right Thing rumbled with youthful energy, dry comic wit, boombox-blasted politics, and an operatic magic unique to New York City.

It’s a fierce polemic. It’s a snapshot of stereotyping. It’s a chill hangout movie. It was also a showcase of Lee’s directorial know-how, just when experience was shaping his raw creative talent. Crank up the AC and the FM 108 We-Love Radio. Here are 10 things you might not know about Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated joint.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE INCIDENT THAT HAPPENED IN 1986.

On December 19, 1986, four black men—Michael Griffith, Timothy Grimes, Curtis Sylvester, and Cedric Sandiford—were traveling when their car broke down. They walked three miles to the predominantly Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, where they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to New Park Pizzeria for a meal and a telephone. When they left the eatery, they were accosted by a larger group of white men, including the ones they’d encountered earlier. Sandiford and Griffith were beaten; Griffith tried to run but was chased onto the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car and killed. The incident was such a part of Do the Right Thing’s DNA that Lee wanted to open the film with his character, Mookie, shouting “Howard Beach!” while defacing Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.

2. IT’S DIFFICULT TO FIND SHOTS THAT DON’T FEATURE THE COLOR RED.

A scene from 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

One of the most impressive feats of the movie is how powerfully you feel the heat of the summer day. Besides placing Sterno cans near the camera to keep the air wavy, color was the filmmakers' most important tool in transferring the temperature to the screen. “I did a lot of research on [color usage’s] psychology and worked on a controlled palette that pretty much stayed in the warm range—yellows, reds, earth tones, ambers—and tried to stay away from blues and greens, which have a cooling effect,” cinematographer Ernest Dickerson told The Guardian. That rule extended to costuming, set design, and props, which is why almost every scene has at least one red element in it.

3. SPIKE LEE ORIGINALLY WANTED ROBERT DE NIRO TO PLAY SAL.

Oh, what might have been. It’s a no-brainer that Lee would have wanted Robert De Niro for the role of the brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello (who scored an Oscar nomination for the film). “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their film?” Lee said. “So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”

4. IT CONTAINS NODS TO A FEW CLASSIC FILMS.

Bill Nunn in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An avid cinephile and a student of film history, Lee is such a massive fan of Charles Laughton’s chest-thumper Night of the Hunter that he dropped part of it into the middle of Do the Right Thing. Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) carries the knuckle ring version of Robert Mitchum’s Night of the Hunter character’s “Love” and “Hate” tattoos, and he explains their existence using almost the exact same monologue.

Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson also turned to classic noir The Third Man for its use of disorienting Dutch angles; you can watch as the camera angle gets more and more aggressively tilted leading up to the riot.

5. LEE TOOK THE MOVIE TO ANOTHER STUDIO TO AVOID A SAPPY ENDING.

It’s hard to imagine it, but Paramount executives dropped a bomb on Lee close to the end of pre-production, demanding an unrealistically uplifting ending. “They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World,’” Lee told New York Magazine. "They told me this on a Friday; Monday morning we were at Universal.” Obviously, he did the right thing.

6. ROSIE PEREZ’S DANCE SEQUENCE TOOK EIGHT HOURS TO FILM.

Even the opening credits of Do the Right Thing are iconic. Rosie Perez’s frenetic, emotional dance to the bowel-shaking bass boom of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage as well as any of Shakespeare’s prologues.

“Spike didn’t tell me he needed anger and angst and exhaustion,” Perez explained. “Instead, he just said, ‘I need you to kill it.’ I thought, okay. I thought I killed it in the first hour. Freakin’ eight hours later, this freakin’ man had me still dancing. I had tennis elbow, my knee was swelling. So, I forgot about the lyrics, the original words—you know, Elvis, John Wayne? To me, it was all 'Spike, Spike, Spike, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!' And when rage and hate just poured out of my body, pure exhaustion, he went, ‘Cut, print it! We got it!'"

7. LEE HIRED THE NATION OF ISLAM’S PARAMILITARY AS SECURITY ON THE SET.

The production descended on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street in late summer 1988, building Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and painting murals, but largely leaving the neighborhood in its natural state for the shoot. To ensure safety, they hired members of Fruit of Islam, then run by Louis Farrakhan, to act as on-set security. One of their first jobs was boarding up known crack houses and guarding them to deter drug abusers from returning.

8. CLOTHING REINFORCES THE RACIAL LOYALTIES.

Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and Richard Edson in 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Lee and costume designer Ruth E. Carter bolstered certain characters’ attitudes by dressing them in racially-coded clothes. The white, brownstone-owner cyclist (John Savage) who scuffs Buggin’ Out’s (Giancarlo Esposito) shoes wears a Larry Bird Celtics jersey while Buggin’ Out’s sneaks are Air Jordans. Mookie also wears a Jordan jersey and a Dodgers jersey with Jackie Robinson’s number. Plus, while the racist Pino (John Turturro) wears all black in classic villain fashion, he wears a white undershirt while at work in the pizzeria, signaling his racial allegiance in the neighborhood in contrast to his open-minded brother Vito (Richard Edson), who wears a black undershirt.

9. IT WAS DIRECTLY AIMED AT HURTING A MAJOR NEW YORK CITY POLITICIAN.

There’s no mistaking that Do the Right Thing is an overtly political movie that spoke to complex, large-scale issues like gentrification, systemic racism, and police brutality, but parts of it were also aimed at one politician in particular. Blaming Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women like Eleanor Bumpurs (one person to whom the movie is dedicated) at the hands of an overly aggressive police force, Lee included graffiti that said “DUMP KOCH” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say, “Our Vote Counts!”

“We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary [between Koch and David Dinkins],” Lee told New York Magazine. “So, throughout the film, you hear Mister Señor Love Daddy, played by Samuel Jackson, telling people to vote, vote, vote. And Dinkins won."

10. BARACK AND MICHELLE OBAMA SAW IT ON THEIR FIRST DATE.

Martin Lawrence, Giancarlo Esposito, and Steve White in Do the Right Thing (1989)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

“He was trying to show me his sophisticated side by selecting an independent filmmaker,” Michelle Obama said, reflecting on seeing Do the Right Thing on her first date with her future husband—and the future president. On the 25th anniversary of Lee’s film, Barack Obama recorded a video message thanking Lee for helping him impress Michelle. Other options for that first date? Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids were still in theaters, and The Karate Kid Part III came out the same weekend as Do the Right Thing.

13 Nostalgic Facts About American Graffiti

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Before he made Star Wars, then ruined Star Wars, then saved Star Wars by selling it to Disney, George Lucas made another iconic film that has served as a cultural touchstone. American Graffiti, released 45 years ago today, was a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical look at the American teenager circa 1962, before "the sixties" kicked in and changed everything. The film was a massive hit, earning $55 million in 1973 and another $63 million when it was re-released in 1978—a total of some $500 million at today's ticket prices. Let's get nostalgic for nostalgia and look in-depth at the making of American Graffiti

1. GEORGE LUCAS MADE THE MOVIE PARTIALLY OUT OF SPITE.

The young director's previous film and first feature, the futuristic sci-fi drama THX-1138, had been a disappointment both critically and commercially. Lucas' wife, Marcia—as well as friend Francis Ford Coppola—urged him to make something more relatable. "Don't be so weird," Lucas recalled Coppola telling him. "Try to do something that's human ... Everyone thinks you're a cold fish, but you can be a warm and funny guy, make a warm and funny movie."

Marcia said, "I reminded George that I warned him [THX] hadn't involved the audience emotionally. He always said, 'Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck ...' So finally, George said to me, 'I'm gonna show you how easy it is. I'll make a film that emotionally involves the audience.'" He showed her!

2. IT WAS SAVED FROM BECOMING A TV MOVIE BY THE GODFATHER.

Universal Pictures gave Lucas a budget of $600,000, or about $3.5 million in 2016 dollars, to make the movie—in other words, not very much. When Coppola came onboard as a producer shortly after the release of The Godfather, Universal gave Lucas another $175,000. Later, when the film was finished and had test-screened positively, Universal inexplicably wanted to drastically re-edit it and release it as a TV movie. Lucas objected but had no clout. Coppola, on the other hand—by this time an Oscar-winner—could make studio executives listen. He convinced them to do only a little bit of trimming (the deleted scenes were reincorporated for home video release) and to release the film theatrically. 

3. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, THERE IS NO ACTUAL CONNECTION BETWEEN AMERICAN GRAFFITI AND HAPPY DAYS.

Happy Days premiered five months after American Graffiti was released. It was set in the '50s, had Ron Howard playing a teen very similar to his American Graffiti character, used "Rock Around the Clock" as its theme song, and even borrowed the American Graffiti font for the credits. You'd think that Happy Days was somehow a spin-off of the movie, but you'd be wrong. It actually began as an unsold pilot in 1971 and aired in 1972 as part of the anthology series Love, American Style. (Lucas watched it at some point when he was considering casting Howard in American Graffiti.) After the movie took off, and with '50s nostalgia in high gear (Grease was burning up Broadway), ABC reconsidered the Happy Days pilot, ordered a series, and did everything they could to make it remind people of American Graffiti. It ran for 10 years and was one of the most popular sitcoms in TV history. 

4. THE STUDIO WANTED TO CHANGE THE TITLE.

Universal executives didn't know what American Graffiti meant as a title (they weren't alone), and begged Lucas to change it. They furnished a list of 60 alternates, including Rock Around the Block (Coppola's suggestion) and Another Slow Night in Modesto (which was close to Lucas' original working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto). Lucas wouldn't budge.

5. LUCAS'S CO-WRITERS DIDN'T LIKE THE ENDING.

The film ends with title cards revealing what happened to the main characters (the male ones, anyway) afterward, much of which isn't happy. The co-writers Lucas hired early on to help him develop the script, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, found it depressing and strange and tried to talk Lucas out of it but never succeeded. (Stubbornness is a recurring theme in stories about Lucas.)

6. WOLFMAN JACK WAS A HOLDOVER FROM A PREVIOUS MOVIE IDEA LUCAS HAD.

The radio DJ with the distinctive voice was part of Lucas' teenage years in Modesto, California, and Lucas even considered making a documentary about him when he was a student at USC's film school. When American Graffiti made him a millionaire, Lucas paid the Wolfman a little extra for serving as the film's "inspiration." 

7. IN THE ORIGINAL CONCEPTION, THE BLONDE WASN'T REAL.

Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) spends most of the film chasing a beautiful, mysterious blonde (played by Suzanne Somers) he sees driving a Ford Thunderbird. Lucas originally intended to shoot a scene where the blonde and the car were briefly transparent, revealing to the audience that she was a figment of Curt's imagination. This was one of the things that had to go when Universal insisted on a strict, tight budget. 

8. THE PRODUCER HAD TO BECOME MACKENZIE PHILLIPS'S LEGAL GUARDIAN FOR THE SHOOT.

Mackenzie Phillips was just 12 years old when she arrived to make the film, and though she had showbiz experience (her father, John Phillips, was in The Mamas & the Papas), neither she nor her parents realized that California law required her to have a guardian present. "They were almost going to have to recast me, but Gary Kurtz"—a producer on the film—"and his family said, 'We'll take her,'" Phillips said in 1999. " So they went to the courts in San Francisco and got guardianship of me." Phillips lived with the Kurtzes for the duration of the shoot and described it as a happy experience. 

9. THE PRODUCTION WAS KICKED OUT OF TOWN AFTER ONE DAY OF SHOOTING.

Lucas and company planned to shoot the film in San Rafael, California, as the real setting—Modesto—had changed too much since 1962. But after just one day in San Rafael, the city council gave them the boot. Not only had a member of the crew been arrested for growing marijuana, but the first night of filming and its accompanying street closures had drawn complaints from local businesses. The production moved 20 miles north to Petaluma, where things ran a bit more smoothly (at least in terms of interactions with the locals).  

10. THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM SOLD 3 MILLION COPIES.

The concept of filling an entire soundtrack with nothing but preexisting popular songs (rather than an instrumental score) was still new, with Easy Rider (1969) having been the first major example. The American Graffiti double album included 41 of the 43 songs heard in the movie, arranged in the order they appear, missing only "Gee" by The Crows and "Louie Louie" by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids.

11. THERE'S A REASON ELVIS PRESLEY IS CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT FROM THE SOUNDTRACK.

The reason, of course, is money. To mitigate the cost of licensing so many songs, Universal offered a flat rate to all of the labels involved. Everyone went along with it except for RCA, which meant no Elvis. The kids in American Graffiti are therefore probably the only teenagers in America who could listen to the radio all night in 1962 and never hear an Elvis song. 

12. HARRISON FORD WOULD ONLY AGREE TO BE IN THE MOVIE IF HE DIDN'T HAVE TO CUT HIS HAIR.

The future Han Solo had become disenchanted with showbiz and was working as a carpenter to support his wife and two children when he got the American Graffiti audition. His character, Bob Falfa, was supposed to have a flattop, but since Ford didn't care much whether he made the film or not, he issued an ultimatum: He wouldn't do it if it required cutting his hair. A compromise was reached, and Bob Falfa wears a Stetson hat throughout the film. 

13. THERE WERE A WHOLE LOT OF SHENANIGANS ON THE SET.

Lucas worked hard and fast, shooting anywhere from six to 10 script pages a night (twice the norm), but there was still a lot of downtime for the large ensemble cast of young, energetic actors. Harrison Ford (who turned 30 during the shoot and was one of the oldest people there), Paul Le Mat, and Bo Hopkins drank a lot of beer between takes and were said to have been kicked out of the Holiday Inn for things like urinating in the ice machines and climbing on the hotel's rooftop sign. Someone set fire to Lucas' hotel room. Le Mat threw Dreyfuss into the swimming pool one night, gashing his forehead. Adding to the carnival atmosphere were the hundreds of local gearheads who were paid $25 each to lend their classic cars to the production and who hung around every night, gawking at the actors and drag-racing on the back streets. 

Additional sources:
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind
Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, by Dale Pollock

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