In 1996, Joel and Ethan Coen released what would quickly become one of their most beloved (and acclaimed) films with the jet-black crime comedy Fargo. The film, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two of them (one for Best Leading Actress for star Frances McDormand, and another for the brothers for Best Original Screenplay), is a crime story for the ages and has been revisited in more recent years with Noah Hawley's crime anthology of the same name, which takes its inspiration from this clever hit. To celebrate the movie's 25th anniversary, here are 21 things you might not have known about Fargo.
1. The Coen Brothers have a way with birds.
Fargo’s opening scene memorably features a bird in flight set against the frigid Minnesota landscape. The incident was unscripted, as were memorable bird cameos in Barton Fink and Blood Simple. Joel Coen has commented “We have an uncanny ability to make birds do what we want them to do.”
2. Fargo killed at the box office.
The Coens' previous film, 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, had by far their largest budget to date at the time with $25 million. It was also by far their biggest flop, earning less than $3 million at the box office. For Fargo, the Coens returned to a much more modest budget of $7 million, but ended up taking in $60 million at the box office.
3. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave Fargo way more than two thumbs up.
Roger Ebert called Fargo "one of the best films I've ever seen" and added that "films like Fargo are why I love the movies." Both Siskel and Ebert named it their favorite movie of 1996.
4. Despite all the love from critics, Fargo was second banana at the 1997 Academy Awards.
A critical favorite since the moment of its release, Fargo took home two Oscars in 1997: one for the Coen Brothers for Best Original Screenplay and another to Frances McDormand for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson. However, Fargo lost most of the big awards to Elaine Benes’s least favorite movie, The English Patient. The World War II romance epic won a whopping nine Oscars at the show, including Best Picture and Best Director.
5. Not everything about Frances McDormand’s legendary performance in Fargo was authentic.
To play the pregnant Marge Gunderson, McDormand sported prosthetic breasts and a faux-pregnant belly full of birdseed. It was McDormand’s second time wearing fake breasts in a role for the Coens, following Raising Arizona, where she thought a fuller figure was appropriate considering her character had recently given birth to quintuplets.
6. Fargo's actors went through extensive training to get their accents right.
Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including McDormand and Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.
7. The Upper Midwest has a love/hate relationship with Fargo.
Fargo received some understandable backlash from Minnesotans and North Dakotans for portraying their neck of the American woods as being full of simple, funny-talking folks. Indeed, in the movie's DVD commentary, native Minnesotan Joel Coen referred to the state as “Siberia with family restaurants.”
In 1997, then-mayor of Brainerd Bonnie Cumberland said of Fargo: “It’s a movie that people who don’t live here seem to enjoy, but for us it’s a little bit of an embarrassment.”
However, as time passed, many Midwesterners warmed up to the film. The film’s infamously lethal wood chipper is currently housed in the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, and in 2006 and 2011, the Fargo Film Festival kicked off with a “larger than King Kong” screening of the movie on the side of the city’s tallest building—a Radisson hotel—to celebrate the 10th and 15th anniversaries of its release. The film festival is still running, but went virtual in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
8. Fargo marked a major comeback for one actor.
Before taking on the role of Wade Gustafson, the rich and hardened father of the kidnapped Jean Lundegaard, actor Harve Presnell hadn’t taken a film role in 20 years and was focusing on stage work. Following his turn in Fargo, he popped up on screen in blockbusters like Face/Off, Saving Private Ryan, and Old School.
9. Only a few minutes of Fargo take place in Fargo.
Despite the title, only the opening scene—where Jerry meets with Carl and Gaear to reveal the plan to kidnap his wife and hold her for ransom—takes place in Fargo. Most of the movie takes place in either Brainerd or the Twin Cities area. According to Joel Coen, “'Fargo' seemed a more evocative title than ‘Brainerd’” and that’s the only reason why they chose the North Dakota city for the title. Additionally, none of the filming was done in Fargo; the Kings of Clubs, the bar where the meeting between Jerry and the criminals takes place, was actually located in Minneapolis.
10. William H. Macy took extreme measures to the land the role of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo.
Originally, William H. Macy was being considered for a much smaller role, but the Coens had him come back and read for the part of Jerry Lundegaard. Macy was so convinced he was the right man for the job that he pleaded with the Coens, even threatening to shoot their dogs if they didn’t cast him (jokingly, of course). Macy ended up receiving an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the bumbling Lundegaard, but lost to Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire. Macy claimed the role was a major turning point in his career, and that after: “I was ratified! I was sanctified! I'm a made guy."
11. Every single one of Jerry Lundegaard’s nervous stutters in Fargo was carefully scripted.
At the root of Macy’s career-making performance are lines that constantly sound like they’re tripping over each another. While they were well played by Macy, almost every single stutter-step was actually mapped out by the Coens in the script.
12. Fargo features two very familiar Coen Brothers tropes.
Two of the Coens' favorite plot devices—stolen or missing money and kidnapping—feature in many of the brothers' movies (Blood Simple; The Big Lebowski; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; The Ladykillers; No Country For Old Men; and Burn After Reading included. Alongside 2009's A Serious Man, it’s also one of two Coen films set predominantly in their home state of Minnesota.
13. Steve Buscemi’s word count in Fargo is a running joke.
Throughout the entire movie, Peter Stormare’s character—Gaear Grimsrud—has just 16 lines of dialogue. By comparison, his chatty accomplice Carl Showalter (played by frequent Coen collaborator Steve Buscemi) has more than 150. This turns up as a running Coen brothers joke in The Big Lebowski, where Buscemi’s character Donny is constantly being told to “shut the f**k” up.”
14. An inside joke led to rumors that Prince had a cameo in Fargo.
The Coens provided anyone willing to stick around for the extended credits to a bit of a Minnesota insider joke. The role of “Victim in the Field” is credited to a scribble resembling Prince’s “Love Symbol,” which the late singer went by between 1993 and 2000. This spurred rumors that Prince had a hidden cameo in the film. Anyone paying attention, however, would have noticed that the role was clearly played by a much huskier fellow, who also happened to be the film’s storyboard artist (and a longtime Coen collaborator) J. Todd Anderson.
15. You might know Fargo wasn’t actually a “true story,” but the Coens's web of deception goes even further than the opening credits.
While the tag on the beginning of the film reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel Coen stating “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.” However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan Coen pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true."
16. The Big Lebowski almost came first (which could have spelled disaster for the Coens).
It’s pretty much taken for granted that the Coens are small kings in the cinema world, able to more or less have complete creative control over their films. But without Fargo, this probably wouldn’t have been the case. Following the release of The Hudsucker Proxy, which bombed ferociously at the box office, the Coens had more or less finished scripts for The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Because The Dude was written for Jeff Bridges, who was busy shooting another movie, Fargo ended up getting made first.
For the Coen Brothers, this release order ended up being a massive stroke of good fortune, since The Big Lebowski was a box office dud upon release and only built up its massive following after its theatrical run. Had The Big Lebowski been made first, it would have been the Coens' fourth consecutive poor performer (following Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy), and might have had major consequences on their careers. Instead, they gained the goodwill that came along with Fargo, a box office success that was praised by many as an instant classic. They’ve pretty much been riding the wave of praise and box office success ever since.
17. Fargo's editor, Roderick Jaynes, is actually Joel and Ethan Coen.
Because the Coens found having their names appear on screen as directors, writers, producers, and editors a bit tacky, they credit their editing work to the fictional “Roderick Jaynes,” who’s listed on all of their films outside of Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. When the fictional Jaynes was for nominated for his first Oscar on Fargo, the Coens wanted to have actor Albert Finney accept the award in character, but because the Academy doesn’t allow for surrogates to accept awards (presumably due to a 1973 incident involving Marlon Brando and a Native American named Sacheen Littlefeather) they had to scratch the plan. Jaynes ended losing to Walter Murch for his work on The English Patient, and would lose again in 2008 (with The Bourne Ultimatum's Christopher Rouse beating out the Coens and No Country for Old Men).
18. Weird weather made production on Fargo a headache.
Production for Fargo was made much more difficult since the winter of 1994/1995 was one of the warmest and least snowy in Minnesota history. This led to heaps of production delays and scrambles to find snow-covered scenery. Interestingly, David Zellner, who directed the aforementioned Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, also dealt with unseasonably warm weather when he set out to shoot his quasi Fargo follow-up, waiting a year to get the movie’s appropriately chilly look.
19. Rumors that a Japanese woman died pursuing the buried ransom money led to a sort of Fargo spinoff.
The award-winning 2014 independent film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is loosely based on the urban legend of Takako Konishi. In 2001, several media outlets falsely reported that Konishi had trekked from Tokyo to Bismarck and Fargo in search of the fictitious money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s Fargo character Carl Showalter, and froze in the cold. The misunderstanding stemmed from a police officer who seemingly wanted to create an interesting story. In reality, however, Konishi’s story was much less strange and a bit more melancholy: she had traveled to Fargo to take her own life in her ex-lover’s hometown.
20. Fargo was almost a TV show back in 1997.
FX’s original series Fargo, which debuted in 2014 to critical praise and enthusiastic viewership, has breathed new life into the funny-accents-meet-brutal-violence formula. However, FX’s take on the Coen Brothers classic actually marks the second major attempt to adapt Fargo for the small screen. In 1997, a pilot directed by Kathy Bates (yes, that Kathy Bates) and starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson was passed on by the major networks. Although it never had a full run on television, this first made-for-TV version of Fargo wasn’t lost forever: it aired on the short-lived cable network Trio in 2003, as part of its Brilliant But Cancelled programming series.
21. Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley wasn’t sure how to take Ethan Coen’s reaction to his first episode.
A bit more on the TV series: While the Coens had nothing to do with the 1997 pilot, they serve as executive producers on the FX series. According to showrunner Noah Hawley, when Ethan Coen first read the script, he gave two words of feedback: “Yeah, good.” Only after talking with Fargo cast member and frequent Coen collaborator Billy Bob Thornton did Hawley realize this was a rave review, and not just modest praise.
This story has been updated for 2021.