As legend has it, Gene Siskel leaned over to Roger Ebert while the two watched Fargo for the first time and said, "This is why we love movies." That sentiment was shared by many when the Coen brothers unveiled their snowbound masterpiece on April 5, 1996. Now, 20 years later, we honor the film that moved the country's most famous critics so much.
Fargo wasn't just an Oscar-nominated movie (it earned seven, winning two). It was a Coen brothers film and, for many, that's all they needed to hear. Joel and Ethan, the Minnesota-bred auteurs with a shared mordant sense of humor were already legends among film geeks for their portfolio of seminal movies. Flicks like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski were Top Five caliber works. And Fargo, for all its ingenuity, seemed to be more Coen than any Coen brothers film before.
Fargo, the story of a weak-minded car dealer who hires two hitmen to kill his wife for the insurance money, is a genre-bending, side-splitting romp. It's simultaneously tender and vicious, hilarious and sad. The Coens knack for language is never more fully on display, and their talent for storytelling never so honed. It's been 20 years, but Fargo still feels like it did back then. Here are 20 things you never knew about the production to celebrate its two decade anniversary.
1. Fargo is based on true events the Coen brothers heard about growing up in Minnesota, but the people and details are fictional. Joel Coen has stated, "The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterizations are fully imagined... If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept."
2. Two of the events that may have inspired the Coens were the Murder of Helle Crafts, whose body was disposed of through a wood chipper, and the murder of Carol Thompson, whose husband hired a hit man to kill her. The Coens have denied the Thompson case was inspiration even though it happened in Minnesota.
3. William H. Macy campaigned hard for the role of Jerry Lundegaard. He did two readings, but didn't hear back from the Coens. He later flew to New York as production was beginning and told them he was "worried they were going to screw up the movie" and he would "shoot their dogs" if he wasn't given the role. The ploy worked and Macy won the part, eventually earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
4. The Coens wrote Carl Showalter especially for Steve Buscemi, a favorite of the filmmakers who had already appeared in their films Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy.
6. Joel Coen helped conceive a backstory for the characters of Marge and Norm Gunderson that wasn't in the script. With the help of McDormand and John Carroll Lynch, who plays Norm, they decided the couple met while working on the police force. When they got married, they decided one had to quit and Norm took the bullet to start painting.
7. Peter Stormare once turned down a Coen brothers role in Miller's Crossing and regretted it. So he was thankful when they offered him Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo.
8. Grimsrud has 18 lines of dialogue in the entire movie and never says more than a complete sentence. His little buddy, Carl, however, has more than 150 lines.
9. McDormand wore a "pregnancy pillow" filled with birdseed to make her look pregnant. She has said the pillow helped her performance by forcing her to balance against the extra weight like in real life.
10. The huge Paul Bunyon statue welcoming people to Brainerd in the film does not really exist. It was constructed especially for the movie.
11. The wood chipper used in the movie is now on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.
12. Visual storytelling: Jerry is shown conning the man from GMAC in a shot seen through his open Venetian blinds, mimicking the look of prison bars.
13. Jerry Lundegaard was named after Minneapolis Star Tribune film critic Bob Lundegaard who jokingly told the brothers after seeing Fargo. "You'll be seeing my lawyers in the morning." Similarly, the Coens used the name of another Minnesota critic, Bill Diehl, in the movie.
14. Macy claims his performance was nearly improv-free despite the abundance of weird Jerry mannerisms and tics. All that stuff was in the Coens' script.
15. Coen brothers fans know the appearance of Bruce Campbell on TV in the kidnappers' cabin is no accident. The Evil Dead star is good friends with the directors whom they met through their mutual friend and fellow filmmaker Sam Raimi. Raimi once lived with the Coens, McDormand, and Holly Hunter in New York City in the '80s.
16. The Coens insert several references to one of their heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Fargo. Carl says he's in town for a little of "the old in and out," a reference to A Clockwork Orange. In Carl's car, Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" can be heard, a nod to Full Metal Jacket. And several shots are straight out of The Shining, including the breaking down of a door.
17. The goose painting in the Gunderson home was on loan from Bob and Jim Hautmann, close friends of the Coen brothers whose work has been featured on a number of wildlife stamps. Hence, Norm's winning three cent mallard stamp.
18. Despite speculation, Minneapolis native Prince does not play the "Victim in the Field" seen in the film's poster. The actor is actually J. Todd Anderson, a storyboard artist on the film.
19. Body count: seven — The state trooper, the two passers-by, Wade Gustafson, the parking lot attendant, Jean Lundegaard, and Carl Showalter.
20. Siskel and Ebert both named Fargo the best film of 1996 (see video at top of article).