One Very Cold Case

A 1996 Best Picture nominee, Fargo delivered on all the accustomed levels of Coen Brothers quirkiness and originality. Made for $7 million, its domestic and international returns totaled several times that pittance. Nearly two decades later, MGM has joined forces with FX Network to work with the Brothers and series creator Noah Hawley to tell a new, dark 10-episode tale set on the frozen Minnesotan territories. Like its progenitor, the series also makes a wry false claim to being a true story: In this case, intertwined tales of a drifter played by Billy Bob Thornton crossing paths with a local insurance salesman and a murder investigation involving police and an animal control officer.

Adam Bernstein directed the initial pair of episodes, shot by Matthew Lloyd, CSC, and transferred the film’s beige/blue/red color palette to the town of Bemidji, Minnesota (though the series was shot in Calgary). Cinematographer Dana W. Gonzales shot the last scene of the pilot and then took over as cinematographer with Episode Three.

The look of FX Network’s Fargo, shot by Dana W. Gonzales with ARRI ALEXA cameras, is influenced not only by the original feature, but also by the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.

Both dramatically and visually, the series leans not only on the Fargo feature, but also on the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. "Fortunately, one of our on-set creative producers, John Cameron, has done seven films with the Brothers, and served as a reference and authority for all things Coen," says Gonzales. "It turns out that until Roger Deakins started shooting for them and using 35mm to 40mm lenses, they had stayed pretty much on an 18mm. We struck a bit of a balance, deciding we wanted to be sure and stick with wider lenses. When using a 21mm or a 25mm, or even a 40mm, there often isn’t room to fit in another camera, but we let the scenes play in our frames. When I came on for Episode Three, I brought a jib arm, which is a tool Roger Deakins uses on nearly everything, so that also helped keep us in the Coen style."

In addition to Bernstein, the series utilized the services of four other directors, all of whom, while fans of the feature, were nonetheless obliged to learn the rules for this series. "A director coming in fresh on a very big show might initially be thinking of using two cameras and doing a lot of long-lens stuff," muses Gonzales, "but that wouldn’t be keeping with our show’s unique style. While we have and use two cameras, this is truly a single-camera show; you’re not going to be getting a close-up with the second camera, but instead use it to get some bonus shots to help editorial."

Some of Fargo‘s visual distinctiveness comes right from the top. "Showrunner Noah Hawley loves to hold on shots for a long while," Gonzales reports. "That’s something TV directors have to get their heads around. On most shows, they won’t even try using a big camera move or dolly because they know it will get cut to bits. We’re making TV, but in a feature film-like fashion."