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‘Fargo’ Emmys 2016: Shooting and Editing the Trippy, Turbulent Prequel

The Emmy-nominated cinematographer and editors explain how "Fargo" Season 2 got more turbulent and violent going back to 1979.

Fargo Patrick Wilson Ted Danson


FX’s “Fargo” got a lot more bizarre in its sophomore season, going back in time to 1979 to explore more ordinary people gone bad. Noah Hawley’s semi-prequel even borrowed elements from “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to appropriate more of the Coen brothers universe. There’s an escalation of violence that spirals out of control from the micro to the macro, which underscores the turbulent period.

Season 2 revolves around a winter gang war between a local crime family (the Gerhardts) and a Kansas City syndicate, all sparked by an inciting diner incident known as “The Sioux Falls Massacre” that resulted in three murders. The chain reaction is what state trooper Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) and sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) must resolve.

The new challenges for the prequel included getting the period look just right and editorially dealing with a sprawling ensemble cast of characters.

Cinematographer Dana Gonzales, nominated for the “Waiting for Dutch” opener, captured the tone of the ’70s by referencing photographer William Eggleston, the godfather of color photography: “He was fascinated by fine art of the era…the oranges and greens. The other color feature was the vehicles. People still had cars from the ’60s,  so there was less color and more pastel. It’s a tell-tale sign.’

When he researched the color of light from the period, Gonzales discovered that “in that mid-West part of the country there was little sodium,” he said. “So I used incandescent lighting with tungsten wire and a little mercury vapor. There was only a spattering of fluorescent.”

Gonzales, who shot with the Alexa but used Cooke lenses from the ’60s, put Y lights in the parking lot of the diner for the massacre scene, also in keeping with the period. “We’re learning what works and what doesn’t and adjusting to it,” he said. “When does the close-up happen? When do we stay with this wider two-shot?”

Achieving such tonal balance, going from the absurd to the dramatic, was especially important for editor Skip MacDonald, also nominated for “Waiting for Dutch.” From the outset, the viewer is disoriented by a black and white faux Ronald Reagan movie followed by stock footage of President Jimmy Carter and long gas lines. No wonder the episode’s titled “Waiting for Dutch.” “‘What is this? I’m not watching the right show!'”, said MacDonald. “But that would transition us into where Reagan would end up years later.”



Everything horrible piles on like a domino effect. In order to keep track of so many characters, the editors used a combination of flashback and split-screen. “When the [the head of the Gerhardts] had the stroke, we view it impacting his three sons,” said MacDonald.

Another challenge was a narrative that became increasingly less linear. For instance, one plot involve hairdresser Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), who hits the murderer with her car outside the diner and drags him back to her house, lodged on her windshield. When her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), finds him still alive in the garage, he kills him trying to defend them. At which point Peggy convinces him to cover up the crime.

“There were potential versions where you see Peggy’s story unfold and realize how psychotic she is, but it was better to deal with it in flashbacks and split-screens,” said editor Curtis Thurber, who assisted on “Waiting for Dutch” but was nominated for “Did You Do This? No, You Did It!”

Thurber’s favorite contribution to his episode was inspired by “Miller’s Crossing,” in which Bear Gerhardt (the middle son played by Angus Sampson) executes his niece, Simone (Rachel Keller), in the woods for betraying the family. “There’s an interesting weaving of shots of the drive to the woods and I got to play with that, stealing little bits of that drone going up and down the trees and trying to keep it really creepy and eerie,” Thurber said.

“Then I played with the images of Bear coming out of the woods and the way we split-screen him before he gets to the car. We were able to stay with his emotion and also show the images from the rest of the Gerhardt family and it really lands that moment of this family starting to fall apart.”

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