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The Coen Brothers’ Rules: 4 Filmmaking Practices That Give ‘Fargo’ Its Cinematic Consistency


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.

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“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

FARGO -- “The Law of Inevitability” – Year 3, Episode 7 David Thewlis, Ewan McGregor

“Fargo,” Year 3, Episode 7

Chris Large/FX

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.”

Camera movement

FARGO -- “The Law of Vacant Places” – Year 3, Episode 1 (Airs April 19, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Carrie Coon as Gloria Burgle. CR: Chris Large/FX

“Fargo,” Year 3

Chris Large/FX

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.

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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

Inside LLewyn Davis

“Inside LLewyn Davis”

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.

FARGO -- “The Principle of Restricted Choice” – Year 3, Episode 2 (Airs April 26, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured (l-r): Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango, Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy. CR: FX

“Fargo,” Year 3


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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.

LEGION -- Pictured: Jean Smart as Melanie Bird. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX


Frank Ockenfels/FX

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.

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‘The Last Jedi’ Will Be the Biggest Movie of 2017, Even as It Leaves Some Records Untouched


The first shows for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” begin tonight, and there’s every expectation that is will be the biggest-opening, top-grossing domestic release of 2017. At a minimum, we’re looking at a $200 million opening, with $225 million very likely.

With strong holiday playtime following the first 10 days of release, a multiple of at least three times its opening is possible, which could propel to the domestic take to around $700 million.

Yes, it’s going to be huge — but there’s a few records it might not beat. Here (with adjusting numbers to 2017 values) are some comparable numbers that “Jedi” will easily best, and a few that seem unlikely.

Top domestic grosses of 2017: YES

“The Last Jedi” should find the opening numbers easy to beat, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be the best-performing movie of the year.

Film Studio Opening Gross Domestic Total
Beauty and the Beast Disney $174.8 million $504 million
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 Disney $146.5 million $412.6 million
It Warner Bros. $123.4 million $389.8 million


Best opening weekends in the “Star Wars” franchise: MAYBE

The bigger opening numbers in recent years can be tied to more seats available, pre-buys, and overall moviegoing habits.

Title Year Opening Box Office
Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 $254.5 million
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 2016 $157.6 million
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith 2005  $151.1 million


Best domestic gross for the “Star Wars” franchise: MAYBE

This includes reissues. “Star Wars” is the #2 film of all time, while “The Force Awakens” is the biggest success in the last 20 years. To be as high as fifth on the all time “Star Wars” list, “The Last Jedi”  would need to do 78 percent of the total for “The Force Awakens,” and significantly better than “Rogue One.”

Title Year Total Box Office
Star Wars 1977 $1.591 billion
Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 $965.5 million
The Empire Strikes Back 1980 $876.8 million
The Return of the Jedi 1983 $840.0 million
The Phantom Menace 1999  $757.4 million


“The Fate of the Furious”

Top international grosses for 2017: NO

The two most recent “Star Wars” films weren’t top among overseas release in their years. In 2015, “The Force Awakens” was second to “Furious 7,” though it did gross over $1 billion overseas. “Rogue One” was eighth best among 2016 releases, grossing $524 million. Expect “The Last Jedi” to gross somewhere in between, unlikely to be better than third best for the year.

Title Studio Total
The Fate of the Furious Universal $1.010 billion
Wolf Warrior 2 Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co. $864.9 million
Despicable Me 3 Universal $767.8 million
Beauty and the Beast Disney $759.5 million
Pirates of the Caribbean:
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Disney  $622.3 million


Top worldwide grosses for 2017: YES

This looks entirely doable. “The Force Awakens” made over $2 billion, “Rogue One” a little over $1 billion; expect this to do more, both at home and overseas.

Title Studio Total
Beauty and the Beast Disney $1.264 billion
The Fate of the Furious Universal $1.236 billion
Despicable Me 3 20th Century Fox $1.033 billion
Spider-Man: Homecoming Sony $880.2 million
Wolf Warrior 2 Beijing Jingxi Culture & Tourism Co.  $870.3 million


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