There are people you’d expect to be running three completely different TV shows, writing movies, and publishing novels. They’ve got the nervy energy of someone who’s replaced their blood with pure caffeine.
Noah Hawley, at first blush, is not one of these people. He’s laid-back. He’s a little soft-spoken. He doesn’t even live in Los Angeles, instead calling Austin home. He tries to work a normal 8 am to 6 pm day, for goodness’ sake.
But Hawley has seized his moment. The success of FX’s TV version of Fargo — for which Hawley is the creator and showrunner (drawing extensively from the films of the Coen brothers) — prompted a sudden rush on his ability to fill genre tales with perfectly drawn characters. In short order, he was working on two additional seasons of Fargo, an FX adaptation of the X-Men character Legion, an FX adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, a variety of movie scripts, and a novel.
Somehow he’s managed to do all that while seemingly remaining the laconic dude he’s always been. Thinking that he might be great at time management, then, I sat down with him at the Austin Television Festival in June to ask about his work habits, how he manages to make time for family, and how he rebuilds his mental energies when not writing.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
On how to keep the trains running: "I was a victim of the freelance mentality"
You’re working on a number of TV shows and some movies. You recently published a novel. So how do you keep all of that balanced?
A big part of it is having a sense of how long something is going to take you, and then the triage of, "When do they need it?"
I’m the first to say that I think I was a victim of the freelance mentality — someone who, for the last 10 or 15 years, has gone from project to project. You’ll get a show picked up, and you’ll make 10 episodes, and then you’ll be back on the street.
After Fargo, a lot of opportunities came my way. I get excited about stories and storytelling, so I said yes to a lot of things. On one level, I’m happy I did, and on another level, I’m now literally in that moment where I’m like, "Wait, I have to do all these things at the same time?"
I had this conversation with [Strain and Bates Motel producer] Carlton Cuse, a year or so ago, when he literally had five shows on the air. He said, "Look, I didn’t set out to have five shows on the air, but it used to be that to get one thing made, you had to push five things forward." Now, in the TV market, all those shows are going to get made! If you’ve got Carlton Cuse, and you know he’s going to produce a good show, you’re going to make that show.
There was a similar dynamic for me, which I didn’t really realize. If I’m going to sign on for an X-Men show, that show is going to get made. The novel was sold on a partial manuscript, and I had to finish it while I was shooting the second year of Fargo, and suddenly I find myself in an incredibly miraculous, impossible situation, which is, for the most part, I’m going to get to do the things that I want to do for a few years.
I have to be really careful about what I say yes to, not just for my own sense of time, but I pride myself on making these things by hand. They’re artisanal, and on that level, I can’t just put my name on something and then somebody else makes it. That makes it harder to make more things.
When you’re switching between projects, do you have ways of reorienting yourself in them as you go back and forth?
With the book, there’s a mind space required. It wasn’t like I could be on set and then go home and write at night. So there was a couple-week break for [Fargo’s] winter/Christmas break where I wrote. Once we got into editing, I was able to start to carve out that time. Once we delivered the last episode, I had the spring to finish the book.
There were two weeks when I had three writers’ rooms going, with Legion and Cat’s Cradle and Fargo. At a certain point, you just have to say, "Well, just talk at me for 30 minutes." I’ll put the other things out of my head. For the most part, I was able to, after 30 or 40 minutes, contribute something.
The shortest distance to a final story is if I’m in the room, as I was the first year of Fargo, the whole time. We’re going to be the most efficient machine we can be. It’s like, "Yeah, I like that. No, I don’t like that. Let’s push this forward. How about we do that?"
If I’m not in the room as much, then writers are going in directions that probably they wouldn’t have gone in if I had been there. The second year of Fargo, there was more of that, which was my attention starting to be pulled in more directions. This year, it’s even more so. The good thing with Fargo is, those guys now, after two years, know how to tell a story [in that universe], so there’s much less of that for me to do.
Legion being a new show that is very different from most TV shows, they’re trying to tell a story that’s in my head, almost like a game of Telephone. I have a show I’m making called Legion, and if I’m not around, they have a show they’re making called Legion that’s not exactly the same show. Even when I’m traveling, I get daily updates. I try to jump on the phone, or be in the room as much as possible, but I never want to be the bottleneck.
Do you have trouble delegating?
I’m happy to, if I can. The creative vision, it’s a hard thing to pass off. It ultimately comes down to, you have the brain you have, and other people have the brains they have.
[Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan was and continues to be a great believer that you train writers, and in the beginning you might feel like you’re doing all the work yourself, but going into the third year you’re going to feel like everyone’s doing their best work and we’re all telling the same story.
At Legion, I knew that we should bring on a producing director, someone who’s going to be up there [on set in Vancouver] full time, someone that I can translate the creative vision for the show to them.
On Fargo, I had two executive producers who were up there [in Calgary] full time. One was on set all the time, and the other is with the director all the time. It takes me coming in and sitting down for a tone meeting with the director, to go through [the script] page by page, but there’s a reinforcement of those ideas that’s being handed off.
On the act of writing: "Television teaches you a craft of writing. You can’t be precious about it."
Do you have writing best practices, or ways to clear everything else out when you need to just write something?
Television teaches you a craft of writing. You can’t be precious about it, and you have to do your best work in the time allotted. Sometimes that work is scheduled. You go, "Okay, I’m in the room, I’m in editing, I’m talking with the network, etc.; between 4 and 6, I can write." There’s no, "Now is when I’m going to sharpen my pencils." [Laughs.]
The best thing you can do is leave yourself something from the day before, to have written just enough that if you read it over, now you’re back into it and the next thought is coming. It has to be that act of writing. You type until you’re writing.
Are you harder on your own stuff? Do you give yourself your harshest notes?
No, I have fun! The critical component, for me, is that when I’m not having fun, I know I’m not doing my best work.
There’s an improv quality to it as well, if you’re a first-draft writer, if you’re on set and there’s a challenge, or even if you’re just solving a logistical production. All of those are creative problem-solving opportunities, where you can be playful. You can be inventive and open some new ideas.
There are literally times where you’ve written something that’s unproducible, and you have to let it go. The only way to let it go is to be excited about the alternative.
Do you enjoy rewriting, or incorporating notes?
There’s a process to it. The biggest part is not the actual reworking of the material; the biggest part is figuring out what the note actually is.
Sometimes what you get is, "This scene feels slow to me." You look at the scene, and you’re like, "Well, the scene isn’t slow, but the way we get into the scene, it slows down here, and that makes the scene feel longer." Or, "Something is confusing, but it’s not about clarifying it here. It’s about clarifying it back there."
The other thing that happens in the network process is there are multiple voices that are giving notes, being compiled into one set of notes. Sometimes you’re like, "What is this note? I can’t figure it out! Whose note is this?"
Obviously, you don’t have to take every note. There’s always dialogue about stuff, but at the end of the day, if I feel strongly about something, I just do what I feel. That doesn’t mean that three months later, when it airs, and I watch it, I don’t sometimes go, "Oh, yeah, they were right; it was slow right there."
It is an act of communication, writing, so I’m open to hearing things like, "This is confusing," or, "I know what you’re going for, but I don’t think you got it." Those are two important notes.
With how busy I am, my life only really works if I get it right the first time. If I have to dramatically rework something, that throws everything off. I have been in a situation where I needed to rework something, and that really screws my time management. The minute that you get a note, or you have a feeling that, crap, that didn’t work at all, all the trains get off schedule at that point.
Do you work differently when you’re writing prose versus when you’re working on a script?
In writing fiction, you’re dealing with internal states. You’re working your way from inside out. The actions the characters take tend to be informed by an organic thought process that you’re seeing.
That’s why you hear authors say, "I thought the book was going to go one way, and it ended up going another way, because the characters wanted to do something different," which sounds like crap, but it’s not! Once you’re actually working out the thought processes of characters, sometimes it takes you in a different direction.
For a filmed medium, you have behavior and you have dialogue. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do the organic, internal work, but it is a different process.
One of the things with Fargo that I really wanted to do was to use the camera to tell the story. There’s plenty of dialogue in Fargo, but I’m proudest of those sections that have no dialogue, where literally you’ve got four or five pages where you’re just telling the story with the camera.
In fiction, that’s not an element. You don’t have a camera to tell the story. It’s just a different engine. I’m a big believer in playing with structure in both mediums, so it’s not just about telling a different story. It’s about telling a story differently.
How do you find time to spend with your family or even eat a meal?
I refuse to sacrifice that time. I have two young kids. I don’t live in Los Angeles, so there’s an element of travel involved, and of course, you can’t film everything in Los Angeles, so you end up filming up in Canada.
So I’m torn between three locations, but I think you’d be surprised. I don’t tend to work on the weekends. I need that time to be with my family. And I’m not good after 8 or 9 o'clock at night. I’ll get up early, so I’m not working 24 hours a day, because I do feel that the most important thing is that my kids grow up knowing me, and that my wife is happy to see me. It really is about, what can I get done between 8 o'clock in the morning and 6 o'clock at night, five days a week?
There are obviously times when you’re prepping, or in production, where you have to sacrifice some of that. But if I can keep that to a couple of times per year, then I feel like a human being.
In my own writing, if I’m not constantly refilling my brain with other stuff, I run out of ideas. Do you have things you find particularly restorative in that regard?
It’s important. I don’t have a lot of time to watch things. I watch a lot of Curious George in my spare time, which is great, relaxing storytelling, but there are a lot of things, contemporary things, that move by me. It’s hard to read books as well.
An important part of my day, after I say goodbye to the kids in the morning, is to go someplace by myself, usually with a book, or articles I’ve wanted to read, or something, and just spend an hour having a meal and having ideas or challenging my brain with images.
Sometimes the best use of your day is to watch something. It’s hard to go home and say, "Yeah, I watched two movies today! That was what I did with my day!" but it’s important to be inspired.
On his work: "I like to joke we’ll do the year 5150 on Space Station Fargo"
You’ve made Fargo for three years now. What have you learned about making the show that you didn’t know at the beginning?
It says that it’s a true story, which means the things that happen in it can’t feel like a movie. There are definitely moments in the writers’ room where I get a great pitch for a twist, and I’m like, "It’s a great twist, but it’s a movie twist."
There have to be enough moving pieces on a collision course, but exactly which pieces are going to collide, and when, has an element of randomness to it.
Obviously there’s a certain level of violence to it. That is part of the DNA of the show and the crime story aspect of it. But within those boundaries, I think it’s intensely flexible.
If you look at Joel and Ethan [Coen’s] work overall, it’s incumbent on us that we’re finding inspiration in A Serious Man or Lebowski, that there’s that level of character, thematic exploration, and structural innovation. But if we were to do a season that didn’t have a crime in it, for example, I don’t think there’s a version of the show like that.
So far, you’ve stayed pretty tightly to Lou’s life span. He’s not going to be in season three, but it takes place when he’s still alive somewhere else. Do you think this show could exist in the even more distant past?
You could do 1860. I like to joke we’ll do the year 5150 on Space Station Fargo. [Other time periods are] definitely something I’d like to explore.
One of the things I was proudest of with the second year was that I didn’t just want 1979 to be a backdrop, against which we told a crime story. I wanted to find a way that the period of time itself was the crime story. This idea that the peaceful revolution of the '60s had turned into this radicalism of the '70s, where all these disenfranchised groups thought they were going to get a seat at the table.
Suddenly, you’ve got Jean Smart saying, "Why can’t a woman be the boss?" and you’ve got [the character] Mike Milligan, as an African American, saying, "Why can’t I take over this town?" That sense of the time period itself was the story.
I don’t know that people looking at your résumé would have concluded you were the guy to bring an X-Men character to TV, and adapting Kurt Vonnegut for TV seems like a huge task. What appealed to you about Legion and Cat’s Cradle?
The structure of the story should reflect the content of the story, and I’m always looking for a different way to tell a story. If you have Legion, a show about a guy who may be schizophrenic, or he may have these abilities, but either way, he’s living in a world where he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not, that becomes very exciting as a storyteller, to build something surreal on that level.
We don’t do surreal on television; it’s not a thing we do. Hannibal was the closest. There were two or three weeks in that second season where you were, like, "I don’t really know what’s happening right now. It’s so seductive and gorgeous, and it takes my mind to a place that’s unlike any other place, but it’s not linear or literal." That’s really exciting, to try to create a show that’s not an information delivery device. It’s an experience delivery device.
With Vonnegut, there’s a similar challenge, because he is such a unique storyteller, who will tell these grounded, dramatic stories that have science fiction in them, and comedy in them, and they’re told with such economy.
What is the cinematic equivalent of the drawings that he does [within the text of his books], or his ability to jump around in time? How do we take that and run with it? I get excited about those challenges, and about reinventing genre pieces as character stories.
At a certain point, some things will work, and some things might not work. It’s just my joy of the process, really.