Although the Coen Brothers jump to a new genre with each new film, their approach to filmmaking and story is so distinct it’s nearly become a genre in itself. And what’s most remarkable about Noah Hawley’s limited series ‘Fargo’ on FX isn’t that it’s a clever homage to the filmmaking duo (which it is), or that the show has become its own story universe (it’s that, too).
However, its biggest achievement may be that the show’s visual presentation and cinematic style remains at such a high level of quality and consistency, despite having different directors. Even showrunner Hawley – the show’s principal writer and a creator of FX’s “Legion” – isn’t a consistent presence on set.
“For ‘Fargo’ we have these visual rules that keep it in the Coen world,” said cinematographer Dana Gonzalez, who works closely with Hawley months before every season to nail down the show’s look.
We asked Gonzales to break down those rules and give us insight as to how the show’s look has evolved. Here’s a slightly edited version of what he had to say.
Wide-Angle Lens: A One-Camera Show
It starts with lens choices. The 21mm, 29mm and 40mm are the three go to-lenses we use. Coens early on loved their 18mm; 25mm was probably their tightest lens [they used]. I think probably [cinematographer] Roger Deakins pushed them a little tighter.
So that’s number one, we don’t do long-lens close-ups. All our close-ups are 21mm or 29mm. We have two cameras, but our primary goal is to be a one-camera show, so we never sacrifice a single camera for two cameras. A director can’t come in and say, “Let’s do a close-up at the same time,” because it won’t work – [that second camera would be in the wide-angle frame].
Directors can’t just come in and think at the end of the day they can do what we call “hosing down the scene,” by putting a long lenses on and just panning the camera. That’s not going to happen. We have to block the scene a certain way. We have to shoot it a certain way. You have to give the close-ups and two shots the same treatment over and over again, because that’s the visual storytelling of “Fargo.”
The camera moves a lot, but the camera only moves to take the story forward. It never moves just to move. It doesn’t reframe, it’s never just drifting. We’re always on tracks, we’re always on cranes, we’re always on a gib, there’s no steadicam.
In episode 5, Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) goes [to steal] Emmit’s stamp (Ewan McGregor). She comes [into the house] and the camera basically cranes all the way back — you don’t even know it’s a crane — she goes up the stairs, it follows her all the way into the study.
There’s lots of descriptions in the script of what is happening; that’s where the director and I, with the camera operator, break it down in prep. I’ll push the directors to [move the camera]. Some directors will come with really great ideas. Maybe they really know the show — Keith Gordon, who directed in season 2, had some really great ideas based off a script and kind of knew what would work in the tone of the show. In prep talk, there are certain directors it takes a lot of convincing that what we are doing is the right thing.
Sometimes the camera locks [on a tripod, no movment] for a long period of time in the show. All the information is in the script. We don’t need to move the camera to make the show cool. We just watch the characters perform this dialogue that Noah’s written. At the end of the day, people talk about the style of “Fargo,” — we never do style for styles sake. We go against that constantly. If the script action isn’t something that calls for camera movement, we won’t.
Each Season Is an Homage To A Certain Film
Every year seems to have its homages. Season 1 was “Fargo” and “No Country.” When we started talking about season 3, Noah asked what I thought about “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We talked about what I liked and didn’t like about the film — the look and tone. That was our starting point.
We designed the season with that look in mind. We extracted the blue channel from the image. It’s pretty hardcore. [The] entire production design was built around this, so there was no turning back. We designed the wardrobe and production design — paint and car colors — to work. Reds and yellows popped quite a bit; blue would become monochromatic.
There was lots of testing to show Noah, who pushes me to go as bold as possible. I built the LUT [the Look Up Table, which are customized settings that adjusts how color is captured by the camera] myself in Davinci Resolve. It tried to get a DIT to work on it with me, [but] he just never went extreme enough. So I built my own and brought it onto set. We always do a live grade, so I’m able to see what we want it to look like.
Allow the Show to Evolve
Season 3 was interesting because we all had just come off of “Legion.” That was quite a visual experience. We were able to do “Legion” with whatever aesthetics we liked; no rules. We added a lot of longer lenses, wider lenses, moved the camera wildly. Some of that came to season 3 of “Fargo,” which I think evolved this season as a result. We brought a lot of the tools and the way used the tools — not just the cranes and gibs — but an even bolder sense of moving the camera. Noah did a really good job of using some of that stuff in the pilot he directed, which helped us. If he’s calling for it, than we are allowed to do it. I think this season was definitely our most cinematic as a result.
But still, never gratuitous, because you are following the story. Any time we stray from that goal, I’m going to hear about it from Noah.
This year we also did a little bit more racking of focus.
Also, with it being set in 2010, cell phones and modern technology really started to come into play. Subtle, but we put lots of that in the backdrop. I made little lights for the phones, so you could really sense they were there. It’s little details to feel the era.