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The Winter of ’79: The Evocative Noir of ‘Fargo’

“We’re shooting 1979, and everything had to work in the period—every sign, building and car," says the DP.

Fargo, the “true crime” show executive produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, is back, this time set in 1979 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Luverne, Minnesota.

In this second season, the focus is on a local crime family, the colorful Gerhardts—matriarch Floyd (Jean Smart), eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan), middle son Bear (Angus Sampson) and the youngest, Rye (Kieran Culkin)—who are fighting back against a Kansas City crime syndicate pushing into their territory. The Kansas City organization is led by Joe Bulo (Brad Garrett). Its face in the story is Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). Caught up in the war is a small town beautician, Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), who’s made some bad choices, and her husband Ed (Jesse Plemons), the local butcher’s assistant. Rounding out the story is Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson), a young state trooper just back from Vietnam, and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson), as well as town lawyer, Korean War vet and loquacious drunk Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman).

Luverne, Minn., town lawyer Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman, far left) and the Gerhardt’s man, Ohanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon, far right). Photo by Chris Large/FX.

Cinematographer Dana Gonzales, who shot nearly all of season 1, shot six of season 2’s 10 episodes (he rotated with Craig Wrobleski). Here, he speaks about the challenges and changes in the second season. As with season 1, Fargo still shoots in Calgary, although the production shot within a different time frame. “Last year we started in November and finished in April; this year we started shooting in January and finished in May,” he says. “We started shooting later this year knowing we’d want it to thaw out a little bit. We planned that it would hopefully stop snowing before we were done.”

Weather ended up being one of the bigger challenges in shooting the second season. “Last year it was really cold,” he says, “but this year, because the snow was erratic, we had to reschedule things and bring in fake snow. We had to move the schedule around if weather was coming.”

This season the production also built more sets from scratch. “That was a huge challenge,” he says. “We’re shooting 1979, and everything had to work in the period—every sign, building and car.”

The production again shot with two ARRI Alexa Plus cameras. “Alexa is one of the most popular cameras for a reason,” says Gonzales. “It has the best dynamic range and the best skin tone and color science. Fargo is a show that relies on skin tone and dynamic range, so it’s the best choice.”

Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst) is on a quest to be the best Peggy Blumquist she can be. Photo by Chris Large/FX.

Often, multi-season series have to pay attention to matching the look over the course of previous seasons. Not so for Fargo, which was set in 2006 last season. Gonzales chose vintage Cooke Speed Panchros to get the look he wanted for season 2. “I think one of the best ways to help sell a period is to have the film look like films from that period,” he says. “Vintage lenses are more popular because they give the look more character. I tested many vintage lenses, including with color swatches from the wardrobe, before I decided on the Cooke Speed Panchros. They were bang on for the color palette we were going to use.”

Although Gonzales used Steadicam occasionally last year, he completely eliminated its use this season. “It wasn’t popular with anyone. When I had something that had to be tracked like a Steadicam shot, I ended up using a Ronin instead,” he says, referring to DJI’s three-axis stabilized handheld gimbal system.

This year, the camera crew also had a Technocrane all season. “We didn’t the first season,” says Gonzales. “This year we needed it. Other than that, we used a jib arm for about 90 percent of all our shooting.”

This season introduced split-frames, to show actions happening simultaneously. The editing device helped cover many more primary characters than last season, as well as a complicated plot. “It became a very effective way to track everybody,” continues Gonzales. “Not only was it a right way to tell the story, but it was another way they told stories in the 1960s and 1970s, such as in The Boston Strangler [1968]. To do so, however, we had to double up on our coverage. We definitely needed to shoot more to support that.”

Butcher’s assistant Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons, foreground) is forced to cover for Peggy’s hit and run of Rye Gerhardt, putting him in the middle of a turf war. Also pictured, Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu). Photo by Chris Large/FX.

Gonzales notes that many viewers think the camera doesn’t move much in Fargo, but that’s a misapprehension. The camera does move, he says, but purposefully, to drive the story forward. “Camera moves punctuate the story,” he explains. “But there are many times when the camera is static, so when it does move, people are so caught up in the story, they think we’re not moving it. But if you study it, you’ll see the camera moves a lot.” Gonzales reports that the camera moves more this season than last, but never in a radical or erratic way. “There are a lot of push-ins,” he says. “We do that a lot, but it’s telling the story, moving it forward.”

In preproduction, Gonzales focused on the lighting and color palette of photographer William Eggleston, who, he says, “shot the most iconic imagery of the 1970s.” He continues, “I showed that to the production designer [Warren Alan Young] and Noah Hawley [executive producer/writer/showrunner] and we all agreed. We attached ourselves to that era and used only the colors from that period.” That color palette is heavy on oranges, yellows and pastels. “If you look at the Sears catalogs of that era, you’ll see there are pastel blues and a little bit of green, but less green than last year,” he says.

Cars were very distinct, Gonzales adds. “People owned cars for 15 years [back then], so you’ll see cars from the 1960s and 1970s. The cars were distinct colors and there were fewer choices,” he says. “Probably the biggest challenge was maintaining that many picture cars. We didn’t want to see the same picture cars all the time, and getting period cars in Calgary that weren’t rusted out wasn’t easy. We got them from all over the U.S. and Canada to satisfy that requirement.”

Gonzales lit the series using lighting common in 1979. “For instance, they barely used sodium lighting outside in the late 1970s,” Gonzales notes. “There were still a lot of tungsten streetlights in the Midwest, particularly mercury vapor, which wasn’t very efficient and had a blue, garish color. So I sourced that for street lighting and had all the town’s sodium lights re-globed to tungsten to match the period. And I used fluorescent lighting very sparingly. It existed, but they didn’t use it all over the place the way we do now.”

Kansas City enforcer Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). Photo by Chris Large/FX.

Gonzales owned some of the fixtures, which he found for another project and then hung onto. “They’re rare colors that are really hard to get in gels,” he says. “In fact, I couldn’t find a gel to replicate it. The spectrum is unique.” These fixtures are used for background lighting. “There are a few scenes with people in that light, but I’d never let actors bask in it,” he says. “Of course, we light the actors for cosmetic qualities, and for that, it depended on what we were doing.”

Finally, Gonzales notes that he took care to color correct each shoot. “When I first got into the business in the 1980s, we went to great lengths to color correct everything,” he says. “We’d change every light, gel every light. You were dealing with film and people didn’t want to shoot green. Now, people shoot available light all the time and correct the green, or go out of the way to add it, because it’s more modern. Most of the time, everything in season 2 is color corrected, with always perfectly correct skin tones—kind of like movies and photography at that time.”

With such exquisite attention to every cinematographic detail, the viewer is transported to 1979, entering into a story redolent of the Coen Brothers’ best: a complex, surprising and sometimes macabre plot peopled by the kind of eccentric characters they’re best known for.