In 1996, we were led to believe the Coen brothers’ breakthrough film, Fargo, was “a true story”. Furthermore, the title card that preceded the action declared, “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.”
And we bought it. Rather than asking Jeeves (this was 1996 after all) whether the film about a bungled kidnap/extortion attempt was actually based on real events, the assertion went mostly unchallenged. Each season of the spin-off TV adaptation has made the same declaration – that the action depicted is a true story. Fact or falsehood?
During the promotion for Fargo, Joel Coen told Premiere, “We wanted to try something based on a real story, and tell it in a way that was very pared down." He even went so far as to say that the events depicted onscreen were “pretty close” to what had actually happened.
Turns out, it was all press tour spin. In the introduction to the published screenplay, brother Ethan gave the game away when he wrote that the film “pretends to be true”. Just last year, he commented, "We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don't have to have a true story to make a true story movie."
Even so, Fargo did take inspiration from two real-life events. One, a General Motors Finance Corporation employee who committed fraud by playing around with serial numbers, as we see Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) do. The other was the murder of Helle Crafts, a Connecticut woman whose husband killed her and disposed of her body by putting it in a wood chipper. “Beyond that, the story is made up,” Joel told the Huffington Post.
Back in 2001, the story of Japanese woman Takako Konishi spread around the world. The suggestion was that she’d died while trying to locate the suitcase of cash seen buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. Her body was found in a snowy field near Detroit Lakes, Michigan and locals – who could only understand one word she said: “Fargo” – assumed she’d taken the “true story” claim literally. Two filmmakers even made a movie about it: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Documentary This Is a True Story gave a different account. Realising there’d been a miscommunication, filmmaker Paul Berczeller dug a little deeper and discovered Konishi had fallen into depression after being fired from her job in Tokyo and had returned to the Midwest, a place she’d visited with her American lover, a married businessman. Her death was ruled a suicide.
All three seasons of the TV version of Fargo have come with a similar “true story” assertion, but like many aspects of the series, its use is purely to maintain the feel of the original movie. Series creator Noah Hawley has revealed, “It's all just made up. The whole cloth. I didn't go looking for true crime. It started from a character standpoint and everything grew organically out of that.”
Instead, he has relied on “stranger than fiction” details to flesh out the images that have inspired each season – images that, according to Hawley, have come to him while he’s taken naps. The current third season was inspired by a dream he had during production for season two. "I fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and I saw this image of two brothers, both played by the same actor,” he says. “They were arguing over a stamp. I woke up thinking: OK… what happens next?"
Fargo is no longer available, but if it's small town intrigue you're after, check out Fortitude or The Frozen Dead at SBS On Demand.
First episodes are here: