It’s not just that snow blankets every scene of the Coen brothers’ early triumph Fargo; coldness has seeped into each scene’s DNA, informing their look and worldview. From the existential indignity of having to chip a rock-hard ice layer off your car’s windshield to the sartorial improvisations inspired by sub-zero temperatures, few capture that freezing essence with such totality of commitment.
And yet the film felt right at home in the warm summer breeze on Friday night, screened on Manhattan’s Pier 76 for a Tribeca film festival event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “homespun murder mystery”, as the famed needlepoint poster describes it.
The post-screening Q&A endeavored to cover the many, many things to love about Fargo, the first Coen brothers picture to earn unilateral masterpiece status. Press-averse director Joel Coen, his wife Frances McDormand, the movie’s star, and scene-stealer Steve Buscemi (introduced as “abused, from his face down to his last remaining foot!”) came together to shed new light on a critical and commercial hit pored over from college dorm rooms to the arthouse.
McDormand nodded to the slight absurdity of revisiting and reappraising something that never really waned in popularity early on, walking onstage and calling out to the audience, “So, does it hold up?” to a hearty round of laughs.
The assembled talent doesn’t share the devout cinephile’s annual-rewatch policy, however, made somewhat uncomfortable by the trip down memory lane. “You want to make something you’ve never seen before, and then when it’s finished, you realize you never really get to see it yourself,” Coen explained, with characteristic philosophical depth. He confessed to have “a hard time watching [his movies] without just seeing the flaws,” while McDormand had commemorative events such as these dead to rights as “depressing, but can be fun”.
She elaborated further: “It isn’t fair that we have to see ourselves so young sometimes.”
Even so, the mood was anything but melancholic as the easy, candid discussion continued between three people with the comfortable rapport of old friends because they actually are. Coen recalled how production on Fargo was slow to get in gear, sitting in a desk while the brothers redirected attentions to their screwball homage The Hudsucker Proxy. “I remember you telling me about this during Barton Fink, and then you did another movie!” Buscemi said. “But OK, I’ll wait!” Riffing on the running joke that his character is “just kinda funny-lookin’”, the actor continued: “[Joel] said, ‘Your character is going to be a very good-looking guy.’ I don’t know what happened after that.”
The laughs were more plentiful than one might expect from a talk with the laconic Coen, the reputedly difficult interview subject open and generous. With a mild chuckle, he recalled their shooting season having an unusually small snowfall, to the point where they had to “go farther and farther north, chasing the snow”.
The star of the show may have been the character of Marge herself, an outlier in every way. Matronly but firm, hyper-competent at work and dutiful to her husband, the small-town cop immortalized McDormand and brought the actor her first Oscar. “I really wanted her to be good at her job,” McDormand said with pride. The audience learned that her pregnant-policing uniform didn’t really exist and had to be designed from scratch, though female officers started to request the modified garments once the film came out. Margie’s every singsong “yah” was scripted, in a sort of “music” composed right on the page. The most surprising revelation of all: that Marge’s sojourn into Minneapolis wasn’t always motivated by a meetup with human disaster Mike Yanagita.
“Is it outing you to ask you to tell them the scene I read first?” McDormand asked of Coen. “Her friend invited her to a right-to-life protest!” Marge as sign-waving conservative – what a different film that would be.
Buscemi relished the chance to portray the squirrelly, volatile crook Carl Showalter, a figure that came together only once the actor got dressed. “When [costume designer Mary Zophres] put me in those clothes and I looked in the mirror, I suddenly understood who this guy is,” he recalled. “It’s the polyester sweaters.”
He also relayed a surreal anecdote wherein he and co-star Peter Stormare got pulled over driving, shortly after a scene in which that very situation ended with their characters murdering the policeman. “I looked at Peter and he looked at me. Like, is this a trap?” They managed to talk their way out of a ticket. The group shared some other tidbits of rural life during the shoot, informing everyone that the town where the crew rented the infamous wood chipper annually drags it through the streets for their Fourth of July parade.
McDormand looked back on the towering, creepy Paul Bunyan statue constructed for the film: “We realized people were bringing their kids out before bed to look at the statue. That’s how little there is to do in North Dakota.” Coen jumped in to add, “We thought seriously about starting a new religion.”
Of course, they did, perhaps without realizing it. For the legions of fans who express dissent with “I may not agree 100% with your police work there, Lou,” the film is a religion, a spirit of devout fandom evident as Coen, McDormand and Buscemi were mobbed like rock stars upon stepping off the stage. After 25 years, the adulation for this film has only grown stronger while the niggling criticisms have died down. To paraphrase sad, single Mike Yanagita – if you’re a film a quarter-century old, yah, you could do a lot worse.