Hear Tracy Briggs narrate the story here:
FARGO — It’s hard not to smile at the contrast. Former Fargo Theatre Executive Director Margie Bailly, all 5-feet-1 inch of her (“on a good day,” she says) standing at the base of a ginormous 8-foot tall wooden statue of Police Chief Marge Gunderson of “Fargo” movie fame. But the two women with the similar names — one a fictitious tour de force, the other a real one — have had their lives intertwined now for a quarter-century.
The movie “Fargo” attracted more attention to the fair city than an outsider bringing spicy food to a church potluck and was released 25 years ago, March 8, 1996.
The movie is still placed on many critics "Top 100 films" lists. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1997, including Best Picture. It won two, best screenplay written directly for screen and Frances McDormand for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
But the film has been met with more mixed reviews in the region, where the story takes place. Some North Dakotans and Minnesotans find it insulting in its portrayal of the “Ya, you betcha” local yokels, while others see it as a way to laugh at ourselves and celebrate our passive-aggressive, understated, hot dish-loving culture.
So what has transpired in Fargo since Minneapolis-born filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen decided to shine the spotlight on their home state 25 years ago? Are we the better for having met Marge and gang?
According to a timeline in the new book by Todd Melby, "A Lot Can Happen in the Middle of Nowhere — The Untold Story of the Making of Fargo,” the script for “Fargo” was registered with the Writer’s Guild of America on Nov. 2, 1994, but Melby says based upon how the Coen brothers go about the writing process, it’s likely the script had been in the works for years. Principal photography in Minneapolis began on Jan. 22, 1995. But Melby says the crew faced an unusual problem for that time of year.
“There was no snow in Minneapolis. That was their biggest problem,” he said. “It was a big decision for them to actually realize it was not going to snow, so we need to shut everything down and go up to Grand Forks and other places where there still is snow.” One of the “other places” was Hallock, Minn. While the film was named after Fargo, no scenes were filmed there, despite the opening scene supposedly set at a Fargo bar.
Among the other challenges was getting the actors up to speed in speaking like an upper Midwesterner. Actors worked with a dialect coach, but Melby says the actors also got help from some of the native North Dakotans and Minnesotans working on the film, including an Ivy League educated Twin Cities actress named Larissa Kokernot, who played the dimwitted woman in the movie that described Steve Buscemi’s character as “kinda funny lookin.”
Melby said the Coen brothers liked the way she spoke so much they had the dialect coach invite her up to McDormand’s hotel room just so the actress could listen to her.
“She went up there, they ate salads together and they said, ‘Could you just please, whatever we talk about, just do it in the dialect. That way it can just sink into Frances' brain?'" Melby said.
Melby was able to find her audition tape and others, where you can hear her accent, accentuated for the camera.
Kristin Rudrud, a Fargo native who starred as doomed wife Jean Lundegard, also found herself helping the non-Midwestern actors sound more authentic. According to Melby’s book, the Coen brothers took her suggestion during a scene where a Minnesota TV host is advertising a cruise. “Instead of simply suggesting TV viewers join them on the trip, Rudrud rightly noted that a real Minnesotan would urge them to ‘come with,’” wrote Melby.
A premiere and the madness begins
After filming wrapped up in March of 1995 and post-production began, the buzz was already out about where the film would debut. Of course, The Fargo Theatre wanted it, but the multiplexes were chosen for the run of the film. But Bailly said the film distributor agreed to let the iconic Fargo Theatre show it for two nights, but for financial and legal reasons, they could not charge admission for it.
“So then we had people standing in line,” Bailly said, “I thought they were going to come to fisticuffs and we’d seriously have to bring in the cops from Fargo.”
The movie became a hit worldwide and so did Bailly, who was tapped for television, radio and newspaper interviews all over the world, especially after the Fargo Theatre announced it would host an Oscar viewing party to celebrate “Fargo's” many nominations. And with many of the interviews, they would ask Bailly if she could speak with the accent.
“I said I’m not very good at accents. I can do a few 'Yah, sure, you betcha's' or 'Oh, fer nice,' but I grew up in Iowa,” she said with a laugh.
Bailly said the Oscar party was great fun and one of the first big things they did.
“We closed Broadway, and we had a parade in front of the theater with tractors and our own version of the Oscar, the 'Ole.'”
The aftermath of the madness
While “Fargo” didn’t win Best Picture that night (“The English Patient” won), “Fargo” fervor was far from over around here. People around the nation continued to buy tickets to the quirky film, following the Oscars in 1997, but many people in Fargo had something a lot bigger on their minds — the flooding Red River. The radio and television hosts who had called Bailly to talk about the Oscars in March were calling back a few weeks later to get her take on the flood or to get suggestions for homeowners she knew that they could interview.
By 2003, MGM released the DVD of Fargo — another reason to have a party at the theater. Partygoers got plenty of swag, including Marge Gunderson-esque bomber hats. The studio also gave the theater the Marge statue after then-Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness decided City Hall might not be the best place for it.
The Fargo Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau was able to purchase the actual wood chipper used in the movie. It’s even autographed by the Coen brothers. It’s moved around town occasionally, but most often sits in the lobby of the CVB building as a nice picture-taking spot for tourists.
“It's just remarkable that this inanimate object is sort of like the slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz,'" Melby said.
Charley Johnson, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau, says it’s tough to measure what he calls the cine-tourists, those people who come to town because of the movie. Even so, Johnson says he thinks the movie has undoubtedly been good for the city.
“I know some people never liked the violent aspect of it, or the way it poked fun at accents and eating habits, but seriously, it kind of put us on the map,” he said.
It also might have inspired a niche market of specialty items now carried in area retail stores — things like “Oh fer cute!" refrigerator magnets, "Best hot dish chef" aprons and “Ope, gunna squeeze right past ya there,” T-shirts. The products are a direct result of the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em" idea.
Fargo arts leaders, such as Bailly, decided to embrace the good-natured ribbing, by not just learning to laugh at ourselves and our quirks, but capitalizing on them.
“Why not use something as hysterical as the movie “Fargo” to get people here,” Bailly said, “Then, when they get here, they can see the richness and the diversity, as well. And that’s a really cool thing.”
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