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How FARGO Creates Its Singular (and Snowy) Look

How FARGO Creates Its Singular (and Snowy) Look

Last month we headed up to Calgary to visit the set of Fargo, to speak with the cast and crew while they were filming the third season of the hit FX series. And oh geez dontcha know they had a whole heckuva lot to share with us, so in the build up to next week’s premiere we’re bringing you the most interesting tidbits we picked up there.

In the first part we looked at how Ewan McGregor transforms into two very different characters, and this time we’re examining how the world of Fargo comes to look the way it does.

To Recreate Minnesota Cold They Head to the Great White North

The cold and snow of Fargo, which help create the sense of impending darkness and claustrophobia that frames the action of the story, are as much characters on the series as an overworked police officer and a hapless every man caught up in some good old fashioned Midwestern murder and mayhem. So to make sure they capture the wintry conditions of Minnesota (where this season takes place, despite the series being called, you know, Fargo, as in “that place in North Dakota,” a funny fact not missed by the cast and crew) means the show requires some honest to goodness frigid conditions and plenty of white stuff on the ground, and that’s why they again headed to Calgary, Alberta, Canada to film.

fargo-ewan-mcgregor

With all due respect and apologies to the hearty people of Minnesota and their own winters, it’s vital they can rely on having snow when they shoot outdoors, which is why it was fairly humorous to hear (for maybe the first and only time ever in Calgary) people complaining about the unseasonably warm mid-March weather we encountered there.

“All the Calgarians I meet are, ‘I’m so sorry for the weather,’ and I’m like, no, no, we need it, this what we’re here for,” said Ewan McGregor, “So when it gets warm, we’re all disappointed.” When we visited it was way too pleasant for what the show needs, with a high of 50 degrees the first day and almost 43 the second, not tropical obviously, but not what they are looking for.

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We didn’t have quite as many problems with the weather, but how many shows in the history of television can honestly say nice weather can ruin filming?

Important People and Places Get Their Own Color Templates

You might not consciously be aware of it as a viewer, or notice it unless you are looking for it, but every major character and setting gets its own color template, which aids the design teams, whether they are in production or costume. Those templates inspire creative choices, focus costumes and set pieces, help keep a consistent and meaningful aesthetic, and contribute to the feel and tone of the show, helping to put the audience in the right mind frame for the setting or characters on screen. Plus, breaking from them has significance too.

FARGO -- Pictured: David Thewlis as V.M. Vargas. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

“Deviations from color scheme says something,” according to supervising producer Kim Todd, “There’s a reason for everything.” The color templates contribute to characterization and tone, and changes to them are done with just as much purpose. Like any great visual medium, how things look are just as important to the story as what is said or happens. It’s part of what makes Fargo so good.

Mansions Make For Marvelous Sets

Emmit Stussy, one of the two brothers Ewan McGregor is playing, is a very successful man and he likes to show that off, especially with his house, which we got to personally walk around. But it wasn’t on a sound stage, the way Gloria Burgle’s office was or Ray’s apartment, it was a real mansion, and the nicest house I’ve ever been in (yes, that means melting snow was a major problem when we went there, and not just because we had to take our shoes off to walk through it).

The giant abode was apparently abandoned many years ago, and even though they are just renting it for the season, the production team did an incredible job making it over. It was just a few more rooms away from being completely finished, though with the two permanent furnaces they placed inside (amazingly that was a cheaper option than just heating it temporarily) you could already reside there if you wanted.

FARGO -- Pictured: Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX

It also means they got to have a lot of fun decorating it and crafting the perfect look for what is in many ways Emmit’s biggest trophy, though we have a feeling when you see the premiere one specific item will stand out to you. We can’t tell you what it is (sorry!), but you’ll know it when you see it, because we were warned to be very careful not to knock it over.
Not that we needed to be told that. You’re always careful on a set or in a mansion, let alone when they are one in the same.

If You See It on Your Screen, That Means It Was Legally Cleared to Be There

Clearance might be a great word to hear when shopping, but it’s the biggest annoyance the design team has to deal with. That’s because everything that appears on the show, no matter how small or ubiquitous, has to get clearance from the legal department. Even a cheap tiny statue purchased at Walmart, something mass produced a million times, was designed by someone, and without a release by that person the network could face a lawsuit. Which is why if you see it on Fargo, a bunch of people had to okay it to be there.

Either that or it slipped by.

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If a chair or a couch is being used as such they are fair game, since that was their “intended use” anyway, but otherwise it’s a whole thing to get approval. In season two, a great clown arcade game they had hoped to use in the cluttered basement of Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy’s didn’t get cleared, so set director Darlene Lewis stuck it in the back of the set just to add some red color to the scene. Unfortunately, on the day of filming someone liked it so much they unknowingly moved it out into the open of a big tracking shot, and that meant FX and MGM Television (who produces the show) had a potentially expensive problem on their hand.

emmit-fargo-ewan-mcgregor

“Several high-level MGM execs spent weeks on that clown game,” said Kim Todd, in case you were wondering how glamorous it is to be in one of those positions. Fortunately for them they tracked down the maker of the decades old game (remember, season two was set in the 70s, making all of the vintage items used that whole year, many purchased at yard sales and flea markets, a clearance nightmare) to a company in Montreal, who gave the okay.

The easiest way they avoid all of these issues is to use pre-cleared items, especially books. That means that not every single item is picked for thematic reasons or to contribute to characterization (sorry obsessive freeze-framers), but because it makes it doesn’t take nine years to make one episode. (That does not apply to prominent items, which are definitely deliberate.) It all sounds so silly, but clearance is a serious, time consuming problem for studios to deal with, and it makes the production team’s job much more than just decorating with the best items they can find. While we were there the great clearance anxiety was over whether or not they could get a specific comic book they wanted to use, after the first choice had been rejected and an alternate “pre-cleared” one made no sense.

FARGO -- Year 3 -- Pictured: Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle. CR: Chris Large/FX

That’s why they have a skilled member of the crew who enjoys painting just create any original art they need. She is happy to do it, but most importantly she always signs the release.

But hey, at least they don’t have to worry about getting a release from Mother Nature. Though it would help if she’d be a little more accommodating and keep it nice and cold in Calgary.

What part of how they make Fargo surprises you? Dontcha go off without telling us what you think in the comments below.

Images: FX

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