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‘Fargo’: How the Sound of ‘Barton Fink’ and Music of ‘Wizard of Oz’ Shaped the Special B&W Episode

Emmy-nominated composer Jeff Russo and co-supervising sound editors Nick Forshager and Tim Boggs break down the tricky balance of "East/West."

FARGO -- "East/West" - Year 4, Episode 9  (Airs November 15)  Pictured: Ben Whishaw as Rabbi Milligan. CR: Elizabeth Morris/FX

Ben Whishaw in “Fargo”

Elizabeth Morris / FX

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The “Fargo” Season 4 episode “East/West” garnered a great deal of attention for how cinematographer Dana Gonzales’ black-and-white photography broke from the color kodachrome look that gave the rest of “Year Four” its distinct period feel. Yet it was the audio side of the crafts team that had to walk a fine line in telling the story of Rabbi Milligan (Ben Whishaw) and Satchel Cannon (Rodney L. Jones III) embarking on their fateful road trip.

IndieWire recently caught up with composer Jeff Russo and co-supervising sound editors, Nick Forshager and Tim Boggs — all of whom received Emmy nominations (along with Gonzales) for their work on “East/West” — to discuss how they found a balance in making this unique episode, which was inspired by the Coen Brothers “Barton Fink” as well as the oft-referenced 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.”

Jeff Russo and series creator Noah Hawley have been working together since the 2009 ABC series, “The Unusuals,” and developed a specific way of collaborating where the composer’s music plays a role in shaping the series.

“A lot of times Noah will take the music that I’ve written and listen to it while he’s out scouting for locations because it will help to inspire him tonally,” Russo said. “The editors will be using the themes as temp, and I reshape the temp to work with the scenes and occasionally need to rerecord stuff.”

“The Wizard of Oz” was an inspiration for Russo, in particular when Satchel walks out of his hotel room near the episode’s end and the black-and-white imagery transitions into color. “It’s a whole dance between music and picture,” said Russo. “It starts quieter, builds up, has more flourish, and then settles down.”

Another critical and memorable piece of score occurs during the tornado scene, which is captured through a cacophony of music, orchestral notes, and sound effects. Russo credits the “masterful” work of the sound mixing team for the scene’s effectiveness, “There were these two disparate sounds; there is music and all of this sound design, and finding the middle ground for them to work together was a lot of work.”

The score for “East/West” was written during the COVID-lockdown and recorded with an orchestra when restrictions began to ease in August 2020. “Noah wanted the score to have elements of the Dust Bowl, so I used a lot of eclectic organic instruments, like a Marxophone, mandolins, vibraphones, and guitars,” said Russo, who had experience working with these instruments prior to “East/West.”

"Fargo" Season 4, Episode 9 ("East/West")

“Fargo” Season 4, Episode 9 (“East/West”)

Elizabeth Morris/FX

For Russo, this was the key to nailing the “East/West” accompaniment. “The thing that sets it apart was the work that went into re-imagining how to do the ‘Fargo’ score instrumentally and not come too far away from it.”

Unlike Russo, things were not as straightforward for co-supervising sound editor Tim Boggs who handled the dialogue and loop group (background voices) as he was allowed to have only two people, rather than the normal six, in the same room due to pandemic restrictions.

“They were able to engineer that so we could have two ADR studios running simultaneously,” said Boggs. “But the problem at the beginning was the actors on the two different stages couldn’t hear each other and one stage was two or three seconds ahead of the other one. I brought the recordings back to my studio, synced everything up, and did what I could to make it work.”

Principal actors were situated all over the world and lacking in proper recording equipment, which resulted in microphones being sent to them. “We would communicate through Zoom and they would record into their phones and email me their lines,” said Boggs. “I would bring it into my system and see if it worked. If it didn’t, I would tell them how to adjust. What would normally take us a few minutes of time, just multiple that by three or five.”

“East/West” is a homage to “Barton Fink” with the boarding house appropriately named the Barton Arms — which is also the name of the boarding house where Tom Regan, played by Gabriel Byrne, stays in the Coens’ “Miller’s Crossing.”

“I have different characters’ background voices say some of the lines [from ‘Barton Fink’],” said Boggs, of one of the episode’s many Easter eggs. “Barton Fink [John Turturro] was a writer, so you have somebody typing in the background in one of the rooms.” The vocal performance of the Bandage Man (Ira Amyx) had to be altered, at the request of Hawley, which made syncing the audio with the image difficult. “Even with the vocal tone, your mouth does different things to make the sound.” Another tricky moment, according to Boggs, is when Satchel discovers the dog. “He’s hearing all of these different noises outside of the hotel room. It’s almost if his fears start taking over. That was not in the script.”

"Fargo" Season 4, Episode 9 ("East/West")

“Fargo” Season 4, Episode 9 (“East/West”)

Elizabeth Morris/FX

Co-supervising sound editor Nick Forshager wanted to produce a nonspecific sound that would bring out the curiosity of Satchel. “It’s almost like there was a monster behind the door, but we had to dial it back down because we were tipping our hand a little too much,” said Forshager. “A lot of that was scratching sounds that I had found, [almost] like nails on a chalkboard. I tried to get that fast motion of the wood being scraped away. It worked well.”

Underneath the production sound recordings were the creaking floors of the boarding house, which the sound editing team leaned into. “All of those little details add [to the scene] if you’re trying to create a tension,” said Forshager. “Dialogue was dominant in the dinner scene, but there were little places where a chair creek helps you to feel like you’re at the table at all times.”

Audio cues are taken from the music so to avoid conflict and to achieve the proper tone. “I’m supporting Jeff’s score where it needs me to push things forward,” said Forshager. “There are other times, like with the tornado, where we took a good lead, but the end of it becomes this crescendo of the music and sound effects working together.”

The tornado was the major sound moment, which was complicated by the visual effects arriving late in the process. “Noah kept referring that it should feel like a train coming,” said Forshager. “I actually found these train elements, and despite having a more metallic sound they fit in with the wind and brought out the heaviness that a tornado would have.”

Getting the mix right was made possible by dialogue and music mixer Jeffrey Perkins, who understood how everything was suppose to come together. “I sent Noah a note afterwards saying that this was one of my favorite episodes of television that I’ve ever had to work on because it was so unique and creative from the get-go.”

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