“It’s dark and humorous, with sudden bouts of absurd violence.” As a description of Fargo – both of the original movie by the Coen Brothers and Noah Hawley’s TV version, which now runs to two completed series, with a third recently commissioned – this summation by Jeff Russo, a composer on the show, is pretty on point.
Russo joined the show when the first TV series was commissioned from Hawley by FX (it is shown on Channel 4 in the UK) and is part of a team that has managed to translate the Coen Brothers’ vision into a show that is respectful to the film, but retains its own style. They have achieved this by not shying away from the original – they’re using the same name, after all – but creating a show that has its own depth and identity, accomplished in part by setting the two TV series in a different era (from each other and the movie) and introducing a new set of characters and storylines each time.
What is left is a ‘vibe’ from the film, created by its setting – in various small towns across a permanently snowy Minnesota – its cinematography and its music. Russo is responsible for the latter, working alongside Hawley and music supervisor Maggie Phillips, who sources the songs, to provide the musical backdrop to scenes that swing from authentic, emotional family interactions to intense, bloody violence.
“Carter Burwell wrote the score for the movie and of course he created this vibe that I needed to build upon, and then also try to turn that into something that is unique and with our own identity,” says Russo. “Our show is based in that world but we needed to stand up on our own as well. It was a really delicate balance.”
The Coen Brothers are listed as executive producers on the television version of Fargo, though to Russo’s understanding they are “completely uninvolved creatively”. The TV version comes instead from the mind of Hawley, who has created characters of great depth, from the terrifying Lorne Malvo (played by Billy Bob Thornton) in series one, to Kirsten Dunst’s Peggy Blomquist in series two, a beautician who dreams of a more expansive life.
“The thing I love about Noah’s writing is that the two most important things are the narrative and the characters,” says Russo. “Having both of those in the show just makes it very compelling. The way I describe it is it’s basically a show about good and evil and how they come together, and when they do come together it’s just an explosion of stuff.”
Russo works closely with Hawley to create the music as the show is developed, rather than working from already shot scenes. “With Noah I tend to work from script, and I will read the scripts as they come and start writing themes before we shoot. Then when the episodes are being edited and finished they send them to me and I write more music to tailor fit it to the show.”
This is by far Russo’s preferred way of composing for TV. He speaks highly of working on Fargo, and also on other series including Manhattan, Power, and the US version of French show The Returned, but admits that sometimes he is brought in to retrofit a score to pre-shot scenes. “There have been of course experiences that were not great,” he says. “Where you have a difficult time communicating with the other creative people and maybe they have no respect for music, or feel like music can be something that you can fix the problems of the show with. And that’s just not the case.
“I always say that the best way to get the most unique voice in music for any show or movie is to bring the composer in pretty early so they can really start getting into writing for the show as it’s being created.”
Russo’s background is playing in bands, including rock band Tonic. He switched to TV composing during a down period in Tonic and fell in love with the work. “It’s a completely different process,” he says of his TV work. “With the band, me and Emerson – he’s the singer – we sit, we write a song, we write basically whatever we want. When you write music for a film or a television show, you’re writing in deference to the story, to the narrative. You’re writing for someone else and applying your creative vision to theirs in order to create a bigger haul.”
Another big difference is the time constraint, although according to Russo, this isn’t always a bad thing. “You know, I find I work almost better under a deadline,” he says. “If I don’t have a deadline, I can take a year to write a song, because I can keep messing with it, keep tinkering until I feel like it’s perfect, which is never, because nothing artistic is ever perfect. It’s always in flux. I don’t have that with film and TV because somebody says, ‘we need to have it done by the 18th’, so I don’t have a choice.”
For Fargo, Russo creates numerous recurring musical refrains, for individual characters, families or themes such as ‘murder’. Of the latter, Russo comments: “A lot of our show contains sudden absurd violence, and in order to really play that up, I wanted to play into that absurd music. That lends itself a little bit to the black humour of the violence – that it seems so real and yet so completely absurd. Playing it very straight with music accentuates that point. That has become a hallmark of the music of the show.
“One of the other things we talked about is we never want to play comedy. We can change from dark to light, but the comedy stands on its own. Whenever there’s comedy I’m normally not playing music at all. It’s quiet.”
He cites one of the biggest challenges of working on the show so far as Hawley’s insistence that season two feature none of the themes that occurred in season one. In this, the music, like the storyline and era, is totally new in the second series. “I think his reasoning was the themes that I wrote for season one were so tied to those characters that if you heard them in season two, it would just be jarring, it wouldn’t feel right. And he was right.
“So that posed a bit of a challenge, having to write all new music and yet still be in the world, and still try to achieve what we achieved in season one, but start all over again. It was a tall order, but we did it.”
Presumably this challenge will recur for season three, though, unsurprisingly perhaps, Russo refuses to be drawn on plans for this series. He does offer one comment though, which will prove tantalising to fans: “There’s already a story and there’s already lots of great stuff planned,” he says. “And that’s really all I can say about it, but when I heard what it was, I was very excited.”
This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of Creative Review, which is a Music special. More info on the issue is here.