From the archives!
Here is my interview with the Coen Brothers, for their award-winning film Fargo, first published in April 1996.
Set in Minneapolis, ‘Fargo’ forges true-life crime into a hilarious and dark tale of kidnapping and murder. With this, their latest film, the Coen Brothers seem to be returning to true absurd form, as seen in their excellent first feature, the dark and comic ‘Blood Simple’. There are a few similarities in plot, but enough new material and original twists to justify lauding ‘Fargo’ as their funniest film since ‘Raising Arizona’.
A cash-desperate and boneheaded car salesman Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) hires professional goons Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to stage the kidnapping of his wife so he can fleece her stingy millionaire father for the ransom. Seeing that most of the characters are bumbling idiots, it’s no surprise that, naturally, the plot goes murderously awry and small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances MacDormand) steadily begins to unravel Jerry’s scheme. The Coen’s based their sixth feature loosely on a true story from the surrounding country where they grew up. Although the humour may not register with Australian audiences as readily, those who are familiar with the Midwestern traits might think the film full of mean satire. The film endlessly mocks the mannerisms of the people of Minnesota and North Dakota, particularly their funny accents, their taciturn ways and their solid, lumbering stupidity.
Joel Coen’s wife and a fixture in many of their films is Frances MacDormand. She gives a stand-out performance as the cheerful, friendly and thorough police chief in heavy snow boots staggering under the burden of a close-to-term pregnancy. On inspecting the first crime scene, her partner thinks she’s made an additional find under the car but she’s only suffering from morning sickness.
Another Coen favourite, Steve Buscemi, is perfect as one of the inept hoods, frequently described by the locals as ‘funny-looking – more than most people.’
The Coen’s filmography zigzags over a range of genres, the only linking device being the spin that they put on everything they do. After collaborating with Sam Raimi on ‘Evil Dead II’, they made their debut in 1984 with the offbeat noir thriller ‘Blood Simple’. This was followed by the screwball kidnapping comedy ‘Raising Arizona’ in 1987 and the sophisticated gangster film ‘Millers Crossing’ three years later. The following year the Coens scooped the pool at Cannes, gaining the prestigious Palme d’Or, Best Director and Best Actor awards from the International jury with ‘Barton Fink’. The critical success of ‘Barton Fink’ permitted the brothers to proceed with ‘Hudsucker Proxy’, an ambitious screenplay penned shortly after ‘Blood Simple’ but deemed too expensive to shoot for several years.
The simplicity of ‘Fargo’ represents the opposite extreme to the excesses of ‘Hudsucker Proxy’. Of the impetus to make ‘Fargo’, Joel says, “We were interested primarily because the real events took place in Minnesota, which is where we grew up.”
Ethan – “Our real background is that we grew up in an essentially mid western suburban american culture. It’s very middle american where we come from. It’s wheat and farming and flour mills.”
So escape is a priority when you come of age?
Laughter from both, “Yes yes yes – it’s true.”
Joel – “Escape is also a priority because its very cold, its, like, 30 degrees below zero most of the year.
“But the idea of making a movie there and around that area was very appealing to us. And we seem to like kidnapping stories.” Ethan adds, “But also, looking at it later, it seems the kind of story that is calculated to appeal to us. It’s certainly one of those stories where someone has a plan and it all begins to go horribly wrong and that’s something we’ve done before. The story of ‘Blood Simple’ unfolds in a pretty similar way.”
Do you think the first function of a movie is to offer an escape from reality?
Joel – “Well for us more than for some people. There are all sorts of different kinds of movies. For us part of the fun of it is, say in ‘Hudsucker Proxy’, being able to create that world from the ground up, being able to make everything up and not have to refer to a contemporary reality. But that can change for us as well, according to what we’re working on. ‘Fargo’ is a contemporary story that has much more of an almost documentary or cinéma vérité feel to it.
When I interviewed the Coens in 1994 about ‘Hudsucker Proxy’, they talked about what they were writing at the time. A contemporary film, set in Minnesota and based on a real event. “And it will probably be a real failure,” they said, self-deprecatingly. It may well be quite the opposite.