24 Things We Learned from Roger Deakins’ Commentary for ‘Fargo’

“I still like it as a movie.”

The fine folks over at specialty Blu-ray label Shout! Factory have recently gotten into the steelbook game, and their first release — not counting a trio of snazzy John Carpenter titles released under their Scream Factory imprint — is Joel & Ethan Coen’s 1996 classic, Fargo. The film is every bit as sharp and blackly comic today as it was over two decades ago, and its re-release in a slick, new steelbook is a fine reason for a revisit.

Keep reading to see what we heard on the commentary track for…

Fargo (1996)

Commentator: Roger Deakins (director of photography)

1. They shot the film in Minneapolis-St. Paul and had to wait for several weeks before the weather gave them what they wanted for the snowy opening credits sequence. They were filming a different scene on the 14th floor of a high-rise when the snow began falling, so Deakins sent his assistant out to get this shot. “We had scouted the locations and knew exactly the camera angles, so off he went and shot this really lovely material.”

2. “It was one of the least snowy winters on record,” for the area, so much of the film’s snow was created with “an ice-chipping machine.”

3. He had worked with William H. Macy five years earlier on David Mamet’s Homicide.

4. This track was recorded shortly after Deakins had finished shooting his seventh film with the Coen Brothers, The Ladykillers. They’ve since shot four more together.

5. “A lot of times filmmakers get too involved in showing off with the camera, but it’s really about characters and performance and atmosphere.” He acknowledges they did some “dizzy” camerawork in something like The Hudsucker Proxy, but “that’s a different concept… and a different kind of film” than the story being told here.

6. Some of the locations they looked at in advance were nixed for being “too interesting. They wanted the feel of bland middle America.”

7. The Paul Bunyan statue was built for the film. “It was there for a long time.”

8. Fargo was a bit looser than other Coen films in that they used far fewer storyboards.

9. He wonders what the neighbors were thinking while they filmed the scene where a masked Steve Buscemi smashed through glass to break into the Lundegaard’s house. “It’s very funny.”

10. The bathroom where Jean (Kristin Rudrud) makes her stand before being abducted was a set they built because the house’s real bathroom was too small to shoot in.

11. The overhead shot at 22:38 originally called for dozens of cars, but when Deakins looked down on it while setting up the cameras that morning he suggested they go a different route. “I said to Joel ‘let’s not have any more cars, it’s just such a great graphic.'”

12. The witness being shot in the back at 32:30 is actually the film’s storyboard artist, J. Todd Anderson.

13. Watching the scene where Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) kneels down to look at the dead cop in the snow, Deakins wonders aloud if the body is a dummy. “But I know we actually used the guy, how he actually laid down in that snow is pretty good.”

14. He was nervous on their first collaboration, Barton Fink, because the idea of two directors made him worry the set experience would be confusing, “but it’s quite the reverse really.” He adds it actually gives cast and crew more access to the director since there’s two of them.

15. Deakins and others thought the two girls being interviewed by Marge “were putting the accent on, but actually they spoke exactly like that.”

16. They had to re-shoot the early exterior of the bar where Jerry Lundegaard (Macy) meets Carl Showalter (Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) because “it didn’t look bleak enough.” He adds that across the seven films he’s shot for them it’s pretty much the only instance of a re-shoot, and while other films see rewrites and re-colored script pages (to identify changes) he’s never seen that happen on a Coen Brothers film. “The script is there when we start pre-production, and that’s the script we shoot, and that’s the film you see on the screen.”

17. He recalls comparing Barton Fink‘s finished product to the shot list they filmed, and the differences were minimal. He recounts one featuring “a little effects sequence when the John Goodman character is killing the lift manager, and we shot a sequence where his head falls off and rolls down the floor.”

18. More of the conversations are shot “over the shoulder” style as opposed to the Coen’s typical head-on as a way to specify this as a true story that viewers are peeking into.

19. All of the snow seen atop the parking garage at 56:30 was added manually by the effects team. You can see beyond it where there’s no visible snow past it.

20. They had one day of shooting where they were stuck with a gorgeous blue sky, and he hated it.”I don’t like the look of this light at all.”

21. He’s happy to see The Hudsucker Proxy has built an audience in the years since its disastrous box-office release saying people seem “more open to the nuances of it now.” Fargo was a much smaller film made in response to its bombing, and it’s the one that went on to make money and garner critical acclaim. “It’s impossible to know when something’s going to be successful, whatever that is.”

22. The Man Who Wasn’t There is his favorite of the seven films he’s done with the Coens (up to the time of the recording).

23. Several shots were crafted specifically so that busy roads would be visible through the windows behind the performers. He says it may be to suggest the idea that you never quite know who or what’s arriving in the next car coming into town.

24. The scene where Marge drives Gaear in the police car annoys him because the front seat shots and back seat shots were filmed on different days leading to a fluctuating sky color out the back window. It’s blue on Marge and white on Gaear. “I hate it.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“Yeah, this was cold.”

“It was like minus twenty when we were shooting this. Pretty cold.”

“This was the coldest night on this parking lot. This was really brutal.”

Buy the new Fargo Blu-ray steelbook from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Deakins is a living legend in the realm of cinematography, and while he’s never won an Academy Award — despite being nominated thirteen times — his mastery is unquestioned. He speaks several times to Fargo‘s simplicity by design, but he neglects to compliment himself for still managing to find beauty in the very basic situations and settings. The track features several gaps where he either forgets to speak or simply had nothing to say, but he does offer up some interesting observations for fans of the film and/or of cinematography in general.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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