Interview: Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield bring 'Fargo' to the small screen
CALGARY - As pages go, Warren Littlefield is slightly overqualified.
The Brandon Tartikoff protege spent 20 years as an executive at NBC, cultivating in a '90s run as NBC Entertainment President a gig that was, at times, rather wildly successful.
On this March day in Calgary, though, Littlefield is serving as a tour-guide for a group of reporters visiting the set of his FX limited series "Fargo." Just a 10 minute drive from downtown Calgary, we've left the urban center behind and we're at a facility that is doubling for the Bemidji Police Department, as well as several other rural Minnesota hubs. Depending on which way you wander, there are interrogation rooms, a main squad area, portions of a local hospital and a middle school cafeteria, in which we're conducting most of our interviews next to a fine piece of juvenile art that has nothing to do with "Fargo," but I'm including it anyway.
Outside, the parking lots have become a jurisdictional nightmare with squad cars from both Bemidji and Duluth PDs, reflecting the Minnesota-spanning crime wave that serve as the centerpiece for "Fargo."
Since leaving NBC in 1998, Littlefield has branched out as an independent TV producer. My favorite of his credits is certainly FOX's short-lived cult classic "Keen Eddie," but you may have enjoyed ABC's "My Generation," which may not have been successful, but it brought Littlefield together with Noah Hawley, a relationship that became important when Littlefield decided to take another stab at turning The Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning favorite "Fargo" to the small screen.
Littlefield first tried to adapt "Fargo" for TV back in 1997 when a pilot was shot with Edie Falco stepping in for Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson. Directed by Kathy Bates, the "Fargo" pilot wasn't awful by any means. In fact, it aired on Trio -- I miss Trio -- back in 2003 as part of the network's "Brilliant But Cancelled" series, which may also have been how you saw Kiefer Sutherland's busted "L.A. Confidential" pilot back in the day. When Littlefield decided a few years ago to take another stab at "Fargo," he turned to Hawley, who had a brilliant-but-cancelled series of his own in ABC's "The Unusuals" back in 2009.
Rather than sticking to the Coens' story of a pregnant cop, a botched kidnapping and a series of murders, Littlefield and Hawley decided to do something far more complicated: FX's "Fargo" is a 10-episode drama that captures the Coen Brothers' sensibility and much of their worldview through a plot that feels similar, but never identical.
On the set, Hawley is the master of that sensibility. While he broke stories with a small staff of writers, Hawley wrote the final scripts for all 10 "Fargo" episodes and he's also off to the side, ready to engage in long discussions of character and motivation with various cast members including Martin Freeman, whose Lester Nygaard has some very superficial similarities with Jerry Lundegaard from the film, but ultimately isn't much like that William H. Macy character at all.
Littlefield is also a regular on-set presence, but if Hawley is mostly hunkered down with actors, the veteran executive is talking to department heads and coordinating things on his phone, at least when he isn't showing reporters around faux Bemidji or discussing the logistics of the "E.R." pilot with "Fargo" director Scott Winant, who didn't direct said pilot but may have been in conversations to direct it at some point, if my eves-dropping is accurate.
"Fargo" is in simultaneous production on the season's seventh and eighth episodes, but both Littlefield and Hawley took time to do sit-downs in the shadow of Cat Squid with individual journalists.
My conversation with Littlefield is on Page 2 of this multi-page story. He reflects on the brainwave of doing "Fargo" without Marge, his instinct to get Noah Hawley involved and his thoughts on why it's important that the TV industry is coming to embrace different storytelling structures, including the limited series.
On Page 3, you'll see my interview with Hawley, who talks about recreating the Coen Brothers sensibility, the challenges of creating a satisfying ending and which other Coen Brothers properties he could imagine adapting.