On a warm Friday night in June, an audience gathered at New York's Pier 76 for a 25th anniversary screening of Fargo at the Tribeca Festival. But most of those audience members weren't also in the movie.
Steve Buscemi, one of the stars of the 1996 award-winning film - about a small-time Minnesota car salesman who hires two local thugs to kidnap his wife for ransom, and then sees those plans go horribly awry - tuned in for the movie until he had to step away for the post-screening discussion. "I've seen it since [it was released], but it's been a while," he said later. "It was great - it looks great, it sounds great."
Buscemi was joined for that conversation by Frances McDormand, who played chipper and persistent local police chief Marge Gunderson (the role that won McDormand her first Oscar), and director/co-writer Joel Coen (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with his brother and collaborator, Ethan Coen).
The panel, part of Tribeca's 2021 reunions series presented by Entertainment Weekly, touched on topics including how the script came together, the surprising afterlife for the film's infamous woodchipper, and the "surreal" encounter Buscemi had with a police officer while they were filming.
Here are some of the highlights from their conversation:
The Coens had to take a monthslong break from writing the script before figuring out how to finish it.
Speaking with writer Mark Harris, who moderated the talk, Coen said that when he and Ethan would write together, they wouldn't necessarily know where they wanted to story to go next. "[It] would sort of reveal itself as we were working on the script," he explained. When it came to Fargo, they had to put the script "in a drawer" around the point in the film where Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) beats up Buscemi's Carl Showalter. "It sat there for probably four or five months and we didn't think about it," Coen added, "and then we came back and finished it."
Buscemi and McDormand's parts were written specifically for them - but William H. Macy originally auditioned for a different role.
Buscemi recalled Coen telling him about Fargo around the time they made 1991's Barton Fink. "He said, 'Your character is gonna be a very good-looking guy,'" he joked, referring to the numerous characters who describe Carl as "funny looking" in a "general kind of way" throughout the film.
Marge, the moral counterbalance to all the greed and deception in the movie, was written for McDormand (who said it was important to her that her character was good at her job). So was Peter Stormare's mostly silent but very deadly Gaear Grimsrud - Coen said Stormare wrote him and his brother a letter asking to be considered if they ever needed a Swedish actor. They wrote the part of "The Swede" for him in Miller's Crossing, which he ultimately couldn't fit into his schedule, but the brothers then remembered him when it came time for Fargo.
But William H. Macy, who played the inept criminal mastermind Jerry Lundergaard, initially auditioned for the role of Stan Grossman, the accountant who works for Jerry's father-in-law. But during his audition, Macy asked to read for the role of Jerry. Coen said they had initially envisioned Jerry very differently - as someone who was "a little overweight and uncomfortable in his body, a little slovenly" - but that they let Macy read for it anyway, and the rest is history. "We thought, you're right, you should play that part … that's a better version of what we'd dreamt up. He kind of, in a strange way, wrote the character for himself."
How the Mike Yanagita scene came about.
One of the movie's most unforgettable but arguably most perplexing scenes is when Marge goes to Minneapolis to see a former classmate after he calls her out of the blue. The ensuing meet-up, in which Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) awkwardly hits on her, breaks into tears, and lies about a dead spouse, has nothing to do with the crimes at the center of Fargo, but it's impossible to imagine the film without it. (You can read much more about that scene here.)
Coen said the scene came about because they wanted to see Marge in a different situation, reacting in a completely different way, and encountering someone who, as she and the audience later learn, was not being honest with her. (McDormand also noted that an earlier version of the script had her going to Minneapolis for a very different reason: A friend invited her to an anti-abortion protest.)
But, speaking generally about how Fargo unfolds and how this scene fits in, Coen said that they didn't think the script needed to strictly chase the central story. "I felt that we had the license to make that kind of left turn."
Steve Buscemi had a real run-in with a Minnesota cop
In a very strange (but less murdery) instance of life imitating art, Buscemi told the crowd that the day after he and Stormare filmed the scene when Stormare's character kills a state trooper, the two were going out to breakfast when they got pulled over by a policewoman. "It was so surreal, because she said 'license and registration,' and I looked at Peter and was like, 'nothing's gonna happen, right?'"
Buscemi ultimately talked his way out of a ticket, and said he's always wondered if that woman ever saw the movie and recognized them.
About the Paul Bunyan statue….and the woodchipper.
Two of the Fargo's most famous props got lives of their own outside the movie, according to McDormand and Coen. As the actress explained, the Bunyan statue was erected in the middle of sugar beet fields in North Dakota, where there was nothing else around for miles. After a few nights of shooting, the cast and crew realized that cars were starting to pull in and park on the side of the highway. "We finally realized that people were bringing their kids out before bed to see the statue. All these families would come and they park and all the kids would be in their pajamas and they just they just sit in their car and look at the statue," she said. "That's how little there is to do in North Dakota."
McDormand also gave Coen this prompt: "Tell them about the woodchipper."
The woodchipper, of course, is how Gaear disposes of Carl's body after killing him. But it now has a starring role in a Minnesota town's annual July 4th celebrations. As Coen tells it, one of the grips who worked on Fargo and some of their other films told him a few years later that he brought the woodchipper back home to the small town of Delano, Minn., and that they - yes, you betcha - bring it out during their Fourth of July parade every year.