I’ve been intrigued by the movie “Fargo” ever since the cast and crew came to town years ago to shoot some of the scenes here. More accurately, north of here.
I hung around the edges of the production for a couple of days, shooting television news stories, not knowing a classic American movie was being made.
A new book called “A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere: The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo” by North Dakota native Todd Melby recounts it all, more than 25 years on.
It was January 1995. Joel and Ethan Coen, the devilishly talented Minnesota-born brothers, had come back home to the Twin Cities to shoot their love letter to Minnesota, a grisly love letter, but a love letter none the less, the movie “Fargo.” The “true” story of a kidnapping gone horribly wrong.
But there was a problem. It was a freakishly “warm” that winter and most of the snow in and around the Twin Cities had melted. The Coens needed snow. Snow looks good on camera. It makes blood stand out. And Coen movies are often nothing if not bloody.
So on March 9, the movie folk packed up and headed to Grand Forks, where there was more snow cover. They would spend the next 10 days or so shooting numerous scenes, many of them in the middle of the night.
In the very first chapter of his book, Melby throws cold water on one of my favorite legends about the making of “Fargo.” As the story goes, the idea for the Coen’s next movie “The Big Lewbowski” came to them after they took the cast and crew bowling at Red Ray Lanes in Grand Forks. I had always hoped that story was true. It’s not. Melby writes actually “Lewbowski” was written before “Fargo” and was put on hold temporarily only because the actors they wanted to play the leads, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, weren’t immediately available.
The first “Fargo” story I did was on local casting for the film. The Holiday Inn was crowded with local “actors” all vying for a chance to be a part of something special. The local casting director (or whoever she was) refused even tell me what she was casting for.
I had a similar experience with the publicist for the movie “Iron Will,” which was shot in the Duluth area. I learned too late that one of the main functions of a movie publicist is to keep journalists and photographers AWAY from their shoots.
Despite my sweet personality, I later offended the production’s publicist somehow. It might have been when I said something like, “You’re using our snow. The least you could do is tell us where your shooting.” Opps! At any rate, she hung up on me. It was at that point, I believe, she decided not to take any of my future phone calls.
Having burned my bridges with the publicist, I was on my own to try to find out where the movie people were working. What to do? I called the sheriff. Sheriffs know what’s going on in their counties, right? I remember him saying, “I know exactly where they are.” And he gave me directions.
Less than an hour later a photographer and I were driving past a huge statue of Paul Bunyan by the side of the road at the base of which were the words “Welcome to Brainerd.” Very surreal in that we were in the middle of Pembina County, North Dakota.
“The Boys,” as Melby calls them in his book, were working at a vacant beet piling station turned movie location where, of course, we were quickly stopped by a security guy who asked, “Who are you here to see?” Well, we’d just like to take some pictures. “Wait here.”
The security guy walked over to Joel Coen, who was very busy making a movie at the time. He looked at our marked news car and shook his head “yes.” The security guy walked back to us and said, “Park over there.” Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Joel.
More than most moviemakers even, the Coen brothers are super-secretive about their work. No one, but no one at the location was talking. What’s more, no one seemed to know a thing about the film’s storyline, not even the local actors who were in it.
The Coens were prepping actress Frances McDormand and another actor for a driving scene inside a police car (with snow outside the windows). I believe it to be the one in which Police Chief Marge Gunderson questions her deputy’s investigative work. “I’m not sure that I agree with you a hundred percent on your policework there, Lou. Yah. I think that vehicle there probably had dealer plates. DLR?”
After “Fargo” was released, great reviews, Oscar nominations and awards would follow. The film’s now famous woodchipper would be purchased by the Fargo Convention and Visitors Bureau for $17,000,
But at first not everyone was so accepting. When the movie opened in Fargo, many people were especially upset about what they considered to be the movie characters’ exaggerated accents.
Still, people couldn’t stop talking about “Fargo.” In a way, they have never stopped talking about it. I can attest.
Years and years later, I was at a press event at Disneyland in California. Someone told me a woman wanted to talk to me. She was a television producer in Los Angeles, a relatively sophisticated woman, I thought. She had heard I was from North Dakota and wanted to know if I talked like “those people in that movie.” Mildly offended, I decided to play along. I told her, “Well, I’ll talk for a while, then you can decide.” I chatted with her for a couple of minutes, then said, “So, do I talk like those people in the movie?’
A little disappointed, I think, she said, “No.”