For Noah Hawley, this is a true story.
"Fargo," the critically lauded FX miniseries adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning 1996 black comedy, made quite the impression with the TV academy, receiving a hefty 18 Emmy nominations — accolades that came without the kind of intimidation practiced by the show's menacing drifter, Lorne Malvo (played by Billy Bob Thornton).
Ahead of the Emmy ceremony Monday, the writer-executive producer-show runner behind the prestigious drama sat down at the Viceroy Santa Monica Hotel to reflect on bringing the Coens' signature stranger-than-fiction tone to television.
What is Emmy-nominations morning really like? We hear so often people saying, "I had no idea they were today," or "I slept through it all." Lies, right?
Liars. No, I'm kidding. I'm the boss. I don't have that luxury of not knowing. I got up and turned on the TV and sat there. And, of course, they said they were going to start at 5:35 a.m., or whatever it was, and then they didn't announce them for another 20 or 30 minutes. I sat there watching a poor woman get hit by a [California Highway Patrol] officer on the side of the road [on TV]. Did you see that too? It was crazy. And they just kept showing it over and over. I was like, "This is really bad mojo going on."
What goes through your mind when you get the tally? Did you have your own number in mind, secretly?
Yeah, I mean, you think "typo" as the first thought. I won't say I didn't have a number in my head. But I will say that it was nowhere near 18. It was a single-digit number, let's put it that way. Then your mind goes to, "Well, what 18 things could we be nominated for?"
You've been doing this for a while. When does Emmy become a goal, or a factor, in the process of doing a TV show? Or is it mostly a pressure imposed from the network side?
It's not a thing you can work toward. I know plenty of great writers in this business, who have been doing it longer than I have and haven't even been nominated. The biggest reward for me was just being able to make the show I saw in my head. The other two shows that I did [ABC's "The Unusuals" and "My Generation"], which I loved, there was a lot more process. You're always fighting against a broadcast urge to tone things down or to make things more like something else.
So to be able to do what I thought was the best version of the show and what FX thought was the best version of the show, that was really the reward. You just never know with the Emmys because you also see people get snubbed. The first response is not, "Oh, that's so great that this or this got nominated." It's "Why didn't Michael Sheen get nominated?"
Talk about your road to writer and show runner. You were a songwriter at one point. Is there a connection I'm missing?
Yeah, in my youth I was a songwriter. There's no straight line. I didn't go to an Ivy League school. I didn't do well in the school I went to. But I was always driven, and I was always interested in things. I was a musician for a while, but at the end of the day, I'm not a night person. I felt, somewhat, as a storyteller, I wanted to address matters that weren't for 14-year-olds. And I started to write fiction because it didn't involve carrying heavy equipment or living in a van with three filthy, penniless men.
That led to selling my first novel, and then my motto became "What else can I get away with?" I did some feature work, then tried TV. I was always very aware that the only power that you have is the power of options. If the film industry dries up, then you focus on the TV or the books. For me, it was always about what story do I want to tell next?
Do you remember what the first substantial piece of fiction you wrote was like?
I was in my early 20s. I had a job at the Legal Aid Society in New York City, working in family courts. I was a paralegal working on abuse and neglect cases and juvenile delinquency cases. It was really hard work. And working with these attorneys who are all overwhelmed and on these cases that were really challenging on a lot of levels. I started writing fiction as a way to, not literally work out my feelings about that experience but as a way of keeping alive an artistic identity.
I started working on a novel — you know, the novel that goes in the drawer.
I want to know what it was about!
I'd have to open the drawer. I'm not comfortable opening it. It was kind of gothic, I guess. Not my real voice. But it was a way to get started and a way to think about it as I read more and thought about the craft.
I've always been really attracted to playing with structure. To take the story of "Fargo" and break it up in such a way that's it's not linear, per se. I was very attracted to the idea that some people are going to watch live and some people are going to binge-watch, and that means there will be no commercials and an episode will end and go right into the next one. So what is that experience like of watching three hours of it in one sit-down?
For a TV writer in 2014, the way people watch must greatly influence the way you envision telling a story now — the structure, the pace. Is that restricting or freeing?