'Fargo' : Celebrate the 20th Anniversary with 15 Things You Didn't Know About the Film Turned TV Series

The neo-noir thriller first hit theaters 20 years ago this week

Photo: Alamy

Snow. Blood. Accents. And a woodchipper. That’s Fargo.

What with Fargo having re-entered the pop culture zeitgeist in 2014 with the debut of the FX anthology series of the same name, fans of the original movie might be surprised to learn that it’s turning 20 years old this week. Fargo – that is, the original 1996 version, starring Frances McDormand and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen – first opened in American theaters on March 8, 1996.

Two decades later, this little indie film about polite people involved in some very impolite circumstances is heralded as one the better movies of the 1990s. In honor of its anniversary, we’re listing off a few things fans might not know about it.

1. No, it’s not based on a true story

Although the film begins with a preface saying otherwise, the plot is pure fiction. Before the opening credits roll, audiences are greeted with the following: “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” That is not real, though. The Coen brothers only wrote it to get the audience further invested in the story. I mean, the opening to Texas Chainsaw Massacre says the same thing, after all.

2. That said, it may incorporate elements of some real-life crimes

In the film, William H. Macy’s character, Jerry Lundegaard, hires some hitmen to kidnap his wife as a means of extorting his wealthy father-in-law. That plot bears some similarities to the story of T. Eugene Thompson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, lawyer who in 1963 was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill his wife. The Coens have long denied any connections between their film and this real-life crime. On the DVD commentary for Fargo, it’s stated explicitly that at least one scene in the film was inspired by the 1986 murder of Danish-American stewardess Helle Crafts, whose husband murdered her and disposed of her body with a woodchipper.

Meet Fargo Star Allison Tolman

3. Fargo did spectacularly well, considering its budget

The film’s worldwide gross was just a hair over $60 million, and that’s all the more remarkable because Fargo only cost $7 million to make. That would make it cheaper than every other Coen brothers film aside from Blood Simple, the pair’s 1984 debut; the 1987 follow-up Raising Arizona; and 2009’s A Serious Man. While it may not be the top-grossing Coen film ever – that’s True Grit, which made $252.3 million – it’s certainly one that did the best job earning back its budget, as it did nearly nine times over.

4. And it Is in the National Film Registry’s "Fantastic Five"

The National Film Registry is the Library of Congress’s collection of movies that are deemed to be of cultural and historical value. Since 1988, only 675 films have been introduced into the collection, and all films must be at least 10 years old before they are admitted. Only five feature films have ever been admitted to the registry on the first year they were eligible: Raging Bull, Do the Right Thing, Goodfellas, Toy Story and, finally, Fargo in 2006.

5. Not a single scene was actually filmed in Fargo, North Dakota

It’s all in the northern Midwest, sure, but Minnesota largely subbed in for North Dakota throughout the movie.

6. However, that famous woodchipper is on display in Fargo

The Fargo-Moorhead visitor’s center features the actual woodchopper from the movie. You can take your picture with it – you know, to show all your friends what a good time you can have in North Dakota.

7. One woman is responsible for all those amazing accents

Elizabeth Himelstein has worked as an accent coach in Hollywood for years, and she alone was responsible for priming the Fargo cast with their rather thick accents for the film. In a 2004 interview with Christian Science Monitor, Himelstein said that Fargo was unique among her many jobs because it was the one where audiences were supposed to notice the accent. To prep McDormand, Macy and the rest, Himelstein took the actors on field trips. “We were living in a hotel that was attached to a mall and we would go and have coffee or lunch and listen to the sounds around us,” she told CSM. “We couldn’t believe people really did speak that way.” Himelstein even annotated the scripts so the actors would know where to put the accents.

8. Fargo won McDormand her first Oscar

And rightly so. The Coens also won for Best Original Screenplay.

9. William H. Macy thought he was the villain – but a nice villain

In a behind-the-scenes interview for the film, Macy noted that his character was more likely than not the film’s villain. But he didn’t let that bother him, because as he saw it, the Coens wrote his character so well that people would relate to him, even if he was setting into motion all the bad things that happen during the film. (Macy was also nominated for an Oscar for his performance.)

10. The Fargo theme song has some surprising roots

The mournful theme is based off “The Lost Sheep,” a Norwegian folk song you can hear in the video posted above. But why click on that video when you could instead hear the same song played in apparent earnestness by a man holding a lamb and bleating in tune with the music? You’re welcome in advance for the weirdest thing you will probably see today.

No, we don’t know that this version would exist, but we’re not going to question its existence, and neither should you.

11. The FX series Fargo is not the first attempt to bring the film to TV

In 1997, a Fargo TV pilot had Edie Falco taking over the Frances McDormand role. Directed by Kathy Bates, this first episode of a TV-friendly version of the movie wasn’t picked up, but you can watch it in full above.

12. The TV version we did get takes place in the same fictional universe as the movie

Just glancing at the first season of FX’s Fargo, you might think it’s an attempt at a reboot of the original movie’s story. After all, Martin Freeman’s character makes a great analogue to Macy’s, and Allison Tolman’s character lines up nicely with McDormand’s. However, that first season is not meant to be a “redo” of the movie, parallels notwithstanding. In fact, it exists in the same universe, and the buried money (and ice scraper) found in the episode “Eating the Blame” is the same cash that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the film.

13. That’s not the only pop-cultural occurrence of that cash

The 2014 film Kumiko the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a young woman who travels from Japan to the snowbound landscape of North Dakota specifically to find the cash that Buscemi’s character is seen burying in Fargo. You see, she is fooled by that preface advertising Fargo as being based on fact. Go watch the movie. It’s beautiful. It’s sad. Rinko Kikuchi is amazing in it.

14. And that cash isn’t the only callback the TV series has to the original movie

In fact, the series is lousy with subtle references to its source material. As the above video notes, the series is full of references to the original movie. In fact, it’s full of references to the entire Coen brothers catalogue.

15. The Coens aren’t really into all this meta-pop culture-extension of the original film, however

Upon being interviewed after the completion of the second season of the TV series Fargo, on which the Coens are executive producers, the brothers revealed that they just aren’t all that into the show. “We’re just not very interested,” explained Joel Coen in a February interview with Radio Times. “I mean, we’re perfectly happy with it. We have no problem with it. It just feels divorced from our film somehow,” Joel Coen said. Whelp, there you go.

Related Articles