News

6 Cool Things We Learned About the Set Design of Fargo Season Two

by | December 7, 2015 | Comments

In April, Rotten Tomatoes traveled to Alberta, Canada, to visit the set of Fargo’s second season — which was not only a journey to the outskirts of Calgary, but also a step back in time to Luverne, Minnesota, 1979.

As any Fargo fan would expect, touring the season two set was a lesson in details. Every object in every frame is deliberately placed, each physical set is built with specific thematic needs in mind, and all of the details serve the show — and the Coen brothers universe.

Here’s everything we learned from touring the set with producer Kim Todd, and how we made sense of it all by watching this season of Fargo.


EACH FRAME IS A SERIES OF LAYERS UPON LAYERS

There are no accidental choices in the set design of Fargo. Each object that you see on the screen is carefully chosen and placed by the set decorators to add depth and texture to the story — and to find those objects, the crew sources a number of items (housewares, tchotchkes, needlepoint, afghans, toys, electronics) from eBay, Etsy, and local thrift shops with their characters in mind.

“Everyone’s aware, as we go along, of the world Noah [Hawley] has built for us,” explained Todd, who led the press on a tour of the Fargo soundstage, “and he’ll come to [set designer] Darlene Lewis and say, ‘That was a great touch,’ because she’s picked up on a thread and put something in the background.”

To see this theory in practice, one simply has to freeze the frame of pretty much any Fargo homestead and look at the props within. A still of the Solversons’ living room reveals a number of objects that tell us about the family. Toys strewn about the floor let us know that there’s a young child in the home (who we later figure out is season one’s Molly Solverson at four years old), wood paneling and a Sears oil painting above the sofa mark the furnishings of a 1970s middle-class home, and the messiness of the room indicates that the homemaker is not operating at 100 percent, which will come into focus once the viewer realizes that Betsy has a grave illness.

“When you look at a frame, there can be two characters and one ashtray, but you don’t forget the ashtray,” Todd said about the deliberateness of Fargo‘s set decoration. “It was so carefully chosen.”


EVERY SET IS PHYSICALLY BUILT TO SERVE THE DRAMA

The sets themselves — not just the objects within — are also carefully conceived in Fargo. A set usually originates from a simple line in the script (for example, “They go to a cabin”) and then the location department searches for an exterior of a structure, which then requires approval from the showrunner, designer, and director. Once an exterior location is confirmed, set designer Warren Young draws up a plan for the interior, which must logically match the outside of the house or building for continuity’s sake (such as, being an appropriate size or lining up the windows) and also augment the drama of the story.

In the Solverson’s house, for example, Molly’s room is adjacent to her parents’, which allows side-by-side narratives to take place within the same frame (not unlike the use of the split-screen device in many of Fargo‘s other scenes), while also being part of a perfectly normal floor plan within a split-level home. By building these two rooms next to each other, we’re able to see the a happy story involving Lou and Molly on the left and a sad vignette with Betsy on the right concurrently. It’s choices like these that allow the set to serve not only a logistical function, but a thematic one as well.


THE BEST SETS DON’T MAKE SAFE CHOICES

The astute viewer will notice many bold choices throughout the Fargo-verse — from the cinematography, to the music, and right down to the actors’ shoes — and some choices are riskier than others.

For instance, in Peggy’s living room, there is a bright orange carpet under a green sofa. Given how some colors don’t always translate so well through the camera (particularly with the use of filters), the orange shag would have been an awfully big job to fix in post-production if it didn’t work out. But, given Peggy’s personality and her character’s desire to reach for something more, the carpet color was a risk Peggy would have taken to make Ed’s family home her own — and, therefore, one that the set designers had to take too.

“For me,” Todd said of Peggy’s living room, “it’s an example of the strong choices Noah makes about who the characters are, and the rest of us are supposed to make — including the actors — about how to portray them. So, you don’t make the safe choices; you make the choices that are just on the edge.”


THE BLOMQUISTS’ BASEMENT IS BASICALLY PEGGY’S BRAIN

When Todd took the press through the Blomquists’ house six months before the season two premiere, little information was known about Peggy’s story arc — though the producer explained that Peggy had dreams of getting out of Luverne, Minnesota, and that she had been hoarding fashion and travel magazines as a result of wanting of something more. The basement, she said, was Peggy’s brain.

By episode eight, when you see Peggy sitting on her basement stairs, surrounded by stacks of magazine and hallucinating that Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) is presumably the mentor from the LifeSpring seminar, you understand exactly what Todd meant during the set tour. The chaos and clutter of Peggy’s brain is clearly delineated in the craziness of the basement — and it also becomes clear that the hoarding seen upstairs in previous episodes is just the tip of Peggy’s crazy iceberg. When the viewer shares Peggy’s unreliable point of view in the basement scene, it is the culmination of a series of clues already laid out by the set design that this is a woman on the brink of a breakdown.

“This was one of the most interesting set-decorating exercises I have ever seen people have to do,” Todd said about the basement. “They had to figure out how to pile magazines this high and not have them fall over, which was one thing. [And then there was] just the level of stuff — and to not make it look like a thrift shop, but to make it look like a specific character’s hoardings of the last 10 years.”


THE GERHARDT HOMESTEAD IS RICH WITH SYMBOLISM

Another important location this season is the Gerhardt homestead, which is both a working North Dakotan farm and also the headquarters for their crime syndicate. The best sets to juxtapose these two facets of the Gerhardt family are the large country kitchen, which looks like it could be the heart of any other farmhouse, and the parlor, where the family conducts business.

Within the parlor, a number of props give texture to the Gerhardts’ past, including photographs of young Hanzee, the Native American child who would grow up to be one of the family’s heavies (Zahn McClarnon), and the eldest Gerhardt, who died in the Korean War. Also visible in the parlor is the Gerhardts’ family logo which very deliberately evokes the Nazi party with its black symbol against a red background. “They wanted to look tough,” Todd said of the flag.

As with season one, animal imagery is everywhere this year, and the Gerhardt parlor is one of the places you’ll see it the most. Hunting and taxidermy usually symbolize predators and prey in the Coen brothers universe and the antlers and skins (not to mention Hanzee’s poor dead rabbit) this season reinforce the theme that the Gerhardts are both aggressors and prey.


THE SET CAPTURES THE LOOK OF THE COEN BROTHERS UNIVERSE

Animal imagery isn’t the only motif from the Coen brothers movies that permeate the Fargo TV show. The sets are also designed with the Coens’ love of symmetrical composition in mind.

“Symmetry is something that the Coen brothers often use,” Todd said. “You’ll see a shot of three people on a couch, framed with a window behind [them], and you’ll notice that the sets are built that way too. In all our pursuits to create the series, we’re not copying the Coen brothers’ movies, but we’re mindful of the aesthetic that they created that’s unique to them, and so that balance and symmetry is in our design and in our shooting — the lenses we use and the composition of the frame is always important to us. And, again, that comes from Noah and filters down through all of us who make any decisions that have to do with what goes on onscreen.”


Fargo airs Monday nights on FX at 10 p.m. and stars Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Jeffrey Donovan, Brad Garrett, Zahn McClarnon, Jean Smart, Nick Offerman, Jesse Plemons, Rachel Keller, and Cristin Milioti.  Season two is currently Certified Fresh at 100 percent; read reviews here.

Tag Cloud

war American Society of Cinematographers President franchise CNN laika FXX TV renewals renewed TV shows sag awards directors Quiz richard e. Grant Pop biography zero dark thirty criterion football 72 Emmy Awards 2016 archives OneApp canceled indie Pride Month Rocketman Watching Series Paramount RT21 TNT Fall TV a nightmare on elm street Podcast Food Network cancelled festivals Sneak Peek 45 critics Ghostbusters Shondaland Shudder Dark Horse Comics Funimation Opinion E! Reality TIFF mockumentary Hear Us Out The Witch Best and Worst singing competition TV all-time cancelled television Reality Competition crossover child's play Cosplay Fox Searchlight rt archives halloween game of thrones historical drama comic Syfy Spectrum Originals 24 frames Writers Guild of America harry potter fast and furious Rom-Com BET adventure spanish language animated Rock christmas movies Western WGN book Animation crime drama tv talk Starz Thanksgiving VOD First Look transformers zombie Red Carpet fresh ITV Creative Arts Emmys nbcuniversal ratings reboot cops breaking bad crime disaster diversity DC Universe Lucasfilm Sundance Now 71st Emmy Awards TCM theme song 007 Ellie Kemper Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Tubi Cannes NBC period drama Women's History Month Disney The CW Hulu boxing Video Games Schedule San Diego Comic-Con CBS dragons BBC One crime thriller worst movies stand-up comedy MTV dceu latino reviews Awards HBO Max Horror sitcom Family Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Infographic IFC Bravo Brie Larson Martial Arts stop motion Set visit MCU 2020 Song of Ice and Fire Winter TV 99% anime Winners Kids & Family YouTube Red doctor who cancelled TV shows Stephen King E3 Mary poppins VH1 Music 2018 Travel Channel LGBT ESPN travel Television Academy movie aliens werewolf Turner Marathons toy story Acorn TV FX Trophy Talk Extras Baby Yoda cancelled TV series comic books TCA 2017 Comedy FX on Hulu TV Land Amazon Studios game show AMC Super Bowl quibi composers name the review Apple TV+ best Binge Guide The Walking Dead 2017 Year in Review adaptation docudrama Valentine's Day Netflix Christmas movies Tarantino zombies james bond Freeform Tumblr sequel discovery robots Black History Month DGA rotten movies we love cats cars Black Mirror screen actors guild south america true crime Awards Tour Countdown cooking thriller nfl DC Comics supernatural comedies El Rey Lifetime die hard worst blockbuster USA Anna Paquin parents Arrowverse comics Photos Masterpiece TCA Country toronto Character Guide classics films Interview ghosts BAFTA dc History hispanic X-Men Toys police drama Mudbound Academy Awards Polls and Games obituary teaser japanese satire mission: impossible jamie lee curtis See It Skip It kids HBO Go CBS All Access dramedy Comics on TV Alien asian-american slashers space Netflix Teen strong female leads Sundance TV Comic Book Turner Classic Movies joker based on movie BBC America justice league Amazon Prime Video The Arrangement blaxploitation black cinemax IFC Films PaleyFest video on demand facebook cults award winner political drama Holidays Film Festival PlayStation Star Trek Spring TV politics movies nature medical drama natural history series Grammys Marvel Elton John FOX Ovation casting 20th Century Fox serial killer Epix Nominations Discovery Channel unscripted emmy awards Musical Trailer festival First Reviews chucky Action vampires talk show Fantasy scorecard LGBTQ romance Pop TV Spike Universal television ABC Star Wars hist screenings Disney Plus Cartoon Network 4/20 witnail ABC Family deadpool USA Network what to watch binge Britbox New York Comic Con 21st Century Fox Disney Channel cartoon Oscars VICE social media Lionsgate batman Apple Sci-Fi spider-man anthology Fox News australia halloween tv TBS Film Mary Poppins Returns dark TCA Winter 2020 GLAAD italian Tomatazos spain Christmas Comedy Central Mystery Emmy Nominations Nickelodeon Disney streaming service twilight independent NYCC WarnerMedia elevated horror Premiere Dates french A24 venice indiana jones superhero GIFs BBC miniseries Biopics DirecTV Heroines Election Certified Fresh streaming foreign Showtime Musicals Lifetime Christmas movies technology Hallmark Marvel Television Amazon Prime concert spanish scary movies comiccon YouTube ID Classic Film psychological thriller Paramount Network documentary romantic comedy SundanceTV SDCC Trivia HBO YA sequels universal monsters spy thriller Crunchyroll Warner Bros. rotten canceled TV shows documentaries Sony Pictures MSNBC APB TLC Mindy Kaling Logo TruTV National Geographic Avengers Crackle remakes mutant Endgame dogs 2015 Superheroe Drama Hallmark Christmas movies Marvel Studios Nat Geo Columbia Pictures GoT CMT Walt Disney Pictures Disney+ Disney Plus DC streaming service Chernobyl RT History Peacock Emmys The Academy Pirates free movies Adult Swim CW Seed news PBS golden globes video Apple TV Plus YouTube Premium Box Office Amazon finale The Purge Television Critics Association Captain marvel Holiday 2019 hollywood psycho SXSW Superheroes OWN Pixar stoner A&E Mary Tyler Moore TCA Awards Esquire versus Vudu Rocky Calendar science fiction boxoffice revenge children's TV Pet Sematary BET Awards Summer spinoff Sundance sports green book