Study Guide

Fargo Screenwriter

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Joel And Ethan Coen

Based on a Mostly Not True Story

In creative writing classes, professors always give you the advice, "Write what you know." And, even though their subject matter can be pretty far-out (bodies in woodchippers, anyone?), the Coen Brothers evidently take this advice.

These bros grew up in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, and drew on their own experience of the North Country while writing Fargo. The way people talk, their mannerisms, their distinctly Minnesotan niceness—all these are (slightly) exaggerated versions of the Coens' boyhood realities. The brothers said it took moving to New York to realize that the world wasn't full of people named Gustafson or Sondegard.

In interviews, Joel and Ethan initially claimed that Fargo really was based on a true story that had happened in Minnesota in 1987—per the opening text to the movie—although they'd invented fictitious characters for the film.

In fact, this was a big fat lie; although they were apparently inspired by different cases they'd read about, there was no one single case that inspired their screenplay. And all the characters are totally made-up… thankfully.

There are, admittedly, some real life parallels: for instance, an airline pilot named Richard Crafts murdered his wife in Connecticut in the 1980's, and then disposed of her body in a wood chipper. But aside from the specific use of the wood chipper, that's not really what happens in Fargo: Jerry never intends for his wife to die, and her corpse doesn't get the wood chipper treatment. That gruesome fate's left for one of the kidnappers.

Minnesota Mission Accomplished

Joel Coen said that they were motivated in writing the movie to do three things: to explore an area of the country that they already knew from experience, to write about a kidnapping, and to create a crime story with characters that weren't just stereotypes and clichés of the genre. By virtually universal agreement, ya sure ya betcha they succeeded on all fronts.

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